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For the second
year, I’ve been asked to host two evenings in Turner Classic Movies’ “Road to Hollywood ” series—last week with Jane Powell inCambridge, Massachusetts and this week with Mitzi Gaynor in Chicago. Need I add that it’s been great fun?
There are ten free screenings in all, enabling fans around the country to get a
taste of what people experience when they attend TCM’s Classic Film Festival in Los Angeles, now in its fourth year, and scheduled
for April 25-28.

Jane Powell is
a pleasure to be with, a gracious and charming woman who belies her age and
doesn’t hide it, either. (She’ll be 84 next month.) It’s hard to believe that
she made her film debut some 70 years ago opposite Edgar Bergen and Charlie
McCarthy in Song of the Open Road.
All that experience comes into play when she talks to a live audience about her
career. She doesn’t live in the past—quite the opposite—but she knows how much
people enjoy hearing her reminisce about her years at
MGM and her impressions of everyone from
Fred Astaire to the boss she so admired, Louis B. Mayer. She has fond memories
of the studio, which served and protected her for nearly a decade.

Last year we
introduced Seven Brides for Seven
Denver; this time around it was a 35mm print
of Royal Wedding, which filled the
cozy Brattle Theater in
Cambridge. The venerable repertory theater not
only still screens 35mm but has 16mm equipment; thanks to a recent Kickstarter
campaign, it will soon be adding digital projection as well. I was impressed
that its current calendar ranges from the films of Park Chan-wook to the
classics of Ernst Lubitsch. That’s what I call eclecticism. I also marveled at
its unusual rear-screen projection setup, with a booth behind the stage and a
mirror beaming the image onto that screen.

The Music Box
Theatre in Chicago is much larger, but it was filled to
capacity to see Mitzi Gaynor introduce a showing of South Pacific. Mitzi is a pistol, and she delights in amusing an
audience with her saucy, salty anecdotes and lightning-quick asides. (“I love
you,” shouted one attendee. Without missing a beat Mitzi shot back, “I love you
more!”) Having done several press interviews together that morning, we quickly
developed a rapport, and she didn’t mind my trying to gently steer her
hilarious nonstop chatter. It’s a shame
Hollywood didn’t let us see this side of Mitzi
during her heyday onscreen, but I suspect that it was her smarts—not just her
talent—that made her successful. She speaks of a warm relationship with Irving
Berlin, tells an incredible tale of auditioning for Cole Porter at his home for
a show that she later turned down, and, of course, winning over both Richard
Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II in order to capture the coveted role of Nellie
Forbush in South Pacific. (How savvy
was she? She auditioned those famous songs in Mary Martin’s key…making her seem
like a natural to step into the Broadway star’s shoes.)

One reporter
asked Mitzi if she’d ever had to deal with the trials of a casting couch, and
she said no, but told a funny story about being summoned to Darryl F. Zanuck’s
office one day as she was leaving the 20th Century Fox lot in her sweaty dance
rehearsal clothes and her hair tied in a bun. After running a gauntlet of
secretaries and making her way through the studio chief’s vast office, he
looked her up and down and dismissed her, muttering, “You look better on film.”

I can tell you
this: she not only looks great today, but exudes an energy and enthusiasm
that’s irresistible. I count myself lucky to have spent quality time with her
this week.

Find out more about TCM’s Classic Film Festival HERE.

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