Thursday, May 31, 2018
There was no particular need for me to see Billy Wilder’s WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION again when it played at this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival. I’ve seen it many times already. I’ve written about it before. There wasn’t even anything particularly noteworthy about the event, not counting the appearance by Ruta Lee who as anyone who’s seen it knows has a small but crucial role in the film. Plus during that slot I could have gone to the screening of John Frankenheimer’s GRAND PRIX at the Cinerama Dome. But that lengthy film would have taken up two slots, I’ve seen it before and much as I worship Frankenheimer that one is sort of more awesome than actually great. I guess I just wanted to see a Billy Wilder film right then. It played like gangbusters for the packed house at the Egyptian and though you’d expect that a crowd filled with classic movie fans would be made up of people who had seen it already based on the response near the end that clearly wasn’t the case and as things built towards the shocking conclusion that the film itself asks you not to reveal, I heard gasps all around and felt an undeniable shiver as the power of it took hold. And it was as if this film I’d seen at least half a dozen times before was revealing its greatness more than I’d ever realized. Of course, you should never underestimate Billy Wilder but you should also never underestimate the power these films can still have when you see them in the exact right place. For me there might not have been a better reminder all weekend long of how valuable this festival has become every single year. In the end, I didn’t care what else was playing right then. At that moment there was nowhere else I wanted to be.
This was the 9th TCM Classic Film Festival which by now has become a vacation from the real world that I look forward to all year and for those few days I’m gladly in the bubble of the whole thing, moving from one theater to another, determined to get to the next film as I cross paths with familiar faces who are doing the same. Right now it’s an unusual time for revival houses in L.A. with the death of Cinefamily last year and the current prolonged absence of the New Beverly. The American Cinematheque and the Billy Wilder Theater at UCLA out in Westwood can’t cover each of the bases, after all. So as an outgrowth of the network the festival is a reminder of how much these films can still matter and how important it is to see them this way and what they can mean to us. The channel is still important, and it’s literally playing in the background as I write this, but the future is evident in the form of the already essential streaming service Filmstruck which is continuing to grow and has already become its own oasis of films, classic and otherwise, that is badly needed right now. But for those few days the festival is exhausting and overwhelming and is several days of pure joy. It’s now become essential.
This year’s theme was “Powerful Words: The Page Onscreen” featuring a variety of films that addressed the concept of the written word, whether Agatha Christie mysteries like the Wilder film, a few Shakespeare adaptations, several tributes to the press along with a few other Wilder films that involved writers like THE LOST WEEKEND and SUNSET BOULEVARD. Even the several nitrate screenings were as much about the written words that they originate from as the format they were being seen on. I have my own weird rules of figuring out what films to pick every year that somehow involves balancing out some that I’ve already seen before many times (like a Billy Wilder film, for example) with others that I’ve never encountered and sometimes otherwise wouldn’t. Because of the nature of certain restorations I’m not even ruling out films that are shown digitally anymore. I’d miss out on too much otherwise.
Club TCM at the Roosevelt Hotel essentially serves as home base for those few days, this year featuring several items on display like Robert Bloch’s typewriter, the script for SOME LIKE IT HOT and even the “Sarah Siddons Award” from ALL ABOUT EVE. Things kicked off there on Thursday afternoon with the Ask TCM panel featuring various executives from the network talking about the state of the channel as well as the continuing success of Filmstruck. This was followed by the annual trivia contest run by Bruce Goldstein of New York’s Film Forum (a place I spent many hours long, long ago when I lived back east). I’d actually been on the winning team for the past two years and got roped into taking part once again but although I was able to contribute by providing the answer that Roger Moore once played the son of Yiddish theatre legend Molly Picon (feel free to look this one up) the questions this time around seemed harder than ever so lightning unfortunately didn’t strike again. But by that point it was time for the festival to truly begin and as the big red carpet event geared up at the Chinese across the street featuring the first ever Robert Osborne Award presented to Martin Scorsese as well as the official opening night screening of the restoration of THE PRODUCERS with Mel Brooks appearing, I made my way to the Chinese 6 multiplex behind the grand theater for my first film. Which brings us to the ongoing saga of theater #4. As many TCM Festival veterans know by now, theater #4 in the multiplex has become its own special challenge. The smallest theater at the festival, it is one of the few equipped to show film, often running rarely screened pre-codes and filling the place with lightning speed. Other choices in this slot included TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT down the street at the Egyptian and a digitally restored DETOUR but since I’ve seen both of those many times I decided to risk the theater #4 melee that was destined to occur and went for the pre-code FINISHING SCHOOL from 1934 starring Frances Dee and Ginger Rogers, co-directed by George Nicholls, Jr. and Wanda Tuchock, a female screenwriter with this being her one directing credit. Considering how fast the line grew getting there early turned out to be the right choice.
As you’d guess from the title, FINISHING SCHOOL is about young Virginia Radcliff (Frances Dee) who is enrolled in such a school by her domineering mother (Billie Burke) and as much as she tries to follow the rules aimed at turning her into a lady is unable to keep out of trouble so when she meets a young medical internist making ends meet at a bellhop (played by Bruce Cabot of KING KONG) their courtship only makes things worse. The screening featured a discussion with Wyatt McCrea, grandson of the film’s star Frances Dee (as well as Joel McCrea) who enjoyably passed along memories of his grandmother and how she felt about her film career. FINISHING SCHOOL is a pre-code filled with all the snappy dialogue you’d want as well as an undeniable sensitivity for the lead character with a particular stretch of a few minutes late in the film taking place in near total silence to illustrate her complete loneliness, the sort of loneliness that may not appear to be much to anyone else but can eat you up inside. The film is wrapped up fast with just the right last line so it doesn’t spend too much time on certain plot possibilities but it's still much more than a curio, a valuable look at what the woman’s picture was becoming during the late pre-code days. After FINISHING SCHOOL I headed down the street to the Egyptian for STAGE DOOR, the first nitrate screening of the festival and a film that also starred Ginger Rogers who was one of the characters that felt somewhat underused by the earlier film (it occurred to me that since I closed out last year’s festival with the Ginger Rogers vehicle LADY IN THE DARK that made three TCMFF movies in a row with her but the streak ends here) but moving from young girls to young women on their own, this time trying to find success it in the theater world made this an unexpectedly ideal double feature. STAGE DOOR also went perfectly with the festival theme thanks to the screenplay by Morrie Ryskind and Anthony Veiller from the play by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman which balances the witty dialogue spoken by the likes of Eve Arden, who somewhat famously spends some of her role with the house cat draped around her shoulders, and the emotion that comes with the tragic events later on.
Friday morning at the Egyptian began with THE MERRY WIDOW, what feels to me like the prototype of what I always imagine a Lubitsch film to be even if it isn’t my favorite since I prefer his modern dress films over the operettas set in some mythical far off land. This one isn’t my favorite but it does have that elegance with the full might of MGM evident. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that part of me was really waiting for the second film and seemed perfectly natural for Lubitsch to lead into Wilder with that screening of WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION which featured a discussion with the exuberant Ruta Lee (no spoilers, although she kind of gave away one detail but never mind) who talked about the unintentional role that Frank Sinatra played in her winding up in the film as well as Marlene Dietrich who refused to let the blonde Lee appear in the film until her hair was made darker and the star’s ability to light herself which extended to having her own lighting materials on hand to assist the cinematographer in her desires. Whatever I’ve said about the film before, the more I see it the more WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION grows for me taking the clockwork precision of the Agatha Christie plotting and infusing it not only with the expected Wilder cynicism but of the glory of what you can find from simply living, doing what you want to do, finding the passion in what matters and even with that shocking ending in its cockeyed way is about as hopeful a film as Wilder ever made.
The war is part of the background of the story in WITNESS but the next film, the world premiere of the digital restoration of Andre de Toth’s NONE SHALL ESCAPE put the terror of the Nazis front and center. Easily one of the most important screenings of the festival, the 1944 film set after the war at a Nuremberg-like proceeding where we are told via flashback the story of Wilhelm Grimm (Alexander Knox), a German on trial whose post-World War I bitterness led him to fascism and eventually to becoming a rising member of the Nazi party. About as unrelenting in what it portrays as could even have been possible at the time, maybe not quite an A-level budget but certainly not a B either, not supplying propaganda to achieve victory as much as the deadly truth of the holocaust, not at all the ‘concentration camps’ referred to by the Germans in the likes of CASABLANCA and even if the full extent of the horrors was not yet known in 1944 the film doesn’t hold back in the horror of what it shows us. The full theater was clearly stunned into silence which the new restoration will hopefully be made available soon. Noir Alley host Eddie Muller introduced the film along with its 100 year-old Marsha Hunt who co-starred in the film as Grimm’s fiancée and he was visibly honored to be leading this discussion. Hunt addressed the importance of the film which she stayed in the theater to see and though she had no personal history to recount with Columbia Pictures head honcho Harry Cohn praised him for being the one to have this film made. As for director de Toth, Hunt memorably stated that he was irresistible adding, “And I didn’t resist him.” Needless to say, this was just about the only moment of levity for the next two hours with a film that, needless to say, plays more terrifying now than it no doubt has in decades.
By this point it was Friday night which meant it was time for more nitrate and for any thoughts of if there really is any difference seeing a film that looked like that this film was there to prove it and this is one of the screenings that has really stared with me. The luminosity you can sometimes get from Nitrate prints can be debatable but considering the delirium of LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN it fit perfectly. And it was ideal match for the theme of the festival as well, complete with opening credits literally as pages in a book that didn’t disguise the film’s literary origins. Directed by John M. Stahl with a screenplay by Jo Swerling from the novel of the same name by Ben Ames Williams, the story of writer Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) and his romance with the stunning Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney) who he meets by chance and as a remnant of the attachment she felt to her late father finds himself the object of her obsession which only grows with time once they’re married and when his disabled brother Danny (Darryl Hickman) enters their lives full-time her obsessive hold on him only grows, leading to shocking results. LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN never fails to stun, a noir in Technicolor set out in the most serene environments imaginable which only makes certain scenes all the more stunning.
“You look like my father,” she tells him as soon as they meet and Harland soon learns the full extent of her love for that late patriarch. With his best-selling novel titled “Time Without End” that already indicates that things are somewhat off kilter and he has his own devotion to his brother and along with the delirium it’s as if the film is about the search for home, the ability to address the past and where you came from without letting it overtake you or others. There’s no way to compare it to other Fox noirs of the period and even the perversity of something like LAURA, another film where Gene Tierney spurns Vincent Price for someone else, seems to comes between the frames, the obsession that we know is really there getting lost in the recurring melody of the main theme. But all those emotions are front and center in LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN with each character seemingly trapped in Tierney’s gaze and if she’s not instensely keeping her eye on you then you’ve stopped mattering. She’s always the one who wins, as we’re told. The mood of the film is never realism, not with those colors and the twisted passion becomes tangible with the shock felt from the crowd during the film’s most notorious scene out on that lake by the Dark of the Moon evident from the stunned silence. Years after seeing it for the first time I still can’t quite reconcile how much LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN has to do with reality but at the same time I know all too well what it says. There are reasons you get sucked in and it can destroy you. These emotions make even more sense when it looks as believably unreal as it does in this stunning nitrate print.
Saturday morning began at the main TCL Chinese Theater with HIS GIRL FRIDAY a selection that certainly fit in with the theme while also serving as a companion to the screening I saw of the restored 1931 version of THE FRONT PAGE at last year's festival. The ’31 film might be a better filming of the play with every character coming off as a fully fleshed out lead with their own story but the star power of the leads and the ever-increasing pace with bigger laughs HIS GIRL FRIDAY offers the incessant portrayal of getting the story no matter what playing roughly ten minutes shorter than the earlier film and moving like a rocket through every single minute. This is a film I’ve never written about but I should and seeing it on the mammoth Chinese screen (the one time I made it there this year) drove home everything I love about it. The details in the newsroom of the other female reporters greeting Rosalind Russell’s Hildy Johnson, Cary Grant’s eyes darting every which way as he comes up with a new plan as Walter Burns, the resigned desperation of John Qualen’s Earl Williams and just the clatter of the typewriter as Russell bangs away even as she continues her banter with whoever’s still trying to get her attention. HIS GIRL FRIDAY easily remains one of the most completely entertaining movies I’ve ever seen and still makes me laugh out loud no matter how many times I see it.
Saturday turned out to be the most packed day of the festival so naturally a blur sets in around here. A restoration of the early Jean-Pierre Melville drama WHEN YOU READ THIS LETTER introduced by Taylor Hackford, Gable, Loy & Harlow in WIFE VS. SECRETARY introduced by Dana Delany as well as the silent Marion Davies comedy SHOW PEOPLE where she plays a young rich girl who crashes Hollywood determined to make it in the movie business with live musical accompaniment by organist Ben Model as well as a discussion with Leonard Maltin and Davies biographer (and Facebook friend) Lara Gabrielle before the film to provide background on the legacy of Marion Davies and how the film is proof that she was much more than the Susan Alexander Kane parody in CITIZEN KANE that she's mainly remembered for now. There's even a cameo at one point by Davies as ‘herself’ seeming totally natural and nothing like the over the top comic persona she was playing in the film.
The screening was interrupted for a few minutes by a fire alarm and though we did get back into the theater shortly it pushed back the start of the next by a few minutes and any screwiness that added to the evening was appropriate considering the nitrate Hitchcock that was coming up that Saturday night. To compare it to the nitrate print from the previous night, LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN is overbaked. SPELLBOUND is flat-out absurd—come to think of it, with THE BIG LEBOWSKI playing at the Chinese down the street at the same time it brought to mind Julianne Moore’s “The story is ludicrous” line when the porno film plays. With an undeniable oddness whether in normal dialogue scenes or even the most bravura moments as it dives into the full-on surreal vibe of the Salvador Dali-designed dream sequence as well as the subliminal use of color near the very end. There’s also some enjoyably sharp Ben Hecht dialogue throughout as well as an undeniable silvery texture to the print presumably a byproduct of the nitrate which made the entire thing all the more unreal. But it’s just as well how nonsensical the plot was since, to be honest, I was hitting a wall at this point but maybe this is the right sort of film to drift in and out of consciousness with anyway. There are certain movies that go perfectly with a sense of near exhaustion, after all.
Sunday morning I chose to pass on Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST in the Chinese for the simple reason that I’ve seen it in theaters multiple times already and though I was tempted to go just for Henry Fonda’s introduction instead I went up to theater #6 in the multiplex for the world premiere of the restoration of Ronald Neame’s TUNES OF GLORY, a gripping drama about the conflict that develops between two Scottish officers in a regiment (edited by the great Anne Coates, RIP). Which featured a bagpipe player beforehand to get us in the appropriate Scottish mood as well as an introduction with Eddie Muller and Juliet Mills, daughter of John Mills who starred in the film with Alec Guinness, talking about her father and the film, which needed the casting of Guinness for it to finally be made and the issue of which part each actor was going to play and it’s one of the most intriguing things about the film that it really does feel like they’ve each gone against type with the parts they chose. At the end of the take Muller added his hope that the festival would bring Mills back at some point to introduce Billy Wilder’s AVANTI! and I’m in total agreement.
But this was another morning where I was quietly waiting for the second film of the day. From a decision made because I had seen a film many times to deciding to actually go to one I’ve seen even more, I made it down to the Egyptian for personal favorite THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE, which was not only a blast it featured an introduction by the Film Forum’s Bruce Goldstein, who provided camcorder footage of Ed Koch and screenwriter Peter Stone appearing at a screening of the film at that theater way back in ’94. He also discussed how much the film gets right about New York in addition to providing clips of it and other films to display the accuracy of the location shooting in the film. I’m legitimately sorry that I didn’t make it to the pre-code BLESSED EVENT which Goldstein also introduced because this displayed some of the best and most pure enthusiasm of the festival. I’m not sure what I can say about PELHAM that I haven’t before only that it gets better as the years go on, the dialogue gets sharper, the laughs get bigger, the David Shire score rattles through my brain even more. Maybe best of all was running into a few friends who had never seen it before afterwards and seeing the delighted looks on their faces, still amazed by that expression on Walter Matthau's face in the very last shot.
From there it was back to the Chinese 6 where after a few days of checking out the #4 lines and walking away I finally made it back on Sunday when much of Sunday for second screenings of films from the past few days that filled up and I made it into the Rosalind Russell-Melvyn Douglas romantic comedy THIS THING CALLED LOVE, where Russell plays a woman who insists on celibacy with Douglas for the first few months of their marriage as ridiculous as you’d expect, with the set-up almost more of an excuse than a plot, while still maintaining a certain elegance thanks to the presence of the two leads. That elegance counted for a lot, their screen presence lent the silliness a certain weight which for me is maybe missing from too many screwball comedies of the time. It went well with the previous day’s WIFE VS. SECRETARY which not only had the star power of Gable and Loy but a more mature role for Jean Harlow (who, as Dana Delany pointed out in her intro, deliberately went for more of a honey blonde look for her hair so she wouldn’t come off as so ditzy) and this made each film more memorable as a result. There are a few beloved screwball comedies that I never find myself loving as much as the world seems to (this list definitely doesn’t include HIS GIRL FRIDAY, so feel free to guess what I’m thinking of) and here we had two that not only caught just the right vibe but also had an unexpected soul to the comedy so it wasn’t just wackiness. These movies had soul in addition to their wit, the chemistry between the various leads are palpable as the characters search for another way to demonstrate their love for each other.
But this was the end so I closed out the weekend at the Egyptian with one more nitrate print, the 1937 version of A STAR IS BORN which featured a discussion with new TCM host Alicia Malone and William Wellman Jr, son of the film’s director William Wellman. Even with multiple remakes (including Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga later this year) that two-strip Technicolor look on nitrate makes it seem like a fable from another world, containing a tightness not found in the later Judy Garland version and always about the tragedy of the love story between the two leads played by Janet Gaynor and Frederic March with that late 30s two-strip technicolor making the whole thing seem like a fable passed down from another plane of existence. After that it was off to the closing night party followed by the post-closing night party at, where else, In-N-Out Burger down the street with various friends. Once again, there was nowhere else I wanted to be.
So that was it. Somehow I saw 15 films this time around. It all makes me think of how I’ll watch stuff endlessly late at night, almost as if I’m wondering what I’m looking for. Maybe I’m just looking to live in the dream that those films become at that hour and what the TCM Festival is able to do somehow becomes that dream as well, not just from the sheer sense of fun but from those moments that we almost forgot about, the demonstration of pure love that emerges in the stunning revelation near the end of WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION. As the festival theme wanted to remind us, words matter. And these films matter, just like the emotions they bring up in us do as well. The thing about TCMFF is that everyone is thrilled to be there, people to help remind you of what you love about these films, so the times I got to sit down and catch up with certain people mattered as much as anything and getting to meet some people for the first time did as well. Next year will be the tenth, another chance to see these films and those people once again hoping with them that the next film will be another that you’ll never forget. Several weeks later now I still wish I could be back there. After all, that dream never ends, at least until you wake up. Which in this case turns out to be when you’re back in the real world a day later. But you still never forget that dream, no matter what the future might hold.