Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)
Introduction by Dana Gould
One of two midnight screenings, “Plan 9 From Outer Space” is an infamously all-out cult classic. If you feel like you’ve seen it enough times (aka zero) or know enough about it from “Ed Wood,” you really should see the film on the big screen with a packed house, its worth it just for the audience’s laughs and jeers in near-unison. Comedian and former “Simpsons” writer Dana Gould introduced the film with a spattering of self-deprecating jokes, film trivia and personal anecdotes. Turning it into a bit of a show-and-tell, Gould brought out one of the film’s original “flying saucers,” around the size of a dinner plate and dangling from a string, and regaled the audience with a few stories from his friendship with Maila Nurmi (aka Vampira), who features heavily in the film. One thing we’ll never forget (once you read, you can’t un-read it) was when he mentioned how he and Vampira would meet up regularly at a diner and how she would sometimes forget her lower teeth (oh dentures…). A kitschy intro for a kooky film and another real once-in-a-lifetime event.
The Ladykillers (1955)
Introduction by Bill Hader
We won’t pretend to be impartial to this Ealing comedy, therefore seeing “The Ladykillers” on the big screen in an actual theater (rather than a pull-down in a lecture hall or on TV) was flipping incredible, even at 9 AM on a Saturday. For a description, check out our 20 Great British Crime Movies. Some highlights from the screening include Alec Guinness’s prop teeth being on full display (this theatergoer may have physically lurched at the shot reveal of “Professor” Marcus), a few hoots for a young Teddy Boy Peter Sellers, and awwwws from the audience at the indomitable Katie Johnson and her scatterbrained, old lady loveliness.
Acting as host, Bill Hader started off with some (we assume) fake Italian (a nod to Vinny Vedecci on ‘SNL’) and thanked the crowd “for coming out so early for a droll British comedy.” Hader shared his own experience with “The Ladykillers,” having discovered Ealing comedies during his twenties and this being his first one and overall favorite. Hader explained how movies couldn’t get away with such larger-than-life, bordering on ludicrous, characters like the Professor, “Doing sketch comedy, we can put in crazy teeth and… have insane hair and talk like this [puts on British accent[ and all these things and it works. It doesn’t really work in movies now and it’s cool seeing Alec Guinness somehow make this character that he plays, it taught me at least how you can do it, but still make it grounded and feel real. The guy’s funny, but he still poses a real threat.” As an ending note, Hader mentioned how modern comedies don’t quite have the same attention to detail and concluded that “The Ladykillers” is “beautiful. Every shot is like a painting to me.” Though we’re sad to see him leave SNL, hopefully now Hader will have his chance to be a part of a painting-esque movie, if he doesn’t have one in the pipeline already.
Introduction by Ben Mankiewicz with John Boorman, Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, and Ned Beatty
Mildred Pierce (1945)
Introduction by Robert Osborne with Ann Blyth
Probably the most receptive and therefore fun audience during the festival was at the evening screening of “Mildred Pierce.” With a line that went around three blocks (at least by the time we got there, with a half hour to spare), the Egyptian Theatre was packed and thrilled to see the classic on the big screen, especially with an introduction by Robert Osborne with Ann Blyth.
In regards to “Mildred Pierce,” Blyth spoke of working with director Michael Curtiz, who by many reports was difficult to work with (e.g. after 12 films together, Errol Flynn refused to work with him ever again) -- “for some reason he and I hit it off, we just did from the very beginning.” --, her screen test with Joan Crawford -- “It was so unusual for a star of her stature at that time. It was a dream come true. Obviously because it made a huge difference in how you even start to think about this character that you’re going to play and the actress who will be playing your mother doing the test with you made a world of difference.” -- and those pesky “Mommie Dearest”-related rumors -- “I have nothing but wonderful memories of her. All I can say was that it was a wonderful learning experience and she was kind to me during the making of the movie and kind to me in private afterwards for many, many years.”
On her leading men co-stars (Gregory Peck, Robert Taylor, Paul Newman, Charles Boyer – tellingly, she did not mention Mario Lanza, later saying she did not have any issues working with the late tenor, who notoriously was so difficult to work with that Doretta Morrow refused to make another movie after playing his love interest), Blyth said, “They were all so talented in their own particular way, never mind that they were all so good-looking. That was the easy part.” It was clear within moments that Blyth was nothing like her “Mildred Pierce” character Veda, the typified ungrateful child that she had played so eerily well, even staying for the screening and reacting along with the audience (we’re witnesses, we heard her laugh a few times), and relished being able to share her memories of Hollywood’s golden age.
Introduction by Ben Mankiewicz with Ed Pressman and Billy Weber
Producer Ed Pressman and editor Billy Weber gave an in-depth look into the production behind the Terrence Malick classic about a teenager (Sissy Spacek) and her older boyfriend (Martin Sheen) going on the run, killing and robbing along the way.
Producer Ed Pressman spoke about the business side of making “Badlands,” which was a troubled production, including a fire and multiple crew changes (including editor Bob Estren leaving, which led to Weber becoming editor). The film cost less than $750,000 to make and its main financier was Pressman’s mother, whose funds came from Pressman Toy Corporation, the still-running family toy business. Even after production was finished and Warner Bros. had given them $1 million deal to distribute, the film had some issues while being screened. Warner set up a test screening of “Badlands” paired with “Blazing Saddles” as a double feature, which did not go so well, receiving “the worst cards in the history of Warner Bros.” This resulted in an interesting pre-screening trajectory, including Little Rock and Dallas.
For all of you Terrence Malick fans, Weber spoke of the enigmatic director and said, “Working with him was like walking down the garden path. He doesn’t know what’s going to come up in the next curve on the path. He approaches everything like that… It’s always a wonderful adventure working with him… He allows you to express yourself artistically with an end… It’s unlike most mainstream filmmaking.” To read more about their working relationship and friendship, check out the highlights of our conversation with Weber.
The Birds (1963)
Introduction by Ben Mankiewicz with Tippi Hedren
Even if you’ve seen it almost a million times, read every academic text on Alfred Hitchcock and watched HBO’s “The Girl,” there is nothing comparable to seeing “The Birds” on the big screen at Grauman’s after an introduction with Ben Mankiewicz and star Tippi Hedren discussing the film and her career.
The discussion began on the topic of Hedren’s transition from modeling in New York to acting in Hollywood and her uncertainty at that stage. Fate stepped in and she “received this call on Friday the 13th of October 1961.” The caller remained vague about the interested director, but Hedren went to Universal and left off her film and fashion photobook anyway. A few days later, she was told finally that it was Hitchcock and signed the contract, beginning a whirlwind of cinematic history. About a month in, Hedren shot one of the most dream-worthy screen tests ever – “We did scenes from “Rebecca,” “Notorious” and “To Catch A Thief,” three entirely different women. Edith Head did my clothes; that’s quite a woman. Alfred Hitchcock and his wife Alma were my drama coaches… And then, three days of filming, which was wonderful fun. Hitch’s main crew, Bob Burke the DP, Bob Boyle who was the set director, it was huge.” Three weeks after that, Hedren went to dinner the Hitchcocks and Lew Wasserman, and was presented with a pin – “gold and sea pearls of three birds in flight,” (which she wore to this event) – and the role of Melanie Daniels, the much-coveted lead in “The Birds.”
As for the legendary director, Hedren spoke of Hitchcock’s two sides with equal fervor – the mentor and the man obsessed. Hedren credited Hitchcock for teaching her in “becoming a character, how you break down a script, how you work on and develop that character and develop your relationships with the other players in the script.” Though once they got to work, his mentoring made a not-so-nice turn. On “The Birds,” when Hedren questioned why her character would go up into the bird-ridden attic in that now iconic albeit still baffling scene, he said, “Because I tell you to.” One of the most horrifying shoots in Hollywood history, Hedren went into a chainlink fence and had birds tied to her, nearly losing an eye. As for the man with an obsession (dramatized in “The Girl”), Hedren sympathized with women out in the audience who had experienced similar situations (an unrequited extreme infatuation) and said, “It’s a horrible, confining situation that is unbearable.” She continued to spurn his advances while still under contract with him, which left her unable to work elsewhere for many years. With great dignity and resilience, Hedren concluded that, “Hitchcock said he’d ruin my career, but he didn’t ruin my life.”
The Seventh Seal (1957) / Three Days of the Condor (1975)
A Tribute to Max von Sydow
Introductions by Ben Mankiewicz and Robert Osborne with Max von Sydow
Along the way, we were lucky enough to speak with filmmaker Susan Ray about her late husband Nicholas Ray (who is the subject of her documentary, “Don’t Expect Too Much”), editor Billy Weber about his decades-long professional relationship and friendship with Terrence Malick and TCM host Ben Mankiewicz about the festival and much more.
As this barely scratches the surface of all that the TCM Classic Film Festival had to offer, here are a few more screenings we regret to have missed – “On the Waterfront” introduced with Eva Marie Saint, “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” in Cinerama with an introduction including the still alive and kicking Mickey Rooney, “Airplane!” with directors Jim Abrahams and David Zucker along with star Robert Hays, “They Live By Night” with Susan Ray, “Suddenly, It’s Spring” with Kate MacMurray who shared wonderful stories about her father Fred MacMurray, “the pre-code “Safe In Hell” which was so popular that they had to turn people away at both of its screenings, and “Bugs Bunny’s 75th Birthday Bash” hosted by Jerry Beck and Leonard Maltin.