The cinematic gods were smiling down on old Hollywood yet again as the seventh annual TCM Classic Film Festival recently wrapped under the temperate blue skies of Southern California. A cinephile’s dream festival, lasting over a long four-day weekend, this year’s edition was again an embarrassment of riches, surpassing my lofty expectations in both content and live experiences. With roughly eighty different films to select from, the challenge is always to fashion a workable viewing schedule, and then not regret too greatly foregoing the films that could not be shoehorned in.
I’ve been fortunate to have attended each TCM Fest since the inception back in 2010, and completely understand why participants consider themselves part of the oft-quoted ‘TCM family.’ There’s a palpable joy to being among fellow classic film aficionados experiencing first hand the shared love of movies over this long weekend. Cinema truly is the international language, and there’s no better place to appreciate the art of classic motion pictures than in the heart of Hollywood on these lovely spring days.
Averaging roughly five films per full screening day over the course of the fest, at times I felt I was running an ongoing movie marathon, but once the lights dim and these silver-screen classics are projected up on the giant screens, all else melts away. With state-of-the-art projection, access to the latest film restorations, and passionately devoted filmgoers packing most every screening … this is how the art and history of cinema deserves to be celebrated.
The breadth and depth of filmdom’s great masters on display at this year’s festival was simply breathtaking. From seminal works by Coppola, Altman, Lumet, and Huston in the ’70s, I then traveled back to the origins of the medium and experienced indelible masterpieces by some of cinema’s founding fathers … Griffith, Chaplin, Lloyd, Dreyer, and von Sternberg. Add to this mix films by Hawks, Disney, Lean, and Sirk (topped off by a palate-cleansing Marx Brothers romp) and one starts to understand why this festival seems such an essential celebration of cinema.
The fest’s Opening Night red carpet promenade is always an exciting launch to the weekend’s festivities. Most of the festival’s special guests strolled leisurely along the carpet, interacting with gathered press, continuing on past bleachers full of appreciative TCM fans, and finally on into the grand Grauman’s Chinese theatre for the evening’s gala screening of All the President’s Men. Although the popular Rocky would eventually trump the Redford-Hoffman investigative procedural at that year’s Academy Awards forty years ago (even besting Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Lumet’s Network), it seemed appropriate that Alan J. Pakula’s urgent political film would open the 2016 festival in this most inexplicable year for U.S. presidential politics. An interesting essay could indeed be written on the parallels between films and characters seen at this year’s festival and the current election climate in America, from Network’s straight-talking Howard Beale to Andy Griffith’s ‘Lonesome Rhodes’ in Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd. Kudos to the crack programming staff for showcasing such a group of prescient films in this utterly bizarre and unique political season. I’d not be at all surprised if Ben Mankiewicz (face of the fest in Robert Osborne’s absence and member of the politically astute The Young Turks) had a hand in choosing these topical selections as well.
Joining Mankiewicz before the gala screening, president-toppling journalist Carl Bernstein was on hand to kick off the proceedings (with his All the President’s Men star Dustin Hoffman staring intently down from the large movie poster behind the carpet).
The TCM Classic Film Festival always attracts its share of Academy Award winners, and this year’s edition was no exception. Throughout the fest, Oscar-anointed actresses Faye Dunaway, Eva Marie Saint, Rita Moreno, Marlee Matlin, and Angela Lansbury all would introduce their various films, and on the night of the Opening an eclectic mix strode the carpet under the late April sunny skies.
Altman regular Keith Carradine (a Best Song winner from Nashville) was on hand to honor his father John (a John Ford regular), while Babe nominee James Cromwell struck an imposing presence throughout the festival (both as speaker and cinephile). The following morning he’d arise early to introduce his father John Cromwell’s 1932 pre-Code romp Double Harness, which was so popular with festgoers that an extra screening was added to the fest’s final Sunday.
‘Schlockmeister’ Roger Corman (King of the Z’s! who was miraculously awarded an Honorary Oscar recently) walked the carpet with gentlemanly grace and good humor, while Supporting Actor winner Lou Gossett Jr. brought much-appreciated style to the proceedings. A spirited TCM Fest regular, indefatigable 101-year-old Norman Lloyd (he who fell from Hitchcock’s Statue of Liberty) joked with photographers, ever ready for his close-up.
The Yearling’s Claude Jarman Jr. and Meet Me in St. Louis’ Margaret O’Brien enjoyed the bustling festivities over seventy(!) years after winning their respective Juvenile Oscars. Their distinguished participation in the event out front of the Grauman’s Chinese theatre was a tangible link to the Golden Age of Hollywood filmmaking, and a stark contrast to the superhero-costumed throngs on nearby Hollywood Blvd.
Two of the greatest stars of the Silver Screen – Cary Grant and Sophia Loren – fell deeply in love while filming Houseboat in the late fifties and their love affair led to the very brink of marriage. Instead they parted and began families with others, so it was of particular interest seeing two of their attractive offspring walk the carpet – Jennifer Grant and Edoardo Ponti – and speculating on what might have been had Sophia said yes.
Adding a further touch of class to the Opening Night events were two magnificent European beauties, whose careers and filmographies could not have been more different. A star for over fifty years (and featured on over 5,000 magazine covers), Gina Lollobrigida never reached the stratospheric heights that fellow countrywoman Sophia Loren did, but then again, Sophia never mastered the triple somersault required of Lollobrigida in Carol Reed’s Trapeze (which she introduced later at the fest).
Nearing her nineties, the vivacious Lollobrigida strode the red carpet in a bejeweled pink gown, waving to the press corps a la Anna Magnani, while basking in Hollywood’s adulation one more time. Although she was often referred to as ‘The World’s Most Beautiful Woman’ (also the title of her 1955 hit film), I would venture instead that that honor belongs to Jean-Luc Godard’s muse and Nouvelle Vague collaborator, the sublime Anna Karina.
With the most emotive and beautiful eyes of perhaps any actress in cinema’s history, Karina became the face of the 1960s French New Wave, starring in Godard’s greatest films of that seminal decade. Vivre sa Vie, Une Femme est une Femme, Pierrot le Fou, and Bande à Part all stretched the vocabulary of film, and all would be unthinkable without Karina’s impressive presence at their center. It was hard to reconcile her shy, diminutive demeanor in person with the formidable impact and crucial contributions she made to her films with Godard during this period.
In her beguiling introduction to Bande à Part later in the fest, Karina laughed remembering how Godard had originally sought her out for a small role in Breathless, but she had to respectfully decline because the part called for nudity and she was fourteen at the time. Godard kept Anna in mind, and after she accepted the lead role in his next film (now a mature seventeen), their indelible seven-film collaboration (and off-screen marriage) was launched, to the eternal joy of cinephiles the world over.
While Bande à Part’s supposed ‘plot’ revolves around a trio of Parisian compatriots attempting to steal a cache of money, the film lingers due to a joyfully seductive sequence where the three partners-in-crime spontaneously dance the Madison to the sounds on the cafe jukebox. This being Godard, that music at times drops completely out, and we hear just the snapping of fingers and shuffling of feet before it abruptly returns.
Karina related how this was the only sequence that the three principals had a significant time to rehearse in advance, while for the remainder of the film they were often only given their lines the morning of each day’s shoot. It’s one of the coolest dance sequences put on film (an inspiration for Tarantino’s Travolta/Thurman Pulp Fiction number). In it, the two men eventually tire of the dance, but Anna continues on without them, completely into the moment and even flashing a rare smile. Karina’s striking presence at the center of Godard’s early films became a cinematic force to be reckoned with, a perfect melding of director and actress. If the eyes indeed are the windows of the soul, Godard had the wisdom to often simply train the camera on Karina’s amazing countenance, and let her soar from there. (On the subject of ravishing close-ups, there’s a heartbreaking one of Anna viewing The Passion of Joan of Arc in Vivre sa Vie, but more on that later.)
Godard’s devotion to the power of the Karina close-up in his films of the ’60s was akin to that of Josef von Sternberg for his muse Marlene Dietrich in the ’30s. Interestingly, both pairs of actresses/directors/lovers collaborated on seven films together, with the Dietrich/von Sternberg Shanghai Express being the most successful of the lot (1932’s top box office film, in fact). Introduced at the fest by von Sternberg’s son Nicholas, Shanghai Express is a visual masterwork (deservedly earning Lee Grimes the Cinematography Oscar that year) and one of the greatest of all train journey films.
Seeing it projected on the big screen was an incredible experience, so it was no surprise that I heard it mentioned most often as festgoers’ favorite of the festival. I knew I was amongst like-minded film aficionados when both Anna Mae Wong and Eugene Palette received applause upon their entrances in the film. While I may have preferred the overheated visuals of von Sternberg’s subsequent The Devil is a Woman seen at an earlier TCM Fest, Shanghai Express was an audacious, dreamlike early sound masterpiece where the incredible visuals and star-making iconography meshed to create an almost hallucinatory whole.
Being in Los Angeles, it would have seemed foolish to pass up the back-to-back screenings of two Raymond Chandler adaptations … Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. As with Shanghai Express’s inconsequence of plot, it’s fruitless to concern oneself with following the convoluted twists and turns of The Big Sleep. Humphrey Bogart was the quintessential Philip Marlowe, and he particularly excelled in his scenes with the assorted noir femmes of the film: Dorothy Malone, Martha Vickers, and most obviously, Lauren Bacall.
The iconic couple’s scenes together here crackle – particularly the double-entendre laden one (penned by William Faulkner, no less) in which Bogie and Bacall discuss the intricacies of horse racing. The film’s freshness belies its age of seventy years, and it was a rare treat to see it screened at Grauman’s Egyptian in a newly restored 35mm print (cheers UCLA).
I wish I could say I was equally thrilled with Robert Altman’s 1973 The Long Goodbye in which Elliot Gould updated the role of Marlowe. Gould sat down with Ben Mankiewicz before the screening to reminisce, and frankly that conversation was far more interesting than anything in the film. Gould is a skillful raconteur (a story about his changing Groucho Marx’s lightbulbs was a hoot), and I’d happily listen to him talk about his life for hours. Altman’s painfully dated film drew the opposite reaction, however, and I felt lucky to have made it through even a half hour before giving it a quick goodbye (my sole walkout of the fest – not proud). Speaking of Groucho, watching the world premiere restoration of the Marx Brothers’ zany 1932 Horse Feathers was a welcome 68-minute palate-cleanser. Groucho’s anarchic comedic delivery had the audience roaring, and this shared laughter greatly elevated what is likely one of the lesser Marx Brothers efforts.
I wish I could say the same about the experience viewing a truly great comedic masterpiece, Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman, one of the three films screened outside around the Roosevelt Hotel’s palm-fringed pool (a truly magical old Hollywood setting). The Freshman was Lloyd’s biggest hit of his career and in fact launched the entire college football genre. The film itself holds up magnificently, which makes it all the more frustrating that its presentation here was such a misfire. For some inexplicable reason, Suzanne Lloyd (Harold’s granddaughter and fierce protector of the Lloyd estate and legend) authorized DJ and music producer Thomas Golubić to re-score the film with a painful new music mix (Queen, Joe Jackson, rap, techno, etc), inartfully overlaying it onto Lloyd’s classic. The waves of laughter that The Freshman elicited from the good-willed crowd were all but drowned out by the blaring DJ mix. With grumbles of ‘inappropriate,’ nearby festgoers took their leave, and this unfortunate screening (with such potential!) made me appreciate anew the contributions of Carl Davis and Donald Sosin in scoring Silents. At an earlier TCM Fest I recall bemoaning this issue with a like-minded Kevin Brownlow in regards to the Alloy Orchestra’s work on Keaton’s The General. While I consider myself a traditionalist regarding this re-scoring phenomenon, I could not have been proven more wrong just the following day with yet another Silent classic (but again, more on that later).
The inspired Carl Davis did pen the most recent score to a film I could not pass up on its one hundredth anniversary … D.W. Griffith’s epic Intolerance. Clocking in at just under 200 minutes, Griffith’s spectacle chronicling ‘Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages’ was made partially as a response to criticism of his The Birth of a Nation. Cutting together four separate stories from disparate eras of human history (which Buster Keaton would comically echo in his The Three Ages), the film is most notable for its jaw-dropping Babylonian sequences. The mammoth sets that Griffith constructed for this segment were perhaps the most intricate and impressive of the Silent era, a partial replica of which now towers above the Hollywood/Highland complex. What a distinct and oddly wonderful feeling it was to emerge from this rare Intolerance screening and look up at the giant elephants and Babylonian walls that were featured in this century-old film.
Five years after Intolerance, Charlie Chaplin would release his first (and in my opinion best) full-length feature, The Kid. The film was a huge success at the time, and after a lucrative early career making shorts, raised Chaplin to an entirely new level of popularity (working here as star, director, writer, and producer). The Kid was by design the most sentimental of Chaplin’s films up to that time (not a positive development in my mind), and starts with a title card announcing, “a picture with a smile – and perhaps, a tear.” Chaplin penned the original score as well, tugging a bit too forcefully at the heartstrings, particularly in the scene where the kid is traumatically taken from him by the authorities.
Cutting through the schmaltz though is one of the best juvenile performances ever committed to film, by the amazing Jackie Coogan. The chemistry between Chaplin’s Tramp and the young boy he’s taken under his wing feels completely genuine and lived-in. Theirs is a beautiful, heartfelt relationship, and the primary reason the film holds up so well ninety-five years after it was created. Janus Films’ North American premiere of its digital restoration was a thing of crystalline beauty projected on the big screen, and it was an added treat to have members of Coogan’s family on hand in the theatre to bask in the audience’s adoration.
Journeying from the oldest films of the festival to the most recent, three essential classics of the Seventies were on display inside Sid Grauman’s grand Tinseltown palaces. A few hours after enshrining his foot and hand prints in cement outside in the courtyard, the great Francis Ford Coppola took to the Grauman’s Chinese stage to discuss one of his best, least-heralded works, The Conversation.
Coppola was perhaps the filmmaker in that incredible decade of cinema, creating not only both Godfather Best Picture winners, but also the unforgettable epic Apocalypse Now (which to be honest should have won the Academy’s top prize as well). And yet it is the Palme d’Or-winning The Conversation that Coppola cited as his favorite film, and as a paranoid surveillance thriller it seems years ahead of its time.
Like Elliot Gould, Coppola is a raconteur whose filmmaking stories are endlessly entertaining and insightful. The young Coppola was inspired to create The Conversation in part to make a film similar in feel to Antonioni’s Blow-Up, and his taut thriller of an audio surveillance technician in over his head would itself go on to influence Brian DePalma’s Blow Out. Walter Murch’s sound design on the film was groundbreaking, and Gene Hackman has called his pent-up internal performance as Harry Caul his personal favorite. While not on the same level of operatic grandness as his other ’70s classics, this taut masterpiece of paranoia (along with The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor) helped define its era, and to experience its state-of-the-art presentation inside the Chinese theatre with its creator present was indeed a thrill.
A short stroll down Hollywood Blvd. to Grauman’s Egyptian theatre, perhaps the definitive actress of that decade – Faye Dunaway – held court before a packed house to introduce the prescient (and outrageously funny) Network. A movie unlike any other, Network is first and foremost an actor’s showcase (joining A Streetcar Named Desire as the only film to win three acting Oscars), and boy does the cast ever sink its collective teeth into Paddy Chayefsky’s verbose, satiric screenplay. Subtlety be damned as the characters’ verbal gymnastics and acting-all-over-the-place showboating keep the film audaciously bubbling along, and it was a thrill to have the fascinating Dunaway in the house to share insights into her combustible Oscar-winning role. I greatly look forward to next year’s TCM screening of the full hour-long, sit-down interview Dunaway filmed earlier that afternoon.
A less iconic (yet supremely talented) actor prominent in the ’70s – Stacy Keach – took to the Chinese stage on the fest’s final afternoon to discuss his lead role in one of John Huston’s least-heralded classics, Fat City. A gritty, completely unsentimental study of the day-to-day struggles of small-time boxers (the polar opposite of a film like The Champ), the film focuses primarily on down-and-out boxing vet Keach and a very young Jeff Bridges as they attempt to keep their heads above water on the Stockton, California boxing circuit. Really more a character study than an out-and-out boxing film (certainly not a rah-rah Rocky number), there’s not a weak performance in the entire cast.
The criminally underrated Susan Tyrrell gives one of the great supporting performances of the ages in this film, which surpisingly was even recognized by the Academy that year. Also impressive was Nicholas Colasanto, who brings a lived-in realism to his role as a small-time boxing manager. The legendary John Huston was drawn to these types of shaggy dog stories and his no-nonsense direction (aided by Conrad Hall’s sublime cinematography) gives the film a near-documentary feel. Fat City deserves to be included among the best films of the decade.
But for me, without question, the film experience of the entire festival was the presentation of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s ageless The Passion of Joan of Arc. An austere rendering of the French national heroine’s trial by fire (literally), this essential film has made Sight and Sound’s exclusive Top Ten Films list every twenty years since the poll’s inception (‘52, ‘72, ‘92, ‘12). Having previously only seen Dreyer’s film on the small screen (I had been impressed, but not overwhelmed), I was faced with my own slight ‘Sophie’s Choice’ moment of the fest. The two must-see events of TCM Fest 2016, for me, had unfortunately been scheduled at the same time – a 50th anniversary poolside screening of the original feature Batman with the Batman (Adam West) and movie Catwoman (Lee Meriwether) on hand to present … or alternately Dreyer’s Joan of Arc presented with a live fifty-piece orchestra and vocalists performing Richard Einhorn’s 1994 oratorio “Voices of Light” in accompaniment.
The fact that I considered both of these presentations to be essential viewing probably says all you need to know about this writer, but my dilemma was indeed a real one. My ultimate decision came down to the fact that I’d somewhat recently attended a Batman screening back home (with both Caped Crusaders present), but more importantly had just days earlier viewed Godard’s Vivre sa Vie wherein Anna Karina weeps enthralled during a Passion of Joan of Arc screening. With Karina’s red carpet stroll fresh in my mind from the previous evening, my decision was made, with cinephilia winning out over classic camp this particular go-round. (Having also just had a small red carpet moment with Lee Meriwether, growling as she extended her cat-like claw towards me, my decision to miss the pool party became a bit easier.)
Dreyer’s stringent 1928 silent masterpiece is an incredible collage of intense close-ups, focusing solely on the trial by Inquisition of the mystic teenage warrior of the Middle Ages, the heroic Maid of Orleans. Based on actual trial transcripts, the film is a transcendent showcase for Maria Falconetti’s harrowing, spiritual performance as Joan, indisputably one of the most moving ever committed to film.
Stumbling upon the film in the early ’90s, composer Richard Einhorn was so inspired that he set about creating his unique oratorio to accompany the film, basing it entirely on Latin and French texts, which included Joan’s own words from the 1431 trial as well as the writings of various medieval mystics. He entitled this work “Voices of Light” and to see it performed live to a pristine 35mm print inside the overflowing Egyptian theatre was a completely unforgettable, transformative experience. (Holy Correct Choice, Batman!) Sitting dead center in the nearly 100-year-old movie palace helped me become immersed in Dreyer’s groundbreaking film, in the intimate struggle of Joan’s faith and suffering. This tiered, central vantage point proved to be essential for the overwhelming coda Einhorn staged at the end of the film. Without going into specifics (the element of surprise here is crucial), I will just say that the emotional finale elicited the strongest response from me of any film since the conclusion of Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy. An overwhelming communal reaction, not just to Joan’s tragic demise, but to the artistry of Dreyer, Falconetti, and the singers and musicians below the screen, brought the audience to its feet for a sustained, minutes-long standing ovation.
As with Anna Karina’s character’s deep personal connection to the film in Vivre sa Vie, this combination of the pinnacle of Silent cinema with the emotional immediacy of the oratorio melded to create a cinematic experience for the ages. Tears drying on my cheeks, I headed back out to the neon excess that is uniquely Hollywood Blvd., numbly withstanding the tectonic culture shock I was experiencing. Thinking to myself that the TCM Fest could well have concluded right at that moment, I’m ultimately grateful that it did not, for there are somehow always more surprising and meaningful gems to be unearthed. Here’s to discovering many more of them at future TCM Classic Film Festivals down the road … for they truly are the stuff that dreams are made of.
All festival photos by Steve Striegel, exclusively for ICS