TCM Classic Film Festival Review
The Wizard of Osborne
Where else can you find an actual flying monkey cape from The Wizard of Oz than at the TCM Classic Film Festival, where it was displayed at the Roosevelt Hotel’s “Club TCM,” right next to props and furnishings from Casablanca? With about 80 screenings, personal appearances by movie stars, presentations by cinema historians, silent pictures accompanied by live orchestras, exhibitions, enthusiastic audiences of cinephiles (including many out-of-towners) and much more, all set in the heart of Hollywood, the Turner Classic Movies network’s fifth annual vintage film fete was a veritable “Movie-topia.” Indeed, it was enough for a dyed-in-the-wool film fan to feel as if he/she had died and gone to that great movie palace in the sky.
For journalists events began the morning of April 10, with a press opportunity in the Chinese Multiplex featuring four of TCM’s luminaries, starting with that highly entertaining entertainment reporter who has become the face of the channel and Festival. “I’m doing something I was born to do,” gushed the boyish Robert Osborne. “For so many years these films sat in a vault and it was thought they had no value at all. But I always thought they were like books,” proclaimed the great and powerful Osborne, whose youthful enthusiasm belied his 80-something years. During the news conference TCM’s éminence grise held forth with surprisingly in depth comments on the popularity of primordial motion pictures among young viewers; Desi and Lucy; his favorites -- including 1946’s The Razor’s Edge with Tyrone Power -- etc.
Another TCM host appeared next. Ben Mankiewicz is a cinematic scion -- his grandfather co-wrote 1941’s Citizen Kane;uncle directed 1953’s Julius Caesar; and father was Bobby Kennedy’s press secretary and George McGovern’s campaign director when they ran for president. This reporter asked Mankiewicz -- who is also part of Cenk Uygur’s lefty The Young Turks YouTube team -- about the intersection of politics and film, which Ben downplayed (although he confessed to reserving a special ire for the Hollywood Blacklist), saying: “Conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats and libertarians all unite in their love for Humphrey Bogart.” Mankiewicz discussed the ups and downs of interviewing celebrities, singling out Mickey Rooney as especially “magnetic” (at the last minute the Festival added a screening of 1944’s National Velvet to honor the recently deceased Rooney).
Senior Vice President of Programming Charles Tabesh, and Managing DirectorGenevieve McGillicuddy went on to appear together at the presser, providing a behind-the-scenes glimpse of Turner Classic Movies and its yearly gathering at that movie Mecca, Hollywood. The theme of this year’s Festival, which also marked the network’s 20th anniversary on the air, was “Family in the Movies: The Ties that Bind,” and all four speakers stressed how, more than any other TV channel, how TCM’s staffers and viewers had a familial bond based on their mutual love affair with those flickering images in the dark.
Of Gods, Monsters, Jaws and French Connections
Following the press conference your roving reviewer sashayed down Hollywood Boulevard’s fabled Walk of Fame to the Max Factor Building, home now to the Hollywood Museum, which is jam packed with exhibitions of costumes, props and other TV/movie memorabilia from productions old and new. There I attended an entertaining discussion about horror flicks with director Joe Dante (1984’s Gremlins, 1981’s The Howling) and seven-time Academy Award winning makeup artist Rick Baker (his Oscar wins include 1981’s An American Werewolf in London and 1997’s Men In Black), hosted by TCM’s Senior Programming Producer Scott McGee. The talk was preceded by an excellent clip of highlights of the monsters we love to scare the living daylights out of us.
That night I attended the Welcome Party, which stretched from Club TCM -- a converted ballroom in the Roosevelt Hotel -- to the pool, where delicious dishes were served, followed by a poolside screening of 1973’s American Graffiti. Steeped in Tinseltown lore from days of yore, the Roosevelt -- where the very first Oscar ceremony took place in 1929 -- is of course the ideal venue for the Festival’s headquarters. (Were Dick Cheney to host the filmfest the Roosevelt would serve as his “undisclosed location.”)
The following day I returned to Club TCM for the Dreyfuss Affair: a conversation with thespian Richard Dreyfuss. He kept a packed audience -- many standing -- cooling our heels for 35 minutes until he finally showed up, without an apology or explanation for his tardiness. However, the discussion about his life and career, hosted by actress Illeana Douglas, turned out to be well worth the wait as the Oscar winner for 1977’s The Goodbye Girl (screened the following night) revealed himself to be a mercurial, moody, amusing interviewee, and Douglas an adept (if, perhaps, too admiring of her subject) interviewer. Dreyfuss, who admitted he could weep “at the drop of a hat,” broke down several times, and one could see how this easy access to his emotions served to make the star of 1970s hits like Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind such a great actor.
Dreyfuss described his postwar childhood in “the lefty community of Bayside, Queens, where everybody was a communist or socialist and fought Hitler twice: Once in Spain, during the Spanish Civil War, and in World War II. They were the greatest heroes of my life,” Dreyfuss stated. Illeana, of course, is the granddaughter of liberal actor Melvyn Douglas and step-granddaughter of actress Helen Gahagan Douglas, who was one of America’s first congresswomen and mercilessly redbaited by Richard Nixon during a Senate race where -- in typical Tricky Dick manner -- he slandered his Democratic opponent by repeating the line that she was “pink right down to her underwear.” I made a point of paying my respects to Illeana and her family after the discussion.
William Friedkin -- who’d been Hollywood’s 1970s Golden Boy with movies like The Exorcist and The French Connection -- was then interviewed on Club TCM’s stage by film noir historian and author Eddie Muller. The lighthearted Friedkin was in fine fettle, an engaging storyteller who did Borscht Belt shtick as he regaled his listeners, even as he managed to subtly direct the breezy conversation with aplomb. Surprisingly, Friedkin -- who’d been the director we all aspired to be at Hunter College’s film school -- demurred when Muller asserted that every cop show made after The French Connection was influenced by this seminal cinematic experience. But following the discussion, as Friedkin prepared to sign copies of his autobiographical books, I reminded him about one movie that was definitely influenced by The French Connection: John Frankenheimer’s 1975 sequel, French ConnectionII, which also starred Gene Hackman as Detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle. The director who’d made Linda Blair’s head spin around in The Exorcist laughed, saying: “You got that right.”
Mind-“Bogling”, Pre-Code and Silent Screenings
Of course, what’s a film festival without, you know, movies? I attended the introductions by foremost film historian Donald Bogle of 1934’s Imitation of Life and 1943’s Stormy Weather at the Chinese Multiplex. As the author of Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks, An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, Bogle is the world’s preeminent analyst of the screen image of African Americans. His intros perfectly setup the movies prior to watching them, singling out not only celluloid stereotypes and racial themes (the so-called “tragic mulatto” perhaps his favorites) but the eye-popping talents of these performers who, despite being handicapped by Jim Crow clichés, nevertheless managed to shine and light up the silver screen.
The astute Bogle also pointed out that like so many other World War II-era pictures, Stormy Weather was a morale booster intended to buck up (no pun intended) support among “Negro” audiences for the war effort. By the way, my favorite entertainer in Stormy Weather wasn’t the bodaciously beautiful Lena Horne, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Cab “Hi-De-Ho” Calloway or even the Nicholas Brothers, whose choreography defied gravity (relatives attended the screening and were introduced), but pianist Fats Waller, who stole every scene he was in like a musical kleptomaniac. Bogle’s insightful, enthusiastic intros only enhanced the motion picture experience.
Another fab introduction was provided by Bruce Goldstein, Director of Repertory Programming at the Film Forum, one of Manhattan’s top arthouses. Goldstein presented 1933’s Employees’ Entrance co-starring Loretta Young, precededby a montage of other pre-Code movies, which Goldstein humorously narrated to great effect. Pre-Code refers to a brief period before the rigorous imposition of the restrictive Hollywood Production Code by 1934, a time for a few years when film censorship was relatively lax and Tinseltown used sex and violence galore to lure Depression era auds back to the cinemas. Although Employees’ Entrance provides some insight into the mindset of the ruling class, with Warren Williams playing the capitalist you love to hate, Goldstein and his raunchy film clips were far more entertaining than this creaky pic.
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By the way, here’s an important point in cinema history I’ve never seen written about before: Around the time the Production Code was enforced in Tinseltown, Hitler and Goebbels dismantled German Expressionism and other imaginative movie manifestations that had made the Weimar Republic one of the world’s cinematic centers. Stalin, too, literally banned the “montage” style of rapidly cut, thought provoking, impressionistic, imagery that had characterized the Soviet cinema of Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Vertov, Dovzhenko, et al, in favor of a more banal “socialist realism” (that wasn’t socialist or realistic, but that’s beyond this article’s scope). In any case, as this censorship simultaneously swept cinema at three world focal points of motion picture creativity, it’s as if the global superego, that censorial impulse that is always lurking about in the background, pounced to punish the id of this audiovisual art form for its audacious creativity and to put it back into its place: Taming the avant-garde by making it serve the status quo.
Meanwhile, back at the Festival review:
The term “silent cinema” is a bit misleading, because before soundtracks were synchronized with celluloid and talkies became, well, the talk of the town, movies were often accompanied by music, if not by spoken dialogue. Sometimes by solo pianists, other times by orchestras playing musical scores composed specifically for the picture being projected. A highlight of the yearly pilgrimage to TCM’s homage to cinema are screenings of “silent” movies accompanied by live music.
The projection of Harold Lloyd’s 1923 Why Worry? at the Egyptian Theatre marked the premiere of the new score composer/conductor Carl Davis created for this comedy, gloriously performed live by an 18 piece orchestra. BTW, Why Worry?, which is full of sight gags and Lloyd’s antics, is set in a Pacific Island off of the coast of Chile, but unlike Easter Island, “Paradiso’s” inhabitants have a Latino culture (or at least Hollywood’s version of one), not a Polynesian lifestyle.
When Ben Mankiewicz introduced 1927’s The Lodger -- accompanied by the five piece Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, playing an original score -- he noted this third film credited to Alfred Hitchcock was really his directorial debut as “the master of suspense.” Indeed, in this first Hitchcockian film about a Jack the Ripper type of serial sex murderer starring Ivor Novello (whom Mankiewicz referred to as “England’s Rudolph Valentino”), many elements that would mark Alfred’s oeuvre are present: A virtuoso visual panache (the pacing lodger is shot from below through a glass ceiling); ineffectual, incompetent police; a wrongfully accused innocent man (see 1957’s The Wrong Man starring Henry Fonda); a naked blonde in a bathtub with a Ripper suspect right outside the door (unlike Janet Leigh in 1960’s Psycho, June is taking a bath, not showering); as well as Hitchcock’s rather infamous infatuation with blondes.
Arkins and Kims and Mels, Oh My!
Kim Novak, the star of Hitch’s 1958 Vertigo, commented upon this Hitchcockian obsession when she spoke at the Festival about her painting based on that classic, wherein many of its plot elements are depicted being ensnarled in her character’s blonde tresses. Novak made her remarks at Club TCM on a panel with fellow artists, including Jane Seymour, who had likewise created images with movie themes displayed during the Festival and released as custom designed cards.
But Novak’s most moving comments came April 12 at an Egyptian Theatre screening of 1958’s Bell, Book and Candle, which she presented with Robert Osborne. There, the 81-year-old spoke movingly about her struggles against mental illness, bipolar disorder and took “bullies” -- notably this year’s Oscar host, Ellen DeGeneres -- to task for their scathing remarks regarding celebs. At the top of the live telecast DeGeneres mercilessly mocked Liza Minnelli’s appearance, with a cruel gratuitous quip that was especially inappropriate, considering that Minnelli attended the Academy Awards ceremony because her dead mother, Judy Garland, was being honored. Novak explained that her speech problems as a 2014 Oscar presenter were due to her having taken a legal pill for calming anxiety -- but mistakenly doing so on an empty stomach. However, the ovation Novak received from the loving TCM aud lifted her spirits and she called the supportive crowd her “family.” The viewers went on to thoroughly enjoy Novak’s witchcraft comedy, which could be viewed as a metaphor for a person struggling with a bipolar personality, as her Bell, Book and Candle character Gillian experiences conflicts between her witchy and all-too-human selves.
Alan Arkin, too, was inspiring when Osborne interviewed him onstage at the Ricardo Montalban Theatre near the fabled intersection of Hollywood and Vine. How appropriate, as we embark upon “Cold War II”, that the star of the 1966 détente comedy The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming was interviewed at this time for an hour-long TCM special. Since playing the ironically named mute John Singer in 1968’s heart-rending The Heart is a Lonely Hunter -- which was then screened at the Egyptian and for which he was Oscar nommed, as he was for Russians -- Arkin has been one of this reviewer’s favorites. And during his interview with Osborne the 80-year-old actor who’d portrayed a compassionate Sigmund Freud in 1976’s The Seven-Percent-Solution did not disappointment, revealing himself to be insightful, thoughtful, caring and humane, the way one would hope the founder of psychoanalysis was.
Mel Brooks, on the other hand, was -- as is to be expected -- a laugh riot who kept a mirthful mob chuckling our heads off and periodically shouting, “We love you, Mel!” when Osborne interviewed him live onstage at the Roosevelt’s lobby. Brooks also spoke about the many tasteful movies he’d produced but not appeared in -- such as 1980’s touching The Elephant Man -- and a boxed set of these Brooksfilms pictures which will soon be released (and screened on TCM). The beloved comic spoke lovingly about his late wife Anne Bancroft and presented a screening of his 1974 masterpiece Blazing Saddles at the TCL Chinese Theatre IMAX.
In the Roosevelt’s lobby I also had the pleasure of hearing the great and powerful Osborne interview documentarian Ira Wohl, who attended a screening of his Oscar-winning 1979 Best Boy at the Chinese Mulitplex, plus John Ford’s favorite leading lady Maureen O’Hara, who presented 1941’s How Green Was My Valley (one of the few films from Hollywood’s Golden Age to depict a strike) at El Capitan, while the 95-year-old’s 1952 The Quiet Man was also screened at the Chinese Mulitplex. However, I confess to having missed -- hey, lady! --Mankiewicz’s interview with Jerry Lewis and his appearance at an El Capitan screening of 1963’s Nutty Professor. Nuts!
Alas, too many movies and appearances, too little time. To paraphrase Hamlet, “Therearemore films in heaven and earth, Horatio, Thanare dreamt of in your filmography.” For the buff, attending 2014’s TCM Classic Film Festival was nothing short of entering the motion pictures’ pearly gates.
For more info see: http://filmfestival.tcm.com/.
The new book Rampell co-authored is “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” (see:http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/).