CinemaCon and the TCM Classic Film Festival shared the same week this year, so not only did I miss out on the last day of movie-studio presentations in Las Vegas on Thursday, but I missed official and fan-hosted TCMFF events that took place on Wednesday, which has been the unofficial start of the festivities for quite a while now.
My film-watching marathon began with Finishing School (1934), a pre-Code drama which “was among the first films to be condemned by the newly formed Legion of Decency.” That alone peaked my interest. It screened in the infamous Theater #4, the smallest capacity of all the theaters, so I was able to scratch that off my TCMFF bingo card right at the outset. Wyatt McCrea, the grandson of Joel McCrea and Francis Dee, the star of the film, was on hand to introduce it.
The line management was getting a bit out of hand right from the start of the fest, which was not a good omen. About an hour before a movie is set to start, numbered tickets are handed out to allow folks to do whatever they like before needing to be back in line 30 minutes prior. I don’t know if it wasn’t explained well or someone was trying to improve their spot, but I saw a person standing nine places back from the front of the line with a ticket reading “160.” Also troubling was the bass from whatever modern movie was playing next to us that was bleeding into the theater.
Dee plays Virginia, a young woman sent to the titular school by her wealthy, aloof parents. She meets her roommate Cecilia (Ginger Rogers) aka Pony, a rebellious catalyst that sends Virginia on a wild ride. One weekend, they head to New York City where the girls meet up with some boys and Virginia gets drunk for the first time. Things almost get out of hand with a fellow, but Virginia is rescued by Ralph (Bruce Cabot), a hotel waiter who is moonlighting while working to become a doctor. He gets her back to school, but head mistresses Miss Van Alstyne (Beulah Bondi) is angered how it looks for the school to have one of its students brought home drunk by a man and punishes Dee every chance she gets. Dee and Ralph start to see each other, and over Xmas break while she is stuck at the school, they spend a night together. The story then takes a really dark turn as it’s suggested the school is going to make Dee have an abortion, but Ralph is able to save the day.
Unfortunately screenwriter Walter Bernstein fell the day before and was being kept in the hospital so was unable to attend the screening of Sidney Lumet’s FAIL-SAFE (1964), but we still learned a good deal about him and the movie during the introduction. He had been blacklisted in the ’50s and used a front to work, as seen in the screenplay he wrote The Front. He got his next screen credit in 1959 on Lumet’s That Kind of Woman. He had been subpoenaed to Congress and went on the run.
The Johnson Administration did not want FAIL-SAFE to be shown. Stanley Kubrick had threatened to sue because the premise was similar to Dr. Strangelove. Columbia Pictures felt it was not good for a comedy version of the story to have been released first. But they were all wrong because FAIL-SAFE is an excellent Cold War thriller.
A computer error leads to a stunning series of events as an U.S. Air Force bomber group heads to Moscow. The Americans try to recall the plane, but the Soviets are jamming communications. The President of the United States (Henry Fonda, supposedly glad he hadn’t seen Sellers as President in Strangelove or he would have passed) works with his Soviet counterpart, but by the time the President gets through the protocols in place required the bomber group leader to complete his mission. With Moscow set to be destroyed, the President has to figure out a way to stop an all-out nuclear war. He offers to drop a nuclear bomb on New York City, which would come with a personal price as the First Lady is there.
FAIL-SAFE is a tension-filled drama that works because of the believability of the scenario. The script features characters who comes across authentic in their various actions and motivations and has a plot that goes where the story should even when you think it won’t. Lumet, a director who doesn’t receive enough credit, assembled a talented cast. Fonda portrays a man as thoughtful as anyone would want in the job as president. I can see why Maude tried to draft him on the sitcom.
On the way back to my hotel, abuzz from how much I enjoyed FAIL-SAFE, late-night snack plans were altered because some moron shattered the glass door at In-N-Out. The tradition would have to occur on another night.
Read my coverage of Day 2.