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Thursday, April 24, 2014

From The TCM Classic Film Festival Part One

The TCM Classic Film Festival Part 1 of 3

2014 marked my third year in a row covering The TCM Classic Film Festival, a four day event that is my absolute favorite thing in Los Angeles and is a must-attend event for lovers of classic film. 

With rarely fewer than five screenings or events going on at any single time, and occasionally seven or more programs to choose from, TCM was once again a weekend full of difficult, sometimes heart breaking choices. Do I want to watch Jerry Lewis introduce The Nutty Professor, or sit in on a conversation with Kim Novak before Bell, Book, and Candle? Do I want to watch William Friedkin introduce Sorcerer, or attend a rare screening of The Women introduced by Oscar nominated actress and film buff Anna Kendrick? These are almost impossible choices to make, but the programming at TCM is so strong that although I regret missing one screening or another, I left each program I attended happy with my choice.

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As with other years, my single goal was to watch as many classic films on the big screen as I possibly could. By rushing quickly from screening to screening and maximizing my time by eating on the street instead of taking a break,  I was able to watch a total of sixteen feature films. My head became a swirl of images, stories, and sounds, and halfway through the long weekend I fell into a giddy delirium that only a true cinephile could possibly appreciate. 
Thursday evening:

As my first film of the festival, I chose Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? I hadn't seen this film in twenty years, and I was curious how it would hold up for me after all this time. The screening was introduced by prolific camp filmmaker Charles Busch, and during his introduction he focused on the campy aspects of the film. For sure Baby Jane has a reputation for being a camp classic, mostly because of its over-the-top negative stereotypes of women, but what became apparent to me during the screening is how well the film works as a suspense thriller. Baby Jane is an absolutely gripping and terrifying movie, a film that reminds me more of Misery than of Hedwig and the Angry Inch
My second film Thursday was Bachelor Mother (1939). I chose this film because I am a huge fan of screwball comedy, and I was curious to see Ginger Rogers' performance. I love the starlets of the 1930's such as Barbara Stanwyck and especially Jean Harlow. I had always considered Ginger Rogers to be a lesser actress, lacking the sense of elegance and dangerousness that marks the starlets of the 1930's, but in Bachelor Mother  Rogers proves herself to be an actress with perfect comic timing, and while she is more down to earth than some of the other actresses of the 1930's, her performance here is no less groundbreaking because of it. 

In Bachelor Mother, Rogers plays a newly unemployed department store clerk who finds an infant in front of an orphanage. Despite her protestations, everybody at the orphanage assumes that the baby is hers, and come to the conclusion that she tried to abandon it because she lost her job. So, the head of the orphanage goes to the department store to get her job back for her, and now she has to pretend the baby is hers in order to keep her job. 

The screening was introduced by the popular local Hollywood personality Greg Proops, and as he pointed out, if Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Crawford had played the role, there would have been a key light on her face when she worked behind the counter, but Rogers keeps the mood light and breezy, without losing any of the sense of irony in her situation. Proops also pointed out how modern the story is. Other than the issue of modern paternity tests, Bachelor Mother, which tells the story of a desperate woman lying to keep her job, could easily take place today.  


Unfortunately, I had to miss Friday morning because of work, but I ducked out early enough to catch Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), which was introduced by filmmaker Joe Dante. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a film that doesn't get played often because of complex rights issues, but it is as far as I am concerned the classic depiction of cold war paranoia in science fiction. In fact, Joe Dante revealed during his introduction that he once recorded an audio commentary for the film, only to have it shelved because the people who paid him to record the commentary learned that they didn't actually own the rights to the movie. 

Invasion of the Body Snatchers was filmed full frame, but the distributors wanted to compete with the new widescreen movies that were coming out at the time, so they cut off the top and bottom of the film and blew up the image in a process called cinemascope. Then when the film played on television they cut off the sides of the picture in a pan and scan travesty that has become the version of the film most people are familiar with. The version screened Friday was a rare cinemascope print that came from Martin Scorsese' personal collection 

My next film of the day was the silent film comedy Why Worry? I chose this film over Double Indemnity, a favorite of mine, because I love Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, and have been curious for a long time about the third member of the silent comedy trinity, Harold Lloyd. During the silent era, Lloyd was just as popular as these other two comedians, but in the 1950's when television revived the careers of Chaplin and Keaton, Lloyd decided that he didn't want his films presented over that medium, so he fell into obscurity while his two contemporaries became legends. 
The screening was introduced by Suzanne Lloyd, Harold Lloyd's granddaughter who has been working tirelessly to reintroduce audiences to her grandfather's work and to gain him the stature he deserves. 

I was also enticed by the live orchestral accompaniment. Last year I watched Buster Keaton in the general with a live accompaniment, and it was one of the most memorable screenings of the weekend, if not my life. It is impossible to express how much a live orchestra adds to the experience of watching a silent film. There is a certain kind of energy that comes from live music played with such precision that live sound effects match up with what is happening on screen that is unique to the experience. 
Why Worry is about a wealthy hypochondriac played by Lloyd who travels to South America in order to recover and unwittingly gets caught up in a revolution.  The scenes of a hapless Lloyd wandering cluelessly around a warzone, barely aware of the danger going on around him, are absolutely hilarious, but it is when he enlists the help of a giant who is suffering from a tooth ache to escape from the revolutionaries that the gut busting laughter really starts. The scenes of Lloyd trying to pull the giant's tooth rank among the funniest things I have seen in a silent film.   

After Why Worry I was in the mood for more comedy, so I went to watch Blazing Saddles. Now, Blazing Saddles, while being a great film, was not the best film playing during this block. The Best Years of our Lives was quite literally the best film playing during the time slot. But what drew me to Blazing Saddles was the once in a lifetime opportunity to see Mel Brooks live on stage.
Brooks did not disappoint.  He burst on to the stage singing the theme to Blazing Saddles, and had an insane amount of energy throughout his introduction, in which is spoke humorously about the difficulty he had with the studio while making the film because of its content, and bad mouthed studio executives who have long been retired or dead.

The film itself is as hilarious as ever forty years after it was made, and although the social commentary is a little dated, it still manages to resonate.    

My final film Friday was a midnight screening of Eraserhead. As with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, it had been twenty years since I saw this film, and like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, it was on VHS that I first saw it.

Although Eraserhead is David Lynch's first film, it features many of the idiosyncrasies that would trademark his later films. The brooding nightmarish atmosphere, the sudden outbursts of anger, and the complex symbolism are already present and fully formed. 

I don't know if it is because of the beautiful 35 ml print, or because I am 35 instead of 15, but Eraserhead made a lot more sense to me this time around than during my first viewing. Despite having a surreal plot, the action of the film flows very well from scene to scene, and there seem to be character arcs, something I didn't realize twenty years ago when I first saw it.   

So that's a wrap on my first two days at TCM. Tune back to find out what amazing films I watched Saturday, and which icons I got to watch live.  

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