With a triumphant screening of the newly-restored Fritz Lang epic Metropolis at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, the TCM Classic Film Festival came to a close last night. From the cheers of the crowd—not only for the film, and an extraordinary performance by the three-man Alloy Orchestra, but for TCM host Robert Osborne’s announcement that there will be a 2nd edition of the Festival next year—it was clear that this ambitious event was a smash success.
When Turner Classic Movies announced the festival several months ago I heard grumbling from local film-buff friends who questioned why—
—anyone would shell out the high price of admission to see familiar movies. But these are people who live here in Los Angeles, where we’re spoiled by opportunities to see vintage films on a big screen, and where the presence of Hollywood veterans is a common occurrence. For newcomers to the fold—like a number of film students who got to attend—and people from out of town—a total of 45 states and 10 foreign countries, it turns out—this was a little slice of heaven. People spend huge sums of money to go to sports fantasy camps and no one questions them. These people chose to come to a movie fantasy camp, you might say, and from the broad smiles and upbeat vibe in the air, I’d say they were happy they did.
All weekend long people came over to greet me who’ve been reading my books for years and never thought they’d have a chance to say hello in person. If that’s how they felt about seeing me, imagine how they felt about Luise Rainer, Tony Curtis, Ernest Borgnine, Mel Brooks, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Martin Landau, Norman Lloyd, Anjelica Huston, Danny Huston, Tab Hunter, Esther Williams, Betty Garrett, Buck Henry, Eli Wallach, Nancy Olson, Susan Kohner, Juanita Moore, Nancy Olson, Darryl Hickman, and such filmmakers as Peter Bogdanovich, Douglas Trumbull, Stanley Donen, Richard Rush, and Curtis Hanson?That list doesn’t include other behind-the-scenes people and filmmakers who introduced films and appeared on panels over the course of the four-day event…like Lana Turner’s daughter, Joan Crawford’s grandson, and Melvyn Douglas’ granddaughter (actress Illeana Douglas).
TCM hired Bill and Stella Pence, co-founders of the Telluride Film Festival, to guide them in this maiden effort, and the event unfolded in true Telluride fashion, with multiple events going on simultaneously. That meant people had to make painful choices at times, but it also enabled the festival to accommodate some 2,000 attendees by disbursing them among four or five locations. (Even as one of the hosts I couldn’t avoid the problem of competitive scheduling: having to introduce a new digital restoration of King Kong at Grauman’s Chinese Theater meant I couldn’t watch a 70mm presentation of 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Egyptian theater just down the street.)
This also means that everyone who participated in the weekend had an entirely individual experience. The two communal gatherings were opening night, when A Star is Born was presented at the Chinese (which holds so many people) and closing night, at the same location, where Metropolis was shown.
I was present at thirteen events altogether, so while I can’t tell you about Robert Osborne’s interview with Luise Rainer prior to screening The Good Earth, or Mel Brooks’ shtick when his star was installed on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, I can review some of my personal highlights.
Being able to introduce, and watch at least part of, the original King Kong at the very theater where it premiered in 1933 was incredibly exciting. Warner Bros.’ new digital restoration, which will yield a Blu-ray home video release later this year, looked magnificent on the huge Chinese Theater screen. Best of all, it didn’t have the look of a spruced-up video: it was as if we were watching a pristine 35mm print. And it was preceded by Max Steiner’s original overture.
Friday afternoon I conducted an hour-long conversation with Peter Bogdanovich at Club TCM, the festival lounge that was artfully constructed inside the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel’s Blossom Room, site of the first Academy Awards presentation. Peter is one of the world’s great raconteurs, and he was in fine form, with an eager audience hanging on his every word. Naturally, I asked him to tell stories about the great filmmakers he knew (Orson Welles, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks—all of whom he impersonates quite well), but I also asked about his own work on such now-classic films as The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon. Although a generation of gifted French filmmakers started out as critics, with vast knowledge of movie history, Peter is one of a rare breed in this country, who started out as a journalist and became a filmmaker of note. Today he is a living link to Hollywood lore.
Later that day I introduced a new 35mm print of Delmer Daves’ 1956 western Jubal. Sony’s Senior Vice President of Restoration, Grover Crisp, explained that it was only in recent years, with digital processes, that he and his team were able to restore the faded color and remove the deep scratches that existed in the original materials on this entertaining film. They also slightly shrank the extra-wide 2:55:1 widescreen image to fit into today’s conventional 2:35:1 CinemaScope frame. I was even more impressed with the original three-channel stereophonic sound, which showed off David Raksin’s score wonderfully well. After the screening I interviewed the indestructible 93-year-old Ernest Borgnine, who had fond memories of filming on location in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and great fondness for writer-director Daves. We talked about his career in general, and Borgnine completely charmed the audience.
Immediately following that screening my wife and I took in an extracurricular show, of Elia Kazan’s Wild River, another beautiful widescreen restoration introduced by filmmaker and film buff extraordinaire Curtis Hanson and The Film Foundation’s Margaret Bodde. I had missed other recent screenings of this film and I’m so glad I finally caught up with it: it is magnificent in every way. I won’t soon forget Lee Remick’s performance, as one of the most complex and compelling women I’ve ever seen on screen, or Jo Van Fleet, who played a stubborn Southern woman of 80 when she was only half that age at the time.
On Saturday I had the great pleasure of introducing a selection of vintage short subjects that TCM asked me to program. I chose a 90-minute assortment of old and cherished favorites, which an enthusiastic crowd seemed to enjoy. It was heartening for me to hear their response, and thrilling to see beautiful 35mm prints of Ruth Etting in Favorite Melodies, Charley Chase and Thelma Todd in The Pip from Pittsburg, Leo Carrillo and an all-star cast in the Technicolor two-reeler Star Night at Cocoanut Grove, Robert Benchley in How to Sleep, the MGM Historical Mystery The Man in the Barn, Pete Smith’s Movie Pests, and the Joe McDoakes gem So You Want to Be a Detective. (Incidentally, Movie Pests was co-written by Joe Ansen, whose son David is an outstanding film critic who just happened to attend several TCM Festival screenings.)
Then it was off to the Egyptian Theater to introduce a Harold Lloyd program of silent comedy, the two-reeler An Eastern Westerner followed by his classic feature Safety Last, accompanied by Robert Israel and a 12-piece orchestra. Harold’s granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd helped me set the stage, and was especially keen to point out that the audience would not only be seeing her grandfather but her grandmother, Mildred Davis, who was Harold’s leading lady. In talking about Safety Last Sue mentioned that whenever he would take her to see the circus, he would always excuse himself when an aerial act came on. When she would ask why he said that when he made his “high and dizzy” comedies he felt in complete control—but watching anything real involving heights made him queasy!
That evening I had the pleasure of watching a brand-new print, struck by the Museum of Modern Art’s 35mm camera negative of The Story of Temple Drake. This notorious 1933 film about rape and sexual degradation, based on William Faulkner’s Sanctuary, is fascinating on several accounts, but I can tell you it never looked this beautiful in any prior screening. Karl Struss’ incredible cinematography, much of it shot in the dark, and punctuated by intense ultra-closeups of leading lady Miriam Hopkins and oily villain Jack La Rue, had the audience riveted.
I then introduced The Adventures of Robin Hood (preceded by Chuck Jones’ cartoon Rabbit Hood) but didn’t have the energy to stay. I knew I had to be up early on Sunday to introduce Damn Yankees, although TCM host Ben Mankiewicz conducted an interview with its star Tab Hunter after the film, because I was across the street at the Roosevelt Hotel to host a seminar with two veteran script supervisors.
TCM arranged panel discussions throughout the weekend, and I heard great feedback on these conversations about casting, location scouting, and Hollywood’s love affair with remakes. My panel spotlighted the little-celebrated, and little-understood, job of script supervision, and we were fortunate to have two superior guests, Angela Allen (who managed to fly in from London after a four-day volcano-related delay) and Ana Maria Quintana. Angela started out in London as a very young woman, but within her first year on the job had worked in Vienna on The Thrid Man and in Africa on The African Queen! (She is interviewed on the most recent DVD editions of both films.) She subsequently worked with John Huston on fourteen films, and he clearly came to rely on her. When Allen pointed out that Katharine Hepburn was wearing the wrong hat in a particular scene, and the star balked at having to change her outfit, Huston backed the young script supervisor and told “Katie” that she was merely doing her job.
Ana Maria was born in Chile, moved to the U.S. when she was 12, and always dreamed of working in Hollywood. It was seeing Anouk Aimee play a script supervisor in A Man and a Woman that made her want to pursue that job, and she got her break when, on a cold phone call, she was asked if she spoke Spanish. That got her foot in the door. In 1991 she had a brief conversation with Steven Spielberg which led to her hiring on Hook, and he has used her ever since; she recently wrapped production on his latest film, The Adventures of Tin-Tin, which gave her experience in the brave new world of performance capture production.
Both women had great stories to share, which only underscores the fact that every aspect of filmmaking is a potential goldmine for film researchers and historians.
Sunday afternoon my wife and I looked forward to seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur on the big screen, and enjoyed revisiting this old favorite in a beautiful print from the Library of Congress. It holds up awfully well—and so do its elaborate and innovative visual effects. After the screening I interviewed the saboteur himself, Norman Lloyd, who remains vital, charming, and eloquent at the age of 95. He told us how Hitchcock asked if he could fall backwards over the Statue of Liberty railing—to a waiting mattress four feet below—so audiences could see that it was really him taking the fall. He said he can still picture the grip who kept him from rolling off the platform on Universal Stage 12, and concluded that he was proud of his athleticism. The audience roared its approval.
Finally, everyone converged on Grauman’s Chinese Theater Sunday night to see the much-touted restoration of Metropolis, incorporating nearly 30 minutes of long-lost footage recently discovered in a 16mm print in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Added to an already impressive renovation in 2002 by the F.W. Murnau Foundation, which incorporated this new material, the new, 153-minute epic is more stunning than ever, a mad masterpiece that can only be truly appreciated on a big screen.
I have to stop now; I’m exhausted from this three-day marathon. (I stopped by the red carpet on opening night Thursday but couldn’t stay for A Star is Born because I had to teach my class at USC.) But I’m happy I could be part of such an extraordinary weekend, and can’t wait for next year’s encore.