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Feasting On The TCM Fest

Feasting On The TCM Fest

There were so many films, panels, and guests at the third annual TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood this past weekend that it was impossible to take it all in. Since I hosted ten events over the course of the weekend, I missed out on Kim Novak’s conversation with Robert Osborne and her hand-and-footprint ceremony at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, among other highlights, but I still had plenty of great experiences, beginning on the red carpet opening night.

There was a full complement of TV crews and photographers lining the carpet to see a wide range of stars, from Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey, who starred in the opening-night attraction, Cabaret, to a bevy of familiar faces from movies and television. I was getting my picture taken when, all of a sudden, there was a commotion: it was 91-year-old Mickey Rooney, charging (that’s the only word to describe it) onto the carpet, smiling and waving. He grabbed my hand and gave me a hearty hello; that doesn’t happen just anywhere. (On my other side was the always charming Margaret O’Brien.)

The festival spotlighted an unusual number of nonagenerians, all of them inspiring. I interviewed 93-year-old silent-film star Diana Serra Cary following a screening of Vera Iwerebor’s moving documentary Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room. I’m delighted that Milestone Film and Video is releasing this poignant film, which traces Diana’s unusual life journey, and her ultimate coming to terms with the child star she tried to disown decades ago. Today she is a model of grace and serenity, and extremely articulate about the price a child actor pays for fame.

I introduced Marge Champion, who proudly says she is in her 93rd year (meaning that she’s currently 92), before a screening of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at Grauman’s Chinese, as she was the dance and movement model for Disney’s animators. Then I interviewed the delightful Ginnifer Goodwin, who currently plays an incarnation of Snow White on ABC TV’s Once Upon a Time. It turns out that Ginnifer is a lifelong Disney fan, and Snow White is her all-time favorite movie. You couldn’t make that up; in fact, her sister was so enchanted by Disney cartoons that she became an animator. The audience seemed to enjoy hearing this vibrant young star talk about her fondness for the character of Snow White.

I was sorry not to be able to stay for the next day’s screening of a newly-restored 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea at Grauman’s, but I did get to say hello to its star, Kirk Douglas, who’s still going strong at 95. He told me he is about to have his third Bar Mitzvah, which will land him in the Guinness Book of World Records. He also has a new book on its way called I Am Spartacus which includes still photos from the first phase of production, under Anthony Mann’s direction; apparently Universal “shelved” those rolls of film and never had them developed until now. (TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz had the privilege of interviewing Kirk that afternoon, and pointed out that his great uncle Joe made one of the actor’s first great films, A Letter to Three Wives.)

On Saturday night I spoke to 102-year-old Carla Laemmle, the last surviving cast member of Dracula, who charmed everyone in attendance with her wonderful spirit. Just before our interview, horror-film scholar David Skal gave me a great tip: I asked Carla if it was true that she remembered her parents showing her a newspaper headline about the sinking of the Titanic, one hundred years ago that night. She said yes!  Even though she was only two years old, the shock of the tragedy stayed with her all these years. As you may know, Carla has a small role as a dowdy secretary in the opening scene of Dracula, but it is historic because she speaks the first lines of dialogue in the picture.

I had two occasions to interview a younger Hollywood veteran, producer Robert Evans, before screenings of Love Story (which saved Paramount Pictures from being shut down) and Black Sunday. Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone, who now owns Paramount, came to the Love Story matinee on Friday to show support and friendship for Evans, who is bursting with great stories. Knowing the film-buff crowd on hand, I asked him to relate how he was discovered by Norma Shearer, who saw him alongside a hotel pool and chose him to play her late husband Irving Thalberg in The Man of a Thousand Faces. He then told us how generous James Cagney was to him when he was too nervous to get out his first line of dialogue.

Harold Lloyd’s granddaughter Suzanne always has interesting things to say about her grandfather’s movies, as she is the keeper of his flame. I always enjoy talking to her before a screening. There was a great turnout for his 1924 silent comedy Girl Shy, which played at the Egyptian Theatre with live accompaniment by the Robert Israel Orchestra.

In fact, festivalgoers turned out in large numbers to see films even when there wasn’t a guest on hand. I was honored to introduce my all-time favorite movie, Casablanca, and must admit I was mildly surprised to see about 700 people at Grauman’s. They came from far and wide for just this reason: to be able to see a great movie on a large (and historic) screen. I tried to provide some context and behind-the-scenes stories about this landmark film, as I did the first morning of the festival, when I introduced the long-unavailable 1947 movie The Macomber Affair, arguably the best screen adaptation of an Ernest Hemingway story. Warner Bros. has just cleared the rights so the film can be screened once again, and I’m happy to report that it will turn up later this year on TCM.

Bruce Goldstein of New York City’s Film Forum hosted a tough, but enjoyable, round of illustrated movie trivia (using film clips) at Club TCM on Friday afternoon, and stumped everyone in the room with the question, “What person who is in attendance this weekend appeared in the pilot episode of the TV series The Beverly Hillbillies?” The answer: TCM’s own Robert Osborne!

At the closing night party I met dozens of nice people who had traveled from all points on the compass to be part of this festival. Contrary to stereotype, there were a number of young people, along with folks in my age bracket who, in some cases, got to attend as a birthday or anniversary present. TCM has captured lightning in a bottle with this elaborate and ambitious event. They featured actors, writers, directors, costume and fashion designers, historians, publicists, and art directors over the course of the busy weekend, and everyone seemed to have a great time.

There was also a feeling of serendipity in the air. One of the high spots for me was getting to see the apparently ageless Peggy Cummins, who flew in from London, before a screening of her amazing film noir Gun Crazy. (As she admitted to interviewer Eddie Muller, she made other movies she liked, such as The Late George Apley with Ronald Colman and Moss Rose with Victor Mature, but even in 1950 she appreciated the opportunity to break away from playing “pretty young things” by becoming the femme fatale in Joseph H. Lewis’ exceptional crime story.)The night before that showing, my family and I had dinner with friends at a restaurant in the Hollywood & Highland complex, which houses the Mann 6 theaters where many screenings were held. At one point I realized that Miss Cummins and her friend Eunice Gayson (an original Bond Girl from Dr. No) were seated two tables away and went over to pay my respects. We had a lovely conversation, and at one point she asked the name of the actor with whom I was dining, whom she had met briefly on her way to the restaurant. I told her his name was James Karen, a lifelong actor whose uncle was Morris Carnovsky. After a beat, she said, “Wasn’t he in Gun Crazy?” Indeed he was. How perfect that such a connection should come about at the TCM Classic Film Festival.

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