Festival Blog

Welcome to TCM’s Live Blog coverage of the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival. Our Blog staff will be here getting you up to the minute coverage of the screenings, events and excitement across the Festival day and night. Be sure to stay connected with us via Twitter as well by following @tcmfilmfest.

THE STRANGER’S RETURN: A Hick Pic the Sticks Nixed!

“STICKS NIX HICK PIX” proclaimed Variety on July 17, 1935, in one of the most famous headlines in newspaper history. The meaning was this: rural audiences were not turning out… Read more »

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Lionel Barrymore and Miriam Hopkins

“STICKS NIX HICK PIX” proclaimed Variety on July 17, 1935, in one of the most famous headlines in newspaper history. The meaning was this: rural audiences were not turning out at the box office to see movies with rural settings and themes. One of the many films that contributed to the state of affairs was THE STRANGER’S RETURN (1933), which, seen freshly 81 years later, turns out to be a remarkably accomplished, mature, adult work — at least as seen in the cosmopolitan setting of Hollywood.

 

Another sold-out festival audience turned up to see what film critic Leonard Maltin described in his introduction as one of King Vidor’s most neglected pictures. “Why should a film directed by the great King Vidor be so unknown?” Maltin asked. Maltin was first introduced to the film by the renowned film scholar William K. Everson in the 1970s, and hadn’t seen the film in over twenty years. It seldom if ever turns up in revival. And it’s certainly one of the most obscure films to have been unearthed for this year’s festival.

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The film is a comic-laced MGM drama about family relations on a rural farm. Miriam Hopkins plays Louise, a sophisticated, independent New York City girl who has left her husband and traveled to the farm in an effort to reconnect to her roots. The farm is presided over by the 85-year-old Grandpa Storr, played marvelously by the 55-year-old Lionel Barrymore. Grandpa Storr is an irascible, intelligent and candid presence, but his house is full of brooding relatives, notably the spinsterish stepdaughter Beatrice (Beulah Bondi), who has long expected to inherit the farm and does not take kindly to the growing warmth between Storr and Louise. With the offspring squabbling to succeed their regal overseer, who may or may not be losing his marbles, there’s almost a King Lear type of dynamic at play.

 

But the film also delves into a romantic attraction between Louise and Guy, the young, married, well-educated farmer next door played by Franchot Tone, who in overalls seems miscast here but still turns in a solid performance. In this conservative community, people notice the illicit romance, and Louise starts to endure all sorts of cattiness and criticism — especially from Beatrice, whom Beulah Bondi plays to the hilt as a character you love to hate.

 

With all these elements set into place, screenwriter Philip Stong and director King Vidor play with shifting character dynamics, pitting various combinations of characters together to reveal motivations, temptations and jealousies. Stong, a former Iowa newspaperman who specialized in rural dramas, was a novelist best known for State Fair, which was first made into a film also in 1933 and would be remade twice in the years ahead. Stong wrote The Stranger’s Return (the novel) immediately following State Fair. (In order to resurrect THE STRANGER’S RETURN for this screening, Warner Brothers tracked down the estate of Philip Stong and renewed the rights to the work.)

 

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Franchot Tone and Miriam Hopkins

Vidor brings his extraordinarily vivid and authentic eye for farm life to the film. The house, porch, screen doors, fields, trees, lemonade outdoors on a sunny day… anyone can photograph these things, but Vidor proved in many films that he had a special sensitivity to this world. In a 1970s oral history interview with Nancy Dowd, Vidor said, “The farm has always been my favorite atmosphere. It’s proven by the fact that I now live on one. I used to be kidded a lot about some of the symbolism I used with the plow turning over the earth. It meant a new cycle of life, a new generation.”

 

For THE STRANGER’S RETURN, Vidor got to employ the great cinematographer William Daniels. “He was Garbo’s cameraman,” Vidor recalled. “She had first choice in using him.” But Garbo wasn’t working at the time, so Vidor’s request for Daniels went through. “I considered myself lucky to have him. He was a pleasant, charming man, and a wonderful cameraman. Delightful to work with.”

 

Vidor shot on location in Chino, California, “about the closest farm country you could get in Los Angeles,” he said. “We stayed at an abandoned country club.” Vidor remembered there was much trouble recording the sound properly in all the exterior sequences, as directional mikes hadn’t yet been invented. This required numerous takes.

 

Miriam Hopkins, who turns in one of the best performances I have ever seen from her, is hugely charismatic and sensual in this film, capturing the delicacy of emotions that are regarded so suspiciously by others, except for Barrymore. Vidor recalled that she was under contract to Paramount, where she had been working a lot with Ernst Lubitsch. Vidor privately sent her a copy of the script, for it was supposed to be a secret that they were even in negotiation.  A few days later he met with her to discuss it, and he saw that on her last page someone had written: “King, if there’s any changes you would like to make, I’d be happy to do them for you.” Lubitsch had found out after all!  (Vidor didn’t say if he took Lubitsch up on his offer.)

 

Vidor had a romance with Hopkins during this film, but, he said, “it broke me up and left me with a terrible torch.”

 

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Irene Hervey, Franchot Tone and Miriam Hopkins

Lionel Barrymore is also a revelation here. Anyone who knows him only from his later, wheelchair-bound days will bowled over by the physicality and delight he brings to Grandpa Storr. In the oral history, Vidor remembered one anecdote that spoke to Barrymore’s seriousness as an actor. One day on location, Barrymore asked Vidor to be let go early because he had some important business to attend to. Later that afternoon, Vidor was driving through town and saw some old guys sitting on a bench outside a drugstore. He did a double take — one of them was Barrymore, still wearing his fake beard and old-man makeup from the film. He was attempting, successfully, to blend in with the locals without them suspecting he was an actor.

 

The print screened at the festival had an abrupt cut at the end, before the final image and credits. Maltin explained in his intro that a short scene was indeed missing, but it was merely a tag to the story, which has basically already concluded by that point. Maltin said that while the 35mm negative for THE STRANGER’S RETURN was lost in a fire decades ago, the missing footage does exist in a 16mm negative and will hopefully be restored at some point. In his oral history interview, Vidor said there were other scenes that had been cut from the film when he saw it again in the 1970s, including a love scene in the hay, and moments of Louise developing a “romance” with the land, and Grandpa Storr observing this — moments which no doubt contributed to their growing affection and respect. Perhaps those scenes will turn up as well.

 

THE STRANGER’S RETURN was very well reviewed in 1933 by influential outlets like Variety and The New York Times, which described Barrymore as “the season’s liveliest octogenarian. Shrewd and delightful.”  But it died at the box office. Maltin theorized that perhaps Vidor got the chance to make this film because his previous work had been The Big Parade, “the first smash hit in the history of the newly formed MGM, which gave him a lot of clout and goodwill in the company… But the fact that no one seems to know it, that it’s seldom if ever revived, and even Vidor didn’t mention it [in his autobiography], says something to me. And it also says something to me that for his next film he left the studio system and made an experimental, independent film called Our Daily Bread. It may well have been a reaction to the indifferent response this film got.”

 

Maltin continued: “Vidor is a well-known figure, but at the same time I think his career is underrated and underappreciated. He made so many daring and unusual films. Not every one hit the bulls-eye, but he never settled into a rut, never wanted to repeat himself, always was trying something new and different and challenging. This film is a very deeply felt story, and I think it still resonates today for a grown-up audience.”

 

TCM Classic Film Festival-goers were lucky to see this film. Now that Warner Brothers has invested in renewing the rights, here’s hoping it will turn up again, including on TCM.

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Monday Re-cap

TCM is proud to present this exciting recap of events from Sunday, April 13, day four of the 5th TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood. To view more festival videos,… Read more »

TCM is proud to present this exciting recap of events from Sunday, April 13, day four of the 5th TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood. To view more festival videos, check out our video gallery.

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75th Anniversary of GONE WITH THE WIND

Being from Atlanta, I’ve seen Gone WITH THE WIND (1939) on the big screen a number of times. That includes the 50th Anniversary celebration in 1989, with cast members Butterfly… Read more »

Being from Atlanta, I’ve seen Gone WITH THE WIND (1939) on the big screen a number of times. That includes the 50th Anniversary celebration in 1989, with cast members Butterfly McQueen, Ann Rutherford and Evelyn Keyes in attendance. So you might think I’ve been there done that when it comes to GONE WITH THE WIND. But when I heard TCM was planning a 75th Anniversary screening at the shrine of cinema, the TCL Chinese Theatre, I imagined it just might be a near religious experience. Of course, I was right.

GonewiththewindLet’s face it, if you love movies, just seeing a film at the Chinese is a pleasure in itself. But add to that the closing day festival atmosphere—seeing a favorite movie, one many of us could basically reenact we’ve seen it so many times, surrounded by a full house of your fellow classic movie fans—and you’ve got a truly transcendent experience. Today’s digital presentation of GONE WITH THE WIND was introduced by Ben Mankiewicz who rolled out his best southern to ask “how ya’ll doing?” Ben briefly touched on some of GONE WITH THE WIND’s noteworthy points—its use of Technicolor; winning a record eight Oscars (including one that broke the color barrier, Hattie McDaniel as Best Supporting Actress); and its pushing the production code with Rhett’s closing dialogue.

We then launched straight into the film’s overture. With a run time of almost four hours, GONE WITH THE WIND is a tough sit on day four of a film festival. Personally, I had intended only to stay until intermission—so as to bring you this blog post in a more timely manner. But I have to admit, as always, the film drew me in. When the opening strains of the score began—with the titles moving past—I knew I was hooked. I believe it’s still one of the most powerful movie opens ever. And you have to love a TCMCFF audience. They applauded every star credit, the director, even the screenwriter. The updated TCL Chinese showed off the film in a spectacular fashion. The huge screen really brings you into the action. Watching it at eye level felt like a completely different and more intimate experience.

One point I was curious about going into today’s screening—would the Yankees (being the “villains” of the story) get the same reaction they do in Atlanta? In my hometown, they get hissed like the Nazis in Casablanca or the Baroness in The Sound of Music. As expected, that part played a little differently to this crowd. But some things, it seems, are universal: like Overseer-turned-Carpetbagger Wilkerson who apparently receives the same treatment everywhere (“that’s all of Tara you’ll ever get,” must draw applause in every city); everybody starts crying when the trifecta hits (i.e., Bonnie dies, Rhett goes slightly mad and Melanie collapses); and Mammy (who gets the best lines) is everyone’s favorite.

After 75 years and $3.3 billion (when adjusted for inflation), GONE WITH THE WIND still brings the romance, a surprising amount of laughter, great acting and unforgettable characters. Happy 75th Gone With the Wind.

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Hitchcock’s THE LODGER Moves In for the Night

In its fifth year, the TCM Classic Film Festival went out in high style with a screening of the recent restoration of Alfred Hitchcock’s THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE… Read more »

lodger_5In its fifth year, the TCM Classic Film Festival went out in high style with a screening of the recent restoration of Alfred Hitchcock’s THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG (1927), complete with a live premiere performance of an atmospheric new score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. TCM host Ben Mankiewicz also bid a fond farewell for this year to the packed house at the Egyptian Theatre, promising plans were already in motion for next year’s fest and offering a few facts about the evening’s film, such as the varied and impressive career of star Ivor Novello (who briefly became a Hollywood screenwriter and originated the line, “Me Tarzan, you Jane”).

The Welsh-born Novello (born with the far less exotic name of David Ivor Davies) was a spectacular entertainer, starting off as a songwriter and working as an accomplished musician, stage and screen actor, music hall performer, and writer. It’s a shame much of his work is unknown to American audiences as he still remains a commanding screen presence combining a striking puppy-eyed screen presence (no wonder Jeremy Northam was hired to play him in Gosford Park) with refined physical acting skills which necessitated almost no intertitles. He also appeared in another Hitchcock film later the same year, Downhill, which is well worth seeking out, too.lodger_4

THE LODGER remains Novello’s best-known role, and with good reason as this is the first real Hitchcock film. The director had worked on previous projects, of course, but this was his initial foray into thrillers and turned out to be a truly spectacular calling card. The script was adapted from a novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes (and elements of a subsequent stage version) in which a serial killer with a thing for blondes and triangles is leaving bodies across the city each Tuesday night. Calling himself the Avenger, the predator has only been seen with his face mostly obscured by a scarf. Meanwhile a woman named Mrs. Bunting takes in a new nameless tenant (Novello), called Mr. Sleuth in the book, who shows an aversion to paintings of blondes and seems more than a tad haunted. He also strikes up a potential romance with his landlord’s model daughter, Daisy, a pretty blonde whose cop boyfriend starts to think something may be amiss.

The cinematic techniques in THE LODGER still feel quite fresh and exciting, with Hitchcock incorporating elements of avant garde and German expressionist filmmaking that would later reappear most obviously in Spellbound and Vertigo. There’s even a relatively daring scene of bathtub menace decades before Psycho, while nifty visual tricks abound like a ceiling becoming transparent to show the lodger pacing upstairs or vital clues suddenly manifesting in a foggy footprint. If that weren’t enough, this marked the very first of Hitchcock’s cameo appearances , which would become a tradition ever since.

However, the most Hitchcockian element was introduced against the director’s will when the powers that be dictated that any suggestion of the main character’s guilt had to be eliminated, as Novello was far too valuable a heartthrob to be perceived as a villain. The ambiguous finale of the novel was eliminated, and what emerged instead was the “wrong man” scenario that would come to reappear many times in Hitchcock films from The 39 Steps onward. Interestingly, the exact same issue would crop up again for Hitchcock with Suspicion once he arrived in Hollywood and tried to cast Cary Grant as a bad guy, with the exact same final outcome. In this case the enforced rewrite turned out to be a benefit all around as it’s far more dramatically and cinematically satisfying; many future versions of The Lodger (including a solid 1944 version with John Brahm explicitly calling out the murderer as Jack the Ripper) have gone with more tragic or enigmatic endings, none of which work quite as well as this one. From here the Master of Suspense was officially born, and the rest, as they say, is history.

And with that another marvelous festival closes far too soon, leaving a new treasure trove of movie memories and eager anticipation for many more to come.

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Comedy is not to be laughed at… Alan Arkin at The Montalban

A rare treat for TCM-FF attendees this weekend was Robert Osborne’s career-spanning chat with Alan Arkin at The Montalban Theatre this afternoon. A multiple Academy Award nominee for his work… Read more »

AlanArkinPhotoBySuzanneArkin_470x350A rare treat for TCM-FF attendees this weekend was Robert Osborne’s career-spanning chat with Alan Arkin at The Montalban Theatre this afternoon. A multiple Academy Award nominee for his work in such films as The Russians Are Coming The Russians Are Coming (1966), The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1968), and Argo (2012), and a 2008 Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner for the 2007 indie hit Little Miss Sunshine, Arkin revealed himself throughout the 90 minute interview to be introspective yet disarmingly ego-free, having long ago exorcised the demons that caused him to be dissatisfied with his mid-career doldrums and, by his own admission, often difficult to work with. A native New Yorker who grew up in Hollywood when his family relocated to Los Angeles in the 1940s, Arkin knew he wanted to be an actor as early as age five but making a place for himself within the industry took many more years. A comic folksinger in his 20s (Arkin was an original member of The Babysitters, alongside former Weavers member Lee Hays), Arkin turned to improvisational comedy when his career stalled early on, eventually appearing on Broadway with the famed improv troupe Second City.

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Arkin enjoyed continued success on Broadway in Carl Reiner’s Enter Laughing and in Murray Schisgal’s Luv. Having made his feature film debut as the unexpectedly gentle captain of a Soviet submarine that surfaces off the coast of New England in Norman Jewison’s The Russians Are Coming The Russians Are Coming, Arkin playing against his good natured type as the slimy villain Harry Roat of Wait Until Dark (1967), in which he terrorized a blind  Audrey Hepburn and was made to pay dearly for it. Arkin’s lead role in Mike Nichols’ Catch-22 (1970) should have solidified his standing as a name-above-the-title star but the trouble-plagued production’s failure at the box office had the opposite effect of derailing his career, leading to work in a slew of flops such as Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1972), Deadhead Miles (1973), and Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins (1975). There were scattered successes in the popular comedies Freebie and the Bean (1974) with James Caan and The In-Laws (1979) with Peter Falk but after 1980 Arkin found more enduring success as a character actor, playing Sigmund Freud to Nichol Williamson’s frazzled Sherlock Holmes in Nicholas Meyer’s revisionist The Seven Percent Solution (1976) and James Woods’ rascally father in Ted Kotcheff’s Joshua, Then and Now (1984). Arkin also reconnected to his theatrical roots, directing (against his initial better judment) the original Broadway production of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys.

arkin-argoIn conversation with Robert today, Arkin credited both the wisdom that comes with age and meditation as the balancing forces in his life. Long interested more in the collaborative process of filmmaking than in the competition for salaries and awards, he has found fulfillment in using his craft to help others better their lives, leading improvisation workshops with such charitable organizations as The Omega Institute and Veteran’s Village of San Diego, the latter an outreach program that strives to help better the situation, and the quality of life, of returning veterans. The conversation swung wide to include his impressions of working with such diverse writer-directors as Tim Burton and David Mamet and when asked which performers have proven themselves to be most inspirational to him, Arkin answered with the exceedingly unlikely pair of Harpo Marx (no explanation needed) and Steven Hill, the former Mission: Impossible and Law & Order whose memorable supporting turn in Sidney Lumet’s Running On Empty (1988) compelled Arkin to seek the actor out to deliver his praise personally. Candid but compassionate, hysterically funny but deeply philosophical, Alan Arkin was a wonderful addition to this year’s festival and good company today at the Montalban Theatre.

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On a Slow Boat to Everywhere but China: The Lady from Shanghai

Screening host and film noir czar Eddie Muller summed up Orson Welles’ brilliant THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI in one word tonight: weird. Columbia mogul Harry Cohn gave Welles his top… Read more »

Screening host and film noir czar Eddie Muller summed up Orson Welles’ brilliant THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI in one word tonight: weird. Columbia mogul Harry Cohn gave Welles his top star Rita Hayworth, and authorized an extravagant shoot on Errol Flynn’s yacht, on a voyage to Acapulco. The movie was supposed to be a cooperative, on-budget project for Welles to prove that he could be a cooperative company man. His avowed plan was to make peace with the Hollywood power brokers that had more or less banished him from the director’s chair after Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.

 

That’s not how it turned out. The studio would say that Welles went wildly over budget and veered way out of control, that he ruined Hayworth’s pre-sold image by cutting her long red hair and dyeing it blonde, and that he turned in a ridiculous three-hour director’s cut. Welles would protest that the film was taken away from him and mutilated in the cutting room. His intricate ideas for a creative sound track were ignored, along with his complex musical ideas. In other words, another potential Welles work of genius was destroyed by unappreciative, if not downright vindictive, studio producers.

 

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That makes it sound as if THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI is a cinematic disaster, which is anything but true. It’s erratic and uneven and the leading character played by Welles himself isn’t half as charming as Welles seems to think he is. As for ruining Welles’ editing, that’s difficult to pin down. The shots themselves are so brilliant that editor Viola Lawrence can’t help but assemble them in marvelous patterns. One crazy dialogue scene high on a rock on the Acapulco cliffs may be the most spectacularly effective scene Welles ever filmed. On the other hand, we can’t believe that Welles could possibly be responsible for an amateurish-looking scene of a brawl in Central Park . It has been established that retakes were done after Welles left the production, to add more glamorous close-ups of Ms.Hayworth.

 

What grabs everyone about the show is its plot line, which for casual viewers is almost completely incoherent. Welles’ seafaring Irishman Michael O’Hara thinks he’s being set up as one kind of fall guy, when the  criminal conspiracy he’s been told about  is suddenly overtaken by a second double-cross. Either way O’Hara finds himself in an air-tight frame for murder, without anything remotely resembling an alibi. The brilliant but corrupt attorney (Everett Sloane) defending Michael has every motivation to let him go to the gas chamber, as he knows that Michael has been having an affair with his wife, Elsa (Hayworth).

 

We can see Harry Cohn tearing his hair out when he discovered that the real star of the show is Welles, which relegates the top-billed Hayworth to duty as a beautiful diversion. What really makes the story seem so incomprehensible is that most of the key exposition scenes about the schemes and frame-ups are so visually interesting that we forget to pay attention to the dialogue. It’s more pleasant to let ourselves be swept along by the chaotic flood of dynamic images. As could be expected, Welles assembles a film that could not possibly be confused for the work of another director.

 

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The final scenes of THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI hit a dizzying pace, yet manage to bring the movie to a wholly satisfactory conclusion. The moment Michael O’Hara escapes from the courtroom we’re treated to some of Welles’ most exciting sequences. Michael hides out in a Chinese theater, where we learn that Elsa’s Shanghai background is no fake — she issues instructions to her servants in Chinese. It all leads to what is probably Welles’ most brilliant scene concept ever. The killers and their patsy come together in a Funhouse Hall of mirrors, and discuss the wicked facts of their relationships as their images are multiplied in the panels of mirrors. It all seems a visual expression of Michael’s earlier fable about a pack of sharks that become so kill-crazy that they end up biting themselves. When guns are drawn, the whole world seems to explode in crashing showers of glass.

 

Welles’ best actors are the menacing Everett Sloane and the amazing Glenn Anders, whose intensely psychotic inducements for Michael to help him commit suicide are the performing equivalent of screeching fingernails on a chalkboard. Ted de Corsia also gets quality screen time as another schemer in Sloane’s personal entourage.

 

Eddie Muller praised tonight’s presentation from Sony, a new 4K digital restoration. Muller said it was the restoration’s first public screening, and even pointed out Universal’s chief of digital film work, who was on hand for the screening. The projected image was indeed flawless, and probably superior to any 35mm print that could be manufactured today. Considered the public authority on film noir, Muller’s introduction prepared the audience for, well, something entirely weird.

 

— And with that, this TCM blogger’s duties came to an end. The festival was a smoothly oiled machine this year; I don’t think I ran into a single unhappy attendee. Even the weather cooperated. After five years, this four-day extravaganza concept has to be judged a smashing success.

 

 

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HANNAH AND HER SISTERS: A Family Film From Woody Allen

HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986) is one of Woody Allen’s most acclaimed and commercially successful movies — which is exactly why he has always treated it with apprehension. To Allen,… Read more »

hannahandhersisters2HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986) is one of Woody Allen’s most acclaimed and commercially successful movies — which is exactly why he has always treated it with apprehension. To Allen, the more popular a movie is, the more he suspects that he failed to make it challenging enough. But perhaps he doesn’t give his audience enough credit.

HANNAH was actually an especially difficult film for Allen to begin with. The story’s multiple storylines and numerous characters proved difficult to balance correctly. Unsatisfied with his original cut, Allen gathered the cast again and re-shot 80% of the footage. While he’s been known to do significant re-shoots on other films, this was a large amount even by his standards. (It wasn’t a record, however: a year later, he would completely scrap his first filmed version of September and re-shoot it from scratch with a new cast.)

The film’s treatment of three sisters (Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey and Dianne Wiest), their significant others, their parents and romantic entanglements is intricate. In fact, as Dennis Bartok (former programmer for the American Cinematheque) explained in his introductory remarks on Saturday, “this is probably Woody Allen’s richest and most complex study of family dynamics both on and off screen.”

Off screen, of course, Allen and Farrow were in a relationship. Farrow agreed to let Allen shoot the scenes set in her character’s apartment in Farrow’s actual apartment. A number of Farrow’s real-life children appear in the film. And Allen cast Maureen O’Sullivan, Farrow’s real-life mother, as her movie mother. At first both actresses were against it, with Farrow claiming that the parts were written as “self-indulgent and dissolute in predictable ways.” O’Sullivan was “stunned” by the script (in a bad way!), and caused Farrow to see “how [Allen] had taken many of the personal circumstances and themes of our lives, and, it seemed, had distorted them into cartoonish characterizations.”  But Allen re-wrote the script and softened the characters, and both Farrow and O’Sullivan then came on board.hannahandhersisters3

The three male leads are played by Michael Caine, Max von Sydow, and Allen, who debated which of the roles he wanted to play himself, for he felt a strong kinship to all three. In the end, he chose the character of Mickey, a hypochondriac. But it is Michael Caine, as Elliot, who is married to Farrow but in love with Hershey, who is at the story’s core. Dennis Bartok explained that off screen, it had been Caine who originally brought Allen and Farrow together romantically — adding yet another element of fact and fiction blurring together.

Allen has said that his main problem with HANNAH is the ending. According to a biography by Richard Schickel, Allen explained, “The original ending was supposed to be that Caine ends up with Hannah as a second choice to Hannah’s sister, who has married someone else. He is despondent but goes back to Hannah and is perpetually glum and depressed, and doomed to see the sister at family parties, and stuck with second choice for life… It was such a downer. It was like the picture just fell off the table. And so I had to put a more upbeat ending on the picture, because I just had not justified that level of Chekovian sorrow.”

hannahandhersistersAudiences certainly liked the happier ending. And the Academy recognized it with seven Oscar nominations and two wins, for Caine and Wiest. The picture certainly played well in this year’s family-in-the-movies themed festival.

Final interesting fact from Bartok: Farrow’s role was first offered to Kim Basinger (whom I find very hard to imagine in the part), but Basinger turned it down to do 9 1/2 Weeks instead.

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Hats (and Bonnets) Off for EASTER PARADE

We’re still a week off from Easter in 2014, but it sure felt close enough this afternoon as a glorious 35mm IB Technicolor print of EASTER PARADE (1948) at the… Read more »

easterparadeWe’re still a week off from Easter in 2014, but it sure felt close enough this afternoon as a glorious 35mm IB Technicolor print of EASTER PARADE (1948) at the Chinese Multiplex. The Fred Astaire / Judy Garland musical has been a favorite for decades and a TCM perennial, but seeing it on the big screen is a special kind of joy like no other.easterparade2

Leonard Maltin was on hand with “Judycentric” expert John Fricke, who hosted “Judy Garland: A Legendary Film Career” earlier today and had plenty of stories about this film’s turbulent origins. Composer Irving Berlin (whose name is given a possessory credit as big as the movie title) agreed to compose eight new songs and reuse eight more preexisting one for this MGM project, which was originally slated to star Gene Kelly and Garland with her husband, Vincente Minnelli, directing. Costar Cyd Charisse tore a tendon and had to be replaced by Ann Miller, Kelly broke an ankle playing volleyball, and Minnelli stepped down when Garland’s shrink advised it would be better to work with someone besides her spouse. Fricke theorized that final change may have also been due to the protracted shooting of Minnelli and Garland’s The Pirate, which still hadn’t been released and would turn out to be a box office disappointment.

Sidney Sheldon (yes, that Sidney Sheldon) was brought in to turn the original screenplay into a brighter affair in 1947, as the original male lead character, Don Hewes, was a black-hearted jerk who bore a much more severe grudge against his former partner and didn’t get romantic until the final moments of the closing song.

Fred Astaire was brought out of retirement, which wasn’t hard since he was eager to work with Garland and found the entire production to be a happy and productive one. In fact, he was so pleased that he decided to stick around and make plenty of subsequent movies. What’s fascinating here is how much the character of Don sets the template for what would define his leads in several 1950s musicals, a charmingly arrogant pro who molds a younger woman to his own set of standards whether she likes it or not. (See Funny Face, Daddy Long Legs, or Silk Stockings to find out where this was all heading.)

Garland and Astaire are both in top form here, of course, with “A Couple of Swells” in particular coming off so well that Garland would turn it into a signature song for her live performances. No less impressive is Miller, who turns a potentially hateful character into a glamorous vixen enjoying every minute of her screen time, while an impossibly young Peter Lawford (looking every inch the matinee idol here) startles fans of his Rat Pack persona with his sunny but duplicitous romantic rival turn. As for the music… well, what else can you say? It’s Irving Berlin, it’s MGM in its prime, and it’s still one of the hottest musical tickets around this weekend.

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CITY LIGHTS: A Chaplin Masterwork

Saturday morning’s screening of CITY LIGHTS (1931), which I have seen several times and rank as my favorite Chaplin movie, was perfect. Big theater, beautiful print (a DCP), a large,… Read more »

Saturday morning’s screening of CITY LIGHTS (1931), which I have seen several times and rank as my favorite Chaplin movie, was perfect. Big theater, beautiful print (a DCP), a large, attentive and respectful audience, and a sincere introduction by Jason Lee to set the right mood.  Over half of those present had never seen the film before, and that made it even more magical.

citylightsChaplin started developing CITY LIGHTS in 1928, just as sound was starting to overtake Hollywood. By 1931, silent pictures were gone, and every movie was a talking one. Except CITY LIGHTS.

Chaplin took his time preparing and making this picture, and he was definitely nervous about releasing a silent so far into the sound era, but his faith was rewarded when CITY LIGHTS became a big success. How could it not? It contains scene after scene that rank among his very best work: the sidewalk and underground elevator scene, the millionaire’s suicide attempt by a river, the boxing match (Chaplin’s own favorite scene in the film), the fight for the cigarette butt, and of course the extraordinarily moving ending, which film critic James Agee once wrote “is enough to shrivel the heart… It is the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies.”citylights2

20-year-old Virginia Cherrill, who plays the blind flower girl with whom Chaplin’s Tramp falls in love, had never acted before but was put under contract by Chaplin when he noticed her in the stands at a boxing match. She is very affecting in the finished film, but Chaplin had a tough time getting a performance to his liking.  The initial meeting between the two characters took two weeks to get right, and the shot where she offers him a flower still holds the Guinness World Record for the most number of takes, at 342.

Cherrill later said Chaplin would act out every nuance and moment of every part, demonstrating exactly what he wanted. Part of the reason he did so many takes of the flower scene was because he didn’t like the way she spoke the line “Flower, sir?” — even though the line is only “seen” and never heard. Chaplin did not get along with Cherrill and even briefly fired her at one point during the film’s long on-and-off-again production schedule.

citylights3The reason for the drawn-out production (it was two years from the first day of shooting to the last) was that Chaplin experienced serious creative blocks. It took him over a year, for instance, to think of the device that would make the blind flower girl mistakenly believe the Tramp be a rich man: the slamming of a car door, after the Tramp rushes through it to evade a cop. Chaplin also fell ill for a long stretch, no doubt caused by stress.  But of course, we don’t see any of that. We see the sublime final product, as alive and vital and engaging now as it undoubtedly was 83 years ago.

Talkies came a bit too soon. Silent cinema in the late 1920s was reaching an apex of sophistication and technical achievement, and if there had been just a few more years before sound, we might have been treated to many more masterworks like CITY LIGHTS, from Chaplin and other filmmakers. I wonder how Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton might have fared had they been able to make more silent films in the sound era.

There’s an argument to be made, of course, for adapting to the times and not resisting progress. But there’s also one to be made for doing what you do best no matter what everyone around you is doing, which in the case of a brilliant screen comedian like Chaplin was to keep making silent pictures. Thank goodness he pressed ahead on CITY LIGHTS.

Jason Lee

Jason Lee

Actor Jason Lee spoke of this in his wonderful, heartfelt introduction before Saturday morning’s screening. Lee said he admires Chaplin because he “stuck to his guns” by keeping CITY LIGHTS as a silent film.  “Chaplin is a huge hero of mine, a big source of inspiration,” said Lee. “CITY LIGHTS is probably my favorite film of all time. I can’t believe you guys woke up to come here. It just makes me so happy that people still want to see these kinds of movies… One critic of the time accused the film of being overly sentimental, [but] I feel like some of that is missing a little bit nowadays. I like to go to the movies and cry, to be honest. I like to go to the movies and get inspired. I hope that for those of you who haven’t seen it that you walk away with a little bit of that sense of inspiration, and that you feel that sense of sentimentality and romance and you’re not ashamed to feel those things. Because I’m certainly not.”

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A Life of His Own: BEST BOY Turns 35

One of the great unpredictable joys of the TCM Classic Film Festival each year is running into crazy connections between movies, usually springing out of nowhere. That happened today with… Read more »

bestboyOne of the great unpredictable joys of the TCM Classic Film Festival each year is running into crazy connections between movies, usually springing out of nowhere. That happened today with a vengeance this morning as I barely made it to the 1979 documentary BEST BOY on a tight schedule after the post-screening discussion for Fiddler on the Roof. With that film’s songs still bouncing around in my head, I sat down for this, the only film on my schedule I’d never seen before.bestboy2

Half an hour in, the film’s subject, a 52-year-old developmentally challenged man named Philly, is taken by his parents to Broadway where they catch a 1976 revival of… yep, Fiddler on the Roof. The screen blazes with incredible, colorful film footage of Zero Mostel in his signature role as Tevye singing Philly’s favorite song, “If I Were a Rich Man,” and afterwards we see Mostel meeting Philly backstage and complimenting him on his singing ability. It’s a sweet, touching moment, just one of many in a film that turned out to be a really wonderful surprise.

The film was shot over a three-year period by Philly’s cousin, Ira Wohl, who was in attendance today for a post-screening Q&A from the audience along with his 13-year-old daughter, Anastasia, who had never seen it before. BEST BOY also became a surprise Oscar winner in 1980 and inspired a feature-length 1997 sequel, Best Man, as well as a short film, Best Sister. Beating the odds, Philly is actually still alive at the age of 86 and enjoying a happy life, and Wohl shared some great stories about his life since and described him as “the Jewish Buddha” for his ability to make people smile with his mere presence.

Though he stays off camera for most of the film, Wohl played a pivotal part in this film as he shot the progression of events involving Philly and his two parents, whose declining health challenges their ability to keep him living with them at home. Gradually Philly takes steps to becoming more independent, going to a nearby center five days a week and finding out how to live outside of his home. Then he goes off to a camp in the Castkills for three weeks, leading to a final third that had more than a couple of audience members audibly choking back tears.

The film has since gone on to become a valuable teaching tool and a kind of cinematic social outreach, with attitudes and accommodations involving the mentally and physically disabled changing dramatically since then and hopefully continuing to evolve for the better. Even 35 years later, it still works as so much more though with tough, sometimes uncomfortable questions raised about what it means to be a parent, how valuable a human life can be under challenging circumstances, and how much the bonds of family can steer people in unexpected directions like the creation of this little gem of a film.

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“At last we’re here”… Yazujiro Ozu’s TOKYO STORY (1953)

The long-story-short on Yazujiro Ozu’s TOKYO STORY (1953) is, like almost all long-stories-short, inaccurate to the point of missing the point. The tale isn’t one of grown children neglecting their… Read more »

TokyoS_470x350The long-story-short on Yazujiro Ozu’s TOKYO STORY (1953) is, like almost all long-stories-short, inaccurate to the point of missing the point. The tale isn’t one of grown children neglecting their elderly parents (as thumbnail descriptions of the film often erroneously aver) but rather an examination of families struggling — and largely failing — to maintain ties beyond the nostalgic dynamic of parent-child codependence. “To lose your children is hard,” a senior citizen laments midway through TOKYO STORY. “But living with them isn’t easy either.” Disappointment is the key emotion that drives the plot, that of parents who feel their children have fallen short of their true potential and that of adult children who cannot forge a fresh relationship with the people who raised them but with whom they struggle to relate. Filmed during Japan’s reconstruction, less than ten years after the end of World War II (construction cranes dot the landscape as logos for American products creep into the frame, signaling the lingering death of the old empire and the birth of an economically new order that is irrevocably tainted by western influences), TOKYO STORY is one of several Japanese films that attempted to find the pulse of a nation undergoing a radical shift in perception and priority and has long been considered a classic of the New Japanese Cinema, on par with Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952) and Keisuke Kinoshita’s A Japanese Tragedy (1953).

tokyostory2On hand to introduce this morning’s screening of TOKYO STORY at the Chinese Multiplex was TCMFF BFF Illeana Douglas, who likened Ozu’s masterpiece to “a Japanese road movie… but an extremely slow road movie.” Lest any of the festival attendees think she was being dismissive, Illeana went on at length to praise the film’s use of extremely low angles, which give the viewer an impression that the very houses themselves are characters in the family drama, and of Ozu’s nuanced depiction of the struggles of regular people to find their place in a world whose rules and dimensions are being rewritten and of the simple beauty of every day life.

 

 

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Breaking Tradition with FIDDLER ON THE ROOF

Not so long ago, Broadway musicals had a tremendous cultural impact for the majority of the twentieth century. Everything from the pop charts to movie screens had some connection to… Read more »

fiddler_roof_1Not so long ago, Broadway musicals had a tremendous cultural impact for the majority of the twentieth century. Everything from the pop charts to movie screens had some connection to what was happening on the Great White Way, but none had an impact exactly like FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. Bright and early this Sunday morning, we got to see an immaculate (and sonically wonderful) presentation of the 1971 film version, which still hits the sweet spot for a number of topics that still strike a chord today.

Now a part of tfiddlerontheroof3he popular consciousness, the story follows milkman Tevye and his family living in the small town of Anatevka in Czarist Russia at the turn of the century.  The role originated on Broadway in 1964 with Zero Mostel in the lead, with direction and choreography by Jerome Robbins (fresh off of West Side Story and Gypsy).  The Robbins dances were adapted and essentially retained as conceived for the movie, which wound up earning eight Oscar nominations and winning three (for Adaptation and Original Song Score, Sound, and Cinematography). It’s safe to say in an earlier year it probably would’ve nabbed Best Picture, but the tide was turning in ’71 courtesy of a little film called The French Connection.

Introducing this screening was TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz, while a panel followed after the film with Leonard Maltin welcoming director Norman Jewison (despite his name, “the best goyish director possible”), composer John Williams (one of the film’s Oscar winners), and casting director Lynn Stalmaster. Jewison recalled coming aboard while executives were considering shooting the film in Canada, but he insisted on filming in Eastern Europe (Yugoslavia, as it turned out) and casting London stage lead (Chaim) Topol, an Israeli-born second generation Russian Jew, in the lead rather than Mostel. Both decisions turned out to be sound ones, of course, as did the decision to bring Williams on to adapt the famous music. The limited nature of an orchestra for a live performance had to be completely overhauled for the film, which included an English chorus whose precise diction lent an eerie beauty to film’s final scene.

The pivotal violin solos played by the fiddler (a character inspired by Marc Chagall’s painting, “The Fiddler”) were performed by Isaac Stern, the most famous violinist in the world at the time, whom Jewison went to visit in Chicago. Booking the music legend proved to be tricky as Jewison couldn’t even audibly ring his doorbell over the music being rehearsed inside, and the filmmaker told a charming story about getting Stern’s schedule straightened out and preparing him a glass of scotch. Then there was the casting, and Stalmaster recalled that the most difficult part to fill turned out to be the young Russian Christian suitor Fyedka. Stalmaster scoured London, Mumich, Paris, and Stockholm looking for the right actor, only to find him in Rome courtesy of Ray Lovelock (credited here as Raymond), an actor and rock singer fiddler_roof_posterwho amusingly doesn’t get to sing a note in this film (though he does get a couple of brief dance moves). Lovelock would go on to become a familiar face in European cinema throughout the ‘70s in films like The Cassandra Crossing and a string of cult action and horror films, while another suitor in the film, Perchik, was played by someone very familiar to TV fans: Paul Michael Glaser (with no “Paul” in his name here), who would hit it big on Starsky & Hutch four years later. Based on the applause he received today from the audience, he still has quite a few fans.

Watching FIDDLER ON THE ROOF now, it’s remarkable how well its story adapts beyond the ’60s when it was seen as both a vivid depiction of Jewish life before the Holocaust and the modern State of Israel and a parallel to the turbulent generation gap that was starting to tear America apart. Today we still find things branded as “tradition” often without any coherent reason being redefined on a constant basis, with attitudes about immigration, national identity, marriage, and religious freedom still evolving and making headlines on a daily basis.

The structure of the musical is still sound as well, with the first three songs (“Tradition,” “Matchmaker,” and “If I Were a Rich Man”) evoking starry-eyed, unrealistic lives in which the ideal mate and financial security could be just around the corner. The three marriages of Tevye’s daughters then break those concepts apart one by one, with memorable monologues to God (cleverly depicted here with a number of perspective tricks and Topol looking just off camera) also forcing the audience to contemplate the purpose and nature of prayer itself. Is it means of wishing for something we might not happen, finding inner resolve, or simply finding focus in a universe in a constant state of upheaval? Then as now, the answer is up to you.

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A rediscovered classic… William Friedkin’s SORCERER (1977)

The Force was not with William Friedkin’s SORCERER at the time of its theatrical release in June of 1977. Friedkin’s widely-anticipated follow-up to the box office juggernaut that was The Exorcist (1973), a nominal… Read more »

sorcerer3The Force was not with William Friedkin’s SORCERER at the time of its theatrical release in June of 1977. Friedkin’s widely-anticipated follow-up to the box office juggernaut that was The Exorcist (1973), a nominal remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953), had the misfortune to open a month after George Lucas’ Star Wars… in fact, SORCERER was booked into Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (then known as Mann’s) in Los Angeles right after the Lucas film. As if a switch had been flipped somewhere in the world, Star Wars had become in a moment state of the art, the new model for what a blockbuster should be, while moody, dark-hued thrillers that were William Friedkin’s stock-in-trade had become sadly declasse. Made on a budget that rose to $21 million, SORCERER earned back less than half of that worldwide while Friedkin’s wunderkind status was downgraded to “director-for-hire.”

220px-Sorcerer77poster“You are about to see an undiscovered classic,” announced venue host Tom Brown at tonight’s screening of a digitally restored SORCERER, which was held, with pleasing circularity, in the very venue from which it had gotten the bum’s rush back in the summer of ’77. Of course, Tom was largely preaching to the choir, as many of us had admired the film those many years ago and have been frustrated by its poor translation to television and the home video market. Also on hand for tonight’s screening were William Friedkin himself, and SORCERER Walon Green, whom Friedkin had hired on the strength of his classic script for Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1968). No stranger to acting as his own historian, Friedkin was in an exceedingly humble frame of mind tonight, thanking Green effusively for his contribution to SORCERER and also bringing to the stage of the newly-christened TCL Chinese Theatre Imax three men whose work were integral to the film’s digital restoration. Prefatory comments were kept to a minimum in order to put SORCERER on the screen in timely fashion. On reappraisal, the film did not disappoint festival attendees, who applauded the film’s key action and suspense setpieces as if they were jazz solos. Reappraisal of the film is long overdue and sadly too late for the film’s four stars: Roy Scheider, Francisco Rabal, Bruno Cremer, and Amidou, who have all passed away in the intervening years. Happily, their partipation in SORCERER endures and stands in stunning dedication to their craft and passion.

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A Conversation With Thelma Schoonmaker

Film editor Thelma Schoonmaker spent an interesting hour in conversation with author Cari Beauchamp on Saturday in Club TCM.  Schoonmaker met Martin Scorsese in 1963 at a six-week NYU film… Read more »

Thelma SchoonmakerFilm editor Thelma Schoonmaker spent an interesting hour in conversation with author Cari Beauchamp on Saturday in Club TCM.  Schoonmaker met Martin Scorsese in 1963 at a six-week NYU film class, and edited his student film. She went on to cut his first feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, a few more in the following years, and then Raging Bull and every Scorsese movie since. “He taught me everything I ever knew about film editing,” Schoonmaker said.

Schoonmaker is also the widow of the great English film director Michael Powell, who with Emeric Pressburger formed The Archers, the brilliant filmmaking duo responsible for many of the greatest films to come out of England in the 1940s and ’50s, including The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and I Know Where I’m Going!

Some highlights:

  • On making documentaries with Scorsese in the 1960s: “You go on a film set today and there are 250 people. There are some who only handle the plants. And they’re sleeping most of the time because they don’t need to move them. It’s very boring.  I wish that filmmaking could go back to the time where there were just seven of us. All of us did everything except direct and shoot.”
  • On Woodstock:   “Once we got up there, we were trapped and couldn’t get out. Marty had brought his cufflinks, thinking we were going out to dinner at night. That didn’t happen. We slept in the mud two hours a day because the performance schedule was very long. I will never ever forget the smell of that mud.”
  • On Scorsese’s editing instincts: “Marty thinks like an editor when he makes the movie. When he’s co-writing it, and shooting it, he’s thinking like an editor, all the time. He’s doing fifty percent of my work.”
  • On her favorite Scorsese collaboration: “Raging Bull. It’s still my baby. It’s so beautifully directed.”
  • On editing Raging Bull‘s final fight scene: “He had 90,000 feet of wonderful footage. As we were working on it, it became clear to us that there were things that were affecting how the rhythm of the fight should go.  One of them was the wife, played by Cathy Moriarty, watching her husband being pummeled, and putting her head in her hands and then later lifting her head up… Those emotional moments became what would hinge the entire scene… We didn’t expect that.”
  • On Michael Powell: “It was a wonderful thing to have accidentally been given the best job in the world, and then the best husband in the world. He never lost his love for filmmaking. He kept writing scripts and encouraging other people. He lived every second of every day and never wasted a moment. He taught me so much about life and love.”
  • On Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960):  “He was out on a limb with Peeping Tom. He knew that if you’re on the cutting edge of your art, there’s a good chance you’re going to get killed. And he was killed.  But he felt he’d rather be out on that limb and making those movies.”
  • On a particular editing challenge: “The improvisations in Raging Bull took a long time because both De Niro and Pesci are such fertile improvisers. It was hard for me to take that wonderful material and make it seem like it was a scripted scene, which is my job when cutting improvisation.”
  • On winning the Oscar for editing Raging Bull: “That was one of the most heartbreaking moments of my life, because I won an award, and De Niro won, and Marty didn’t win. I don’t display it because I don’t think it’s mine. I think it’s Marty’s.”
  • On the most important editing quality Scorsese first saw in her: “I think it was trust. He had had some unpleasant experiences with other editors. He realized I would do what was right for the film and wouldn’t have a big ego about it.”
  • On her process with Scorsese:  “I read the script just once so I can see the film emerge. He wants me to maintain a cold eye to look at what he sends every day, to look at it fresh… We always have TCM on the right side of the room, on silent. The first thing Marty does whenever he comes in the room is turn on TCM. It’s a constant inspiration.”
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Mr. Dreyfuss’ Opus

Prior to today’s screening of MR. HOLLAND’S OPUS (1995), Richard Dreyfuss sat down with Illeana Douglas for a wide-ranging discussion of his 50-year career.  Illeana is rapidly becoming one of… Read more »

MrHollandsOpusPrior to today’s screening of MR. HOLLAND’S OPUS (1995), Richard Dreyfuss sat down with Illeana Douglas for a wide-ranging discussion of his 50-year career.  Illeana is rapidly becoming one of my favorite interviewers—her intelligent questions and quick-witted follow-ups lead to quick, golden nuggets of info, perfect for presenting in bullet form in blogs!  It certainly helps that she and the equally quick-witted Dreyfuss are friends and recent co-stars.  Here are some highlights from today’s discussion:

- When asked if he looks at clips from his films and sees the acting or remembers the behind-the-scenes events of that day’s filming, Dreyfuss said “Both.”  He then told a story about filming Jaws (1975).  In one scene he was supposed to be playing solitaire on the boat but the cards kept blowing away in the wind.  Director Spielberg had the cards glued down.  So the shot as it appears in the film shows Robert Shaw’s hair blowing in a strong wind and the camera pans down to something impossible—Dreyfuss playing cards—“and nobody has ever mentioned it!”

- Of his one-line performance in The Graduate (1967), Dreyfuss noted that every young actor wanted the lead role as Ben and several auditioned.  He knew the part was gone when director Mike Nichols went to New York to see Dustin Hoffman, but Nichols “was such a gentleman, he gave every actor who auditioned a part in the movie.”

- For Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), director Paul Mazursky “…cast me, Bette Midler and Nick [Nolte] and said he cast directly out of the Betty Ford Clinic.”

- When asked if he would ever consider writing his memoirs, Dreyfuss announced “the name of the book I will never write: Steven, Have They Figured Out Yet What I Am Looking Up In Awe At?”

- Steven Spielberg once told Dreyfuss that on Jaws, he felt stupid asking the actors to look at, and react to, something that wasn’t there.  Dreyfuss told him, “You are an authority figure—never say that again!”

- Another Spielberg story: Also during Jaws, and at the height of Watergate, Spielberg got a phone call, hung up and told Dreyfuss, “That was Robert Redford.  He wants me to direct All the President’s Men.  What’s it about?”

- The only part in his career that he “aimed” to get was the part in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).  He wanted the part because he knew the movie would “last forever.”  He got it when he told Spielberg simply, “you need a child,” knowing that he could play the child-like lead character.

- Dreyfuss said he knew actress Teri Garr since he was 18 years old, living next door to her when they were struggling.  He was smitten and “threw pebbles at her window” to get attention.  He “didn’t get to first base, but I’m her friend and I’ll settle for that.”

- Of MR. HOLLAND’S OPUS, Dreyfuss said that it was initially mis-marketed, because “Marketers of film are basically people who have ‘Idea A’ and ‘Idea A’.”  The movie was first sent to glossy magazines to cover, and they gave it the “Cosmopolitan sneer.  MR. HOLLAND was too sweet and simple and they destroyed it.”

- Of his overall career, Richard Dreyfuss stated that he has “No frustration.  I’m blessed.  I spent 50 years doing what I wanted to do.”

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THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD: Artistry in Action

Multiple Academy Award winning sound designer/editor Ben Burtt and Academy Award winning visual effects supervisor Craig Barron gave the full house at the Egyptian Theatre an insider’s view of the… Read more »

Multiple Academy Award winning sound designer/editor Ben Burtt and Academy Award winning visual effects supervisor Craig Barron gave the full house at the Egyptian Theatre an insider’s view of the technical artistry that went into making THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOOD (1938), which screened to regular outbursts of thunderous applause.

 

Their presentation included a cornucopia of rarely-seen production stills, production art, personal photographs of cast and crew, short sound recordings from the studio archives and even home movies taken on set by Basil Rathbone.  They began by donning leather Robin Hood caps and rolling a short piece of Technicolor footage of the Warner Bros. lot, with portions of THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD set visible in the background.  Thus, they cleverly invited the audience into the time and place of the film’s making, then systematically explored how the greatest action adventure of all time was crafted.

 

They discussed the logistical challenges posed by a film with such a sizeable cast, who not only had to be trained in sword fighting, archery and battling with quarterstaffs, but also had to be housed in a vast tent city for extensive location shooting in Bidwell Park near Chico, California.  This location shooting likewise presented many technical challenges.  For one, certain man-made features had to be added to the forest to achieve the right look for “Sherwood,” and to ensure all of the necessary stunts could be performed. (They shared photographs of a large oak tree being built from the ground up, to ensure Errol Flynn could swing from vines on its boughs without risk).  Also, a special sound truck had to be on site to capture all dialogue properly, given the ambient noise, and boom mics had to be placed creatively (sometimes extended from a boat in the middle of the creek). Also, massive lights had to be placed around each shot to eliminate shadows from overhanging branches and ensure enough light for the early three-strip Technicolor stock (which had to be shot at an ASA of 5).

 

Burtt and Barron also shared many landscape matte paintings, with sections blocked out in black where the action would later take place. This controlled double exposure process—of shooting the matte painting, then shooting the action with a mask over the lens that blocked out all portions of the frame except those that were black in the matte painting—allowed the action to blend seamlessly into the landscape, thereby transforming Northern California into a medieval English countryside replete with castles.  By first showing stills of the matte paintings, then rolling the action in the film and superimposing this over the matte, Burtt and Barron gave a simple and elegant demonstration of how movie magic is created.

TheAdventuresOfRobinhood_00198619And they didn’t stop there, turning next to the sound effects of the film.  After noting that the screenplay contained numerous mentions of the terrifying sounds the arrow shots should make, Burtt became fascinated with how the sounds were created.  He first added wires and other objects to arrow shafts to try and get the sound.  When that failed, he and friends made large batches of arrows with different shaft materials, feather configurations and splits for the bowstring, until he finally found the right sound (discovering in the process a real arrow was used for the effect).

 

But the highlight of their presentation came in a series of short film clips they shared with the audience.  These included numerous takes of the battle sequences (which editor Ralph Dawson would view daily, selecting the best and cutting them into seamless action), as well as home movies shot on set by Basil Rathbone.  These remarkable movies featured such surprises as Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland) snuggling up to the dastardly Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone), and Robin Hood (Errol Flynn) pretending to be titillated by his sidekick Will Scarlett (Patric Knowles)—a clip that brought the house down.

 

The presentation was itself a thing of magic—a true mass market education in filmmaking that allowed everyone to see why the film cleaned up in the technical categories of that year’s Academy Awards, winning for Best Art Direction (Carl Jules Weyl), Best Film Editing (Ralph Dawson) and Best Music (Erich Wolfgang Korngold), as well as being nominated for Best Picture. The only movie magic Burtt and Barron didn’t bother to explain was nonetheless evident to everyone in attendance today—to wit, the magical performances by an immensely talented cast.

 

It would be hard to name a film with a more perfect ensemble: Ian Hunter as King Richard the Lion-Heart, Claude Raines as his treacherous brother Prince John, Rathbone as John’s right hand Gisbourne, Flynn as Robin Hood, Knowles as Will Scarlett, Eugene Pallette as Friar Tuck, Alan Hale as Little John, and so on the list goes.  Not only is each perfect for his role, but together they capture something that has too often been absent from adaptations of the Robin Hood story, and is practically gone from modern films: merriment.  We feel the joy these actors seemed to feel in being together—the camaraderie, the mutual respect.  We can’t help but feel caught up in that emotion, which helps to explain what a rousing experience it was to see the film in the packed Egyptian Theatre today, to rounds of applause, outburst of laughter and occasional gasps at the lush Technicolor beauty or the stunts of derring-do.

 

And when Flynn and de Havilland get together… Well, that is the real, ineffable magic of the movies.

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NATIONAL VELVET – A Tribute to Mickey Rooney

One of the “To Be Announced” screenings at this year’s festival was decided on quite early, soon after Mickey Rooney passed away on April 6 at the age of 93. … Read more »

One of the “To Be Announced” screenings at this year’s festival was decided on quite early, soon after Mickey Rooney passed away on April 6 at the age of 93.  He was a long-time friend of TCM and a fixture at network functions, past Festivals and Cruises and, of course, can regularly be seen on the network.  Today, in fact, the entire 24-hour programming block starting at 6am EST has been rescheduled as a tribute to Mickey Rooney featuring 13 of his standout roles.  It was more than fitting, then, to recognize him at the TCM Classic Film Festival on the same day.

nationalvelvet_1944_rooneytaylor_1200NATIONAL VELVET (1944) is now often remembered for one of Elizabeth Taylor’s breakout juvenile roles and just the beginning of things to come in her career at MGM.  It is easy to overlook the fact that Taylor was 3rd-billed and that the film was actually built around top-billed star Mickey Rooney, who gives a measured and touching performance as former jockey Mi Taylor.

On hand to introduce the screening was film historian and author Jeremy Arnold, who noted that Rooney had just turned 23 years old at the time of filming and was at the top of his game at MGM.  NATIONAL VELVET director Clarence Brown would later remark that Rooney was “the closest thing to a genius” he had encountered in the film business.

Following the screening, movie historian Eddie Muller spoke with Rooney’s friend and fellow MGM contract star Margaret O’Brien.  O’Brien remarked that she had known Mickey Rooney since she was two years old, when she appeared in Babes on Broadway (1941).  She observed, in fact, that “I made my first movie with him and he made his last movie with me.”  This was a reference to a still-in-production version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that the two veterans had already filmed their parts for.  O’Brien, noting that Mickey loved to work more than anything, remembered that on their last day of shooting on that picture Mickey enthused, “Wasn’t that a fun day?”

Margaret O’Brien was wearing the same green dress this morning that she wore during her last dinner with Rooney, which was on St. Patrick’s Day last month.  She said that Rooney’s other favorite things were animals and going to the races (something he had also done just weeks ago, after he invited O’Brien and she couldn’t go).  Rooney also enjoyed painting and writing–both silly limericks and serious poetry.  Saying that “it was only right that Mickey has the last word,” Muller read aloud a recent poem that Mickey had written called “Flesh and Bones.”  It was a meditation on longevity and redemption that served as a fitting remembrance.  Here is an excerpt:

nationalvelvet_1944_rooney_1200This flesh and bones we wear,

We bear for just a time.

They were never meant to last;

What lasts is in your mind.

The thoughts and things we think of,

That’s the sum of who we are.

So drop that stone you’re holding,

You wouldn’t have cast it far.

Now the reason that I say this

Is a simple point of fact:

It’s to beg the Lord’s forgiveness

For the traits of good I lack.

I’ve gambled and I’ve cheated,

Been a drunkard and I’ve lied.

But if I died tonight my God will know

At least, by God, I tried.

(From My Life in Words and Pictures, By Mickey Rooney,with Laurie Bogart.  Copyright © 2012 by Mickey Rooney, Los Angeles, and Laurie Bogart Wiles, Pinehurst, North Carolina.)

Just as fitting, though, was a line of dialogue from NATIONAL VELVET that Jeremy Arnold noted earlier was Rooney’s favorite line from the film.  It was spoken by Anne Revere as Mrs. Brown about Rooney’s character: “What’s the meaning of goodness if there isn’t a little badness to overcome?”  Mickey Rooney once noted that it would be a suitable epitaph for himself.

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“Dirty…slimy…FREAKS!” Still Packs a Punch

Is there a more perfect midnight movie for the TCM Classic Film Festival than FREAKS (1932)? One of the most infamous and unique films ever released by a Hollywood studio,… Read more »

Is there a more perfect midnight movie for the TCM Classic Film Festival than FREAKS (1932)?

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Freaks!

One of the most infamous and unique films ever released by a Hollywood studio, it was so badly received by audiences, critics, and even the studio that made it (the unlikely MGM), that it destroyed its director’s career and built a reputation for vile, despicable hideousness that persists in some quarters even to this day. The truth is that FREAKS is barely even a horror movie. It turns into one at the end, but up to that point the main tone of the piece is not dread and fear, but compassion. The Freaks are human oddities — physically deformed people, in some cases horribly so. They are midgets, Siamese twins, lacking in arms or legs (or both), a bearded lady, pinheads, a “human skeleton” and so forth, and they work as circus performers. They are real human beings, not normal-bodied actors in make-up.  And they are the most humane, warm and kind people in the film.

The “monsters” of the story are among the “normal” people, two in particular, who tease, berate and manipulate the Freaks for their own advantage.  Their scenes of cruel treatment of the Freaks are by far the most shocking moments of the picture, even when they don’t involve physical violence.

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Harry Earles, Olga Baclanova

When the two main villains of the story — trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) and strong man Hercules (Henry Victor) — conspire to try and fleece a midget (Harry Earles) for his money and slowly poison him to death in the process, the rest of the Freaks eventually have enough and take matters into their own hands, leading to a climax brimming with thunder, lightning, mud, and murder. Thanks to director Tod Browning, it looks like something out of his Dracula (1931), but with more kinetic, cinematic movement than that earlier picture, which, iconic as it is, is a bit on the static side.

Comedian Dana Gould delivered a marvelously entertaining introduction to the energized midnight crowd on Saturday night, joking that Tod Browning “made David Lynch look like Garry Marshall.” FREAKS, he said, stands as “Browning’s defining achievement, and the film that also destroyed him. It was a disaster! It was the Jack and Jill (2011) of its day!  A woman threatened to sue MGM because she said the film made her have a miscarriage. It is truly an astounding and astonishing motion picture.”

freaks4Browning was obsessed with making this film, and he was by all accounts extremely difficult to work with — sarcastic and difficult to please — except when it came to the Freaks. He loved them and treated them gingerly and sensitively, just as he does on screen, underscoring his interest in the melancholy theme of people who cn’t fit in.

There’s also great pre-Code fun to be had in FREAKS. Its reputation as a disturbing horror film tends to mask the fact that it is as sexually provocative and racy as many other pre-Coders. In one scene, actress Leila Hyams speaks to Wallace Ford (they play good “normal” people) who appears to be naked in a bathtub. Hyams leans over the edge, talking casually to him. Only at the end of the scene do we see that Ford was actually wearing pants and wasn’t taking a bath at all. In another scene, Olga Baclanova is about to cook eggs for Henry Victor when she unties her robe, sticks out her chest and asks, “How do you like them?”

But best of all is a moment where one of the Siamese twins kisses her fiance, and her sister, joined at the hip, registers pleasure on her face. Now that’s messed up, Mr. Browning!

FREAKS was originally a good 20-30 minutes longer than its current 62-minute running time. The original release drew such outrage and condemnation that MGM cut the film, softened the ending, then pulled it from circulation. Some cities and states banned the film outright, and Great Britain banned it for thirty years.freaks

“FREAKS is too gruesome for the Better Films Council of Rhode Island,” stated one news item. “The [woman's organization] protested to Capt. George W. Cowan, police censor, to see if the film couldn’t be toned down. Capt. Cowan, however, said he had seen the film three times and that it was okay as far as he was concerned.”

Capt. Cowan and his freakishly good taste notwithstanding, most people of 1932 would probably think it insane that FREAKS, 82 years later, would be acclaimed as a great film and selected to play in an event like the TCM Classic Film Festival.

Here’s a clip of one of FREAKS’ weirdest, most quoted, and most deliriously wonderful scenes: Gooble gobble indeed!

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It’s all for Love: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

Creative genius Carson McCullers was fully aware that she was a prisoner in a weak body that would eventually fail her before her time. A mood of muted despair is… Read more »

Creative genius Carson McCullers was fully aware that she was a prisoner in a weak body that would eventually fail her before her time. A mood of muted despair is a constant in her writing. Her first novel is a sobering but poetic tale of half-broken misfits and social rejects, that all cluster around a caring man forever marginalized as an outsider. Like all McCullers books it’s a painful, insightful bit of realism that doesn’t come with a tidy author’s message.

 

For the 1968 film adaptation of  THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER, Robert Ellis Miller (Any Wednesday, Sweet November) directs an impressive cast headed by the superb Alan ArkinAlan is John Singer, a deaf mute who works as a jewelry engraver. Arkin’s character is enormously likeable, but he has his own doubts and frustrations stemming from the isolation imposed by his impairment. He is indeed a seeker, and we don’t know if he’ll find what he’s looking for.

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Traditional movies treat blindness or deafness as a kind of magic charm that grants special insights to those afflicted and the people who come in contact with them — Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda, for one.  Things aren’t that simple for John Singer. Because ‘polite’ people keep their distance, John identifies with and gravitates toward other physically or socially impaired misfits. He takes personal responsibility for the mentally challenged Spiros (Chuck McCann), another deaf mute prone to infantile and erratic behavior, like spontaneous fits of vandalism. When Spiros is sent to an institution, John follows to help out and is soon doing his best to help the new people he meets. John’s landlord has suffered an injury and is handicapped. Drifter Jake Blount (Stacy Keach) has a serious problem with alcoholism. John also aids black doctor Copeland (Percy Rodriguez) to communicate in sign language with a deaf-mute patient. Copeland is unhappy that his daughter (Cicely Tyson) decided to become a maid instead of going to medical school. Portia’s husband is unjustly jailed after defending himself from some white thugs. Wherever he looks John sees human potential blocked by cruel realities. He gives of himself but can find no one to truly appreciate him.

 

Finally there’s the landlord’s daughter Mick Kelly (Sondra Locke), a teenager who dreams of a musical career her father cannot possibly afford. John befriends her. Of all of John’s friends, Mick is the one tries to give something back to him. He enjoys her birthday party but her excited attempt to share her interest in music is doomed — no matter how much he cares, John can’t hear the notes. John Singer lives among a multitude of people, but feels a terrible spiritual isolation.

 

The show maintains a low-key short story feeling throughout. James Wong Howe’s attractive cinematography remains in keeping with the film’s realistic aims. Dave Grusin’s evocative music score is a good fit as well. Director Miller chose not to bring attention to himself with camera gimmicks, and instead stays close to his actors at all times. It’s a remarkable grouping of talent. Stacy Keach and Cicely Tyson would soon become well known stars while Chuck McCann saw success in comedy roles. Percy Rodriguez’ distinctive profondo basso voice is in itself famous, from the narration for the trailers for Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. 

 

Some people find THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER to be heartbreaking. It’s certainly more downbeat than I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER, which showed yesterday to an appreciative TCM Fest crowd. Author McCullers wasn’t prone to uplifting endings, and screenwriter Thomas C. Ryan stayed close to her spirit. As a story about human values, this one’s an excellent choice for revival.

 

Speaking before the screening of THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER at the Egyptian today, star Alan Arkin held the crowd in awe. His screen characterizations have always been vivid, and varied: a Puerto Rican busboy in Popi,  a diabolical killer in Wait Until Dark, and Joseph Heller’s John Yossarian in Catch-22.  Ben Mankiewicz served as host for the extended interview. Arkin discussed his father’s blacklisting as a Los Angeles schoolteacher, the American Sign Language in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and the difficulties of performing in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. Arkin conveyed a nice philosophical idea or two, in between some verbal sparring with Mankiewicz, who started the ball rolling by saying the actor had been described as ‘moderately cantankerous.’ Frankly, the discussion ended far too soon.

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Sunday In L.A.

It’s day four at the TCM Classic Film Festival, and we’re spending this Sunday morning in Hollywood with eyes on another city—the Big Apple, with a screening of the romantic… Read more »

It’s day four at the TCM Classic Film Festival, and we’re spending this Sunday morning in Hollywood with eyes on another city—the Big Apple, with a screening of the romantic comedy SUNDAY IN NEW YORK (1963). The film stars a young Jane Fonda, as a woman unsure about the changing sexual mores of the time. We join her as she explores 1960s Manhattan and tests the rules of romance with reporter Rod Taylor, who she meets on a Fifth Avenue Bus. Cliff Robertson also co-stars as Fonda’s over-protective brother.

sundayinnewyork2Today’s screening of a beautiful 35mm print was introduced by Robert Osborne. Osborne joked that he was stunned to see such a full house at 10 AM on a Sunday morning. He asked festivalgoers why they’d chosen to see SUNDAY IN NEW YORK today. One woman spoke about seeing the movie while growing up in New Jersey—and how she always wanted to go into the city, but her parents wouldn’t take her. SUNDAY IN NEW YORK gave her a glimpse of that world. It was clear that today’s audience had great affection for the film. They clapped at even the mention of the stars’ names. Robert Osborne spoke warmly about Jane Fonda. He admitted that he was a little nervous sitting down with Fonda for her Private Screenings interview. He was afraid she would want to talk politics and not something trivial like movies. But when Osborne broached the subject of her films, Fonda was relieved. “Oh thank God,” she said. “I’m never asked about my movies. I love my movies.”

SUNDAY IN NEW YORK was only Jane Fonda’s sixth film. Though she was a Hollywood legacy, the daughter of screen great Henry Fonda, Jane was not initially interested in following in her father’s footsteps. It was director Joshua Logan (a family friend who had worked with Henry Fonda on Mister Roberts) that convinced her to appear on stage alongside her dad in The Country Girl at the Omaha Community Theatre in 1954. Fonda then met acting coach Lee Strasberg in 1958 and soon joined the Actors Studio. It was a move that changed her life. As Fonda put it, “I went to the Actors Studio and Lee Strasberg told me I had talent. Real talent. It was the first time that anyone, except my father — who had to say so — told me I was good. At anything. It was a turning point in my life. I went to bed thinking about acting. I woke up thinking about acting. It was like the roof had come off my life.”

sundayinnewyorkIn 1960, Jane Fonda made her first film (Tall Story opposite Anthony Perkins) and appeared in her first Broadway play (There Was a Crooked Girl). Both were directed by Joshua Logan. From there, Fonda never looked back. She began working consistently in Hollywood and had seemingly fewer growing pains than most young actors trying to jump start a movie career. The next few years brought a series of well respected films and some big name co-stars: Fonda shared the screen with Laurence Harvey, Anne Baxter and Barbara Stanwyck in Walk on the Wild Side (1962), set in a New Orleans bordello; she played a newlywed married to Korean War vet Anthony Franciosa in Period of Adjustment (1962); and co-starred with Peter Finch in the vacation romance In the Cool of the Day (1963).

Of course Fonda would go on to a long, and sometimes controversial career—that included two Oscar wins (for Klute in 1971 and Coming Home in 1978). But SUNDAY IN NEW YORK, which was the next film she made, marked another crucial turning point. Fonda has said that SUNDAY IN NEW YORK was the first time she enjoyed making a movie—and the first time she thought she was any good at acting. The rest of us knew it all along.

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A Tribute to Judy Garland

Judy Garland may be perhaps one of the most (if not the most) iconic movie stars and performers of all time—and I don’t think that’s a statement that many people… Read more »

meetmeinstlouis4Judy Garland may be perhaps one of the most (if not the most) iconic movie stars and performers of all time—and I don’t think that’s a statement that many people would dispute. Over a career that spanned nearly five decades, Garland showcased talent for song, dance, comedy and drama, you name it, though it is for her musicals that she is best remembered.
A large crowd gathered in Club TCM on Sunday afternoon to pay tribute to the legend (and, rather fittingly, just hours before tonight’s showing of The Wizard of Oz). I have always been a fan of Garland—like many people discovering her as a child during televised broadcasts of Oz and coming to love her with frequent viewings of Meet Me in St. Louis, The Harvey Girls and The Pirate—but being part of a crowd of fans, all gathered in celebration of her work, and to see clips that truly showcased her many talents, allowed everyone in the room to appreciate her in a new light.
The tribute was put together and hosted by John Fricke and featured clips that showcased her entire career from the more familiar (A Star is Born) to her dramatic turn in The Clock through to The Judy Garland Show (all in all, the videos roughly spanned the years 1929-1963). Fricke is the world’s per-eminent historian/author on The Wizard of Oz and Judy Garland, who won an Emmy in 2004 as a co-producer on PBS American Masters program, Judy Garland: By Myself.  He has also served as president, vice president and member of the board of directors for the International Wizard of Oz Club (for which he has also acted as editor in chief and contributing editor for its magazine, The Baum Bugle). His books include 100 Years of Oz: A Century of Classic Images, The Wizard of Oz: The Official 50th Anniversary Pictorial History, Judy Garland: World’s Greatest Entertainer, Judy: A Legendary Film Career, Judy Garland: A Portrait in Art and Anecdote and The Wonderful World of Oz: An Illustrated History of the American Classic.
As Fricke himself noted when he first got on the stage he was “preaching to the converted here today” (a comment that was met with laughs and cheers) as such collective excitement and anticipation of the crowd was one that can only happen when a group of fans get together. What followed was a compilation of moments from her film and television career, broken into 7 segments ranging from one of her first appearances on film (1929′s  The Big Revue, with her sisters performing with her) to two performances from her 1960s television show. With each clip performance, the audience broke out into cheers and applause (which, according to Fricke, used to happen whenever her films were screened).
One of the more emotional moments from the piece came during the second segment, which focused on her work with frequent co-star Mickey Rooney. The clips were put together before Rooney’s passing last week, making one moment particularly moving to see: a clip from Garland’s first episode in which Rooney states that she “is the love of my life. My wife knows it, my wives know it.” And according to Fricke, when Garland was first approached to do the show she had one request, that Rooney had to do it with her. Getting to remember the work the two did together (all in all they appeared in 10 films together) was a fitting given that the day began with a Rooney tribute during a screening of National Velvet and will end with The Wizard of Oz.
But the moment that stood out most was a clip of Garland performing on her television show in which she sang “Old Man River” from Showboat (a film made after her time at MGM had ended). I have yet to have a chance to see all the episodes of the show—though I will most certainly be watching them now—and the power and beauty of Garland’s voice is on full display in this number. It was a truly emotional moment, one that the audience reacted to much more than they had for the others, starting to cheer as Garland hit her final, big note and continuing long after the clip had ended. It was the largest applause of any of the clips and a moment that everyone, not just Garland fans, should take the time to see.
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Edgar G. Ulmer breaks free of Poverty Row

And now for the rarest picture in the entire 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival.   HER SISTER’S SECRET is a recently revived feature by that most revered of independent filmmakers,… Read more »

And now for the rarest picture in the entire 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival.

 

HER SISTER’S SECRET is a recently revived feature by that most revered of independent filmmakers, Edgar G. Ulmer. Running afoul of the Universal brass around the time of his hit Karloff-Lugosi horror classic The Black Cat, Ulmer found himself unable to land a studio job. After assisting and designing for some of the greatest film artists of all time, Ulmer became something of a cinema gypsy, taking jobs wherever they could be found. He made regional-ethnic films for Yiddish and Ukrainian audiences, and eventually shot a tiny all-black production called Moon over Harlem. Even when Ulmer joined the tiny poverty row outfit Producer’s Releasing Corporation (PRC), his budgets and salary remained miniscule.

 

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But those in the know in the 1930s and ’40s recognized that Ulmer consistently turned out little artistic gems despite working with dime-store resources. The pictures were cheaply made but always with great care to casting and music. Ulmer’s directorial touches raised the bar for quality at PRC. Ulmer evoked a poetic Parisian atmosphere for next to nothing in his excellent Bluebeard, while most every film  fan knows his classic Detour as a downbeat existential masterpiece.

 

One of the last PRC releases before the company changed its name to Eagle-Lion, HER SISTER’S SECRET was filmed on a higher  budget, if one that would be considered merely adequate at the big studios. Even detractors describe the production as high-grade, and the trades were complimentary. Others couldn’t believe that PRC could make a movie as good as this, and one critic even wondered if the impressive Mardi Gras scenes that open the film, weren’t stock footage of some kind.

 

Ulmer persisted in his quest for quality no matter what the scale of the show. He brought in the great cinematographer Franz Planer (credited as Frank F. Planer), who gives the lighting a sculpted look, and helped engineer Ulmer’s expressive camera moves. The leading ladies Nancy Coleman (Kings Row) and Margaret Lindsay (Jezebel) are perfectly cast. Coleman had often been associated with desperate or emotionally stressed characters, and we keep wondering when and if her self control will break down.

 

The film is a remake of a 1938 French original called Conflit, and is squarely in the genre of the ‘women’s weepie’. Variety said that it had ‘strong femme appeal.’  In New Orleans local beauty Toni DuBois (Nancy Coleman) and soldier Dick Connolly (Phillip Reed) meet and fall in love during Mardi Gras. The morning after Dick proposes but Toni has doubts. They decide to return to Pepe’s Cafe in six weeks to prove that they’re serious about each other. Toni comes back ready to tell her lover that she’s pregnant with his child, but Dick doesn’t show. Toni then runs to New York to tell her married sister Renee DuBois Gordon her sad story, and a risky plan emerges. Renee hasn’t been able to have a child. They’ll go away together to New Mexico, swapping their identities. When they come back Renee will present the baby as her own. Toni is crushed but agrees for practical considerations. Back in New Orleans, her father tells her that “there is nothing you should ever regret in life except not having lived it”. Toni tries to stay away as promised, but after a couple of years she becomes obsessed with getting her child back again.

 

HER SISTER’S SECRET is an uncommonly sensitive look at a problem that the Production Code didn’t think acceptable as a film subject. Told completely from Toni’s point of view, the picture’s psychology is sound. There are no unexpected laughs at the film’s expense. Although the stigma of single motherhood has lessened, the behavior and attitudes we see have not really dated. Nancy Coleman goes through an entire range of guilty emotions without resorting to the usual weeping and wailing. Nor is the story an excuse for actress-on-actress thespic fireworks, like the cat fights seen in similar  movies with Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins. True to the dawning postwar tilt toward realism, Toni DuBois remains a serious woman facing real problems with a pragmatic attitude.

 

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Not since the early 1930s have we seen an Ulmer movie with so many impressive sets and such elegant camera work. Peter Bogdanovich explained that Edgar G’s earlier PRC movies were so strapped for time and money that the director made sure that every set had one blank wall. He’d save a few minutes at the end of the shooting schedule for a ‘wild card’ shoot. Actors would stand before the blank wall and recite dialogue from multiple scenes to provide cutaway reverse shots to be used throughout the movie. “Turn left, read this” — “turn right, and read this.” The shot wouldn’t even be slated — Ulmer would simply wave the actors through as if on an assembly line. On HER SISTER’S SECRET no such desperation was necessary; the film is beautifully directed in every way. For two or three pictures (The Strange Woman, Ruthless) the director would enjoy the luxury of this slightly bigger scale, before once again returning to cost-conscious films for independent producers.

 

HER SISTER’S SECRET was recently restored by the UCLA Archive, and looks dazzlingly perfect after existing for over 65 years in miserable 3rd generation TV prints.  Appearing before the screening were UCLA Archive director Jan-Christopher Horak, and Arianné Ulmer Cipes, the daughter of director Ulmer. Ms. Cipes has been seeing to the recovery and restoration of her father’s far-flung movies for over twenty years now. She explained that Ulmer was PRC’s star director yet earned a pittance. Directly after HER SISTER’S SECRET he was loaned out to an independent producer and discovered that PRC was pocketing a disproportionate slice of his pay. That ended his relationship with the studio. Arianné said that Margaret Lindsay was a close friend of the family. Although the film’s actors were all Americans, most of the creatives behind the camera were European émigrés. Her parents were constantly receiving new arrivals from overseas. Arianné was at this time a young child, and played a small role in her father’s next film, THE STRANGE WOMAN. In this picture an uncredited little girl has a scene delivering a crucial message at the outdoor cafe. Could it be  Arianné?  She didn’t say.

 

 

 

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Bewitched, Bothered and… Kim Novak

The classy Columbia bauble BELL BOOK AND CANDLE  is a playful romantic comedy about witchcraft in New York, starring a very attractive Kim Novak as a soulful sorceress and James Stewart… Read more »

The classy Columbia bauble BELL BOOK AND CANDLE  is a playful romantic comedy about witchcraft in New York, starring a very attractive Kim Novak as a soulful sorceress and James Stewart as the neighbor she snags with a minor magic spell. Based on the John Van Druten play, its witches and warlocks have been disassociated from any mention of the Devil or Satanism; Novak’s character has even gotten into the Christmas spirit. Forget the horrors of Rosemary’s Baby or even The 7th Victim; this witchery is little more than an unusual lifestyle choice.  Nope, the delightful folk we meet here are merely a little more eccentric than their nonconformist artistic neighbors in Greenwich Village.

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Fans today enjoy BELL BOOK AND CANDLE as a fanciful followup to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. It’s as if James Stewart’s Scotty Ferguson and Kim Novak’s Judy Barton were granted a special do-over card, an opportunity to re-run their romance under less traumatic conditions. He’s Shep Henderson, a book publisher. Novak is Gillian ‘Gil’ Holroyd, a dealer of exotic African and Oceanic art. A witch looking for passion can cast a spell over any mortal that catches her eye, but Gil is at least a bit tentative about it; she’s even considering abandoning her magic powers. Shep’s fiancée (Janice Rule) is shut out entirely as Gil, with the help of her  cat Pyewacket, draws Shep into an amorous trap. Looking on approvingly are Gil’s Aunt Queenie (Elsa Lanchester) and her brother Nicky (Jack Lemmon). Aunt Queenie uses her spells for her favorite pastime, snooping into other people’s business. The mischievous Nicky is addicted to childish pranks, but also employs the magic touch as a way of earning a living without holding down a job. Nicky recklessly takes the muckraking author Redlich (Ernie Kovacs) under his wing, promising him secret knowledge about the witch & warlock underground. This alarms Madame de Passe (Hermione Gingold), the wise elder member of the local coven.

 

Despite an age difference of 25 years, stars Stewart and Novak  generate major romantic chemistry. Just turning fifty, Stewart still carries a charge of attraction — those pastel sweaters help somehow — while Kim Novak is at her dreamy best at all times. As her Gil Holroyd is meant to have exquisite taste, there’s every reason for her to be a fashion plate at all times. And she’s also no slouch when it comes to the art of wearing soft, fuzzy sweaters. The only truly unbelievable idea in BELL BOOK AND CANDLE is that a magic spell would be required  to make Shep Henderson fall head over heels for the enchanting Gil.

 

BELL BOOK AND CANDLE is like a mild romantic intoxicant, the perfect diversion from reality. James Wong Howe’s soft Technicolor lensing and George Duning’s lush score remind us of their teaming on Novak’s breakthrough picture Picnic of three years before.  Richard Quine directed Novak’s first movie and would go on to direct two more, Strangers When We Meet and The Notorious Landlady. Filmed entirely on studio sets, the glossy picture gives us jazz sessions in a smoky coffee house called The Zodiac Club and the sight of Nicky using his black magic to make the street lamps flicker on and off.

 

Is there morality among witches? The terminally mischievous Nicky causes some alarm with his plan to collaborate with Redlich on a tell-all book about Greenwich Village witchery. Although increasingly disillusioned with magic, Gil joins with Aunt Queenie to keep Redlich’s book from progressing past the manuscript stage . It’s Jack Lemmon’s last major supporting role before leading player status arrived with his Billy Wilder movies. Lemmon gives his impish smile  a healthy workout, and even gets to perform on the bongoes.

 

BELL BOOK AND CANDLE is among Kim Novak’s best pictures, probably because the artistically motivated and unconventional Gil Holroyd character is quite like the actress in real life. We can easily imagine Ms. Novak lounging around in her hip-chick leotards and conversing with a favorite pet. In interviews Novak has claimed that she found Stewart to be personally irresistible, and the warm attraction shows on screen. After the heavy dose of  shock and tragedy in Vertigo, this romantic jaunt is a cozy time-out with two beloved idols.

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Kim Novak was a special guest two years ago for the TCM Fest’s gala screening of Vertigo. She returned tonight to the welcoming and appreciative TCM audience. Host Robert Osborne made a special note of pointing out Ms. Novak’s honesty in interviews, and she proceeded to express her dismay at what happened at the last year’s Oscar presentation. In the network television coverage Novak looked and sounded a bit unfocused, which hardly justified what followed: an ugly mini-storm of snide web posts and cheap jokes went viral on the web. It happened because an anxious Kim took a mild tranquilizer before the show, on an empty stomach. Osborne agreed that the cruel attitude toward celebrities on Oscar broadcasts has gotten out of hand, what with Liza Minnelli being pre-targeted for a cheap shot in this year’s show. Ms. Novak thanked the TCM crowd for understanding, and finished her interview to applause and calls of, “We love you, Kim!”

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TCM’s Ultimate Fan on The Naked City

As part of TCM’s twentieth anniversary celebrations Ultimate Fan Contest winner Tiffany Vazquez discussed one of her favorite films, director Jules Dassin’s THE NAKED CITY (1948), with Film Noir Foundation… Read more »

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As part of TCM’s twentieth anniversary celebrations Ultimate Fan Contest winner Tiffany Vazquez discussed one of her favorite films, director Jules Dassin’s THE NAKED CITY (1948), with Film Noir Foundation President Eddie Muller. Tiffany asked for a show of hands from the audience and many of the audience members in attendance were there to see THE NAKED CITY for the first time, myself included. Several of her Ultimate Fan runner ups were in attendance, cheering her on. Vazquez got a laugh from the crowd after Muller asked how many times she’d seen the film, and she responded ‘This year?’

A native of New York City, Tiffany not only responded to the film’s story, but to it’s gritty, honest portrayal of the city as an integral character within that story.  Currently living in the Bronx, and having grown up in Queens, Vazquez particularly appreciates the fact that THE NAKED CITY shows all five of the city’s boroughs, which few New York set films manage to do. She spoke about recognizing certain streets, landmarks and the 7 train that Detective Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor) takes home in the film. Recognizing these landmarks gave Vazquez a deeper personal connection to the film that gave her a sense of ownership that became more personal with each viewing. It should come as a surprise to now one that writer Malvin Wald was a native New Yorker himself.

With exterior shots filmed on location in the city – no small feat considering camera size and where the overall technology of filmmaking was in the late 194os – THE NAKED CITY has a documentary feel that goes beyond the look of the film and reverberates throughout the entire story. The film not only takes it’s title from a 1945 book of photography by Weegee, but the photographer was also hired as a visual consultant on the film. As the first true police procedural film, writer Malvin Wald spent a lot of time researching police work and going on ride alongs with officers. For his effort Wald received a nomination for Best Writing of a Motion Picture Story at the 1949 Academy Awards.

To borrow a line from producer Mark Hellinger’s narration, there are eight million stories in the naked city, and we are so pleased Tiffany Vasquez shared hers with all of us.

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Quincy Jones Scores Tonight at THE PAWNBROKER

A man with many major firsts to his credit, music legend Quincy Jones has made quite a splash at the TCM Classic Film Festival this year with an appearance for… Read more »

23736_001_7783A man with many major firsts to his credit, music legend Quincy Jones has made quite a splash at the TCM Classic Film Festival this year with an appearance for The Italian Job and a Club TCM discussion with Leonard Maltin. Now on Saturday night at the Egyptian Theater, it was TCM’s Robert Osborne’s turn to sit down with Jones for a Q&A about his first American film score.

pawnbroker2Shot in 1964 but unseen in America until the following year, THE PAWNBROKER smashed down the barriers of film censorship by depicting levels of nudity unimaginable under the guidelines of the Production Code. An exception was granted over the objections of some Code rating members, and the gesture opened the floodgates that would quickly lead to more boundary-pushing films like Blow-up that ultimately spelled the demise of the Code entirely.

Sidney Lumet was one of two Sidneys who had a major impact on Jones’s career (the other being Poitier), and Jones noted in his talk that both of them got him gigs on five films. Sipping on a glass of wine, Jones remembered how Lumet (then mostly known for TV directing) stuck up for him and paved the way for Jones to become the first African-American film composer for studio films. “Universal didn’t even have blacks in the kitchen,” Jones recalled about his next big break on Mirage, but breaking down those doors led to a wide variety of assignments. Among his favorites, he cited this film and In the Heat of the Night as favorites in a career filled with drama, particularly a turbulent encounter on The Hot Rock.

The recipient of 27 Grammys was also reflective, noting that to him a movie was “a song and a story. The rest is all accoutrements.” He also revealed that he usually composed far more than he would actually use because of fears that he would be replaced, a fate he saw befall many of his colleagues. The most famous was Bernard Herrmann, whom he saw being fired from Torn Curtain, a process he recalled as being “very painful.”

Almost everyone in the audience raised a hand when asked by Osborne “who hasn’t seen the movie we’re showing tonight?,” which is understandable given that it was out of circulation on home video for decades until earlier this year. The film still packs a mighty punch with Rod Steiger delivering a master class of a performance as the title character, a Holocaust survivor slowly cracking years later after losing his family and finding it hard to assimilate into a world still in flux. Every powerful expression and gesture is impeccably accompanied by Jones’s music, a blend of lyricism and sinister jazz that makes the film still feel as fresh now as the day it first butted heads with the powers that be.

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Sunday Re-Cap

TCM is proud to present this exciting recap of events from Saturday, April 12, day three of the 5th TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood. To view more festival videos,… Read more »

TCM is proud to present this exciting recap of events from Saturday, April 12, day three of the 5th TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood. To view more festival videos, check out our video gallery.

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Jerry Lewis Brings the Flahoyvin to the TCMCFF

The unstoppable Jerry Lewis sat down for an interview with Illeana Douglas Saturday evening at the El Capitan, prior to a screening of THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (1963).  In her introduction… Read more »

nuttyprofessor_1963_mp_hs_1200The unstoppable Jerry Lewis sat down for an interview with Illeana Douglas Saturday evening at the El Capitan, prior to a screening of THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (1963).  In her introduction Douglas advised the audience to “fasten your seatbelts,” but the 88-year-old comic was mostly restrained and serious during the discussion.  (Perhaps Jerry was better able to indulge in hijinks on Saturday morning during the courtyard handprint ceremony, at which he bit Quentin Tarantino on the hand!)

Lewis and Douglas exhibited a natural rapport and the intelligent questions brought up topics that ranged from Lewis’ childhood all the way through the present day and Jerry’s upcoming starring role in the film Max Rose, in which Douglas has a supporting role.  Here are a few highlights of the conversation:

- Asked what he thought of the enthusiastic standing ovation he received as he walked out on the El Capitan stage, Jerry replied, “Most of these people were invited by my attorney.”

- In response to a question about his father, Jerry reminisced about his happy childhood in New Jersey and said his father was “…very upbeat; positive.  He rooted for strange people.”

- Jerry described his first screen test with Dean Martin, made for producer Hal Wallis and Paramount.  He knew it was a terrible test because “I was smiling at the crew and they weren’t smiling back.”  Jerry called Wallis that night and said he’d leave town, but “…take good care of my partner.”  Wallis instead suggested that Jerry write material for a new screen test, so Jerry got together with My Friend Irma (1949) screenwriter Cy Howard and did just that.  The second test was “incredible.”

- Illeana Douglas asked Jerry which Martin & Lewis movie he would recommend watching to see what Martin & Lewis was all about.  Lewis answered without hesitation:  The Stooge (1952).

- When Dean and Jerry split (10 years to the day after they got together), “it came as a lightning bolt for Wallis,” because he had a contract with the pair as a team, not as individuals.

- Jerry revealed that the song “By Myself” — performed in his first solo film The Delicate Delinquent (1957) –was a deliberate message to the team’s fans about the split, and “the reaction to it was very good.”

- Jerry once asked Billy Wilder to direct him in The Bellboy (1960), but Wilder said, “You can’t afford what I get as a director… Why don’t YOU direct it?”

- When directing, Jerry had grandstands built in the studio and invited fans to come in and watch filming.  He did this “…because the crew loved it.”  He also said that once a good take was captured, many funny routines were done one last time so that the crowd in the stands could laugh without ruining the take.

- Asked about his dance scenes in his films, Jerry said he included them because “when you’re dancing, you’re giving the audience a chance to take a deep breath.”

- While acting in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982), Scorsese asked Jerry to direct the TV-show-within-the-movie scenes because Scorsese had no experience with television.

- As for THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, Douglas started to ask Jerry what he thought of the “Buddy Love” character and before she could even finish the question, Jerry yelled, “I HATED ‘IM!”  Nevertheless, Lewis said that the studio received thousands of pieces of mail from people wondering how to contact “Buddy”!

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Fun with the Filthy Rich in WRITTEN ON THE WIND

For sheer lurid delirium, it would be tough to beat the opening credits of Douglas Sirk’s 1956 fever dream, WRITTEN ON THE WIND. The names of the four principals are… Read more »

WrittenOnTheWind_TR_thumbFor sheer lurid delirium, it would be tough to beat the opening credits of Douglas Sirk’s 1956 fever dream, WRITTEN ON THE WIND. The names of the four principals are emblazoned across the actors’ faces as booze-swilling oil tycoon Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack) drunkenly veers his car up to a mansion, pistol in hand, while his best friend, Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson) watches anxiously through a window. Then there’s Kyle’s wife, Lucy (Lauren Bacall) in the background collapsing to the floor, while Mitch’s sister, Marylee (Dorothy Malone), gazes at the camera with only her eyes illuminated. A shot rings out, a violent gust of wind blows torrents of leaves into the foyer, and a man’s silhouette stumbles dying into the driveway. A few fluttering calendar pages nearby and we jump back to how the whole story started…

With that killer teaser, audiences today were hooked with a gloriously saturated 35mm presentation of this central installment in Sirk’s lauded ‘50s string of hyper-stylized dramas, ranking alongside such other favorites as All That Heaven Allows, Magnificent Obsession, and Imitation of Life. In fact, this one was so effective that Hudson, Stack, and Malone were reunited the next year for another essential Sirk story of dysfunctional marriage and disillusion, The Tarnished Angels.    writtenonthewind

Today’s screening was introduced by Gregg Kilday, film editor for the Hollywood Reporter, who prepared newcomers for the film’s bold color scheme (with one hotel sporting “the pinkest corridors you’ve ever seen”) and remarked on the prevalence of guns in the story, which would probably be interpreted today as part of America’s love of firearms.

However, this being a Sirk film, the guns are used here more as Freudian symbols. Sexually troubled Kyle sleeps with a tiny little pistol under his pillow, while Mitch has a real man’s handgun (and handily lands every punch he throws in the film’s two fistfight scenes) and the Hadley patriarch (Robert Keith) tucks away an old-fashioned revolver. Incidentally, the Robert Wilder source novel had been bandied around at Universal for nearly a decade, originally featuring different character names and a setting in North Carolina rather than Texas.

In 1947, the Production Code cautioned the studio in 1947 that the sexual dysfunction of Tony (later changed to Kyle) be specifically cited as sterility rather than impotence, but in the final film the doctor tells him he will have problems conceiving a baby because of “a weakness” shown in his test results. (Stack stumbling away only to look horrified by a young boy enthusiastically thrusting a mechanical horse is easily one of the most outrageous moments in the Sirk canon.) This “weakness” of course reinforces the film’s most daring subtext, a psychosexual love triangle between Mitch, Kyle, and Marylee. As kids, all three of them used to go “down by the river” where they would swim “in the raw,” and now Marylee’s picking up random strange men in public and hanging out on the trashy side of town just to get a jealous rise out of Mitch. Meanwhile Kyle deliriously calls out Mitch’s name in his sleep and barely seems able to consummate a relationship with his wife, while Mitch… well, he expresses an attraction for Lucy a couple of times, but his constant rebuttals to Marylee’s advances carry an entirely different meaning on their own.

While everyone seems to be on the right Sirkian wavelength here, few would argue that it’s Malone who gets top acting honors here. From her tearful courtroom scene to the hallucinatory scene in which her dad takes a tumble down the stairs while she does a frenzied mambo, it’s really her show every time she appears on screen. She deservedly earned an Oscar for her performance, but unfortunately her film career had mostly stalled out by the end of the decade with a long stint on Peyton Place waiting on TV instead. In whatever incarnation you meet her, however, Malone is a knockout force of nature in front of the camera and perhaps the perfect physical embodiment of the tempestuous forces lurking at the heart of Sirk’s iconic films.

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Dancing Up a Storm

Thanks to a recent resurgence of interest on YouTube and various social media venues, it’s now a given that the Nicholas Brothers’ staggering dance number at the end of STORMY… Read more »

StormyWeather_MBDSTWE_EC020_HThanks to a recent resurgence of interest on YouTube and various social media venues, it’s now a given that the Nicholas Brothers’ staggering dance number at the end of STORMY WEATHER (1943) still holds its place for current generations as one of the best ever put on film, and most likely the best. As uplifting, energetic, and staggeringly accomplished as any other physical feat performed in front of a camera, this is still one from the ages and, as proven at this afternoon’s screening of the film at the Chinese Multiplex, a showstopper in the greatest sense that earns a thunderous round of applause.stormy_weather_poster

That said, there’s still so much more to enjoy in this, a watershed film in the history of African-American cinema and the movie musical as a whole. Film historian Donald Bogle (returning after yesterday’s screening of Imitation of Life) helpfully pointed out that the reason studios finally decided to bankroll two splashy black-cast musicals in 1943 (the other being Cabin in the Sky, also starring the lustrous Lena Horne) was because at the height of World War II, scores of black G.I.s were coming home (either temporarily or for good) and longing for respectable presentations of themselves on movie screens. In fact, it had been eight years since the last big studio all-black film, The Green Pastures, and it was way past time for another.

And wow, did Fox deliver with this one. The plot itself is a mere wisp, reminiscent in tone to the studio’s The Gang’s All Here from the same year, with Bill “Bonjangles” Robinson (in his last film) regaling his family with stories about how he got his start after an entertainment magazine shows up in the mail with him on the cover. The film jumps through time starting back in World War I, when he and his buddy Gabe (Dooley Wilson, whose role as Sam in Casablanca gets a fun in-joke reference) engage in deception and mischief at a military ball by claiming to know big entertainer Chick Bailey (Emmett “Babe” Wallace). From there Bill’s path intersects over the years through various musical gigs with singer/dancer Selina Rogers (Horne), while other performers get their time in the spotlight.

stormyweatherOstensibly there’s supposed to be some kind of love story between Robinson and Horne, but it’s completely blown aside by the array of musical talent here. Cab Calloway and a scene-stealing Fats Waller (doing a killer “Ain’t Misbehavin’”) are great headliners, of course, and there’s a dreamy rendition of the title song by Horne on stage that segues into one of those physically impossible routines you only find in movie musicals, complete with an elaborate dance by Katherine Dunham and Her Troupe.

The screening itself with a gorgeous world premiere digital presentation in perfect condition from the original negative (let’s hope for a Blu-ray soon!), and there was an extra surprise afterwards when Bruce Goldstein (who worked on a documentary about the Nicholas Brothers) appeared to show an amazing rarity: a reunion of Fayard and Harold Nicholas for a 1964 episode of The Hollywood Palace, performing the staircase finale for a live audience. Needless to say, it earned a rousing reception all over again.

In a moving moment, many of the Nicholas Brothers’ relatives were in the audience, too, and stood up to greet the packed audience – with a home movie snippet showing a three-year-old Tony Nicholas, Fayard’s son, doing some pretty impressive splits himself! In short, it was a wonderful event no one in the room will ever forget.

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“Everybody Jump in the Pool!”

It was that kind of night as TCM closed out Saturday with a poolside screening of THE MUPPET MOVIE (1979) at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. TCM’s Essentials Jr. host Bill… Read more »

It was that kind of night as TCM closed out Saturday with a poolside screening of THE MUPPET MOVIE (1979) at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. TCM’s Essentials Jr. host Bill Hader was on hand to introduce the film. Right out of the gate he got the audience laughing—“’The Rainbow Connection’ and everyone jump in the pool. You think I’m kidding? I’m not,” Hader quipped. He spoke affectionately about THE MUPPET MOVIE, remembering that he had it on vhs as a kid, along with The Great Muppet Caper (1981). Hader and his sisters used to “play MUPPET MOVIE” it seems. And he was always Animal (his first impression). Years later, Hader would play Animal on Saturday Night Live—it was a memorable moment, reviving his first ever impression on his favorite show.

muppetmovie2Hader brought up a couple of interesting points about THE MUPPET MOVIE. First, he mentioned director James Frawley and how this was the only time an “outsider” (meaning someone other than a Henson or Frank Oz) directed one of the early Muppet theatricals. Hader warned about going down a wormhole on YouTube watching Frawley’s many credits, among them a number of Monkees episodes that he directed (something like 28) and (according to Hader) a bizarre episode of Columbo. Frawley did work primarily as a television director, putting his stamp on shows that ranged from That Girl to Cagney and Lacey to, most recently, Grey’s Anatomy. But, in addition to THE MUPPET MOVIE, Frawley did have another notable big screen credit—the disaster movie spoof, which has become something of a cult film, The Big Bus (1976).

Hader also made note of THE MUPPET MOVIE’s classic star cameos. He joked that Orson Welles famously said of his appearance as studio head Lew Lord in the movie–“this is his best work.” Okay, so probably not. But the point is still a good one. There is an unbelievable collection of star cameos in THE MUPPET MOVIE. This was the era when we still had so many of the greats with us. When you could just call up the likes of Orson Welles and ask if he’d like a cameo in your movie. Among the classic folks that turn up in the film: Edgar Bergan (and Charlie McCarthy), Mel Brooks, James Coburn, Bob Hope and Milton Berle.

THE MUPPET MOVIE earned two Oscar nominations, for Best Score and for “The Rainbow Connection” as Best Song. It was number ten at the box office for 1979, doing well enough to establish a Muppet Movie franchise. A number of live-action features have followed, including The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984), Muppet Treasure Island (1996) and the film currently in theatres, starring Tina Fey and Ricky Gervais, Muppets Most Wanted (2014)

And as for jumping in the pool, I didn’t see any takers…but the night is still young.

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Ginger and Sally Will Check Your Hat

HAT CHECK GIRL (1932) sounds pretty swell on paper: it has a solid pre-Code release year, a snappy-sounding 64-minute running time, sexy stars Ginger Rogers and Sally Eilers, and a… Read more »

hatcheckgirlHAT CHECK GIRL (1932) sounds pretty swell on paper: it has a solid pre-Code release year, a snappy-sounding 64-minute running time, sexy stars Ginger Rogers and Sally Eilers, and a plot involving blackmail and bootlegging. And yet… as seen tonight in a world premiere restoration from the Museum of Modern Art (introduced by MoMA’s Katie Trainor and Anne Morra), the picture seemed a tad disappointing. Perhaps we’re spoiled by the availability of truly great pre-Code films like Baby Face, Red-Headed Woman and Employees’ Entrance (which screened here Friday night), but HAT CHECK GIRL, while entertaining, does lack a bit in the oomph department. It certainly has its share of enjoyably racy moments, and it boasts some imaginative camerawork, but the story is not well-defined and the film runs out of gas before its hour is up.

Things get off to a promising pre-Code start, however, with an image of a horse’s rear end combined with a love song on the soundtrack. This might well have been a spoof of the opening shot of Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, which was already in production when this film started rolling.  Very quickly, Sidney Lanfield goes on to fill his movie frame with bare legs and lingerie, as the hat check girls (Ginger Rogers and Sally Eilers) dress and undress.

Eilers is the star of the film and the central character, and the plot concerns a tension between her romance with a playboy millionaire (Ben Lyon) and her job working at a nightclub run by bootleggers. Her boss wants her to sell booze, but Eilers is determined to remain straight; in fact, the story presents her with one temptation to sell out after another. Rogers, on the other hand, is a bad girl here and gets all the best lines, as in a scene on the subway train when a man puts the moves on her and even feels her leg. She pushes his hand away and says, “I must be the depression that everybody’s feeling!”hatcheckgirl2

This was Rogers’s tenth feature, and even though she’d played leads in three pictures already, she was relegated by Fox to a supporting role here. But she is by far the liveliest element of this movie, to the point that I wished it were about her instead of Eilers. As Rogers gradually disappears from the story, her presence is missed.  She shows so much spark that it’s a wonder it took so long for her career to really kick into high gear. Flying Down to Rio was still eleven films away.

All this is not to disparage Sally Eilers. On the contrary, Eilers was a popular and beautiful star of the era, and even today, when fans discover her work, they usually want to track down more of it. She’s memorable in films like The Black Camel, Central Airport, Remember Last Night?, and most of all, director Frank Borzage’s Bad Girl. Sadly, Eilers’s career sputtered out in the mid-1930s and she was relegated to smaller roles until her final appearance in 1950.

HAT CHECK GIRL got mixed reviews in 1932. Photoplay said, “The story is old, but the treatment is not. It is all done with so much sparkle and pep.” Variety praised Rogers (“she delivers”), as well as Eilers (“always better than her part”) and Ben Lyon (“may lead to a new chapter of picture life for him”), but criticized the film for being simply the latest in a long line of “scandal” programmers.  “When things get slow,” Variety complained, “[Eilers] starts stripping… After the first peeling, which occurs before the picture has gone five minutes, she takes two encores.”

Little did Variety realize that 80 years later, fans of pre-Code movies would find that description to be not a criticism but a ringing endorsement!  Still, I have to say that Variety was right in assessing HAT CHECK GIRL to be a bit too slow and routine. It’s not bad, but it’s not a true hidden gem.

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It’s the Good version of The Great Gatsby

The 1-sheet poster for Paramount’s 1949 THE GREAT GATSBY tells the tale: Alan Ladd’s Gatsby is pictured not in a dinner jacket, nor in one of those famous shirts that… Read more »

The 1-sheet poster for Paramount’s 1949 THE GREAT GATSBY tells the tale: Alan Ladd’s Gatsby is pictured not in a dinner jacket, nor in one of those famous shirts that he tosses on the bed for Daisy to giggle at, but in a rumpled trench coat. Yes, this is the film noir Gatsby, that emphasizes the murder angle with occasional low-key mysterioso lighting. Noir icon Elisha Cook Jr. even appears playing a piano, further cluing us into the somewhat re-directed emphasis given F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American novel.

 

This B&W GATSBY has been wrongfully slighted for a number of reasons. Literal-minded viewers saw the thriller elements and rolled their eyes at the lack of culture in Hollywood. When Paramount remade the book in 1974 with Robert Redford, this Alan Ladd version was shelved and almost entirely forgotten. Only in the last couple of years has it come to light again courtesy of new prints struck for use in the Film Noir Foundation’s City Noir touring retrospective screenings.   Yes, the ’49 GREAT GATSBY pulls the gangland past of Jay Gatsby front and center, making what was a dreamy, somewhat apocryphal mystery into the story of a crook who almost stayed clear of his past. To reveal Gatsby’s backstory, the script uses a Citizen Kane- style flashback structure. Thus we get a full-on Roaring 20s montage plus a gangland shootout between speeding cars. In 1949 it was already necessary to ‘explain’ the context of the Jazz Age just two decades removed.

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As Nick Carroway (Macdonald Carey) is no longer the narrative conduit to Gatsby, the story does play as a more conventional thriller. Barry Sullivan is the rich but boorish Tom Buchanan, and Betty Field very interesting as Buchanan’s wife and Gatsby’s lost love, Daisy. Ms. Field of course cannot fully flesh out the book’s Daisy; that would require being both a real person and the phantom of desire that inhabits Gatsby’s obsessions. On film, a green light across the bay has difficulty being more significant than a green light, unless one buries it in voice-over narration. Doing so did the ’74 Redford version no favors.

 

The return of the ‘noir’ GREAT GATSBY makes it clear that Alan Ladd is almost perfect casting for Fitzgerald’s title character. Ladd is beautiful, with fine features, and he has the relaxed demeanor of someone who has trained himself to be casually self-confident in public. Yet we can all sense that Ladd is also no pushover; it’s credible that he could have been a charismatic tough-guy engaged in criminal activity.   As has been pointed out by more than one biographer, Alan Ladd and Jay Gatsby share in common humble origins and a less-than-privileged early life. Ladd didn’t always have a proper home. He was always cognizant of his success and generous to his fans. He was also noted for not adopting common movie star behaviors. Filming was always serious business and he did his best to be prepared and get along with his colleagues. In contrast, Robert Redford grew up in a fairly well-to-do environment. When we look at his Gatsby, there doesn’t seem to be any depth to his feelings; the character has a past only because the Carroway character keeps saying so.  Alan Ladd is the real deal.

 

Also in the cast is Shelley Winters as Myrtle Wilson, the unfaithful wife of a cuckolded garage mechanic (Howard Da Silva). Ruth Hussey is Daisy’s friend and Nick Carroway’s social companion. Respected writers Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum did the screenplay adaptation. When writers have sought to assign blame for the commercial failure of the show, they frequently turn to Ellliott Nugent, who is almost exclusively known for comedies, some of them starring Bob Hope: The Cat and the Canary, Up in Arms, My Favorite Brunette. In all fairness, director Nugent did a fine job… the original proposed director John Farrow might not have done better.

 

greatgatsby3

This afternoon THE GREAT GATSBY was introduced by Robert Osborne, who has been trying to get the film for TCM use for years — it and SHANE are his favorite Ladd pictures, and were Ladd’s own personal favorites of his own work. Alan Ladd sometimes brought his well-behaved children to the set, and they watched quietly while he worked. Osborne’s guest today was actor and producer David Ladd, Alan’s son. He was only one year old during the filming but told us about later 16mm screenings in the family’s projection room. David is equally happy to see this newly -accessible GATSBY back before the public once again.

One curious detail is the movie’s broken flashback structure. It begins in 1949, when the older Nick Carroway and Jordan Baker, now married revisit Jay Gatsby’s grave. We never actually return to to 1949 to ‘release’ the first flashback — the film instead finishes at a funeral in 1928. Very strange, indeed.

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I Never Sang For My Father

The arrival of the ratings system in 1968 didn’t just open up American movies to violence and sex. The ‘adult themes’ that had been discouraged since 1934 included frank appraisals… Read more »

The arrival of the ratings system in 1968 didn’t just open up American movies to violence and sex. The ‘adult themes’ that had been discouraged since 1934 included frank appraisals of life as it is really lived, including the less flattering aspects. In other words, the Dream Factory gave a little ground to more realistic stories about less-than-perfect people.

The late ‘60s saw a number of short story and play adaptations that looked at personal problems, dysfunctional families and the kind of strife that most of us come in contact with sometime in our lives. Joanne Woodward in Rachel, Rachel, Patricia Neal in The Subject Was Roses and Alan Arkin in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (also featured at this year’s festival) are three strong examples. Prominent among them is Gilbert Cates’ I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER from the play by Robert Anderson. Cates had produced it on Broadway without great success; Melvyn Douglas reportedly turned down the leading part because he thought it read too much like a soap opera. Cates spent several years bringing Anderson’s play to the big screen; with a few changes actor Douglas decided to sign on. Cates also succeeded in snagging Gene Hackman and Estelle Parsons, reunited from Bonnie & Clyde.

I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER is a non-glamorous slice-of-life tale about familiar but seemingly insoluble family problems, the kind that can dull relationships and blight lives. Widower Gene Garrison (Gene Hackman) wants to remarry and move to California and wants the blessing of his parents Tom and Margaret (Melvyn Douglas & Dorothy Stickney). The obstacle is and always has been the strong-willed Tom, who withholds his affection and acts up whenever he isn’t getting his way. Tom expects Geneto sacrifice his own happiness to take care of him, and Gene can’t bring himself to put up a fight. Gene’s older sister Alice (Estelle Parsons) has been estranged from Tom ever since she defied him by marrying  a Jew. She urges Gene to stand up for himself and make an emotional break while he can. But Gene still feels the need to be there for his father, whose health is beginning to fade. How much abuse can Gene take?

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The film doesn’t try for sweeping dramatic climaxes. The confrontations take place
on a more human scale. Alice accuses Gene of being a coward, when Gene simply doesn’t want to hurt his father. Old Tom refuses to see reason, and angrily insists on controlling his son. Refusing to tie up its conflicts in a neat bow, I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER is a demanding but rewarding emotional experience. The abandonment, duty, guilt and pain found here feels real.

The movie garnered wildly divergent critical reaction on release in 1970. Some reviewers were knocked out by its sensitivity and insights while others regarded it as a shapeless soap opera or a random stack of depressing scenes. A sequence depicting the deplorable conditions inside nursing homes is indeed depressing, but also courageously honest. Gene Garrison will surely have difficulties when it comes time to decide what to do with his father.

But the critics uniformly praised the film’s performances. Melvyn Douglas’s Tom Garrison is an accurate portrait of a proud and cantankerous old coot who falls asleep watching westerns, talks endlessly about himself and expects his grown children to jump when he calls. Gene Hackman’s son is the opposite of most of his screen characters. When he should speak up for himself, Gene Garrison instead fades into silence.

The movie offers no pat solutions for the problems it raises, which surely frustrated viewers demanding a happy ending. Gene finally draws a line but the old man is incapable of change. Bad parenting can be like a curse handed down from generation to generation.

In his autobiography, Melvyn Douglas relates a happy ending to his experience with the movie. Despite being nominated for an acting Oscar, Douglas still felt that the film’s drama was a little forced and unrelenting (this writer disagrees). Not long after the finish of shooting the veteran actor went through a bad spell with angina. He hadn’t been on the best of terms with his own grown son, who moved in to keep him company during his recovery.  According to Douglas, a genuine father-son re-bonding followed. He credited I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER with contributing to the repair of the relationship.

Introducing the film was the charming actress (and frequent TCM guest personality) Illeana Douglas. She mentioned her grandfather’s impressions of the ‘new actor’ Hackman, who would get into character by working himself up emotionally, or doing jumping jacks before the camera rolled. The old-school Douglas would just concentrate more on putting precise intonations into his dialogue.

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Richard Dreyfuss and THE GOODBYE GIRL

The 1970s were good to Richard Dreyfuss. He landed his first starring role in future George Lucas classic American Graffiti (1973). He quickly became a top box office earner in… Read more »

The 1970s were good to Richard Dreyfuss. He landed his first starring role in future George Lucas classic American Graffiti (1973). He quickly became a top box office earner in Spielberg blockbusters Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). And along the way he won a Best Actor Oscar for the Neil Simon romantic comedy THE GOODBYE GIRL (1977). Dreyfuss was only thirty years old when he won the Oscar for THE GOODBYE GIRL—the youngest man to win Best Actor at that point.

goodbyegirl2Not a bad run. Especially considering that Dreyfuss wasn’t even scheduled to play THE GOODBYE GIRL’s struggling actor Elliott at first. Neil Simon wrote original script for THE GOODBYE GIRL as a vehicle for his then wife Marsha Mason. It was based, in part, on the experiences of Dustin Hoffman as an up and coming young actor. Originally envisioned as a more serious piece, the intended male lead was Robert De Niro, with Mike Nichols slated to direct. When both dropped out early in the project, Simon went back to the drawing board. Several actors were considered, including Jack Nicholson and James Caan. But it wasn’t clicking. Until Richard Dreyfuss tested opposite Mason, and Simon knew he had a winner. “It doesn’t work, but they do,” he admitted. Simon re-wrote the script in six weeks, lightening it up and making it a meet cute where actor Elliott and single mom Paula (Mason) fall in love.

TCM screened a 35mm print of THE GOODBYE GIRL this afternoon at the Egyptian Theatre. Festival Honoree Dreyfuss was on hand for the occasion and spoke briefly with Ben Mankiewicz about his career and experiences on the film. Dreyfuss admitted that he turned down Spielberg and Jaws…twice. As he tells it, Dreyfuss says he was “naïve and thought great opportunities would happen all the time.” But then he saw his performance in the less-than-favorably received The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974) (which drew applause from the audience), and he thought his career was over. So he called up Spielberg and pretty much begged for the part. It seems that Dreyfuss’ reservations about Jaws (he thought it would be a hard shoot) ended up being right on the money. The production took months longer than expected.

Dreyfuss discussed the first script for THE GOODBYE GIRL and the reason it didn’t work—“it asked you to sympathize with the problems of a movie star.” And when asked if he thought he would win the Oscar, Dreyfuss replied, “Absolutely.” It seems he took a look at the other nominees—Woody Allen, Richard Burton, Marcello Mastroianni, John Travolta—and made an educated guess that he was mostly likely to take home the statue.

goodbyegirlBut despite Dreyfuss’ previous box office successes, no one had any real expectations of THE GOODBYE GIRL. Nevertheless, it became the first romantic comedy to break the $100 million mark. Along with Dreyfuss’ Oscar, THE GOODBYE GIRL received four other nominations, including Best Picture. It lost to Annie Hall (1977). Clearly it was a good year for romantic comedy. Neil Simon and Marsha Mason also received nominations in their respective categories. Simon went on to write four more films that featured Mason over the course of their ten year marriage: The Cheap Detective (1978), Chapter Two (1979), Only When I Laugh (1981) and Max Dugan Returns (1983). Simon and Dreyfuss would also reteam in 1993 for Lost in Yonkers.

And as for the success of THE GOODBYE GIRL, Dreyfuss summed it up this way, “it all came as a sweet surprise—we made people happy, we made money and we were honored. What’s wrong with that?”

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Mr. Deeds vs the City Cynics

  Frank Capra was one of the greatest communicators in Hollywood history. His formula for connecting with audiences mostly involved honoring everyday sentiments and keeping things simple: an uncomplicated idea… Read more »

 

Frank Capra was one of the greatest communicators in Hollywood history. His formula for connecting with audiences mostly involved honoring everyday sentiments and keeping things simple: an uncomplicated idea clearly expressed beats a complex theory any day. By the middle 1930s he’d proved himself a master of cynical comedies as well as tear-jerking stories of mother love. He even found ways to make racy sex content seem clean enough to satisfy the Production Code.

 

As Capra gained confidence his films took on stronger political ideas, most notably his impressive American Madness with Walter Huston. With 1936′s MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN Capra suddenly decided to extend his films into socially conscious territory. Starting with the simple idea of an Honest Man, Capra and his key writer Robert Riskin offer a full run-down about what’s good and bad in America.

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MR. DEEDS is the warm and charming story of Longfellow Deeds, a rural fellow (Gary Cooper) who plays the tuba and writes rhymes for greeting cards. Out of the blue, he inherits twenty million dollars. In the big city he’s treated like a fool, exploited by all manner of tricksters and patronized by ill-mannered intellectuals. Journalist-opportunist Babe Bennett (Jean Arthur) pretends to be broke to worm her way into Deeds’ confidence, and then secretly writes newspaper features about the millionaire rube. Dubbing him ‘The Cinderella Man’, Babe realizes that she’s fallen in love just as Longfellow goes sour on all the freeloaders and moochers that pester him. And when Deeds becomes disillusioned, it’s as if America’s future is in jeopardy. He’s become bigger than life, a beacon of hope.

 

MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN isn’t shy about assigning blame for the country’s problems. The system really comes down against Longfellow when he tries to use his fortune to help the poor. Crooked lawyers are easy targets, especially when the depressed Longfellow goes before a judge, his very sanity in question. Babe looks on helplessly.

 

“One man, one film” was Frank Capra’s motto and this is his first movie to carry his name above the title. MR. DEEDS also marked a new direction for Gary Cooper’s screen persona. Fully embracing his “ah shucks” side, Coop adopted an aggressively sincere, even cute set of behaviors. He’d bring them out whenever a story needed a masculine yet playful approach: Ball of Fire, Sergeant York, Good Sam, Friendly Persuasion. Capra claimed to have pulled the marvelous Jean Arthur from obscurity, when she had already been featured in several successful comedies, such as John Ford’s The Whole Town’s Talking. Arthur’s charm is such that her Babe Bennett can segue almost instantly from predatory cynic to emotional softie, and make us believe it.

 

Otherwise Capra’s show is less socially conscious than it is socially suspicious. Longfellow Deeds, the Honest Man, is set up as a naturally superior being. He’s a rather contradictory fellow, being both unsophisticated yet possessed of an instinctual rightness in everything he thinks and does. The show makes Longfellow seem superior to a group of fatuous intellectuals clearly meant to represent the famous Algonquin Round Table of writers and humorists. Here they’re petty and cruel, which is fair enough, but their overall boorishness doesn’t jibe with the remarkable wit and subtlety associated with Round Table regulars like Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woollcott.

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Most alarmingly, Deeds reserves for himself the right to lose control and sock anybody who upsets him. Punching people out is apparently the right of the superior Natural Man. This behavior guarantees big laughs, but the even in the comedy context Longfellow now seems rather disturbing. Other Hollywood directors were making films with openly Fascist sentiments, such as Cecil B. De Mille with his pro-vigilantism This Day and Age. Capra’s Longfellow Deeds isn’t exactly a Fascist hero, but he’s a step in that direction: rural values and intuitive justice are good, and corrupt urban phonies and intellectuals are bad.

 

The emotional curve of MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN does make an honest grab for the sentiments of the audience, even if the film patronizes the meek ‘little people’ that come to beg Longfellow to use his money for humane purposes. Capra and Riskin deliver terrific comedy and natural touches that endear us to his characters. By the time the lovebirds are properly reunited and everything has worked out for the popular good, MR. DEEDS has won us over entirely.

 

By this time Frank Capra’s directing style had hit its stride. His intimate methods gave his actors space to breathe, and Capra always chose performance over perfect visual continuity. With pros like Jean Arthur, George Bancroft, H.B. Warner and the inimitable Lionel Stander in top form, Capra’s ’30s movies are packed with delightful personalities. Capra would soon move deeper into populist demagoguery with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and the overwrought Meet John Doe. His ‘political’ films have an undeniable persuasive power, a quality Capra used brilliantly in his wartime Why We Fight  series of propaganda and moral documentaries.

 

Author and biographer Cari Beauchamp did the introduction for MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN, giving the audience the run-down on how Gary Cooper promoted himself into the Hollywood acting game. Part of that effort involved the help of well-placed women smitten by the actor, who Beauchamp clearly finds irresistible as well. Everybody loved Jean Arthur’s voice, but Capra reportedly had to break down Columbia boss Harry Cohn’s resistance, as the mogul thought her face was half-angel and half-horse. I don’t think anybody who saw her after MR. DEEDS ever shared that opinion.

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The immortal Maureen O’Hara, live at the TCM Classic Film Festival

Festival attendees who queued up for this afternoon’s screening of John Ford’s HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941) at the historical El Capitan Theatre would have been wholly satisfied just to see… Read more »

mohara_howgreenwas_complete_VDFestival attendees who queued up for this afternoon’s screening of John Ford’s HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941) at the historical El Capitan Theatre would have been wholly satisfied just to see that magnificent motion picture up on the big screen again or for the first time… but the icing on the cake for all 600-plus of us was the exclusive personal appearance by the film’s star, actress Maureen O’Hara, in coversation with TCM host Robert Osborne. Now 93 years old (though she had to take the word of a fan to tell her, having long lost lost interest in keeping score) and confined to a wheelchair, O’Hara nonetheless charmed the house with her native Irish wit (and accent!) and indomitable spirit, regaling us with stories about her irascible director John Ford, sharing her thoughts about long life and the life hereafter, and even calling out an audience member who sneezed to stand up so she could deliver a friendly benediction. In conversation on stage with TCM host Robert Osborne, O’Hara revealed that she has lost none of her star wattage, proving by turns fiercely intelligent, whimsical, motherly, and even laugh out loud funny… .

“Tell us about what it was like working with John Ford.”

“I thought I was here to talk about me!”

Though her time with us was limited, Maureen O’Hara did not disappoint expectations and was the grand recipient of two standing ovations, coming in and going out. Long live the Queen of Technicolor… who looks pretty darned beautiful in black and white, too.

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Celebrating 75 Years of THE WOMEN

It’s rather hard to believe that this year marks the 75th anniversary of George Cukor’s THE WOMEN—the acerbic wit and knockout performances by each of its leading ladies gives the… Read more »

It’s rather hard to believe that this year marks the 75th anniversary of George Cukor’s THE WOMEN—the acerbic wit and knockout performances by each of its leading ladies gives the film a timeless quality so that, no matter how many times you revisit the film, it always seems fresh and hysterically funny. And this freshness could not have been felt more than with the crowd that came to the El Capitan on Saturday night. While I had certainly enjoyed (and loved) the film in home viewings before, the cheers and laughs from the crowd helped me discover it anew (as did the print itself, which was the restored version soon to be featured on a Blu-ray release).

Prior to the start of the film, Ben Mankiewicz led a Q&A with actress and Oscar nominee Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect, Up in the Air) whose love for the film mirrored that of the audience. She was first exposed to the film when she was 12 years old during her run in High Society on Broadway (a part she received a Tony nominee for) by her co-stars. Her reaction to the film? She was “so in love with it…[she] wanted to be these women.” Her favorite of the women is Sylvia (played by Rosalind Russell) whom she called “the greatest character of all time.” And she even vowed that one day she would finally be able to reenact a certain move by Russell during the film—the moment that she slides a chair forward to sit using only her foot—in one of her films. But perhaps the most interesting question of the evening concerned not just the recent remake of the film, but those films that have tried to redo the fast-pace dialogue and snappy wit of films from the 1930s and 40s. In considering this, Kendrick said that today some people with “noble intentions have tried to make these movies..I wish it worked.” I think no one can dispute that this particular film became a classic because it was (and still is) a zenith of such style of filmmaking and features talent at the top of their game, both in front of and behind the camera.

The film is set amid Manhattan’s wealthy “ladies-who-lunch” set and the chaos that ensues when gossip breaks that virtuous loyal wife and mother Mary (Norma Shearer) has lost her husband to a golddigging shopgirl named Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford). Mary, surrounded by her gossipy friends, including Rosalind Russell, Phyllis Povah and Florence Nash, decides to head to Reno for a quickie divorce after listening to their so-called “advice.” There she meets the Countess de Lave (Mary Boland, in what I consider her best performance) and Miriam Aarons played by Paulette Goddard.

Much has been made of the film’s history—it came out in what many consider to be the greatest year in Hollywood history (1939) and rather unfortunately received no acting nominations at the Academy Awards. (It’s competition for the coveted Oscar statuette included Gone With the Wind, Wuthering Heights, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Ninotchka, Dark Victory, Gunga Din…the list goes on and on.)

The film was based on Clare Boothe  Luce’s hit Broadway play which was quickly snapped up by MGM with Norma Shearer in mind to star. Directed by George Cukor (known as Hollywood’s leading “women’s director”), the finished product features 130 speaking roles, all female, with sparkiling dialogue courtesy of screenwriter Anita Loos. The play’s racier references had to be toned down due to the production code, and Loos herself was on-set each day to quickly ad lib jokes as the cameras rolled. Of course, the film has also become known for the on-set rivalries occurring between its leading ladies (including the story during the filmmaking of Shearer’s coverage Crawford would sit off-camera knitting and never making eye contact with her co-star, a stunt which Cukor eventually made her apologize for). The rivalry between the two actress had been brewing for years—Shearer had been MGM’s queen of the lot, and often competed with Crawford for the most plumb roles. Shearer had also recently lost her husband, producer Irving Thalberg, but still retained much of the power that the studio had granted her since their marriage. Crawford meanwhile had recently been declared “Box Office Poison” and was looking for a part in a prestige production, after languishing for years in B projects at MGM and she had to fight for the part, even being discouraged from taking the role by L.B. Mayer.  Russell also had to fight for the part, as she was considered a dramatic actress meant for romances (or, as she was told, she was simply too beautiful for the role) but once Cukor saw her audition he knew she was right for the role of Sylvia. In the end the role would cement Russell’s reputation as a comedic actress and it was not long after that she would star in His Girl Friday.

Yet, much as I love the performances of Shearer, Crawford, Russell and the rest of the cast, not to mention the script by Loos, the real star of the film for me has always been costume designer Adrian, whose designs are on full display during the famous fashion show sequence of the film. Taking place in the midst of the catty in-fighting and just before the much anticipated first meeting of Shearer and Crawford, the fashion show stops the plot in its tracks—in Technicolor no less. It is the Adrian show, and before we ever see the stars wearing the costumes we, the audience, are given a chance to take a moment to fully appreciate them.

thewomen2In fact, the idea of the Hollywood costume designer as not just mimicking the famous fashion houses but userping it was a rather new concept in 1939 having been on the rise since the late 1920s. Before that, fashion had truly been dictated from Paris with the rise of the couture designer  at the turn-of-the-century, while in Hollywood many actresses still provided their own wardrobe for films. As the studio system began to create departments for art production and design, costumes were then placed in the hands of designers and craftsman who worked much like the designers in Paris but with story and character in mind. Not long after, Hollywood began to realize that these designs not only garnered attention but could also be used as a marketing tool. Soon copies of dresses and articles expounding how to dress like a star or character from a film were ubiquitous. And, as Adrian once put it, soon Hollywood and its costume designers and overtaken Paris as the center of the fashion: “Every Hollywood designer has had the experience of seeing one of his designs ignored when first flashed on the screen and then a season or two later become the vogue because it had the stamp of approval from Paris.” (quoted in Christian Esquevin’s 2008 book Adrian: Silver Screen to Custom Label).

By the time of THE WOMEN, Adrian was MGM’s leading designer and had already made his mark on the fashion world with the Letty Lynton dress (created for and worn by Crawford in that particular film). Copies of the dress were sold in department stores and the public clamored for more. Because of this, it is no surprise that MGM would look for ways to show off his designs more—in this case giving him his own “fashion show” that would be seen by audiences across the nation, not just the fashion elite in New York or Paris.

Looking at the restored Technicolor brings these designs even more to life—they are a time capsule of the time in which they were made, as much as they were about the characters who would eventually don them in the film’s climatic final sequence. It brought the costumes to life in a way that I had never been able to experience before, much as the crowd had allowed me to rediscover the joy and comedy that one feels when watching the film. I will probably never forget the beauty of Adrian’s designs or the cheers which greeted the first appearance of each actress on-screen, a fitting way to celebrate the 75th birthday of the film. So, in the spirit of this celebration, I’ll simply end by raising a toast not just to “L’amour, l’amour” but the diamond anniversary of this classic film.

 Paulette Goddard, Mary Boland and Norma Shearer

 

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Go Go GODZILLA!

Historians will likely spend the next few generations locked in heated debate about which particular film was the event, the defining moment, the raison d’etre (pardon my French) of the… Read more »

GodzillaTJO_470x350Historians will likely spend the next few generations locked in heated debate about which particular film was the event, the defining moment, the raison d’etre (pardon my French) of the fifth annual TCM Classic Film Festival… but for this reporter it had to be the world premiere of the new restoration of Ishiro Honda’s Gojira… better known on this side of the Pacific — and, really, everywhere at this late date — as GODZILLA (1954). If you will permit a personal note, the first feature film I ever saw as a new resident of Hollywood back in the summer of 2004 was a Godzilla picture. That year marked the 50th anniversary of Toho’s release of the original Gojira and the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre right here on Hollywood Boulevard played host to a Godzilla retrospective. On that June night ten years ago, my wife and I sat in for Godzilla: SOS Tokyo (2003) — the first G-movie I had seen on the big screen in probably thirty years. How fitting, then, nearly ten years to the date since I last saw a Godzilla movie on the big screen that I find myself back in the presence of G-ness, seeing a newly restored version of this game-changing kaiju eiga prepared in celebration of GODZILLA‘s 60th birthday.

GodzillamountainIt is important at this juncture to observe a distinction between Ishiro Honda’s original film and the 1956 American release titled Godzilla, King of the Monsters, which shucked about thirty minutes of the original film to shoe horn in a pre-Perry Mason Raymond Burr in the role of Yankee reporter Steve Martin, who becomes a sort of snap-on protagonist with the plot canted to occur before his horrified eyes while faceless Asian body doubles stand in for the film’s true stars (among them frequent Akira Kurosawa collaborator Takashi Shimura, as a concerned paleontologist who comports himself with Willy Loman-like gravitas while Tokyo crumbles around him) and a dubbed English language soundtrack makes it all work. The American re-edit was such a box office smash that it won a release in the film’s country of origin, where Japanese distributors attempted to persuade moviegoers that the film was now “100% more interesting.”

Godzilla-The-Japanese-Origi-thumb-300xauto-46037Though bearing the title GODZILLA, today’s screening showcased the Ishiro Honda original, restored to its former somber and exceedingly frank glory. On hand to present the film were film historian Eddy von Mueller and British director Gareth Edwards, whose elegeic 2010 indie Monsters won him the opportunity to direct a big budget American reboot of Godzilla, to be released this year as well under the joint ageis of Warner Brothers, Legendary Pictures, Disruption Entertainment, and Toho Company. Von Mueller dripped some honey on the packed house at the Egyptian Theatre this morning by averring that “TCM is the best friend the big screen ever had on the little screen,” which earned him brownie points with festival attendees while his knowledge of and passion for all things Godzilla earned him his place in the spotlight. Von Muller provided a thumbnail description of the 28-film Godzilla series spawned by Gojira before bringing on Edwards for a brief discussion of the enduring power of the film as a record of the anxieties and sorrows of the survivors (both literally and culturally) of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Knowing full well that the crowd was not gathered to hear them speak about Godzilla but to see the main attraction himself, the hosts kept their insights to a minimum before scrambling to get the hell out of Big G’s way. After the film, Rialto Pictures co-founder Bruce Goldstein (point man for the 60th anniversary theatrical revival of GODZILLA) took the stage to present an informative and highly amusing demonstration of what was lost to make Godzilla King of the Monsters palatable to American moviegoers, which also included a hilarious Power Point expose of how Raymond Burr’s character could never have witnessed all those scenes of destruction from a single office building window. This is the kind of thing G-Force lives for.

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Happy 50th Anniversary, MARY POPPINS

I have to admit, this one’s personal. I have a thing for MARY POPPINS (1964). I loved the movie as a kid. Still love it as an adult. And, since… Read more »

I have to admit, this one’s personal. I have a thing for MARY POPPINS (1964). I loved the movie as a kid. Still love it as an adult. And, since I saw Saving Mr. Banks (2013) (the Tom Hanks-Emma Thompson movie about author P.L. Travers and the making of MARY POPPINS) last year, I’ve been meaning to rewatch the film that inspired it. TCM screened the movie this morning at the enchanting El Capitan Theater. I hadn’t seen MARY POPPINS in years, and I could not have picked a more perfect venue to rediscover a favorite. Projected in widescreen digital, the event celebrates the 50th Anniversary of the film, which was released August 27, 1964.

marypoppins3Making today’s presentation even more of a treat (and really the kind of thing that makes the TCM Classic Film Festival a unique experience), was our special guestmusic man Richard Sherman. Sherman is half of the brother musical team, who, along with older brother Robert, penned the unforgettable songs from MARY POPPINS. The entire soundtrack is one sing-along classic after another—the Shermans’ work including tunes like “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “I Love to Laugh,” “Chim-Chim-Cheree,” “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” “Feed the Birds” and of course, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” And that’s just to name a few. The Sherman Brothers were featured prominently in Saving Mr. Banks, often at odds with P.L. Travers about the tone of the movie. As Mr. Banks told it, Travers wanted to maintain a more serious, less whimsical, no-animated-dancing-penguins kind of tone. While Walt Disney and the Shermans wanted to…make a Disney film.

Richard Sherman sat down with film historian Donald Bogle, after today’s screening, to share his recollection of making MARY POPPINS. He addressed the events and characterizations in Saving Mr. Banks, likening Travers to someone “pouring ice water” on their ideas. Sherman said that the author “objected to everything to do with music and everything about the father as a protagonist who changes.” He felt the father’s depiction in MARY POPPINS ruined the perfect image Travers held of her father. But, despite all the conflict, Sherman still has fond memories of the time. He called Julie Andrews as sweet and humble then as she is today. And he admitted that it feels “slightly surreal” for MARY POPPINS to be 50 years old. “It changed our entire lives,” he said of the film.

RichardSherman_470x350The Sherman Brothers were practically born into the business. Their father, Al Sherman, turned out hits for Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood, writing for stars like Maurice Chevalier, Louis Armstrong and Eddie Cantor. Soon after the boys’ college graduation, their father challenged them to write songs. And, within a few years, they had their first hit. In 1958, the song “Tall Paul,” sung by Mouseketeer Annette Funicello, reached #7 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was the first time a female singer scored a top ten rock and roll single. The song caught Walt Disney’s attention, and he hired the brothers as staff writers for Walt Disney Studios.

The Shermans’ first Disney project was composing for the TV series Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color in 1961. They would go on to compose for Disney movies like The Sword and the Stone (1963) and The Jungle Book (1967), as well as creating what was perhaps their most famous song for the studio—“It’s a Small World” for the 1964 World’s Fair. MARY POPPINS would be the Sherman Brothers crowning achievement at Disney. They won two Oscars for the film, Best Score and Best Song for “Chim-Chim-Cheree.” And they made a fan out of the boss. As the story goes, “Feed the Birds” became Walt Disney’s favorite song from MARY POPPINS. And whenever he visited the Shermans in the years that followed, all he had to do was say, “Play it,” and they knew exactly which song he meant.

MARY POPPINS would receive a whopping thirteen Academy Award nominations, wining five in total (Best Actress for Julie Andrews, Best Editing and Best Visual Effects being the other three). It remains Disney’s most successful night at the Oscars. And it would be Disney’s top grossing film for 20 years. That’s not to mention box office winner for 1965.

Richard Sherman once said, “we write for Grandpa and the four-year old and everyone in between.” And speaking personally, that seems to hold true. MARY POPPINS felt every bit as magical and hopeful today (with me in the “between” category) as it did in childhood (and as I expect it to in old age). For that, Richard Sherman, we thank you.

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The TCMCFF Turns It Up to ‘11’

To state it emphatically this blog entry must be turned up to ‘11’ so please pardon the noise: IF YOU HAVE NEVER SEEN THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984), YOU MUST… Read more »

To state it emphatically this blog entry must be turned up to ‘11’ so please pardon the noise: IF YOU HAVE NEVER SEEN THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984), YOU MUST GO TO THE CHINESE MULTIPLEX 1 AT 9:45 TONIGHT!

thisisspinaltap_1984_mp_1sht_1200It is often the case that a film frequently designated as a “Cult” Movie (like Rob Reiner’s THIS IS SPINAL TAP) would not truly qualify for the label unless the public’s perception of that film has changed over time.  The normal trajectory for altered perceptions can often be tracked as an under-the-radar film that becomes a “hit” long after its original theatrical run.  The time lag is usually an indication that attitudes have shifted and a movie that was originally misunderstood is now seen in a different light, or at least “found its audience.”

Tonight at the Chinese Multiplex, passholders have the chance to see this classic on the Big Screen, a rarity considering that most fans of the film first discovered it as a rental on home video.  There are a few of us that can brag of not only having seen THIS IS SPINAL TAP during its brief theatrical release, but also of being well aware of its ‘Mockumentary’ status (before the word was coined) from the get-go.  Frankly, we were befuddled by all of the chatter later about metalheads seeing the movie, thinking it was real, and complaining that the moviemakers picked a lousy band to make a documentary about.  How could that possibly be?

Here are a few SPINAL TAP Tidbits to ponder prior to the screening:

The actors who play the core group (Harry Shearer, Michael McKean and Christopher Guest) were all musicians and play their own instruments in the film.

Shearer, McKean, Guest and Rob Reiner are given the credit “written by” on the screen, but almost every actor appearing in the film improvised their part.  The four petitioned the Writer’s Guild to credit the entire cast, but were turned down.

The film was Rob Reiner’s first feature film directing credit. He went on to make a number of hit movies, including Stand by Me (1986), When Harry Met Sally (1989), and A Few Good Men (1992).

thisisspinaltap2One of the prime inspirations for the film was the rock documentary The Last Waltz (1978), Martin Scorsese’s film of the farewell concert by The Band.  Scorsese injected himself into the film, much as Reiner’s interviewer “Marty DiBergi” does.

Here are the names of some of the Spinal Tap “albums”: Intravenus de Milo, The Gospel According to Spinal Tap, Shark Sandwich and Smell the Glove.

In 2002 the movie was on that year’s list of films selected for preservation by the U.S. National Film Registry because it was “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

So to reiterate: if you have NEVER seen THIS IS SPINAL TAP, you are to be envied and should not pass up the chance to see it with a large audience.  And if you have only seen THIS IS SPINAL TAP on home video, do not pass up this chance to see it on the big screen with a large audience.

For you first-timers: keep in mind that there is a world of sketches, semi-sequels, music videos and live performances of Spinal Tap to enjoy on YouTube once you have devoured the original film.  Then there is the world of DVDs and Blu-rays (and out-of-print laserdiscs and CD-ROMs for the very obsessive) of the film, which offer hours and hours of additional footage unused in the feature film, multiple commentary tracks by any number of participants (both in character and out-of-character), documentaries and much more.  It’s a mini-industry.  Enjoy!

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“Is Good:” An Afternoon with I REMEMBER MAMA

We might still be a little while off from Mother’s Day, but you’d hardly know it from this afternoon’s showing of I REMEMBER MAMA (1948) at the Chinese Multiplex. Richard… Read more »

iremembermama2We might still be a little while off from Mother’s Day, but you’d hardly know it from this afternoon’s showing of I REMEMBER MAMA (1948) at the Chinese Multiplex. Richard Corliss, film critic for Time since 1980 and author of the TCM-commissioned book Mom in the Movies: The Iconic Screen Mothers You Love (And A Few You Love To Hate), made an encore after his appearance this morning to provide a valuable introduction in which he placed the film in context with two other major memoir-based family studies from the same period, Meet Me in St. Louis and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

However, this particular one (from a semi-autobiographical book by Kathryn Forbes, Mama’s Bank Account) stands out because of its distinct lineage in the arts, first adapted by Rodgers and Hammerstein as a stage play featuring a very young Marlon Brando as lone son Nels. Itiremembermama later became a stage musical in the late ‘70s, too, and was adapted again as an early TV series.

The film version was helmed by George Stevens, who had just come off the film unit of the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II. No doubt he was looking for something lighter and more sedate than the physical trauma he had been witnessing, and it’s this need for escape that strongly informs one of I REMEMBER MAMA’s most memorable scenes, a serene demise that teaches one character not be afraid of death.

Of course, Stevens was already a seasoned director by this point with films like Gunga Din, Swing Time, and Penny Serenade under his belt, with his famous five-film punch of the 1950s still to come. Casting the role of Mama (or Aunt Martha) proved to be a little tricky, with a retired Greta Garbo turning it down and a campaigning Marlene Dietrich passed over as being “not material enough,” to quote Corliss. Even Katina Paxinou was considered with the possibility of turning the source novel’s Norwegian family into Greeks, but ultimately the nationality stayed the same with Irene Dunne getting the lead role.

As any TCM viewer can tell you, Dunne is best remembered for her glamorous appearance in both screwball comedies and intense dramas ranging from The Awful Truth to the aforementioned Penny Serenade.  Here she’s almost unrecognizable at first her hair pulled around in a tight braid and makeup kept to a bare minimum, with a convincing Norwegian accent (“Is good!”) to boot.

This is hardly a one-woman show, though, with the underrated Dutch actor Philip Dorn offering solid support as Papa (and doing some fine physical comedy late in the film smoking a pipe with his son). He isn’t a household name, sadly, but you can still catch some of his other great work on TCM regularly in such films as Random Harvest, Passage to Marseille, and Underground. Then there’s Katrin, the slightly fictionalized version of Kathryn Forbes, played by a very young Barbara Bel Geddes. Needless to say, it’s a little peculiar seeing her against the film’s constant backdrop of San Francisco locales just a bit more than a decade before she returned to the Bay for Vertigo.

Of course, the real plum role of this film is actually the “wicked” Uncle Chris, the mischievous, heavy-drinking imp who stirs discontent against the family aunts (including a young Ellen Corby, way before her famous grandmother role on TV’s The Waltons). Oskar Homolka has a field day in the role (which earned him a much-deserved Oscar nomination, an honor also bestowed on Dunne, Bel Geddes, and Corby) and gets the juiciest lines, and it’s actually surprising he only gets a real scene opposite Dunne near the end of the film.

Fans of George Stevens can also have fun here looking at him refining his craft after some time off in the trenches, including the experimental framing device of presenting Katrin writing her short story about mama (and later reading it at the end) while we see the action depicted through a mirror. Stevens even indulges in a little bit of Hitchcockian suspense for the memorable hospital sequence, which finds Dunne masquerading as a washerwoman to sing a lullaby to her fever-stricken daughter and almost giving herself away courtesy of a metal bucket. The film still plays like a charm, earning its share of both laughs and tears courtesy of this rare 35mm screening, and there’s little doubt movie lovers will keep on remembering it for generations to come.

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Warren William on the Prowl!

“Oh, it’s you. I didn’t know you with all your clothes on.”  That’s Warren William speaking to Alice White in the salacious EMPLOYEES’ ENTRANCE (1933), and it’s one of many… Read more »

“Oh, it’s you. I didn’t know you with all your clothes on.”  That’s Warren William speaking to Alice White in the salacious EMPLOYEES’ ENTRANCE (1933), and it’s one of many “pre-Code” lines in a very, VERY pre-Code picture. In fact, EMPLOYEES’ ENTRANCE is one of those pre-Coders that movie fans especially revere for its wall-to-wall sexiness and astonishing impact. A packed house of TCM festivalgoers certainly loved it Friday night.

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Warren William, Alice White

Warren William plays Kurt Anderson, a tyrannical, ruthless, uncompromising New York City department store manager — “kind of like Mussolini running Macy’s,” joked film historian Bruce Goldstein in his introduction. Anderson’s business motto is: “Smash or be smashed.” His attitude toward women is: “Sure I like ‘em. In their place.” And their “place,” if they’re young and virginal, is: in his bedroom, especially if they want a job!

When Anderson fires a longtime store employee for not being aggressive enough about dreaming up ways to increase business, the man commits suicide. Anderson barely bats an eye at the news, declaring that “when a man outlives his usefulness, he ought to jump out a window.”  Harsh — but also supremely compelling. Warren William’s autocratic tycoon characters are among the greatest joys in pre-Code cinema, in films like Beauty and the Boss, Skyscraper Souls, The Match King and Upperworld.  If you see one, you want to see them all (luckily, they pop up on TCM regularly). And EMPLOYEES’ ENTRANCE is arguably the best of the bunch.

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Loretta Young, Warren William

When you stop to think about it, there’s really not much of a “story” in this film. Anderson seduces and hires gorgeous Madeline (Loretta Young), then plots to disrupt her burgeoning relationship with his No. 2 man, Martin (Wallace Ford). On paper it’s a wisp of a soapy plot, but on screen it’s elevated to something fascinating and witty, due to the characters.  Part of William’s appeal as a scoundrel, after all, is his infectious charm.

Other pleasures here are Loretta Young, at the peak of her beauty, and silent-era star Alice White making a bit of a career comeback, something that was much remarked-upon by critics. Her character is young and pretty like Young, but certainly not virginal, and White displays fine comic chops as an airhead seductress.  Also, director Roy Del Ruth keeps the pace moving like lightning. EMPLOYEES’ ENTRANCE is based on a play, but aside from the on-screen writing credit, you’d really never otherwise know it. The film does not feel stagy at all.

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Wallace Ford, Loretta Young

Critics gave this picture rave reviews. “The stuff that makes for box office,” said daily Variety. “It’s 75 mins. of entertainment without a faltering moment… Warners has framed a pic with a punch reminiscent of the days when motion pictures were real sheckelgarners.”  Another critic wondered, “Do you think they’ll ever permit Warren William to be a good boy again? I doubt it!”

Friday night’s screening was preceded by a mini master class in pre-Code cinema courtesy of Bruce Goldstein, who is Repertory Programming Director of New York’s Film Forum and a pre-Code expert. He explained that the studios decided to ignore the Production Code in the early 1930s mainly as a way of luring Depression-era audiences back into theaters. “Two out of five stories should be hot,” an internal Warner Brothers stated, according to Goldstein, who went on to narrate a wondrous montage of clips from such pre-Code gems as Safe in Hell, Three on a Match, Baby Face, Night Nurse, Call Her Savage, Blessed Event, Female, and The Story of Temple Drake.

Goldstein also said, “This beautiful 35mm print of EMPLOYEES’ ENTRANCE was made from the original camera negative and preserved by the Library of Congress — your tax dollars at work on something worthwhile for a change!”  That line drew perhaps the heartiest applause of the night.

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THE LION IN WINTER: Ultimate Family Dysfunction

Family units — good, bad and ugly — have been popping up on screen every day at this year’s family-themed film festival. But is there any more dysfunctional movie family… Read more »

Family units — good, bad and ugly — have been popping up on screen every day at this year’s family-themed film festival. But is there any more dysfunctional movie family than the Plantagenets depicted in THE LION IN WINTER (1968)?  King Henry II gathers his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (whom he has kept imprisoned for ten years), and their sons Richard, Geoffrey and John, at Christmas-time in 1183. Also on hand: Henry’s mistress, Alais. But this is no cheery holiday gathering. Henry wants to determine who his successor will be after his death, and the result is that these people scheme, plot, attack, double-cross and outwit one another from one scene to the next, in every single scene, throughout this entire, supremely entertaining 134-minute movie. It’s two solid hours of psychological warfare within a powerful family, and it held the TCM festival audience in rapt attention today.

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Katharine Hepburn, Peter O’Toole

A superb cast ratchets up the intensity to delicious levels. To see Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn to play off each other as Henry and Eleanor is to watch two of the all-time greats relishing their craft and giving their all. (Hepburn won an Oscar for this, and O’Toole was nominated.) They move from moments of tenderness to rage often within the same scene, yet make the transitions flow smoothly. The rhythm of the piece (which is based on a play) really emanates from the dialogue, which moves through a series of rising crescendos. Yet the movie, as directed by Anthony Harvey, for the most part has enough of a cinematic feel to keep it from becoming unpleasantly stagebound. Harvey also uses prodigious numbers of close-ups to give the verbal intensity visual impact. (He also uses a few too many zooms, which were overly in vogue during this era.)

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Katharine Hepburn, Peter O’Toole

O’Toole had played Henry II on screen before, in 1964′s Becket, set about a dozen years before THE LION IN WINTER. He was Oscar-nominated for playing the same character in both films, a real rarity. He was also the person most responsible for bringing this film to fruition with the creative talents involved. It was O’Toole who approached Hepburn to play Eleanor, even though she had been in a virtual retirement since Spencer Tracy had died six months earlier.  But she loved the script and signed on immediately, with approval over the hiring of everyone else. O’Toole took her to see a little film called The Dutchman because he liked its director, Anthony Harvey. Hepburn agreed to be directed by him.

And it was O’Toole who brought young Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton on board, running scenes with them in their tests and presenting the footage to Hepburn for her approval, also granted. Hopkins would play son Richard, and Dalton (in his screen debut) played the French King, Philip II, who does his own share of scheming and threatening.

Anthony Harvey later recalled he had a ball directing such a distinguished cast:  “It was Peter’s project, but my film. No one contested direction and since they were the old hands, I had the greatest joy in each of them in turn defending my decisions.” Of Hepburn, Harvey said, “working with her is like going to Paris at age 17 and finding everything is the way you thought it would be.”

O’Toole enjoyed playing the older King Henry II, four years after his experience with Becket: “It was marvelous, because they were somehow extensions of each other. The sense of loss of Becket filled everything I did in that [film], everything. The reason I was practical, bluffing, the reason I was political — they were all things that I was taught by Becket in the [earlier] play. So when I blundered in THE LION IN WINTER, it was because Becket wasn’t there. I was bereaved. I hope that the lack of Thomas Becket in that [film] was apparent.”

Of playing Eleanor, Hepburn said, “Eleanor must have been tough as nails to have lived to be 82 years old and full of beans. Both she and Henry were probably big-time operators who played for whole countries. I like big-time operators.” Hepburn probably also liked getting many of the film’s best lines, such as: “Well, what family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”

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Peter O’Toole

O’Toole and Hepburn sparred off screen, too. Hepburn was horrified when O’Toole was late coming to the set, and she let him know it in no uncertain terms. From then on, he called her “Nag” and she called him “Pig,” and they abused each other in a lighthearted way. But they developed a deep respect and love for each other, and one can’t help but again draw parallels to Henry and Eleanor, who at the end of the film, despite all their scheming and battling, profess a deep admiration for one another. Henry and Eleanor remain family on screen, and O’Toole and Hepburn became family off screen.

Before the screening, Academy Film Archive director Michael Pogorzelski gave an informative introduction. When he mentioned that he had supervised (with Grover Crisp) the restoration of THE LION IN WINTER, he drew a huge round of applause and was taken aback. “Film restorationists don’t feel like rock stars,” he said, “but [here], I get that feeling!”  As he should — restorers and preservationists are family to TCM fans, too.

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Rosalind Russell Really Rocks

A sold-out festival audience was treated to a delightfully breezy Rosalind Russell comedy on Friday afternoon: MY SISTER EILEEN (1942).  For some reason, this movie is not often shown or… Read more »

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George Tobias, Janet Blair, Rosalind Russell

A sold-out festival audience was treated to a delightfully breezy Rosalind Russell comedy on Friday afternoon: MY SISTER EILEEN (1942).  For some reason, this movie is not often shown or seen these days, which is peculiar considering it was perhaps Russell’s definitive role during her lifetime. After playing Ruth Sherwood in this Columbia film, she reprised the part for a radio adaptation in 1943, in a hit Broadway musical version (entitled Wonderful Town) in 1953, and even in a live television production of Wonderful Town in 1958. So in one way or another she performed the role on the big screen, the small screen, the radio and the stage!

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Brian Aherne, Rosalind Russell

The property originated as a series of autobiographical short stories in The New Yorker by Ruth McKenney. These were turned into a successful 1940 play starring Shirley Booth, which formed the basis of this movie. The story follows two sisters who move from Ohio to New York — Ruth (Rosalind Russell), responsible and street-smart, to pursue a writing career, and Eileen (Janet Blair), young and naive, to make it as an actress. They move into a basement apartment in Greenwich Village with a bohemian artist landlord played by George Tobias (!), and encounter all sorts of comic hardships living in the city, from lecherous men to annoying neighbors. The funniest scene finds a bunch of Portugese sailors pouring into their apartment, and the only way the sisters can get them out is to form a conga line and lead them into the street, where passersby end up joining in.

Brian Aherne plays a magazine editor who falls for Russell. They make a good screen pair, and it’s no wonder they teamed up for three other films: Hired Wife (1940), What a Woman! (1943), and Rosie! (1967).  But today I was struck mainly by Rosalind Russell’s effortless flair for comedy. What a winning, sophisticated actress she was, as adept at physical humor as she was at verbal banter. Both are equally on display in MY SISTER EILEEN. Russell was Oscar-nominated for this performance — her first of four nominations — but lost to Greer Garson for Mrs. Miniver.

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Lance Brisson

Before the screening, Russell’s son Lance Brisson appeared on stage for a discussion with film historian Cari Beauchamp. He spoke of his parents’ close lifelong friendship with Cary Grant, and related a charming story of how their fates originally intersected. His father, Frederick, had been friends with Cary Grant since their childhood in England. In 1939, Frederick was crossing the Atlantic, and the only movie onboard the ship was The Women, which played on a constant loop. After eleven days, he was sick of Rosalind Russell’s voice but also had decided he simply had to meet her. Grant invited him to come visit in Hollywood, where coincidentally he was shooting His Girl Friday with Russell.  To help Frederick out, Grant set up a dinner for all of them — a dinner which Russell thought was a date with Cary Grant! Eventually, though, she and Frederick hit it off and in 1941 they were married, with Cary Grant serving as best man. It was a union that lasted 35 years until Frederick died in 1976.

Brisson added that The Women was significant for Russell’s career in that it established her persona as a strong career woman, something she continued to play in movie after movie through the 1940s, MY SISTER EILEEN included.

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Hollywood Home Movies: Treasures From the Academy Film Archive

Each year, one of the most popular events held in Club TCM is the Hollywood Home Movies screening, brought to us by the Academy Film Archive. Hosted by Randy Haberkamp, managing… Read more »

Each year, one of the most popular events held in Club TCM is the Hollywood Home Movies screening, brought to us by the Academy Film Archive. Hosted by Randy Haberkamp, managing director of programming, education and preservation for AMPAS, and Lynne Kirste, special collections curator at the Academy Film Archive. Michael Mortilla provided musical accompaniment to the silent film clips. Special guests in attendance to discuss the clips were Nicole Burke Stephenson, great granddaughter of actress Billie Burke; John Kimball, son of animator Ward Kimball; Miriam Nelson, choreographer and former wife of actor/dancer Gene Nelson; and Tim Zinnemann, son of director Fred Zinnemann. Mr. Haberkamp reminded the crowd to keep the film from their home videos after transferring them to DVD, since film last so much longer. Not long after that when the presentation began there was a small glitch on the DVD, emphasizing the durability of film that made the presenters and audience laugh. It’s difficult to choose highlights from the home movies because they’re so rare and interesting, but these are my top three:

  • My favorite footage was from the wrap party for It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), which took place at Lake Malibou in the summer of 1945. Though set in winter the film was actually shot from April to June of 1945, so the wrap party was a big picnic. With over four hundred cast and crew members present, it looked like a great party. A sunny day, filled with watermelon, swimming and baseball. Director Frank Capra, James Stewart, Lionel Barrymore, and most of the Bailey children were all featured having a wonderful time.
  • Color footage of Alfred Hitchcock enjoying time with his family at his Shamley Green cottage shows the lesser seen lighthearted side of the master of suspense. From hamming it up inside his daughter Pat’s play pen to giving her piggyback rides on all fours around the lawn, you could easily see the affection he had for his wife Alma and daughter Pat. There was also a funny little scene where Hitchcock appeared to be un-eating a banana, with more of the fruit appearing each time he took a bite, rather than less.
  • Lastly, Tim Zinneman, son of director Fred Zinneman narrated footage from the Arizona set of Oklahoma! (1955). He was hired as an extra, since the film was shot over the summer. There was also great footage of Gene Nelson dancing and performing rope tricks, which his wife Miriam Nelson discussed.

The presentation ended with clips from various collections in the archive that should Hollywood elites playing with their pets and  animals on set. While it was mostly dogs and cats featured in the footage we also got to see Shirley Temple playing with goats on the set of Heidi (1937), Cary Grant riding an elephant on the set of Gunga Din (1939)

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A Conversation with Richard Corliss

Club TCM kicks of the second day of discussions with a great line up. First off we have author and film critic Richard Corliss, who wrote the new book MOM… Read more »

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Club TCM kicks of the second day of discussions with a great line up. First off we have author and film critic Richard Corliss, who wrote the new book MOM IN THE MOVIES: THE ICONIC SCREEN MOTHERS YOU LOVE (AND A FEW YOU LOVE TO HATE). Mr. Corliss was interviewed by TCM’s own Shannon Clute. Below are a few highlights from their discussion:

  • “I think every child thinks his or her family is a normal family, until you meet other families. And mine, I probably took it for granted, was idyllic. Very loving, let me see all the movies I wanted. We still had a dozen theatres in walking distance, or a trolly ride away. I grew up in Father Knows Best (1954-1960), I thought it was a documentary.”
  • “At the age of 7 I saw Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), which I thought was hilarious, though I’m sure I didn’t understand all of it. Also, The Moon is Blue (1953) – and I was raised Catholic – the Legion of Decency gave it a C for condemned. So after mass I would go see what C rated movies were out. But I’d see almost any movie that came out.”
  • “Not until I was in my twenties did I fall for the classic movies that were running on CBS. And I fell for them like I did the movies when I was a kid.”
  • “The first thing that I did with Mary Corliss was the day after Christmas 2012 was the screen all the films. I think we came up with about 150 films. We didn’t want to miss anything, but we ended up with about 120 films. My first thought was to write about two paragraphs on 1,000 films – because everyone is going to wonder why one is missing.”
  • “In the Golden Age, women were as important as men, and children were too. But female stars were as big as male stars and they were given a tremendous variety of roles. And because they were beautiful young women, they were often unmarried mothers – single mothers, working mothers, sexy mothers.”
  • “The chapter that surprised me was Serial Moms. In the ’30s and ’40s, contingent with the Hardy family series, was a series of B movies each producing 3 or 4 films a year – the Jones family, Blondie – and I was a little surprised. These films were rooted in the time, resolving real problems. These were situation elements.”
  • “We must mention Irene Dunne here – she is the patron saint of movie moms.”
  • “To get good movie moms you need to get popular young talent, and let them age – Sally Field, Susan Sarandon. It’s also because of the Oscars, that started in this room. Judi Dench [in Philomena (2013)] is everything you want a mother to be, Mo’Nique in Precious (2009) was everything you don’t want a mother to be.”
  • Barbara Stanwyck wanted Stella Dallas, studio wanted Ruth Chatterton, who suffered through many of these roles. Stanwyck always knows her affect on men, she’s very smart. Stella doesn’t realize her effect on men, it’s hard for us to see her playing someone who isn’t in control of her affect. But she does it wonderfully.

MOM IN THE MOVIES is widely available at book retailers, or to purchase now from the TCM Shop, please click here.

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A Conversation with Quincy Jones

Day one of the Club TCM discussions has wrapped up on a high note with a great conversation between legendary producer, composer, conductor and musician Quincy Jones, being interviewed by… Read more »

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Day one of the Club TCM discussions has wrapped up on a high note with a great conversation between legendary producer, composer, conductor and musician Quincy Jones, being interviewed by film critic Leonard Maltin. Yet another full house in Club TCM with an audience that was as engaged and enthralled by Jones as you can imagine. Below are a few highlights:

  • “Each culture has its food, its music, and its language that keeps the culture together. That’s why I’m such a hard bargain driver for America to have a minister of culture. We’re the only country in the world that doesn’t have a minister of culture. The most popular copied music in the world is jazz and blues and we don’t have a minister of culture. It’s’ insane, it really is. And I see it take an effect on the kids. You know, because they don’t know who they are. They don’t know what it is.”
  • “Everywhere you travel, you hear American music. You better believe it, and I always did. In ’53 I couldn’t believe it, in Sweden and all those places, it’s unbelievable.  Indonesia, and everything it’s just – Korea, feels like the Southside of Chicago, man. It does!”
  • “I ask rappers now, in your mind when did rap start? I’m gonna say around 1971, with the black panthers. I say man, come on, I was rapping in Chicago when I was five years old in 1939! It’s important to know, if you know where you come from it’s a better way to get where you’re going. It’s very important.”
  • “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, because you can’t anyway. Half of the hip hop slang came from jazz. The first time I went to New York from Seattle at 18, and Duke Elliot [said] ‘Young blood, can I stash my axe in your crib for a few ticks so I can go cop some ZZZs?’ Can I leave my horn here while I go get some sleep.”
  • “Luck is the dust that’s over the collision between opportunity and preparation. That’s what luck is – but you’d better be prepared. When Sinatra called me, I was ready. I was ready, man. There’s nothing that would destroy me more than getting a great opportunity and not being prepared to handle it. He used to test me, too.”
  • (Speaking about Sinatra at the Sands) Leonard Maltin: “ You got to stand there every night and conduct the Count Basie Band playing for Frank Sinatra. What was that like?” Quincy Jones: “It was like going to heaven every night, it really was man. Frank too, he said that was one of the best times he ever had. At that time I didn’t realize Vegas was so racist man. It was ’64, I was so shocked you know.”
  • “At that time Sammy, Basie, myself, and Lena, Belafonte, all those people they had to eat in the kitchen. They couldn’t even go in the casino – in ’64! I was shocked, you know. Frank cleaned it up real quick. He was amazing to work for.”
  • “This man (Sinatra), like Miles Davis too, was more bark then bite, you know. He loved to get you scared and upset – Miles was the king of that, you know. It was all bark.”
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Happy Jerry Lewis Day!

What better way to wake up in the morning than a dose of Jerry Lewis? That’s what everyone felt today with crowds lining up around the block at the TCL… Read more »

483840067DM00018_2014_TCM_CWhat better way to wake up in the morning than a dose of Jerry Lewis? That’s what everyone felt today with crowds lining up around the block at the TCL Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Blvd., with some arriving before 8 a.m. for the hand- and footprint ceremony for Jerry in the theater courtyard.

The tradition of celebrities preserving their handprints and footprints in wet cement (along with a few other curious objects in some cases) extends all the way back to 1927, and the spot remains one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Los Angeles area. It’s hard to believe Jerry hasn’t become part of it already, but today turned out to be perfect as the 88-year-old actor-director-comedian-technical innovator-philanthropist (and whatever other hyphenate you can probably think of) delighted the crowd and photographers with the physical comedy that shot him to stardom.483840067DM00024_2014_TCM_C

TCM’s Robert Osborne appeared first to welcome attendees, with special guests sitting nearby including Ben Mankiewicz, Richard Lewis, Illeana Douglas, and Dane Cook. Jerry’s official introduction came from one of his biggest fans, writer-director Quentin Tarantino, who recalled his days in elementary school when “we only had one favorite movie star,” the funny genius who became the one movie idol for children.

Jerry really came into his own as a filmmaker with his 1960 directorial debut, The Bellboy, and it’s been a wild ride ever since with films like The Errand Boy and The Ladies’ Man and memorable roles for others like Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, a performance Osborne appropriately cited as worth an Academy Award.

“What a motley-looking group!” Jerry exclaimed when he came up to the podium. This morning was also special since this was the first official ceremony to which he invited his daughter, Danielle (“Dani”). “She’s crazy about me!” he said as she beamed from the front row.

Jerry’s first big laugh came when he feigned cracking his knuckles and getting stuck, which he quickly shook off to press his palms into the cement for posterity. His footprints came next, including some hilarious antics balancing on the heads of his handlers, followed by plenty of photo ops (with a few riotously-placed hand gestures) and some catching up with friends and family. That’s just the start for today, though, as Jerry will be back at 6:15 tonight for a  Q&A with Douglas at the El Capitan screening of his 1963 classic, The Nutty Professor.

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THE FAMILY BUSINESS: A TRIBUTE TO HUBLEY ANIMATION

Here’s a friendly recommendation to passholders: Don’t miss the program of rare Hubley animation shorts showing in the multiplex this afternoon and hosted by Leonard Maltin!  Previous TCM Classic Film… Read more »

Here’s a friendly recommendation to passholders: Don’t miss the program of rare Hubley animation shorts showing in the multiplex this afternoon and hosted by Leonard Maltin!  Previous TCM Classic Film Festivals have included fascinating programs of animated shorts, including a very rare showing of censored Warner Bros. cartoons at the first Fest in 2010, a collection of Walt Disney’s silent and rarely-screened Laugh-O-Grams in 2011 and last year’s assemblage of prime Bugs Bunny cartoons in honor of the rascally rabbit’s 75th birthday.  This year passholders will be treated to a varied and eye-popping collection of animation produced by John and Faith Hubley, in a program called THE FAMILY BUSINESS: A TRIBUTE TO HUBLEY ANIMATION.  The logical guide for this showcase is animation and film historian Leonard Maltin, who will give context to this assortment of commercial studio cartoons, independent shorts, government training films and television commercials.

John Hubley (1914-1977) was one of a group of artists who brought a new and radical Modern design sense to animation starting in the 1940s at the UPA (United Productions of America) studio.  Hubley had come from Disney Studio, where he worked on some of their classic 1930s features; he was fired during the Disney animators’ strike in 1941.  Before he began at UPA, he directed industrial and government shorts, including Flat Hatting (1946), featured in this program.  At UPA, Hubley made an enormous impact, particularly with the two films being shown in this program, The Ragtime Bear (1949) and Rooty Toot Toot (1951).

upa02a_ragtimebear_celsetup_01_1200Historically significant as the first Mr. Magoo cartoon, The Ragtime Bear (1949) is also one of UPA’s funniest releases. Magoo would soon become UPA’s signature character, going against the company policy to avoid repetition. The character was co-created by Hubley and feature-film screenwriter Millard Kaufman.  Director Hubley would later say that he based the Magoo look and manner after his gruff uncle, and that the animators of the short looked to W. C. Fields for inspiration.  Further, Magoo’s voice was provided by radio actor Jim Backus, who often mentioned that he based the character on his own father.

In his book Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, Leonard Maltin quotes Jerry Hausner (Backus’ friend and the voice of Waldo) on the recording process of this first cartoon: “We went into the studio with two pages of dialogue. We read all of the speeches that had been written down. Then Hubley did something that no other animated cartoon director has ever done in my presence. He said, ‘Let’s do it again and ad-lib around the subject. Throw in any wild thoughts you might have.’ We did another version of it. Backus began to go crazy and have a good time…” The impromptu asides became a beloved trademark of the character, and of Jim Backus as an actor, in the years to come.

upa12_rootytoot_concept_08_1200Rooty Toot Toot (1951) stands as one of the high points of UPA’s output and as one of the most highly-praised seven-minute cartoons ever made. It is in no way a children’s film; it deals with strictly adult characters and situations. Hubley took a larger budget allowance at UPA and ran with it, pulling out all the stops to make a thoroughly Modern and graphically exciting update on the old “Frankie and Johnny” story of jealousy and murder. Rooty Toot Toot would go over schedule and budget, but it earned nearly as much critical and press attention as Gerald.

Hubley brought in a number of interesting collaborators on Rooty Toot Toot. Dancer Olga Lunick was hired to choreograph the ballet-style dance moves. There was no rotoscoping involved; her moves were only referenced by the artists and animators, not slavishly traced. In addition, Hubley and the studio brought on jazz musician Phil Moore to write the score. Moore had done orchestrations for many MGM musicals in the 1940s, but uncredited–this would be a rare on-screen credit for the black musician.

Hubley was forced to leave UPA in 1952 during the witchhunts into Communist influence in the motion picture industry, so he moved to New York and founded Storyboard, Inc. to produce advertising work, including the famous Marky “I Want My” Maypo oatmeal commercials, which brought the stylized Modern look even further into the American mainstream.  Hubley married fellow artist Faith Elliot (1924-2001) and the couple continued to produce independent animation for many years.  The Adventures of an * (1957) was produced with the help of an $8000 Guggenheim Fellowship, and thereafter the Hubleys produced roughly one film a year in addition to their commercial accounts.  Often former UPA director Bobe Cannon laid out much of the animation.  From the modern look of the UPA cartoons the Hubleys shifted to an impressionistic approach, using a “scribble” coloring style and double exposures to avoid the solid lines most often seen in commercial animation.

moonbird_hubley_72Along the way the Hubleys won Oscars for Moonbird (1959) and The Hole (1962).  These shorts will also be featured in today’s program along with The Adventures of an *, The Tender Game (1958), Of Men and Demons (1969) and more.  Jazz fans take note: the soundtracks of the Hubley’s films are populated by such heavyweights as Ella Fitzgerald, Lionel Hampton and Dizzy Gillespie!  Also appearing on the soundtrack of many of these films are voices of the Hubley children; it truly was a family business.

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Stanwyck Shines as Definitive Stella Dallas

Many people, including Barbara Stanwyck, felt that Stanwyck was robbed at the 1938 Academy Awards ceremony when Luise Rainer walked away with the Best Actress Oscar for The Good Earth… Read more »

Many people, including Barbara Stanwyck, felt that Stanwyck was robbed at the 1938 Academy Awards ceremony when Luise Rainer walked away with the Best Actress Oscar for The Good Earth (1937); referring to producer Sam Goldwyn’s 1937 version of STELLA DALLAS, Stanwyck later said, “My life’s blood was in that picture.  I should have won.”  This morning a 35mm print screened at the Multiplex—an absolutely gorgeous print, in fact (courtesy of the Academy Film Archive).

stelladallas_1937_lc_02_1200Stanwyck’s taking on the title role was a risk; some thought that Goldwyn was crazy to revive the property in the first place.  The dramatic story of a mother sacrificing for her daughter began life as a novel by Olive Higgins Prouty in 1923 that was soon adapted as a stage play and then as a film by Goldwyn in 1925.  The movie version, which starred Belle Bennett in the lead role and Ronald Colman in support, was an enormous hit at the box office.  By 1937 there was a danger that the story was terribly dated, but the sensitive efforts by Stanwyck and by director King Vidor paid off.

Famously (not to mention amazingly), Stanwyck had to audition for the part.  Goldwyn originally wanted Ruth Chatterton, but she turned down the role for being “unpleasant.”  Stanwyck wanted the part and went to friend Joel McCrea, then one of Goldwyn’s prime assets, to pitch her to the producer.  Goldwyn agreed to consider her, but only on the condition that she shoot a screen test—something of an insult to an actress of Stanwyck’s caliber.  She reluctantly agreed and filmed a scene with Vidor and not-yet-cast Anne Shirley as her daughter.  Though he had also tested dozens of others for the part, including unknowns, Goldwyn had to admit that Stanwyck “…was undeniable. She put everyone else to shame.”

stelladallas3Stanwyck knew that there was the possibility of the story becoming a hackneyed tearjerker, but she wisely noted that “one must distinguish between sentimentality and honest sentiment.”  She went on to say that it “was a double challenge because the role had to be played on two levels, almost making Stella two separate women. On the surface she had to appear loud and flamboyant — with a touch of vulgarity. Yet, while showing her in all her commonness, she had to be portrayed in a way that audiences would realize that beneath the surface her instincts were fine, heartwarming and noble. Part of her tragedy was that while she recognized her own shortcomings, she was unable to live up to the standards she so painstakingly set for herself.”  For his part, King Vidor loved the film but hated working for the strong-willed and mercurial Goldwyn.  He never worked for him again.

Today’s screening was introduced by versatile author, film historian, man-about-town and fellow TCM Classic Film Fest blogger Jeremy Arnold (Hey Jeremy!), who made note of many of the film’s production highlights and had much praise for Stanwyck, quoting Frank Capra who once said she was “…the greatest emotional actress the screen has ever known.”  Jeremy also advised the audience to watch for a clip of the 1925 version of Stella Dallas, seen when characters go to the movies at one point, and to keep their eyes peeled for a 16-year-old Laraine Day, making her film debut.

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I Do…Love Elizabeth Taylor and Spencer Tracy*

It’s day three here in Hollywood, and first up this morning, TCM is going to the chapel with bride Elizabeth Taylor in FATHER OF THE BRIDE (1950). Screened at the… Read more »

It’s day three here in Hollywood, and first up this morning, TCM is going to the chapel with bride Elizabeth Taylor in FATHER OF THE BRIDE (1950). Screened at the Egyptian Theatre, in a gorgeous 35mm print from Warner Bros., the charming domestic comedy played to a receptive 9 AM crowd. On hand to introduce the movie was film historian Cari Beauchamp who praised Spencer Tracy, spilled on Joan Bennett’s career ending extra-marital scandal and called Elizabeth Taylor “absolutely stunning.” And that certainly proved true at today’s screening. You may have seen FATHER OF THE BRIDE countless times on TV, but you never realize just how beautiful Taylor was until you see her projected on the big screen.

fatherofthebride3Elizabeth Taylor began her career in Hollywood at age ten in Universal’s There’s One Born Every Minute (1942). She soon moved to MGM, where her very next film would be the perennial family favorite Lassie Come Home (1943), opposite Roddy McDowall and Pal (as Lassie). Over the next decade, Taylor grew up before viewers’ eyes on screen, in a string of memorable child and teen roles including: girl jockey Velvet Brown in National Velvet (1944), teen dream girl in Life With Father (1947) and the simple but lovable March sister Amy in Little Women (1949). Taylor turned eighteen in 1950 and she was eager to tackle more adult parts. FATHER OF THE BRIDE was a big step in that process – it was one of the first, and certainly the best early film, to cast Taylor in a more mature light.

But the growing up for Taylor wasn’t only on screen. Just before MGM announced she was to appear in FATHER OF THE BRIDE, Taylor made an announcement of her own—her engagement to hotel heir Nicky Hilton. The off screen developments created a frenzy of publicity around the film. Taylor and Hilton were married on May 6, 1950, about six weeks before the film premiered in June. The film’s release date was a clearly orchestrated move on MGM’s part. In fact, much of the wedding had the weight of MGM behind it. Beauchamp explained in today’s introduction that MGM paid for the wedding and sent out the invitations. Costume designer Helen Rose was also assigned to create Taylor’s wedding dress. The gown was such an extensive project (and priority to MGM) that fifteen people worked full time on it for two or three months. And when the big day finally arrived, MGM was well represented. The Hollywood spectacle included A-list classics stars like Greer Garson, Gene Kelly, Esther Williams and Van Johnson. And of course, Taylor’s FATHER OF THE BRIDE parents, Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett, were front and center.

Many credit the hype surrounding Taylor’s real life nuptials with making FATHER OF THE BRIDE such a success. And MGM continued to cash in on the hot property the following year—a sequel called Father’s Little Dividend, in which Taylor’s character has a baby, was released in 1951.

But regardless of the off screen whoopla, FATHER OF THE BRIDE remains a great movie in its own right. It stands the test of time, is still funny today and continues to shed a truthful light on family dynamics. And most importantly, it speaks to that special bond between father and daughter. Sadly, the Taylor-Hilton marriage wouldn’t have the staying power of the film. It was over by the time most of Europe saw FATHER OF THE BRIDE in February 1951.

*And by the way, Joan Bennett ain’t bad either!

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In Heaven, everything is fine… David Lynch’s ERASERHEAD

What the deuce did people ever do at midnight before ERASERHEAD (1977)? Perhaps the most perfect late night movie ever made, David Lynch’s feature film debut (funded in part by actress… Read more »

Eraserhead (1977)Directed by David LynchShown: Jack NanceWhat the deuce did people ever do at midnight before ERASERHEAD (1977)? Perhaps the most perfect late night movie ever made, David Lynch’s feature film debut (funded in part by actress Sissy Spacek, then a rising star whose art director husband Jack Fisk was on Lynch’s crew) gets props from the black tee shirt crowd for being among the weirdest movies ever made… and yet so much of what goes on between its fade in and fade out is drawn so palpably from everyday life. Inspired by his anxieties about being a father (Lynch’s daughter Jennifer is now a filmmaker in her own right), ERASERHEAD rewrites Mario Bava’s notion that the scariest thing is a person alone in a room by suggesting that the scariest thing just might be a person alone with his in-laws. So much of the film is verite masquerading as the bizarre: if you’ve ever kept lonely vigil at the bedside of a sick child or lived in a tenement apartment heated by steam you will take to ERASERHEAD as if it were a home movie… those sounds, that numbing industrial cacophany that one grows accustomed to as part of the contract of city living, that constant, unyielding hiss from the radiator (which does, in early winter, seem like an all-powerful but neglectful god), the dim, cottony quality of life in a badly-lighted building and the odd interaction of strangers in uncomfortable company… this isn’t fantasy, this is neorealism. Close to forty years later, ERASERHEAD has lost none of its highly-touted hallucinogenic/mesmeric power and remains a seminal text of the American independent film movement, as worthy of the honor and the distinction as John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959), Terence Mallick’s Badlands (1973), or Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973).

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Nervous in the service… William Wyler’s THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946)

With scheduled guest Mark Harris unable to attend the TCMFF this year and, it follows, unavailable to introduce tonight’s screening of William Wyler’s THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946), it… Read more »

bestyearsofourlives3With scheduled guest Mark Harris unable to attend the TCMFF this year and, it follows, unavailable to introduce tonight’s screening of William Wyler’s THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946), it fell to film historian Eddie Muller to step into the breach, with a little assist from Wyler’s son David. The youngest of Wyler’s five children, David was not yet born when THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES went into production (he was a ROMAN HOLIDAY baby) but shared several stories about the film’s production, which had been passed down to him through the Wyler family. David cited that the three returning serviceman protagonists of the film — professional man Fredric March, disabled seaman Harold Russell, and post-traumatic stress sufferer Dana Andrews — all reflected aspects of William Wyler’s postwar life. Like many a Hollywood personality (and March’s character), Wyler had put his career on hold to serve his country and had, like Russell’s character, suffered a disability — in his case, near total deafness while flying over Italy in a B25 as a member of the First Motion Picture Division. And like Andrews’ character, Wyler had difficulties adjusting to civilian life after having seen the horrors of war at first hand — experiences that he channeled into making a film that truly resonated with American moviegoers in that first postwar year. THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES would be nominated for 9 Academy Awards and go on to win 8 of those, among them Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Fredric March) and Best Supporting Actor (Harold Russell).

bestyearsofourlives2For his part, Eddie Muller related several fascinating behind the scenes stories about the making of the film, heralding producer Samuel Goldwyn’s wife Frances as being a driving force behind its production. Touched by the plight of returning serviceman (as documented in an issue of Time magazine), Mrs. Goldwyn compelled her husband to buy an option on war correspondant/novelist MacKinlay Kantor’s poem “Bailey, Who Burned,” which chronicled the tragic fate of 2nd Lieutenant William R. Bailey, a bombardier who was burned alive while parachuting from his damaged B17 over France on the 4th of July 1943. Though Goldwyn had hoped that Kantor might provide him with a proper screenplay, or at least an original story that would give a voice to the horrors American men saw in wartime, Kantor instead turned in a book of blank verse, Glory for Me, which — however comendable — Goldwyn found useless. The independent producer turned to playwright Robert E. Sherwood to fashion a proper story out of the Kantor material – and Sherwood was one of the 8 Oscar winners when THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES swept the Academy Awards in 1947.

bestyearsofourlivesAlso noteworthy was Wyler’s casting of non-actor Harold Russell (seen left, with Dana Andrews) as a double amputee. Having lost both hands during a non-combat exercise in 1944 and been trained to use metal hooks (subject of the military training film Diary of a Seargeant, which is how Russell came to Wyler’s attention in the first place), Russell was all too perfect for the part of a shy seaman returning nervously from his rehabilitation to his American hometown and childhood sweetheart. Though nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, Russell was considered a dark horse candidate at best in the lead-up to the Oscar ceremony, prompting the Academy to bestow upon him an Honorary Academy Award for his participation in the film. Unexpectedly, Russell took home the Best Supporting Actor statuette as well, making him the only actor in the history of the Academy to win two Oscars for the same performance.

The stories from Eddie Muller and David Wyler were the perfect complement to the screening of THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES tonight at the Chinese Multiplex, providing the proper context to appreciate how this film touched a nerve with a nation returning to peacetime and became the most profitable Hollywood picture of the 1940s.

 

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Saturday Re-Cap, TCM Classic Film Festival

TCM is proud to present this exciting recap of events from Friday, April 11, day two of the 5th TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood. To view more festival videos,… Read more »

TCM is proud to present this exciting recap of events from Friday, April 11, day two of the 5th TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood. To view more festival videos, check out our video gallery.

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MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW… and for Tears

“The movie you’re about to see is transcendently painful to watch. And that’s actually a good thing,” said film historian Dennis Bartok this morning, in his introduction to MAKE WAY… Read more »

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Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore

“The movie you’re about to see is transcendently painful to watch. And that’s actually a good thing,” said film historian Dennis Bartok this morning, in his introduction to MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW (1937).

Director Leo McCarey’s drama about a sweet, elderly couple who lose their home and are forced to move in with their grown children — separately, 300 miles apart — is profoundly heartbreaking. (I will go out on a limb and say that the final 26 minutes comprise the most moving extended sequence in American cinema.)  It’s also a work of sublime beauty and art that, once seen, is never forgotten — and indeed, at the end of today’s screening, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Few American films have dealt honestly with the subject of old age and its effect on the parent-child relationship. It’s an uncomfortable and unsettling topic for many in our society, but it’s also universally relatable. In this picture, the adult children have varying reactions to the prospect of taking in their parents. Their own lives, financial situations, spouses, kids and selfish attitudes turn the parents’ presence into a burden, and eventually there is talk of old-age homes and distant trips.

But McCarey never lets the movie fall into sticky, manipulative sentiment. He simply keeps to the reality of dealing with aging parents, with issues of responsibility, inconvenience, duty and guilt all coming to the fore. McCarey was personally invested in this story. His own father had recently died, and MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW was McCarey’s way of honoring his parents and their entire generation.  He also made sure to leaven the proceedings with healthy doses of humor and charm sprinkled throughout. “This picture was certainly a heart-tugger,” McCarey later said, “but the thing that made it great, I think, was the subtle comedy that Victor Moore, Beulah Bondi and others in the cast were able to inject into their performance.”

makewayfortomorrow

Fay Bainter, Louise Beavers, Beulah Bondi (kneeling), Barbara Read

That’s true, but McCarey’s real masterstroke was to make us, the audience, complicit in the children’s attitudes. The children on screen feel annoyed and burdened, and McCarey makes us feel rather irritated by the parents ourselves — until a masterfully directed moment during a bridge class, of all things, which forces us to share the children’s sudden guilty feelings. It’s no wonder that other directors like John Ford, Frank Capra, Ernst Lubitsch, Orson Welles and Jean Renoir all sung this film’s praises. Capra even wrote McCarey a fan letter.

The New York Times in 1937 gave MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW a rave review, saying it “has three qualities rarely encountered in the cinema: humanity, honesty and warmth.” But Paramount chief Adolph Zukor, who hated the film’s sad ending and had tried in vain to get McCarey to tack on a happy one, cut the director loose from Paramount when the picture became a massive box-office flop. McCarey promptly went to Columbia, made The Awful Truth (also released in 1937), and won the Oscar for Best Director. At the podium, he thanked the Academy, then said they had given him the award “for the wrong picture.”

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THE INNOCENTS: The Kids Aren’t All Right

It’s one of life’s great pleasures to see a favorite film on the big screen, and tonight marked my third time catching one of the all-time great ghost stories, THE… Read more »

It’s one of life’s great pleasures to see a favorite film on the big screen, and tonight marked my third time catching one of the all-time great ghost stories, THE INNOCENTS (1961), in glorious panoramic 35mm. This is a film that absolutely demands to be seen as huge as possible with its clever peripheral shocks coming at you right out of the corner of your eyes, and judging by the gasps from the audience, it still works like a charm. Innocents3

Actress Illeana Douglas introduced the film, which gave her a sleepless night as a child courtesy of a TV airing, and quipped right away about the film’s big lesson, “I wouldn’t wanna be a governess in a Victorian mansion.” She also discussed the film’s innovative cinematography by the great Freddie Francis (who also directed numerous horror films himself), including his method of flooding so much light onto the set that star Deborah Kerr had to wear sunglasses until the cameras started rolling. Douglas could vouch for this firsthand since she appeared in Martin Scorsese’s 1991 version of Cape Fear, which Francis also shot with lights so intense the set regularly went up to 120 degrees.The Innocents (1961)  Directed by Jack Clayton  Shown from left:

Movie fans love arguing about the merits of THE INNOCENTS versus the other big black-and-white spooky ’60s scope classic, The Haunting, but what lunatic would want to have a world without either of them? In any case, this was the first cinematic adaptation of Henry James’s classic novella, The Turn of the Screw, which English teachers still point to as a textbook example of how to suggest everything while explicitly showing nothing at all.

The film was just the second full-length feature for Jack Clayton after his auspicious debut with the acclaimed Room at the Top in 1959.  However, he already had some affinity for the uncanny courtesy of his Oscar-winning 1955 short film, “The Bespoke Overcoat,” and he would later return to the genre in 1983 with the underrated but production-plagued Something Wicked This Way Comes. You could also make a solid case for classifying another one of his films as horror, too: Our Mother’s House, an unnerving 1967 feature reuniting him with one of this film’s stars, Pamela Franklin,

The opening credits for THE INNOCENTS always get a reaction from an audience when they hit the screenplay credit for legendary writer Truman Capote, who penned this with John Mortimer along with significant material from the 1950 Broadway version by William Archibald. In addition to Kerr and Franklin, the film is no less impressive on the acting front as well with Michael Redgrave offering a memorably cryptic single (but lengthy) opening scene as the hands-off uncle, while young Martin Stephens (ditching his bleach blond mop from the previous year’s Village of the Damned) is remarkable as the tormented and possibly malevolent Miles. He switched careers to become an architect before the decade’s end, leaving us to wonder what else he might have achieved in front of the camera. That said, he scales heights here at the ripe old age of eleven that many actors never reach at all.

As for how many sleepless nights this film will cause after tonight’s screening… well, perhaps we’ll find out tomorrow.

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BLAZING SADDLES: From Order Comes Chaos

Mel Brooks, legendary director-actor-producer-writer- (keep filling in the blanks and you’ll never exhaust his talents), kicked off tonight’s screening of BLAZING SADDLES (1974) by singing the film’s theme song to… Read more »

Mel Brooks, legendary director-actor-producer-writer- (keep filling in the blanks and you’ll never exhaust his talents), kicked off tonight’s screening of BLAZING SADDLES (1974) by singing the film’s theme song to a full house at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre—and from there, things only got more interesting.

 

blazingsaddlesBrooks shared with TCM Host Robert Osborne numerous behind-the-scenes anecdotes from the making of the film—from asking to see Madeline Kahn’s “gams” before deciding to cast her as Lili Von Stupp (to which she responded, “Oh, it’s one of those auditions”), to following screenwriter Richard Pryor’s advice to cast Cleavon Little as the Sheriff (“This guy’s coal black.  He’s gonna scare the sh** out of the people in this town.”)  Brooks also claimed to have placed live cattle in the lobby of the theater where they first screened the film for Warner Bros. executives, and said that after the screening he dutifully wrote down notes from studio brass on everything that would have to be edited from the movie, then promptly threw the notes in the trash once the grilling was over.  In other words, a Brooks interview is a little like a Brooks film: it can be hard to separate the joke from the story, and everyone is better for it.

 

What was clear—from the thunderous laughter and applause that rocked the Chinese Theatre tonight—was that everyone in attendance was having as much fun as Brooks himself.

 

And why not?  The film is the ultimate Western spoof, telling the tale of corrupt Attorney General Hedley Lamarr, played to perfection by Harvey Korman, in charge of efforts to build a railway across the Ol’ West.  When the projected route hits quicksand, he sees an opportunity to make a fortune by driving the honest citizens from the nearby town Rock Ridge, taking over all the businesses, then rerouting the railroad through town.  The plan seems foolproof, for Lamarr has complete control over an indomitable cast of characters: an imbecilic governor (Brooks), who rubber stamps every decision Lamarr makes; the toughest muscle who ever lived, the half-beast, half-man Mongo (played by ex-professional football star Alex Karras); a virtual army of hired ruffians; and, if all else fails, the most irresistible saloon showgirl and henchwoman of them all (Kahn).

 

BlazingSaddles_470x350As Lamarr sends his thugs to bust up the town of Rock Ridge, locals appeal to the Governor for a new Sheriff.  At Lamarr’s urging, the “Gov” sends them one of the black railway workers who has been causing trouble for Lamarr.  Newly deputized, wearing a soft buckskin two-piece getup with white leather piping, Sheriff Bart (Little) rides nonchalantly into town, only to find the citizens less welcoming than one might expect from folks badly in need of a Sheriff.

 

The rest of the film pits Lamarr against Bart, as the former brainstorms ever more elaborate plans for eliminating the Sheriff and destroying the town, and the latter finds ever more clever ways to foil them, using his formidable style and wiles, and the services of the drunk residing in his jail—the once great Waco Kid (Gene Wilder).

 

In other words, the storyline is well-ridden terrain, as are many of the character types (with Kahn’s showgirl reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich’s character in Destry Rides Again, and Gene Wilder’s Kid similar to the role played by Dean Martin in Rio Bravo). But Brooks consistently surprises us with unexpected variations on what might seem a rote Western tune. (At times literally: in the opening credits, for example, where the standard longshot of the western landscape and catchy title tune are given a comic touch with excessive whip-cracking in the score.)  When he turns his gaze westward, the henchmen have odd vices and the digestive issues that go with a diet of campfire beans, the hired muscle is a half-wit who rides and ox and punches out horses, the seductive showgirl is a German-born Frau dubbed the “Teutonic Titmouse,” who can’t carry a tune but performs elaborate numbers with a four-person dance troupe dressed as the Kaiser’s soldiers, and the Sheriff who must save the day is one slick urbanite sporting Gucci saddle bags.

 

It might seem like an impossible setup, but Brooks has a simple formula for making it all work—a formula he spells out for us in the film (though in typical Brooks fashion, even this revelation is a comic inversion). A town-hall meeting is called to protest the governor’s election of a black man as Sheriff. As order is called, self-important local businessman Howard Johnson (John Hillerman, soon to be of Magnum PI fame), opines “Nietzsche says ‘From chaos comes order,” to which Olson Johnson (David Huddleston) responds “Oh blow it out you’re a** Howard.”

 

In a nutshell, this captures how Brooks builds not just a single gag, but all of his genre films—from BLAZING SADDLES to Young Frankenstein to Spaceballs.  What seems to be a perfectly recognizable genre picture establishes a horizon of expectation, then turns our expectations on their head with sudden eruptions of incongruity and chaos. Take, for example, the conclusion.  As the good citizens of Rock Ridge—now united behind their wily Sheriff and his increasingly sober sidekick the Waco Kid—battle Lamarr’s henchmen, the camera pulls back to reveal the scene is taking place on the Warner Bros. lot, where the melee spills over into the set of a musical, then into commissary, then onto the streets beyond the studio—until the Sheriff and the Kid get their revenge right at the Chinese Theatre where crowds gathered today to watch this film.  Only then, after every gag has played out and every wall has been broken, does the action head back to the Ol’ West for something approaching a conclusion.

 

From order comes chaos—and damn, is it funny. No lesser genius than Brooks could make such an ending work, and it was a pleasure and an honor to have him with us today.

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Life on the Edge: The Original IMITATION

Long before the famous Douglas Sirk / Lana Turner version was a twinkle in producer Ross Hunter’s eye, IMITATION OF LIFE first came to movie screens in 1934. The original… Read more »

Long before the famous Douglas Sirk / Lana Turner version was a twinkle in producer Ross Hunter’s eye, IMITATION OF LIFE first came to movie screens in 1934. The original novel by Fannie Hurst was a big bestseller, but the controversial subject matter made it a touchy subject with no less than ten writers taking a crack at it (including an uncredited Preston Sturges). Joseph Breen, head of the Production Code, objected to the theme of miscegenation which forms a crucial part of the story, and seemingly everyone else had a bone to pick including the Grand Encampment of the Knights Templar, who wrote a letter of protest in 1934 about plans to show “negroes in Knights Templar uniform.”

Now here we are eighty years later, and the film was shown in a glittering 35mm print on Friday night at the Chinese Multiplex with an introduction by Donald Bogle, film historian and author of the seminal book, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks. As with his other appearances, he offered a perceptive and tantalizing take on the film’s “deep impact on American culture” since it dared to even suggest that there was a race problem in America at the time. He also pointed out one of the more haunting nonverbal images in the film in which the two female leads retire for the evening, one heading upstairs and the other down.

Watching the film now on the big screen in 2014, it’s remarkable what a completely different creation it is from the later remake in almost every possible way. Here we have a film in which the viewer is encouraged to read between the lines in every single scene, with the characters and dialogue loaded with ambiguities. The film opens and closes with the line “I want my Quack Quack,” first spoken by the young Jessie as first played by Baby Jane, a cute tyke who softens the audience up for some serious blows to come. It’s spoken over a shot of her toy duck floating in her bathtub, bouncing out of her reach against the wall of the tub without ever budging an inch. Right away we have the focus of the film set up: four women will all want something to make their lives feel complete, and they intend to do it on their own terms in a world where the deck is already stacked against them. When the line is spoken again by Claudette Colbert (in a remarkably shaded performance as Bea Pullman, a charming bulldozer of a businesswoman), it’s the mournful mantra of someone whose motherhood and bond with her fellow women has been tested to the limit.

That brings us to the big shocker of watching this film now: at heart, it’s a love story between two women, one white and the other black. They hit it off right away, and in a startling move for a film of this era or most since, Delilah (an equally great performance by Louise Beavers) is quickly invited to “go into business” with Bea and serve as the face of the company. In fact it’s her own secret pancake recipe that gets the business going in the first place, but Delilah turns down 20% when it becomes incorporated. Some critics have cited this as a sign of her subservience, but if you look at it as an act of devotion between the two, it actually makes a lot more sense and gives her character a depth unheard of for the period. There’s even some satire when “Aunt Delilah” becomes the neon-encircled mascot of the brand, an open volley against the stereotyped grinning symbol of Aunt Jemima, and when the word “mammy” is spoken for the first time late in the film, it’s spat back by another character like it’s stuck in her throat.

Also significant is the film’s almost complete disinterest in men; Bea’s husband never gets a name and is simply mentioned as being dead, while in a concession to the Production Code, Delilah refers to the unseen father of her daughter, Peola, as a “light-skinned colored man” (lest viewers assume the man was actually white)– though this is redeemed with a resonant later line about him also beating against the wall society had built in front of him, just like his daughter. As for the only significant male character in the film, Stephen (played by Colbert’s costar in Cleopatra the same year, Warren William), he’s a damp fish from the start whose profession as an ichthyologist is said so many times the women simply seem to be referring to him as “ick.” Even his relationship with the adult Jessie is something of a question mark, as we’re left wondering about how they spent their nights alone together. It all seems like an innocent schoolgirl crush, but…

Still, it’s Peola’s desire to cross the color line that carries the most volatile charge today, right from the moment she’s exposed to her white classmates and walks in shame out of her school. The adult Peola is played by Fredi Washington, an African-American actress also seen in The Emperor Jones (1934) who became a real-life civil rights activist and head of the Negro Actors Guild. She’s simply terrific here, conveying layers of emotion throughout and imbuing a potentially tricky line like “I want to be white, as white as I look” with multiple meanings far deeper than the written word could have indicated.

Interestingly, she and the two white women in her life seem to have no particular use for the religion that forms such a major part of Delilah’s personality; in fact, Delilah’s intention to put the money saved from the pancake business aside for a grand funeral someday comes across as a self-fulfilling death wish that Bea is trying to hold at bay during the film’s emotional third act. The sense of uncertainty continues right through to the haunting final moments in which the fate of Peola is left unresolved apart from her decision to return to school (but under what pretense?). What we’re left with is the façade of Delilah’s painted face hovering in lights in the middle of the night sky as Bea turns down a marriage offer and opts to focus on her daughter. The specter of racism remains, casting a shadow on the women trying to make their way against the odds.

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That Rhymes with ‘P’ and That Stands for Pool

TCM struck up the band to wind down night two with a poolside screening of THE MUSIC MAN (1962) under the palm trees at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. The crowd-pleasing… Read more »

TCM struck up the band to wind down night two with a poolside screening of THE MUSIC MAN (1962) under the palm trees at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. The crowd-pleasing musical had toes taping to tunes like “Ya Got Trouble” and “76 Trombones”  and “Wells Fargo Wagon.” On hand to introduce the film was TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz, who called it a “joyous affair” and one of his favorite musicals.

musicmanTHE MUSIC MAN features Robert Preston as con man Harold Hill, who’s out to scam an Iowa town into shelling out the dough for a fake boys band (“I say River City’s gotta have a Boys Band”). But along the way, he falls for local librarian Marian (played by Shirley Jones) and love complicates his plan. The original stage production of THE MUSIC MAN took Broadway by storm in 1957. It won five Tonys including Best Musical and Best Lead Actor for Preston. But he almost didn’t make the jump to the big screen. As the story goes, Warner Bros. wanted a big name for the screen adaptation, with Frank Sinatra topping the list. Cary Grant and Bing Crosby were some other names that got tossed around. But the show’s creator, Meredith Willson, who wrote the book, music and lyrics for THE MUSIC MAN, insisted on Preston.

Robert Preston got his acting start in the 1930s at the celebrated Pasadena Playhouse. He took classes and appeared on stage with several other up-and-coming actors such as Dana Andrews, George Reeves and Victor Mature. During one production, a Paramount scout saw Preston and signed him to a contract. Preston spent the 40′s in bit parts and largely unsuccessful film roles—including a number of westerns. In that genre, he appeared opposite Susan Hayward in Tulsa (1949), Alan Ladd in Whispering Smith (1949) and Robert Ryan in Best of the Badmen (1951) to name a few. Preston moved to television and theatre in the 50′s, finding greater fame on Broadway than the big screen.

But THE MUSIC MAN’s successful leap to the big screen changed all that. The film was the fifth highest grossing film of 1962. It was nominated for five Oscars, winning just one—for Best Musical Score. And it earned Preston a little respect in Hollywood. His next pictures would take him back to the world of westerns, but they were much higher profile. He appeared in the all-star How the West Was Won (1962) and the rodeo flick Junior Bonner (1972) with Steve McQueen. But perhaps Preston’s best screen performance would come in Blake Edwards’ 1982 cross-dressing film Victor/Victoria. He would win the Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his performance as cabaret singer Carol ‘Toddy’ Todd.

It’s been said that Preston had never appeared in a musical or sung a note professionally before THE MUSIC MAN. If true, it’s certainly a case of the right role and the right actor connecting at the perfect moment. He would go on to win a second Tony for Best Actor in a Musical in 1967—for the scenes-from-a-marriage show I Do! I Do ! co-starring Mary Martin.

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DOUBLE INDEMNITY: Who Could Have Known That Murder Can Sometimes Smell Like Honeysuckle?

TCM Host Robert Osborne introduced tonight’s world premiere restoration screening of DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) by saying it’s “one of my all time favorites,” and characterizing the film as “a great… Read more »

TCM Host Robert Osborne introduced tonight’s world premiere restoration screening of DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) by saying it’s “one of my all time favorites,” and characterizing the film as “a great feather in Wilder’s cap.” But he also pointed out that certain aspects of the film’s production and reception were as tough as the characters it portrays.

 

DoubleIndemnity_1944_1_470X350Director Billy Wilder had a hard time casting the leads because the characters were so “despicable.”  George Raft passed on the Walter Neff role (as he was known to pass on so many great parts) because it didn’t have a “lapel moment” when the character turned his jacket to reveal a badge—and better motives than anyone had suspected.  Eventually, Wilder convinced Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray to take on the leading roles, which turned out to be “among the greatest” they would play.

 

Once the film rolled, every ounce of praise Osborne had lavished on the film seemed not only deserved, but perhaps even understated.  The nightmarish world created by Raymond Chandler’s dialogue and John F. Seitz’s cinematography, with clockwork direction by Wilder and a haunting score from Miklos Rozsa, is among the most distinctive and atmospheric in film history.   Too often, discussions of film noir focus only on its visual style, and that style was instantly recognizable to the audience at tonight’s screening.  But without a hard-boiled story underlying the action—a story where deep longing causes the protagonist to make a fateful decision that sets in motion a cosmic balancing of the scales—the camera’s noir vision is uncoupled from the proper hard-boiled worldview, and noir becomes nothing more than a stylistic veneer.

 

What was evident to everyone who saw DOUBLE INDEMNITY tonight is its undeniably hard-boiled worldview.  In fact, that may be the single most important and defining characteristic of this film, despite the incredible performances from the leads.  And that should come as no surprise, given that its source material is a novella by James M. Cain (who also wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice and Mildred Pierce) extensively rewritten for screen by Chandler (with the assistance, or interference—depending on whose account you believe—of Billy Wilder, who would later be responsible for the iconic noir Sunset Blvd.)

 

It might seem that a kid who spent his early years in Plattsmouth, Nebraska before attending a prestigious “public” school in London, England (Dulwich College) would be an unlikely candidate to become the hard-boiled voice of the Los Angeles.  But Chandler knew heartache.  His alcoholic father abandoned the family when Raymond was a child, forcing their move to England (closer to his mother’s only well-heeled relatives).  There, he studied classical literature at the same school that produced P. G. Wodehouse and C. S. Forrester, and journalism while on staff at the Daily Express. When Chandler came back to the United States, he struggled to make ends meet as a tennis racket stringer and fruit picker, then saw action in the trenches of WWI.  Finally, he got into the most American of businesses, moving his way up the ranks to become a vice president of Dabney Oil in L.A. before his alcoholism and womanizing ended that career.

 

Only then, at the age of 44, did he decide to become a detective fiction writer, and from his uncommon blend of life experiences—high culture and low, small town and big city, success and failure—he created one of the most poignant and distinctive voices the literary world has ever known (and in detective Philip Marlowe, one of the most iconic literary heroes).  For a decade, from 1933 to 1943, Chandler published numerous stories in the pulps and his first three hard-boiled novels, all of them featuring Marlowe.

 

Then, in 1943 he was hired by Paramount to collaborate with Billy Wilder on the screenplay for DOUBLE INDENMITY. While Chandler’s works and characters would be adapted dozens of times to radio, film and television, this was one of just four screenplays to bear his name, along with And Now Tomorrow, The Blue Dahlia, and Strangers on a Train (though virtually nothing of his work on the last remained after the screenplay was rewritten by Czenzi Ormonde, and Chandler and Hitchcock both tried unsuccessfully to have Chandler’s name removed from the credits).  Of these, DOUBLE INDEMNITY is clearly the greatest.

 

Chandler described his collaboration with Wilder as “an agonizing experience,” and later wrote “in Hollywood the screenplay in written by a salaried writer under the supervision of a producer—that is to say, by an employee without power or decision over the uses of his own craft, without ownership of it, and, however extravagantly paid, almost without honor for it.” But whatever suffering Chandler felt over the process seems only to have enhanced the final product.

 

DIIt’s a poignant and riveting story of betrayal and scheming, with lines that only Chandler could have written—the sorts of lines that made him the true poet of the city of fallen angels (“How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?”). Told in flashback into a dictaphone to heighten protagonist Walter Neff’s (MacMurray) regret and to underscore the collective loss of innocence of all the players—particularly Neff’s friend Barton Keyes, played masterfully by Edward G. Robinson—it perfectly captures the mood of wartime America.  But as was evident today at the Chinese Theatre today, it creates a dark and brooding mood no matter when it screens, mostly thanks to the Chandler-Wilder screenplay.

 

Amidst the sizzling innuendos of MacMurray and Stanwyck (the famous “How fast was I going, Officer?”), the tensionsDOUBLE created by Keyes’ (Robinson) dogged pursuits and unfailing hunches, and the pure poetry of the screenplay, there is a quiet moment that is easy to miss but speaks volumes.  Fifteen minutes in, as Neff leaves Keyes’ office, sweating the fact that Keyes seems to be onto something fishy about the insurance claim that will implicate Neff, he passes a man sitting quietly in a chair, reading a magazine.  That man is Raymond Chandler—the quiet literary type who publicly shunned the limelight but always wanted a little more fame and notoriety, a little more success with the ladies, and the ability to get away with something (which in a sense he did, because this cameo by Chandler went unnoticed for more than 60 years).

 

His presence there, rather meek and mild, seems to sum up why this movie, and all of Chandler’s writings (and to some extent, Cain’s), still hit the mark.  They convey a keen awareness that heroes are needed but they are bound to be tarnished souls, born of a world that has lost its innocence. Chandler’s own comments on crime fiction, in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” sum it up best:

     “The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the fingerman for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket; a world where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket, where the mayor of your town may have condoned murder as an instrument of money-making, where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practicing; a world where you may witness a hold-up in broad daylight and see who did it, but you will fade quickly back into the crowd rather than tell anyone, because the hold-up men may have friends with long guns, or the police may not like your testimony, and in any case the shyster for the defense will be allowed to abuse and vilify you in open court, before a jury of selected morons, without any but the most perfunctory interference from a political judge.

     It is not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in, and certain writers with tough minds and a cool spirit of    detachment can make very interesting and even amusing patterns out of it.”

 Today, viewers were treated to the interesting patterns that Chandler and Wilder made of this not so fragrant world. And even now, armed with the knowledge that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle, they’d go back and do it again. Straight down the line.

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A Conversation with Richard M. Sherman

Club TCM’s last discussion on Saturday night featured composer and lyricist Richard D. Sherman. Interviewed by film critic Leonard Maltin, Sherman discussed his parents, partnership with his brother Robert B…. Read more »

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Club TCM’s last discussion on Saturday night featured composer and lyricist Richard D. Sherman. Interviewed by film critic Leonard Maltin, Sherman discussed his parents, partnership with his brother Robert B. Sherman and his legendary career at Disney. Seated in front of a keyboard Sherman played a few bars from his father’s songs, several hits including “Tall Paul,” “You’re Sixteen,” “I Wan’na Be Like You” from The Jungle Book (1967), “Admiral Boom” which was cut from 1964′s Mary Poppins, and closed the interview by singing “Feed the Birds” from the same film, which led to a standing ovation from the teary-eyed crowd. Below are a few additional highlights:

  • “Truly, I’m just excited about the world, and everything around me today as I did when I was 25. Todays a wonderful day, tomorrow will be even more exciting because I don’t know what’s going to happen. I have a wonderful life. I am a very, very, very fortunate fellow and I don’t feel my age at all – and I’m 84 now.”
  • “Dad’s rule for a good song: keep it simple, singable, sincere and original.”
  • “Bob was going to write plays, I was going to be the great American playwright. So we were both living in an LA apt digging the Great American Hole. Dad said ‘You two college graduates, I bet you couldn’t write a song a kid would give his lunch money to buy,’ and dad walked out. The gauntlet had been thrown! Long story short, we came up with a little pop song called Gold Can Buy Anything But Love and Gene Autry recorded it.”
  • “When I was graduating from high school Andre Previn was my accompanist. But then he got a little high hat because he was working at MGM.”
  • “Walt was very sentimental, he hid it with a Midwestern façade, a coolness. But basically he cried at stop signs – didn’t show it, but that’s what he was. “Feed the Birds” was his life story. He was not after money or fame, he did it to make people happy. We sang that song for him once, and went on with our meeting. At the end he said ‘Play me that bird lady song again. That’s the whole story in a nutshell. You guys think story. How would you like to work here?’ And he gave us our contract.”
  • “Dad was our inspiration for “Let’s Go Fly A Kite.” He thought there was nothing more exciting then building your own kite and taking it out to fly. My dad, he was our inspiration for that one.”
  • On “It’s A Small World After All:” “We were the troubleshooters [as contract writers] out of pure good luck we were at the right place at the right time. Walt said ‘I want you to write me a song that’s simple and can be translated into any language. That we have to be kind, and respect each other. And I need it yesterday, because the ride opens the World’s Fair in eight months.’ And you either want to kiss us or kill us for it.
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Right Here in St. Louis

TCM went turn-of-the-century this afternoon with a presentation of MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944) at the TCL Chinese. Projected in pristine digital, the film, which marks its 60th anniversary… Read more »

TCM went turn-of-the-century this afternoon with a presentation of MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944) at the TCL Chinese. Projected in pristine digital, the film, which marks its 60th anniversary this year, has never looked or sounded better. And the enthusiastic audience certainly agreed—they couldn’t resist humming along to the film’s now standard tunes, including “The Boy Next Door” and “The Trolley Song.” Plus, adding to an already delightful experience, Tootie herself, Margaret O’Brien, was on hand to introduce the film. O’Brien sat down with journalist and film critic Richard Corliss before the screening to reminisce about her experiences making MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS.

meetmeinstlouis3Mr. Corliss gave O’Brien a nice introduction, pointing out that today’s film is part of TCM’s Sister Acts series (films about sisterhood), but he called O’Brien “one of the great daughters of the movies.” He also went on to compare her to the legendary “child performers” we have lost recently—Deanna Durbin, Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney. Corliss praised O’Brien as a “child actress” instead, saying she lived inside a child’s world of wonder and fear. Margaret O’Brien looked wonderful in a lovely red lace blouse and received a standing ovation from the crowd. She spoke briefly about her seventy year friendship with Mickey Rooney, who died just last week. O’Brien discussed her first small role in 1941’s Babes on Broadway where she met Rooney. And how they had just finished their second picture together after all these years, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (2014).

Of MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, O’Brien called him nice but stingy. “He could cry better than I could,” she joked, referring to the studio head’s negotiating tactics. And speaking of crying, O’Brien was widely known for her ability to cry on cue. But as the story goes, she was having difficultly bringing the tears for one key scene in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS—knocking down the snowmen post “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The version of events that has become Hollywood legend is that director Vincente Minnelli told O’Brien her dog had died and brought the tears. But she discredits this account, saying “my mother never would’ve allowed it.” According to O’Brien, she was in a competition with June Allyson for best crier on the lot (they were apparently called the MGM town criers). Her mother simply suggested that Allyson might be the better crier and the tears appeared.

meetmeinstlouis1O’Brien touched on one negative turn of events during production for MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS. Before she was cast in the film, her mother was playing a bit of hardball with the studio for more money. MGM, in return, called up O’Brien’s stand in and promised her the role. Of course, the poor girl never got the part, and O’Brien eventually got her raise. The stand in’s father, however, recalled O’Brien, worked at MGM and had something of a nervous breakdown. He almost dropped a light on O’Brien on the set. But despite this incident, O’Brien has fond memories from MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, like playing hopscotch on set with Judy Garland. And, she loved the red coat she wore on screen so much that she purchased it and wore it for years (and apparently it still fits!) “I hope you’re as happy watching it as we were making it,” O’Brien wished the audience.

MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS proved to be an enormous success. It was the second highest grossing movie of 1944 (Going My Way was number one). It was nominated for four Oscars and earned a Special Academy Award for O’Brien as Outstanding Child Actress of the year. It also produced a marriage—Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli met on the production. They were married the very next year, in June of 1945. The music from MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS has also had a lasting impact. On the 2004 list of the 100 Greatest Songs in American Film by the AFI, “The Trolley Song” was ranked #26 and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was at #72.

Margaret O’Brien will also appear on Sunday morning for TCM’s tribute to Mickey Rooney and screening of National Velvet (1944) at 9 am in Multiplex 1.

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A Conversation with William Friedkin

Yet another standing room only crowd in Club TCM for A Conversation with William Friendkin, interviewed by Film Noir Foundation President and author Eddie Muller! A veteran of live television… Read more »

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Yet another standing room only crowd in Club TCM for A Conversation with William Friendkin, interviewed by Film Noir Foundation President and author Eddie Muller! A veteran of live television in the 1950s, Friedkin trained in documentary filmmaking in the mid-1960s – training that led to the unnerving, you-are-there realism of The French Connection (1971) and the terrible beauty of The Exorcist (1973) and Sorcerer (1977). In 1971, his The French Connection was released to wide critical acclaim. Shot in a gritty style more suited for documentaries than Hollywood features, the film won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.  Friedkin followed up with 1973′s The Exorcist, which was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. It won for Best Screenplay and Best Sound. He has also directed such searing action films as Rules Of Engagement (2000) and The Hunted (2003); Bug (2006) and his most recent film, Killer Joe (2012) starring Matthew McConaughey and Emile Hirsch. Here are some highlights:

  • On casting Linda Blair: “She wasn’t beautiful, but adorable. Very intelligent which is what I look for in an actor – and an audience (the crowd rolls) she’d never acted before. I said, ‘Linda do you know what this film is about?’ She said it’s about a girl who does bad things. ‘Things like what?’ ‘She slaps her mother and masturbates with a crucifix.’ I looked at her mom, who was still smiling. I said ‘Do you know what that means?’ Linda said ‘It’s like jerking off.” I asked if she’d ever done that, and she said ‘Sure, haven’t you?’ So I cast her, because I knew the material wouldn’t disturb her.”
  • “I came out of the theatre (after seeing Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941)) and decided that’s what I wanted to do.”
  • The French Connection I set out to make it like a documentary. It’s was a new thing – especially to have a good cop and a bad cop. He was obsessive and only wanted to get the bad guy. But the bad guy in the film was more of a gentleman than the cop! That was interesting to me.”
  • “For me the films that changed cinema isn’t The French Connection. Birth of a Nation (1915) first major epic film that cost a lot of money at the time and was a huge hit. And then next Citizen Kane. And Breathless in 1960. The effect of that film has reverberated to television today. Next was Easy Rider (1969). It should that you could make a film in a totally new way, with a bunch of hippies and still make a hit. Lastly, Star Wars (1977), you wouldn’t have the majority of films you have now, without Star Wars.”
  • Muller : “Of course you have a connection to Star Wars, because it opened the same week as your master piece Sorcerer.” Friedkin: “What, you think that’s funny?! Look at these pants. I should be in a Brooks Brothers suit!”
  • Sorcerer is the only film I wouldn’t change a frame of. Others, I would change a line, a shot, casting. But not Sorcerer.”
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What, Harold Lloyd Worry?

Tonight at the Egyptian the TCMCFF again welcomes bespectacled silent comedian Harold Lloyd, this time with a screening of WHY WORRY? (1923) featuring the live musical accompaniment of Carl Davis… Read more »

Tonight at the Egyptian the TCMCFF again welcomes bespectacled silent comedian Harold Lloyd, this time with a screening of WHY WORRY? (1923) featuring the live musical accompaniment of Carl Davis conducting the World Premiere of his new score for the film, his fourth score for a Lloyd comedy.  Harold has been a welcome presence at previous TCM Classic Film Festivals, represented by such classics as Safety Last (1923) at the first TCMCFF in 2010 and Girl Shy (1924) in 2012.

whyworry_1923_lc_02_1200It’s a truism that pre-sound films are best appreciated on the big screen with live musical accompaniment, and that silent comedies go over particularly well with a large audience, but it is probably also worth arguing that the films of Harold Lloyd benefit more from large screenings and audience participation than do the films of his contemporaries, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.  His “glasses” persona was more populist, outward-looking and “Jazz Age” than the Little Tramp or the Great Stoneface, seeking approval from his peers; a large audience finds it rewarding to cheer the fellow on in his go-getting endeavors to impress the girl, outwit the rival, or win the day.

WHY WORRY? is more surreal than the typical Lloyd outing—it finds Harold the wealthy hypochondriac heading for the tropics to seek a cure for an imaginary illness.  The South American country he finds himself in is torn apart by revolution, but Harold thinks it is all a show for tourists.  (Lloyd originally intended to set WHY WORRY? in Mexico; he had to fictionalize the locale after objections to the scenario from the Mexican Tourist Board).  Things get mighty strange when Harold befriends the giant Colosso and fools an entire army division into thinking that he and Colosso are an even larger military force.

whyworry2WHY WORRY? was the last Lloyd film produced by Hal Roach.  The two had an amiable separation; Roach let Lloyd’s entire staff out of their contract so that Lloyd could produce films on his own.  It was also the first film Lloyd had made in many years without leading lady Mildred Davis.  Davis went from being Harold’s leading lady to being his wife; in fact they were married during the production of WHY WORRY?

Suzanne Lloyd, Harold and Mildred’s granddaughter (and the President of Harold Lloyd Entertainment) will also be present to introduce the screening and fill in more information about her grandparents and WHY WORRY? In particular.  Judging from past Lloyd screenings at the TCMCFF, there will no doubt be howls–yes, HOWLS–of laughter and numerous outbursts of spontaneous applause during the spirited hour-and-three-minute show!

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A Trip to GREY GARDENS with Albert Maysles

Before reality shows like Real Housewives, Hoarders and Honey Boo Boo brought us so many crazy families that the Kardashians now seem as ordinary to us as the Cleavers –… Read more »

Before reality shows like Real Housewives, Hoarders and Honey Boo Boo brought us so many crazy families that the Kardashians now seem as ordinary to us as the Cleavers – came the original tale of the eccentric family next door, GREY GARDENS (1975). TCM presented a gorgeous digital restoration of the classic documentary this morning at the Chinese Multiplex 1. Part of the festival’s overall theme of Family in the Movies, GREY GARDENS practically begged for inclusion in the Dysfunctional Families series of films.

greygardensGREY GARDENS centers on the claustrophobic world of a reclusive East Hamptons mother and daughter. Both named Edith Bouvier Beale, the former socialites, known as “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” were the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Filmmakers Albert and David Maysles originally set out to make a documentary about Onassis’ sister Lee Radziwill. But in the course of their research, they met the Beales. The filmmakers were so fascinated by the Beales’ decaying world—the mansion filled with garbage, no running water and raccoons roaming loose—that the focus of the project soon shifted.

We were very lucky to have filmmaker Albert Maysles in attendance at today’s screening. Mr. Maysles was welcomed with a standing ovation. He introduced the film briefly, saying it was love at first sight with the Beales. “You really get to know these people,” he observed. “It’s all them.” Maysles also admitted that he and his brother set out to live at Grey Gardens during filming. But once there, “[they] couldn’t take it. The smell was too pervasive.” After the film, Maysles sat down for a short interview by Michael Pogorzelski, director of the Academy Film Archive. They touched briefly on his early career and techniques of “observation.” But it was clear that Mr. Maysles was most passionate about the connection between filmmaker and subject. “It’s friendship,” he called it. “And boy do we need it.”

Maysles also took a few questions from the audience. One festivalgoer asked if there were other guests (aside from Big Edie’s birthday party attendees) during the Maysles’ time there. But Mr. Maysles recalled those being the only visitors. Another fan asked if he ever made personal judgments about his subjects. Maysles had a great answer. “Mother used to say there’s good in everybody. I make sure to get that.” And finally, he was asked how he knew when filming was complete. Maysles listed the elements he looked for on a shoot: emotional connection, finding common ground and insights into personality. “I hope that most people who see [GREY GARDENS] are shocked by it and don’t want to see any more,” he said in closing.

AlbertMaysles_470x350While GREY GARDENS may be Maysles’ best known work, his filmmaking career actually began two decades earlier. Trained as a psychologist, Maysles made his first documentary on a trip to Russia in 1955. The film, called Psychiatry in Russia, explored the conditions at several Soviet mental hospitals. A few years later, Maysles collaborated with Robert Drew on the classic JFK documentary Primary (1960). From there, Maysles teamed with his brother David to produce a series of high profile celebrity pieces, beginning with What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA (1964). This work included the now iconic footage of the Beatles arriving at JFK, en route to their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. The Maysles brothers also turned out Meet Marlon Brando (1965), With Love From Truman (1966) (a film about Truman Capote) and the well-regarded Rolling Stones film Gimme Shelter (1970). But perhaps their best work of the period would come in 1968’s Salesman, a groundbreaking study of four door-to-door Bible salesmen. Mr. Maysles urged everyone at today’s screening to see Salesman. He proudly repeated author Norman Mailer’s take on the documentary—that it said “more about America than any other film.”

As for GREY GARDENS, perhaps the best review came from its subjects. Little Edie praised the film, humbly saying, “the Maysles have created a classic.” And a few years later, when Big Edie was dying, her daughter asked if she had any final thoughts. “There’s nothing more say,” she replied. “It’s all in the film.” Big Edie passed away in 1977; Little Edie in 2002. Maysles kept in touch with them through the years. He said that Little Edie moved to Florida and did eventually go on stage at a night club. The house was sold in 1979 and, along with the grounds, was completely restored. And in 2010, the documentary GREY GARDENS was added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, as a culturally significant film.

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Pod People Invade the TCM Classic Film Festival

Don Siegel’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956) is graced with one the most recognized film titles of the 1950s, known even by most non-classic movie fans.  It helps that… Read more »

Don Siegel’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956) is graced with one the most recognized film titles of the 1950s, known even by most non-classic movie fans.  It helps that there have been a number of remakes of the story (in 1978, 1994 and 2007), but even those who are not film fans at all have heard the term “pod people,” a phrase that has crossed over into the general lexicon.

invasionofthebodysnatchers_lc_07_1200The film is also one of the key entries in the 1950s cycle of science fiction movies.  It ranks in just about anyone’s list of top five titles, along with The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), The Thing from Another World (1951) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1958).  It is also a movie that is best experienced with an audience.  There is something nefariously infectious about seeing a study in paranoia with a large audience—just as the characters on the screen begin to doubt their neighbors, the effect is heightened for the moviegoer who, though lost in the story unfolding onscreen, is surrounded by a large number of strangers!

Although it is now difficult to imagine INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS without him, Kevin McCarthy was not producer Walter Wanger’s first choice for the lead role of Dr. Miles Bennell.  Others considered (though not necessarily approached) included Joseph Cotten, Richard Widmark, Robert Ryan and Barry Nelson.  No doubt the low budget ($300,000) of the Allied Artists picture dictated a lesser-known name.  McCarthy was well respected in the acting community, however.  Known mostly for his stage work at this point, he received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar® nomination for his second film, an adaptation of Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman (1951).  McCarthy was also good friends with Montgomery Clift, and was the first person on the scene following Clift’s disfiguring car accident outside Elizabeth Taylor’s house in 1956.  Kevin McCarthy died in 2010 at the age of 96; fortunately he lived long enough to greet generations of fans at horror and pop culture conventions and sign his name to thousands of stills that showed he and Dana Wynter running in a panic through the streets of Santa Mira.

invasionofthebodysnatchersOne of McCarthy’s biggest fans and boosters was director Joe Dante, who considered McCarthy to be a good luck charm—the actor appeared in an astounding percentage of Dante’s films, including Piranha (1978), The Howling (1981), Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), Innerspace (1987) and Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003), in which he is seen carrying a pod around!

So, who better to introduce the 35mm SuperScope print (courtesy of the George Eastman House and from the personal collection of Martin Scorsese) to passholders this afternoon at the Egyptian than Dante himself?  He called McCarthy a “dear friend” and recalled the occasion when the two drove to meet Jack Finney, the writer of the Collier’s magazine story “The Body Snatchers” upon which the film was based.  (Allied Artists executives added the more exploitative “Invasion of” part of the title).

Dante described the SuperScope process, which involved simply filming at 35mm full frame but leaving a lot of headroom in the picture.  To create the wide aspect ratio, picture area was simply lopped off the top and bottom of the screen.  This led to a somewhat grainy image on movie screens, but Dante described the real problem: when TV prints were later made in 16mm, the SuperScope image was panned and scanned, cutting even more information off the sides of the screen!  Thankfully, the “bad old days” of seeing the film in this manner are over.  Dante noted that INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS is seldom revived on the big screen because of various rights issues.  He revealed that these issues have also prevented the release of a DVD commentary track he recorded years ago with both Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter.  That such a recording exists is very welcome news and it leaves the film’s many incurable fans something to look forward to hearing someday!

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Happy 20th Anniversary, Robert Osborne

A favorite event from the TCM Classic Cruise came to Hollywood  for the first time on Friday afternoon, but with a gigantic surprise twist. ASK ROBERT allows fans to pose… Read more »

5191077388dd0A favorite event from the TCM Classic Cruise came to Hollywood  for the first time on Friday afternoon, but with a gigantic surprise twist. ASK ROBERT allows fans to pose any question they like to the man who’s been with the network since the very beginning on April 14, 1994, and to mark his twentieth anniversary, an appropriate venue was chosen: The Montalbán Theatre, formerly the Doolittle Theatre, located on Vine Street in Hollywood.

Osborne’s own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is located in front of the building, which originally served as the location for the popular radio program, Lux Radio Theatre –  Osborne’s first major connection to Tinseltown growing up in Colfax, Washington. When Osborne took to the stage, he recalled some favorite memories there such as working under contract as an actor at Desilu with Lucille Ball, who educated him about the industry and encouraged him to take up writing about the subject he loved the most. He also appeared there with Zero Mostel in a Paddy Chayefsky play, The Latent Heterosexual.

At first things proceeded normally with audience members asking questions about his favorite movies growing up during World War II (Now, Voyager and Johnny Eager earned mentions), some of his most overlooked Oscar-worthy movies (The Bad and the Beautiful popping up, not surprisingly), and his travel schedule between his home in New York, TCM’s hometown of Atlanta (and the pollen that comes with it), and his busy schedule with the TCM Cruise and the festival.alextrebek_470x350

However, after half an hour things took an unexpected turn when his microphone seemed to give out, only to have technical support arrive on the stage in the form of Alex Trebek. The TCM guest programmer and Jeopardy! host (who introduced a screening of Zulu last night) turned out to be the emcee for an afternoon completely different from what everyone expected: a grand salute to the man who has personified TCM since its creation.

The surprise guests began with Oscar-winning actress Eva Marie Saint, who recorded a live interview with Osborne at last year’s festival and exclaimed after a rundown of her famous costars, “Of all those leading men, you’re my favorite!”

AlecBaldwin_470x350Next up was actress, producer and educator Diane Baker, who started off with Osborne as a contract player when they shot a screen test of a scene from East of Eden. She vividly recalled with a laugh his opinion about it: “Your voice is so high, the dogs can hear it!” They shared memories of when she introduced him to Joan Crawford, whom Osborne recalled had a handshake “like a truck driver,” and Baker summed him up as “an important man in my life.”

A pretaped statement came next from Bill Cosby, the first TCM guest programmer, who lauded Osborne’s dedication to classic film and said, “He doesn’t have a false moment.” Then it was time for a family reunion on the stage as Osborne’s family members, with cousin Susan Wright as spokesperson, surprised him from backstage and ran an affectionate slideshow of some of their past memories together.

Another familiar face from TCM arrived next as Alec Baldwin, a TCM Essentials co-host for three years, joyously reunited with him and ran a hilarious blooper reel of some memorable hosting tongue twisters in the past, including repeated thwarted attempts at pronouncing “La Cienega.” Baldwin also remembered attending a book releasing party at which Keith Richards shared his enthusiasm for Baldwin’s TV show – no, not 30 Rock, but “that Turner Classic Movies show.”

The fun continued with a second taped statement from another TCM guest programmer, Cher, and an appearance from his longtime TCM specials and segment director, Tony Barbon. Of course, it wouldn’t have been complete without Ben Mankiewicz, who came on board as the network’s second host in 2003 with a “shocking lack of neckwear.” He summed up the event perfectly by observing there was “never before a better combination of man and network,” and though their schedules mean they don’t get to see each other very often, it was clear they couldn’t be better matched.

More star power came next as Robert Wagner and Jill St. John made an elegant entrance and reminisced about some of their memorable moments, while the great Michael Feinstein took to a piano on the stage to perform a charming rendition of one of Osborne’s most personally meaningful songs, “The More I See You” by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon from the 1945 production, Diamond Horseshoe. For the grand finale, TCM’s General Manager, Jeff Gregor, led all the guests back to the stage where they and the entire audience held a sparkling toast to Osborne’s two decades of classic movie memories. Needless to say, we all can’t wait to see what the next twenty years have in store.

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TOUCH OF EVIL: Blowing up Film Noir

Producer, writer and director Fraser Heston—son of legendary actor Charlton Heston—was on hand today to introduce a new world premiere restoration of TOUCH OF EVIL, courtesy of Universal Pictures. The… Read more »

Producer, writer and director Fraser Heston—son of legendary actor Charlton Heston—was on hand today to introduce a new world premiere restoration of TOUCH OF EVIL, courtesy of Universal Pictures.

The younger Heston revealed it was his father who suggested Welles helm the picture, though the director was something of a persona non grata with the studios at the time due to his reputation for being difficult to work with and his tendency to run over budget. As was plain to everyone present at today’s screening, the suggestion was brilliant, and the end result was a “textbook example of noir.”

In a special moment that brought a collective gasp from the sizeable crowd at the Chinese Theatre, Fraser then produced and read from two personal letters he father had kept—one from Welles to Charlton, the other from Charlton to Lew Wasserman. The former was affectionate in tone, revealing how much Welles enjoyed working with the actor. In the latter, Charlton said of TOUCH OF EVIL, “It is not a great film. It is, however, the greatest B movie ever.”

It was clear to everyone watching this incredible restoration that TOUCH OF EVIL is at least that, and likely much more. The low key moments now reveal maximum detail in the shadows, and the high contrasts are striking without feeling overblown in the whites or too saturated in the darks. We get the sense we’re seeing things through Welles’ eyes, which is at once a thing of beauty and something difficult to assess—like Welles himself.

The trick with Welles is that he never seems to be interested in just telling a story. From his earliest experiments in film (and even earlier, in theater and radio), he played with storytelling conventions to confound audience expectations (e.g. The War of the Worlds broadcast, a science fiction fantasy done in a journalistic style). Over time this developed into a fascination with artifice that became increasingly self-conscious—as seen in moments like the double cross in The Lady from Shanghai (also playing in a premiere restoration at this year’s Festival), where Hayworth and Welles exchanges words that seal his fate as the sharks circle behind them in the walls of a giant aquarium.

TOE1TOUCH OF EVIL, in particular, seems to be focused as much on how it tells the story as on the story it tells. The opening sequence is an incredible three and a half minute tracking shot from a crane, which begins with a close-up of a bomb in someone’s hands. The person sets the timer on the bomb and puts it in the trunk of a car, just before a couple comes around the corner of a building and climbs into the car. Then the shot rises up in the air, giving us the sensation of this being an omniscient camera (and in the hands of Orson Welles, it is). The camera goes over the top of a dark building and drops down in front of it, then precedes the car as it works its way slowly through the congested traffic of a city in Mexico. This shot builds tremendous narrative tension, for we know the bomb ticking in the car’s trunk. But it clearly also begs us to notice what a complex shot it is.

In the film’s original theatrical release, the studio recut the open, running the title credits and Henry Mancini score over this sequence. Welles was furious, and fired off a 58-page memo in defense of his original cut. (A 1998 restoration of the film used his memo to reconstruct the opening sequence as accurately as possible, and the restoration that premiered today at the Fest treats viewers to that restored open.) A passage from that memo now opens the film, in which Welles begs the studio to “consent to this brief visual pattern to which I gave so many long hard days of work.”

TOE2An equally complex staging at the end of the film helps us to understand why Welles fought so passionately for his original vision, as well as what this “brief visual pattern” might be—for the two moments seem to both bookend the narrative action and create a game of mirrors, where the end forces us to reflect upon what Welles was up to in the beginning, and vice versa. The film ends with drug enforcement agent Mike Vargas (Heston) closing in on Hank Quinlan (Welles himself) with a recording device, trying to capture an incriminating conversation between Quinlan and his longtime associate Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia). As the lead actor closes in on the filmmaker (who is atop a broken bridge that seems to lead nowhere), a feedback loop is created and Quinlan hears the slightly delayed echo of his own voice. This moment signals his demise—for he is caught in a triangle between being in charge of the action (as director), caught up in the action (as actor), and at the mercy of the medium (as an artist). As the gap closes, the author/auteur must die.

TOE3If we look back at the opening sequence through the overt self-consciousness of the final scenes, it seems Welles opened the film by blowing apart noir conventions and concluded it by staging his own demise. It’s no wonder this film is often seen as the last film noir of the classic era (stretching from 1941′s The Maltese Falcon to TOUCH OF EVIL), for it pushes the self-consciousness that was always a part of the extreme stylization of noir so far that it was no longer possible to tell a straight, hard-boiled story. And it’s no wonder this was Welles’ last narrative film in Hollywood. Soon after, he departed for Europe, where he would take on projects increasingly focused on the collision of artist with artifice (like F for Fake, a documentary about his own career, as well as the careers of a famous art forger and a fraudulent biographer).

While it’s hard to know if audiences in 1958 would have had these same reactions to the film, it’s certain that one of the joys of revisiting classics is that we can see them through the lens of what followed. Looking back is prismatic, to be sure, but what we lose in clarity we gain in multivalent perspective—as was clear in the faces of those leaving the Chinese today, who seemed equally dazzled and introspective, as anyone who has seen true art is apt to be.

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The Italian Job: or, the Mini Cooper Mob

“Hang on a minute, lads …. I’ve got a great idea !”   This Michael Caine thriller hasn’t a single cinematically significant or profound moment. Isn’t that a great idea?  … Read more »

“Hang on a minute, lads …. I’ve got a great idea !”

 

This Michael Caine thriller hasn’t a single cinematically significant or profound moment. Isn’t that a great idea?

 

The heist caper crime sub-genre began as serious drama (The Asphalt Jungle, Rififi) but soon mutated into a freewheeling escapist format, with ever-more complex and preposterous robbery schemes. The brains behind the operation usually comes up with a foolproof plan that stumbles or fails due to dumb luck or the human element… remember Sterling Hayden’s shocked disbelief at the finish of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing?  The measure of a caper tale is always how the thieves react when the plan suddenly goes haywire — really smart crooks improvise on the fly. We come to think that they’ve earned their loot, while indulging larcenous fantasies of our own. Would we have the nerve to pull off anything as daring?

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Peter Collinson’s 1969 THE ITALIAN JOB is a lavish production that doesn’t mind being a borderline comedy. In fact, it’s more or less a party picture through and through. Star Michael Caine had already taken part in the jokey caper romp Gambit, and in this picture he sends up his suave screen image. His dandified crook Charlie Croker has his cool act on, but in action tends to be hit and miss. The pressure of the heist takes his toll, especially when his team of thieves shows as much discipline as the average gang of sports hooligans. When his boys cause trouble, he stands to attention, points an authoritative finger and barks out, “Right !”   Then he can’t think of what to say next.

 

And Charlie Croker ought to be a bit anxious, for he’s trying to pull off the most unlikely super crime to date: a robbery of millions in Chinese gold, to be snatched in downtown Turin, Italy, in a traffic jam specially arranged by Charlie Croker’s daffy computer genius. How will the thieves make a clean getaway? Charlie’s team of lunatics will drive three tiny Mini Cooper automobiles, each carrying 1/3 of the loot. Barely larger than Clown Cars, the Mini Coopers can drive on sidewalks and climb stairways. With a little help they even race through the sewers and across rooftops. The movie naturally seizes this as a grand opportunity for crazy stunts, as when the cars jump between the tops of tall buildings. Today’s computer effects negate these kinds of they-really-did-it thrills, but back in 1969 the sight of the three cars zooming through sidewalk cafes like furious ladybugs garnered major applause.

 

Caine’s ambitious crook must deal with the mob kingpin Bridger (Noël Coward), who masterminds the entire English crime scene from inside a maximum security prison. The heist, it seems, is really a case of English mobsters attempting to make fools out of their Mafia counterparts. Croker must pull off his heist under the nose of an Italian crime boss (Raf Vallone), who has a nasty habit of wrecking priceless collector’s sports cars with a bulldozer, and sometimes their drivers as well.

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The tone of the film veers between relatively low-key farce and flat-out cartoon absurdity. Bridger is hailed by the cell block with a deafening chant; he waves back as if he were the Queen of the realm. The Union Jack becomes a main design theme, as the Mini Cooper mob is disguised as a football team. The three cars are painted in the national colors; they race through Milan in tight formation, showing off the precision of the stunt drivers. They even skid in tight formation. They vault down the steps of a famous church, interrupting a wedding in progress.

 

The craziest note comes when Croker’s computer hacker (and asylum habitué) Professor Peach is revealed to be none other than comedian Benny Hill. The pudgy genius can take control of the city’s entire traffic system, yet he exhibits a stupid grin and a marked oral fixation. Not accustomed to Brit Music Hall vulgarity, we Americans couldn’t believe the scene in which the near-drooling Hill pushes the fat bottom of a grossly overweight Signora through the narrow doors of a bus: “Are they big? I like ‘em big!”

 

It’s all in a fun, colorful caper film that became a party picture. A sleek opening ballad sung by Matt Munro, On Days Like These lulls us into a false sense of ease, soon rudely interrupted. The beautiful Italian-flavored ballad is by composer Quincy Jones, who shows his versatility with bouncy Brit themes as well.

 

Before the show, Ben Mankiewicz brought out Mister Quincy Jones himself, and went through a quick discussion of the great composer’s impressive film career, starting with The Pawnbroker in 1965. Jones talked about his upbringing and his work with practically every noted musician of the last fifty years, including candid appraisals of tough taskmasters like Frank Sinatra and Richard Brooks. He also had plenty to say about the music for THE ITALIAN JOB, explaining that star Michael Caine helped him to understand Cockney Rhyming speech. The song “The Self Preservation Society” has often been assumed to be an authentic Cockney composition.

 

Sure enough, THE ITALIAN JOB looked fabulous on the giant Egyptian Theater screen, in a very wide ‘scope framing and apparently a beautiful new digital master with stereophonic audio. Michael Caine and a gallery of exotic motorcars shone brighter than ever.  This is the kind of ‘fun’ movie one can’t expect to see revived at a museum screening, which means that the TCM Classic Film Festival has scored another victory for the enjoyment of popular film entertainment.

 

The esteemed Mr. Jones is a special guest of this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival, and will be making a personal appearance before the film to talk about his varied career.

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A Conversation with Richard Dreyfuss

With an entertainment career spanning more than four decades, Academy Award- winning actor Richard Dreyfuss has been one of America’s most versatile and individualistic actors. He is a spokesperson on… Read more »

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With an entertainment career spanning more than four decades, Academy Award- winning actor Richard Dreyfuss has been one of America’s most versatile and individualistic actors. He is a spokesperson on the issue of media informing policy, legislation, and public opinion, both speaking and writing to express his sentiments in favor of privacy, freedom of speech, democracy, and individual accountability. As a community leader, his current focus and passion is to encourage, revive, elevate and enhance the teaching of civics in American Schools. Dreyfuss was interviewed by actress, director, writer and producer Illeana Douglas. Below are a few highlights from the engaging, funny, and insightful discussion that kept the crowd on their toes in the standing room only crowd:

  • Illeana: “Does that ever stop getting exciting, that standing ovation?” Richard: “No, never. I make my wife do it every morning.”
  • Illeana: “Do you remember the first time you saw yourself on screen?” Dreyfuss: “A Big Valley, with Barbara Stanwyck. At the end of the show I had a billing credit. At the end of the show Stanwyck walked by me and said i was the best actor to ever do this show. By the time the hour was over, when I watched the show with friends I as backed up against the wall in horror and ashamed! Stanwyck surely thought, ‘I better say something nice or that poor kid will kill himself.’”
  • “Once I asked my mother ‘Why were you a Socialist, not Communist?’ ‘Better donuts.’ ‘I get it, your totalitarian psychopath is better than his totalitarian psychopath.’ And that’s when I started to have my own politics. I am intensely pre-partisan, and even more intensely anti-schmuck.”
  • “I want to teach a class where the kids in the class have to see at least 50 films made in america between 1931-1950. And then I’ll teach American culture through those films.”
  • Illeana: “This is going to be fun. I’d like to go through my favorite Richard Dreyfuss traits: cocked head look of skepticism (Dreyfuss mugs the look).” Richard: “As an actor I don’t know why I do what I do. I have that look because the character had that look. I don’t plan out such things.” Illeana: “I also think you’re the best on screen thinker.” Richard: “I wouldn’t do that if I was listening to someone I love, or who is wise. But if I’m listening to someone who is an idiot, it will be reflected in what I do. And I wrote a hunk of Jaws (1975), so I’m listening to see if he’s reading my lines right. So I listen with on objective.”
  • “I really like me, and I’m proud of me.”
  • On Close Encounters or the Third Kind (1977), which Spielberg wrote for someone else.: “I was kidding around and bad mouthing every actor he had in mind, Hackman, Hoffman, de Niro, etc, to get this part. I finally said ‘Steven, you need a child for this.  Only a child could leave his family and go off in the ship.’ Steven said ‘You got the part.’”
  • On The Goodbye Girl (1977) Ileanna Douglas asked: “Are you Elliott Garfield?” Dreyfus responding with obvious affection for his academy award winning role saying, “Let me put it this way. I would be happy to play Elliott Garfield every day for the rest of my life and retire with a Swiss watch.”

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ZULU Uprising at the Egyptian

ZULU (1964) was a later entry in the Widescreen Epic historical adventure genre, a British film of Colonialism that, while it tempered the standard “White Man’s Burden” approach seen in… Read more »

ZULU (1964) was a later entry in the Widescreen Epic historical adventure genre, a British film of Colonialism that, while it tempered the standard “White Man’s Burden” approach seen in previous movies that glorified the Empire, nevertheless has since fallen somewhat to the wayside thanks to moviegoers’ growing distaste for screen entertainment that glorified the former Empire.  It is now justly recognized as a superior example of its genre, boasting terrific action scenes on a grand scale, stunning location photography in South Africa, well-drawn performances from the able cast and one of the finest music scores from the great John Barry.

zulu_1964_bq_1200The historical incident in question was the defense of a garrison at Rorke’s Drift which took place on January 22, 1879.  There, four thousand Zulu warriors wildly outnumbered the small British regiment of 139.  Earlier, the Zulus had successfully attacked and killed more than 1300 British soldiers at another outpost.  The Zulu populace was provoked into the attacks after British forces had tried to confederate the KwaZulu territory in South Africa.  The defense of Rorke’s Drift became a legendary chapter in British military history, with nine men from the regiment (which was mostly made up of Welsh soldiers) later awarded the Victoria Cross for their bravery.

Actor Stanley Baker, a Welshman himself, had formed his own production company and with the backing of prolific producer/distributor Joseph E. Levine he brought the story to the screen.  By all accounts the historical accuracy of the piece was meticulously researched, to the point of seeking input from Zulu tribesmen on their precise military tactics, by way of stories that had been handed down through oral tradition.  Key to the production was the skill and taste of director, co-writer and co-producer Cy Endfield; the blacklisted American filmmaker had been working in Europe for more than a decade.

Notices were generally good, but not necessarily effusive with praise.  For example, Variety noted, “One of the more obvious cliches in this type of yarn is apt to be the malingerer who displays great heroism in a moment of crisis. There is such a situation in ZULU, but the cliche is avoided, largely because of the excellent performance by James Booth. Indeed, the high allround standard of acting is one of the notable plus features. Stanley Baker, a solid and reliable performer, turns in a thoroughly convincing portrayal as the resolute Royal Engineers officer, with an effective contrasting study by Michael Caine as a supercilious lieutenant…”

zuluZULU was a distinct career-booster for Michael Caine, who had been knocking around since 1956 in small roles in British TV productions and mostly uncredited bit parts in films.  Here he was given a “introducing” billing and makes a great impression playing upper-class Lieutenant Bromhead, distinctly different  from the Cockney-types Caine would later be known for.  Reportedly, Caine convinced Endfield and Baker to let him shade his character, having him evolve from an arrogant twit into a more sympathetic, feeling officer.

Today’s screening (a perfect digital presentation) was introduced by longtime Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek, who rattled off several interesting facts about the film with the same knowing eff1ciency we are used to witnessing on his syndicated program.  At one point, he told the familiar story of Caine taking his stage name from a movie marquee in Lester Square, which was showing the latest film starring his hero Humphrey Bogart.  The movie was The Caine Mutiny and Trebek gravely intoned that the young actor said to himself, “I’m going to become Michael Mutiny!”  Trebek, who can seemingly impart facts—with no written notes, mind you—faster than most other mortals, proved that he was a “student of African history” as he called himself; he perfectly set up the film ZULU by covering decades of Dutch and English conflict with African tribes in the region in the years before 1879.  Trebek said that Enfield’s picture was “pretty accurate in terms of history,” but that the opening scene of a Zulu tribal wedding probably never happened, but was just an excuse for Enfield to get dozens of bare-breasted women on the screen.

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ON APPROVAL sparkles with wit

“It’s a polarizing movie. You’re either going to love it or hate it,” predicted film historian Jeffrey Vance this morning in his introduction to ON APPROVAL (1944). But judging from… Read more »

“It’s a polarizing movie. You’re either going to love it or hate it,” predicted film historian Jeffrey Vance this morning in his introduction to ON APPROVAL (1944). But judging from the raucous audience reaction that followed over the next 80 minutes, actually no one hated it at all.

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Beatrice Lillie, Roland Culver, Googie Withers, Clive Brook

ON APPROVAL is a gem of high comedy, and since it was made in England, the Production Code did not apply, resulting in a scintillating mixture of bawdiness, double entendres, and even prodigious use of the word “hell,” which would be unthinkable in an American picture of the era. ON APPROVAL feels like a crazy combination of the Marx Brothers and Oscar Wilde, delivered in a deadpan style.

Actor Clive Brook, who plays the role of the Duke of Bristol, produced the film, wrote most of it, and even took over as director partway through shooting when original director Brian Desmond Hurst clashed with him creatively. Brook’s insertion of himself as director was actually a financial decision — there was no more money available to hire a new outside director. But as the only film Brook ever directed, ON APPROVAL stands as a remarkable accomplishment, brimming with visual wit and maintaining a beautifully consistent tone and comedic pace. Considering it’s based on a play (by Frederick Lonsdale), with much humor coming from the delicious comic barbs that fly left and right from all four main characters, it’s quite an accomplishment that the screen version should feel so cinematically alive.

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Googie Withers and Clive Brook

Brook re-set Lonsdale’s play from the 1920s into the Victorian era, so that the plot’s central conceit — a couple engaging in a “trial marriage” at a remote Scottish house, with another unmarried couple joining along — would actually feel scandalous. To further the effect, he begins the film with a modern-day prologue containing narration, freeze-frames, slow-motion and the like; toward the end, he throws in a highly imaginative dream sequence. In between, he treats us to gorgeous sets and costumes by Cecil Beaton. It’s a perfect match of content and style: the characters and dialogue may be outrageous and zany beneath their deadpan exterior, but so is the film itself, beneath its own sumptuous-looking surface.

As an actor, Brook comes off much like George Sanders did in this era, although Brook seems even more sarcastic and biting in his verbal barbs, if that is possible. A typical exchange: “Didn’t you, in a sneering way, accuse her of being 41?” Brook is asked. He replies, “I did, but she’s not crying because I said she’s 41. She’s crying because she is 41.”

Joining Brook are Roland Culver, pretty Googie Withers, and the great comedienne Beatrice Lillie in an extremely rare feature film appearance. The Canadian actress was so famous that she was known as “the funniest woman in the world,” entertaining millions of people over a fifty-year career on stage, radio and television, but only a tiny amount on the big screen. Around the time she made this one, she was spending much time entertaining the troops across the European, African and Middle Eastern theaters of World War II. So in tune was Lillie with her audience that a critic once said, “With one dart of her eyes, she can spare a skit writer a dozen lines.”

ON APPROVAL screened today in a brand new print struck expressly for this festival. While not a “restored” print — it still had some scratches from the negative or whatever source material was used — it still looked excellent overall. The sound was fine, too, except for the fact that a few lines were lost due to the loud laughter filling the room! Clive Brook, who retired from the screen after this film (he would come back just once more in 1963 to take a role in John Huston’s The List of Adrian Messenger), would have been proud.

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A Matter of Life and Death… reborn?

Now for something Completely Different. The famed ‘Archers’ writing and directing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger marked the end of WW2 by making a picture with a salient… Read more »

Now for something Completely Different.

The famed ‘Archers’ writing and directing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger marked the end of WW2 by making a picture with a salient propaganda purpose. The message is surrounded by a couple of hours of outlandishly fantastic (and romantic) happenings, all filmed in Technicolor by Jack Cardiff and utilizing a battery of highly creative special effects.

 

Trapped with no parachute in a burning plane, British flyer Peter Carter (David Niven) radios in to report his impending death. Peter falls in love with his radio contact, June (Kim Hunter). They exchange endearments even as they know they will never meet, at least not alive. Things immediately leap from the romantic to the surreal plane as Peter wonders if he’s been saved by the power of pure love. Is he alive or dead, or caught somewhere between terra firma and heaven? We watch as the story becomes an outright fantasy. Realizing that an error has occurred, a heavenly accounting office dispatches an 18th century dandy (Marius Goring) to ask Niven to voluntarily give up the ghost. The visual gimmick is that heaven is in an eerie black & white, and our Earthly ‘reality’ is in color. Goring’s celestial messenger arrives, sniffs a rose and purrs the now-famous line, “One is starved for Technicolor up there.”

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Powell and Pressburger dazzle us with some truly fantastic sights. People walk through walls, which was a complex trick in 3-strip Technicolor. Heaven is presently receiving Peter’s fellow aviators killed in action, among them a baby-faced Richard Attenborough. The new arrivals are processed in a heavenly waiting room that resembles a huge porcelain airport lounge … and even has a Coca-Cola machine. Connecting Heaven and Earth is a colossal ‘stairway to heaven’ (no, not Led Zeppelin’s) that stretches across the cosmos like a concrete ribbon. Peter is eventually scheduled for experimental brain surgery. The doctor is played by Roger Livesey, of the Archers’ superlative wartime romance I Know Where I’m Going. When the tribunal decides to intervene, the stairway descends right into the operating room.

 

We begin to wonder if June’s love is going to make any difference. When Peter submits to his operation, we see his point of view from behind his own eyelids. A camera obscura and a rehearsal for A Midsummer Night’s Dream drop hints that everything we see may be merely a dead man’s passing dream, as in a short story by Luis Borges or Ambrose Bierce.  Or will love win out after all?

 

David and June’s case is tried in heaven, with a multitude of departed souls looking on. The issue suddenly revolves around the rather trivial issue of nationality: June is from Boston, and the assembled British dead of the ages don’t like the idea of fraternization. The arguments then turn to the subject of Anglo-American relations, which is where the propaganda comes in. A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH was apparently partially conceived to counter American grumblings that Britannia should keep its wartime promises and set its colonies free. I don’t see what the big deal was, because none of the victors honored their promises for a better postwar world.

 

Beautiful to look at, A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH is a marvelous display of the Archers’ seemingly limitless imagination and technical finesse. Many critics consider it and its followups Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes as the peak of English cinema.

 

Speaking before the film was Thelma Schoonmaker, creative partner to Michael Scorsese and Michael Powell’s widow. The award-winning editrix found the audience eager to learn more about the making of the picture, which was planned while the war was still ongoing. Powell took a mercy ship to America to bring back actress Kim Hunter, who had been recommended by Alfred Hitchcock. Ms. Schoonmaker stressed Michael Powell’s research into the medical problem suffered by the film’s ‘Peter Carter’  — the symptoms perfectly match epilepsy induced by brain trauma. She also emphasized Powell’s accepting attitude toward death, which was carried over to all of the film’s ‘recent arrivals in the afterlife.’

Sony Pictures’ Grover Crisp was on hand to see his company’s splendid digital restoration of A  MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, which may not have been original Technicolor but gave a very close approximation, with saturated colors and rich contrasts. The audience consisted of quite a few Powell-Pressburger converts, who took in the show in attentive silence. What a great picture!

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THE THIN MAN: Or, How the End of the Prohibition Made a Party Out of Murder

Today’s Festival lineup is a rare treat for anyone interested in hard-boiled detective fiction and film noir, with screenings of THE THIN MAN (1934), Double Indemnity (1944) and Touch of… Read more »

Today’s Festival lineup is a rare treat for anyone interested in hard-boiled detective fiction and film noir, with screenings of THE THIN MAN (1934), Double Indemnity (1944) and Touch of Evil (1958).  It probably goes without saying that these films don’t constitute one of the official sub-themes of this year’s “Family in the Movies” programming, but they do provide a snapshot—or maybe a mug shot—of America’s mood swings the mid twentieth century.
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THE THIN MAN and Double Indemnity are adapted from the works of, arguably, the two greatest writers of hard-boiled fiction: Dashiell Hammett (his name pronounced “Da-SHE-al,” as special guest Eddie Muller pointed out), who is the first great novelist of this terse, fast-moving style that developed in the pulps; and Raymond Chandler, who set the standard for hard-boiled writing by coupling the style to a philosophical stance equally spare and unforgiving.

 

Yet, at a glance these films have virtually nothing in common.  So how did we get from the bubbly enthusiasm of THE THIN MAN to the brutal existentialism of Double Indemnity in just a decade? And from there, why did noir head further into a “darkness more than night” (to quote Chandler) with the nihilism of Touch of Evil?

 

Special guest Eddie Muller—who is the founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation, and producer and host of the Noir City film festival—provided key insights into these and other topics in his introduction this morning.  He noted that Hammett wrote The Thin Man, his final novel, during a period of giddy optimism just a few years into what turned out to be a 30-year relationship with playwright Lillian Hellman (who always claimed the character of Nora Charles was based on her).  That mood, it seems, permeated the book.

 

There’s no denying Nick and Nora Charles are Hammett’s most convivial characters: a fun-loving detective turned playboy and a wealthy Nob Hill heiress, their machine-gun dialogue hits the mark between hard-boiled and screwball.  But those who have read the source novel know it’s a far darker affair than the film—with visceral depictions of violence, angst that veers often into hysteria, and a long imbedded story about the Donner Party and human cannibalism (which reads as a rather somber reflection on human nature).   To understand why the film distilled all traces of hard-boiled from Hammett’s work—leaving only the high-proof comedic spirit behind—one must consider not only who Nick and Nora Charles are, but when they arrived on the scene.

 

Redbook first published the The Thin Man, in what Hammett scholar Robert L. Gale calls a “condensed, bowdlerized form,” in December 1933—the same month the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was repealed, ending Prohibition.  A decade and a half out from WWI and five years into the Great Depression, everyone was ready for a little cheer.  Nick and Nora Charles were the ones to throw the party.
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In the short span between the time Redbook published the story and Knopf printed the complete novel (in January, 1934), MGM snapped up the rights for a sizeable $21,000 and began work on the adaptation.  Scriptwriting was turned over to a real-life married couple—Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich—who perfectly captured witty, wedded repartee (wisely sticking to much of Hammett’s strong source dialogue).  The film went into production April 9, and was completed in just 16 days (some sources say as little as 12 or as many as 18).

 

The pace of filming may have been one important factor in establishing the rhythm of the onscreen comedic banter.  But the majority of credit has to go three talented individuals associated with the project: veteran director W. S. Van Dyke (who was, nonetheless, something of a novice with comedy) and the incomparable William Powell and Myrna Loy.

 

From mid-March to the first week of April, 1934, Van Dyke helmed the first Powell-Loy film, Manhattan Melodrama.  The onscreen chemistry between the two actors was evident, and within a week of the time Manhattan wrapped, production began on THE THIN MAN.  The duo proved even better suited to comedy, and while their dramatic turns were memorable (Manhattan, plus Evelyn Prentice and The Great Ziegfeld), their comedic collaborations were, and remain, without equal.

 

With impeccable timing and an ability to underplay absurd situations Powell and Loy made even the most outlandish stories believable, and they made us think real life could be as enjoyable as the life they lived on screen.  But we shouldn’t forget Hammett as we discuss their genius, for in Nick and Nora he created something special: they were neither the typical socialites of parlor mysteries nor the rough-edged loners of film noir.  Instead, they were a bit of both—a duo that moved easily between the mansions of knob hill and the speakeasies of Manhattan, between high society and low.  In them, Hammett scripted a toast to America—all of it—at a time when America needed something to toast.  And Van Dyke, Powell and Loy delivered that toast in a way that lightened the collective mood.

 

And it still does.  Today at the Egyptian theatre, just one month shy of the 80th anniversary of this film’s premiere, the packed house roared with laughter as Powell and Loy raised a glass and gave cheer.

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Charlton Heston… forever

I had a few possible subject headers in mind for this morning’s dedication of a first class postage stamp in honor of the late actor Charlton Heston — among them… Read more »

ChuckI had a few possible subject headers in mind for this morning’s dedication of a first class postage stamp in honor of the late actor Charlton Heston — among them “Charlton Heston Goes Postal” and “Stamping the Terra” but somehow neither one quite fit the bill… or the man The crowd gathered this morning in the historic Grauman’s Chinese Theatre for the unveiling of the new “forever” stamp by a combined effort of the Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG-AFTRA), the American Film Institute, the Citizen’s Stamp Advisory Committee, the United States Armed Forces, and, of course, the United States Postal Service felt, as I did, a sense of great dignity and significance in the event, meaning it was time for reverence and respect. “From the moment he was paid to be an actor…” Ben Mankiewicz said by way of opening remarks “… Charlton Heston was a movie star.” Ben’s words were backed by an extremely moving TCM-produced montage of clips from Heston’s films, a wildly divergent selection of key titles ranging from his appearance in a student film production of Peer Gynt to his tentpole appearances in such larger-than-life films as The Greatest Show on Earth, The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man, Soylent Green, and Treasure Island — a 1989 made-for-cable adaptation of the Robert Lewis Stevenson novel directed by Heston’s son Fraser, who got the job from TCM founder Ted Turner. Additional speakers such as former SAG-AFRTRA Executive Vice President Ned Vaughn, current SAG-AFTRA Executive Vice President Gabrielle Carteris (reading a statement by ailing SAG-AFTRA President Ken Howard), former Chair of the Citizen Stamp Advisory Committee and former director of the American Film Institute Jean Firstenberg, New Mexico senator Mickey Barnett (a former governor of the United States Postal Service) and Fraser Heston himself all paid warm and emotional tribute to Heston’s command of the screen, his devotion to his family, friends and colleagues, and his involvement in such flashpoint issues as the Civil Rights Movement and the formation of the Screen Actor’s Guild. Charlton Heston is the 18th film and TV personality to be immortalized in the USPS’s “Legends of Hollywood” line of first class stamps, which puts him in the very good company of John Wayne, Audrey Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Humphrey Bogart, Judy Garland, James Stewart, James Dean, Gregory Peck, and Gary Cooper — among others — and the third Screen Actor’s Guild president to be given his own postage stamp, alongside James Cagney and Robert Reagan.

The celebration continued immediately after the ceremony with a special screening and world premiere of a newly restored print of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), starring Heston in one of his most iconic roles.

The official USPS Charlton Heston Forever Stamp is the work of veteran Hollywood poster artist Drew Struzan.

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Go East, Young Man

The TCM Classic Film Festival might be a little further south than the stomping grounds of writer John Steinbeck in the wine valleys of northern California, but it still feels… Read more »

east_eden_2The TCM Classic Film Festival might be a little further south than the stomping grounds of writer John Steinbeck in the wine valleys of northern California, but it still feels appropriate kicking off a Friday morning with one of the quintessential adaptations of his work. Steinbeck has generally adapted well to the big screen with classics like The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, with the novelist himself taking a shot at writing directly for the screen with Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat and serving as on-camera host for O. Henry’s Full House.

Taking a page from the Wuthering Heights school of Hollywood adaptations, EAST OF EDEN (1955) tackles a dense, richly eventful Steinbeck novel from 1952 by simply telling only the second half of the story. That proved to be enough, however, as its incendiary performances immediately overcame whatever quibbles purists might have with changes to the source material. Kazan and Steinbeck had already formed a professional relationship as director and writer of Viva Zapata! in 1952, though for this translation into vivid WarnerColor and CinemaScope, writer Paul Osborn (The Yearling) was brought aboard for screenplay duties.eastofeden3

The epic American story set in early 20th century Salinas Valley, California zooms in on the dramatic relationship between two  brothers, Caleb (James Dean) and Aron (Richard Davalos), whose tragedies and rivalries mirror the American experience of the time. With the Production Code in full swing, many of the seamier aspects of Steinbeck’s characters and dialogue had to be toned or made more oblique, particularly when it came to prostitution and premarital sex. In fact, director Elia Kazan concurred and wrote a note to production manager Steve Trilling opining that “I do not want to make the brothel attractive. The place in From Here to Eternity was full of dancing and music and had one very very pretty girl, Donna Reed, and plenty of other that no one in the audience would ever pass by. I think it would be really ‘moral’ and uplifting if we were to show one of these dumps as they really are, drab, evil and dull.” Truth be told, if you were watching the film and didn’t know what kind of “house” everyone was talking about, it seems more like a slightly grungier-than-usual pool hall.

After a welcome from TCM’s Scott McGee, the digital screening (a recent HD restoration by Warner Bros.) at the Chinese Multiplex was introduced by The Hollywood Reporter‘s Scott Feinberg, movie buff and Oscar pundit extraordinaire. He gave a special shout out to TCM for fostering his love of the classics and helping him see films that would have otherwise been out of his grasp, a sympathy probably shared by everyone in the room. Not surprisingly, more than a few patrons were younger female fans who applauded appreciably when James Dean first appeared on camera right after the opening credits. Feinberg offered his own thoughts on the film as a struggle between the old and new guard of Hollywood mirroring the father and sons battling on the screen, with Raymond Massey having a less than warm relationship with Dean off camera. (Tragically, this would prove to be the only one of Dean’s three films he would live to see released.)

Those contrasting acting styles provide some real fireworks, of course, but there’s no question that method acting gets the upper hand here under Kazan’s guidance with Harris and Dean (who became friends in real life) ably supported by stellar turns from Jo Van Fleet (who won an Oscar for what amounts to only three dialogue scenes) and Burl Ives, both of whom lend remarkable gravitas. If you love your character actors, there’s also a fine role for Dr. Cyclops himself, Albert Dekker, as the town’s “good German,” and an uncredited Timothy Carey jolts the screen in a scene-stealing bit part as Van Fleet’s main bouncer.

Seen today, it’s clear that this first foray into ’50s widescreen dramatics wasn’t the smoothest transition for Kazan, who was best known at the time for the more traditionally composed A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront. The film is technically rough around the edges with huge amounts of strange post-production dubbing and random repeated shots spackling over awkward editing problems (love that cackling neighbor at the beginning!). However, Kazan also experiments with some dynamic compositions like Dean’s peeping tom routine among eerie stacks of ice blocks and his Dutch angle swinging towards the camera. Then there’s the finale, easily the single worst birthday ever committed to film, in which the frequently overlooked Davalos finally gets to shine with one horrifying gesture on an outbound train that still makes audiences jump. With a film this big, there’s no substitute for seeing it in a full house of fellow film fans.

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A Conversation with Carl Davis

While there are too many amazing films to choose from in the Festival schedule, I always have a hard time missing the discussions held in Club TCM. I’m constantly impressed… Read more »

While there are too many amazing films to choose from in the Festival schedule, I always have a hard time missing the discussions held in Club TCM. I’m constantly impressed by the talent and their insights, and am thrilled to be covering the discussions the next few days. Club TCM kicked off with a bang today for A Conversation with Carl Davis. The composer, conductor, and musician was interviewed by author Jon Burlingame.  Below are a few highlights from the interview:CarlDavis1_470x350

 

  • Speaking of conducting: “There is the buzz of a live show, you know if you’re a performer, that’s where it all comes together.”
  • “The principles of film and score are the same today. Everything you want to have heard you have to make. It’s the same problem with other forms of art what statement are we trying to make? If I’m faced with something that is complete already, like a silent film, I think about it and decide my approach: What is the genre? Then you might consider the location and period it’s set in – how will music help this? By ignoring it or  joining with it? There’s a kind of basic intelligence.
  • “I’m very traditional. I’m here to help you enjoy this film, and to make an all important bridge to forget about the strange parts. It sounds perverse, but you want people to say I was so engrossed I didn’t notice the music at all. They’re not insulting me, they are completely absorbed in what they’re watching.”
  • Speaking of Harold Lloyd’s Why Worry? (1923), which he’ll be conducting tonight at The Egyptian Theatre, at 7:15pm. It will be the world premiere live performance of his new original score with an orchestra: “Being a borderline hypochondriac, I love that aspect of the film.”
  • “I have favorite scenes. Flesh and the Devil (1926), a Garbo film, very romantic. Actually, quite early when she was not a good girl. There’s a scene where she’s having an affair with the leading man, there’s a ball and they waltz – and it’s me, I am waltzing with Garbo!
  • “When you’re handed a silent film you’ve got to make the sound. Bring out the element of conversation, or the meaning of it, at least. Where as with new films, it’s the third element, because you have dialogue, sound effects and then the score. Sometimes it is more effective not to have music at all. It’s not the most important sound, it’s one of the important sounds.
  • Napoleon (1927) – what we call the British version – is an ever growing film. I dread the phone ringing, and them saying ‘We’ve found another scene!’”
  • During the Q&A an audience member asked Davis if there is a particular silent film he’d like to score that is on his wishlist. His response: “Not really. I used to have them, and I’ve done a lot of the major films now. I can’t think of one right now. There are a few Garbo films, she’s always inspirational. But I’d like to broaden my range.”
  • “For The General (1926) there was a lot of existing music. Before the days of walkie talkies armies had to learn bugle calls. The subject had strong patriotic feelings, and both sides wrote their own songs. It was very important I had the right uniform and songs in front of me. And then you had a hero. Because this was a man who had an obsession with the locomotive – which was the great love of his life. The aim was to get the locomotive back. He had no particular allegiance to one side or the other. Lloyd and Keaton both always do everything with a purpose. The music has to have that drive and energy, so you know we’re on their side.”
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The World of Henry Orient: Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

(Post-screening celebrity wrap-up, below)   The movies may have discovered teenagers in the 1950s but the focus was usually on delinquency, hot rods and sex. 1964′s THE WORLD OF HENRY… Read more »

(Post-screening celebrity wrap-up, below)

 

The movies may have discovered teenagers in the 1950s but the focus was usually on delinquency, hot rods and sex. 1964′s THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT is a comedy that takes the time to examine the personal lives of a pair of New York girls at an awkward age — too old for dolls but not quite ready to negotiate the tougher aspects of teen-hood. Gil (Merrie Spaeth) and Val (Tippy Walker) instead indulge the adolescent fantasy of worshiping the concert pianist Henry Orient (Peter Sellers). Playing his records isn’t enough. The girls haunt Orient’s public appearances and dog his steps when he goes out on the town. Unfortunately, the oily Orient is pursuing an adulterous affair with the hapless Stella Dunnworthy (Paula Prentiss), and is convinced that the girls are purposely trying to ruin his love life. Whenever Orient maneuvers Stella into a submissive romantic scenario, they’re confronted by two smiling, gum-chewing faces, more often than not wearing Chinese hats in homage to their hero.

 

HENRY ORIENT features plenty of slapstick comedy from Peter Sellers but its portrait of these two energetic and irrepressibly imaginative pranksters is what has kept the movie high on favorites lists for the past half century. Film critics scrambled for words of praise to describe director George Roy Hill’s creative camerawork during Gil and Val’s adventures on the New York streets. Elmer Bernstein’s music score soars as they leap over obstacles in slow motion, pigtails flying. The most celebrated moment shows the girls in mid-jump, rising in the frame in slow motion. It looks as if they’re flying, as if they’re lighter than air, as if their youth and energy will keep them innocent and free forever.

 

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Author Nora Johnson was inspired by her own teen crush on Oscar Levant a decade or two before… we can just imagine the sourpuss Levant being less than civil to a persistent girl with an autograph book. Ms. Johnson adapted her book with her own father, the screenwriting veteran Nunnally Johnson. The tone begins on the light side with the spectacle of the girls’ completely normal, amusing play behavior, which includes a great deal of fantasy role-playing. Distinguishing HENRY ORIENT almost as much is its sensitivity toward family relationships and problems. Gil’s mother Avis (Phyllis Thaxter) is divorced but well adjusted. She wisely gives Gil what we would now call personal space. Val is in a less stable situation, as her wealthy parents Isabel and Frank (Angela Lansbury & Tom Bosley) are rarely home. Isabel is vain and selfish, and keeps both her daughter and her husband at an emotional remove, while she pursues relationships outside her marriage. Left on her own, Val naturally gravitates to the warmth of Gil’s all-female home.

 

Poor Stella is driven batty by guilt and the fear that her awkward liaisons with Henry Orient will come out into the open… it doesn’t matter that all of Henry’s seductions are miserable washouts. The best lunatic comedy bit comes when the girls inadvertently bring in the F.B.I., who think that Jayne Mansfield has been kidnapped. Paula Prentiss’s comic reaction to a sudden mob of police is priceless. She brightens every film she’s in, and when a picture is as good as HENRY ORIENT she’s terrific.

 

Seeing THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT today, we find it difficult to believe that any parent would dare allow Gil and Val to roam freely through New York and Central Park — either the city is far more hostile now or security consciousness has gotten way out of control. This is also the  rare film in which parents aren’t uniformly stupid. Frank recognizes that he needs to give Val the love and attention she isn’t getting from her mother, and does something about it.

 

THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT helped launch director George Roy Hill on ten productive years of high profile feature film work. Its enthusiastic fans often ask about the young first-time actresses Merrie Spaeth and Tippy Walker. TCM’s screening is slated to feature Ms. Spaeth in person, along with star Paula Prentiss. They’ll surely tell the whole story and I wouldn’t miss it for the WORLD.

 

(Post-screening celebrity wrap-up!)

Have just returned from the WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT screening, where starts Paula Prentiss and Merrie Spaeth were given the full Hollywood welcome by yet another packed hall. Host for the discussion was Cari Beauchamp, author of the fine book Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood. Ms. Beauchamp immediately positioned  the movie as a core female bonding picture. Merrie Spaeth talked about working through the New York Summer in an all-wool outfit including that heavy red coat; she remembers Peter Sellers entertaining both teen actresses between takes with goofy comedy, Inspector Clouseau riffs, etc. Ms. Prentiss’s husband Richard Benjamin took a bow in the audience (big response) before she explained that back in 1963 she was doing Shakespeare in the park when George Roy Hill offered her the movie. All three women paid homage to Angela Lansbury, who had the plum role and played it to the hilt… “she was an actress unafraid to play outright bitches.” Yes, one occasionally hears language like that at the TCMfest.

Spaeth still comes off as bright and personable. She soon decided that acting wasn’t her future and instead pursued a distinguished academic career at top schools. She’s a highly successful businesswoman based out of Texas.

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Friday Re-Cap, TCM Classic Film Festival

TCM is proud to present this exciting recap of events from Thursday, April 10, day one of the 5th TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood.  To view more festival videos,… Read more »

TCM is proud to present this exciting recap of events from Thursday, April 10, day one of the 5th TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood.  To view more festival videos, check out our video gallery.

 

Highlights from Thursday, April 10 at the TCM Classic Film Festival

 

American Graffiti poolside at the Hollywood Roosevelt

 

Shirley Jones and Robert Osborne

 

Charles Busch introducing Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

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The Heir Up There: William Wyler’s THE HEIRESS (1949)

William Wyler’s THE HEIRESS (1949) was his first of five movies for Paramount, and made in the immediate aftermath of the failure of his Liberty Films venture — a partnership… Read more »

heiressWilliam Wyler’s THE HEIRESS (1949) was his first of five movies for Paramount, and made in the immediate aftermath of the failure of his Liberty Films venture — a partnership he had forged with Columbia Pictures head of production Samuel Briskin and fellow filmmakers Frank Capra and George Stevens. (Liberty had been ankled by the box office failure of its first film, Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life – now an undisputed Hollywood/holiday classic but an expensive flop in 1946.) Ground zero among the Hollywood studios for prestige pictures, Paramount gave Wyler the green light to adapt the Broadway smash The Heiress, an adaptation of Henry James’ novel 1880 novella Washington Square, as a vehicle for actress Olivia de Havilland, a four-time Academy Award nominee and Oscar winner for To Each His Own (1946). Paramount gave the project the full roll-out and a then-estimable $2.5 million budget. Though Wyler had hoped to snag Errol Flynn to play mercenary bachelor Morris Townsend, a footloose bounder with an eagle eye on the expected inheritance of de Havilland’s affluent but unmarriageable Catherine Sloper, Flynn demured; Wyler later came to see Flynn’s disinclination as a stroke of luck, as his reputation (both on screen and off) as a rogue would have given the character away all too early, telegraphing an ending that, in the film Wyler eventually made, bears a much more devastating payoff. In his third film appearance, Montgomery Clift is a revelation as the honeydripping cad, luring Cathy and moviegoers alike, into loving him when they suspect full well they should not. Though THE HEIRESS was not quite the cash cow that Paramount was banking on, the critics of the day were impressed with the accomplishment and the film received eight Academy Award nominations — among them Best Picture, Best Score (for Aaron Copland), Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Ralph Richardson, an import from the London stage production), Best Cinematography (Leo Tover) and Best Actress in a Leading Role. De Havilland’s 1950 Oscar was her second and last.

heiress3Taking a break from his duties as the “Czar of Noir,” film historian and Film Noir Foundation presidente Eddie Mueller was on hand at the Chinese Multiplex last night to introduce THE HEIRESS (and William Wyler’s son David, in attendance with his wife) and to compliment the packed house on their good taste in movie choices, noting that it is not always an easy thing to pick just the right movie to see at the TCM Classic Film Festival. “Always see the William Wyler film,” Muller advised the attendees, while pointing them toward tomorrow’s screening of Wyler’s masterpiece, the multiple-Academy Award-winning The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). A natural born raconteur and storyteller, Eddie regaled the audience with stories about the making of THE HEIRESS, including one anecdote about Richardson schooling Wyler on the craft of an actor by doing multiple takes of hanging up his tophat, and another of how the director compelled his leading lady to do retake after retake of climbing a staircase until de Havilland threw a prop suitcase at him in frustration… leading Wyler to realize the suitcase was empty and far too light to help de Havilland effectively communicate Cathy Slope’s emotional burden; Wyler had the suitcase weighted down and retook the scene we now see in the finished film. A beautifully nuanced period piece, artfully executed and brilliantly played by a top-flight cast (among them Miriam Hopkins, in a delightfully batty performance), THE HEIRESS is a jewel in the crown of the fifth TCM Classic Film Festival. We all saw something special tonight.

 

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Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome…

The WELCOME PARTY at Club TCM on Thursday was a flurry of people, drinks, smiles and excitement, as new and old friends gathered to take a breath before undertaking some… Read more »

The WELCOME PARTY at Club TCM on Thursday was a flurry of people, drinks, smiles and excitement, as new and old friends gathered to take a breath before undertaking some serious moviegoing. It’s always fun to chat with people at this event, or anywhere at the festival really, since there is an obvious common bond uniting every single person here: a love of classic movies. And people who love classic movies love to talk about classic movies.

Take Jenny Ranz and Julie Babb, friends visiting the festival from Shreveport, Louisiana. “I’m really excited about getting to see Richard Sherman and listen to him talk about Jungle Book and Mary Poppins,” said Jenny. “And very, very, very excited to see Maureen O’Hara in How Green Was My Valley. Julie chimed in: “Sunday is dedicated to Judy Garland. We’re going to Easter Parade and the Judy Garland discussion in Club TCM and then The Wizard of Oz.” The pre-Code gem Employees’ Entrance is also on their list. “Pre-Code is so much fun,” said Julie. “No one realizes that there was lots of sex and drugs and rock and roll eighty years ago in the movies!”

Martin Hildebrand, in town from Atlanta, Georgia, for the second year in a row, is excited to see movies he hasn’t seen before, like American Graffiti and The Italian Job, and to hear guests Kim Novak, Quincy Jones and William Friedkin. One of his attractions to classic film, he said, is the American history lesson he gets from seeing the nature of day to day life in the 1930s and 1940s, the clothes people wore, and so forth. “Film noir is my favorite,” he added. “I’m definitely going to Double Indemnity, Touch of Evil, The Lady From Shanghai. I was surprised to see two Orson Welles movies on the schedule, but happy about it!”

Marilyn Hutchinson, from Vancouver, Canada, is here for her third TCM Classic Film Festival. Asked what her favorite movie is, she paused before answering, “The Wizard of Oz and The Best Years of Our Lives.” She’s eager to see The Wizard of Oz on the big Chinese Theatre screen, as well as Gone With the Wind, Blazing Saddles, Touch of Evil and, for the first time since it came out, American Graffiti. “I love listening to all the stars and their behind the scenes about how they made their movies. I just saw Kim Novak across the street and can’t wait to see her in Bell, Book and Candle.”

David Lee and his wife Jacque Carraway, visiting from Parker, Colorado for the second year, are thrilled to be able to see Maureen O’Hara speak before How Green Was My Valley on Saturday. “She’s one of our all time favorites,” said David. Asked what makes him such a fan of classic cinema that he would expend the energy and funds to make a trip to this festival, he said: “Because I aspire to be Cary Grant in my own personal life, in my appearance, in my conduct, in the things that are right, and true, and honorable, that are so often depicted in these films. That’s why I like old movies: there’s always a lesson, always something. And most of the actors came from nothing, and based on their hard work, energy and effort, they learned their craft. How can you not admire that?” Jacque explained that her love of classic movies sprang from watching them late at night as a child. Like all of us, she’s been hooked ever since. “I watch TCM and the news,” she said. “That’s about it.”

Four sets of people, four entirely different movie lineups planned. Clearly there’s something for everyone this weekend.

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“You weren’t ugly then.” Robert Aldrich’s “WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?” (1962)

Robert Aldrich’s “WHAT EVER (that’s right, two words) HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?” (1962) was a particularly twisted way to help kick off the 5th annual TCM Classic Film Festival with… Read more »

WhatEverHappenedToBabyJane_TR_VDRobert Aldrich’s “WHAT EVER (that’s right, two words) HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?” (1962) was a particularly twisted way to help kick off the 5th annual TCM Classic Film Festival with its sub-theme this year of family. The blackest of black comedies was Aldrich’s ticket back to personal filmmaking, after the desultory experience of spending nearly a year to make Sodom and Gomorrah (1962) for producer Joseph E. Levine in Morocco and having toiled before that to little effect on such for-hire projects as The Last Sunset (1961) in Mexico, The Angry Hills (1959) in Greece, Ten Seconds to Hell (1959) in Berlin and The Garment Jungle (1957) in New York. (The latter so displeased Aldrich that he ceded filming to Vincent Sherman and demanded his name be taken off the finished product.) Worse yet, Aldrich had spent some of those years unemployed while also seeing projects he hoped to helm — 3:10 to Yuma (1957), Taras Bulba (1962) – go to other directors. Though he had originally obtained the rights to the Henry Farrell source novel in partnership with Levine, Aldrich eventually bought out his partner so that he could have sole control over “WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?”, willing to go out of pocket in a bid to retain absolute control.

babyjane3Stories differ as to how Aldrich came to the Farrell novel. Some claim Joan Crawford got a hold of the book first and pressed it onto Aldrich, her director for Autumn Leaves (1956). Others — Aldrich among them — maintain that the book was urged on the director by his former secretary, Geraldine Hersey, back when fledgling producer Sid Beckerman had the option on it. But however the deal came together, key to the film’s casting was obtaining both Crawford and Bette Davis to play aging sisters — one a washed-up vaudevillian, the other a forgotten Hollywood leading lady — tormenting one another in their shuttered Beverly Hills mansion. Long-time rivals within the Hollywood film industry, Crawford (whose career had begun in silents) and Davis (who debuted in films during the early sound era) had never appeared onscreen together. The casting coup gave “WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?” considerable pre-production buzz (among the many photo ops was one of Davis and Crawford sandwiching Warner Brothers president Jack Warner, despite the fact that he had told Aldrich early in negotiations “I wouldn’t give you a dime for those two old broads”) and the finished film paid off in spades. Having kept production costs to a minimum (the film’s negative cost was just a tick over $1 million), financiers Seven Arts saw a $4 million return on their investment. “WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?” was Robert Aldrich’s most successful film since Vera Cruz (1954) nearly a decade earlier.

babyjane2On hand to introduce tonight’s screening of “WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?” in the Chinese Multiplex Cinema 1 was theatrical impressario/novelist/actor/drag icon Charles Busch (a TCMFF first-timer). “For gay people,” Busch informed an enthusiastic crowd of festival attendees “you don’t have your gay card until you’ve seen this movie.” While Busch hailed the film as high camp and a prime example of what has been called Grand Dame Guignol, he was also quick to point out that the film, while showcasing Bette Davis at her most flamboyant and theatrical, betrays her to be a psychologically acute and insightful actress, traits that remain a tribute to her intelligence and her craft. Busch also praised the cinematography of director of photography Ernest Haller who, working with a modest budget, etched “WHAT EVER HAPENED TO BABY JANE?” with a sense of cinema verite, going to the extreme of strapping his camera to the hood of Bette Davis’ car for a traveling scene that might have been accomplished, if the film had been better heeled and shot by a major studio, in front of a rear projection.

“WHAT EVE HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?” proved to be an inspired way to get the ball rolling on this year’s festivities… and the best is yet to come.

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Baker and Dante’s GODS AND MONSTERS

Rick Baker may be a groundbreaking makeup and effects artist of movies like Greystoke, Men in Black and The Wolfman, and Joe Dante may be the accomplished director of such… Read more »

Rick Baker may be a groundbreaking makeup and effects artist of movies like Greystoke, Men in Black and The Wolfman, and Joe Dante may be the accomplished director of such films as Gremlins, Innerspace, and The Hole, but at heart these two guys are still excited little boys when it comes to talking about horror movies and screen creatures.

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Joe Dante

For an hour today they engaged in a freewheeling conversation, moderated by TCM Senior Writer/Producer Scott McGee, at The Hollywood Museum. For fans of classic horror, it was a delight to hear these two expound on their influences and passions.

Dante grew up loving the paranoid sci-fi films of the 1950s. “If you get nightmares,” his puzzled mother asked him, “why do you watch these things?”

This drew some teasing from Baker today, who said he never had nightmares from watching those movies. Instead he was simply fascinated by the monsters, especially the ones that drew the audience’s sympathy. As a child, he wanted to be a doctor — albeit a doctor like Dr. Frankenstein. Later, he told his parents, “I think I want to be a monster maker.” They replied, “I don’t think that’s really a job.”

The subject turned to technology and the way it has changed the craft. Dante recalled that visual effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen basically retired when he saw Jurassic Park because he realized that he would not be able to adapt himself to such modern, ultra-realistic creature depictions. And Jack Pierce, the makeup man behind all the famous 1930s Universal horror pictures, was a huge early influence on Baker, but Baker noticed that Pierce also did not adapt well to the changing times in the 1950s, and eventually lost his job. “I didn’t want that to happen to me,” Baker said, so he has been very conscious over the years of staying up to date and constantly learning new methods of creature making. “I don’t know if it’s made it better,” Baker said of the modern computer technology, “but it’s certainly faster.”

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Rick Baker

One of the biggest problems, he said, is that an actor on a motion capture stage is simply not going to deliver as good a performance as an actor wearing makeup on a real set.

Finally, McGee asked the pair about horror remakes. Dante mused: “To try to find something new in something that’s been done before is much more appealing to me than saying, ‘well, let’s just take all the angles from Psycho and shoot them over again and call it a remake.’ I don’t get it.”

“I actually worked on that,” Baker chimed in, to raucous laughter.

The two agreed that changing beloved monsters too much for a modern film is a dumb idea, with a case in point being the Gill Man from Creature From the Black Lagoon. Various producers have tried to mount a remake over the years, but they are always flummoxed because they insist on changing the Gill Man into something else — including in one instance, Baker said, into a part-octopus, part-dinosaur creature!

Baker also recalled seeing the original Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey within weeks of each other, and being thunderstruck by the differences between each film’s apes — each very different, but perfect for the given film. “One wouldn’t have worked in the other,” he said.

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TCM Cruises Into Festival # 5

The fifth annual TCM Classic Film Festival got off to a rocking start tonight at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel with a poolside screening of AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973). The historic pool… Read more »

The fifth annual TCM Classic Film Festival got off to a rocking start tonight at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel with a poolside screening of AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973). The historic pool and Tropicana bar, that was once the backdrop for an early Marilyn Monroe shoot, is a gorgeous setting anytime. It’s the picture of classic Hollywood elegance, an oasis complete with cabanas, palm trees and famed David Hockney mural. But TCM really upped the ambience tonight, creating a party atmosphere with pre-show music and sock hoppers. The dancers showed off their moves to tunes like “Let’s Go to the Hop.”

 

americangraffiti2TCM host Ben Mankiewicz got the festivities underway. He welcomed the audience and the night’s special guests saying, “what a great movie to watch by the pool.” Joining Ben to introduce the film were three cast members: Candy Clark, who received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Debbie Dunham; Bo Hopkins, who played the leader of the Pharaohs; and Paul Le Mat, praised for his turn as the drag racing John Milner.

 

In a brief interview before the screening, they discussed the film’s tight shooting schedule—it was filmed in just 28 nights. Candy Clark stressed the “nights” part and how the crew would wait for it to get dark, then rush to get the filming in before dawn. Clark also revealed that she wore a wig for the film. And that on cold nights, her wig did double duty as a hat. Clark chatted about her Oscar nomination and joked about losing to a nine year old (Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon). The entire panel joined in telling one famous story from the set, where as Ben put it, “[Paul] nearly killed Richard Dreyfuss.” Apparently Paul Le Mat took Dreyfuss by the arms and legs and tossed him head first into the shallow end of the Holiday Inn pool. They joked this was the reason Dreyfuss (who will appear later this weekend at the festival) was not in attendance tonight. The combination of Paul and a pool, they teased, was too much for him.

 

Clark, Hopkins and Le Mat also discussed the amateur status of most of the cast.  Richard Dreyfuss, for example, was still a relative newcomer to the acting world. AMERICAN GRAFFITI was his first lead role after landing smaller parts in several films, including a turn as Baby Face Nelson in Dillinger (1973) earlier that same year. Harrison Ford was, at the time, still alternating between bit acting parts and work as a carpenter. AMERICAN GRAFFITI would mark a major turning point for Ford, as connections made on this film would shape his career for years to come. The next year, in 1974, he would appear in GRAFFITI producer Francis Ford Coppola’s Oscar nominated film The Conversation (1974). And three short years later, GRAFFITI director, George Lucas would call on Ford for a role that would propel him into superstardom – Han Solo in Star Wars (1977).

 

The one veteran in the cast was all of eighteen years old—Ron Howard, who had made his first film appearance at eighteen months in Frontier Woman (1954). Howard, of course, had a successful run as an adorable screen tot in films like The Music Man (1962) and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963), before settling into the best known of his childhood roles, Sheriff Taylor’s son, Opie, on The Andy Griffith Show. But AMERICAN GRAFFITI provided Howard a new opportunity as well—the chance to escape his moppet typecasting and play a more adult role. Ironically, Howard was one of only two actual teenagers in the main cast of AMERICAN GRAFFITI. Charles Martin Smith, who played Terry “The Toad” was also eighteen. Most of the actors were in their twenties, except for Mackenzie Phillips, who played teenybopper Carol and was only twelve. The elder statesman of the bunch was Harrison Ford, who turned thirty during the production.

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Like most of his cast, director George Lucas was just getting his feet wet professionally on AMERICAN GRAFFITI. It was only his second feature film. In what has to be one of filmmaking’s most storied rises, Lucas found success while still in graduate school at USC. His short Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB (1967) won the National Student film festival, and Lucas was awarded a student scholarship by Warner Bros. He was allowed to choose a film in production to observe. Lucas went with Finian’s Rainbow (1968) directed by the hero of film school students of everywhere, Francis Ford Coppola. 

 

Apparently it was a match made in moviemaking heaven. Lucas and Coppola formed a production company the next year called American Zoetrope. The company’s first film was a feature-length version of Lucas’ student project, THX 1138 (1971). The future dystopia film was not a financial success and was disappointing to Lucas. It was Coppola who challenged Lucas to write a script that would appeal more to mainstream audiences. The resulting story, which drew from Lucas’ own teen years, spent cruising in Modesto, California, would become AMERICAN GRAFFITI.

 

One cruising hotspot worth noting in AMERICAN GRAFFITI is Mel’s Drive-In. The original was bulldozed soon after the film’s production. But in the 1980s, the restaurant reopened as a small chain, with one location in San Francisco and two in Hollywood. Festivalgoers who want to keep the party going tonight could walk a few blocks to Mel’s Highland location, for some post-screening burgers and shakes.

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What a Beautiful Opening Night

The 2014 TCM Film Festival launched in epic style tonight with a new restoration from 20th Century Fox of the Todd-AO widescreen musical “Oklahoma!” at the TCL Chinese IMAX theater… Read more »

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The 2014 TCM Film Festival launched in epic style tonight with a new restoration from 20th Century Fox of the Todd-AO widescreen musical “Oklahoma!” at the TCL Chinese IMAX theater in Hollywood.

The 90 year old Shirley Jones, who made her impressive film debut at the early age of only 19 with Oklahoma! (1955), kicked off the Festival with charm, poise, a sharp wit, and genuine appreciation to the packed house of festival fans at the TCL Chinese theater.  With TCM host Robert Osborne, she described the events that lead to her selection for this groundbreaking musical (the first to travel the country as a Todd-AO event, and the first Broadway musical to stylistically integrate many of its musical numbers thematically with the unfolding drama).  She also described the unusual process and lengths Rodgers and Hammerstein went to cast her in the lead role of Laurey, including flying her out Los Angeles to screen test with the actor Gordon McCrea and director Fred Zinnemann, an unusual step given it was uncommon for such an ingenue to test with both the lead male (already cast in McCrea) and the director.  Jones, never intending to make a career in Hollywood (“I was planning to be a Vetenarian!”), was discovered from her screen tests for South Pacific (1958), and plucked from traveling theater gigs (where she was working with Shirley MacLaine).  From her debut here, she benefited from the critical and commercial success of Oklahoma, eventually going to work again on another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, the Todd-AO roadshow Carousel (1956), also with McCrea.

The digital print at the festival was stunning, with bright crisp tones and subtle splashes of color and nuance unlikely to have been seen from Robert Surtees impressive cinematography in decades (certainly in any theater).  Probably one of the greatest epic outdoor cinematographers of his generation, Surtees’ work in the film simply looks breathtaking at times and holds up to the likes of many great Westerns being filmed in this period.  With few staged sets and mostly outdoor photography, this presentation of the film lit up the festival in a stunning debut.

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MEET TCM, SPECIAL EDITION: 1994-2014

Has it really been twenty years? Twenty years since Ted Turner stood in Times Square, flanked by Robert Osborne, Van Johnson and Jane Powell among others, and flipped a switch… Read more »

Has it really been twenty years? Twenty years since Ted Turner stood in Times Square, flanked by Robert Osborne, Van Johnson and Jane Powell among others, and flipped a switch to bring TCM to life? Gone With the Wind was the inaugural film on that day, April 14, 1994, and it will be shown here on Sunday, in the newly refurbished TCL Chinese IMAX Theatre. But today, the focus at the festival’s first official event was on TCM itself, and a look back at its first two decades.

The annual MEET TCM panel has proved increasingly popular at this festival. In 2010, it was held in a little room upstairs in the Roosevelt Hotel, and was attended by about twenty people. In recent years it upgraded to the larger Club TCM space. This year, in its “special edition,” it positively graduated to the 618-seat Egyptian Theatre. And the house was quite full.

Following a screening of a new TCM promo celebrating twenty years of the network (which was extremely well made and should prove a hit with viewers), Senior Writer/Producer Scott McGee moderated a panel of eight other network executives: Jeff Gregor, General Manager of TCM; Charlie Tabesh, Senior VP of Programming; Dennis Adamovich, Senior VP of brand and digital distribution; Darcy Hettrich, VP of talent; Dennis Millay, Director of Programming; Alexa Foreman, Senior Researcher and Producer; Tom Brown, VP of Original Productions; and Richard Steiner, VP of digital activation.

The theme of this year’s festival is family, so Scott asked the panel to comment on how that applies to TCM itself. Not only do those who work at TCM in Atlanta feel like a family, with quite a few having worked there for many, many years, but the network feels a strong sense of family both with the legions of fans and with the “talent” — i.e., the stars and makers of the classic movies themselves. “It amazes us that you want to come hear us,” Jeff deadpanned, then added that TCM fans “really direct what we do. We really take it to heart… We have transformed from a network to a lifestyle brand.”

Dennis Adamovich agreed: “TCM has the most passionate fans in the Turner universe. People have met here [at the festival] and gotten married. We now have a pastor on the staff!” he joked.

Darcy and Alexa spoke of building relationships with talent over the years. Now, they said, as the remaining stars of old Hollywood sadly grow fewer and fewer, TCM is increasingly keeping in touch with their descendants, and cultivating those relationships.

In other topics, Charlie said that the festival has grown a lot since 2010, with the number of films shown practically doubling from 40 to 77. In 2010, the films were shown almost entirely in 35mm. Now it’s about 50-50, film and digital. And Club TCM programming has quintupled, from three to fifteen hours.  Charlie also noted that four years ago, TCM had to contact studios and archives to procure titles for the festival. “Now they reach out to us,” he said, “to showcase their restorations.” This year twelve films are making their world premiere restoration debuts.

Richard reported that the Watch TCM mobile app, which allows users to view TCM movies on demand, is proving very popular, and many improvements have been made since it launched months ago. No less than Francis Ford Coppola is a fan of the app, he said. Coppola contacted TCM when he had trouble setting it up; Richard and some technicians helped him, and the director sent them a bottle of champagne as thanks.

And Tom said that TCM Original Productions had been helped greatly in the last decade by the fact that TCM has been licensing more and more films from other studios and libraries, beyond the core Turner holdings. The result has been the chance for original programming to delve into wider-ranging themes. Tom said he hoped one day to produce a continuation of the Moguls and Movie Stars documentary series into the modern era. The Holy Grail, however, seems to be a Doris Day interview conducted by Robert Osborne. Ton and Darcy were hopeful that the reclusive star might one day agree to it.

McGee opened the panel up to audience questions. One fan asked if Ted Turner had been invited to the festival, given the fact that TCM’s twentieth anniversary is being celebrated. Answer: Turner was indeed invited to introduce Sunday’s screening of Gone With the Wind, but was unable to make it.

“We all love TCM so much. Can you promise to keep it the same over the years?” another asked. Charlie simply replied, “Yeah,” drawing a laugh.

Someone else suggested a documentary about the Mankiewicz family, which went over very well with the executives.

And in response to another question, Charlie mentioned there are some classic titles he would love to show but can’t, like It’s a Wonderful Life and The Sound of Music, because they are under long-term exclusive licenses to other (advertising-driven) networks.

It would indeed be great to see those pictures on TCM, but there are still plenty of other bona fide classics making their TCM premieres every month, thanks to the expanded licensing. Case in point: Laura, which astonishingly has never played on TCM before but is set to make its debut this April 19.

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All the World’s a Stagecoach, Pilgrim.

Gone with the Wind may have been 1939′s biggest picture, but the surprise hit that captured America’s heart that year was STAGECOACH, a lowly western made at a time when… Read more »

Gone with the Wind may have been 1939′s biggest picture, but the surprise hit that captured America’s heart that year was STAGECOACH, a lowly western made at a time when westerns in general were considered a down-market commodity. The show confirmed John Wayne as a star after ten years of false starts. John Ford found the experience of filming out on distant location in Monument Valley such an enjoyable experience that he would return to the genre at every opportunity just to escape the Hollywood grind.

STAGECOACH immediately wins over audiences with its humor, warmth and escapist thrills; it connects with viewers as well now as the day it opened. In a figurative sense the movie closes the book on the Depression years, with its crooked banker spouting anti-Roosevelt sentiments most likely encouraged by the very liberal producer Walter Wanger. It also sounds the drums of impending war, with the Apache standing in for implacable foes threatening peace and stability in Europe. But everything else about the movie is optimistic — solid American values can overcome any obstacle. The Ringo Kid (Wayne) has become a wanted man, but we know he’s a good boy at heart. Disillusioned prostitute Dallas (Claire Trevor) is hustled out of town by a cackle of sewing-circle biddies determined to transplant Eastern morality (read: hypocrisy) to the West. The inexperienced Ringo doesn’t understand why the other coach riders treat Dallas so poorly. It’s a match made in heaven — the West will be won by noble boys and fallen women with hearts of gold.

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Called a Grand Hotel on wheels, STAGECOACH is loaded with interesting characters. Andy Devine is the nervous stagecoach driver and George Bancroft the sheriff who wants to give Ringo a second chance. Louise Platt’s pregnant wife shouldn’t be making the trip at all. She attracts the mysterious cardsharp Hatfield, who buys a stage ticket and gallantly promises to protect her. We know that Berton Churchill’s dour banker is no good because Ford gives him a rigid close-up that all but screams, ‘dastardly villain.’  Perhaps the biggest cliché is Thomas Mitchell’s alcoholic Doctor Boone. The Doc provides plenty of comic relief, helping himself to the contents of whiskey drummer Donald Meek’s sample case. When the Doc’s services are needed, we know he will be calling for barrels of coffee to help him sober up. Mitchell’s Doc Boone must be the original mold from which all subsequent drunken doctors were cast.

What keeps STAGECOACH alive are exactly these mythic touches, sketched with assurance by screenwriter Dudley Nichols and given precise direction by John Ford. Every character has a moment of personal transformation. With this cast and this director we don’t worry about how schematic it all is. Little Donald Meek’s devotion to his family back home is equally as endearing as Dallas’s hopeless yearning to have a real life, to become a mother. John Carradine’s defeated Southerner says nothing about himself, but his behavior hints at a life of banishment and regret.

A lot happens in ninety-six minutes. Geronimo attacks, a baby is born, an outlaw is redeemed and a black cat chooses the perfect moment to cross the path of a gunslinger villain. Ford’s Apaches vs. stagecoach chase updates the best of silent western excitement, complete with a daringly risky Yakima Canutt stunt. We’re still impressed by the Native American horseman who reloads his rifle with both hands, as his horse barrels along at a full gallop. The vast Monument Valley is like a landscape unborn, and the tidy cavalry patrol riding on its trails is commanded by a soldier (Tim Holt) who looks like a schoolboy. The West in STAGECOACH is fresh and bright, made for courageous people with big hearts. There’s danger, but also the promise of forgiveness and freedom. That must be why Americans love this movie: it allows us to feel good about ourselves even when things aren’t going well.

STAGECOACH screens at 9:15 am Friday; the introduction will be made by author Nancy Schoenberger. So wake up and smell the sagebrush!

(Post-screening addendum:) Ms. Schoenberger will have a book out soon about the relationship between John Wayne and his (tor)mentor John Ford. She delivered her spirited speech about STAGECOACH to a packed audience, and Chinese #6 is one of the bigger auditoriums.

The early hour scarcely mattered. The movie was greeted enthusiastically, and as every character was introduced, applause broke out. I can’t imagine a better way to see such a great picture. And frankly, the TCM audiences are more polite and appreciative than native Los Angeles classic moviegoers.

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Joan Crawford wants YOU.

(note: updated with post-screening remarks, scroll down!) Joan Crawford wants YOU to see Nicholas Ray’s riveting 1954 ‘political’ western JOHNNY GUITAR.  The daring Ms. Crawford enters in masculine pants and… Read more »

(note: updated with post-screening remarks, scroll down!)

Joan Crawford wants YOU to see Nicholas Ray’s riveting 1954 ‘political’ western JOHNNY GUITAR.  The daring Ms. Crawford enters in masculine pants and shirt and wearing a gun belt to make her message crystal clear: “All you can buy up here is a bullet in the head.” One of Vienna’s male employees breaks the fourth wall, stares right at the camera and says, “Never seen a woman who was more of a man. She thinks like one, acts like one, and sometimes makes me feel like I’m not.”

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Philip Yordan’s screenplay places Crawford’s ex-prostitute Vienna as a casino owner holding out until the railroad arrives to make her a rich woman. Local landowner McIvers (Ward Bond) wants Vienna run out of town, and the nearly psychotic Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) wants Vienna dead in jealousy over the dashing Dancing Kid (Scott Brady). In fact, Emma is so unbalanced that she’s willing to frame the Kid and his gang (Royal Dano, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Cooper) for robbery and murder, and see them all hang with her. But arriving out of the wind-blown dust is the mysterious Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), who may or may not have been summoned to defend Vienna against her vicious neighbors. Emma’s lynch mob is directly compared to the then-current HUAC and McCarthy witch hunts, right down to having Emma pressure a captured cowboy to falsely denounce a friend. There’s also an intense romantic streak in JOHNNY GUITAR, backed by Victor Young’s lyrical music score, of the pain of rekindling lost illusions of love. The key love scene is a delirious exchange of accusations:

Johnny: How many men have you forgotten?

Vienna: As many women as you’ve remembered.

Pedro Almodóvar was so moved by the scene that he included a big chunk of it in his Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown — being dubbed into Spanish.

At this point in her career Joan Crawford was her own unofficial producer, and maneuvered to exert control over all aspects of the show. Joan was particularly determined that her female co-stars give her no competition. Young Diane Baker had a great scene in Strait-Jacket until Joan had it rewritten to emphasize her character instead. This of course put Joan on a collision course with her handpicked co-star Mercedes McCambridge, an Oscar-winning fireball personality in her own right. In what sounds like total insanity, after hearing the crew applaud McCambridge’s big address to the posse on location in Arizona, Joan drunkenly threw the actress’s wardrobe onto the highway. Joan demanded major script changes to enhance her role, including a new ending in which the male gunslingers stand by as Vienna and Emma shoot it out instead.

The really insane part of Joan’s interference is that it makes JOHNNY GUITAR an even better picture. The hatred between the two female leads crackles with electricity. Other changes demanded by Crawford greatly enlarge the romantic appeal of the picture, which takes on a stylized, almost mythic tone. Although Nicholas Ray was reportedly himself on the verge of a nervous breakdown through the filming, the movie comes off as a strong statement of his personality. As the philosophical Johnny Guitar, Sterling Hayden even recites director Ray’s personal motto: “I’m a stranger here myself.”

Cementing JOHNNY GUITAR’S status as a classic is the fact that that maker of Italian westerns Sergio Leone took the show’s basic concept as the basis for his Once Upon a Time in the West. Leone always showed good taste in sagebrush epics.

Gotta catch Joan, Sterling Hayden & Mercedes McCambridge in the weirdest ’50s western of them all tonight at 10pm. It has campy dialogue, a vocal by Peggy Lee and it’s soaked in Republic’s garish Color by Trucolor. Audiences go crazy for it. Writer and producer Michael Schlesinger is giving the introduction, and he’s always terrific.

(Post-screening addition:)  Michael Schlesinger batted his intro out of the park,  nailing JOHNNY GUITAR’S eccentric, unique appeal and getting several big laughs as well. Mike discussed the fan base that regards it as nothing less than “All About Eve Goes West”, and hangs onto every deliciously ripe dialogue line. I got to see Michael intro Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three a few years back and when he does another I’m going to lobby to cover it too.

The ‘print’ shown of JOHNNY GUITAR is a new Paramount restoration, and looks like the Olive Films disc from last year with more digital clean-up. It’s still in the seemingly incorrect 1:37 Academy ratio, which looks fine but frequently leaves dead area at the top and bottom of the frame. But by now people have seen the movie flat so much that anything else might look wrong.

It’s midnight! Back again at 9am for John Wayne in STAGECOACH !

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5th Avenue on Hollywood Blvd.

Excitement is building for the first screenings of the Fest later tonight and at 7:00 in the Chinese Multiplex, the first film of the “discoveries” theme will be showing in… Read more »

Excitement is building for the first screenings of the Fest later tonight and at 7:00 in the Chinese Multiplex, the first film of the “discoveries” theme will be showing in glorious 35mm: 5th AVENUE GIRL (1939), starring Ginger Rogers and Walter Connolly.  (Incidentally, it will be the first of three Rogers films shown at the Fest; the others are Bachelor Mother [1939] and Hat Check Girl [1932]).  TCM regulars know, even if the general public does not, that Rogers not only had a career apart from Fred Astaire—her “solo” films in the ‘30s were often hugely popular top box-office attractions.

fifthavenuegirl_1939_mp_6sht_1200The screwball comedy 5th AVENUE GIRL (seen onscreen as 5th AVE GIRL and also known by FIFTH AVENUE GIRL as spelled out on the movie posters) was profitable in 1939—one of RKO’s top moneymakers of the year, but has since fallen through the cracks given the enormous slate of famous films in “Hollywood’s greatest year.”  Comedic character actor Walter Connolly is given a rare leading role as a rich industrialist who feels neglected at home by his partying playgirl wife and self-absorbed children.  He asks a pretty “commoner” (Rogers) to escort him out in public to clubs on his birthday and after waking up with a hangover and his name in the papers, he decides to keep the young lady around the house, cast in the role of gold-digger, to set his family back in order.

British critic Graham Greene called the film “a curious and sometimes witty variant on the old theme of ‘pity the poor rich,’” and gave something of a contemporary view of the film when he wrote that “the appearance of a Fifth Avenue mansion, all statues, stairways and majolica, is magnificent.  It is the first time I have heard laughter in the cinema at the sight of a set.”

Ginger Rogers received mostly good notices for the film; Variety gushed that it “…confirms that Rogers holds something more than dancing prowess… [She] demonstrates major league ability as a comedienne for the second successive time.”  Variety also called the movie “a cleverly devised comedy drama, expertly guided by Gregory La Cava, and having as foundation one of the best scripts of socko dialog that has come out of Hollywood in several months.”

fifthavenuegirl_1939_lc_02_1200The set-up for the story is ideal for a few class-conscious observations of human nature and if it seems to be a variation on My Man Godfrey, keep in mind that the same director (Gregory La Cava) helmed that film three years earlier.  (La Cava also directed Rogers in Stage Door in 1937 and would help mold one of her best performances the year after 5th AVENUE GIRL in Primrose Path (1940), co-starring Joel McCrea).  Don’t believe those who feel that 5th AVENUE GIRL is merely an inferior retread of the My Man Godfrey themes, however.  Certainly there is a bit of social satire and a few stray political overtones (the boyfriend of the household’s rich daughter is a very vocal Communist, for starters!), but the major charm of the film is Water Connolly’s lead role as the sympathetic Mr. Borden.  A Lux Radio Theater broadcast the following year featured Ginger Rogers reprising her role but it also cast Edward Arnold as Mr. Borden—it’s difficult to imagine Edward Arnold pulling off a charm that would have matched Connelly in the part, but anything is possible!

One last note: there’ll be no spoilers here, but keep in mind that a preview audience demanded that the ending to 5th AVENUE GIRL be changed and the film did indeed go back in front of the cameras.  The original ending was deemed too somber and inconclusive, apparently.

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WELCOME!

Welcome to the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival Blog, where we’ll bring you the best of this year’s Fest—from notes on screenings and events to highlights of conversations between TCM… Read more »

Welcome to the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival Blog, where we’ll bring you the best of this year’s Fest—from notes on screenings and events to highlights of conversations between TCM hosts and the great stars and filmmakers in attendance.

The Festival runs Thursday, April 10 ­– Sunday, April 13 in the heart of historic Hollywood, at such famous venues as the Chinese, Egyptian and El Capitan Theatres.

New posts will begin the evening of Wednesday, April 9 and will continue throughout the Festival, so check back often for updates.

Thanks for visiting our Live Blog from the TCM Classic Film Festival—the next best thing to being there.

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