Part I: by Michele Price
The golden gals of the silver screen, the women who were featured in the classic films of the early to mid 20th century, have often received short shrift – second billing, as it were – for their roles in visual storytelling. Over the course of my attendance at the Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival since 2011, however, I have come to not just appreciate, but celebrate and even venerate the actresses of this time and the characters they brought to now seemingly (hopefully) eternal life. There was and is power in both performance and message. The 2019 Festival did not disappoint in this regard, providing a panoply of female actors and representations that displayed not just classicism but the distinctions of gender and its impactful manifestations. From the remarkable women of “A Raisin in the Sun” (1961), to the blinded but brave protagonists in “Magnificent Obsession” (1954) and “A Patch of Blue” (1965) to the feuding yet connected ensembles in “Steel Magnolias” (1989) and “The Opposite Sex” (1956), culminating with the quintessential take-no (literal)-prisoners Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind” (1939), the showings provided examples of not just the highest levels of cinematic performance, but resonating and relatable representations of women of power. As well, Princess Leia led, Delilah contrived, Linda Seton resolved and Isak Dinesen explored. It would be simplistic and, arguably, misguided to suggest that some of these women got by on stereotypical female devices, because, although these may have been occasionally present and even employed as a means, it would be to engage, as my son the film historian says, in presentism, that is, applying contemporaneous values and ideas upon earlier eras. At the festival, I sought and found women of tremendous value and lasting impact upon the screens.
Three films from the festival have been chosen to highlight unique representations of powerful women: “The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer” (1947), “Gentleman Prefer Blondes” (1953), and “Sleeping Beauty” (1959). In each, women referenced both inherent and accessed traits and resources to drive the narrative and convey the message, albeit through, respectively, very different means: judicial and familial intelligence, beauty and desire for financial security, and magical and vain intentions.
Although the introduction to “Bachelor…” centered almost entirely upon the adolescent Shirley Temple, fellow attendees remarked that the omission of substantial commentary upon Myrna Loy’s role as Judge Margaret Turner left the audience wanting. Indeed, to feature a woman as not just a judge at this time, but one who came from a family of lawyers, and presented as accurate a portrayal of the bench as any on the screen, was remarkable on many levels. Although billed as a light-hearted comedy, even when the courtroom cast of characters was colorful and unruly, Loy was practical and serious and ruled fairly based upon facts and law. As well, she did not brook challenges nor allow any attorney-implied favoritism. Her calm and informed demeanor in the courtroom did not distract, however, from warmth and caring for her ward, younger sister Susan. Loy’s performance, although luminous, was understated and this only added to her power in her courtroom, her home, in her sibling supervision and ultimately in her romantic relationship with Cary Grant’s Richard Nugent. Notably, the judge demonstrated humility,asking her housekeeper for input on a recent case, and with the exception of her uncle who indicated a man was necessary to keep the wayward Susan in line, no character suggested that a women judge was an oddity or ill-equipped to navigate her various roles. Indeed, Grant’s character was drawn to the judge’s beauty, certainly, but also her intelligent wit, prominence of profession and equality (and even superiority) of position. The role and the performance stand today as a significant representation of a powerful woman in, for that time, a non-traditional manifestation.
The splashy, colorful musical “Gentleman Prefer Blondes”, interestingly, immediately followed the showing of “Bachelor…” at the Egyptian Theater. Once again, a very appreciative crowd looked forward to the quintessential Marilyn Monroe role as Lorelei Lee. The film provided an escapist, frothy comedy watching Marilyn be, well, Marilyn. Or not. While her character’s intent is to marry a rich man (just as easy as marrying a poor one, as the old saying goes), and she is stunning just standing still, there is more to this than good looks. In fact, it is her beauty that explain her power, when she comments to her fiancé’s father, who is constantly, and near the film’s end, resignedly still trying to separate his soon-to-be-wealthy son from the presumptively gold-digging Lorelei: “Don’t you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You wouldn’t marry a girl just because she’s pretty, but my goodness, doesn’t it help?” Touché’. Those times called for traditional post-war gender representations in large part, so the young, alluring woman seeking a husband was both practical and expected. Despite Lorelei’s quest, however, she was nobody’s fool. Much like Monroe’s pithy and dryly hysterical observation in “All About Eve” (1950) when it was suggested she make nice to an important producer, saying “Why do they always look like unhappy rabbits?”, she knew what she wanted and how she could use her gifts and tools to get it. She was dumb like a fox. Powerful and persuasive, the role managed to be both massively entertaining and hugely informative.
Finally, it might seem incongruous to consider the Walt Disney film “Sleeping Beauty” as one promoting powerful women. But, oh my, this film is rife with power on many levels and through many roles, all of which are female, and do not include the namesake, the beauty herself. Based upon the traditional fairy tale, Disney’s version is visually stunning and artistically masterful. The pre-film program with two of the original animators provided insight into methods but also the attention to detail and intention for age-spanning appeal. Watching the film was like seeing a painting come to life, and the story was driven from opposing sides of good and evil, with the three fairies, Flora, Fauna and Merryweather (portrayed by some of Disney’s most important voice artists) on one side, conjuring and protecting (albeit with much sisterly argument), and the all-powerful Maleficent, arguably Disney’s greatest and most enduring villain, as the opposite foil. Although the good females here wield much power, ultimately the force of evil through Maleficent was more than they could manage and it is this tremendous character, bent on vengeance fueled by jealousy, isolation and exclusion, who rules the screen. Both a woman and a dragon, a sorceress and royalty, she is tremendous in her power. Her legacy, significantly, endures today, where, in popular culture, a new generation relates to her struggles, devices and ploys. Indeed, pre-show, one of our intrepid TCM fans handed out pass-attaching ribbons that read “Team Aurora” and “Team Maleficent.” Can you guess which was more popular? Let’s just say everyone loves a bad girl, especially a powerful one.
Power at its peak was present at the 2019 TCM Film Festival, and much of it came in a female package. Here’s hoping that trend continues…
♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
Turner Classic Movies Film Festival 2019: Powerful Escapism
Part II: by Thomas Price
I was raised on and by Turner Classic Movies. From childhood until my first festival in 2011, as a high school junior, I watched, listened and learned so much about life through classic cinema. At the many ensuing festivals, I also met like-minded persons who not just affirmed my passion for film, but actively encouraged my pursuance of a career in it. This year, attending my 8th festival, I had just defended my thesis to attain a Master of Arts in, you guessed it, Film Studies, which centered upon Disney animation history. Is it any surprise, then, that I could not wait to see one of the most beautiful Disney films ever made, “Sleeping Beauty”, on the big screen? For a Disney historian like myself, this was a rare and impactful opportunity. But, I have a broader confession to make: at this festival, what I needed and sought most of all was escape. Two years of Buñuel, Eisenstein and Bergman left me informed, educated but exhausted. Now, I know many festival attendees might turn up their collective noses at certain offerings that are deemed less than classic. But, one might argue, what has fueled this festival’s success and its ever-expanding audience, is variety: of genre, of director, of decade and even of lightness/seriousness. This year, I sought to be entertained. And…I was. I enjoyed “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope” (1977) and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981), but also was enthralled with Winchester ’73” (1950) and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969). As the best man speech giver opined in “Four Weddings and a Funeral” (1994), at this festival there was “a little something for everyone.”
But, I must start with my favorite: “Sleeping Beauty” (1959). This animated masterpiece is exhilarating, breathtaking, and thrilling as well as one of Disney’s greatest fairy tale films to be created. The moment the film opened on the Egyptian theater screen, I felt as though I stepped into a medieval tapestry or painting, as was the intention of background artist Eyvind Earle. There are two scenes in the film that truly offer escape from reality, one being the moment where the titular character dances with her true love Prince Phillip in an enchanting forest that resembles a medieval work of art. This scene allows viewers to not only transport themselves to another world but to share in the joy of the characters who embody the true love found in fairy tales and legends. However, the most defining moment of escapism in the film is the climactic battle between Prince Phillip and Maleficent in dragon form. When shown on the big screen, this scene allows audiences to feel as though they are fighting alongside Phillip and sharing in his fear and bravery as he squares off against a monstrous creature that only Disney could animate so smoothly. “Sleeping Beauty” also offers escape through its characters, including the minor players such as King Stefan and King Hubert, who comically banter and battle each other in a slapstick manner during an argument over their children’s future/marriage. As such, “Sleeping Beauty” is not just an animated feature that appeals to all age groups, but one that provides thrilling and feel-good entertainment through imagery and characters. As a dedicated Disney enthusiast and historian, I was enthralled to see “Sleeping Beauty” presented on the silver screen, where it was meant to be seen, and enjoyed it as a festival attendee. For me this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to relive Disney history and partake in its magic.
It might seem surprising that my final film of the festival would be the comedy “Yours, Mine, and Ours” (1968) which seems to have been somewhat diminished by critics and viewers. Prior to this year’s festival, I had viewed the 2005 remake of this film, starring Dennis Quaid and Rene Russo, but was unaware that there had been an earlier version. Suffice it to say, I prefer the original version to the 2005 remake as it is better written and much funnier. This film offered escape through the leads Frank Beardsley (Henry Fonda), and Helen North (Lucille Ball), both of whom provide plenty of heart and humor. In particular I found the scene in which Fonda’s children get Lucille Ball’s character drunk to be one of the best moments in the film as it provides an otherwise tame narrative with a splash of adult humor. After watching lots of heavy films in my graduate school classes, “Yours, Mine, and Ours” was just the right film to not just conclude the festival but to also provide a hilarious escape from the darker materials I studied in classes. It is amazing to see howFonda and Ball, both of whom were usually typecast in either film or television, portrayed realistic and relatable characters who demonstrate the hardships of raising children. Without “Yours, Mine, and Ours”, television series such as “The Brady Bunch” would not have been realized and/or cherished in the future.
Ultimately, the film that offered pure escapism during the festival was one that some attendees questioned as a solid “classic” choice: “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.” I,however, being a millennial, was beyond thrilled when TCM announced it as part of the festival’s Twentieth-Century Fox celebration. As a lifelong “Star Wars” enthusiast, it had been my dream to see the very first film of the saga that has been loved worldwide on the silver screen just like my parents had over forty years earlier. “Star Wars” itself allows viewers to escape through its unforgettable characters, majestic worlds, and uplifting musical score. Thus, while watching the film in Grauman’s Chinese Theater, I felt pulled into the story,particularly by the character Luke Skywalker who is representative of the frustrated young person eager to leave his roots behind and explore. The films scenery, particularly the planet Tatooine, offer escape through the unusually beautiful locations and the alien creatures inhabiting them. I felt enticed by the scene in which Luke and his mentor Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi enter a cantina that is replete with alien life-forms and is reminiscent of Rick’s Café in the film “Casablanca” (1942). “Star Wars” demonstrates TCM’s openness to newer films that can be shown at every festival and appeal to a variety of audience tastes and demands.
Each year, the TCM Film Festival offers new forms of escape for its attendees, incorporating genres, decades and directors. While some might argue that this deviates from a purist view of the channel and festival, arguably this expansion is celebrating quality films and drawing in new viewers and attendees. This year’s line-up provided multiple opportunities for escapism in film to this attendee’s delight. TCM should continue to embrace newer and perhaps less critically celebrated films that, upon reflection, are in fact classic, and then get ready to watch the variety of festival attendees diversify and expand.
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At the 2013 TCMFF we met the loveliest mother & daughter at the Hollywood Ghiradelli Soda Fountain: Merrell & Logan Mann. We bonded over many shared interests (including our children who were some of the few young attendees) one of which was a love of Disney. In the years since, we have enjoyed many Disney films with them at ensuing festivals. This year, these two lovely women, my son Thomas – the Disney scholar, and I sat with them at the showing of “Sleeping Beauty” Our young people are now pretty much grown up, but what a joy to see how their passion for classic film has grown along with our friendship! TCM people care the best!
Here is Thomas’ favorite moment…
Meeting up with Ben at the 2019 TCMFF closing night party…
Ben: “Thomas! It’s great to see you again…how long have you been coming to the festival?”
Thomas: “Since 2011…I was a junior in high school…”
Ben: “How old are you now?”
Thomas: “26…and I just defended my masters thesis in film studies at Chapman.”
Ben: (long pause): “That’s great! But wow, do I feel old…” (Smile, head shake).