Martin Scorsese is presented with the first Robert Osborne Award for film preservation.
In its ninth year of celebrating classic film, the 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival highlighted the written word and how film speaks to audiences through a wide variety of programs offering a little something for everyone. While some come looking for rarities, others search out socializing and dressing up, others look for celebrity appearances, and some seek another viewing of a favorite film. For those of us looking for diverse and rare presentations, the TCM Classic Film Festival goes beyond just screening films to offer unique programming not available anywhere else. It’s not just a film festival, but a rich symposium of ideas into the history and development of motion pictures.
I’m always looking to view something I’ve never seen before, so I normally attend Club TCM or other special events offering something that is often unique even for Los Angeles filmgoers. The Club TCM programs primarily offer informative, in-depth looks at subjects through PowerPoint presentations or lectures, while some screenings feature unique technological instruments like Fotoplayers, hand-cranked projectors, and the like, items that are very rare anywhere in the world.
Cicely Tyson was honored with a ceremony putting her hand prints and footprints in concrete at the forecourt of the Chinese Theatre. Photo courtesy of TCM.
On the opening night, Thursday, April 26, I attended a screening of the restored 1941 Michael Curtiz film, “The Sea Wolf,” which was shortened in 1947 when it was paired with the fellow Warner Bros. film “The Sea Hawk” for a double bill, requiring 14 minutes to be cut. This footage was long considered lost, until the Museum of Modern Art in New York recently discovered that they possessed a full-length 35 millimeter nitrate print made from the original negative.
Film historian Alan K. Rode, author of the excellent Michael Curtiz biography, introduced the film, pointing out this fact and some of the salient items surrounding its creative team. A hybrid gothic horror/noir, the thoughtful film is a loose adaptation of Jack London’s book of the same name, in which the sadistic skipper “Wolf” Larsen abuses his crew and three fugitives illegally taken onboard.
From its opening titles pushing through the fog in a sense of eerie foreboding, the film offers a spine-chilling ride into the hellish world of the Ghost and its crew. Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s dark, moving score adds to the sense of danger, keeping the audience on edge. Edward G. Robinson, John Garfield, and Ida Lupino give intense performances as three lost souls seeking some form of solace or redemption, while Alexander Knox brings a sense of resigned honor to the story.
Friday’s events at Club TCM offered thoughtful presentations revealing the history of Hollywood. While I missed some of the early events, such as renowned historian J.B. Kaufman describing the early history of Mickey Mouse in Hollywood, film biographers/historians such as Scott Eyman, Donald Bogle, and William Mann speaking on their craft, and an in-depth interview with revered writer/director James Ivory, the two programs I attended offered much food for thought.
Norman Lloyd greets Marsha Hunt at the TCM Classic Film Festival. Photo courtesy of TCM.
Author/historian Cari Beauchamp interviewed “Thelma and Louise” writer Callie Khouri, “Nashville” scriptwriter Joan Tewksbury, and “Beauty and the Beast” screenwriter Linda Woolverton regarding the growing power of women before and behind the camera. The women described the very slow evolution of women gaining control and a voice in production over the last few decades by discussing situations from their careers. They revealed the struggle to get men to listen to women’s voices and ideas as well as to overcome their stereotypes of women as stay at home mothers in need of protection. Just as women continue to fight for an equal place at the filmmaking table, they lamented how people of color and other sexual identity must continue to do the same.
The final program of the evening saluted the great actress Mary Astor, as former TCM researcher Alexa Foreman presented the premiere of her powerful documentary on the Astor divorce trial: “Scandal: The Trial of Mary Astor.” Tracing Astor’s early history with overbearing parents and pushy studio chiefs, the documentary dove into the scandal surrounding Astor after her husband stole her frank personal diary in an attempt to blackmail her into succumbing to his divorce demands. Taking a powerful stand that could have destroyed her career, Astor courageously decided to fight for custody of her daughter as well as for the right to own her life by confronting the accusations head-on. Interviewees such as Robert Osborne, Leonard Maltin, and Astor’s daughter, Marilynn, added fine insight and intriguing details into her hard but worthy fight.
Saturday morning I enjoyed the very rare opportunity to visit the 117-year-old American Society of Cinematographers’ clubhouse on North Orange Drive for the thought provoking program, “Writing with Light.” Moderator director Taylor Hackford led a fascinating discussion of the evolution of cinematography and the differences between film and digital work with such legendary Oscar winners and directors of photography as Caleb Deschanel, Robert Richardson, and John Seale. Each of the five cinematographers described how they entered the business, how they decide on projects, and the struggles and joys of their profession. This entertaining and informative program stands out as one of the highlights of the 2018 Festival.
The rest of the day I spent my time in the dark of the Egyptian Theatre enjoying watching three early films featuring strong female lead roles, while also enduring the Soviet bread line style queues to obtain passes to see them. The 1936 MGM film “Wife Vs. Secretary” demonstrated both the powerful acting and emotional vulnerability of its female leads Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow as they battle over publisher Clark Gable. The film offered a passionate portrayal of a young couple in love, as well as showing an intelligent young woman working because of the challenges the job offered her.
Mario Van Peebles and Melvin Van Peebles at the TCM Classic Film Festival. Photo courtesy of TCM.
The 1931 Pre-Code film “Girls About Town,” followed, the slightly risque story of two young women living the high life entertaining older businessmen their friend is trying to make deals with. The sexy, avaricious Lilyan Tashman and stylish, sensible Kay Francis strut their way through glamorous sets as they accumulate lavish gifts, throwing off wisecracks and double entendres with aplomb. Francis falls for the somewhat straight arrow but handsome young Joel McCrea and must decide whether to chuck her lavish lifestyle or seek out true love. Before the film, actress Dana Delany interviewed McCrea’s grandson Wyatt McCrea and Laurie Metcalf’s daughter Zoe Perry, a very distant relative of the film’s writer.
That evening, I attended the hilarious 1928 MGM silent “Show People” starring the talented Marion Davies, featuring live accompaniment by renowned accompanist Ben Model on an electric piano rigged to operate like a grand Wurlitzer organ. Preceding the screening, historian Leonard Maltin interviewed Lara Gabrielle Fowler, author of an upcoming biography of Davies, about the actress and her screen career. Model offered an entertaining, energetic pre-show program of sly film references (the theme to “Silent Movie” and “Hooray for Hollywood”) before adding rollicking, moving accompaniment to the film. He successfully vamped his way through a false fire alarm, keeping everyone calm and in a light-hearted mood ready to get back into the action in a story of a small town Georgia girl coming to make it big in Hollywood, surviving becoming too high hat and self-involved to realize what truly matters.
The film features actual Hollywood locations like the elaborate main entrance to the MGM studio, views of the MGM lot itself, and shots of the early Mack Sennett Studio on Glendale Boulevard. Director King Vidor and star Davies offer playful cameos as themselves, as do such major 1920s stars as Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, Norma Talmadge, John Gilbert, Claire Windsor, and several others, in a behind the scenes look at the film capital and moviemaking.
On Sunday afternoon I attended another intriguing Club TCM presentation, an introduction to the Library of Congress’ special festival, Mostly Lost, led by Rob Stone, Moving Image Curator at the archive. The event is held every summer at the LoC’s campus in Culpepper, Va., where attendees watch unidentified 1910s-1920s short films, mostly westerns and comedies, in hopes of coming up with titles. This presentation demonstrated various clues in the films that can help lead to identification, such as studio logos, actors, city landmarks, even automobile or clothing styles, before offering a too short opportunity to ID a few clips showing various Los Angeles’ shooting locations and a mid-teens western. I aced naming L.A. neighborhoods in the clips shot in those areas.
Cast members reminisced for the 40th anniversary showing of “Animal House.”
Later that evening I attended the other silent film screening at the Festival, the Lon Chaney horror classic, “The Phantom of the Opera.” Historian Leonard Maltin once again introduced proceedings before interviewing Rodney Sauer, leader of the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Sauer described the various ways different size houses accompanied silents, from a simple piano at small town theatres to pipe organs at large neighborhood houses to full orchestras at movie palaces like Hollywood’s Egyptian or Chinese Theatres. Mont Alto itself employs vintage score cues sold to theatres to compile orchestrations just as they were in the 1920s. They provided a lush romanticism to the gothic film, adding in ominous notes of passion and foreboding. To provide a logical accompaniment to the scenes where the Phantom plays a pipe organ, Sauer created one out of an electric piano, adding a rich, dark overtone to those scenes. The music added deep emotional resonance to the film.
While I was not able to attend all of the programs, several people told me of some they found particularly exciting. Many found the Harold Lloyd 3-D event a highlight, which featured a wonderfully entertaining Fotoplayer concert/accompaniment from “Professor” Joe Rinaudo, and glass slide presentation/hand cranked projection on a Powers Cameragraph from his associate Gary Gibson. In another Club TCM program, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Randy Haberkamp as usual presented an intriguing mix of Hollywood Home Movies showcasing stars enjoying life off screen. Actress Cicely Tyson was honored with a Hand/Footprint ceremony in the forecourt of the TCL Chinese Theatre while legendary director Martin Scorsese received the inaugural Robert Osborne Award for his dedication to classic film preservation.
The ninth annual TCM Classic Film Festival ended on a winning note, featuring an eclectic series of programs offering virtually every genre of film (Pre-Code, Musical, Gangster, Film Noir, Sci-Fi, Melodrama, Literary Adaptation, Comedy, Action Adventure), as well as a variety of educational/informative presentations deepening the understanding of the medium and its development. It serves as the Super Bowl of Film Festivals, offering the biggest bang for the buck to the largest attendance of worldwide film fans.