Although the TCM Classic Film Festival once again occurred strictly online this year, it offered an even more diverse and pleasing slate, providing even more programming online thanks to a collaboration with HBO Max. Both edifying and entertaining, the films, extras, and bonus programming demonstrated the reach and power of cinema.
The festival opened Thursday with a 60th anniversary screening of “West Side Story,” preceded by an interview with co-stars George Chakiris, Rita Moreno, and Russ Tamblyn in conversation about working on the legendary film and the soon-to-be released remake. Director Martin Scorsese introduced his 1973 movie “Mean Streets,” followed by the TCM premiere of UCLA’s recently restored 1932 horror film “Doctor X,” with beautifully restored two-strip Technicolor.
The festival featured several television premieres of recently restored titles, or ones long not available to the network, that speak to us even now. The world premiere of the new restoration of “Whistle at Eaton Falls” played Friday morning, an almost ripped from the headlines tale of a manufacturing plant fighting for survival. Directed by Robert Siodmak, renowned for his film noir titles and produced by Louis De Rochemont, the film reveals the story of plant owner Dorothy Gish (in one of her last roles) bringing in labor man Lloyd Bridges to try and save the declining business after the death of her husband. Semi-documentary and shot on location, the film packs an emotional punch thanks to fine performances by actors early in their careers, including Bridges, Ernest Borgnine, Anne Francis, and Murray Hamilton.
Later that night, the SF Sketchfest organized a table read of Ed Wood’s sci-fi “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” a hilarious presentation featuring such comedians as Bobcat Goldthwait, Bob Odenkirk, and Laraine Newman, followed by a screening of the original unintentionally comic film.
The world broadcast premiere of Bill Morrison’s experimental short “let me come in” played very late that night. Taking what little remained from decayed reels of a 1928 German silent film “Pawns of Passion,” Los Angeles Opera commissioned composer David Lang to write a score for soprano Angel Blue in an attempt bring this small slice of film back to life. While an intriguing concept, the simplistic score provided little new to the film, perhaps presented better as shards of a dream.
Wisecracking private detective Franchot Tone found himself hired by an ambitious politician to investigate his wife in the Saturday morning screening of the 1948 film “I Love Trouble.” Roy Huggins provided a witty script full of roles for such actresses as Glenda Farrell, Janet Blair, Janis Carter, and Adele Jergens with location shooting around Venice and Hollywood Boulevard in this foreshadowing of television detective shows Huggins later created.
The recently restored Joan Harrison-produced 1947 noir “They Won’t Believe Me” played Saturday afternoon, containing 15 minutes originally cut in the 1950s for television time. While already entertaining and full of strong female roles, the film is strengthened by the additional footage, giving extra screen time and more character development to many of the female leads, making them even more independent and strong women characters for the time. As usual, Eddie Muller provided an excellent and in-depth introduction.
Other new footage presented that day included Mike Nichols biographer Mark Harris in conversation before “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and the TCM premiere of the 1996 documentary “Nichols and May: Take Two,” an interview with Jacqueline Bisset before the screening of “Bullitt,” director Barry Levinson in conversation before “Diner,” and Jacqueline Stewart providing thoughtful commentary to “Lady Sings the Blues.”
A newly restored 1930 Pre-Code “Her Man” premiered Sunday morning, featuring strong performances by doe-eyed Helen Twelvetrees, Thelma Todd, and a vulnerable Marjorie Rambeau, loosely based on the stage play “Frankie and Johnny.” Ricardo Cortez played another version of his typical slimy hustler role, along with plenty of small but memorable parts played by 1930s character actors Franklin Pangborn, Vince Barnett, Slim Summerville, James Gleason, Hank Mann, and Stanley Fields. The film featured a lovely opening tracking shot, atmospheric lighting of seedy dives and ethnically diverse houses of ill repute, and creative title work of credits written in sand washed away by the surf.
Randy Haberkamp and Lynne Kirste hosted their always entertaining program “Hollywood Home Movies,” featuring home movies of the stars at work and play from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Collection. They presented clips ranging from the late 1920s through the early 1960s, featuring such stars and directors as Alfred Hitchcock eating a banana backwards, Jean Harlow, Gilbert Roland and friends such as David O. Selznick, Robert Montgomery, Erroll Flynn, Frank Capra, John Garfield, Billy Wilder and Richard Conte at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club, Nicholas Brothers goofing off, Lucille Ball on the western location of a film, Desi Arnaz with Billy Gilbert and family on a USO trip in the Caribbean, Humphrey Bogart and Laurel Bacall on their yacht Santana, and Shirley Jones recalling the making of the film “Oklahoma!” with director Fred Zinneman and cast and crew.
Ben Model provided an up-tempo, jaunty organ score for the 1926 Ernst Lubitsch romantic comedy “So This is Paris.” Featuring nice performances from Lilyan Tashman, Monte Blue, and Patsy Ruth Miller, the film shows two couples having affairs with each other with Lubitsch’s noted romantic yet slightly naughty take on relationships. The artistic ball sequence featured avant garde camerawork of a slightly sexy nature, showing plenty of long, bare legs, Charleston dancing, and flirtatious movement. Myrna Loy makes a small appearance as a maid in the film.
Viewers could sign up for special programming and extras that played only on HBO Max during the festival, especially curated for the event. A particular highlight was the masterful documentary “The Melies Mystery,” written and produced by French historian and film producer Serge Bromberg on the discovery of Melies’ films long believed lost. Featuring Leonard Maltin as narrator with such commentators as director Costa Gavras and Academy Senior VP of Programming Randy Haberkamp, the fast-paced though thoughtful film included a great use of clips and historic footage.
Visual and sound effects producers Craig Barron and Ben Burtt provided the knowledgeable and tongue-in-cheek documentary about the making of the Humphrey Bogart-film “Chain Lightning,” shot in the style of a vintage Vitaphone short and containing plenty of effects on its own. Detailing how the original film created their sound and visual effects of an early jet fighter plane, “Jet Jockeys in Love: the Making of Chain Lightning” showed the two men relaying the making of the film while “piloting” their own vintage fighter.
Film historian Bruce Goldstein provided commentaries about the making of films on location in New York in three informative documentaries on the films “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three,” “The Naked City,” and “Speedy.” Combining film footage, location shooting, and vintage photos, Goldstein revealed how the films employed the actual city to provide rich atmosphere to their stories.
Jacqueline Stewart interviewed directors Charles Burnett and Billy Woodberry discussing how Black UCLA film students organized the independent L.A. Rebellion group to make films about South Los Angeles and its African American residents in one bonus short, along with short documentaries on “the Immigrant Experience,” and the making of several films. Directors such as Barry Levinson, Martin Scorsese, Barbara Kopple, Rob Reiner, and Mira Nair introduced one of their films, and special tributes to such stars as Ali McGraw, Martin Short, and Danny Glover also played. Bonus extras from DVDs, vintage interviews with stars, and taped TCM pieces also provided insight into various films and genres, providing much more in-depth knowledge than normally presented during a festival.
A bit strange without the opportunity to enjoy films in public screenings and to visit with friends, the 2021 virtual TCM Classic Film Festival served as a mini college course and entertainment break offering entertainment and knowledge for all.