by JEFF LUNDENBERGER
Posted ~ May 6th, 2017
If you read my last guest post on Cinemaven’s Essays from the Couch you know that I was attending the TCM Classic Film Festival solo for the first time this year. Due to other commitments my husband, Ed, was unable to accompany me, as has been our tradition for the past 6 years. Disappointed but undeterred I planned for the trip myself, cutting corners by giving up our room at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel for an Airbnb reservation and finding LAX/Hollywood transportation for less than $10 each way (via the Flyaway bus, and for that price I was not too proud to pull my suitcase down Hollywood Boulevard from Highland Avenue to the bus stop on Vine Street).
In my last piece I wondered if any trip I would make to the festival could be more magical than our first, which was in 2011. Well, this trip came close, and it was with kid gloves and diplomacy that I told Ed about the wonderful time I had had upon my return, which had nothing whatsoever to do with his not being there. It was more about the intimacy and familiarity I have developed with the festival and friends over the years. From my arrival (late) at the TCMFF press conference to my running into a festival friend at the airport on my return trip, it was 6 days of surprises, parties, movies and the comfort of the company of friends.
I arrived Wednesday afternoon and went directly to the press conference (which this year included the usual TCMFF staff plus Randy Haberkamp, Managing Director of Preservation and Foundation Programs for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, David Strohmaier, Cinerama Preservationist and Jennifer Ahn, Managing Director at The Film Foundation). After that I picked up my media credentials and found my lodgings, the apartment conveniently located around the corner from the Egyptian Theatre where I would end up spending most of my movie-viewing time. I had a bite to eat at the Pig ’n Whistle, then headed to the HRH for the Going to TCM Film Festival Facebook page meet up, followed by the TCMFF social media party. I spent most of my time at both events reconnecting with friends from festivals past at this, our yearly Hollywood reunion.
I had signed up for the Thursday morning TCM Movie Locations Tour but it was indefinitely postponed due to a flat tire. I used that time to catch up with a few more people at the HRH and to make some preparations for my stint on the red carpet that evening, which would my first time covering that event for a local newspaper. It ended up being great fun, talking to the likes of Wyatt McCrea, Sara Karloff, Leonard Maltin, Illeana Douglas and Julie Dawn Cole, and seeing Keir Dullea, Dana Delany, Diane Baker, Ruta Lee, Dick Cavett, Quincy Jones
and finally, as if to prove true a joke I have about myself – If a star isn’t over 80 I don’t know who they are — a somewhat familiar looking man dashed by. “Who is that?” I asked a friend. Actor and comedian Chris Tucker. That event ran into the first block of movies and so, after a bite with friends, I headed to my first film of the festival.
As is the case every year there are agonizing choices to be made in nearly every time slot, but a comment made by David Strohmaier at the press conference ultimately made my film selections easier for me. Strohmaier emphasized that the “This is Cinerama” screening was a rare chance to see a 35mm Cinerama print projected at the Cinerama Dome. I had seen “Cinerama Holiday” at the Dome at TCMFF 2013 and enjoyed it, but it was a digital restoration. He convinced me that the Cinerama film was a must-see, and thus was born my schedule plan of action for TCMFF 2017: I would watch as much actual film projection as possible. As in years past I had a schedule in mind upon arrival, but it was flexible and I wouldn’t make any final decisions until the festival started. Once I decided to pursue film over digital, my decision-making became much easier. I would simply go through the schedule and look for the movies that were actual film screenings.
I ultimately saw 14 films at the festival, 2 being digital presentations, films that I wanted to see, but also something to compare the other movies to. I saw 8 comedies: 4 pre-codes, a screwball and a neo-screwball, a noir comedy, and a movie I’m putting into the comedy category even though a lot of the humor was unintentional. I saw two Hollywood noirs, a French noir, and a 1962 boxing film as noir as the classic “The Set-Up.” There was a 1970s drama with humor or comedy with drama, and a travelogue, “This is Cinerama.”
As I said, I went to “This is Cinerama” because of the pep talk by David Strohmaier. It was at an odd time, which cut into two screening blocks: I gave up “Arsenic and Old Lace” (35mm) and “The Awful Truth” or “The Last Picture Show” (both digital) for it, 3 films that I really wanted to see. But no regrets! Once Lowell Thomas finishes his art and photography/film history lesson, a black and white sequence that swims on the enormous screen, and declares “This is Cinerama!” the curtain opens to the famous roller coaster ride and what a thrill it was.
I found myself becoming dizzy, leaning back and forth with the motion of the car. It’s almost as immersive as 3D, with the booming soundtrack (7 channels of magnetic sound, thank you Leonard Maltin for your informative introduction) and the screen that curves like arms reaching out to embrace the audience. Strohmaier had mentioned the difficulty of restoring Cinerama films due the tendency of the 3 different film reels to age and discolor at different rates. This was apparent but not distracting at the screening. And, with 3 different projectors, the 3 different images tend to shift up and down slightly, independently of one another. This actually enhanced a sequence shot in a cathedral of a choir singing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” and the “Hallelujah Chorus.” The rich, gorgeous sound and the quavering, floating images created a surreal, almost spiritual experience. Several sequences were a little long for my taste but, all in all, it was a treat to sit back and enjoy the ride.
For my first film Thursday evening I chose “Requiem for a Heavy weight,” which was a 35mm print. I considered the nitrate screening of “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” but I’d seen it at the Nitrate Picture Show in 2015. Plus, I thought it might be a hot ticket since Martin Scorsese’s attendance had been announced and I wasn’t sure that I was quite yet prepared for a packed theatre: better for me to ease into things. I had seen “Requiem” before, but not in a theatre. It is a beautiful, tragic film with a touching depiction of masculinity and a tender brotherhood that is damaged by betrayal, with startling performances by Anthony Quinn as a boxer aging out of his profession, Jackie Gleason as his manager and Mickey Rooney as his trainer. Julie Harris shines, and Madame Spivy, a name seen on few film credits, does a terrifying turn as a gangster. The print was pristine and I left the theatre knowing that I had made the right choice.
I started Friday morning with 2 pre-code comedies, both screened at the Egyptian in 35mm. Both seemed like films that, in the past, might have been screened at one of the smaller theatres in the Chinese Multiplex. It was nice to see them here, the theatre near capacity but large enough to accommodate all who wanted to see the films. “Rafter Romance” stars Ginger Rogers as a struggling New York City girl who must share an apartment with a male stranger
(Norman Foster). He gets the apartment during the day, she at night. As roommates the couple become bitter enemies. As a couple outside the apartment, however, they click. As if the risqué situation weren’t bad enough, in one scene Rogers, back to the camera, appears to be topless. Scandalous! Alas, she’s wearing a halter top.
Ernst Lubitsch is one of my favorite directors and when he works with Maurice Chevalier I find the results delightful. I fell in love with the film “The Smiling Lieutenant” at the festival in 2015 and was just as enchanted with “One Hour with You,” my second Friday morning film. Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald are an extraordinarily happily married couple whose devotion is jeopardized by the machinations of MacDonald’s best friend Mitzi (played by Genevieve Tobin). With songs like “What a Little Thing Like a Wedding Ring Can Do” and “Oh, That Mitzi,” and the brazen sexual innuendo, it’s pre-code with that Lubitsch touch.
Later that day it was back to the Egyptian for “Red-Headed Woman,” also 35mm, in which Jean Harlow plays a bad, bad girl. It co-stars Chester Morris and Una Merkel, who is as popular as Harlow if the applause during the credits is any indication. In a plot typical of the time, a young secretary uses her feminine charm to marry her way into a better world. Who can blame her? Billed as a comedy, I still held my breath at the end: will she have to pay for her sins? I certainly hoped not! She was much too charming (despite that little manipulative, selfish thing). Exiting the theatre I had the opportunity to meet Cari Beauchamp and thank her for her always smart and informative introductions to festival screenings.
The final pre-code comedy I saw was “Cock of the Air,” a digital restoration. The 9:00 AM Sunday morning time slot worked best for me and besides, who can resist a title like that? As I waited in line for my queue card a gentleman walked by, finger in the air, and said to no one in particular “Is this cock in the air?” That got my morning off on the right foot. Chester Morris again, who I hadn’t been that familiar with but was beginning to really like, especially after his appearance in nothing but a revealing towel in this film. It’s nice to see the boys objectified on occasion. Billie Dove is a singer who decides to seduce airplane pilot Morris. Elaborate sets and sweeping camera work give some scenes an almost epic feel and the humor has really stood the test of time.
“Panique” was the other digital presentation I attended. The theatre was packed. Before the screening, Bruce Goldstein, smart and entertaining as always, interviewed Pierre Simenon, son of French author Georges Simenon, who wrote the novel on which the film was based. It is a gripping and devastating thriller set in post-war France about a loner, a great Michel Simon, lured — and destroyed — by love. It’s concerns: fate, prejudice and petty human fallibility. This was one of my festival favorites.
The first film noir I saw was the nitrate screening of “Laura” on Friday night. At the press conference Randy Haberkamp and Jennifer Ahn had spoken passionately about nitrate film projection but I needed no convincing. As I mentioned, I’ve seen nitrate projected at the Nitrate Picture Show and was blown away by the richness and intensity of the images. But that was three days of nitrate with nothing to compare it to. Here I had just come off the 35mm screening of “Red-Headed Woman” and the digital presentation of “Panique,” which served to make the movie even more stunning. The dense set decoration glimmered in vivid detail with deep blacks, vibrant whites and every shade of grey in between (at least 50). Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney never looked better. One of the few festival films I had seen before, “Laura” was given new life with thisscreening. I was delighted when I first heard about the retrofit of the Egyptian for nitrate projection. It brings a significant and rare element to the festival. As David Strohmaier said at the press conference, “The nitrate print is a work of art.”
I also saw the nitrate screening of “Lady in the Dark.” This film was drama, musical and comedy all rolled into one, with much of the humor derived from its dated take on sexual politics. Ginger Rogers is a successful fashion magazine editor who reluctantly seeks psychoanalysis in a search for the cause of her unhappiness. It also stars Ray Milland, handsome and new to me Jon Hall, and Mischa Auer as a “flamboyant” photographer. The elaborately staged dream sequences and vivid Technicolor make the film a sort of Hollywood version of Powell and Pressburger, and oh that beaded fur dress. Somewhat ridiculous, this was the perfect way to end the festival.
The other classic noir I saw was “The Underworld Story,” a beautiful new print funded by the Film Noir Foundation. It stars audience favorite Dan Duryea who, in his introduction, Czar of Noir Eddie Muller described as a quiet family man. Good to keep in mind when he’s busy tormenting people in his films. Here he plays a disillusioned reporter who takes over a small- town newspaper in order to rebuild his career using whatever means necessary. Herbert Marshall stars as a rival newspaper owner and Howard Da Silva gives a nuanced performance as a mob boss.
“Unfaithfully Yours” is the only TCMFF film screening in seven years that I haven’t liked in the least. Enthusiastically introduced by Eddie Muller as a comedy that would have us laughing hysterically, directed by the great Preston Sturges, a fine 35mm print — what’s not to like? Rex Harrison plays a symphony conductor who becomes convinced that his adoring wife, played by Linda Darnell, has been unfaithful and plots revenge. It took a long time for the plot to be set into motion and once that happened, despite a few choice moments, I didn’t really care. I hope it makes its way to TCM at some point. I would like to watch it again to see if my reaction was somehow of the moment. I would hate to write off a totally innocent Preston Sturges film.
Irene Dunne. Watching “Theodora Goes Wild” for the first time I was reminded of how much I love her, particularly in comedies. She starts out the film fairly straight as a homey church organist who writes steamy stories secretly on the side. Once she falls for illustrator Melvyn Douglas, however, she indeed goes wild, breaking out her repertoire of mugging, physical mannerisms and silly noises. Her comedic performances are so subtly self aware that they come near to breaking the fourth wall. Just watching her makes me happy.
Oddly enough I was reminded of Fellini’s “Roma” while watching “Theodora Goes Wild.” There is a sequence in that film of the maestro filming a relentless, seemingly meaningless drive through the title city, with the random accompanying traffic noises that builds and builds until I don’t think I can take it any more and then… fade out to a peaceful garden. The Melvyn Douglas character in “Theodora” whistles. And whistles. And whistles — loudly on the soundtrack, driving Theodora, her two aunts, and we, the audience, or at least me, to distraction. While I was squirming in my seat during the film, I appreciated the innovation of the character/audience identification tactic once the film was finished.
I saw “What’s Up, Doc?” for the first time in the past year or so on TCM and remember not particularly caring for it. Why decide to see it at the festival? It was a 35mm screening and my last chance to see Peter Bogdanovich, who I admire for his extensive knowledge of Hollywood. Oh, and he directed some great pictures. His introduction to the film was fascinating, especially his anecdote about Cary Grant’s advice to Ryan O’Neal about playing his role: “Wear silk underpants.” Turns out I was wrong. I thought the movie was hilarious. I do enjoy Barbra Streisand as an actress and the supporting cast, including the brilliant Madeline Kahn, was perfect. I was frequently laughing out loud along with the rest of the audience, a reminder of the added impact of seeing great movies in theaters with like-minded film fans.
I knew very little about “The Landlord,” other than the description given in the guide. It was 35mm though, and I wanted to see Lee Grant. Ben Mankiewicz seemed to be visibly moved when he introduced Ms. Grant after a touching tribute video about her career. She and Beau Bridges spoke about making the film, a look at racism as relevant today as it was when it was made. Both overt and subtle in its presentation of its theme, this was a real high point of the festival for me.
So is one format superior to another? “Panique” and “Cock of the Air,” the two digital presentations I watched, both restorations, looked great, if slightly flat and soft compared to the 35mm screenings I saw both before and after. The blacks seemed richer in film, obviously so in the nitrate print of “Laura,” the greys more varied, the white’s brighter. I got the impression that projected film appears more as light and shadow while digital works as positive and negative, a subtle difference. The richness of the film prints implies a space both on and behind the screen while digital projection plants the image more firmly on it. In addition, I appreciate the imperfections of film projection. Scratches, flecks of white, differences in tone from reel to reel, hissing on the soundtrack, even gaps in image and dialog: all this adds a tactile quality to the viewing experience, a reminder of the medium, its history, its fragility.
That’s my perception of black and white but what about color? “This is Cinerama” was beautiful, the color and images glimmering and crisp, with infrequent imperfections and subtle differences in color from one panel to another. The nitrate print of “Lady in the Dark” was another animal altogether, the color brilliant, rich and dense, heavy on the screen like a painting. It was color I wanted to reach out and touch, particularly the red, red (jungle?) lipstick of Ginger Rogers. And what of the two 1970s movies I watched, “The Landlord” and “What’s Up, Doc?”, obviously unrestored, their colors muddy, their clarity murky. I have to admit it was a little disconcerting but, in the end, it didn’t particularly diminish my joy in watching them on the big screen with an audience, which is the point of the whole festival after all. Digital or film, is there a difference? I think so. Does it matter? Not really, as long as we have the opportunity to see the films. My experiment complete, next year I’ll go back to choosing my schedule with the typical anguish based solely on the particular movies I want to see.
After the last “The End” I returned to the HRH for the closing night party, always a bittersweet event. So many goodbyes to cram into those few hours. (To be honest, it was actually a little longer than a few. I didn’t make it back to my room until 3AM, after having some serious long goodbyes with some hardcore friends: you know who you are.) And, of course, I met a few new people there. I think one reason the festival was different for me this year was the company I kept while watching the movies. I’ve always been something of a loner while attending films at the festival, running from one theatre to another to get to a screening on time, sometimes running into someone I know to sit with, just as often not. This year I sat with friends or groups of friends at nearly every screening I attended. I’m not sure if we’ve all developed the same tastes or if the number of people I know has reached some sort of tipping point and it is inevitable that I find a friend at each screening, but for whatever reason my experience at the festival was enhanced by it. Our TCM family. We all gather each year for those few days that come and go in the blink of an eye, something like a movie, all time distorted by the hours spent mesmerized by those images flickering in the dark.
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