Friday, April 28, 2017

For Things That Used To Be

When we last left Mr. Peel at the end of Vol. 1 of this report, he was racing down Hollywood Blvd to the Egyptian with a few of the most interesting (if not always successful) titles of the TCM Classic Film Festival still in front of him…
The big event at the screening of THEODORA GOES WILD wasn’t the movie itself but the introduction by Illeana Douglas in which she took it upon herself to announce an impromptu seventh inning stretch and lead the packed house in a singalong of, not “Take me Out to the Ballgame”, but the much more appropriate “Singin’ in the Rain”. And everyone did just that, making for one of the most blissful moments of the entire festival, a reminder to all of us that we were among friends. The extremely nutso screwball comedy THEODORA GOES WILD starring Irene Dunne and Illeana’s grandfather Melvyn Douglas was followed at the Egyptian by one of the most eagerly awaited of the festival, a nitrate screening of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s BLACK NARCISSUS. Running into some people on the way in led to following them up to the balcony where over on the other side was my friend Marya and others shouting my name but I had no idea why—I later found out that they were pretty much shouting the names of everyone they knew who was up there and it was almost like most of the people I knew at the festival were there to see BLACK NARCISSUS, all up in that balcony. My own personal drama involving someone else up in that balcony was going on right at that moment, but never mind about that, and there was an excitement in the air because of this screening and it was as if we were also aware that there was only so much time left, as if the festival was reaching the top of the rollercoaster right at that moment. And of the 3 nitrate screenings I attended, BLACK NARCISSUS was easily the most powerful, with truly stunning imagery found in those colors that was like being touched by the hand of the god of cinema itself. Full disclosure, this was my first ever viewing of the film and more than following the story I found myself stunned from the imagery, my jaw agape from shot after shot and a few of those images are still with me. This was pure cinema and it was hard to shake. When the film ended the weather was surprisingly cold and windy out on Hollywood Blvd and it was as if BLACK NARCISSUS was following us out there, refusing to let go its grip on us.
But the night ended. And then there was Sunday. You begin to feel it, knowing that the end is near but you’re fighting through that exhaustion. This is the sort of day where you may plan on certain things but that doesn’t mean they’re going to happen. As a result, I didn’t make it to any of the early 9AM screenings but fortunately I was there for the restoration of the 1931 version of THE FRONT PAGE which I’d never seen even though I’ve read the play, even though I’ve seen HIS GIRL FRIDAY about fifty times and the 1974 Billy Wilder version more than a few as well. The screening was introduced by Academy preservationist Heather Linville and Academy Film Archive director Mike Pogorzelski who went into detail on the restoration which went far beyond just cleaning up the look of the film, revealing that to make multiple negatives for foreign releases the general foreign version was essentially an alternate version—the U.S. release had used the best takes of each scene and the foreign version which required a complete different negative had to use other, lesser takes so not only did the film look inferior due to dupey public domain transfers, the takes in the film itself were inferior whether for reasons of performance or even camerawork and that has been the version widely seen through the years, something which has now been rectified. Directed by Lewis Milestone, THE FRONT PAGE ’31 may not be as breezy or charged as HIS GIRL FRIDAY but very few films are and as a direct adaptation of the play comes off as a fully realized world. It’s not so much a star vehicle and since the importance of even the side characters feels that much greater it gives the material a depth that I’ve never felt in any of the later adaptations. For the first time in all my years being familiar with the material I felt like I’d really been given a look at the newspaper world of Chicago in the 20s by people who’d been there and I look forward to further viewings alongside HIS GIRL FRIDAY in the future to compare.
Early Sunday afternoon Hal Ashby’s THE LANDLORD was playing at the Egyptian with Lee Grant in person and it was near the top of my list ever since the schedule was announced which, of course, means that I missed it. Hal Ashby, wherever you are, please forgive me. But this was maybe that point I reach every year where I’m feeling like maybe I haven’t spent enough time seeing other things so I opted for the conversation in Club TCM with Dick Cavett being interviewed by Illeana Douglas. Since I’d missed the films that Cavett had introduced over the weekend I can’t regret it my choice, listening to him talk about the time he slipped some jokes into Jack Paar’s hand right before he did his show to the legendary introduction he wrote for Paar when a certain famous guest was on (“Here they are, Jayne Mansfield”) along with stories about Groucho Marx (of course), a long tale involving Marlon Brando and the paparazzi, visiting Stan Laurel at his tiny apartment in Santa Monica and even meeting Bob Hope when he was a kid growing up in Nebraska. They’re all stories that I’m certain he’s told more than a few times in the past but the way he told them was everything you would want Dick Cavett to be. There was also wonderful rapport between him and Illeana Douglas who as usual was one of the best TCM hosts of the entire weekend, serving as an ideal straight man for Cavett who near the end willingly ignored the instructions to wrap up so he could get in one more hysterical story about Jack Benny.

I may have lingered a little too long in Club TCM talking to people which means by the time I got back over to the Chinese 6 to see DETECTIVE STORY, also with a Lee Grant appearance before the film, it had already filled up (Lee Grant and I were apparently destined to never meet at this festival). So instead of trying to race over to the Egyptian for WHAT’S UP DOC? which I’ve seen at least ten times already, I went with HELL IS FOR HEROES, even though Bob Newhart had canceled, even though no one else I knew was in there. But hey, it was Don Siegel and I’d never seen it, this was going to be a good use of my time no matter what.
France, 1944 – near the town of Montigny, a squad of soldiers from the 95th Infantry expecting to go home soon is forced back to the front lines, badly outnumbered as they desperately try to hold off a larger contingent of Germans ready to attack. With screenplay by Robert Pirosh and Richard Carr (story by Pirosh), 1962’s HELL IS FOR HEROES avoids spectacle in favor of a dry, no-nonsense approach which always seems ready to go off the rails due to the intensity of Steve McQueen’s presence and his always icy glare at anyone who tries to say more than a few words to him. Clocking in at just under 90 minutes and shot in black & white by Harold Lipstein, the film has an undeniable immediacy right from the star as if a direct outgrowth of live TV and the undeniable humanity felt in the supporting characters, whether the coolness of James Coburn or Mike Kellin writing to his kids back home makes each of them fully dimensional. Bob Newhart, given an ‘introducing’ credit, plays a reluctant member of the squad forced into combat duty with little more than clerical experience and it oddly prefigures his role as Major Major in the Mike Nichols film of CATCH-22 a decade later. Newhart spends part of his screentime essentially doing versions of the telephone routine from his stand-up act, attempting to provide false information to any Germans who might be listening and it makes for an enjoyable, if unexpected, detour from the main drama. But even with this there’s an intensity to HELL IS FOR HEROES that only grows as things get more desperate, holding tight on the drama right down to the very last shot as if it’s saying that all some of the greatest sacrifices can really do is make way for the next stage of the battle so the war can go on. The conflict hasn’t ended but the film has made its statement. A blunt instrument of a film that lets you feel the anguish of the characters through Siegel’s expert staging of the action, the ultimate effect of HELL IS FOR HEROES is like a sharp knife to the gut. It’s not the widescreen boys’ adventure of THE GREAT ESCAPE, to use another McQueen-Coburn WWII film, but a much harsher look at the nastiness and desperation of heroism.
Theater #1 at the Chinese 6 for HELL IS FOR HEROES wasn’t very crowded, no doubt because of Bob Newhart’s cancellation, but Ben Mankiewicz still gave his introduction 110% talking mostly about the star who wasn’t there and telling us that he’d been looking forward to his appearance, mentioning how he had wanted to speak both before and after the film to avoid any spoilers in his anecdotes. Much of the film is set at night mostly because of the extreme heat out in the location near Redding, California and it was filmed right during the period when Newhart was really starting to be in-demand for his stand-up services so every day he would try to talk Don Siegel into killing him off, without success. The scenes where he basically incorporates his act into the film are definitely incongruous considering the tone—Siegel himself is quoted in the book “Don Siegel, Director” by Stuart M. Kaminsky as not thinking very much of the Newhart scenes saying his role "took us out of the realm of realism--but the bits still work, not only providing a touch of comic relief (for lack of a better term) up against the forceful barking of someone like the sergeant played by Harry Guardino (later in Siegel’s DIRTY HARRY) but another reminder that these guys are human and even though they’re outnumbered are trying to use any idea they have to get the job done. Even the Steve McQueens of the world need help from the Bob Newharts, after all.
So I didn’t regret getting to see that one bit, even if I had been shut out of DETECTIVE STORY. And this led to the final film, a nitrate showing of LADY IN THE DARK because following a hard bitten war film from the 60s to a woman’s picture from the 40s which is somewhat, um, flamboyant at times is always the way to go. LADY IN THE DARK was directed by Mitchell Leisen who even though his reputation has grown over the years may be best remembered for angering the likes of Wilder and Sturges for how he filmed their scripts for MIDNIGHT and REMEMBER THE NIGHT, spurring them into directing for themselves so they could protect their scripts. Released in 1944 in Technicolor, LADY IN THE DARK stars Ginger Rogers (in her second appearance of the festival for me after RAFTER ROMANCE, funny how that happens) as a fashion magazine editor who reluctantly looks into psychoanalysis to understand her dreams and make sense of her past. It sounds fascinating and in some ways it was fascinating. Martin Scorsese had spoken well about it during his speech extolling the virtues of nitrate a few days before calling it one of his favorites, I’ll grant that, but there’s also the Leonard Maltin review calling the film “intriguing but ultimately ponderous” which having seen it I now think is dead on--in his podcast reviewing the festival he mentioned missing the screening but called it “one of the most garish movies ever made” which also sounds about right. An adaptation of a Broadway musical (songs by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin) which apparently ditches most of the music yet keeps a certain musical flavor as well as a potential screwball approach somehow turns it all into a dreary tone which approaches the funereal at times, feeling like a film made by a director getting the chance to do anything he wanted and just going too far with all the wrong choices (maybe I prefer Leisen in black & white—one of his to seek out is the 1935 Carole Lombard romantic comedy HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE). To be honest I felt myself checking out of the film before the 40 minute mark, any interest I’d had beyond the nitrate imagery completely evaporated and mostly watched the rest of it as some sort of perverse intellectual exercise.
Yes, there was laughter from the audience at certain lines that could now be considered problematic in how regressive they are in their sexual politics but this isn’t really worth getting into although those touches made the somewhat daring, to be fair, staging seem even that much more incongruous. It has style, but no discipline. It has extravagance, but no wit or enjoyment. I kept imagining Billy Wilder in 1944 miserably watching this thing in a Paramount screening room right in the middle of working on DOUBLE INDEMNITY and unable to leave because the head of the studio was sitting behind him. Instead of getting too negative about it all I’ll just say that it wasn’t one of my favorite films of the festival but since I can’t imagine when else I’m ever going to see a nitrate print of LADY IN THE DARK I’m not going to complain. In all seriousness, if you’re at all interested in the film and ever get the chance (there’s never been a video release in any format) by all means find out for yourself. I may not join you for a second try, however. Based on the Twitter response, people were pretty divided on it and it says something about the TCM Festival that I wish it had been scheduled earlier just so I could get into this with others who were there. We could’ve chosen sides for a debate and everything.

Instead of feeling a slight letdown I went off to the closing night party, to say goodbye to certain people and try to avoid admitting that this was all ending just a little while longer. The total count for me at this year's festival was 14 films and there could have been more but there’s no way to see everything just as there’s no way not to have a tinge of regret of what you missed, with LAURA and THE LANDLORD and the midnight shows and those other talks in Club TCM and who knows what else. The frenzy at the TCM Classic Film Festival as you try to get from one film to the next isn’t just about nostalgia. It’s that undeniable ephemeral quality you get from those gorgeous nitrate prints, it’s the buzz of being in a packed house of people who are just as thrilled to be there as you are. It’s about how much these films are still alive and vibrant, how much they can mean and the thrill of discovering one of them for the first time. Anyway, it’s now several weeks later. The excitement surrounding the festival has calmed down. But in my head part of me is still back there with the people I spent so much time with in that oasis in the middle of Hollywood away from the rest of the world, excited for all the films we were seeing whether comedy or otherwise and it takes some time for that rush to die down even as I look forward to next year. Maybe it never really does. Hopefully it never will.

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