TCM Therapy: Highlights from TCMFF Press Day

RobertOLeave it to Robert Osborne to articulate something I’ve been struggling with for years: that is, why are old movies better than new ones?

Osborne puts it down to the “positive note” that concludes most classic films—even some of the most hardboiled.

Take Raoul Walsh’s 1941 gangster drama High Sierra. By the end, Osborne recalls, “The leading man has been killed, his dog has no hand to lick, but you leave the theater feeling good!”

And, just to prove his point, Osborne gave us a quick impression of Ida Lupino’s huskily ecstatic “He’s free…” delivered over Bogie’s bullet-riddled body.

Today, uplifting but thoughtful escapism is harder to come by, perhaps because the public doesn’t crave it like they used to. “We wanted bigger-than-life personalities then. Today we want the people onscreen to be just like real people,” says Osborne. Blame a growing atmosphere of cynicism: “The world has changed. Morality is different. We don’t have heroes anymore.”

Which makes TCM’s cache of classics all the more important—despite the fact that plenty of people expect old movies to be stale and creaky. Still, the attitude toward classic cinema has certainly improved since the network was born, “When Ted Turner bought that library from the MGM-United Artists-Warner Brothers library, they all said it was a stupid thing to do…. For so many years, they sat in a vault and nobody thought they had any value at all.”

Education, Osborne believes, is key to helping audiences access and enjoy the films of the past: “Take a movie that you don’t know. If you understand the context in which it was made, that makes it a more interesting movie.”

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Photo credit: Mark Hill/Turner Entertainment Networks.

As he explains, “If you ask people to see a movie like In the Heat of the Night or Singin’ in the Rain or whatever, you’re not asking them to take medicine that’s unpleasant. You’re suggesting they see something that may really add to their lives.”

Though classic films are no bad-tasting tonic, Osborne knows how healing they can be from years of having fans tell him about all the hardships that TCM got them through. Smiling at the thought of TCM Therapy, Osborne says, “I never knew being a nurse was part of the job.”

Living History

Osborne also opened up about his career and discussed two great ladies of the screen who mentored him: Jane Darwell and Lucille Ball. Darwell, best known for her resilient, earnest performance as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, helped Osborne get a studio contract. He met Darwell in Seattle for a stage production of Night Must Fall, in which she starred in the Dame May Whitty role, terrorized by Osborne, playing the psychopathic Robert Montgomery role. (Now that I’d pay to see!)

When the young actor asked Darwell for advice about possibly moving to New York City, she advised him to stay on the West Coast rather than make a big jump. Offering him her contacts and linking him up with her agent, Darwell enabled Osborne to work at 20th Century Fox. “She was very instrumental in my life,” he remembers.

Osborne cited Lucille Ball—who signed him and 11 other young actors under personal contract—as another formative influence in his career. “She was an incredible person and I’m so lucky to have met her,” He said. “I learned from her discipline, because she was very disciplined.”

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Photo credit: Mark Hill/Turner Entertainment Networks.

In her early days as a starlet, Ball herself had received a valuable training under the studio system; Osborne explained that Leila Rogers (the formidable mother of Ginger) had coached Ball at RKO and shaped her comic gifts. The experience taught Ball the importance of supporting the next generation with advice and networking opportunities. Through Lucille Ball, Osborne also got the chance to meet such classic stars at Bette Davis, Vivien Leigh, and Joseph Cotten.

Listening to Osborne, you begin to realize how much of his vast knowledge of film, and the personalities that shaped it, doesn’t just come from research, but from first-hand experience. While at 20th Century Fox, he recalls that the studio executives gave him license to explore the studio: “When you weren’t doing work, they’d encourage you to watch.” Osborne witnessed Orson Welles providing uncredited direction to courtroom scenes in Compulsion. He also sneaked into a supposedly closed set to watch Marlon Brando filming The Young Lions.

Although most of us can never boast the sort of direct links to film history that Osborne has, well, don’t let’s ask for the moon—we have the stars and many of the wonderful films they made on the network. As Osborne says of TCM’s film library, “It’s like having a shelf of great books. You’ll never be lonely.”benmank1

The Family Business (Sort Of)

Ben Mankiewicz thinks that his great-uncle, legendary screenwriter and director Joseph Mankiewicz, would’ve been impressed by his TCM gig—though not in the way you might imagine. Assuming his uncle’s drily witty persona, he exclaimed, “They’re paying you X amount of dollars to talk about other people’s movies? You’re a genius!”

Mankiewicz is grateful for his family legacy, but he knew it would take more than a name from Hollywood history to impress TCM’s loyal viewers. “Our fans care about TCM… it took them a while to warm up to me, but they did, and I’m incredibly grateful for that.” For him, being a TCM host implies a significant responsibility to fans: “Their hearts and souls are connected to these movies…. I take this very seriously.”

While he takes his fans’ admiration to heart, he won’t let it go to his head. Mankiewicz revealed a self-deprecating streak at Press Day, laughing about the aftermath of getting treated “like a rock star” at TCMFF. It always comes as a letdown, he jokes, when he doesn’t get recognized in line for a premiere at the TCL Chinese Theater the week after the festival. And he has to restrain himself from automatically greeting everybody on Hollywood Boulevard.

When asked about his many interviews with screen legends, Mankiewicz confided that “tons” of classic-era actors leave him starstruck, mentioning his jitters over interviewing Max von Sydow and Jerry Lewis. Still, he’s managed to hold his own. As he says of his interview tactics, “You want to make them a little uncomfortable in their seat, but you don’t want to knock them off their chair.”

Looking back on his memorable roster of interviewees, Mankiewicz fondly remembered talking with the recently departed Mickey Rooney. After an initially rowdy first interview with the opinionated star at TCMFF, Rooney and the TCM host developed a mutual respect which paid off in a series of friendly, engaging interviews on the TCM Classic Cruise. “He was incredibly sweet and kind and legitimately happy to be there” among the fans. Mankiewicz lamented the star’s loss and praised his enormous screen presence: “You see him on the screen and you can’t take your eyes off him—whoever’s on the other side of that screen.”

In addition to celebrating stars of the past, Mankiewicz hopes that TCM will open doors for future legends. Today’s young filmmakers, often working on limited resources, could draw helpful inspiration from the movies screened on the network, in Mankiewicz’s opinion, “What they have is a treasure trove of movies that are all story-driven, that are all character-driven.”

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Photo credit: Tyler Golden/Turner Entertainment Networks.

And in case you’re worrying that TCM will change into something unrecognizable, let Ben Mankiewicz put your mind to ease: “We’re never going to stop showing the movies we’re showing right now.”

Getting with the Program

At TCM, “Every night’s a different film festival,” Says Charles Tabesh, senior vice president of programming. According to Tabesh, the network, which shows over 400 films per month, provides ample opportunity for programming obscure gems as well as big-name classics.

TCM Classic Film Festival director Genevieve McGillicuddy revealed the effort that goes into the network’s seamless presentation of classics. “Virtually everything you see us do takes time,” She noted, explaining how programming research is divided among the TCM team. “When we assign a theme or star, the programmer really needs to dig in. It’s a lot of work.”

However, McGillicuddy is the first to admit that doing the job is its own reward for a true film buff: “You have a job where you get to talk about Greta Garbo!”

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Charles Tabesh and Genevieve McGillicuddy on the red carpet for the opening night screening of “Oklahoma!” Photo credit: John Sciulli/WireImage.

Organizing the TCM Classic Film festival requires additional levels of planning due to the network’s commitment to showing 35mm prints along with digital at the festival. “Film prints are harder and harder to come by, especially in good condition,” Says McGillicuddy. At least she can rely on state-of-the-art audio-visual firm, Boston Light & Sound, which installs “changeover systems” to accommodate both film and digital at several of the festival’s venues and provides beautiful projections of old movies.

Looking forward, McGillicuddy said, “We want to do as much as we can to connect new and old Hollywood.” Both at the festival and on television, they hope to attract big names in the industry to discuss why classic films are so important and rewarding. Tabesh and McGillicuddy also suggested that they would like to open up the scope of cinema on TCM to include more international selections, such as the spotlight on Australian cinema in April. Tabesh believes that TCM’s programming has opened up to a wider range of “classics,” admitting, “We probably have become more adventurous.”

When asked whether TCM worries about competition, McGillicuddy replied that the network prefers to follow its own trajectory rather than get caught up in what its rivals are doing. “We want to be the channel for hardcore film fans. We want to go deep into the libraries. We’re very focused on what we want to do.”

Indeed, Tabesh told the press that the true challenge—and joy—of his job lies not in outdoing competition, but in out-geeking the film geeks: “The greatest pleasure is when someone really hardcore says, ‘I saw a movie I’ve never seen before, and I loved it.’”

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.

maureenohara

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

Mel Brooks Gets Serious (Almost) at TCMFF

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Photo credit: Mark Hill/Turner Entertainment Networks

“Hi, I’m Robert Osborne…” seems like a pretty traditional opener for a discussion at TCM Classic Film Festival.

Unless, of course, it’s Mel Brooks saying it. And then following that up by blowing a raspberry into his microphone.

At the age of 87, Brooks shows no signs of mellowing; his madcap personality was in full salute yesterday in the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel as he spoke to Robert Osborne about his career.

Although Brooks will introducing his hilarious parody Blazing Saddles at the festival tonight, the discussion took a somewhat different path. Rather than focusing solely on Brooks’s vocation as a funnyman, Osborne brought out some details about his more serious side. Brooks opened up about the surprising range of films that he produced, including the classic melancholy comedy My Favorite Year and the gruesome horror drama The Doctor and the Devils, about famous grave-robbers Burke and Hare.

I am the producer of very dark and important films, but I have always kept my name and my face away from them.” Brooks worried that his image as a comedian would skew audience expectations: “If you go to see Mel Brooks in The Elephant Man, you’d expect to see me with a trunk!”

elephantBrooks might’ve tried to keep his participation in The Elephant Man on the down-low, but he contributed to the film’s triumph with his fine-tuned story sense. The original screenplay offered a more cheerful ending, with Queen Victoria stepping in like a deus ex machina to assure Merrick’s medical treatment. It was Brooks who insisted on the cyclical structure of the plot and believed that the tragic title character had to die in the hospital to bring the film to an emotional conclusion. As he explains, “If movies don’t end right, they don’t work.” Brooks also recounted how, after seeing Eraserhead, he chose David Lynch as the right man to bring the macabre, but moving story to live.

(Note to self: write a book about thematic and narrative overlaps between The Elephant Man and Young Frankenstein.)

But it wasn’t all gloom and doom. The comedian told a crowd-pleasing anecdote about  Cary Grant who happened to occupy the bungalow next to Brooks’s during the days of his early success. After watching the dapper Cary come and go in his Rolls Royce with yellow flowers in his buttonhole, Brooks couldn’t get up the courage to speak to the icon—let alone ask for an autograph. Well, who should come up to Brooks in the commissary a few days later, calling out, “Why, Mel Brooks! I’ve got your ‘2000 Year Old Man’ Record!” but Cary himself.

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At first, Brooks had to get over the impression that Grant must’ve been “a mirage”: “You can’t be real!” However, it sounds like the unlikely pair of Mel and Cary were on the way to becoming BFFs.  Alas, the comedian noticed that, at each of their costly breakfast chats, notoriously parsimonious Cary never paid his share. Finally, Brooks had no choice but to cut him loose: “‘—Cary Grant called…’ ‘—I’m not in!'”

And so we must weep for a bromance unfulfilled.

tbontbWhen Osborne asked what it was like for Brooks working with real-life wife, the astounding Anne Bancroft, in To Be or Not to Be, he elicited howls of laughter from the audience by exclaiming, “It was terrible!” Bancroft would constantly push Brooks to do another take, insisting that he could do better. Still, he admits that she was a perfect lifeline for his rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown”—in Polish!—helping him memorize the words and leading him in the performance.

Finally, when asked which films had made the greatest impact on him, Brooks mentioned the elegant escapism of the Astaire-Rogers movies. “They took me to a different world… I wanted to live in that place!” he explained with uncharacteristic reverence. That’s right, folks: at TCMFF, we’re all classic movie geeks—especially the movie stars themselves.

The discussion yielded some good news for hardcore Brooks fans, so start filling out your wish lists. Later this year, a limited edition boxed set of his films—only about 1000 of them—will be released, each signed by Brooks himself.