Jane Powell-Leonard Maltin-485
Photo by Brian Babineau

For the second year, I’ve been asked to host two evenings in Turner Classic Movies’ “Road to Hollywood ” series—last week with Jane Powell in Cambridge, Massachusetts and this week with Mitzi Gaynor in Chicago. Need I add that it’s been great fun? There are ten free screenings in all, enabling fans around the country to get a taste of what people experience when they attend TCM’s Classic Film Festival in Los Angeles, now in its fourth year, and scheduled for April 25-28.

Jane Powell is a pleasure to be with, a gracious and charming woman who belies her age and doesn’t hide it, either. (She’ll be 84 next month.) It’s hard to believe that she made her film debut some 70 years ago opposite Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy in Song of the Open Road. All that experience comes into play when she talks to a live audience about her career. She doesn’t live in the past—quite the opposite—but she knows how much people enjoy hearing her reminisce about her years at MGM and her impressions of everyone from Fred Astaire to the boss she so admired, Louis B. Mayer. She has fond memories of the studio, which served and protected her for nearly a decade.

Last year we introduced Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in Denver; this time around it was a 35mm print of Royal Wedding, which filled the cozy Brattle Theater in Cambridge. The venerable repertory theater not only still screens 35mm but has 16mm equipment; thanks to a recent Kickstarter campaign, it will soon be adding digital projection as well. I was impressed that its current calendar ranges from the films of Park Chan-wook to the classics of Ernst Lubitsch. That’s what I call eclecticism. I also marveled at its unusual rear-screen projection setup, with a booth behind the stage and a mirror beaming the image onto that screen.

Mitzi Gaynor
Photo by Carolyn Sloss

The Music Box Theatre in Chicago is much larger, but it was filled to capacity to see Mitzi Gaynor introduce a showing of South Pacific. Mitzi is a pistol, and she delights in amusing an audience with her saucy, salty anecdotes and lightning-quick asides. (“I love you,” shouted one attendee. Without missing a beat Mitzi shot back, “I love you more!”) Having done several press interviews together that morning, we quickly developed a rapport, and she didn’t mind my trying to gently steer her hilarious nonstop chatter. It’s a shame Hollywood didn’t let us see this side of Mitzi during her heyday onscreen, but I suspect that it was her smarts—not just her talent—that made her successful. She speaks of a warm relationship with Irving Berlin, tells an incredible tale of auditioning for Cole Porter at his home for a show that she later turned down, and, of course, winning over both Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II in order to capture the coveted role of Nellie Forbush in South Pacific. (How savvy was she? She auditioned those famous songs in Mary Martin’s key…making her seem like a natural to step into the Broadway star’s shoes.)

One reporter asked Mitzi if she’d ever had to deal with the trials of a casting couch, and she said no, but told a funny story about being summoned to Darryl F. Zanuck’s office one day as she was leaving the 20th Century Fox lot in her sweaty dance rehearsal clothes and her hair tied in a bun. After running a gauntlet of secretaries and making her way through the studio chief’s vast office, he looked her up and down and dismissed her, muttering, “You look better on film.”

I can tell you this: she not only looks great today, but exudes an energy and enthusiasm that’s irresistible. I count myself lucky to have spent quality time with her this week.

Find out more about TCM's Classic Film Festival HERE.