Earlier this month, the eighth annual TCM Classic Film Festival unspooled in the epicenter of old Hollywood, bringing joy to the hundreds of classic movie lovers who congregated for this long weekend of filmic fun. This year’s festival theme of “Make ‘Em Laugh: Comedy in the Movies” couldn’t have come at a better time. Aside from the Hollywood community’s struggle to come to terms with the country’s current political situation, the festival’s kickoff was exactly one month to the day after the sad passing of its own heart and soul, the irreplaceable Robert Osborne.
Word from longtime partner David Staller on March 6th that Mr. Osborne had left peacefully in his sleep for that big afterparty in the sky struck loyal TCM fans in the gut. Robert was the face of the TCM network, the knowledgeable, kind, and big-hearted host who made viewers, and especially festival attendees, feel like family. At the conclusion of each of the first five TCM festivals over which he presided, Robert would join festgoers in the Roosevelt Hotel’s charmed Blossom Room, and tirelessly greet and pose for photos with all interested.
As the author of countless books on Oscar history, Robert seemed fully in his element here at the site of the very first Academy Awards ceremony, and it was touchingly appropriate that there was a giant tribute board installed in the Blossom Room for TCM fans to inscribe their heartfelt messages.
How fortunate I feel to have been along for the ride with Mr. Osborne from the very first TCM Festival back in 2010, to have been present as he interviewed such cinematic greats as Peter O’Toole, Kim Novak, Debbie Reynolds, Luise Rainer and countless others (see my previous TCM Fest coverage for details).
His professionalism and true love of classic film was infectious, and he was beloved not just by TCM viewers, but by all who knew him in the Hollywood community. Robert Osborne will be sorely missed, but the classic film festival he shepherded continues on in great style, ably led by his smiling lieutenants, Ben Mankiewicz and Illeana Douglas.
Despite it being the 50th anniversary of one of the great, lasting film comedies The Graduate (which would screen later at the fest inside the grand Grauman’s Chinese), this year’s Opening Night gala screening was instead bestowed upon In the Heat of the Night. While the Academy gave the turgid police procedural its top prize for 1967 (as well as Best Actor for the ever-unsubtle Rod Steiger), that prize plus this festival’s Opening Night slot likely had more to do with honoring the groundbreaking career of Sidney Poitier.
The beloved actor, who with charm and dignity broke so many race barriers in Hollywood, seemed a perfect honoree of the moment. While some strides have been made of late for African Americans in the power structure of Hollywood, there is still much to be accomplished, so to honor Poitier here at the end of his long, productive career was a beautiful tribute. In reaction to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, the Academy did well in recognizing the contribution of black actors this past year, and its choice of the sublime Moonlight as 2016’s Best Picture was truly a historic moment (and a quantum leap from their 1967 top prize).
While Mr. Poitier did not traverse the Red Carpet with the other In the Heat of the Night collaborators (Lee Grant, Quincey Jones, Norman Jewison), he was able to appear inside the historic Chinese Theatre to soak up the love and adulation of the overflowing house for a full life well lived.
Speaking of full lives, the following morning 95-years-young comedy legend Carl Reiner was honored in the Grauman’s Chinese courtyard, literally cementing his comic legacy with a unique and historic hand and footprints ceremony. For the first time in this long Hollywood tradition, a father and son were simultaneously honored, as Rob Reiner joined his father to imprint their digits in a single slab of wet cement. With a combined age of 165(!) years, the two Reiners were feted by their good friends Billy Crystal, Tom Bergeron, and producer Norman Lear (who gave Rob his iconic role of Meathead on All in the Family).
While able performers and writers, the Reiners have made their most indelible mark as comedy film directors. Carl has directed four Steve Martin vehicles (including The Jerk, All of Me, and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid), as well as the greatly underrated Where’s Poppa?, while Rob began his directing career on a high with the classic mockumentary This is Spinal Tap, followed by The Princess Bride, Stand By Me, and When Harry Met Sally…
It was a touching and humorous ceremony, as father and son knelt to inscribe their names and handprints in this historic courtyard. Rob jokingly suggested another first, that the two lean even further down and imprint their glistening bald pates in the cement, but alas this was not to be. Later that evening inside the Chinese Theatre, Carl’s dear friend (and co-conspirator) Mel Brooks would introduce his Hitchcock spoof High Anxiety, and Carl made a point of mentioning Mel’s own earlier handprint ceremony. Never letting a gag opportunity pass by, Mel had commissioned a hand prosthesis with one extra finger for his Grauman’s moment, ensuring that Mr. Brooks’ historical cement slab is the only one with eleven finger imprints. Make ‘em laugh indeed.
Film history and human mortality are often intertwined at these wonderful, often bittersweet TCM classic film festivals. The inexorable march of time upon fest honorees is touchingly juxtaposed with the decades-old images projected up on these beautiful large screens. Adoring and appreciative fans are able to express in person their love to their cinematic heroes, while the stars of yesteryear bask in this palpable admiration. The thrill of one more red carpet run, or the sound of a packed audience inside one of Hollywood’s few remaining movie palaces appreciating your work anew, can only bring a skip to one’s heart, a smile to one’s face. And yet the years pass by unimpeded, so these special moments must be grabbed and cherished. Can it be a mere five years since Debbie Reynolds stole the show at the 2012 TCM Fest, bringing down the Grauman’s Chinese house (and leaving Robert Osborne speechless) as she thrilled the crowd while introducing Singin’ in the Rain?
At the 2017 fest, her son Todd Fisher was on hand to honor both his mother, as well as his sister Carrie, whose passing last Christmas shook the Hollywood community to its core. As an avid and passionate collector of Hollywood costumes and memorabilia, it was fitting that three of Miss Reynolds’ most iconic dresses were on display at Club TCM inside the Roosevelt’s Blossom Room, including the one from her best musical number, ‘Good Morning’. Debbie no doubt would’ve been pleased.
A first for this year’s festival was the premiere of nitrate print screenings at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre, an occasion so noteworthy that it even drew director Martin Scorsese to celebrate the debut showing of one of these extremely rare prints. Fighting a cold, Scorsese’s surprise appearance to introduce the premiere screening of a nitrate film at the recently refurbished Egyptian (including a fireproofed projection booth for the volatile nitrate film stock) was a treat for the audience who welcomed him with a rousing standing ovation. A passionate advocate for the preservation of film history, Scorsese waxed enthusiastic on the rare quality of nitrate film, its luminosity, its lustrous and glowing images. He likened these images to icons, with an almost 3D quality, that seem to have been embossed on the big screen. Reminding the packed house of what a rare and special occasion a screening like this was (Hitchcock’s 1934 The Man Who Knew Too Much in this case), he dedicated the event to his friend Robert Osborne, who he knew would be happy with this latest evolution of the TCM Fest.
Each night of the festival a different nitrate film was screened at the Egyptian, and they proved to be some of the hottest tickets of the long weekend. In addition to the early Hitchcock, I was fortunate to also view Otto Preminger’s classic noir Laura on nitrate, as well as a truly unique color nitrate, Mitchell Leisen’s Lady in the Dark. Cited by Scorsese as one of his favorites, this 1944 Ginger Rogers Technicolor vehicle begs description.
A jaw-dropping melange of comedy, Freudian psychodrama, over-the-top dry ice-infused musical numbers, and outrageous set and costume design (one of Ginger’s dresses was actually acquired by the Smithsonian Institution), this crazed venture caused the audience to jeer and applaud in equal measure. It definitely made for a memorable send-off as my final film of the festival, and a worthy demented bookend to Miss Rogers’ scene-stealing Pig Latin ‘We’re in the Money’ number from Busby Berkeley’s Gold Diggers of 1933. My only caveat with these rare nitrate screenings was the lack of crisp focus involved with projecting the 35mm film (think VHS quality vs. blu-ray), a factor which greatly inhibited my appreciation of the nitrate image, and I look forward to the day this issue can be resolved.
Ranking right up there with Lady in the Dark in the bizarre ‘event’ category, a midnight screening of John Boorman’s Zardoz had the fest’s die-hard film fanatics out in force. Not in any way qualifying as a recommendation, this Sean Connery-Charlotte Rampling 1974 sci-fi puzzler truly must be seen to be believed. Bending over backwards to shatter his James Bond image (in some sort of red loincloth/diaper definitely NOT in the Smithsonian’s collection), Connery gallops around the highlands of Scotland, retrieving rifles spewed from a giant flying stone head, and using them to overthrow the ruling elite class, or some such nonsense. After the great success of Deliverance, Boorman was given carte blanche on his next film, and somehow Zardoz was the inexplicable result. At my most charitable, I am able to say the film is unlike any other I’ve seen (again, not to be misinterpreted as a recommendation), and sincerely hope that in making it Boorman was able to exorcise whatever demons/issues he’d been needing to work out. (And if not, surely then in his Zardoz follow-up … Exorcist II: The Heretic, a film I can heartily recommend!)
Other than those two utterly bizarre color films I took in at TCM Fest 2017, the remainder (nearly five per day!) were mostly beautiful black-and-white comedies from the ’30s. Legendary television host Dick Cavett was on hand to prime the audiences with personal anecdotes while introducing two of his favorites: the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business along with Laurel and Hardy’s Way Out West. Cavett is a droll and entertaining storyteller, and shared some particularly raunchy Marx Brothers stories (one concerning ladies’ man Chico hitting on Tallulah Bankhead had the audience howling). When pressed, Cavett suggests that Groucho Marx may well have been his favorite guest, and there’s no question that Groucho is the primary reason the brothers’ films hold up well to this day. (Perhaps the only reason?)
While Laurel and Hardy have never really been my personal cup of tea, Cavett’s tale of looking up Stan Laurel in the Santa Monica telephone directory, then visiting him at his apartment, was quite fascinating. Aside from their sublimely humorous soft shoe number in Way Out West (one of their very own, as well as my father’s, favorites), the film has not aged all that well, so I exited early (not proud) to be sure I made it to the second half of my most-anticipated double bill of the festival.
The great Irene Dunne had already starred in 1931’s Oscar-winning Best Picture (Cimarron) as well as a series of drab weepies before landing her first great comic role in 1936’s Theodora Goes Wild. Starring opposite heartthrob Melvyn Douglas (whose granddaughter Illeana is a TCM mainstay who enlivens every TCM Fest), Dunne was an utter delight as a popular racy authoress leading a double life in a conservative small town. Freed from the shackles of her early serious roles, Dunne sparkles under the direction of Richard Boleslawski (a founder of the Method acting style, who would die tragically young the following year), and her chemistry with Melvyn Douglas is indeed swoonworthy. The film holds up wonderfully over eighty years on, and to see it projected on the big screen with an appreciative audience laughing along is the essence of what makes this festival so special.
Thanks to the amazing TCM Fest programmers, that day the Theodora screening was topped by an even more essential Irene Dunne classic, perhaps the greatest of all screwball comedies … The Awful Truth. Seeing the World Premiere Restoration on the film’s eightieth birthday inside the full Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, well… it should come as no surprise that this was for me the highlight of the entire 2017 festival. It’s one thing to sit in one of the world’s great movie palaces and view a beautiful print (well, technically a crystal clear DCP) of a drama, but it’s an entirely different kind of cinephilic joy to experience a comedy as great as The Awful Truth surrounded by a packed house of fellow film-lovers as on that happy Saturday.
As with most screwball comedies, there’s little sense divulging much of the film’s ‘plot’ here, particularly as director Leo McCarey (who rightfully won the Best Director Oscar for this film) encouraged his cast to improvise throughout. This working method rankled star Cary Grant at first, but eventually he acquiesced and in the bargain rebranded his screen persona to become the sophisticated screen comedian the world would fall in love with. Asta the dog and a random black cat garner great laughs in the film (as do the cats and dogs of Theodora, for that matter), co-star Ralph Bellamy nabbed a Supporting Actor nomination, and the film itself was nominated for Best Picture. For my money though, this is Irene Dunne’s shining hour on film, which makes her loss at the Oscars that year all the more frustrating.
Back at the inaugural TCM Fest in 2010, I was fortunate enough to sit with an enraptured Egyptian Theatre audience to hear Robert Osborne interview the charming 100-year-old Luise Rainer, winner of the Best Actress Academy Award for both 1936 and 1937. (Her career never recovered from the great expectations borne by these back-to-back wins, hence the creation of the ‘Oscar Curse’ theory.) As fascinating and incredibly special as it was to listen to Miss Rainer share her life story that afternoon, I can’t overstate how very wrong the Academy got it back in the day, particularly after just viewing Irene Dunne’s nominated work from those same two years.
In 1936, Rainer won for her small role in The Great Ziegfeld (many say for basically one extended telephone monologue scene), and a much better case could’ve been made for her winning the Supporting Actress award in the very year that category was introduced. But if Irene Dunne was robbed for her fantastic Theodora Goes Wild performance that year, then there’s certainly no excuse for her losing to Rainer a second time the next year. With just a few spoken lines as Olan in The Good Earth (Rainer’s second win), an argument for this being a Supporting performance could also be validly made. And to think that this undeserved second win came at the expense of Dunne’s sparkling, best-ever performance (although nominated five times, she would remain Oscar-less) … well, don’t get me started. Still, to see how the current Grauman’s audience reacted to The Awful Truth, the peals of laughter and spontaneous applause throughout, seems a lasting justice despite the Academy’s obvious errors. I had a smile on my face from the film’s opening credits until the cuckoo clock chimed at the end, and I’ve now got a happy gut feeling that this beautiful restoration bodes well for what I (want to) believe will be an upcoming blu-ray release. The film premiered on October 21st of 1937, so the eightieth anniversary is less than six months away … Criterion, can you hear me?!
Despite the frustration of having to forgo certain films due to overlapping time slots (definitely a first world problem), one of my organizing strategies this year was to attempt viewing a double bill of some favorite actors or filmmakers. Surprisingly, ’20s/’30s heartthrob Chester Morris made the cut by appearing opposite lascivious Jean Harlow in one of her finest, as well as headlining a Howard Hughes pre-Code tease alongside Billie Dove. The latter film, with the risible (and wholly appropriate) title Cock of the Air, was a saucy 1932 romantic comedy dealing with the efforts of a WWI pilot trying to bed a sultry French actress.
Filmed with flair and particularly inventive camerawork, this movie fell victim to the restrictive Hays Code, which demanded numerous cuts be made before it could be released; and although Hughes fought them every step of the way, he eventually was forced to relent. A complete, uncensored print was discovered in 2007, however, and with a new score and lost dialogue recently re-recorded, the Academy Film Archive completed this updated version just last year. To stumble upon a rare discovery such as this, and then to see it in pristine, crystalline projection up on the big screen, is what the TCM Classic Film Festival is really all about.
So the timing seemed perfect to make it a second oversexed 1932 pre-Code Chester Morris double feature, this time co-starring the original Blonde Bombshell Jean Harlow in one of her naughtiest roles as the (ironically) titular Red-Headed Woman. Harlow came into her own in this film, and is a scandalous delight as a secretary sleeping her way up the ladder into high society. How refreshing to have a female lead character with so few redeeming qualities take on the paternalistic mores of the day, and instead of being punished (or dying! ) at the end, triumph on her own terms. Harlow made it a delicious, libidinous delight from start to finish, and her career entered the stratosphere as a result.
Two Preston Sturges comedies made up my final double feature of this year’s fest … the absolutely wonderful The Palm Beach Story as well as the oddly unique black comedy Unfaithfully Yours. (Technically this would qualify as a Rudy Vallee double bill as well, but no need to complicate matters.) In the latter film, Rex Harrison stars as a jealous symphony conductor who fantasizes on ways to revenge his wife’s (imagined) infidelities. As the wife is played by Linda Darnell at her most alluring, one can well understand the fury that Harrison whips himself into. Cited by no less than Quentin Tarantino as one of his all-time favorites, the film seemed a bit overly verbose to me, and Harrison’s performance a touch too manic and forced (ala Cary Grant’s in Arsenic and Old Lace). Still, Darnell’s touching grace and irresistible beauty elevated the film, and I can fully understand why ‘Czar of Noir’ Eddie Muller (who introduced the screening) said that if he were somehow able to time travel back to the ’40s, it would be to meet the ravishing Miss Darnell.
1942’s The Palm Beach Story was the third masterpiece Preston Sturges somehow churned out in just a short two-year span (Sullivan’s Travels and my favorite, The Lady Eve, the others). One of the best screwball comedies ever made (right up there with The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, Midnight, and My Man Godfrey), this cockeyed caravan of a movie is filled to the brim with ‘lovable connivers’, as Academy scholar Cari Beauchamp gushed in her enthusiastic introduction inside Grauman’s Chinese.
Stars Joel McCrea and lovely Claudette Colbert were rarely funnier on film, but as usual in a Sturges film, it’s the supporting characters that tend to steal the show. In one of her first forays into comedy (after having won an Oscar the previous year), Mary Astor was a fast-talking ditzy revelation. (Her family members, as well as McCrea’s, were present in the Grauman’s audience to soak up the packed house’s laughter and delight.) Equally impressive was droll Rudy Vallee, iconic crooner of yesteryear, who exhibited quite the light touch for comedy. I’m not sure I really needed to know (in the introduction) that he also apparently possessed the largest collection of porn in old Hollywood, but you’ll always learn some titillating obscure bit of lore here at the TCM Fest!
In conclusion, I’d be remiss not to mention one of my favorite (and perhaps funniest) screenings of the fest, W.C. Fields in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (preceded by his even funnier pre-code short, The Barbershop). After labeling what the studio writers had presented him with as ‘the worst script I ever read’, legend has it that Fields then went and wrote the film on the back of a grocery bill while sitting on the toilet. While famously not caring for children (unless they were “properly cooked”), W.C. treats the young starlet Gloria Jean (a Deanna Durbin wannabe) with respect and tenderness in the film, as he apparently in life always longed for a daughter. Sadly, the scenes with Jean tend to stop the film in its tracks, but elsewhere inspired comic anarchy reigns.
His scenes with a crusty studio diner waitress are absolutely hysterical, and the movie concludes with one of the funniest car chases ever committed to celluloid. Still, in his last great starring role, this is all W.C. Fields’ show – one of the most original funny men the cinema has ever produced. He continues to make filmgoers laugh indeed, and brother, can we ever use that now. By highlighting some of the absolute best comedies Hollywood ever produced, once again the TCM Festival programmers outdid themselves (a major shout out to Charlie Tabash), so here’s to many more years of classic cinema revelry being projected on beautiful, big screens inside the storied movie palaces of old Hollywood.
All festival photos by Steve Striegel, exclusively for ICS
In Tinsel Town, too much is never enough.
Further sights and sites of Hollywood …
Diane Baker and Ruta Lee
Bob Balaban and Fred Willard of Best in Show
Beau Bridges and Lee Grant of The Landlord
Keir Dullea and Chris Tucker
Billy Crystal and Martin Landau
Mr. Robert Osborne