For the sixth straight year, the TCM Classic Film Festival has delighted fans of Golden Age cinema from around the world. Based in the film lovers’ paradise of Hollywood, California, the 2015 Festival, based on the theme, “History According to Hollywood,” offered newly restored, difficult to see, and classic movies on the big screen as they were meant to be seen, highlighted by interviews and appearances by the motion pictures’ stars. Films spanning the silent era to the 1990s presented historic events or eras, with Club TCM events giving detailed histories of creative aspects of cinema. The Festival offers opportunities to see film masterpieces on the big screen augmented by celebrity appearances, a treat for those across the country who lack these opportunities.
A diverse range of stars such as Spike Lee, Dustin Hoffman, Ann-Margret, Shirley MacLaine, and the incomparable Sophia Loren appeared before screenings to talk about the making of these films. Peter Fonda appeared at Club TCM to discuss his legendary father’s career, with MacLaine also being interviewed. Special conversations with legendary performers like Norman Lloyd and Loren occurred at the Ricardo Montalban Theatre. More intimate presentations held in the Roosevelt Hotel’s former Blossom Room called Club TCM included Peter Fonda and Rory Flynn discussing their legendary fathers’ careers, MacLaine describing hers, editor Anne Coates and stuntman Terry Leonard discussing their work, a look at Hollywood Home Movies, Bonham’s Memorabilia Appraisals, and 100 Years of Title Design.
Acknowledging the lack of common courtesy today, each program began with an announcer stating to turn off all electronic devices and not to record the event, though no one patrolled events to discipline those offending the warning. The vast majority of attendees did turn off devices, but many patrons conducted conversations, read title cards out loud, or commented on action during screenings. While they might do this while watching TCM on their television screens at home, this is not a sign of courtesy or breeding in public.
While there was a slim booklet listing the schedule and description of each program, there was no detailed program available giving detailed background or histories of films. Only those buying the expensive top passes gained access to such a program, which in the past was available for purchase to all those attending the festival. Such an item would be a wonderful souvenir to remind festival goers of their happy times at the event.
Festivities kicking off proceedings Thursday, March 26 were highlighted by the 50th Anniversary screening of “The Sound of Music,” with icons Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer interviewed onstage afterwards. Friday morning, TCM honored Plummer with a hand/footprint ceremony in front of the TCM Chinese Theatre.
On Friday, March 27, I attended the screening of the newly restored Buster Keaton classic, “Steamboat Bill Jr., augmented with silent film composing maestro Carl Davis conducting the world premiere of his newly penned score. Cohen Film Group’s beautiful, crisp restoration brought vivid life to Keaton’s comic adventures onboard the dilapidated steamboat as he attempts to win his girl and placate his surly father (Ernest Torrence). While Davis’ score featured some toe-tapping ragtime and ukelele themes, the slightly uneven work also contained a few heavy handed sequences, too serious for the romantic comedy.
Afterwards I attended a screening of W. C. Fields’ black comedy, “The Bank Dick,” featuring the inimitable Franklin Pangborn as the dedicated bank examiner, J. Pinkerton Snoopington. Fields injects witty one-liners and imaginative language and character names into his pictures, with this film overflowing with bon mots. Featuring everything from sarcastic family life to drinking binges to film shoots, the movie stars Fields as layabout Egbert Souse (“accent grave over the e”), who fills in for a drunken film director before landing a job as guard at the Lompoc bank after supposedly capturing a bank robber. Comic misadventures ensue when he convinces his potential son-in-law, Og Oggilby (Grady Sutton), to abscond with $500 for a land scheme. The film features Fields whistling “Listen to the Mockingbird,” the Three Stooges’ theme song, when entering the bar tended by Shemp Howard, a Stooge himself. Early on, Souse brags (slightly incorrectly) about directing Chaplin and Keaton “In the old Sennett days,” a time when Fields himself appeared in Sennett shorts. Grandsons Ronald and Allen Fields amusingly answered questions from moderator Ileana Douglas and from the audience before the screening, but unfortunately talked through the entire film.
Many of the films presented during the Festival highlighted the them or accentuated upcoming events. The 1977 Australian film “The Picture Show Man” acted as aperitif to the evening presentation, “The Return of the Dream Machine.” Adapted from shaggy dog tales of an actual itinerant silent film projectionist touring the back roads of New South Wales with his son and accompanist during the early 1900s. The sweet film focuses more on travels and travails than actual film exhibition, though it does feature clips from a Tom Mix western, Adolph Menjou and Florence Vidor in “The Grand Duchess and the Waiter, “ and a couple of Australian silents. Rod Taylor plays a small role as the cocky American competitor in the film. Like many of the motion pictures screened during the Festival, a rare actual print was projected.
“Return of the Dream Machine: Hand-Cranked Films” used a 1909 Power’s Model 6 Cameragraph Motion Picture Machine.
Randy Haberkamp presented another one of his popular programs at Club TCM, “Hollywood’s Home Movies” later that afternoon, featuring home movies from both celebrities and regular folks. A lovely Esther Ralston home movie included scenes from a lost silent film, “Half a Bride,” showing she, Gary Cooper, director Gregory La Cava, and musicians providing accompaniment on the set. The Stanfield Family short contained great footage shot in 1930 while driving west down Hollywood Boulevard from Vine Street to La Brea Avenue, showing such gorgeous buildings as the Security Bank, First National Bank, Grauman’s Chinese, and the Roosevelt Hotel. Gilbert Roland’s color home movie displayed an afternoon of tennis at the glamorous Cedric Gibson/Dolores Del Rio Streamline Moderne mansion, with Gibson, Del Rio, John Gilbert, Marlene Dietrich, Irene Mayer Selznick, and David O. Selznick putting in appearances. Bob Koster, son of director Henry Koster, narrated footage showing his family immigrating to America in 1936, along with visits to Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester. Jane Withers mugged her way through various short clips demonstrating her happy times with family, friends, and co-stars. Color footage from the 1940s showed USO tour appearances by such stars as Bob Hope, Frances Langford, Betty Hutton, and Joe DiMaggio in the Pacific. Jean Negulesco’s Kodachrome home movie footage displayed a lovely young Sophia Loren on the Athens, Greece set of “Boy on a Dolphin.” Neile Adams introduced Steve McQueen home movies.
That night, a packed house enjoyed Haberkamp’s “The Return of the Dream Machine: Hand-Cranked Films from 19029-193,” featuring Joe Rinaudo and assistant Gary Gibson projecting films on a 1909 Hand-cranked Power’s Model 6 Cameragraph Motion Picture Machine. Traveling back in time, the program highlighted primitive cinema of the early Twentieth Century, with Galen Wilkes providing light-hearted pre-show entertainment on a 1908 Edison Phonograph before Haberkamp demonstrated the evolution of films through advancement in storytelling techniques, special effects, and camera techniques. Haberkamp set films in the context of the growing motion picture industry and society at the time. Michael Mortilla provided appropriate pleasing accompaniment to the films, which included George Melies’ classic science fiction movie, “A Trip to the Moon (1902),” D. W. Griffith’s dramatic and poetic “A Corner in Wheat (1909),” Edison’s early western, “The Great Train Robbery (1903),” and Pathe’s comic but scary “The Dancing Pig (1907).” Lois Weber’s thriller, “Suspense (1913),” starring the director, closed proceedings. The film intercuts three stories as a husband races to rescue his wife from a threatening hobo. Shot on the Universal Ranch, primitive Ventura Boulevard and the early Studio City/North Hollywood are can be glimpsed in the footage.
Harry Houdini in “The Grim Game.”
‘Art of Title Design” closed out the informative Club TCM programs Sunday afternoon. Ian Albinson of Art of the Title presented a condensed history of title design, showing it evolving from simple printed titles on cards or glass to elaborate digital branding mini-films of today. The presentation offered plenty of short film clips demonstrating top work of each decade, paying particular homage to Pacific Title, Saul Bass, Pablo Ferro, and others. As much product placement as informative program, the presentation was frequently interspersed with illustrations of the website address.
The newly restored print of Harry Houdini’s long thought lost 1919 film, “The Grim Game” closed out proceedings Sunday, March 29. In the late 1940s, Mrs. Houdini gave a collector the Houdini’s own 16mm print and negative of the film, which is the only surviving print. After being informed of this by Houdini Museum owners, film archivist and preservationist Rick Schmidlin negotiated with the owner, acquiring the print for TCM. Remarkably in good shape, the film did require some touch up work, and ended up with half a reel more footage than the originally released film. The first feature to star the legendary magician, “The Grim Game” concerns the adventures of Harvey Hanford (Houdini) in attempting to clear his name when wrongly accused of committing a murder.
Highlighting each of Houdini’s major tricks, the motion picture depicts Houdini escaping from handcuffs, chains, strait jacket, and even bear trap. Reviewers at the time accurately described the film as a thrilling adventure with okay acting by Houdini and little actual romance. Great scenery chewing by such regular film villains as Tully Marshall and Arthur Hoyt enlivens proceedings. Shot in Los Angeles, the film features the original downtown jail, views of downtown, a local mansion, flights over Cahuenga Peak, and the distant beach. Highlighting action is the actual mid-air collision of two planes attempting a stunt, which all survived. Newspapers at the time correctly mentioned the name of the stunt man, Robert E. Kennedy, though Houdini and others misrepresented the truth often enough that people began to believe the lies.
While the film looked very good for 16mm, the score seemed drastically incomplete, as if rushed to the screen. While a nice Klezmer theme evoked Houdini whenever he appeared, and another hinting at foreboding action offered pleasing rhythms, there were long spaces of emptiness at places where there shouldn’t be silence, and no other cues or music to cover moods or action. Employing actual music cues from the period would have wonderfully augmented the truncated score.
The TCM Classic Film Festival offers festival goers a chance to meet likeminded fans from around the world as they witness appearances by legendary performers and classic films on the big screen, as they were always meant to be seen.