Last November, the first four films announced for the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival were World Premiere Restorations of Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) presented with a live score, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), Spartacus (1960) (though it ended up not screening), and Apollo 13 (1995). Even with the news that the theme of this year’s festival was “History According to Hollywood,” many were puzzled by the inclusion of a film from the ’90s being considered a classic, and some took to social media to make their displeasure known. As more films were announced and more films from the post-Classic Hollywood era were included, the angrier self-proclaimed purists became, squashing a lot of the joy that normally accompanied waiting for the festival to begin.
Now, I have been lucky enough to attend every year of the festival’s existence and didn’t notice anyone complaining about The Stuntman (1980), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), or The Proposition (2005), the last two as part of TCMFF’s Huston family tribute, playing during the first festival, so the outrage seemed to come from people apparently not aware of what the festival has always done. Personally, the 2014 fest was my least favorite because I saw some “classics” that were stinkers, but with 2015 I had better luck.
What made the outcry so strange is that if anyone didn’t want to see a recent film like Malcolm X or Out of Sight, they weren’t required. There were other movies screening at those times in addition to other festival events occurring. They should have been happy it made their choices easier during those time slots. I didn’t see either one, but to be affronted that TCM screened films that allowed them to invite what I believe was their first African American director ever and one of the few women they’ve had who works off camera (an editor for over 50 years and counting) strikes me as very odd and needlessly limiting.
I was able to take part in a pre-festival event with TCM staff members, whose love of film seems to match their audience’s. They talked about the community that has grown from the channel and the festival and the bond to the past that they offer. Essentials, Jr. and the Fathom Events screenings are attempts to broaden their audience base. TCM’s success has led them greater access to other studios’ libraries. The staffers announced the channel would be airing an Orson Welles’ tribute in May that would include Chimes at Midnight, which was playing the festival, and a Frank Sinatra centennial celebration. They also discussed how the festival was programmed (70% the film, 30% the celebrity guest), and how they sometimes pay licensing fees upfront to help with a film’s restoration. Naturally, someone asked about what determines a film to be considered a classic, and the strong response was there is no cutoff year.
Another pre-festival event was the TCM Bus Tour, which drove from Hollywood to Downtown Los Angeles. The guide pointed out past and present studio lots and movie locations while corresponding film clips would run on an HD screen. Once downtown, there was brief time to walk to the Bradbury Building and stretch one’s legs.
Meet TCM is where the attendees get to chat with the staffers in the Roosevelt Hotel bar, which served pricey drinks as two Jack & Cokes were nearly $30.00. The elephant in room was dealt with immediately when the first questioner revealed she doesn’t like the direction of the fest and channel. The staff stood their ground, including host Ben Mankiewicz, who raved about how great Out of Sight is. I was happy about to see the pushback, but it didn’t quell the sentiment of many of the naysayers.
The first film I saw was Too Late for Tears (1949), written by Roy Huggins. A satchel of cash literally falls into the car of Don (Don DeFore) and Jane (Lizabeth Scott). He wants to turn it over to the police, but she has other ideas for the money. I didn’t buy Jane’s reasoning for keeping it, but it sets in motion a wild film noir ride when Danny (Dan Duryea in a great performance) comes looking for his dough. Surprisingly, the programmers haven’t figured out the rare/rarely seen films like this need to be in a bigger venue. These films pack them in every year and people are turned away, yet they always end up in the smallest house.
Next up was Michael Curtiz’ The Sea Hawk, a swashbuckler starring Errol Flynn. Though the film was released in 1940, we were being shown the 1947 edited print, which is about 18 minutes shorter. Flynn’s daughter Rory spoke about her father beforehand. The film shows a bit of age with its pacing, but delivered real action and destruction. Helping creating a sense of a different location, the scenes set in Panama used a brown tint.
Although I wasn’t planning on staying for the film, which I have seen a few times, I stopped in to hear Oscar-winning editor Anne Coates speak before Lawrence of Arabia (1962). She revealed that she chose between working on Lawrence and Lolita. Director David Lean terrified her, but taught her a lot and listened to her ideas. Interesting to learn how fate plays a part in creating art as she stated the famous cut from a match to sunrise came about by chance.
Bob Fosse’s Lenny (1974) is harrowing biography about comedian Lenny Bruce (Dustin Hoffman). It’s very raw look at Bruce whose troubles ranged from drug abuse, relationship issues with his wife/stripper Honey (Valerie Perrine), and legal troubles resulting from the “obscene” material in his nightclub act. Hoffman and Perrine give standout performances.
After the screening, Alec Baldwin interviewed Hoffman, who stated he didn’t like the way Fosse posed him during the shoot and didn’t like a long eight-minute take of Lenny performing, but concedes that the director’s choices were right. It was a good but typical interview of an actor telling amusing anecdotes about working on a film, and then in a brief moment it became one of the greatest events in the festival’s history. Talking about comedians, Hoffman broke down when he mentioned his friend Robin Williams, whom he worked with on Hook (1991). Even though Williams had been dead for eight months, Hoffman’s pain from the loss was still great. He apologized as he tried to hold himself together, but there was no need.
After years of legal issues, Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight (1965) is resurfacing in time for its 50th anniversary. Welles compiled parts of five different Shakespeare plays to tell a story about Sir John Falstaff (Welles) and his friendship with Prince Hal (Keith Baxter), the son of King Henry IV (John Gielgud). The film certainly feels patched together as the scenes don’t blend together well and the pacing was too slow.
Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) was next of my agenda. Hadn’t seen it in a theater since its release and I’d be hard pressed to take anyone seriously that didn’t consider it a classic. Equal to the entertainment of Indiana Jones trying to keep the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazis was festival guest, legendary stuntman Terry Leonard. He came up with and performed the stunt as Jones sliding under the moving truck as a tribute to Yakima Canutt, who did a similar gag in Stagecoach. Leonard had previously performed it on The Legend of Lone Ranger, where he was trampled by two horses, but he wasn’t hurt bad enough to stop him from doing it with a vehicle.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) was the only James Bond film I hadn’t seen, so my attendance was a no-brainer. Ben Mankiewicz tried to conduct an interview but just held on tight as George Lazenby took over, telling outrageous and slightly off-color stories one would expect coming from Bond in the ’60s. He revealed he had the opportunity to stay in the role of 007 and got the worst advice ever to not sign the contract for $1 million a picture because his agent thought spy films were on the way out with the new decade approaching and he could make more money choosing films with shorter production schedules. Lazenby also told of planning a movie with Bruce Lee who died the day they were supposed to meet in Hong Kong.
Other than people not being prepared for a new Bond after Connery left, I am not sure why OHMSS got a bad rap. The film has a good story and offers an interesting dynamic for the character as it stuck to the novel and allowed Bond to fall in love and get married. Plus, there’s plenty of action, exotic locals, and pretty girls.
Leonard Maltin introduced Walt Disney’s So Dear to My Heart (1949), a sweet family film set at the turn of the 20th Century about Jeremiah Kincaid (Bobby Driscoll), a young Indiana boy, and Danny, his black-wool lamb, based on Sterling North’s Midnight and Jeremiah. Maltin mentioned that the distributor, RKO, wanted some animation included since it was a Disney picture, but rightly points out that it comes across awkward.
Jeremiah and Danny are understandably rambunctious for their age, but Granny (Beulah Bondi) tries to steer them with a firm but fair hand. Jeremiah wants to enter Danny in the County Fair, but it’s not as easy as it sounds for folks of limited means.
Because of the tight scheduling of events and the popularity of the festival, a good seat is not always guaranteed. Not being captivated by this children’s film, presuming that Disney would deliver a happy ending of some sort, and leaving my wife behind to bring me the details, I ran off to get in line for the TCL Chinese Theater IMAX. Its renovation, which has resulted in a smaller audience capacity, I still find bothersome
1776 (1972) would be my first musical of the festival and in attendance were director Peter H. Hunt and actors William Daniels (John Adams) and Ken Howard (Thomas Jefferson), all of who appeared in the Tony Award-winning play. This new Director’s Cut would feature “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” which was removed because President Nixon didn’t like it. This entertaining look at the founding of the United States does run long at nearly three hours, but features good performances. It seems a good introduction to history.
I was lucky to see Terry Leonard a second time as he talked about working as stunt coordinator on John Milius’ The Wind and the Lion (1975). Leonard, who says he remembers stunt horses’ names better than he does some ex-wives’, was captivating as he revealed that he broke his back jumping a horse out a 14-story window, a gag he had to do twice because both times the camera missed him, once too high and once too low. A doctor had misdiagnosed his condition, so a combination of Percocet and alcohol got him through shooting the film’s final battle sequence. John Milius was in the house, but his health kept him from joining Leonard.
The Wind and the Lion is a grand adventure loosely based on true events. As European countries are trying to form alliances with the Sultan of Morocco, Raisuli (Sean Connery), a leader of Berber insurrectionists, kidnaps American Eden Pedecaris (Candice Bergen) and her children in an effort to draw international attention to his people’s plight. But he may get more than he bargained for as President Teddy Roosevelt (Brian Keith) gets involved and sends U.S. forces. Although Raisuli’s prisoner, Eden learns he is a noble man and begins to empathize with his cause. Milius’s script offers some clever, believable plot twists as different characters work in their interests.
Douglas Sirk’s remake of Imitation of Life (1959) is a glorious melodrama about two mother-daughter relationships linked together by a chance meeting. Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), who has dreams of being an actress, and her daughter Susie take in African Americans Annie (Juanita Moore), who offers to look after the household, and her daughter Sarah Jane, who is so light-skinned she chooses to pass as white to simplify her life. Lora struggles to make a career out of acting, which leads to not always being there for her daughter while Sarah Jane wants nothing to do with her mother. The latter relationship has the more intriguing and refreshing story.
Unfortunately, this screening had the most horrendous audio experience in the festival’s existence. An overwhelming amount of bass shook the entire room so hard that objects on the walls could be heard vibrating. Being Saturday night, my guess would be the Hard Rock Café below had a band playing at too loud a volume. Some staffers scrambled trying to figure out what was going. If the film hadn’t been so good, I might have walked out because it was awfully distracting.
Nightmare Alley (1947) is a grim film noir starring Tyrone Power as con man Stan Carlisle, who, like many in this genre, is not as smart as he thinks he is. While working at a traveling carnival, Stan learns a mind-reading code from Mademoiselle Zeena (Joan Blondell), after her alcoholic husband accidentally kills himself. After being forced out by the carnies because of his relationship with a young woman, Molly (Coleen Gray), the lovers start a successful nightclub act. He then starts working with Lilith (Helen Walker), a psychologist who hopes to dupe people out of money by getting Stan to pretend he can speak to the dead. Stan’s choices lead to quite a comeuppance.
Desk Set (1957) is the eighth of the nine Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn films. Bunny Watson (Hepburn) runs a network’s reference library and Richard Sumner (Tracy) is an efficiency expert that is bringing in a computer system to streamline the company. As people do in movies, the two butt heads at first. It’s clear where things are going with them, even though Bunny is in a seven-year relationship with network executive Mike Cutler (Gig Young). While the banter is amusing, it’s unusual to see a 50-year-old as the center of a romantic-comedy love triangle.
Shirley MacLaine spoke before The Children’s Hour (1961) and gave away the ending, which disappointed some, including myself who hadn’t seen it yet, but she dismissed the reaction because of the film’s age. Even with that knowledge, it didn’t lessen the power of the story, which to humanity’s great shame still is relevant.
Martha (MacLaine) and Karen (Audrey Hepburn) run a private girls school. When Karen punishes a student named Mary (Karen Balkin), the little brat concocts a story that the women are lovers, which has major repercussions within the community and also between the main characters, including Karen’s fiancé, Joe Cardin (James Garner). The cast is outstanding and the story is emotionally devastating. Director William Wyler returned to the material having previously directed the story with These Three (1936), when the Hayes Code compromised the story.
Ben Mankiewicz interviewed Sophia Loren about her career before Marriage Italian Style. She seemed slightly shy at first speaking about herself, but soon took control, which I imagine she did in many situations throughout her life. When Ben tried to end interview, she wouldn’t let him. Asking what film was going to be shown, she made sure to speak about it.
Marriage Italian Style (1964) tells the story of Domenico (Marcello Mastroianni) and Filumena (Loren). They meet in the brothel she works at and have a long affair before he finally brings her home to take care of his mother. Around the time he plans to marry a younger woman, Filumena grows so sick she ends up on her deathbed. Her dying request is to get married, which he agrees to since she doesn’t have long to live. However, it was all a ruse. It’s a very funny comedy with a sensibility of relationships and family different from America, which made the plot more compelling.
The 2015 edition of the TCM Classic Film Festival was a smashing success. The interviews provided memorable moments with artists I might never hear from again. I enjoyed most of the films and even the ones that didn’t completely work for me had things about them I could appreciate. I am already looking forward to going to the 2016 TCM Classic Film Festival.