That’s a wrap for the 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival, the largest confluence of hardcore classic movie buffs held each year in the heart of Hollywood. This year’s fest marked the tenth anniversary of the beloved festival, whose precarious origins have blossomed into a well-oiled machine with no signs of slowing down. Passes for this year’s edition sold out at a record pace, and film lovers converged on a few blocks surrounding Hollywood Blvd. to lap up some of the best films the industry had ever produced.
The four-day festival kicked off with a windy red carpet procession leading into Grauman’s hallowed Chinese Theatre where the thirtieth anniversary of When Harry Met Sally was screened with director and stars present. Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan seemed barely to have aged in the intervening three decades, and Mr. Crystal would return to the famous courtyard the following morning to imprint his foot and handprints into fresh cement.
To commemorate the importance of the fest’s tenth anniversary milestone (as well as the TCM cable channel’s 25th anniversary occurring that very weekend), entrepreneurial legend and philanthropist Ted Turner (sporting a fun Singin’ in the Rain tie) made his way gruffly yet gingerly up the carpet accompanied by his charming granddaughter. Without Ted Turner there would be no Turner Classic Movies (much less this festival) and there was a touching respect (as well as in-theater tribute) for the reclusive powerhouse in what could well be one of his final public appearances.
The red carpet procession was a bit of a muted affair this year, with few legit cinematic superstars in attendance. The dedicated and enthusiastic TCM cable hosts walking the carpet included Ben Mankiewicz, Alicia Malone (she of the impeccable ’40s hair), Illeana Douglas, and the Czar of Noir, Eddie Mueller.
A trio of lovely Supporting Actress Oscar nominees also strolled the carpet, including Ronee Blakely (Nashville ‘75), Christine Lahti (Swing Shift ‘84), and disturbingly happy Patty McCormack (The Bad Seed ‘56)
Midway through the fest Miss McCormack would sit beside the pool oasis of the Roosevelt Hotel and regale the gathered fest pass-holders with tales of her breakthrough role of evil little Rhoda, pig-tailed killer of numerous unfortunates. McCormack fine tuned her iconic The Bad Seed performance for ten months on Broadway, before being summoned to Hollywood to commit this diabolically twisted character to film. “People were afraid of me. I enjoyed it very much!” enthused McCormack with a devilish twinkle in her eye. While her career may not have progressed as she might have hoped (although she did film a segment of Don Quixote for Orson Welles), her bloodthirsty little murderous Rhoda truly remains the bad seed of the ages.
For the first time in my ten years attending the fest, I did not end up seeing a single film inside of Hollywood’s ultimate film palace, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. I attribute this primarily to the unfortunate TCM fest trend of scheduling big-budget, fairly recent Hollywood hits in this indelible venue. To each his own I suppose, but my desire to see such dubious ‘classics’ as Steel Magnolias, Working Girl, Hello Dolly!, Sleepless in Seattle, The Shawshank Redemption or When Harry Met Sally was seriously lacking, hence I found myself gravitating (as usual) to decades-old masterworks, particularly little-seen pre-Code gems from the early thirties.
After the Thursday night opening events, the festival really kicks into gear the following morning for three intense viewing-packed days. I somehow was able to squeeze in a total of eighteen films this year, helped in no small part by the refreshingly brisk running times of those early pre-Code wonders. Night World, Vanity Street (both 1932), and Blood Money (1933) all clocked in at about an hour, and while none were out-and-out classics, they all had refreshingly sordid and solid charms, the likes of which would soon be snuffed out by Will Hayes’ dispiriting Production Code.
Perhaps my favorite of this pre-Code trio was 1932’s Night World, a sexy, violent drama unspooling over the course of a long evening at Boris Karloff’s New York City speakeasy. Karloff’s devoted daughter Sara introduced the opening night film, and as always during her festival visits to honor her father, she shared many fascinating insights into this iconic acting legend. (“Frankenstein was his 81st film, and no one saw the previous 80.”)
Screened from a pristine 35mm print (always a rare treat these days), Night World speeds merrily along (clocking in at 58 minutes) with drunks, bootleggers, showgirls (and even one lisping patron hitting on anything in pants at the club’s men’s room) battling it out over the course of one long, debauched evening.
The performances are a delight throughout, not only from Karloff, but also by charming, naturalistic Mae Clarke, Lew Ayres, George Raft, and the distinguished Clarence Muse as the film’s moral center (a rare and quite moving role for a black performer at the time). Throw in a wonderfully twisted dance number choreographed by the mighty Busby Berkeley (“Who’s Your Little Who-Zis?”), and here we had (despite Harry and Sally at the big gala downstairs) the perfect opening night film for TCM Fest 2019.
To honor the recent passing of the great Agnès Varda, I opted to follow up Night World with her husband Jacques Demy’s luminous The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The lush Palme d’Or winning bittersweet love story features a 21-year-old Catherine Deneuve in her breakthrough role, even if her own voice is not heard within the film (all movie dialogue was sung, with Danielle Licari providing Deneuve’s voice). Though at heart it is a story of class struggle, Demy directs with a confident, light touch that made the film a huge international success in 1964. Propelled by (also recently departed this year) Michel Legrand’s swooning, iconic score, with brightly painted sets and picturesque cinematography, the film is an operatic meld of music and emotion.
Occasionally during the film Deneuve will turn her direct gaze to the camera, breaking the fourth wall, and connecting in a visceral, surprising way with the audience. At these times it seems her subsequent screen persona is fully formed, a stoic yet deeply emotional, unsmiling wealth of feeling beneath the calmest of surfaces. Seen (and heard) on the big screen in such optimal conditions, Demy’s heartfelt masterpiece made for a fantastic opening night offering.
Putting together the schedule for a concentrated festival such as this cannot be an easy task for programmers, and this year’s unfortunate groupings made for some very difficult screening decisions. While a number of screening blocks had two or more choices I had to pare down, sadly there were other entire blocks where I had little desire to catch any of the films scheduled. A wise festivalgoer might have used these opportunities to grab a meal or two, but mere caloric sustenance never held much interest for me at times like this. Instead I willed myself to stray outside my comfort zone, and while in most cases my cinematic prejudices were sadly confirmed, on occasion I was happy to discover a film I might normally never see.
Two of these oh-what-the-hell screenings I opted for were 9 a.m. shows at the newest TCM Fest venue, the spectacularly renovated American Legion Theater at Hollywood Post 43. The ninety-year-old Egyptian Revival building is a beauty, and is a worthy stepsister to Grauman’s more famous landmark theaters of that era, the Chinese and Egyptian. While slightly further afield than the rest of the festival’s venues, the fully renovated cavernous interior and state-of-the-art sound and projection make the hike up Highland Ave. worthwhile. First up at this lovely architectural addition to the TCM Fest was Grace Kelly’s final Hollywood film before transitioning out into the life of a Monte Carlo Princess, 1956’s High Society.
Supported by two top-shelf crooners in Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby (singing the songs of Cole Porter), Kelly does her best in the role Katharine Hepburn made famous, but truly, was there ever really a need to remake The Philadelphia Story, even with the musical pedigree? Apparently moviegoers of the ’50s thought so, as the film did become a box-office hit (though underperforming the vastly superior The Girl Can’t Help It that year). Grace Kelly does look ravishing, lounging poolside while sporting her giant rock of an engagement ring from Prince Rainier. Solid support from the ever-wisecracking Celeste Holm, as well as the spirited musical chops of Louis Armstrong, made for a pleasant enough a.m. outing, but this is a film I doubt I will ever return to.
Infinitely more enjoyable for me was the following morning’s Post 43 screening, with everyone’s favorite Depression-era can-do girl Shirley Temple starring in 1935’s The Little Colonel. Truly a national phenomenon (as well as the top box-office star from 1935-1938), Shirley Temple charmed and distracted moviegoers from the troubles of the day as no one else quite could. While Temple’s films are rarely considered classics of the art form, her indomitable spunk and spirit always shone brightly through, and her screen persona was the perfect tonic for those troubled and depressed times. As with most of her other films, the ‘plot’ of The Little Colonel is of little consequence. What’s noteworthy here (particularly for the mid-’30s) is Temple’s easy interaction and joyful interplay with the cast’s African-American characters. As the film is set in the Reconstruction-era South, the major black characters are still house servants subservient to the story’s white characters, and yet the great actors portraying them (Hattie McDaniel and Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson) provide a wisdom and dignity not typical in films of the day.
The film’s most famous sequence (a one-take staircase tap dance featuring Shirley and Bojangles) was also a watershed moment – the first interracial dance number in American film history (unsurprisingly cut from the movie in most Southern states). Among the charming film’s many highlights are a movingly filmed riverside baptism sequence, a very funny Hattie McDaniel battering down a locked door using only her ample derriere, and a surprising Technicolor party sequence which was the first color footage of Shirley Temple ever recorded.
A teenage Shirley Temple was featured in the festival’s first of four rare nitrate print screenings at the iconic Grauman’s Egyptian theatre (just recently purchased by – gulp – Netflix). I missed this particular screening of The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer, though did catch all of the subsequent offerings at this beautiful, historic theater. Most audiences today have never seen a film in 35mm nitrate (due to its very volatile, dangerous nature) so it was a fantastic treat to end up seeing three of these rarities (though I correctly suspected that two would be dicey propositions). The undisputed best of the bunch was Jean Negulesco’s 1948 Ida Lupino-Richard Widmark film noir, Road House.
Ida Lupino (in what many consider her best role) stars as a jaded lounge singer transported from Chicago to a backwoods nightclub gig, resulting in an uneasy love triangle between the great Richard Widmark and a solid Cornel Wilde. Lupino’s strong, no-bullshit character is the perfect foil for Widmark’s jealous, manically giggling club owner Jefty.
Throw in another great Celeste Holm supporting turn, some incredibly sexy bowling lessons, along with an iconic ballad or two (raspily sung as only Lupino could), and this atmospheric rural noir remains one of the best of the genre. To see it in the creamy silkiness of nitrate was a double treat, and definitely one of the highlights of the festival.
The final two nitrate screenings I attended were definitely out of my normal wheelhouse, and aside from the rare opportunity to see seventy-year-old films presented in this unique manner, I likely wouldn’t have bothered. 1945’s The Dolly Sisters was a lavish Technicolor musical starring WWII pin-up Betty Grable singing and dancing among mammoth sets, perhaps most notable (unfortunately) for an extended ‘elegant’ blackface number which couldn’t have been more inappropriate.
Showman Cecil B. DeMille’s Oscar-winning (Art Direction, Costumes) Samson and Delilah became 1949’s biggest box-office champ, and still somehow holds interest seventy years after its premiere (with the added bonus of seeing it appropriately inside the Egyptian theatre). The rich Technicolor vibrancy in this Library of Congress-preserved nitrate print truly was a vision, and made up for the silliness of this sword-and-sandal Biblical epic. Still, Samson’s climactic destruction of the Philistine temple at the film’s end was great chaotic fun as seen on the big screen. Hedy Lamar (as Delilah) was a ravishing vision as well, of particular interest after recently viewing the fascinating documentary on her life, Bombshell.
Speaking of bombshells, Angie Dickinson (Rio Bravo, Point Blank, Dressed to Kill ) made an appearance before the screening of Don Siegel’s B-movie hitman thriller, 1964’s The Killers. Host Ben Mankiewicz always knows how to charm his guests, and immediately told Angie, “You look beautiful.” Not missing a beat, Dickinson replied, “Yeah, I know.” It’s hard to fathom that she’s nearing ninety, though she herself playfully acknowledged, “I am so old.”
A fun, spunky interviewee, Dickinson heaped praise on her co-stars John Cassavetes, Lee Marvin, and even Ronald Reagan who “hated every minute of it.” Foreshadowing his future stint in politics, Reagan played a violent, sadistic villain, only taking the role to get out of his studio contract in order to launch his political career (and say goodbye to films forever). The Killers had originally been planned as the first made-for-television movie, but was deemed too violent and sexy for the medium, whereupon it was dumped unceremoniously into theaters. It’s since accrued somewhat of a curious cult following, and definitely looked fantastic in this world premiere restoration, but aside from its B-movie low-jinks and overripe acting, there’s not very much here to recommend.
Ronald Reagan’s ex-wife Jane Wyman had a big romantic hit in 1954’s Douglas Sirk-directed weepie, Magnificent Obsession, which launched Rock Hudson’s career as a ’50s romantic leading man. Over the next three years the two men would again collaborate on three of Sirk’s best – All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind, and The Tarnished Angels. Sirk’s style is somewhat of an acquired taste – patently staged, brightly lit studio settings, pften with maudlin storylines and over-earnest acting. And yet, beneath the near-campy surface there usually awaits an interesting and worthwhile life lesson or two.
As explained by ageless ninety-something co-star Barbara Rush before the screening, the magnificent obsession of the film has everything to do with kindness, and thoughtfully paying it forward. Rush seems to have taken the film’s message to heart, and truly seems to be a caring, lovely woman. Heaping praise on both Sirk (“So kind, so interesting … fatherly”) as well as Hudson (“Rock was so much fun,” always making her laugh), Miss Rush was a lovely presence and charming representative for a film sixty-five years old.
As evidenced by my write-up on TCM Fest 2017, I have a bit of a magnificent obsession myself in regards to the films of Irene Dunne. Happily, the discriminating programmers for this year’s festival seemed to as well, scheduling two 35mm screenings of Miss Dunne’s work. After displaying her comic chops in 1936’s Theodora Goes Wild and 1937’s The Awful Truth (and getting Oscar-nominated for both), Dunne returned to drama (she actually had starred in the original 1935 version of Magnificent Obsession ) for 1939’s beautiful, romantic Love Affair (which secured her third Best Actress nomination in four years).
Directed once again by Awful Truth helmer Leo McCarey, Dunne is a luminous, heartbreaking presence in a shipboard romance familiar to many from its 1957 remake, An Affair to Remember (that version starred Dunne’s Awful Truth partner, Cary Grant). As in McCarey’s classic comedy, Dunne was asked to improvise many scenes with her co-star, this time French heartthrob Charles Boyer.
Their shipboard interactions as the pair fall in love crossing the Atlantic are believably romantic, and the two stars’ chemistry was palpable. Both Boyer and Dunne stated throughout their lives that Love Affair was their favorite movie, and it’s easy to see why. Along with the following film, it was my favorite of the entire festival as well.
It boggles the cinephilic mind to realize that in the short span of just seven months starting in Oct. 1937, these three Cary Grant films were released in the U.S. – The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, and Holiday – helping to bolster my opinion that Grant was perhaps the greatest screen actor of all time. Columbia’s plan to re-team Irene Dunne and Cary Grant in a follow-up to the great success of The Awful Truth was thwarted when director George Cukor insisted on casting Katharine Hepburn as the lead in 1938’s Holiday (she had understudied the role on Broadway in 1928).
The stunning world premiere restoration of this wonderful film (which hopefully bodes well for an upcoming blu-ray release) was introduced with great love and enthusiasm early on the festival’s final morning by a rather unexpected duo – Diane Baker and Ron Perlman.
Hepburn and Grant, who played so memorably off of each other in Bringing Up Baby, repeat that seemingly effortless feat in Holiday, a witty tale of true soulmates slowly but inevitably surmounting all obstacles to eventually come together as one. Grant’s character of a self-made man eager to retire while young enough to enjoy it has always struck a chord with me, and his earnest trek to personal fulfillment (realizing what is truly important in life), was an inspiration. Cukor’s overture to always following one’s heart seemed the perfect comedic mirror to the dramatic Love Affair, and in a nice circularity, the latter film begins on a transatlantic cruise while the former ends on one.
Featured in a total of six films throughout the 2019 TCM Film Fest, this certainly was Cary Grant’s year on the classic silver screens here in the heart of old Hollywood. After starting the final festival day with the incandescent Holiday, it seemed inevitable that I follow that up with a 35mm screening of 1940’s My Favorite Wife starring, yes, Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. Could lightning strike twice for Dunne and Grant as it just had with Miss Hepburn? Perhaps it was an omen when director Leo McCarey was forced to withdraw after being hospitalized due to a car accident shortly before the shoot. Ostensibly a screwball comedy, the film seems a pale imitation of the magical hilarity of The Awful Truth. What felt so natural and spontaneous in that earlier film, now seemed overly forced and somewhat leaden. Still, both stars work valiantly (it shows), and the film is not without occasional pleasures.
Foremost among those is a sequence where a befuddled Grant first sets eyes upon a toned and buff Randolph Scott as he high dives and struts about a Hollywood club pool. Grant’s reaction to this perceived threat to his manhood is classic, particularly if one knows anything of Scott and Grant’s off-screen relationship. A follow-on scene of Grant sitting at a desk unable to keep Scott out of his mind is hilarious (meta and otherwise), as a miniature shirtless Scott is superimposed flying on rings just over Cary’s head. One has to imagine this was a wonderful Hollywood inside joke, in perhaps a more carefree (although closeted) and less judgmental time.
It was a treat to have the film introduced by Cary Grant’s only child, his daughter Jennifer. Sporting a replica of her father’s North by Northwest sunglasses, the demure Miss Grant had her hands full trying to talk over her young son seated in the theater’s first row. Never imagining that she would have children, in her research for a book she was writing on her father, she had given one of the great loves of her father’s life an exploratory phone call. While Jennifer may not have ultimately used the material Sophia Loren related to her in that phone call for her book, something quite major did come of the conversation. In no uncertain terms, Loren urged – even insisted – that Miss Grant should start a family. Before long that is exactly what Jennifer Grant decided to do … and the result, a rambunctious young pip whom she named ‘Cary ’, sat that day before the large silver screen, hopefully aware of the love and admiration the gathered TCM Classic Film Fest goers felt for his incredible grandfather. How very appropriate that the impressive Tenth Anniversary edition of this most beloved film festival would focus on, and honor the great Cary Grant.
All festival photos by Steve Striegel exclusively for ICS
Further sights and sites of TCM Fest 2019 …
Robert Osborne Award recipient Kevin Brownlow terrorized by bashful Bai Ling.
Cheers to a wonderful decade of magnificent TCM fests!