Sinners and a Saint: My Moving (and Grooving) TCMFF Schedule Picks

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My cat Godfrey (named for a certain William Powell character) assists me in planning out my festival schedule.

“My hope is that we’ll be playing a lot of movies that will lead to people crying.” So said Charles Tabesh, TCM’s senior vice president of programming, about the upcoming TCM Classic Film Festival in a recent interview.

Judging by the TCMFF schedule, I think Tabesh wants to make us cry before we even get there. The conflicting choices have made me tear my hair in anguish.

A nice kind of anguish, though.

Speaking of things that hurt so good, this year’s festival focuses on “moving pictures,” films that trigger powerful emotional reactions.

So, join me as I wring my hands over the options and work out a tentative schedule, won’t you?

Note: My schedule is subject to change depending on whimsy, hunger, eyeliner mishaps, peer pressure, physical exhaustion, bad luck, and the fact that there’s a fabulous tea house temptingly close to the Chinese Multiplex.

Thursday, April 28

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6:30 p.m. – A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Chinese Multiplex House #6 – DCP

For this first slot, I’m leaning towards 2 classics that—I blush to admit it—I haven’t yet seen: Dark Victory (1939) and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1941). Before you make me turn in my cinephile card, let me reframe my oversight as an opportunity: what better way to discover an acclaimed classic than on the big screen? Apparently my negligence in the weepie department has richly paid off.

I’m going with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, since former child actor Ted Donaldson will be there to introduce it.

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9:30 p.m. – Los Tallos Amergos (1956) – Chinese Multiplex House #4 – 35mm

I adore Brief Encounter. To give you an idea of just how much I adore it, whenever I get a mote of dust in my eye, I exclaim, “Where’s Trevor Howard?” But when David Lean’s tearjerking paean to buttoned-up English passion occupies the same slot as Los Tallos Amergos, a recently-restored, little-known noir gem from Argentina, I yield to the dark desire to explore uncharted territory.

Friday, April 29

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9:30 a.m. – Never Fear (1949) – Chinese Multiplex House #4 – 35mm

I wake up to a tough choice: should I go with feel-good #TCMParty favorite The More the Merrier (1943) at the Egyptian Theater (and on 35mm to boot!) OR celebrate the controversial brilliance of Ida Lupino with Never Fear, her first credited film as a director?

Never Fear wins the spot, since I relish the chance to feel the full impact of Lupino’s uncompromising vision on a big screen. That said, I might cave for a cute screwball comedy if I need respite from the festival’s intense program of heartbreakers. Don’t judge me. It’s a long haul!

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12:00 p.m. – Double Harness (1933) – Chinese Multiplex House #4 – 35mm

No contest on the next pick. Rare pre-Codes are my jam. Oh, Double Harness, you had me at Ann Harding… and then you go and throw in William Powell and a long-lost premarital sex scene? I’d better pack me some smelling salts.

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2:00 p.m. – Tea and Sympathy (1956) – Chinese Multiplex House #4 – 35mm

Here we arrive at the most difficult slot in the festival. I’m torn between not 2, not 3, but 5 glorious offerings that pique my interests:

  • The Conversation (1974) introduced by Francis Ford Coppola – DCP
  • Trapeze (1956) introduced by Gina Lollobrigida – 35mm
  • Amazing Film Discoveries, a presentation by Serge Bromberg – DCP
  • Tea and Sympathy (1956), followed by a discussion with former child actor Darryl Hickman – 35mm
  • When You’re in Love (1937), a rarely-screened Cary Grant film introduced by the star’s daughter, Jennifer Grant – DCP

Well, I believe in supporting movies condemned by the Legion of Decency, so I’ll probably head to Tea and Sympathy. I’m also curious to hear Darryl Hickman talk about the making of this controversial melodrama. But I’m still waffling. The good news is, no matter what I pick, it’s bound to be memorable!

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5:15 and 7:17 p.m. – Pleasure Cruise (1933) and 6 Hours to Live (1932) – Chinese Multiplex House #4 – both on 35mm

Why sit through a single poignant movie when you can watch 2 bizarro gems from the heady days of Hays? I’m veering away from the well-promoted favorites in this slot, because—surprise, surprise—I can’t resist the gravitational pull of Chinese Multiplex #4.

I’ve seen It’s a Wonderful Life on 35mm at a 1920s movie palace. At Christmas. Twice. So I’m afraid the chance to see Capra’s masterpiece at the TCL Chinese Theater doesn’t excite me.

While The Passion of Joan of Arc with a live choir score will undoubtedly give its audience chills, I don’t think I can bear to be bummed out, no matter how sublimely, on a Friday night in Hollywood. Besides, religious films, one of the festival’s themes this year, don’t exactly light my pyre—er, fire. And if you think I’m going to hell, I can live with that, provided I get there by partying with the bad boys and girls of the pre-1934 studio era.

I might even get an extra kick out of watching the pre-Codes knowing that I chose sinners over a saint!

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9:30 p.m. – The Manchurian Candidate (1962) – TCL Chinese Theater – DCP

Why, TCM, why did you program one of my favorite films noirs, Repeat Performance (1947), against my must-see, do-or-die interview of the festival? WHY? [Shakes fist at the heavens as the camera rises in an epic crane shot.]

The Manchurian Candidate wins my heart, because I’ve worshipped Angela Lansbury ever since 12-year-old me saw my first episode of Murder, She Wrote on VHS. I will not miss the chance to hear this living legend/diva/queen/beautiful human being talk about her deliciously wicked turn as the World’s Worst Mother.

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12:00 p.m. – Roar (1981) – Chinese Multiplex House #1 – DCP

The midnight screening of Boom at last year’s TCMFF was a major highlight for me, so I’ll fortify myself with caffeine to stay awake for this notoriously dangerous thrill ride featuring dozens of real wild animals. CGI is for wimps!

Does Roar sound ill-advised? Hell yeah. Entertaining? I’m betting away 2 hours of sleep that it will be. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

Saturday, April 30

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9:00 a.m. – 90th Anniversary of Vitaphone – Egyptian Theater – 35mm

I love the smell of experimental talkies in the morning! Seriously, how often do you get to wake up and immerse yourself in short films from the dawn of sound—shown on film at such an epic venue?

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11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. – A House Divided (1931) and Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back (1934) – Chinese Multiplex House #4 – both 35mm

Oh, boy. It’s the devil on my shoulder again. That lingerie-wearing, chain-smoking grayscale gun moll who calls the shots for me. And she tells me that I cannot sacrifice 2 movies from the early 1930s for a post-studio-era parody.

Even if that means passing up an opportunity to hear the riotous Carl Reiner discuss his noir homage Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1981). Or listen to Nancy Olsen recount her early days in Hollywood.

Yeah, this one stings.

But, hey, William Wyler’s second talkie? Oh, I am very there for that. And Ronald Colman’s moustache holds a deep claim on my loyalty.

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3:45 p.m. – The Yearling (1946) – Chinese Multiplex House #4 – 35mm

Another tricky slot. How do you expect me to choose between Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (introduced by Gina Lollobrigida), The Big Sleep, and The Yearling (followed by a discussion with child actor Claude Jarman Jr.)?

For the moment, The Yearling takes priority. But The Big Sleep—also on 35mm!—might woo me away. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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6:30 p.m. – The King and I (1956) – TCL Chinese Theater – DCP

I really need to see Rita Moreno talk about The King and I, because that movie traumatized me as a kid and I’m hoping that I can work through some of those issues. Nice cheery musical about imperialist white savior complexes and male entitlement and sex slavery and child mortality, Rogers and Hammerstein. At least there’s some pretty Cinemascope eye candy and 3 magnificent central performances.

Even though The King and I is not a favorite of mine, as you can probably tell, I look forward to hearing Moreno’s memories of making it.

I will, however, be crying inside that I’m missing the elegant Technicolor palettes of Borzage’s I’ve Always Loved You (1946), which is screening simultaneously on 35mm. Hm. I might drift on this one…

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9:15 p.m. – Band of Outsiders (1956) – Chinese Multiplex House #1 – DCP

This next slot is non-negotiable. Anna Karina is a goddess. I welcome the opportunity to bask in her presence.

Funnily enough, the only Godard films I’d happily volunteer to watch again are those starring Karina. Yes, I went there. Come at me, New Wave bros. Side note: If I ever meet JLG in person, I’m demanding an apology for Weekend and the migraine it gave me.

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12:00 a.m. – Gog (1954) – Chinese Multiplex House #1 – DCP

Sci-fi is more important than sleep, especially when we’re talking a sci-fi mystery unseen in its original 3D since 1954!

Sunday, May 1

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9:30 – The Fallen Idol (1948) – Chinese Multiplex House #6 – DCP

If you’d asked me about my must-see picks before TCM dropped its schedule, I would’ve mentioned Scent of Mystery, screened at the Cinerama Dome in—get this—Smell-O-Vision!

And then a little boy threw a wrench in the works.

Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol is one of those masterpieces that somehow doesn’t get the attention it deserves. In this tense noir, the spoiled but lonely son of a diplomat sees more than he should and becomes embroiled in an adult world of lies and guilty secrets. Making his screen debut, Bobby Henrey delivered a miraculous child performance—exasperating, melancholy, silly, sweet, clever, and hopelessly out of his depth.

So I did a double take when I saw that Henrey would be at TCMFF to talk about this astonishing film. Unmissable. Sorry, Smell-O-Vision. Smell ya later. Or not.

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12:15 p.m. – Law and Order (1932) – Chinese Multiplex House #4 – 35mm

Bagging out on Scent of Mystery offers a bonus: I’ll have time to catch another rarely-screened movie in my favorite venue. Gritty pre-Code proto-noir Western written by John Huston and starring Walter Huston? Uh, yes, please!

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2:30 p.m. – A Conversation with Gina Lollobrigida – Club TCM

Last year’s Club TCM interview with Shirley MacLaine left me flabbergasted by the amount of sassy revelations the star offered up. I’ve got my fingers crossed that Ms. Lollobrigida will prove as feisty and open to questions!

therussiansarecoming

4:15 p.m. – The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966) – Egyptian Theater – 35mm

Once upon a time I was reading my friends’ coverage of TCMFF and turning all unsightly shades of green over how they’d seen Eva Marie Saint in person. Now it’s my turn (serpentine waiting lines permitting)!

Eva Marie is the only Saint I want to see at the festival this year (sorry, Joan of Arc).

1953: Fred Astaire (1899 - 1987) and Cyd Charisse perform a dance number in 'Band Wagon', directed by Vincente Minnelli for MGM.

7:45 p.m. – The Band Wagon (1953) – Chinese Multiplex House #1 – DCP

This choice might well change, depending on the titles announced for the TBD slots. Still, The Band Wagon never fails to amaze me, so it’s not like I’d be “settling” for it. Cyd Charisse in that sizzling red dress and her slinky moves might just be the perfect finale to a show of moving pictures.

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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?

Pre-Code A to Z: 26 Favorites

joanThere are three stages to a love affair with pre-Code movies:

Stage One: “What’s a pre-Code movie?”

Stage Two: “Hot damn! She’s really taking those off!”

Stage Three: “Why the hell haven’t more people heard of these?”

In case you’re still in stage one, you should know that pre-Code cinema refers to the body of movies produced in Hollywood between roughly 1929 and 1934, a period when the film industry was supposed to be censoring all risqué content. To say the least, it wasn’t.

So, if you associate old movies with plodding black-and-white boredom or family-safe entertainment, chances are you just haven’t seen the right pre-Code flick. You haven’t seen Barbara Stanwyck seducing a skyscraper full of businessmen. Or Jean Harlow flirtatiously baring her garters. Or Ann Dvorak screaming in a cocaine-fueled panic. When you start watching pre-Codes, the sheer amounts of sex, drugs, alcohol, and violence will shock and surprise you. (Stage two!) You’ll chuckle, you’ll do a few double takes, and you’ll understand that people in the 1930s were really no different from people today. Only better dressed.

vlcsnap-2014-09-05-18h22m50s70

However, as your addiction to pre-Code movies grows (Cue stage three!), you’ll realize that these films deserve profound respect. More than mere titillating relics of Hollywood gone wild, many of them rank among the boldest and best movies ever made.

I decided to do a pre-Code A to Z, with a different title for each letter in the alphabet, cbbecause I wanted to feature a weird, slightly arbitrary collection of pre-Codes instead of a traditional top ten. Make no mistake: I am not presenting this post as a definitive catalogue of the most important movies made during those years of innovation and excess.

Instead, consider this post a (hopefully) fun way to discover or rediscover one of the richest periods in American cinema. To that end, I’ve tried to mix old standbys with a few obscure gems. Please excuse me if your favorite doesn’t get a mention. By all means, though, feel free to mention it in a comment!

IMPORTANT NOTE: On each Friday of this month, September 2014, Turner Classic Movies is screening pre-Code movies. They’re showing most of the films on this list, the ones with asterisks by the titles. So there’s never been a better time to tune in and learn your ABCs…

Now, pick a letter and go to town.

i

A is for I’m No Angel* (Wesley Ruggles, 1933)

The Story: A canny circus dancer gains notoriety for taming lions—and rich society men.

Why You Should Watch It: Too many people remember Mae West solely as a curvaceous sex symbol, beckoning men into her boudoir. Too few realize that she wrote her own dialogue, outfoxed censors, and singlehandedly saved Paramount from financial collapse. In I’m No Angel, West rattles off enough quotable lines to put on every throw pillow in your house.

Pre-Code Content: Unrepentant gold-digging and premarital sex

b

B is for Baby Face* (Alfred E. Green, 1933)

The Story: Versed in Nietzsche as well as hard knocks, Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) literally sleeps her way to the top of an affluent bank, leaving wrecked lives in her wake.

Why You Should Watch It: Stanwyck delivered what might be the greatest performance of her career as the shrewd, sizzling Lily, fueled by rage and ambition. Her barely-concealed contempt for the lecherous men who see her body as their de facto property makes Baby Face something of a revenge fantasy. As she exploits the leering executives who think they’re exploiting her, every man’s dream turns into every man’s nightmare: a sex object with a brain.

Pre-Code Content: Lingerie (a given), implications of prostitution, interracial friendship, and enough implied sex to make a censor faint.

c

C is for Call Her Savage* (John Francis Dillon, 1932)

The Story: The willful daughter of a Texas rancher, Nasa Springer (Clara Bow) races from one catastrophe to another, plunging into catfights, barroom brawls, an abusive marriage, and prostitution.

Why You Should Watch It: The enormously popular ‘It Girl’ of the silent screen, Bow proved her acting chops for the sound era by transcending this melodrama’s overwhelming tawdriness. Interestingly enough, the film suggests that Nasa’s misfortunes stem from the corruption of the big city and of civilization in general. Only by returning to the serenity of nature can she be redeemed. Call her savage? Well, she’s not half as savage as the culture that makes her suffer.

Pre-Code Content: Erotic wrestling with a Great Dane, Clara Bow sans brassiere, a speakeasy, illicit sex, miscegenation—almost every pre-Code no-no, really.

d

D is for Design for Living* (Ernst Lubitsch, 1933)

The Story: Torn between the two gorgeous men in her life, Gilda (Miriam Hopkins) chooses both. And the threesome’s “gentleman’s agreement” to shun sex doesn’t stand a chance.

Why You Should Watch It: If I had to explain to someone what wit is—not to mention double entendre—I’d show them this movie. The Lubitsch touch will tickle you from beginning to end.

Pre-Code Content: Uh, it’s about a ménage à trois!

Loretta Young (left) and Warren William (right) in Roy Del Ruth

E is for Employees’ Entrance* (Roy Del Ruth, 1933)

The Story: Ruthless executive Kurt Anderson (Warren Wiliam) squeezes profit out of a vast department store during the Great Depression and treats the lady employees as his personal harem.

Why You Should Watch It: No pre-Code movie represented the harsh conditions facing working men and especially women with more conviction and honesty than Employees’ Entrance. Ironically, though, the hard-hitting drama showcases Warren William’s despicable charms at their zenith. William had an improbable knack for making audience members savor the misdeeds of the egotistical shysters they hated in real life. Because both the employees and their harsh bosses strike us as intriguing individuals with flaws and virtues, this portrait of a business coping with a bad economy crackles with realistic conflict.

Pre-Code Content: Levels of sexual harassment that even today’s creepiest senators would wince at; dialogue like, “Oh, it’s you. I didn’t know you with your clothes on.”; suicide

f

F is for Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931)

The Story: Aw, come on. You gotta know this. It’s alive! It’s escaped! It’s running amok!

Why You Should Watch It: Sure, there’s no nudity, but Whale’s Frankenstein capitalized on pre-Code permissiveness by condensing Shelley’s novel down to a morbid meditation on unholy ambition. Dr. Frankenstein’s obsession with creating new life culminates in a line of dialogue so controversial that was cut from the film for years: “In the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God!”

Pre-Code Content: Heaping helpings of blasphemy, explicit drowning of a little girl, and graphic violence

g1

G is for Gold Diggers of 1933* (Mervyn LeRoy and Busby Berkeley)

The Story: During the production of a big musical show, naive chorine Polly (Ruby Keeler) falls in love with a young songwriter (Dick Powell), but his wealthy brother (Warren William) objects to the match. Polly’s wisecracking roommates (Joan Blondell and Aline MacMahon) set out to hustle the millionaire.

Why You Should Watch It: Pure cinema. Like pornography, it’s something difficult to describe, but you know it when you see it. And if you don’t see it in Busby Berkeley’s dazzling sequences of audiovisual ecstasy, maybe you need to have your eyes examined. Harnessing the power of the film medium, Berkeley imagined musical numbers that never could’ve existed on a stage and arranged mind-boggling geometric pattens with human bodies. From the upbeat “We’re in the Money” opening to the heartbreaking “Remember My Forgotten Man” finale, Gold Diggers choreographs both the fantasies and the realities of the Depression.

Pre-Code Content: Characters who run around in their lingerie most of the time, a steady stream of innuendo, and an entire musical number devoted to the delight of getting frisky in public spaces.

h

H is for Hot Saturday* (William A. Seiter, 1933)

The Story: A well-behaved bank clerk (Nancy Carroll), forced by circumstances to spend an innocent night in the local Casanova’s house, faces ostracism from her town’s pack of busybodies.

Why You Should Watch It: Because it totally nails small-town hypocrisy and, in so doing, thumbs its nose at the narrow morals imposed by the Production Code. Rather than stoning the “sinner” and rewarding the self-righteous, Hot Saturday gives a happy ending to its wronged protagonist and mercilessly mocks the so-called guardians of decency. Plus, super-young Cary Grant as the town bad boy gives us all a reason to lose our reputations with a smile.

Pre-Code Content: A nearly nude Carroll, two sisters fighting over their underwear, attempted rape, non-stop gossip about sex

fugitive

I is for I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)

The Story: Wrongly arrested for petty theft, a Depression-era bum (Paul Muni) endures years of hard labor on a chain gang.

Why You Should Watch It: During the pre-Code years, the energizing anarchy of popular gangster movies was balanced out by bleak, often claustrophobic prison movies. In this biting example, the justice system so comprehensively fails our innocent protagonist that he has no choice but to resort to crime. How’s that for irony?

Pre-Code Content: Extensive depictions of prison beatings, some illicit sex, sympathetic portrayal of theft and escaped convicts

j

J is for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde* (Rouben Mamoulian, 1931)

The Story: There’s good and evil in every man, and when Dr. Jekyll (Fredric March) concocts a potion to separate the two he unleashes his brutish alter ego upon the world.

Why You Should Watch It: The most unsettling adaptation of Stevenson’s horror classic, this version emphasizes Hyde’s animalistic brutality while clearly suggesting that such ugliness lurks within all humanity. The transformation scene—done in a single take using special colored makeup and camera filters—remains just as amazing 80 years later. And the scenes of Hyde’s gleeful abuse inflicted on the prostitute Ivy remain just as chilling.

Pre-Code Content: Prostitution, Hopkins naked in bed, gruesome scenes of violence

k

K is for Kongo (William J. Cowen, 1932)

The Story: In a hellish region of jungle, paraplegic tyrant ‘Deadlegs’ Flint (Walter Huston) wreaks revenge on the rival who stole his wife by subjecting the man’s daughter to every imaginable form of degradation.

Why You Should Watch It: Grimy, sweaty, and generally repellent, Kongo gets my nod for the most disturbing film of the pre-Code era. However, under its layers of shock value, Kongo reveals a streak of heartbreaking tragedy, supported by a ferocious performance from Huston.

Pre-Code Content: Incest, prostitution, drug abuse, torture… you name it.

l

L is for Love Me Tonight (Rouben Mamoulian, 1932)

The Story: Going to collect a debt at a chateau, a Parisian tailor (Maurice Chevalier) decides to pawn himself off as an aristocrat and woo an ethereal princess (Jeannette MacDonald).

Why You Should Watch It: Busby Berkeley wasn’t the only innovator working in the musical genre during the early 1930s. Rouben Mamoulian pulled out the whole toolkit of movie magic, including fast and slow motion, superimposition, and oodles of camera movements, to add sparkle to this naughty romance. Flowing seamlessly into the plot, the musical numbers, including a wonderful stroll down a Paris street, brim with humor and ease. Fair warning though: you might not be able to get “Isn’t It Romantic?” out of your head.

Pre-Code Content: Myrna Loy as a nymphomaniac, extensive leering, lingerie, and almost constant risqué banter

m

M is for Man’s Castle (Frank Borzage, 1933)

The Story: A roguish drifter (Spencer Tracy) falls for an idealistic waif (Loretta Young), moves her into his shantytown, and struggles with the prospect of settling down.

Why You Should Watch It: Like a daisy growing out of asphalt, Man’s Castle reminds the viewer of the miraculous persistence of beauty, hope, and love during the darkest times. This shimmering, sadly little-known masterpiece reframes the tribulations of the Depression as surreal fairy tale obstacles and teases disarmingly vulnerable performances from Young and Tracy.

Pre-Code Content: Skinny dipping, racy banter, premarital sex, discussions of pregnancy and possible abortion, unpunished crime

n

N is for Night Nurse* (William Wellman, 1931)

The Story: Assigned to care for two rich, neglected children, a tough nurse (Barbara Stanwyck) vows to protect them from a scheming chauffeur (a moustache-less Clark Gable).

Why You Should Watch It: Having a bad day? Watch Stanwyck punch out an offensive drunk. I promise, you’ll feel better. You might also want to watch this for the chance to see Stanwyck and Joan Blondell taking off their clothes. And by clothes, I mean nurse uniforms. Really. This movie is so fetishistic at times that I worry I’ve been added to some sort of cautionary watch list for buying it.

Pre-Code Content: Lingerie, girl-on-girl cuddling in said lingerie, drunkenness, sympathetic gangsters, unpunished murder

o

O is for One-Way Passage (Tay Garnett, 1932)

The Story: On a ship bound for America, a convicted murderer (William Powell) and a dying woman (Kay Francis) fall in love and decide to seize their brief window of happiness.

Why You Should Watch It: Pre-Code Warner Brothers specialized in gritty, rough-and-tumble plots torn straight from the front page, but this tender love story shows that the studio could also excel at more sentimental fare. Melancholy but never mawkish, the romance between Francis and Powell urges us all to make the most of life’s fleeting joys.

Pre-Code Content: Likable criminals, a cop who lets a certain pretty crook go, and the sexiest ellipsis you ever saw

p

P is for The Public Enemy* (William Wellman, 1931)

The Story: An Irish hoodlum takes over a piece of the bootlegging racket, incurring the wrath of his war hero brother.

Why You Should Watch It: James Cagney’s performance as Tom Powers forever defined the 1930s gangster—carnivorously attractive, irrepressibly cocky, and, when provoked, utterly remorseless. Little Caesar came first and Scarface boasted more splashy violence, but The Public Enemy best captured the take-no-prisoners stakes of bootlegging. William Wellman cleverly amplified the impact of violent outbursts by hiding them off-screen, so that when the final blow comes at the movie’s conclusion, we’re left reeling and horrified.

Pre-Code Content: Exciting and glamorous depictions of the gangster lifestyle

q2

Q is for Queen Christina (Rouben Mamoulian, 1933)

The Story: Wise Queen Christina attempts to steer Sweden’s macho government towards peace and progress, but her love affair with a Spanish emissary jeopardizes the future of her reign.

Why You Should Watch It: Never has diplomacy seemed so sexy. Garbo’s Queen Christina would be imposing and controversial even today. Not unlike the high-rolling woman executive in the corporate drama Female (made the same year), Christina rules her love life and her country with the same unabashed pride and control.

Pre-Code Content: Cross-dressing, not-so-subtle intimations of bisexuality, and intoxicatingly sensual love scenes.

2nd July 1932: Hollywood star Jean Harlow (1911 - 1937) as Lil Legendre in 'The Red-Headed Woman', directed by Jack Conway. (Photo by Clarence Sinclair Bull)

R is for Red-Headed Woman* (Jack Conway, 1932)

The Story: A low-class secretary (Jean Harlow) schemes her way into her employer’s bed—and his wallet.

Why You Should Watch It: Harlow turns in a flagrant and fetching performance, cooing like a baby, flashing her underwear, and feistily haranguing any stuffy hypocrites who criticize her. In contrast to the bitterness of Baby Face, this brisk comedy encourages us to laugh with the brazen gold-digging protagonist as she twists men around her little finger.

Pre-Code Content: Harlow taking off her clothes, forcefully seducing gullible idiots, shooting her ex-lover, and getting away with it all scot-free.

s

S is for The Story of Temple Drake* (Stephen Roberts, 1933)

The Story: Assaulted and kidnapped by a sadistic gangster (Jack LaRue), privileged Temple Drake (Miriam Hopkins) copes with her shame and longs to escape. Will she have the courage to return home and come forward with the truth about what happened?

Why You Should Watch It: Who would have thought that such a sordid story could look so beautiful? Based on Faulkner’s scandalous Sanctuary, this landmark of pre-Code cinema combines the eloquent visual storytelling of the silent era with the advantages of sound.

Pre-Code Content: Rape, murder, bootlegging, a practically nude Hopkins—this one is not for the faint of heart!

t

T is for Three on a Match* (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)

The Story: Reckless Vivian Revere (Ann Dvorak) marries well but bores easily. When she gets mixed up with a petty racketeer, she puts her young child in danger.

Why You Should Watch It: One word—Dvorak. I wonder how the film strip itself didn’t melt under the heat of her blisteringly intense performance as a pampered wife who devolves into a grungy cokehead.

Pre-Code Content: Oh, boy… drugs, sex, child abuse, violence, lingerie. This one seems to make it onto everybody’s pre-Code list, and deservedly so.

u

U is for Under Eighteen (Archie Mayo, 1932)

The Story: Saddled with the responsibility for her family during the Depression, a plucky teen (Marian Marsh) approaches a wolfish tycoon (Warren William, who else?) to help her sister escape a bad marriage.

Why You Should Watch It: Warren William utters one of the most famous lines of the pre-Code era, “Why don’t you take off your clothes and stay a while?” Despite an egregious cop-out ending, Under Eighteen actually offers an interesting commentary on male hypocrisy. Whether men actively victimize women or passively stand by, the film makes it clear that they’re part of the problem.

Pre-Code Content: Gaggles of models undressing, illicit affairs, and an appropriately loathsome depiction of an abusive husband and domestic violence

v

V is for Virtue* (Edward Buzzell, 1932)

The Story: A New York streetwalker (Carole Lombard) falls for a cab driver (Pat O’Brien) and jumps at the chance to marry him, but his lack of trust strains their relationship.

Why You Should Watch It: A lot of pre-Code movies deal with the difficulties of a disgraced woman trying to go straight. What sets this one apart is the slangy, authentic rhythm of the dialogue, written by the great Robert Riskin, and the warm chemistry between Lombard and O’Brien.

Pre-Code Content: Prostitution as a major plot element (empathetically depicted, too) and an onscreen murder

w

W is for What Price Hollywood? (George Cukor, 1932)

The Story: A waitress at the Brown Derby (Constance Bennett) dreams of becoming a movie star. When she gets her wish, however, she learns how cruel fame can be.

Why You Should Watch It: Cukor’s obscure but astonishingly great melodrama satirizes Tinseltown as a purveyor of toxic illusions. With its tantalizing glimpses behind the scenes of early 1930s moviemaking, What Price Hollywood? deconstructs the glamorous myths of the studio system and bares the mercilessness of both the film industry and the public it feeds.

Pre-Code Content: Lingerie, alcoholism, divorce, and a vivid suicide scene

x

X is for Doctor X (Michael Curtiz, 1932)

The Story: A streetwise reporter (Lee Tracy) races to find a serial killer among a group of sinister doctors before the maniac strikes again.

Why You Should Watch It: One of only a few feature films shot in early two-strip Technicolor, this thriller not only serves up some serious pink- and green-tinged eye candy, but also treats us to one of the decade’s craziest plots.

Pre-Code Content: Nightmarish makeup; allusions to sexual assault, cannibalism, and serial killings; Fay Wray in a skimpy negligée

y

Y is for The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Frank Capra, 1933)

The Story: Held prisoner by a Chinese warlord (Nils Asther), an American missionary (Barbara Stanwyck) struggles to reform her captor even as she confronts her own ingrained prejudice.

Why You Should Watch It: The name Frank Capra tends to conjure nostalgic visions of America as it was, but this lush, exotic tale of forbidden love stands out as one of his most complex works.

Pre-Code Content: Interracial eroticism, discussions of Christian hypocrisy

z

Z is for Murders at the Zoo (A. Edward Sutherland, 1933)

The Story: A pathologically jealous millionaire (Lionel Atwill) conspires to bump off any man he suspects of touching his wife. And, given his passion for wild animals, he’s not at a loss of ways to dispose of the perceived interlopers.

Why You Should Watch It: When a movie starts with a guy having his mouth stitched shut, you know you’re in for a real bloodbath. This proto-slasher contains some of the most luridly violent scenes you’ll catch in a classic Hollywood movie.

Pre-Code Content: Hints of bestiality, scatological humor, kinky innuendos, casual adultery, and lurid violence.

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?

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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Silent September! A Buffet of Free Silent Films

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A diva’s work is never done.

That’s what I thought the other day when I realized that I’ve been blogging (and tweeting and posting!) about classic films for a whole year.

I scoured the reaches of my imagination for some way to mark the occasion. And then, Turner Classic Movies solved the problem for me. Throughout this month, September 2013, the television epicenter of old movie love will be celebrating the milestones of film history. And I’m going with the flow.

Now, if I started blogging for one reason (other than preserving my sanity in the wake of my recent college graduation), it was because I wanted to share my passion for classic cinema with others. Over the past year, I have learned so much through my digital adventures and I very humbly hope that I’ve been able to give back a little, too. For the month of September, I’m trying something new—I’m going to concentrate primarily (perhaps entirely) on silent film.

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To get the ball rolling, I’ve created a YouTube playlist containing most of the silent films that will be airing on TCM this month. Below, you’ll find the same treasure trove of film history, hours of ground-breaking cinema that you can stream or download free of charge. I could name dozens of other great silent films that everyone should watch—and I will over the next 30 days—but these are the ones that you can check out instantly. So, pardon the glaring omissions! However, if you’ve never seen a silent film before, this is a good place to start, although you might not want to start with Intolerance… And if you’ve seen all of these films, well, now you have them all at your fingertips!

Watch, enjoy, and celebrate the Seventh Art in the first spectacular flush of her youth and beauty.

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Trip to the Moon (1902) – Georges Méliès

On YouTube.

Canned Harmony (1912) – Alice Guy

On YouTube.

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Falling Leaves (1912) – Alice Guy

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

Birth of a Nation (1916) – D.W. Griffith

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

Intolerance (1916) – D.W. Griffith

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) – Robert Wiene

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

Way Down East (1920) – D.W. Griffith

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

One Week (1920) – Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

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The Kid (1921) – Charlie Chaplin

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

Orphans of the Storm (1921) – D.W. Griffith

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

The Phantom Carriage (1921) – Victor Sjöström

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

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Häxan (1922) – Benjamin Christensen

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

Nanook of the North (1922) – Robert J. Flaherty

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

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Three Ages (1923) – Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

La Roue (1923) – Abel Gance

Part I and Part II on YouTube.

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The Thief of Bagdad (1924) – Raoul Walsh

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

Battleship Potemkin (1925) – Sergei Eisenstein

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

The General (1927) – Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

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Metropolis (1927) – Fritz Lang

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

Sunrise (1927) – F.W. Murnau

On YouTube.

Un Chien Andalou (1929) – Salvador Dali and Louis Buñuel

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

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The Goddess (1934) – Yonggang Wu

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

Technicolor Nightmare: Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

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Florence: Listen, Joan Gale’s body was swiped from the morgue! Have you ever heard of such a thing as a death mask?

Jim: I used to be married to one.

Florence: Then it came to life and divorced you. I know all about that.

It says a lot about pre-Code Warner Brothers that the studio couldn’t even make a horror movie without throwing in a couple of wisecracking reporters, a coffin filled with bootleg hooch, and a junkie.

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And, I, for one, couldn’t be happier about that. I revel in Mystery of the Wax Museum for the sublime, unintentionally postmodern jumble of a film that it is. This 1933 thriller vividly stands apart from every other horror film of that early talkie cycle.

Even if you were to imagine Night Nurse remade by Robert Wiene or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari by William Wellman, the result probably wouldn’t be as mismatched and entertaining as this crackling, genre-bending spine-tingler. We’re basically dealing with Gold-Diggers Go to Transylvania.

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The pen is mightier than the sword—satirical scribes Voltaire and Florence.

Before we go any further, folks, don’t say I didn’t warn you about plot holes that could conceal an elephant. You should also brace yourself for one of those irritatingly conservative 1930s denouements.

However, it’s all worth it to hear Glenda Farrell casually ask an unsuspecting cop, “How’s your sex life?” [Insert spit-take here.]

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Part newspaper screwball comedy, part Gothic terror, Wax Museum pits one of the most refreshing horror protagonists I’ve ever encountered against the most endearingly clichéd of horror villains. A gutsy platinum blonde sob sister, Florence Dempsey, thwarts the sick fantasy of a disfigured, deranged sculptor, whose name is… Ivan Igor. (You can practically hear the screenwriters arguing whether Ivan or Igor sounds more evil, before deciding to go with both!) It’s like watching two different movies, two different casts, whimsically spliced together. And, in my humble opinion, it works pretty well on the whole.

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But I’m getting ahead of myself. I should really explain why Warner Brothers, known for their brassy comedies and hard-hitting crime dramas, made this flamboyant foray into horror. In 1932, to get their share of the audiences flocking to Universal’s monster hits, Warner Brothers, the sassy studio of the people, launched their own prestige sci-fi/horror thriller.

To give it a real edge, Warner had Doctor X filmed entirely in two-strip Technicolor. Following close on the heels of that shocking fright-fest, the studio tried to replicate the success with Mystery of the Wax Museum. With characteristic tracking shots and panache, Michael Curtiz helmed Doctor X and Wax Museum, which both also star Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray.

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I consider the latter film superior and I’ll give you three guesses as to why. (Hint: Glenda Farrell, Glenda Farrell, Glenda Farrell!)

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Horror films of the 1930s spent an awful lot of time trying to cope with the disturbing power of images and/or the idea of some process that preserves life while ironically destroying it. I’m not one to attest that every film is actually “about the cinema.” Still, I dare you to watch this film without pondering the parallel between Igor’s wax museum as a macabre attraction and Mystery of the Wax Museum itself as a macabre attraction.

It would make sense that the filmmakers working on nightmare pictures in the 1930s were some of the first people to grasp the inherently uncanny nature of film, how reproduces reality. How cinema can, in a way, resurrect dead things. Nevertheless, no matter how convincing or complete the likeness is, it’s never the original. Just as a lifelike wax figure cannot move and speak, a film painfully recalls to us the reality of the past without ever letting us live that reality or be with those people we see on the screen.

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In Mystery of the Wax Museum, Igor longs to duplicate human beings through what are essentially wax mummies. He doesn’t just want to make wax figures that resemble people—he needs those figures to be existentially bonded to the people they represent, molded around their bodies, like a death mask. And, to paraphrase the great French critic André Bazin, what is film if not another kind of embalmment? The cinema is 24 death masks per second.

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Where am I going with this? Well, what interests me about Wax Museum is how Igor chooses his victims. On the surface, these choices seem logical: he seeks individuals who look like his wax statues of historical figures that were destroyed many years ago. For instance, when he meets Fay Wray’s character, Charlotte, we see her through Igor’s eyes as she morphs into his long lost Marie Antoinette.

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But what really intrigues me is that Igor spares no interest at all in his primary opponent, Florence, even though she persistently asks him questions and threatens his whole project. Is he that clueless?

Interestingly enough, when Igor first spots Charlotte in his museum, Florence, who had been standing right beside Igor disappears in the following shots. Eventually we realize that Florence has sneaked off to investigate the suspicious waxworks. However, her sudden dematerialization strikes me as more than poorly cheated staging or a continuity error. It insinuates an absence into our midst. Whether we recognize this or not, a part of our mind subliminally picks up on something missing. It’s an uneasy spatial ellipsis.

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She’s there…

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Then gone…

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Then there…

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Then gone…

Why doesn’t Igor pay more attention to Florence? Because Florence’s best attributes cannot be rendered in wax. As viewers, we intuit this. The crux of Igor’s obsession reveals itself in his reactions to the divergent charms of Florence and Charlotte—and, more broadly, of Glenda Farrell and of Fay Wray. Fay Wray possesses the classic, serene beauty of a cameo. Glenda Farrell, although no belle, hits you with the force of a cyclone. Her most precious qualities—her verve, her celerity, her personality—lose their value when stilled into silence and inertia.

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Igor resents Florence because her very existence refutes his concept of human beings as wax figures—and of wax figures as humans. It speaks volumes about Igor that his cherished masterpiece was Marie Antoinette, an icon of stiff, stagnant materialism. By contrast, Florence’s spark of life and mobility saves us from the idea of people as little more than glorified set pieces.

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Wax, that lesser embalming fluid, might capture the loveliness of Fay Wray. Yet, it takes the superior mummification of celluloid to deliver Glenda Farrell’s you’re-gonna-need-Dramamine charisma to spectators eighty years later. Her modernity demands a modern medium. And two-strip Technicolor was as modern as it got in 1933.

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Today’s spectator, in particular, cannot ignore the eeriness of Mystery of the Wax Museum. We spend most of the film trying to accustom ourselves to the incongruity of seeing what we’re used to seeing in black-and-white transpire in color. The obvious unreality of black-and-white cinematography can serve as a quaintly distancing device. The illusion of presentness furnished by early Technicolor emerges with unexpected power.

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Like Igor’s creepily lifelike wax statues (actually thickly made-up extras!), two-strip Technicolor leaves us spellbound and a little alarmed. I remember tweeting along with this film on #TCMParty last October; almost every participant remarked on the strangeness of watching a pre-Code film in such phantasmagoric shadings. I think, on some level, we modern viewers tend to forget that the world wasn’t black-and-white back in the 1930s!

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Rather than using two-strip Technicolor as a pallid imitation of real life, Curtiz amplifies the creepy otherness of the early color process, giving each shot the look of a sun-faded painting. A sickly symphony of mint greens and shades of peach sherbet achingly hint at what the actors and sets look like, yet fail to furnish the true realism that we crave.

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The limitations of representation become more apparent as they approach zero. The closer you get to the thing-in-itself, the farther you feel. To quote an original poster for the movie, “Images of wax that throbbed with human passion! Almost woman! What did she lack?” Igor’s statues are identical to their subjects, but you can sense the missing souls. Two-strip Technicolor brings a now-dead cast to life more fully than black-and-white could and thus paradoxically emphasizes our distance from them.

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As you watch Mystery of the Wax Museum, notice its breakneck pace and its abundant smash cuts. Bodies are being stolen from a morgue—cut to: a newsroom. A junkie begging for dope—cut to: a Christmas tree in a police station. What the…? The urban velocity of this film gives us a startlingly heterogeneous breed of horror by grafting Gothic elements onto everyday city life. By contrast, the stolid 1950s remake House of Wax regressed back to pure Penny Dreadful stuff and lacks all the pre-Code genre-scrambling that made the original so memorable.

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Keep an eye out for oodles of smart visual touches. For instance, get a load of the long crane shot that moves back from a vat of boiling wax to the operating bed where victims will lay to the spout from which the scalding liquid will spew… to the villain entering his lair with a new victim. This camera movement (remember how hard this would’ve been in the early talkies!) tersely shows us the gruesome fate of anyone selected to be immortalized in wax. Once again, Curtiz highlights an absence; we never see the human-to-wax-figure process, but he morbidly implies it with this graceful shot.

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The operating bed empty…

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…and filled.

The switch from a high angle to a low angle when Igor reveals his insanity also impressed me. His sudden inebriation with his godlike power allows him to tower over us. It’s an old trick, but a potent one, resulting in one of the film’s spookiest moments.

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As you might expect, Glenda Farrell commits grand larceny, stealing every single scene she’s in. Years before she tackled her signature role of Torchy Blane, Farrell soared as this prototype character. If Florence Dempsey doesn’t get to do half as much as we’d like her to, she remains the conduit of the film, weaving together the many plotlines.

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Her deductions and detective work lead to the bad guys getting caught and the damsel getting saved in the nick of time. Whether she’s spouting Great Depression slang at the speed of light, grabbing bottles of bootleg whisky in plain view of the police, or screaming at the top of her lungs, Florence wins our love and respect.

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Devoid of Stanwyck’s barely repressed anger and Harlow’s frivolousness, Farrell gave us portraits of working women who looked tired, but chic and acted nervously, but competently. No superwoman, she declines to challenge the order the universe, but circulates through it with such vitality and persistence that even the strongest pillars of that universe budge a little—for the better. She’s not making a statement about how women need to fight to exist in a man’s world. She blithely exists there. And that’s enough. Try and stop her.

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Costume designer Orry-Kelly aided and abetted Farrell with a wardrobe to die for; I really need a pair of pistachio-green lounging pajamas and a full-length leopard coat with a matching-trim dress. Add them to my wish list.

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I encourage you to hunt down Mystery of the Wax Museum; alas, it has yet to receive its own DVD release. Interestingly enough, the film was believed to be lost for many years before Jack Warner’s personal print turned up. How ironic would that have been if this exotic jewel of a film had disintegrated into nothing like the wax figures at the beginning of the movie? Thankfully, it was spared from the flames.

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I would’ve never come up with all of the ideas in this post without having read André Bazin’s Qu’est-ce que le cinema?, Dudley Andrews What Cinema Is, and Laura Mulvey’s Death at 24 Frames Per Second. I gratefully acknowledge their work and encourage you to read them!

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This post is part of the Summer under the Stars Blogathon 2013, hosted by Michael of Scribe Hard On Film Jill Blake of Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence.

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The Comedy Is Ended: Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928)

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My whole career has been devoted to keeping people from knowing me.

—Lon Chaney

Lon Chaney could play just about anything—hunchbacks, legless gangsters, and all manner of “freaks.” However, Laugh, Clown, Laugh offers perhaps his most moving performance because, for much of it, we can’t shake the feeling that we’re watching Lon Chaney… as Lon Chaney. In fact, Chaney would remember the sad funnyman Tito as his favorite role.

As a traveling commedia dell’arte clown torn apart by his love for the foundling girl he adopts, Chaney gets the rare opportunity to inhabit a character devoid of menace and to act wearing little makeup for most of the film.

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Indeed, apart from a brief show scene towards the beginning, the grotesque clown makeup doesn’t factor in until rather far into the film. Already, we have a chameleonic performer playing a performer and this kind of double fiction ironically flakes away at the illusion of the film and gives us glimpses of the Chaney buried under all those ferocious facial expressions and disguises.

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For me, the most powerful scene in the film, even more powerful than the emotional breakdown of the third act, takes place when Tito is visiting a psychoanalyst to discuss his depression—he is always prone to fits of weeping. While there, he meets a rich playboy struck with the opposite affliction: bouts of uncontrollable laughter. The doctor, unaware of Tito’s profession, takes him onto the balcony of his office and points to a poster of Tito as Flik the Clown that just happens to be plastered on a building below.

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The doctor suggests that a funny show might do the melancholy man a world of good, but Tito reveals the flaw in this argument.

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No sooner does the celebrated jester announce his identity than the doctor and Count Luigi pay their respects to the great comedian who wearily thanks them. I may be projecting this, but the gracious but tired expression that comes across Chaney’s face reminds me of what you might’ve seen if you’d asked him for an autograph. His Tito conveys such exhaustion—exhaustion from living a life in which he cannot reveal his true self to anyone, much less his “daughter” with whom he’s fallen in love and who loves another man.

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Obviously the plot is something of a contrivance to wring tears out of us, but you get the feeling that the burnt-out sadness, the gloom which Tito lugs around with him, when not in make-up, derives not from Chaney’s craft as an actor, but rather from personal reserves of angst. He even supposedly said in real life, “Between pictures, there is no Lon Chaney,” as if even all that pretending and creating of screen illusions had worn away his essence as a coherent individual.

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Tito is expected to put on a show for everyone and has to lie about his feelings to Simonetta—and so he lives in a state of perpetual exile from himself.

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Contributing to the poignant realness of the situation, the radiant adolescent Loretta Young plays a radiant adolescent ingénue, Simonetta. We seem to watch both Loretta and Simonetta come of age and blossom onscreen.

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Apparently, during the making of the film, the nasty director, Herbert Brenon, liked to bully the 14-year-old Young, once even nastily telling her, in front of the crew, “I don’t know whatever gave you the idea you could be an actress.” As Young recalled, “[Brenon] would rip me up one side and down the other… but never when Lon Chaney was on the set.”

Well, Chaney caught wind of this and decided to protect the vulnerable girl by always being on-set—even when he wasn’t filming any scenes. Young gave him credit for coaching her sensitive performance: “He really directed me.” A lot of that genuine paternal warmth and mentorship comes across in their onscreen chemistry.

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Tito’s fatherly love for Simonetta and her caring devotion to him light up the screen. Indeed, Young always remembered Chaney’s protectiveness and said years later, “I shall be beholden to that sensitive, sweet man until I die.”

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I strongly recommend that you watch this movie for a master class in the glowy, gauzy textures of the silent era. I love how much un-stylized information seems to fit into each frame of silent films, as though the lack of sound facilitated a fuller picture of reality, one untrimmed of its fringes, wrinkles, and unvarnished natural details. The brilliant cinematography shows that, even relatively early in his career, James Wong Howe could coax the heartbreaking shades and nuances out of every petal on a flower, every ruffle on a costume, every plane of a character’s face.

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Almost all the silent tropes are there: the nobleman and the common girl, unrequited love, and lots and lots of scenes of characters longingly watching other characters.

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The contrast between the buoyant, lily-like grace of an angelic Loretta Young and the pathetic, knockabout ugliness of Flik make this film remarkably striking.

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The juxtaposition of beauty and grotesqueness produces enough visual tension to sustain a story that really doesn’t have much to it in terms of intrigue. The difference between Chaney’s facial expressions and the constant painter smile of the clown makeup also interjects a creepiness into the scenes where he becomes enraged or breaks down into tears.

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And then there’s the brilliantly expressionistic final sequence. Don’t read on if you don’t want major spoilers.

Realizing that he could never make Simonetta happy, even though she agrees to marry him out of gratitude, Tito goes to the theater gets into costume and psyches himself up into a frenzy in front of a mirror—if he can’t be himself and be happy, he’ll at least die in the role that everyone expects him to play.

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The visuals in this scene turn incredibly flamboyant and disorienting, providing a glimpse into his unhinged mind.

As he stands on the stage, the yawning theater dwarfs him.

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Flik hallucinates an audience and we see a superimposed kaleidoscopic ring of spectators hovering around him

Laugh, Clown, Laugh Laugh, Clown, Laugh Finally as he ascends his signature head-stand “death-defying slide” he looks down on his partner from an angle so high and canted that it borders on total abstraction.

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Then he lets himself go into the slide—and slides right into the camera, as though crashing into the audience! Then he tumbles off the wire.

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Simon and the stage manager pick up the mortally wounded clown and, as they do, his big floppy fake feet swing towards the camera making him bitterly ludicrous even in his dying moments.

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As Simon cradles Tito in his arms, Tito turns to the camera, touches his nose as though taking us in his confidence, and breathes his last words—still in character.

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This announcement not only breaks down the forth wall, it widens the context of the movie’s theme of the actor as a kind of sacrifice, an object of consumption for an audience who fails to understand the pain behind the mask. By declaring that the comedy is over just as the film itself is coming to a close, Lon Chaney as Tito invites us to think of the story as a parable for the travail of anyone who hides his identity behind an act put forward for our amusement.

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As much as “the tears of a clown” are kind of a cliché, I can’t help but watch this without thinking of all the silent stars who succumbed to their own press mythology and died early deaths. I particularly think of my favorite silent clown, Max Linder, who slit his wrists (and those of his wife) just a few years before this movie was made.

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I imagine that’s one hell of a burden when thousands of people applaud you, but have no clue about the person you really are. In fact, when a person attains that kind of celebrity, and Chaney conveys this beautifully, I suspect that the performer begins not to know who he is himself! The essence of a person breaks down into frayed personae that will not be reconciled. An actor is something like a philosopher in the sense that he is always both himself and looking in at himself. This schism can be funny. But really it’s quite, quite sad.

And, on that happy note, la commedia è finita.

Oh, and I took all these screenshots of the glory that is Nils Asther. I’m certainly not letting them go to waste. You’re welcome.

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