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Classic Film Fest: An Abundance Of Riches

by Leonard Maltin
April 26, 2010 7:33 AM
8 Comments
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With a triumphant screening of the newly-restored Fritz Lang epic Metropolis at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, the TCM Classic Film Festival came to a close last night. From the cheers of the crowd—not only for the film, and an extraordinary performance by the three-man Alloy Orchestra, but for TCM host Robert Osborne’s announcement that there will be a 2nd edition of the Festival next year—it was clear that this ambitious event was a smash success.

When Turner Classic Movies announced the festival several months ago I heard grumbling from local film-buff friends who questioned why—

—anyone would shell out the high price of admission to see familiar movies. But these are people who live here in Los Angeles, where we’re spoiled by opportunities to see vintage films on a big screen, and where the presence of Hollywood veterans is a common occurrence. For newcomers to the fold—like a number of film students who got to attend—and people from out of town—a total of 45 states and 10 foreign countries, it turns out—this was a little slice of heaven. People spend huge sums of money to go to sports fantasy camps and no one questions them. These people chose to come to a movie fantasy camp, you might say, and from the broad smiles and upbeat vibe in the air, I’d say they were happy they did.

All weekend long people came over to greet me who’ve been reading my books for years and never thought they’d have a chance to say hello in person. If that’s how they felt about seeing me, imagine how they felt about Luise Rainer, Tony Curtis, Ernest Borgnine, Mel Brooks, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Martin Landau, Norman Lloyd, Anjelica Huston, Danny Huston, Tab Hunter, Esther Williams, Betty Garrett, Buck Henry, Eli Wallach, Nancy Olson, Susan Kohner, Juanita Moore, Nancy Olson, Darryl Hickman, and such filmmakers as Peter Bogdanovich, Douglas Trumbull, Stanley Donen, Richard Rush, and Curtis Hanson? That list doesn’t include other behind-the-scenes people and filmmakers who introduced films and appeared on panels over the course of the four-day event…like Lana Turner’s daughter, Joan Crawford’s grandson, and Melvyn Douglas’ granddaughter (actress Illeana Douglas).

TCM hired Bill and Stella Pence, co-founders of the Telluride Film Festival, to guide them in this maiden effort, and the event unfolded in true Telluride fashion, with multiple events going on simultaneously. That meant people had to make painful choices at times, but it also enabled the festival to accommodate some 2,000 attendees by disbursing them among four or five locations. (Even as one of the hosts I couldn’t avoid the problem of competitive scheduling: having to introduce a new digital restoration of King Kong at Grauman’s Chinese Theater meant I couldn’t watch a 70mm presentation of 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Egyptian theater just down the street.)

This also means that everyone who participated in the weekend had an entirely individual experience. The two communal gatherings were opening night, when A Star is Born was presented at the Chinese (which holds so many people) and closing night, at the same location, where Metropolis was shown.

I was present at thirteen events altogether, so while I can’t tell you about Robert Osborne’s interview with Luise Rainer prior to screening The Good Earth, or Mel Brooks’ shtick when his star was installed on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, I can review some of my personal highlights.

Being able to introduce, and watch at least part of, the original King Kong at the very theater where it premiered in 1933 was incredibly exciting. Warner Bros.’ new digital restoration, which will yield a Blu-ray home video release later this year, looked magnificent on the huge Chinese Theater screen. Best of all, it didn’t have the look of a spruced-up video: it was as if we were watching a pristine 35mm print. And it was preceded by Max Steiner’s original overture.

Friday afternoon I conducted an hour-long conversation with Peter Bogdanovich at Club TCM, the festival lounge that was artfully constructed inside the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel’s Blossom Room, site of the first Academy Awards presentation. Peter is one of the world’s great raconteurs, and he was in fine form, with an eager audience hanging on his every word. Naturally, I asked him to tell stories about the great filmmakers he knew (Orson Welles, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks—all of whom he impersonates quite well), but I also asked about his own work on such now-classic films as The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon. Although a generation of gifted French filmmakers started out as critics, with vast knowledge of movie history, Peter is one of a rare breed in this country, who started out as a journalist and became a filmmaker of note. Today he is a living link to Hollywood lore.

Later that day I introduced a new 35mm print of Delmer Daves’ 1956 western Jubal. Sony’s Senior Vice President of Restoration, Grover Crisp, explained that it was only in recent years, with digital processes, that he and his team were able to restore the faded color and remove the deep scratches that existed in the original materials on this entertaining film. They also slightly shrank the extra-wide 2:55:1 widescreen image to fit into today’s conventional 2:35:1 CinemaScope frame. I was even more impressed with the original three-channel stereophonic sound, which showed off David Raksin’s score wonderfully well. After the screening I interviewed the indestructible 93-year-old Ernest Borgnine, who had fond memories of filming on location in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and great fondness for writer-director Daves. We talked about his career in general, and Borgnine completely charmed the audience.

Immediately following that screening my wife and I took in an extracurricular show, of Elia Kazan’s Wild River, another beautiful widescreen restoration introduced by filmmaker and film buff extraordinaire Curtis Hanson and The Film Foundation’s Margaret Bodde. I had missed other recent screenings of this film and I’m so glad I finally caught up with it: it is magnificent in every way. I won’t soon forget Lee Remick’s performance, as one of the most complex and compelling women I’ve ever seen on screen, or Jo Van Fleet, who played a stubborn Southern woman of 80 when she was only half that age at the time.

On Saturday I had the great pleasure of introducing a selection of vintage short subjects that TCM asked me to program. I chose a 90-minute assortment of old and cherished favorites, which an enthusiastic crowd seemed to enjoy. It was heartening for me to hear their response, and thrilling to see beautiful 35mm prints of Ruth Etting in Favorite Melodies, Charley Chase and Thelma Todd in The Pip from Pittsburg, Leo Carrillo and an all-star cast in the Technicolor two-reeler Star Night at Cocoanut Grove, Robert Benchley in How to Sleep, the MGM Historical Mystery The Man in the Barn, Pete Smith’s Movie Pests, and the Joe McDoakes gem So You Want to Be a Detective. (Incidentally, Movie Pests was co-written by Joe Ansen, whose son David is an outstanding film critic who just happened to attend several TCM Festival screenings.)

Then it was off to the Egyptian Theater to introduce a Harold Lloyd program of silent comedy, the two-reeler An Eastern Westerner followed by his classic feature Safety Last, accompanied by Robert Israel and a 12-piece orchestra. Harold’s granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd helped me set the stage, and was especially keen to point out that the audience would not only be seeing her grandfather but her grandmother, Mildred Davis, who was Harold’s leading lady. In talking about Safety Last Sue mentioned that whenever he would take her to see the circus, he would always excuse himself when an aerial act came on. When she would ask why he said that when he made his “high and dizzy” comedies he felt in complete control—but watching anything real involving heights made him queasy!

That evening I had the pleasure of watching a brand-new print, struck by the Museum of Modern Art’s 35mm camera negative of The Story of Temple Drake. This notorious 1933 film about rape and sexual degradation, based on William Faulkner’s Sanctuary, is fascinating on several accounts, but I can tell you it never looked this beautiful in any prior screening. Karl Struss’ incredible cinematography, much of it shot in the dark, and punctuated by intense ultra-closeups of leading lady Miriam Hopkins and oily villain Jack La Rue, had the audience riveted.

I then introduced The Adventures of Robin Hood (preceded by Chuck Jones’ cartoon Rabbit Hood) but didn’t have the energy to stay. I knew I had to be up early on Sunday to introduce Damn Yankees, although TCM host Ben Mankiewicz conducted an interview with its star Tab Hunter after the film, because I was across the street at the Roosevelt Hotel to host a seminar with two veteran script supervisors.

TCM arranged panel discussions throughout the weekend, and I heard great feedback on these conversations about casting, location scouting, and Hollywood’s love affair with remakes. My panel spotlighted the little-celebrated, and little-understood, job of script supervision, and we were fortunate to have two superior guests, Angela Allen (who managed to fly in from London after a four-day volcano-related delay) and Ana Maria Quintana. Angela started out in London as a very young woman, but within her first year on the job had worked in Vienna on The Thrid Man and in Africa on The African Queen! (She is interviewed on the most recent DVD editions of both films.) She subsequently worked with John Huston on fourteen films, and he clearly came to rely on her. When Allen pointed out that Katharine Hepburn was wearing the wrong hat in a particular scene, and the star balked at having to change her outfit, Huston backed the young script supervisor and told “Katie” that she was merely doing her job.

Ana Maria was born in Chile, moved to the U.S. when she was 12, and always dreamed of working in Hollywood. It was seeing Anouk Aimee play a script supervisor in A Man and a Woman that made her want to pursue that job, and she got her break when, on a cold phone call, she was asked if she spoke Spanish. That got her foot in the door. In 1991 she had a brief conversation with Steven Spielberg which led to her hiring on Hook, and he has used her ever since; she recently wrapped production on his latest film, The Adventures of Tin-Tin, which gave her experience in the brave new world of performance capture production.

Both women had great stories to share, which only underscores the fact that every aspect of filmmaking is a potential goldmine for film researchers and historians.

Sunday afternoon my wife and I looked forward to seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur on the big screen, and enjoyed revisiting this old favorite in a beautiful print from the Library of Congress. It holds up awfully well—and so do its elaborate and innovative visual effects. After the screening I interviewed the saboteur himself, Norman Lloyd, who remains vital, charming, and eloquent at the age of 95. He told us how Hitchcock asked if he could fall backwards over the Statue of Liberty railing—to a waiting mattress four feet below—so audiences could see that it was really him taking the fall. He said he can still picture the grip who kept him from rolling off the platform on Universal Stage 12, and concluded that he was proud of his athleticism. The audience roared its approval.

Finally, everyone converged on Grauman’s Chinese Theater Sunday night to see the much-touted restoration of Metropolis, incorporating nearly 30 minutes of long-lost footage recently discovered in a 16mm print in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Added to an already impressive renovation in 2002 by the F.W. Murnau Foundation, which incorporated this new material, the new, 153-minute epic is more stunning than ever, a mad masterpiece that can only be truly appreciated on a big screen.

I have to stop now; I’m exhausted from this three-day marathon. (I stopped by the red carpet on opening night Thursday but couldn’t stay for A Star is Born because I had to teach my class at USC.) But I’m happy I could be part of such an extraordinary weekend, and can’t wait for next year’s encore.

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8 Comments

  • BBOCK | July 4, 2010 9:26 AMReply

    I was annoyed about this because it was expensive and even if you did shell out a lot of money for tickets, you were not guaranteed a seat at the movies you wanted to see. How about making some of these movies available to people who can't afford the premium prices. I would have loved to see Singin' In the Rain, Metropolis, and A Star Is Born on the big screen. But I couldn't afford to spend several hundred dollars for a CHANCE that I might get a ticket to see them.

  • Andrew Smith | May 4, 2010 9:25 AMReply

    Thanks for the report Leonard. I'm so jealous of the people who got to attend this event.

    There's no way I could afford a trip to this most enticing of festivals but what your article has inspired me to do is to finally write up my experiences of attending the Rod Serling Conference in September of last year. Hopefully my memory wont fail me.

  • Glenn Saxby | April 29, 2010 11:34 AMReply

    I attended the festival from Toronto and as someone who attends 30 or docs at the Hot Docs Festival (starting this evening in fact) and 35 or so films at the Toronto International Film Festival, who has a Doc Soup & TIFF movie series both of which screen once a month all year except summer. And who attends current movies in theatres, attends Cinematheque and watches TCM with a passion. So lotsa stuff going on movie wise. However, the TCM festival was in a unique and thrilling league all its own.

    There's something extraordinary about seeing an iconic film in a pristine print on the big screen in a famous Hollywood venue with some of the on and or off screen talent in attendance. For example, imagine hearing the 100 year old double best actress winner from the 30s Louise Rainer talk about her thoughts about Louis B Mayer and Greta Garbo back in the Golden Age of Hollywood!

    It was a once in a lifetime opportunity and superb fun. Highly recommended to anyone who loves movies and has a sense of history in terms of where they've come from.

  • Carla | April 29, 2010 7:05 AMReply

    I want to congratulate TCM and everyone involved in this event.
    When I heard about the accomplishment I was happy because it is important to preserve the facts, people and works that contributed positively to the community.
    In the case of Hollywood - land of fantasy - the community is also humanity. There are no boundaries to their dreams.
    I live in Brazil (just south of the country), but this distance does not forbid me to know and follow the wonderful world of the seventh art. But with major restrictions, the information arrives here. And now, the most important, is responding to them.
    I was at the event, in thought, imagining the unique opportunity to learn about so many movies and actors. This report is the answer to my expectation, the event was successful. More! Has provided its repetition in the next!
    I leave here a special hug to Anjelica Huston, because it was through her that I knew of the event (I'm your fan).
    Congratulations to all!
    Carla Massari

  • T.J. Royal | April 29, 2010 3:39 AMReply

    This sounded like an absolutely fantastic event. The screenings of King Kong, 2001 and Metropolis alone piqued my interest, and I couldn't imagine being able to bump into so many industry veterans at a public event like this!

    Too bad I'm in my mid-20s and live in North Carolina, or else this would've definitely been something I would've liked to attend.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, Leonard, and hopefully I'll get to see you at an event like this one of these days!

  • Richard P. May | April 29, 2010 3:14 AMReply

    Leonard,
    Your article was an excellent summary of the festival, especially for us who weren't there.
    One point came to mind. You complimented the quality of the print of THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE, initiated by MoMA, and made from the original negative.
    It would be nice, and especially for us in the lab business, to see credit to the laboratories who made these superb prints.
    We all know they don't just jump off the negative into the theater, and making a good print from negatives which are pushing 80 years of age, often shrunken and damaged, takes a different set of skills than making prints from new film.
    Thanks again for the report,
    Dick May

  • Jeremiah Daws | April 28, 2010 2:33 AMReply

    Great post, Leonard. I was at the TCM Classic Film Festival as well. (It was a pleasure meeting you.) I'm so glad you posted your thoughts because as you pointed out, one couldn't see everything.

    I wanted to mention one guest you failed to mention - Frank Capra III, grandson to Frank Capra, was on hand to present Dirigible. I captured the audio of his introduction as well as the Q&A afterwards. I thought you and your readers might want to listen.

    http://www.dawsbrothers.com/2010/04/27/tcm-classic-film-fest-day-1/

    Thanks for being a part of the festival. Your discussion with Bogdanovich was the highlight for me! I went home that night and ordered his book, Who the Devil Made It.

  • Mark Polak | April 27, 2010 2:21 AMReply

    I was one of the few locals in attendance, and despite the prices I thought the festival was a great value. Every passholder received VIP treatment, the celebrity quotient was high, and the festival was extremeley well organized. My guess is that now that word is out, next years passes will get snapped up fast.

    I shared most of your favorites (Jubal, Wild River and Temple Drake), and everyone who reads this blog has to see the new version of Metropolis. I don't think that the movie (with the exception of the poor quality newly discovered footage) looked that good for most audiences in the '20s. The Alloy Orchestra was fantastic, and I hope they get to record their score as an additional score on the DVD. Strangely, the film that moved me the most was Safety Last, as I have never been as emotionally involved in a silent film as I was watching Harold Lloyd climb up the side of that building (and I've even seen the film before).

    See you there next year. If there is a way, I hope the out-of-town audience can get a chance to see Los Angeles Plays Itself at the festival. It's so difficult to see outside of LA, and I know the audience will eat it up. Perhaps, a whole series of films around that film might not be a bad idea, as the out-of-towners could tour the locations in their spare time at the festival between midnight and 9 am :-) .

    Many thanks for all the effort it took to put together this wonderful festival !

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