The Mind Reels: 10 Personal Highlights from TCMFF 2015

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You’d think I’d turn my pass to the right side for my photo op, but you’d be wrong.

4 days. 11 movies. 5 special presentations. 100+ buttons handed out to eager film fans. 20 hours of sleep, tops.

And I loved every minute of it.

This year, the TCM Classic Film Festival took “History According to Hollywood” as its theme. However, the history went deeper than the fancy costumes on the screens or the struggles of the past that drove the plots.

First off, TCM and TCMFF do so much to keep the history of motion pictures alive, enabling people of all ages to discover and appreciate our movie heritage. I mean, where else can you see a 1898 Méliès film from a hand-cranked projector one day and a Soderbergh hit from the 1990s the next?

More and more people of my generation (and I’m 24) are exploring Hollywood history, not just history according to Hollywood.

When Shirley MacLaine looked out at the standing-room-only crowd there to see her at Club TCM, she chuckled about the absence of white hair among the spectators.

Leonard Maltin explained, “TCM gets pigeonholed as a mature viewer network, and there’s a reason for that, because older people tend to like older movies, but that doesn’t mean that other people don’t like old movies, too, and it shows in the audience here.”

“Because they were better,” MacLaine chimed in, expressing what I suspect most of us were thinking.

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Shirley MacLaine and Leonard Maltin at Club TCM. Photo credit: Tyler Golden.

That betterness is something that TCM brings into people’s homes, and I’m grateful for that. As Christopher Plummer remarked at the festival, “there can be no future without a past.”

Second, TCMFF gives attendees the chance to listen to people who are truly, to borrow an apt cliché, living history. Listening to their memories illuminates not only their lives as performers, but also the social climate from which their work emerged.

Finally, corny though it sounds, the festival connected the personal histories that many of us have with people we hardly know in the conventional sense, but with whom we share our deepest thoughts and passions on social media.

I recently learned that the Library of Congress is storing tweets, archiving them as part of our cultural history. I daresay mine don’t rate that, but the practice shows what I’d known for years: that our virtual existences do constitute a real part of our lives, our identities, our stories. Whatever tweets are made of, maybe friendships are made of the same stuff.

I feel tremendously privileged to have attended the 6th annual TCM Classic Film Festival. For the record (and maybe for posterity?), here are a few of the many, many highlights.

I’m working on more detailed posts about a number of these talks and movies, but I figured that I’d share some memories while they’re fresh. Ranking these by any criterion would be just too difficult, so I’ve put them in chronological order.

Seeing Captains Kirk and von Trapp together—I mean, William Shatner and Christopher Plummer along with Shirley MacLaine and Ben Mankiewicz at the handprint and footprint ceremony.

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Bravely snapped from the press box… on my iPhone.

It’s a miracle I didn’t faint, and heaven knows the blistering sun was no help, but there I was standing in the press box with the pros… juggling my basic point-and-shoot Cannon and my iPhone. Ever get the feeling you’ve brought a knife to a gunfight?

Well, this girl reporter’s nervousness melted right away when the guests arrived; I was there snapping away and recording with the rest of ’em. Hey, even Hildy Johnson had to start somewhere.

The ceremony featured amusing tributes from Shirley MacLaine, who credited Plummer with teaching her how to drink a whole bottle of wine, and William Shatner, who spoke of his long history of working with Plummer and following him to Canada, Stratford, and New York. “I followed you to Los Angeles, to Hollywood. That means I’d follow you anywhere!” Shatner joked.

In that sonorous baritone of his (which sounds even better in real life), man of the hour Christopher Plummer told spectators, “My mother once predicted that I would have to wait to be a very old man before receiving recognition in my profession. She was absolutely right, of course. But she never mentioned anything about being stuck in cement or allowing pedestrians to trample over me to their hearts’ content.”

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Christopher Plummer leaves his handprints in front of the TCL Chinese Theater. No, this one’s not mine. This is from one of the pros: Alberto E. Rodriguez/WireImage.

“I am immensely, immensely touched that I am part of this glorious history,” Plummer said, acknowledging all those who’d left their imprints before him. “To all my newfound brothers and sisters in arms, my talented dear neighbors in life after death, those wonderful artists whose grand achievements are forever carved into memory, I promise I won’t spoil the party.”

I took a lot of pictures, which I’ll treasure for occasions when I need a reminder of what pure class looks like.

Ann-Margret confessing to a very badass speeding violation.

While introducing a screening of The Cincinnati Kid (1965), the actress discussed her Swedish origins, her early roles, and her passion for motorcycles. When Ben Mankiewicz asked about the fastest she’d ever gone on one of her beloved bikes, her reply flabbergasted the audience: “120 at 2 a.m. on Mulholland… There was no traffic!”

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The enchanting Ann-Margret. Photo credit: Tyler Golden.

About her Cincinnati Kid co-star Steve McQueen, Ann-Margret said, “Like me, he loved speed… I could identify with him, because I’m a bit of a daredevil.”

However, the studio informed both Ann-Margret and McQueen that they needed to stop riding their bikes to work. It was too dangerous for major stars.

Mankiewicz asked what McQueen advised her to do. Alas, that wasn’t the sort of thing you repeat to hundreds of people at the Egyptian Theater: “Well, I can’t really say everything… He said, ‘Let ’em stay nervous. That’s their job.’”

Ann-Margret also shared stories about her film debut, working with Bette Davis on Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles (1961): “She really took care of me. She watched what I did, and since I didn’t know the meaning of close-up, medium, long shots—as I said, I was just really happy to know my lines—and all of a sudden she comes up and says, ‘Stop!… Ann-Margret, this is your close-up and I want you to look the best that you can. Makeup and hair!’”

Discovering rare and racy pre-Code comedy Don’t Bet on Women (1931).

Since I’d watched Men on Call at Cinefest the week before, Don’t Bet on Women was the second pre-Code Fox feature released in 1931 starring Edmund Lowe that I’d seen in one week! That, folks, is how I roll.

This zestful comedy centers on Jeanne Drake (Jeanette MacDonald, in her only non-singing role), who finds herself the subject of a wager between her stuffy husband Herbert (Roland Young) and a suavely caddish acquaintance Roger Fallon (Edmund Lowe). Hubby bets that his wife will resist Fallon’s advances… then gets to sweat it out as she uses the wager to teach him some respect and spice up her life.

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Una Merkel steals the show as Jeanne’s dizzy, flirtatious relative from the South. Merkel’s Tallulah encourages her conflicted cousin to play both sides of the bet: “I’d let Herbert win the wager and then I’d let Mr. Fallon kiss me to bits. That way I’d help my husband and then I’d help myself.”

Former James Bond George Lazenby leaving Ben Mankiewicz and the audience slightly shaken (and stirred).

Before a screening of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), the Australian actor let loose with disarmingly unfiltered reminiscences of the movie and his wild behavior during the production.

“The last thing I ever thought of being was a film actor. Sounded like hard work,” he said, recounting how he bluffed his way into the role of 007 with no acting experience.

Mentioned for the role by a friend, Lazenby, a top male model of the 1960s, turned up at the casting office with a Connery haircut, a sharp suit, and a Rolex. When producer Harry Saltzman tried to schedule a screen test for the following day, Lazenby panicked.

“I was shitting myself and this was my way out,” he recalled. “I said ‘I can’t be here… I’m doing a film in France.’” There was no film in France, by the way. Our hero was BS-ing.

Saltzman asked how much he was getting paid. The made-up reply? “500 pounds a day, which was half a year’s wages in England at that time. I think, ‘That’ll get me out of here.’” Instead, the producer offered Lazenby that much just to show up—and so he became “the only actor who’s ever been paid for a callback.”

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Lovable rogue George Lazenby. Photo credit: Tyler Golden.

Upon meeting director Peter Hunt, Lazenby came clean and admitted that he’d never acted before in his life. Hunt corrected him: “You’ve fooled two of the most ruthless guys I’ve ever met in my life! You’re an actor.”

Lazenby went through intensive training to play Bond, including elocution and deportment lessons: “They got me to walk like Prince Philip. I used to swagger like an Australian coming out of a pub on a Friday night.”

During shooting, he wooed Diana Rigg, but ultimately lost her when she caught him in an, ahem, compromising position with a receptionist in the stuntman’s tent. Hearing this ribald anecdote, Mankiewicz exclaimed, “You are James Bond!”

To make this moment even cooler, my mom (@MiddParent on Twitter) and I were sitting next to our longtime Twitter pal James David Patrick of #Bond_Age_, the James Bond Social Media Project.

Cackling deliriously at a midnight screening of Boom! (1968), the ne plus ultra of camp cinema.

boomI literally laughed my eyeliner off and resembled nothing so much as a raccoon when I staggered out of the Chinese Multiplex at 2 a.m. If you took ’shrooms and watched Joseph Losey’s The Servant, you might get something like the same director’s puzzlingly bad Boom!

Eccentric dowager Liz Taylor howls as she pushes an X-ray machine into the ocean and bloviates about the ephemerality of existence. Richard Burton pensively intones “Boom!” every chance he gets and swings a samurai sword about for no apparent reason. Pompous camera movements threaten to induce motion sickness. I can’t decide if Boom! is brilliantly atrocious or atrociously brilliant.

Interestingly enough, Boom! polarized those friends of mine who were brave enough to stay up for it. Joel Williams of #TCMParty enjoyed it as much as I did and Miguel Rodriguez of Horrible Imaginings Film Festival is thinking of how to work lines of the film’s ponderous dialogue into ringtones for his cell.

At the other end of the love-hate spectrum, Will McKinley of Cinematically Insane has vowed to destroy all surviving prints of the cult classic. So, quite a range of responses there.

Norman Lloyd reenacting his famous Hitchcock plunge from Saboteur (1942).

At age 100, Norman Lloyd gets my vote for the most charming man on the planet; he is the personification of joie de vivre. So, rather than simply telling his audience many of his engrossing tales, he acted them out.

While describing his memorable death as the nasty title character of Hitchcock’s thriller Saboteur (1942), Lloyd explained how John Fulton and company created the illusion of the villain’s fall from the Statue of Liberty.

“It started with a seat on a pole on a black drape on the floor… that would be painted in as what’s known as a matte shot, where they painted in New York bay.

“Now, above me… was a platform. The middle of it was cut open and on it was a camera, shooting down. On a cue, this camera would go up in the air to the ceiling of the stage as I performed various beautiful balletic movements.”

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Norman Lloyd invites you to appreciate his awesomeness. Photo credit: Edward M. Pio Roda.

At this point, on the stage of the Montalban Theater, Lloyd recreated these “airborne” undulations of the arms and legs—albeit in a more comic vein. If he’s Fry in the film, he was Wry at that moment (and, if I may say so, rather Spry for his advanced years), and I will never, ever forget it.

“I didn’t fall at all,” Lloyd explained. “I just made these movements [more undulations] as the camera was going up. And they ran the camera at different speeds. They weren’t sure at what speed it would look best, so the speeds went from 18 [fps] to 22, I remember. I’m not sure what they printed at.”

Spending over 2 hours with Sophia Loren, listening to an astonishingly down-to-earth diva.

About halfway through the interview with his magnificent mother, Edoardo Ponti joked that we’d all have to come back the next morning for part two of the discussion since it could go on for hours more. No one in the audience seemed to object to the idea.

Loren immediately won us over (not that she needed to!) by telling us about her natural shyness: “It was very difficult for me to come out and meet you all, but now that I’m here with you, I consider you a member of my family.”

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The luminous Sophia Loren in conversation at the Montalban Theater. Photo credit: Edward M. Pio Roda.

The idea of family wove through much of what she shared. For instance, Loren recounted how, with money from her aunt, she and her sister went to see Hollywood movies during World War II. Blood and Sand (1941) remained a vivid memory from those dark times, when bombardments regularly rocked Loren’s home and she had little to eat. “At my age, I was 8, 9 years old, to see these grand buildings and the clothes, the hair… the dance, the music… it took me to another world, so that for some minutes, for some instants, we were happy.”

Some of the most moving parts of the interview provided a glimpse into the close relationship between Sophia and Edoardo. When he asked her to talk about the costars she didn’t like, he got a slightly stern response: “Why do you ask me this question? We’re going to talk about this later!” The mother-son dynamic brought a sense of comfortable intimacy to the conversation that added poignancy to each answer.

Fighting sleep deprivation for hand-cranked movies, including a film unseen in full for 110 years.

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The dream machine, my picture

When you walk into a theater and they’re playing hits of the early 20th century on a 1908 Edison Phonograph, you know you’re in for something truly special. Indeed, at this presentation, Joe Rinaudo showed movies made between 1898 and 1913 from a 1909 Hand-Crank Model 6 Cameragraph Motion Picture Machine.

As I sat spellbound in the dark, my attention shifted from the flickering images on the screen to the lively shadows cast on the wall by the projectionist’s arm. The presentation brought us back to the hushed wonder of the first motion picture shows, emphasizing the material, mechanical basis of film in a time when that aspect of cinema is rapidly slipping out of the public consciousness.

The program of films ran the gamut from the somber, like A Corner in Wheat (1909), to the whimsical, like Four Troublesome Heads (1898), to the downright bizarre, like The Dancing Pig (1907), which can only be described as nightmare fuel.

Best of all, the presentation ended with a recently rediscovered Pathé serpentine dance, believed for many years to be partially lost, not projected in entirety for an audience for over a century. Foreshadowing Les Vampires and Dracula, a bat swoops into the frame before a hidden cut transforms it into a woman who artfully sways her veils, at times resembling an angel, a butterfly, or a bird. Fully restored, the exquisite rainbow of hand-tinted hues on her “wings” shined from the screen and nearly moved me to tears.

I can’t think of many more beautiful sights that have ever danced before my eyes.

Tapping my toes to “Jazz Up Your Lingerie” during The Smiling Lieutenant (1931).

smilinglieutenantI missed the chance to see this irresistibly saucy comedy when it first screened on Friday, but when it was selected to fill a “TBA” slot on Sunday, I decided that a touch of Lubitsch was just what I needed.

As Cari Beauchamp observed in her introduction, “If innuendos can fly, they do so in this film.”

Nobody ever made the unseen or the unsaid sexier than Lubitsch did. Seriously, how many movies pay a musical tribute to breakfast afterglow? When Chevalier croons to Claudette Colbert, “You put magic in the muffins,” you get the feeling he may not be talking about a nutritious morning meal.

Lest we forget, The Smiling Lieutenant includes perhaps the most pre-Code of all movie lines: “Let me see your underwear.” And, as if that weren’t cheeky enough, we can savor a whole song about the benefits of choosing your skivvies with panache.

Shown from a darn near immaculate 35mm print, courtesy of Universal, The Smiling Lieutenant pulled me out of the creeping fatigue that has been known to afflict those going on about 4 hours of sleep.

I tend to prioritize the stars at TCMFF. After all, who knows when/if I’ll get to see them again? This viewing choice, though, was motivated by pure movie love on my part. It left me with a slight knowing smile and a rosy complexion, as though I shared a naughty secret with the characters.

Shirley MacLaine dishing on pretty much everyone and everything that the Club TCM audience asked about!

MacLaine doesn’t shy away from speaking her mind (which is why I love her) and, for a magical hour at Club TCM, virtually no topic was off limits to the perennially sassy and enlightening star.

She mentioned Hitchcock’s confusing, oddball sense of humor, giving her direction in rhyming slang. If he wanted a pause, he’d instruct her, “Before you say that line, dog’s feet.” (Because paws = pause, get it?)

MacLaine noted that she got along fine with Hitch while making The Trouble with Harry (1955), because she wasn’t his ideal beauty. “I was his eating partner. I wasn’t tall and blonde and willowy and ethereal. I ate.”

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The outspoken and awe-inspiring Shirley MacLaine at Club TCM. Photo credit: Tyler Golden

Commenting on the director’s callousness, she said, “He was doing all that he did maybe to deflect from his lack of what man heroes were, and that’s where the sarcasm came from. He was really adept at being cynically funny.”

When asked about the difficulty of getting Frank Sinatra to do more than one take of any scene, MacLaine exclaimed, “They had a hard time getting him to do anything! They had a hard time getting him to work. I think he suffered from the same thing that Ernie Kovacs suffered from, and that is, ‘If I really rehearse, if I look like I care and it doesn’t work, it’s my fault’… He loved the spontaneity of not knowing what he was going to do.”

MacLaine also offered a colorful anecdote about Jack Nicholson: “Once he came to the door in a robe, so you kinda wondered what was under there. Next time he came with his shorts. Next time he came with a hooker. And the fourth time with nothing.”

A voice from the audience rather indelicately asked, “What did it look like?” to which MacLaine cannily replied, “It’s too long a story.” An uproar ensued.

Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation, who briefly interviewed MacLaine before a screening of The Children’s Hour (1961), called her Club TCM conversation the best event he’d ever attended at TCMFF. I feel mighty lucky to have been there—and that goes for the festival as a whole.

I can hardly wait for next year. This one will be hard to top, but I have faith that TCM can do it.

Did you go to TCMFF? What were your highlights?

5 Movies Announced for TCMFF 2015 (Plus 5 Films I’d Love to See There)

julieandrewsThe blogosphere is abuzz with The Sound of Music!

On January 20, TCM announced that the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood will open with Robert Wise’s beloved musical. With its tense pre-WWII backdrop, the choice is not only a crowd-pleaser, but also an apt reflection of the festival’s theme: “History According to Hollywood.”

And, if that news didn’t already get movie-lovers belting out show tunes, living legends Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer will attend the opening-night gala screening.

A major box office success upon its release in 1965, the lavish adaptation of Rogers and Hammerstein’s hit celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Twentieth Century Fox will release the ever-popular film in a special Blu-Ray edition this March; the recent digital restoration slated for screening at TCMFF promises to be an exquisite one.

Relatively few festival titles—all of them world premiere restorations—have been announced at this point. However, I have full confidence that TCM’s expert programmers will select more terrific films than even the most tireless movie buff could possibly watch in a few days!

January 23 – UPDATE! TCM just announced that a restoration of The Grim Game (1919), a silent action thriller starring illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini, will screen at the festival.

In a press release, Charles Tabesh, the network’s senior vice president of programming, expressed his excitement over the long-unavailable classic: “The discovery, restoration and screening of The Grim Game is the perfect embodiment of the TCM mission to celebrate our cinematic heritage and share it with new audiences.”

Best remembered for its amazing aerial sequence, the film incorporated footage captured during a real plane crash. Not exactly good taste, but quite riveting cinema. You can watch that scene below (although please note that this footage is not a preview of the restoration):


Here are the 4 other movies named so far, plus my two cents.

steamboatSteamboat Bill Jr. (1926)

This non-stop laugh riot includes a justly famous cyclone finale—inspired in part by the storm that literally wiped Buster Keaton’s birthplace off the map—one of Keaton’s boldest and most creative action sequences.

The Great Stoneface plays the dandyish son of a gruff riverboat captain who reluctantly joins the competition against a formidable business rival… while wooing the rival’s daughter.

Add a new score by the masterful Carl Davis, who delighted us by conducting his original music for Why Worry? in 2014, and you’ve got a screening I certainly don’t intend on missing!

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)

The first film shown at the first ever Festival de Cannes, The Hunchback of Notre Dame also marked the American debut of an astonishingly gorgeous Irish actress called Maureen O’Hara. An underrated director if ever there was one, William Dieterle imbued the monumental adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel with a grotesque, expressionistic ambiance of paranoia.

I wonder if O’Hara, whom I was lucky enough to see at TCMFF last year, might return to the festival in March?

posterSpartacus (1960)

This movie depresses the hell out of me despite its Kubrickian intensity and Laurence Olivier’s weirdly erotic speech about oysters.

That said, some are speculating that 98-years-young Kirk Douglas might show up to introduce the film. If that’s the case, I’ll bring my gladiatorial sparring equipment and fight anyone for a good place in line!

UPDATE 1/29/15—Spartacus will not screen at TCMFF due to “unforeseen circumstances.”

Apollo 13 (1995)

If a movie 5 years younger than me is a classic, does that make me one too? All sarcasm aside, Ron Howard’s film fits nicely with the festival’s theme. Its impressive special effects will provide an interesting contrast to the less high-tech historical recreations of, say, the 1930s and 1940s.

Now, let’s venture into the realm of possibility. I would love to see the following 5 classics on a big screen… and ideally introduced by any of their living stars. Please note that I am not affiliated with TCMFF and these are merely guesses and fantasies on my part.

The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926)

With haunting cinematography Gregg Toland (The Grapes of Wrath, Citizen Kane), this unconventional Western centers on the perils of irrigating a desert. While that might not seem like the basis for gripping cinema, trust me, it is. With the collective beauty of Ronald Colman, Gary Cooper, and Vilma Banky, this silent will leave you quite speechless.

Alternate Choice: John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924)—silent Westerns are where it’s at, partner.

colbertThe Sign of the Cross (1932)

What would a festival about “History according to Hollywood” be without the Biblical blood and bombast of Cecil B. DeMille? Most famous for Claudette Colbert’s milk bath, this orgy of sin masquerading as a pious epic contains some of the most shocking content of the pre-Code era. It’s a decadent feast of “wait, did I really just see that?”

This choice is a long shot since Paramount sold the rights to Universal, a studio notorious among movie buffs for sitting on desired titles (and for knocking down historic landmarks). However, Universal has been releasing more and more previously unavailable films on DVD through their Vault Series as well as through TCM, so there’s a chance this perverse religious drama might make its way onto the TCMFF schedule.

Alternate Choice: DeMille’s Male and Female (1919), with its over-the-top Babyonian sequence that spoofs Hollywood historical romances

blackbookReign of Terror a.k.a. The Black Book (1949)

When Anthony Mann of T-Men and Raw Deal takes on the French Revolution, you know you’re in for history, noir-style. The concept of “period noir” sounds implausible—what’s the genre without trench coats and .45s?—but looks great. In this shadowy cloak-and-dagger political thriller, a dashing spy frantically searches for Robespierre’s list of enemies, bound in a black book, which, if passed to the resistance, could end the dictator’s rule.

The stunning Arlene Dahl, who is still with us as of this posting, delivered one of her most complex performances as a resourceful Girondin femme fatale. Wouldn’t it be fabulous to hear her talk about such an underrated classic?

Alternate Choice: The Tall Target, another noirish period thriller helmed by Mann… also one of Robert Osborne’s favorite little-known gems of classic cinema.

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Orson Welles would have turned 100 this year, so I’ll be rather bummed if Hollywood’s enfant terrible doesn’t get some screen time at the festival. Mutilated though it was by RKO, Ambersons remains a poignant and historically nuanced portrait of late 19th and early 20th century America.

Alternate Choices: any of Welles’s Shakespeare adaptations—they’re all life-changing and wonderful.

storyofmankindThe Story of Mankind (1957)

My dream midnight screening movie, this trippy entry into the canon of so-bad-it’s-good offers some of the most puzzling casting choices you’ll ever hope to see. Hedy Lamarr as St. Joan of Arc? Yup. Harpo Marx as Sir Isaac Newton? You bet. Dennis Hopper as Napoleon? Oh, would it weren’t so.

Alternate Choice:  I accept no substitute. Seriously, TCM. You own the rights to this one. Indulge me, won’t you?

Are you going to TCMFF? What titles do you hope to see there?

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.

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

Sob Story: Margaret O’Brien Dishes on Her Famous Tears and More at TCMFF

stouisI’ve often wondered, can you ever be too happy? Well, apparently yes, you can. If you’re a child star who specializes in weeping like a pro.

On the set of Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), the young Margaret O’Brien was faced with just such a cheerful (yet tearful) dilemma.

As the actress recalled yesterday at the TCL Chinese Theater, “Judy Garland was so wonderful to work with, and she was the sweetest person in the world. See, I was an only child, so Judy to me was like a big sister…. She loved children. We used to play hopscotch or jump rope in those days. And I’d have a very hard time crying in the snowy scenes because I was so happy playing games with Judy.”

Classic film buffs might’ve read a cruel story about Minnelli lying to O’Brien—fabricating the death of her beloved dog—in order to get a response from her, but she insists that the anecdote is untrue: “My mother never would’ve stood for that.”

pInstead, O’Brien’s mother resorted to more creative and far kinder tactics to elicit a realistic performance in those tense Christmas scene. “The way they got me to cry was, June Allyson and I were in competition as the best criers on the M-G-M lot. We were called ‘the town criers.’ So, when I was having trouble crying, my mother would come over to me and say, ‘I’ll have the makeup man put the false tears down your face, but June is such a great, great actress that she always cries real tears.’ And then I’d start crying.”

So, the next time you’re watching Tootie’s third-act breakdown, remember that the decidedly fierce flood of tears are being shed by a seven-year-old star who already took her professionalism deadly serious.

As film critic Richard Corliss, who interviewed O’Brien, remarked, “What adult actors take spend years trying to learn… this person had at the age of five.” Indeed, Lionel Barrymore found O’Brien’s gifts so uncanny that he remarked, “If that child had been born in the Middle Ages, she’d have been burned as a witch.” In Corliss’s words, “Rather than performing, she seemed to live inside the characters that she played.”

The 1942 wartime drama Journey for Margaret brought the intense little girl overnight stardom and a new name: “My name was Angela O’Brien, but I loved the little girl in Journey for Margaret so much that I had it changed to Margaret.”

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Nevertheless, M-G-M hesitated to give the dynamo her due. As O’Brien said, “Mr. Mayer was a lovely person, but he was a little bit stingy. When people went in to ask for a raise, they’d have to sit in the little chair and he’d sit in a great big chair.” O’Brien’s mother, a professional dancer, wasn’t deterred, however, and asked for a top M-G-M salary of $5,000 per week for her daughter—or else she’d take Margaret off the screen and resume her own career in New York.

Thinking he had a perfect back-up plan, Mayer reportedly let the bankable child star leave. As O’Brien explained, “In those days, they had people on the lot who were lookalikes, in case a movie actor got difficult… This was a terrible thing that studios used to do.” M-G-M informed O’Brien’s lookalike that her day in the sun had come and that she’d star in Meet Me in St. Louis.

At the last minute, however, the studio bosses realized they’d need O’Brien’s presence to carry the integral role of Tootie, relented, and agreed to meet her mother’s terms.

Although this story has a happy ending for O’Brien, who won a special Oscar for the role, her lookalike—and her showbiz family—was crushed: “Her father was a lighting technician on the set. He had a nervous breakdown during the film and almost dropped a light on me. So her family was never, ever the same after losing Meet Me in St. Louis, and I felt terrible about that. But I think the studio stopped the [lookalike] process after that incident.”

Despite this initial bad blood, O’Brien remembers the film’s production as a golden period for the director and star, who were falling in love. Still, fans of Meet Me in St. Louis realize that, far from a blithe musical, the film probes some rather dark times for the Smith family—and reflected the real tragedies of millions of families torn apart by World War II. And the climactic snowmen sequence was almost even darker, if you can believe it.

The original lyrics to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”—which, even in its current form, can induce serious dehydration—tended towards total devastation. Minnelli and the producers, hoping to move the audience, not depress them, decided that a rewrite was necessary. According to O’Brien, the final version that we know and love, with its message of togetherness in spite of adversity, came from both lyricist Hugh Martin and the film’s star: “Judy had a big hand in writing that song.”

redcarpetIt dawned on me while listening to O’Brien that any great film represents a thousand possible disasters that were miraculously averted. And Meet Me in St. Louis seemingly embraces the exquisite fragility of everything worthwhile, especially family.

On Thursday, I had the chance to ask O’Brien on the red carpet how she felt about the screening of Meet Me in St. Louis here at TCMFF. Her face lit up, like Tootie’s describing one of her moribund dolls: “I’m so glad that people still enjoy that movie and that it keeps going on for younger generations, and will keep on for many years to come.”

You also can watch O’Brien’s talk at Meet Me in St. Louis here.

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.

Off to see the… Lodger? My Picks for TCMFF 2014

howgreenYou know what’s the best thing about classic movie geeks?

They come in so many flavors. In my book, the important thing isn’t so much which movies you care about—it’s simply the fact that you care passionately. Last time I checked, you don’t have to be an omnivorous movie lover to ‘qualify’ or anything thing like that.

Anyway, my point is, as I broke out my unreasonable amount of colored highlighters and tried to work out my viewing priorities for the TCM Classic Film Festival, the diversity of selections started to impress me more and more. Before I list my personal choices, I want to give TCM major respect for programming a festival that can satisfy a wide spectrum of interests even within the niche fandom of classic movie geeks.

So, without further ado, here are my program picks—from the oddball to the canonical—including a few toss-ups and back-ups.

Disclaimer: I may be forced to depart from this itinerary when I get there, depending on seating availability, a collapse from hunger and lack of sleep, potentially being kicked out of the theater for wolf-whistling at Errol Flynn or Warren William, or my own confounded whimsy.

Thursday, April 10

2:00 p.m. – Meet TCM: Special Edition at the Egyptian Theatre

For 20 years, TCM has broadcast the best of classic cinema. That’s a delightfully long run to meditate on, and I look forward to listening to staff as they reflect on the milestone and reveal their plans for the future.

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3:30 p.m. – Sons of Gods and Monsters

Pardon me while I gush for a moment here. The 1930s Universal horror cycle is probably the single most important aesthetic influence in my life. No, really—don’t run away. I mean that in terms of taste. I don’t reanimate dead people. Wait, that sounded even worse…

Anyway, those movies plugged me into the beauty of film at a tender age and, as soon as I got the first DVD sets of these masterpieces, since I’d long since worn out my VHS cassettes, I was a busy little bee watching all the marvelous featurettes. Much of what I know about the behind-the-scenes business of monster-making came from listening to Rick Baker and Joe Dante—who also grew up as precocious horror geeks—talk about James Whale, Tod Browning, Jack Pierce, and the whole scream team.

So, the chance to hear these guys, moderated by TCM’s own Scott McGee, discussing my favorite films in real life will be, needless to say, spooktacular.

7:00 p.m. – 5th Avenue Girl

I’m hoping that the elegant light comedy helmed by Gregory La Cava will soothe my jet-lagged constitution, like a fizzy cinematic Alka-setlzer for the spirit. (Okay, weird metaphor, I know, but stay with me.)

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10:00 p.m. – Johnny Guitar or Bachelor Mother

Nicolas Ray’s vibrant revisionist Western fairly begs for a big screen to attain maximum campy eloquence. The majesty of mature Trucolor Joan Crawford on a big screen tempts me. However, if I can’t handle the intensity, I might opt for another charming comedy starring Ginger Rogers.

Friday, April 11

9:45 a.m. – On Approval

As much as I cherish The Thin Man and Stagecoach, which are playing in conflicting slots, I have to follow my predilection for the unusual, which leads me to On Approval. The only film directed by swoon-worthy leading man Clive Brook (who also stars), the cheeky, relatively obscure British comedy of manners sounds like just my cup of tea.

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12:00 p.m. – Touch of Evil or A Conversation with Carl Davis

Touch of Evil continues to fascinate me with its byzantine, edgy cinematography and its downright muddy moral takeaway. That said, I might end up attending the Carl Davis event over at Club TCM. I’m a huge fan of his scores (my Harold Lloyd boxed set is never far from me), and I would love to know more about the process behind his compositions. His thoughts about making silent film accessible in this day and age will also prove fascinating, I have no doubt. So, the jury’s still out on this one…

4:00 p.m. – A Matter of Life and Death

This time block is a total collision of awesomeness. I’m really cursing that silly law of physics that says a body can’t be in more than one place at a time. If I could clone myself I would. Because, more or less simultaneously at different venues we have…

  • Margaret O’Brien introducing Meet Me in St. Louis
  • Thelma Schoonmaker introducing A Matter of Life and Death
  • William Friedkin discussing his life and works

This choice hurts. Bad. I suspect that seeing Powell and Pressburger’s color and black-and-white masterpiece on a big screen will be nothing short of a spiritual experience, so I’m currently tending towards A Matter of Life and Death with Thelma the Great.

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7:30 p.m. – Why Worry?

No ambiguity here! For me, it’s all about Harold Lloyd and Why Worry? at the Egyptian. Not only will Carl Davis conduct his original score live, but the silent clown’s granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd (who has done an amazing job of keeping his work alive and available) will also introduce the gut-busting comedy. And if you’re going to TCMFF, I’d highly recommend this hilarious film.

9:15 p.m. – Employees’ Entrance

You know how a lot of pre-Code movies cop out and leave the audience feeling betrayed and annoyed? Yeah, Employees’ Entrance isn’t one of them. My homeboy Warren William turns in perhaps his greatest performance as a sleazy tycoon who demands a very intimate interview from Loretta Young before giving her a much-needed job at his department store.

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12:00 – Eraserhead

You might think that going to a midnight screening of Eraserhead while emotionally drained and jet-lagged is a bad idea, but I say, “Who knows? The movie might actually make sense to me in that frame of mind, right?” That sh*t’s gonna get real. If I can stay awake, that is.

Saturday, April 12

10:00 a.m. – City Lights

I first saw Chaplin’s three-hankie comedy in abominably pixilated form on YouTube many years ago. Heaven knows, I cried then. I might flood the theater seeing a pristine print of a new restoration on a big screen.

11:45 a.m. –  Godzilla

My cult movie hankering will once again be sated with a screening of the original Japanese Godzilla. However, from what I’m hearing around the blogosphere, I might have to skip this to camp out for the next item on the list…

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3:00 p.m. – How Green Was My Valley

Maureen O’Hara is going to be there. In person. I’ll get back to you when I’ve fully processed that fact.

In her memoir ‘Tis Herself, O’Hara remembered that when the Welsh Singers arrived on the astonishingly authentic film set, “the whole choir fell to their knees and wept.” I get the feeling that the crowds of faithful that show up to see the radiant Ms. O’Hara will have a similar reaction.

Here we come to another difficult fork in the road. If I still have a lot of tolerance for waiting in lines, I might queue up for Kim Novak and Bell, Book, and Candle. If not, I’ve got a pre-Code double bill lined up.

5:30 p.m. – The Stranger’s Return

Miriam Hopkins + Franchot Tone + Lionel Barrymore + King Vidor = How the hell haven’t I seen this movie? This little-known pre-Code family drama apparently hasn’t circulated much, despite its stellar cast and direction. Fortunately, that’s about to change.

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8:00 p.m. – Hat Check Girl

Bootleggers and blackmailers and call girls, oh my! Another rare pre-Code basks in the limelight at TCMFF.

10:00 p.m. – Her Sister’s Secret 

Poverty Row auteur Edgar G. Ulmer’s movies thrill the eye with gorgeous shadows and moody mise-en-scene, so I’ll revel in the chance to see one of his more prestigious PRC movies on a big screen. Plus, Ulmer’s insightful daughter, Arianne Ulmer Cipes, will introduce this showing of the director’s ambitious women’s drama.

12:00 a.m. – Freaks

How could I resist a midnight screening of Tod Brownings’ topsy-turvy horror melodrama?

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Sunday, April 13 

A fair portion of the schedule for the festival’s final day remains TBA. From what I understand, the festival often re-screens movies from previous days. So, I’ll probably end up attending at least one of the not-yet-decided showing, especially if they rerun a movie I wanted to see but missed.

9:30 a.m. – Academy Conversations: The Adventures of Robin Hood

Even if this screening weren’t preceded by a talk about the production of Warner Brothers’ epic storybook classic, I’d still show up for the theater-sized Technicolor close-ups of Errol Flynn. Note to self: bring smelling salts.

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7:30 p.m. – The Lodger 

It just bloody figures that TCMFF would schedule two of my favorite films ever at the same time. (And if you think I mean The Wizard of Oz as one of them, you clearly don’t understand the twisted inner-workings of my mind.)

Well, everyone else can go skip down the yellow brick road, but I’ll be torn between The Lady from Shanghai and The Lodger. Orson Welles’s exotic head-trip masterpiece and Alfred Hitchcock’s moody serial killer thriller both occupy special places in my heart. In the end, I’ll probably attend The Lodger, which edges out the spectacular Lady only because the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra will be accompanying the silent film.

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9:00 p.m. – Official Closing Night Party

Throughout my life, I’ve typically dreaded parties. But a live-action #TCMParty? Well, that might unleash even my inner Scarlett.

Announcement: I’m Covering TCM Classic Film Festival 2014

egyptianI am very honored to report that I will be officially covering the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival. I swear, I won’t start acting all Hildy Johnson or Torchy Blane on you… much.

Less than a month from now, from April 10 to 13, I’ll soak up as many classic movie screenings, special panels, and celebrity question-and-answer sessions as humanly possible. Plus I’ll be defying the siren lure of sweet slumber to compulsively chronicle the rush of emotions accompanying this pilgrimage to Hollywood’s historic spots.

And I expect that the journey will be especially poignant for this little movie blogger from Vermont, because…. well… I mean… um… I’ve never been to Hollywood. Or California. Or that whole coast over there. Yep, that’s right. This will be my first visit to the place I’ve been obsessing over for most of my life.

Needless to say, if anyone can recommend a brand of truly waterproof mascara, I’d be very grateful.

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Enhancing the misty-eye factor, the theme for this year’s TCMFF celebrates “Family in the Movies: The Ties that Bind.” [Cue my Don Corleone impression here.] The choice seems fitting, as Turner Classic Movies’ extended family of fans celebrates the network’s 20th wizardanniversary. The selections announced so far range from no-brainers, like The Wizard of Oz and The Best Years of Our Lives, to a few wonderful head-scratchers, like the original Godzilla and Sorcerer.

You can bet on my viewing preferences leaning towards the latter—the more cult the better! I’m also interested to take in the wide variety of musicals, from Meet Me in St. Louis to Stormy Weather to A Hard Day’s Night, in a short span of time and ponder their similarities and differences.

Although press credentials don’t guarantee me admission into the events and screenings of my choice, the program showcases new restorations of several of my all-time favorite movies, including The Lodger, City Lights, Double Indemnity, and Touch of Evil. I’m also psyched for a screening my favorite Harold Lloyd feature, Why Worry?, in which spoiled hypochondriac millionaire Harold and his feisty nurse get caught up in a revolution on a remote banana republic island. This comedy masterpiece is getting the Carl Davis treatment with a new score performed by an orchestra at the festival. (Note: I will be carrying cigarettes and silk stockings as bribes to get into this screening, if necessary.)

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As for the festival’s roster of special guests, screen legends, such as Maureen O’Hara and Kim Novak, as well as innovators from the other side of the camera, like Thelma Schoomaker and William Friedkin, are slated to make appearances. UPDATE: TCMFF has announced a star-studded line-up for Club TCM events. Read more.

Finally, I’m excited to put faces and voices to many of the lovely people I’ve had the privilege to get to know online, primarily through that hub of old movie conviviality that is #TCMParty. I look forward to meeting those of you who plan on attending the festival! 

So, stay tuned. Look for updates on this blog, as well as on my Twitter account and on Tumblr. And read more about TCMFF on the festival’s official website.

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