There’s No Place Like TCMFF: A Personal Overview

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As you can see, I wasn’t crying the whole time…

“Hi, I’m Nora. Do you mind if I cry on your shoulder?”

This is how I should’ve introduced myself to everybody I met at the TCM Classic Film Festival. Perhaps the most astonishing thing about TCMFF is that moments after you’ve met people for the first time you feel comfortable sobbing big, mascara-slick tears over How Green Was My Valley (or your tearjerker of choice) in the seat next to them.

Why? Because the chances are they’re blubbering into their Junior Mints, too.

The implicit knowledge that we all love movies—enough to drop our responsibilities, forgo sleep, and live on concession candy for four days—wove an immediate bond between us. This probably sounds straight off the cob (blame the popcorn). Still, the festival’s magic spell connects you not only to those huge, hypnotic screens, but also to the ladies and gentlemen sitting right beside you, positively glowing with joy.

So, if a bubblegum pink fairy queen descends from the heavens and tells me to tap my heels and to ask to be transported to the place where I belong, I wouldn’t be a sight surprised to land right at the Egyptian Theater. (Odder things have certainly happened on Hollywood Boulevard.)

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Kellee Pratt, my mom, me, and friends in line for “How Green Was My Valley.” Photo taken by the fabulous Aurora of Once Upon a Screen.

In case you suspect me of getting carried away, I can call upon my fellow bloggers to corroborate the miraculous atmosphere of the festival. As Kristen of Sales on Film explains, “The first time you come to TCMFF, you’re home.” Even self-proclaimed cynic Will McKinley of Cinematically Insane justifiably gushes, “It was like a reunion, with family we’d never met.”

Dapper Ben Mankiewicz on the red carpet. Photo credit: Alberto E. Rodriguez/WireImage.

Dapper Ben Mankiewicz on the red carpet. Photo credit: Alberto E. Rodriguez/WireImage.

Appropriately enough, when I asked Ben Mankiewicz about which films he felt best expressed the theme of family, he professed his fondness for movies that showcase “not the family you’re necessarily born into, but the family that’s formed onscreen,” Mankiewicz mentioned the band of misfits in Freaks or the brothers in arms in A Walk in the Sun or Hell Is for Heroes.

The circle of friends we link up with at TCMFF resembles these unconventional models of family. After all, a niche fandom often attracts the contempt of more vanilla individuals who might look upon fans as clusters of outsiders, weirdos, freaks even. Indeed, most classic film geeks I’ve spoken to report that they grew up acutely aware of their weirdness. In my book, weird is merely the word used by boring people to describe the more interesting among us. And, all together, our collective weirdness facilitated a cheerful ambiance of acceptance and encouragement.

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I got this picture of Jerry Lewis when he very kindly asked all interlopers to get out of the way. Lovin’ the lemon yellow shirt, Jerry!

Even special guests radiated good will and gratitude, reflecting back all of the love that their crowds of fans were exuding, and appeared genuinely moved by the intensity of our enthusiasm.

Margaret O’Brien gladly posed for a picture with my mom. Jerry Lewis made sure that fans could get a clear snapshot of him, exclaiming, “I wanna see my friends!” Maureen O’Hara—who, at 93, traveled a long way to appear at the festival—extended her blessing to the whole of the El Capitan, “May you have a wonderful old age.”

While I’m on the subject of long lifespans, let me take this opportunity to congratulate Turner Classic Movies on its 20th anniversary and wish the network many prosperous returns of the day. The network’s vision continues to keep film history alive, spread the power of classic cinema, and inspire fans of all ages. All of the TCM staff I met or heard speak not only acted like models of kindness and courtesy, but also suggested how deeply they believe in the importance of passing on film history. At the festival, you come to recognize that TCM isn’t merely a brand; it’s a mission.

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Photo credit: Tyler Golden/Turner Entertainment Networks.

In my opinion, aesthetic concerns often get the brush-off as unimportant or frivolous in today’s society. I’ve had too many conversations during which intelligent, otherwise likable individuals flash me the “So what?” look as I expound my passion for old movies.  Well, as Robert Osborne told us during the Press Day, “I love movies and I think they’re such a necessity to our lives… These older movies have so much to say, they’ve got such powerful personalities in them.”

I truly believe that if kids were weaned on The Adventures of Robin Hood instead of the latest superhero movies and couples went out to see films like The Thin Man instead of soulless blockbusters, the world would be a better place—a bit more like a family.

Judging from the feeling of community at TCMFF, I may be onto something.

So, without further ado, here’s the specific rundown on my festival experience.

DAY 1:

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It’s impossible to stay in a bad mood around Robert Osborne. The man is pure old movie love.

Press Day with Robert Osborne, Ben Mankiewicz, Charles Tabesh, and Genevieve McGillicuddy at the TCL Chinese Multiplex 6

“There’s nothing like being in a movie theater at nine in the morning,” Robert Osborne chuckled, providing the perfect opening to my festival experience. I woke up with bloodshot eyes and but a faint memory of my middle name after a flight that came in at 2 a.m.

However, after five minutes basking in Osborne’s serene smile, and sitting next to KC of Classic Movies and Jessica of Comet over Hollywood, all those clichés about the mother ship calling you home began to make sense. I got so many interesting quotes from Osborne and company that I devoted a whole post to this Press Q&A session.

Lunch at Musso and Frank Grill

No, this event wasn’t on the program, but it left me with some of the best memories of the festival. Thanks to the initiative of Alan Hait (@AlanHait on Twitter), a group of us #TCMParty regulars, including co-founder Paula Guthat of Paula’s Cinema Club, met up at the historic Hollywood restaurant to put faces and voices to the Twitter handles.

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Robert Osborne interviewing (and being imitated by) Mel Brooks at the Roosevelt Hotel. Photo credit: Mark Hill/Turner Entertainment Networks.

Mel Brooks at the Roosevelt Hotel lobby

They say that laughter keeps you young—and Mel Brooks is like a walking PSA in favor of an uproarious lifestyle. At 87, the comedian imitated Robert Osborne, told a surprising anecdote about Cary Grant, and dished on both the funny and the serious sides of his career. I wrote a short piece on the discussion.

2014 TCM Classic Film Festival - Opening Night Gala Screening of "Oklahoma!" at TCL Chinese Theatre

Glamour girl Margaret O’Brien on the red carpet for “Oklahoma!” Photo credit: Alberto E. Rodriguez/WireImage.

Red Carpet for Oklahoma! at the TCL Chinese Theater

If I’m lucky enough to cover this event next year, I plan to tie a scarf around my head to keep my jaw from hitting that plushy crimson carpet. Classic-era stars like Shirley Jones, Kim Novak, Maureen O’Hara, Margaret O’Brien, and Tippi Hedren paraded no more than a yard or two away from me, as did some of today’s big names like Alec Baldwin and Greg Proops. Plus, I got to talk to Leonard Maltin, a longtime hero of mine, Suzanne Lloyd, who has worked tirelessly to bring her grandfather Harold Lloyd’s genius to a modern audience, and the great casting director Lynn Stalmaster. Color me starstruck.

DAY 2:

The Thin Man at the Egyptian Theater

When you get shut out from two screenings on your first night at TCMFF, you wake up and crave the cinematic equivalent of comfort food. So, departing from my original plans, I queued up for The Thin Man. Watching a silvery 35mm print, I noticed details I’d never seen before—including goofs, like the reflections in the windows of the “New York” street scene which betray the backlot location and a multitude of endearing continuity errors. More important, the shadows were darker, the witticisms were wittier, and the kisses were kissier. 

Touch of Evil at the TCL Chinese Theater

On the colossal screen of the Chinese Theater, Welles’s late noir masterpiece is such a gritty assault on the senses that I was amazed it was ever made at all and very grateful that it was. Charlton Heston’s son provided a memorable intro, reading from a letter that Welles had sent his father during the film’s contentious postproduction, “You’re poop, but I love you… P.S. I’m poop but I love me, too.” Plus, I got to meet Laura of Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings in line—and I still owe Carlos of Live Fast Look Good a box of Raisinets.

Meet Me in St. Louis at the TCL Chinese Theater

I’ve seen this beloved musical on a big screen twice before and almost decided against it at TCMFF. However, I was so enchanted by Margaret O’Brien on the red carpet that I opted to depart from my plans. Fellow bloggers Aurora (whose passion for Judy Garland is infectious) of Once Upon a Screen and Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled, sitting right in the second row with me, made every Technicolor frame of Minnelli’s masterpiece seem fresh. And O’Brien didn’t disappoint: she told charming (and a few sad) stories about her show biz childhood and the production of Meet Me in St. Louis. I wrote up a post about the discussion with O’Brien.

Jobyna Ralson in “Why Worry?” Photo credit: Tyler Golden/WireImage

Why Worry? at the Egyptian Theater

Going into TCMFF, this was my must-see, no-replacement, do-or-die event. The night before, on the red carpet, I promised Suzanne Lloyd that’d I’d camp out as long as necessary to see the movie.  Fortunately, my wait was livened up by Trevor Jost, known for hosting #TCMParty, creating awesome GIFs, and wearing a distinctive chapeau, and Daniel Levine of The Celebrity Café. The presentation of Lloyd’s gut-busting action comedy, with a new live score by Carl Davis, stands out as one of the greatest highlights of my festival experience.

Employees’ Entrance at the Chinese Multiplex 4

According to Bruce Goldstein, in his hilarious and informative Pre-Code 101 presentation, the box office sensation of 1933 was… the Disney cartoon “The Three Little Pigs.” Well, apparently big bad wolves were good business that year, since onscreen lecher Warren William ripped into his finest role as Curt Anderson, one of the most irredeemable b*****ds in film history. As the head of a huge department store, he drives his workers to despair and suicide, takes advantage of Loretta Young (twice, actually), and even drops an adorable Pomeranian into a trashcan. And the audience lapped it up. Who doesn’t love a bad boy, especially one with a moustache that bristles so irresistibly on a fine 35mm print?

DAY 3:

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Jerry Lewis relishes getting his hands dirty! Photo credit: Mark Hill/Turner Entertainment Networks.

Jerry Lewis Handprint Ceremony at the TCL Chinese Theater

About to have his hand- and footprints immortalized in cement, Jerry Lewis refused to take the occasion seriously. The 88-year-old comedian bit Quentin Tarantino, playfully flipped off the cameras, took a few pictures of his own, and generally acted like the goofball we know and love. Tying into the theme of family, Lewis called up his wife and daughter to share the moment with him.

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Left to right: me, my mother (Colleen), Aurora (@CitizenScreen), Kellee (@IrishJayhawk66) waiting in line for “How Green Was My Valley.” Photo taken on Aurora’s camera.

How Green Was My Valley at the El Capitan 

A Colleen, a Kellee, and a Nora walk into a movie theater. No, this is not an Irish joke (perish the thought!), but rather a formula for copious weeping. We were also joined by honorary Irishwoman Aurora and by unofficial TCMFF mayor Will McKinley. Introducing the film, Maureen O’Hara got us all started on our crying by shedding a tear in response to the thunderous ovations that greeted her. By the dreamlike conclusion of Ford’s lyrical tragedy, chronicling the decline and dissolution of a Welsh family, I was sobbing Irish-wake-levels of tears.

Hat Check Girl at the Chinese Multiplex 4

Out of circulation for about 80 years, this snappy rom-com features a barely clad Ginger Rogers, an even more barely clad Sally Eilers, and Ben Lyon, wearing more eyeliner than I do. This rare pre-Code film might be unrivaled in the sheer amount of lingerie. And I do mean sheer.

Her Sister’s Secret at the Chinese Multiplex 4

Edgar G. Ulmer is one of my favorite filmmakers and, although I don’t consider Her Sister’s Secret one of his greatest achievements, the film still struck me as a subtle and ahead-of-its-time examination of premarital sex in the 1940s. With its uncomfortable moral dilemmas, nuanced performances, and strong female leads who determine their own fates, Her Sister’s Secret offers a terrific example of what many higher-profile women’s weepies tried to attain—and fell short of. Plus, Arianne Ulmer Cipes, the director’s daughter, also gets my vote as the most stylish presenter of the festival, wearing a sparkling gold ensemble that left me and Marya of Cinema Fanatic oohing and aahing.

DAY 4:

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Merry Men of Movie Making Ben Burtt and Craig Barron introduce “The Adventures of Robin Hood.” Photo credit: Eddie Chen/Turner Entertainment Networks

The Adventures of Robin Hood at the Egyptian Theater

This screening kicked off with a presentation by sound designer Ben Burtt and visual effects artist Craig Barron who shared fascinating facts, anecdotes, and behind-the-scenes pictures pertaining to the classic, from some abandoned early ideas for the film (Cagney as Robin? You dirty sheriff!) to the origins of distinctive sounds used in the soundtrack.

As for the movie itself, Technicolor Errol Flynn on a big screen set a new standard of “I just can’t” for me. However, it was Claude Rains (and his wig, the love child of Clara Bow’s red bob and Richard III’s severe pageboy) who darn near monopolized my attention with hilarious consequences. His flashy costumes—flamboyant even on a small screen—proved absolutely absurd on a movie palace scale, blinking and winking like a Christmas tree. I thought that the ushers were going to have to escort my mother, Aurora, and me out of the theater, as we cackled loudly from the balcony.

Fifth Avenue Girl at the Chinese Multiplex 4

I missed this classic comedy on my first night of the festival and was delighted to get a second chance. The beautiful 35mm print showcased both Walter Connolly’s rare opportunity to play a main character and Ginger Rogers’s deft, quietly powerful comic performance. As the sadness that this festival had to end began to overtake me, Gregory LaCava’s sparkling feel-good romance lifted my spirits.

Maureen O’Hara’s Irish eyes are still smiling! Photo by Stefanie Keenan/WireImage.

Maureen O’Hara at the Roosevelt Hotel Lobby

After seeing O’Hara at How Green Was My Valley, I knew I had to see the feisty actress again, so I headed over to the Roosevelt Lobby to hear Robert Osborne interview her. I did a write-up about Osborne’s charming conversation with the living legend.

The Lodger at the Egyptian Theater

As far as I’m concerned, The Lodger could consist of an hour-long close-up of Ivor Novello and I’d be satisfied. In fact, it’s an innovative thriller that combines the spooky, exaggerated techniques of German expressionism with touches of wry British comedy to forge the signature style of Hitchcock. I’ve watched The Lodger with two other scores, both of which gloss over the humor and pathos of the film in favor of thundering minor-chord melodrama. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra elegantly played up the humor and romance of the film—thus making the scary scenes even scarier. I couldn’t have asked for a better finale.

Closing Party at the Roosevelt Hotel

Late to the party as always, I showed up and briefly participated in a #TCMParty podcast hosted by Miguel of Monster Island Resort. Already feeling some of the fever that was going to fell me mid-Paramount tour the next day, I had to leave early, cursing my 19th-century-damsel constitution.

Needless to say, I’ve already begun a rigorous training regime for next year, sustaining myself on four hours of sleep and a diet of Raisinets and Coke to toughen me up.

Total Tally:

I saw 11 movies, attended the press session, covered the red carpet, joined the press stands for Jerry Lewis’s handprint ceremony, and watched discussions with Mel Brooks and Maureen O’Hara. In my mind, that equates out to about 16 units of filmtastic goodness. According to TCMFF guru Will McKinley, who would know, that’s not bad—for a rookie. I still bow in admiration to Joel Williams of Joel’s Classic Film Passion who braved a whopping 19 screenings. Now there’s something to aspire to!

Worst Disappointment:

My mother and I were literally the first people turned away from The Stranger’s Return (1933), an obscure gem directed by King Vidor with an unbelievably good cast. (Oh, Warner Archive… if you’re listening, a DVD release could begin to assuage my grief.)

The Damn-I-Shoulda-Been-There Award for 20-20 Hindsight:

Okay, so am I the only one who didn’t get the memo to show up at the Ask Robert event at the Montalban Theater—that turned out to be one of the most star-studded events in festival history? [Facepalm.]

Biggest Regrets:

On both Friday and Saturday, I’d reached the end of my reel energy-wise by the time the hardboiled film buffs were queuing up for the midnight screenings. Both Eraserhead and Freaks eluded me. I hang my head in shame and vow to redeem myself in 2015…

While many of my social media buddies tolerated my incessant prattling and hung out with me, a few must’ve been travelling in different orbit from me (or avoiding me entirely). I’m very sorry that we didn’t connect and hope that I’ll see you all some sunny day!

Oh, and I didn’t get to hug Robert Osborne. Maybe next year?

Maureen O’Hara Is Still Magical—Whether She Thinks So or Not

With a mischievous smile, Maureen O’Hara confided to a tightly-packed audience in the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel, “You get me talking about movies and about people I worked with in movies and it’s very hard to shut me up. We’d be here for weeks.”

Needless to say, she fit right in with the crowd of diehard cinephiles that made up the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival.

Regally beautiful at 93, O’Hara expressed her joy over the fact that her fans are still clamoring for her—and that the Almighty isn’t. “He’s shoved me back onto the stage, and I love it!”

O’Hara, though wheelchair-bound, insisted on traveling to Los Angeles to make appearances for her admirers. I can’t begin to convey my gratitude for the privilege of seeing the Queen of Technicolor in person not once, but three times: briefly on the red carpet, then before a screening at the El Capitan, and finally at the Roosevelt Hotel on the last day of the festival.

It was an indescribably moving experience to set eyes on an actress I have worshipped since childhood—and TCMFF was evidently a poignant homecoming for O’Hara as well. Before the showing of How Green Was My Valley, O’Hara entered the stage of the El Capitan with misty eyes as the full house reacted with thunderous applause.

2014 TCM Classic Film Festival - Conversation With Robert Osborne and Maureen O'Hara

Robert Osborne opened by asking O’Hara about John Ford. Her response? “I thought we were here to talk about me!” She did, however, confess to the audience that she felt Ford is looking out for her in the hereafter. Years ago he’d told her and his close-knit stock company that “when there was the next call for Hell, he’d see to it that we didn’t answer. And, you know, I still think about it, and I hope he still believes it.”

The following day at the Roosevelt lobby, Osborne engaged O’Hara in a more extended interview about her life and career. Asked what Charles Laughton meant to her, she replied, “What more can someone do for you than start you off in life?” O’Hara remembered that she was “very honored and thrilled” to be mentored by Laughton, who personally signed her and brought her to Hollywood to star in her first American film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. “He was my first teacher in my theatrical profession,” She said. “I was taught to act and I was taught to appreciate what I was being taught. You couldn’t find anyone more wonderful to work for than Charles Laughton.”

2014 TCM Classic Film Festival - Conversation With Robert Osborne and Maureen O'HaraAlthough O’Hara hinted that the terms and conditions of all her contracts weren’t as uniformly pleasant—“they can be absolutely wonderful or absolutely awful”—she painted an overall positive picture of the people who managed her career. “Anybody who is talented and good at their job, 90 percent of the time they’re kind and good and treat you well.”

On the subject of her many famous love scenes, she revealed that the kisses we all vicariously enjoy actually proved a major source of frustration for her. “Many times, you hated it, because the person you had to kiss was a horrible, nasty person…. Sometimes you’d have to kiss some jerk, and you didn’t get paid enough!” As for the offending leading men, O’Hara, ever the lady, refused to name the ones she didn’t respect, though it sounds like there were plenty.

But there was no such silence on the subject of her favorite leading man, “Could anyone compare with John Wayne?” O’Hara only wished she could have worked earlier in her career with the Duke, who would become a lifelong friend. “Unfortunately, I didn’t meet him until later.”

2014 TCM Classic Film Festival - Conversation With Robert Osborne and Maureen O'Hara

O’Hara also discussed her fondness for stunt work. At the peak of her career, she mastered complex swordplay and brawling routines, swashbuckling with such aplomb that she won the nickname ‘The Pirate Queen.’ She recalled, “I was a real tomboy. I loved doing the stunts.” As additional incentive, she explained, “The rest of the cast and crew do appreciate that you’re doing something dangerous. You stand ten-feet-tall in their eyes…. You do get scared, but you love showing off.”

Indeed, while O’Hara’s fencing days are behind her, that fiery Celtic spirit, which made her so compelling to watch in classics like The Quiet Man, flared up occasionally during her interviews. I will never forget the amused—but formidable—look on her face when she exclaimed to the audience, about Robert Osborne, “Boy, he’s nosey!” She didn’t hesitate to cut to the chase, interjecting, “You’re talking a heap of rubbish,” when the compliments grew too flowery for her taste.

Most memorably, at the El Capitan, she humbly downplayed her status as one of Hollywood’s living legends: “Don’t be fooled into thinking that I do magical things!” Well, like Robert Osborne, I must respectfully disagree with her.

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Thank you to Turner Classic Movies and Getty Images for providing all photos of O’Hara from TCMFF.