The theme of the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival was Comedy in the Movies. This meant Lubitsch, this meant Sturges, this meant Danny Kaye and Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy and The Marx Brothers. And also something like Don Siegel’s HELL IS FOR HEROES, a down and dirty WWII film which of course isn’t a comedy but does feature an early appearance by Bob Newhart who in a few scenes even does versions of his famous telephone routines right in the middle of this rather sober war picture. It was an inspired choice for the festival to explore how comedy can turn up unexpectedly in certain films and Newhart himself was even set to appear at the screening until news of the death of his best friend Don Rickles came in on Thursday of that week and the expected cancellation was soon announced. The screening went on anyway to what was not exactly a packed house; certainly no friends of mine were there to join me. But the film revealed its power anyway. Comedy intrudes on life under odd circumstances just as life intrudes on comedy even at a film festival that is as much of a vacation from the real world as this one is.
I’m just starting to accept the idea that the TCM Classic Film Festival is done again for a year. It can be hard to explain. For a few days you’re taken over by the festival in this web of films on Hollywood Boulevard, seeing films you love, seeing films for the first time, all through that rush of cinema with people who care about them just as much as you. Yes, when you live in L.A. you get chances to see films like this most nights but it’s almost like the festival has a certain electricity which adds immeasurably to the enjoyment. It’s an extension of what the network does on the air every day but expanding it and providing a reminder of what these films mean to people. Since over a hundred titles are shown at the festival, with at least five sometimes going at once there are possibilities for all sorts of festivals in there. The classic oldies of CASABLANCA/SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN/THE MALTESE FALCON/DR. STRANGELOVE were a part of it this year so every now and then you might want to revisit one but there’s also the elusive titles that don’t turn up very much even at revival screenings in L.A. and there are sometimes going to be tough choices to make, a few things you’re forced to pass on. Plus you need to keep an open mind for the films you might be walking into on the spur of the moment and it might turn out to be something that will knock you out unexpectedly. Find the right combination of all these things, you’ll find your own perfect festival and you won’t regret it.
Considering how wide ranging the selections can be the idea of a theme to this festival is always a little odd, even though a focus on comedy isn’t a bad thing these days; of course, along with the extensive lineup of comedies there were also such titles as THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, DAVID AND LISA, THE CHINA SYNDROME (with Michael Douglas in person) and the opening night red carpet selection IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT which featured an appearance by Sidney Poitier. HELL IS FOR HEROES, to name one, was billed under the sub-category ‘Hey, That’s Not Funny’, which featured comic actors in more serious roles. Real life also intruded on the festival in the form of the recent passing of Robert Osborne, the face of the network since it first went on the air in 1994. Before the festival even officially began, a public memorial for him was held in theater #1 of the Chinese 6 to allow various TCM employees, as well as festivalgoers, to share their own memories of Osborne who will always be thought of, as Ben Mankiewicz put it, as “the face, heart, voice and soul of TCM.” Speakers included Diane Baker of MARNIE legend, a friend of Robert’s for over 50 years who recalled the lunch they had in New York just a few months ago where she knew that it would be the last time she would ever see him. Not only was the festival dedicated to him, Osborne’s presence was continually felt down to photos of some of his favorite films decorating the walls in Club TCM, ranging from ALL ABOUT EVE to THIS IS SPINAL TAP.
What his absence will mean for the future of the network was something which came up at the press conference the day before the festival began, with several questions exploring how Osborne’s presence would continue on the channel; a few suggestions from some of the media present included reusing old intros of his in a new context but it still seems to be an idea in progress. Diehard Bruce Springsteen fan Ben Mankiewicz, almost the de facto face of the channel by now even though this is never emphasized, compared it to when E Street band member Clarence Clemons died and various people took over for him but there could never be one single person to replace Clarence Clemons. The immediate future of the channel was an ongoing subject at the press conference as well, including the growing Filmstruck website along with mentions of upcoming programming to commemorate the 70th anniversary of HUAC and the continuation of the Trailblazing Women in Film series--a new incarnation of longtime TCM series The Essentials has been announced since the festival, to feature Alec Baldwin as host, an indication that the network is proceeding forward. The matter of the occasional appearance by movies from recent decades continues to be brought up but it was stressed that they are well aware of what the ‘sweet spot’ is for what sort of film belongs on TCM.
It’s also clear that the festival itself is continually evolving as it has to, a reminder that it began way back in 2010 almost at the moment when studios were about to make 35mm prints sparse to favor digital projection. While two Cinerama presentations were on the program down the street at the Cinerama Dome this year, certainly the big news of the festival was that the recent renovation of the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theater which included retrofitting the projection booth to screen the famously combustible and unstable nitrate film stock with director Alexander Payne in particular given credit for the idea to get what was called 'a massive undertaking' to finally happen. Although there was a special Cinematheque showing of a nitrate print of CASABLANCA last November, this was the first time the format really got a spotlight in the huge theater and to display how these prints themselves really are works of art as it was described. Availability of certain titles is an ongoing issue for the festival and it’s not like there are DCPs available for every film let alone 35mm prints but no matter how important some of the digital screenings are, like this year's restoration of PANIQUE, I still wish there could be one more house equipped for film again at the festival to make it that much more special. At times it’s the 35mm prints shown in the nooks of the smaller theaters where the real flavor of the festival can sometimes be found; maybe because of the big titles and classic oldies that gets shown there the main Chinese Theater (now officially the “TCL Chinese IMAX” but please don’t make me call it that) winds up having the most tourist oriented flavor during the festival and it’s sadly not equipped to run 35mm anymore regardless.
One of the places that does screen 35mm is the infamous theater #4 up in the Chinese 6, always the smallest theater used by the festival only seating 178, and which has become its own sort of clubhouse in recent years due to how it would automatically fill up for certain noir and pre-code titles. After reaching a breaking point last year due to how fast the 1933 pre-code DOUBLE HARNESS filled up almost instantly for both showings certain changes have clearly been made to the decisions of what gets shown in theater #4 and some of them have clearly been moved down the street to the Egyptian meaning the private members vibe went away but it’s hard to complain about actually getting into see certain films. Although, that said, the crowds didn’t always show up regardless of where they were and I honestly felt a few pangs of sadness when my friend Marya, aka @oldfilmsflicker, tweeted from a relatively empty theater #4 while waiting to see King Vidor’s STREET SCENE (and here’s
her own review of that film) which under other circumstances I might have tried to get to myself. It can sometimes feel a little strange to be off at the Egyptian away from the main action which admittedly doesn’t make any sense but it worked for the best and hearing from people who were spending most if not all of certain days in the Egyptian gave the place its own vibe and without shutting so many people out turning it into an all-new alternate track of the festival, the heart and soul of glistening black & white and occasionally stunning color.
And although the events, discussions and appearances by big names are so crucial to the vibe of TCMFF it’s the films which we’re there to see, after all. So after the tribute to Robert and Bruce Goldstein’s annual trivia contest “So You Think You Know Movies” (for the second year in a row I was on the team that won; let’s just assume I was integral to the victory) and as the red carpet for the opening night attraction IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT began across the street from the Roosevelt, I made my way down Hollywood, passing Don Rickles’ star where many flowers had already been left, towards the Egyptian. While titles like SOME LIKE IT HOT and HAROLD AND MAUDE played at the Chinese 6 both of my choices further down the street where there was a good deal of 35mm being screened—LOVE CRAZY was from MGM in 1941, one of multiple pairings featuring William Powell and Myrna Loy, a screwball comedy of marriage almost being broken up going to absolutely ridiculous extremes and much funnier than I expected making it an ideal way to start off the festival. As we were told we would find out during the intro by Dana Delaney, this film was the one time William Powell ever appeared without his mustache (and we did indeed find out why) plus like any good film from around 1941 it features Elisha Cook Jr. as an elevator operator. Second that night was the first of the nitrate screenings, Hitchcock’s 1934 version of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, a first viewing for me and introduced by Martin Scorsese, an appearance only announced earlier that day, who spoke with all the passion that you’d expect from him about the importance of being able to see these films in this format, speculating that he had even seen this very print, originally struck back in 1945 for David O. Selznick, back in the 70s. Getting a laugh from the mention of how flammable these prints are--“It decomposed and turned to powder…and the bigger problem is, it blew up.”--and while pointing out how good safety film stocks became, to him nitrate has “a different kind of beauty. Nitrate has a luminosity to it. Images are lustrous, they’re glowing in a way that safety stocks and digital can never quite duplicate.” He recalled a long ago nitrate screening of Lubitsch’s THE STUDENT PRINCE as “a revelation” and praised the other nitrate titles on the schedule, such as LAURA calling it “one of the most haunting uses of black & white ever made” and recalling how he once saw BLACK NARCISSUS sitting in the third row of a giant theater and how it looked like 3D. He closed with a mention of Robert Osborne, saying that “there wasn’t any better way to celebrate him than these nitrate screenings, the original way they were meant to be seen.”
Friday, the first full day, began at 9 AM at the Egyptian with RAFTER ROMANCE a very enjoyable pre-code romantic comedy starring Ginger Rogers and Norman Foster as two people who have to share an apartment in 12-hour shifts but when they meet in real life they have no idea the other person is the roommate they despise and you probably can see where this is going but so what, plus best of all a really good supporting performance by Robert Benchley. Before it screened, Leonard Maltin led a discussion focusing on the legal history of the film which kept it out of circulation for around 60 years, a reminder of how much TCM has contributed to making sure certain films stay alive. Moving over to the Chinese 6, there was the digital restoration of John Huston’s BEAT THE DEVIL, just about the driest comedy ever made, which featured a conversation with script supervisor Angela Allen followed by Julien Duvivier’s devastating PANIQUE in another digital restoration. Made in France in 1946, it was a film which just about no one in the audience (which included 102 year old Norman Lloyd, because the festival wouldn’t be complete without him around) had ever seen before and it was preceded by a discussion between Bruce Goldstein and Simenon’s son Pierre Simenon, son of author Georges Simenon who wrote the book the film was based on, freely admitting that his father never had any particular interest in films. Made in the shadow of the war's end, PANIQUE is a despairing film in what it says about the country where it is set (since almost no one has seen this film yet, I'm going to hold back one discussing it at length--suffice to say that I recommend it) and the way it plays for us now in 2017 gives the climax that much more power. After this, it was definitely time for more comedy and although personal favorite BROADCAST NEWS was coming up in Chinese #1, I’ve seen roughly several hundred times and that’s why I missed out on the surprise appearance by Albert Brooks. But there was a silent Lubitsch I’d never seen complete with live piano accompaniment so it was back down the street to the Egyptian. It wasn’t the first Lubitsch of the day, that was ONE HOUR WITH YOU which I had passed on and I was glad I made it over for SO THIS IS PARIS, the first silent Lubitsch I’d ever seen, a romantic comedy about marriage which contained some odd similarities to LOVE CRAZY but it was everything that I wanted from early Lubitsch, feeling breezy and effortless and always completely elegant in the best ways.
Late Friday afternoon I took a break, which you need to do at certain points although I did stop in to see GRACE OF MY HEART director Allison Anders give a spirited introduction to WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? out at the Roosevelt swimming pool, getting into the whole Team Bette vs. Team Joan thing which has gotten much more attention lately thanks to FEUD; ribbons taking sides had been handed out to festival attendees the other day and I’d asked for a Team Aldrich ribbon, sadly without success. Friday night in the Chinese (passing up LAURA in nitrate but I have to live with that choice) was HIGH ANXIETY featuring Mel Brooks interviewed before the film by Ben Mankiewicz, who did a valiant job in actually trying to interview him even if it did involve tossing his note cards on the ground at one point, a sign that he was going to have no use for them. The 90 year-old Brooks spent a good amount of the time standing up and started with a long story about a prank he pulled during an early writing job at Columbia Pictures which I’m not sure had anything to do with anything, then moved on to a tale about a long lunch with Hitchcock, an impression of Tony Curtis, telling Ben his tie was too dark and even a little bit on HIGH ANXIETY itself, including memories of his legendary co-stars as well as the nerve-wracking screening for Hitchcock himself, who he called the greatest motion picture director ever. We even got the origin of the legendary line, “Those who are tardy do not get fruit cup” going back to his Aunt Martha back in Brooklyn, and his own amusement in seeing the title referenced in unexpected places in real life since, after all, they just made it up for the movie. “I’m glad I did all this research,” cracked Ben at the end but it was clear the audience had no problem with all the digressions and the film of course played like gangbusters.
Early Saturday morning began with THE COURT JESTER at the Chinese, introduced by Illeana Douglas and special guest Fred Willard (honestly, I don’t know if Danny Kaye does much for me even with the whole ‘vessel with the pestle’ thing but if Fred Willard likes him…) followed by a screening up in theater #4 of Frank Perry’s DAVID AND LISA, not at all a comedy but for me the right soft of discovery, recently namechecked by Jessica Lange’s Joan Crawford on FEUD as one of that year’s Best Director nominees. Although I unfortunately missed the discussion featuring star Kier Dullea, I was glad to see the film which was even oddly reminiscent of Larry Peerce's interracial drama ONE POTATO TWO POTATO which was part of last year’s festival, both being early 60s and indie along with a sense of earnestness to the message which may be dated right now but is still part of its power, along with an excellent early performance by Janet Margolin, one of those actresses we never got to see enough of now best known for Woody Allen’s TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN and ANNIE HALL. If the film was flawed at all it still showed how much talent Frank Perry had as a filmmaker and how underrated he is these days (an idea for future festivals: more Frank Perry).
And there was the return to TCMFF of 95 year-old Carl Reiner who not only appeared last year to talk about DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID, just the day before he had been part of a joint ceremony with son Rob to put their hands in the cement out in the Chinese courtyard. THE PRINCESS BRIDE, directed by Rob, was shown later that day and on Saturday Carl appeared before his film THE JERK, interviewed by Ben Mankiewicz in a discussion a little more subdued than Mel Brooks but talking about the making of Steve Martin’s first starring vehicle, along with taking pride in his daily anti-Trump tweets. Asked why Steve Martin had picked him to direct the film, “Well, he’s one of the smartest people I know,” adding that Steve had certainly been aware of him since he’d worked with Rob on the Smothers Brothers back in the 60s. Incidentally, the ‘to the end of this fence guy’ in THE JERK is Rob Reiner? How did I never know this? He talked about bits of business that Steve Martin would suddenly add to scenes when they would decide to do one more take and Reiner spent maybe a little too much time telling us the jokes in the movie we were about to see but it’s Carl Reiner, it’s hard to get too upset at the guy.
Incidentally, seeing HIGH ANXIETY and THE JERK so close together made for an interesting comparison of the films by the two friends, made just a few years apart. Both have extreme high points along with multiple jokes that will never fully escape from my brain but neither is their best work among the films they’ve directed--I’ll go with YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN for Brooks and maybe THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS for Reiner but ask me again sometime. Both are credited to multiple writers that include the stars (HIGH ANXIETY written by Brooks, Ron Clark, Rudy DeLuca, Barry Levinson; THE JERK story by Steve Martin & Carl Gottlieb, screenplay by Martin, Gottlieb, Michael Elias) and each film is almost a little too slapdash at times, becoming pretty much just a series of gags over any plot. The zoom happy look of HIGH ANXIETY gives it a stock 70s flavor—BLAZING SADDLES and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN are downright elegant in comparison--even if there are Albert Whitlock matte paintings to give it a certain bigger than life flavor along with the always striking Hyatt Regency in San Francisco. The best moments, like the great under-the-table scene with Cloris Leachman and Harvey Korman tweak the Hitchcock material just right, finding ridiculousness in the brilliance of that director and even random bits of business like the fruit cup or every excitable exclamation by the always underappreciated Ron Carey get me to laugh. THE JERK is maybe the funnier of the two even if it’s still more of a series of sketches than a complete film and some of the most offhand bits (“St. Louis?” “No, Navin Johnson.” or even “Getting around the crap.”) as well as things like Navin’s determined excitement at possibly living in the gas station men’s room or just the sight of M. Emmet Walsh running are the best. It still makes me laugh more than not and ultimately the film has a sweetness to the relationships that keeps it from becoming too cruel. We all just want to ‘be somebody’, after all, and I guess I’ve reached the age where Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters singing “Tonight You Belong to Me” is kind of endearing. Carl Reiner even mentioned the direct connection the two films have by assigning Mel Brooks total credit for coming up with the name ‘Navin’.
There was no real need for me to see THE JERK again, but it was hard to complain and I got to see it at the Chinese. But there was more to come including more nitrate, more comedy, as well as that war movie featuring Steve McQueen and Bob Newhart.
Mr. Peel will return in Vol. 2 of the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival report.