Mary Mallory / Hollywood Heights: TCM Classic Film Festival Salutes Warner Bros. Centennial

Highlighting classic film while saluting legendary Warner Bros. Studio’s Centennial, the recently concluded 14th Annual TCM Classic Film Festival offered an entertaining, thoughtful slice of life through its diverse slate of vintage movies and programming. While slimmed down from past years, the Festival still provided a lavish moviegoing experience with excellent programming, major movie stars, and special events that no other festival can offer.

Though I attended fewer films this year, they mostly all fit the theme of escaping tragic or conflicted consequences for what appears to be a richer, more hopeful future. The stories featured themes of troubled protagonists looking and hoping for something better just around the corner.
For the record, 10:21 a.m., April 20: A previous version of this post referred to “creating the sound of a Hammond organ.” It is a “mighty Wurlitzer organ.”


William Powell and Kay Francis in One Way Passage.

I started off the 2023 Festival attending the romantic Pre-Code 1932 film “One Way Passage.” Starring fashion queen Kay Francis and the always debonair William Powell and introduced by author Mark Vieira, the film reveals the bittersweet romance of ailing socialite Francis and escaped convict Powell, both looking for a pleasurable escape from worries. The two stars possess compelling chemistry and connection as passionate lovers dreaming of a romantic New Year’s reunion, with the strong supporting cast of such actors as Aline McMahon, Frank McHugh, and Roscoe Karns adding spice and color to director Tay Garnett’s quick moving story.

After working all day Friday, I chased away work blues by attending the 1946 film noir “The Killers” featuring the young and gorgeous Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner in a story of doomed romance and dark deceit. Czar of Noir Eddie Muller provided an entertaining and informative introduction setting the stage for the beautifully crafted, taut production. Evocatively developing an Ernest Hemingway short story of a broken former boxer awaiting his dark fate at the hands of hired hitmen, director Robert Siodmak and writers Anthony Veiller and John Huston reveal the Swede’s hidden past through the dogged leg work of insurance investigator Edmond O’Brien. Such solid character actors as Charles McGraw, William Conrad, Sam Levene, Vince Barnett, Albert Dekker, John Miljan, and Jeff Corey help shape the tragic tale.

Loretta Young and Spencer Tracy in Man’s Castle.

To complete my evening double feature, I revisited the 1933 Fox Pre-Code “Man’s Castle.” Starring Loretta Young and Spencer Tracy, the movie reveals the often cringeworthy misogynistic attitudes of the time while also offering a darkly realistic look at the struggles and sorrows of the working class during the Depression. Tracy plays a scheming shyster named Bill looking to make a quick buck and fly off to better pastures before falling for Young’s gorgeous, struggling naif Trina and taking her in. The two fashion a life sans marriage in a Depression-era camp while Bill flirts with Glenda Farrell’s showgirl Fay La Rue, a poor man’s Mae West. Marjorie Rambeau and Walter Connolly offer touching bits to the darkly realistic story.

My Saturday began at the Hollywood Legion with the somewhat naughty 1932 Pre-Code “The Wiser Sex” starring Melvyn Douglas, Claudette Colbert, and Franchot Tone very early in their careers. Introduced by historian Cari Beauchamp noting similarities with today’s politics, the film reveals headstrong debutante Claudette Colbert turning down crusading gangland attorney boyfriend Douglas’s proposal to instead take off on an ocean cruise with competing suitor Ross Alexander. When scheming gangsters frame Douglas on a murder charge, Colbert masquerades as a blonde gold digger who befriends Lilyan Tashman’s duplicitous moll to discover the truth. Colbert and Tashman give strong and dominant performances while Douglas is offered little to do.

2023 TCM Classic Film Festival Day 3 – Saturday

From left, Richard Stanley, Jody Eisenstein-Miracle and Steve Stoliar at Assisting the Classics.

That afternoon I attended the Club TCM discussion “Assisting the Classics,” an informative look behind the lives of older stars and the young assistants who kept their schedules and homes running. Hosted by TCM host Alicia Malone, Richard Stanley (assistant to director George Cukor), Jody Eisenstein-Miracle (Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara), and Steve Stoliar (Groucho Marx) provided thoughtful insights into Hollywood and its treatment of aging talent. Stoliar offered some comic though sometimes dark tales of life with your hero.

After missing an earlier screening, I decided to watch the uncomfortable and tragic 1960 Elizabeth Taylor movie “Butterfield 8” in which Taylor’s conflicted prostitute finally decides to escape her trapped existence. TCM main host Ben Mankiewicz and comedian Mario Cantone roasted and demeaned the over-the-top story and its acting rather than highlighting any of its strengths or comparisons to the story it is based on. Would they laugh at Humphrey Bogart wearing three-inch elevator shoes to match Ingrid Bergman’s height in “Casablanca,” or Claude Rains doing the same opposite Bergman in “Notorious?” I think not.


Robert Montgomery, Irene Dunne and Preston Foster in Unfinished Business.

Later that evening I attended the humorous 1941 screwball romantic comedy “Unfinished Business” starring Irene Dunne and Robert Montgomery. Not quite as sparkling, witty, or buoyant as director Gregory La Cava’s 1936 “My Man Godfrey,” the film still features sweet chemistry between Dunne and Montgomery and the opportunity to hear her sing. Dunne plays a sheltered Ohioan who has raised her younger sister and takes off for New York to build a singing career. While on the train, neer’do well flirt Preston Foster gives her a line but moves on after arriving in New York, while the sweet Dunne carries a torch. Meeting cute with his carousing brother Robert Montgomery, the two drunkenly marry only to eventually fall in love. The film features small cameos from the likes of Hugh Beaumont and Junior Coghlan.

I rested Sunday morning to save myself for “Casablanca.” This time Muller and Mankiewicz provided a telling and touching introduction for what Muller called “probably the greatest American film.” Describing how they both fell for classic films and what “Casablanca” meant for both Bogart and Warner Bros., the two demonstrated a real camaraderie. While set in the days before the United States entered World War II, the film’s story of emigres fleeing war and destruction is timely with world problems and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, along with the patriotism and passion the emigres feel for their beloved countries. Bogart gives a wonderfully understated performance as the romantic, cynical Rick, reveaing so much through his guarded, haunted eyes, while Bergman’s luminous portrayal brings lightness to the bittersweet, romantic tale. All the elements come together to create such an emotional wallop.


To conclude the Festival, I saw my only silent for the weekend, the rousing 1925 “Clash of the Wolves” starring Warner Bros. early savior, Rin Tin Tin. Half wolf, half German Shepherd, Rinty and his pack escape a fire in the High Sierras and end up in the desert, threatening the local ranchers. Nursed back to health by borax miner Charles Farrell, Rinty ends up saving the day for Farrell and his honey June Marlowe, capturing the hissable villains. Silent film accompanist Ben Model rousingly and spiritedly gave voice to the movie, creating the sound of a mighty Wurlitzer organ on his electric piano and drawing audience reaction to the film’s emotional action.

While some attend other festivals for esoteric or rare film opportunities, TCM filmgoers come to enjoy major works in lavish theatres the way they were meant to be seen. Besides screening movies, the Festival also fosters fellowship and friendship between those who participate, making friends while queueing in line or rushing to events. That perhaps, is the richest gift it presents.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
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