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TCM Classic Film Festival Round-Up: The Film Festival of Film Festivals

TCM Classic Film Festival Round-Up: The Film Festival of Film Festivals

From Vanity Fair calling it “Comic-Con for the Martini Set” to being dubbed “the Disney World for classic movies,” TCM Classic Film Festival is all of that and so much more. Although both descriptions are fitting, there are so many aspects of cinema and Hollywood at work, more than you’d see at any other film festival this year, that it would be unfair to pigeonhole the event for a certain set or level of cinephile nerd-dom. If you aren’t familiar with TCM, it’s a cable station devoted to classic films and, unlike its competitors, has no commercials (maybe a few vintage trailers and programming promos, but nothing too corporate). If you’re one of those people who refuses to watch anything in black-and-white (excuse our death glares), this year’s festival programming proved that TCM is devoted to great cinema and that the term classic can be (and should be) applied to films before, during and after the “more stars than there are in heaven” era of classic Hollywood.

In its fourth year and taking place over the course of only four days (April 25-28), the festival was packed to the brim with fantastic films, legendary stars and filmmakers, hordes of film fans, and a marvelous pack of hosts (including Leonard Maltin, new TCM “Second Looks” host Illeana Douglas, and Cher) spearheaded by mainstay TCM host Robert Osborne and weekend TCM host Ben Mankiewicz. Unlike other festivals, all of these films have been watched and written on so many times by a numberless amount of academics, critics and theorists, along with spoken about in intimidating quality by Osborne and Mankiewicz. Therefore, we aren’t including film reviews, but rather impressions, trivia, factoids and quotes. A few weeks on, here are a few highlights for your perusal and we hope to see you there next year (actually, considering this year’s long lines and packed theaters, no we don’t).

Hollywood Legends On And Off The Red Carpet

Indicative of the rest of the festival, the opening night red carpet was chock full of icons from a spry Tippi Hedren to the intimidating, albeit gracious, Max von Sydow to “Airplane”’s joking and smiling Robert Hays. Although she had probably been asked a million times, Eva Marie Saint answered that her favorite leading man was “my husband of 61 years” and then went on to add that “Cary Grant was everything you’d think he would be,” with a charming smile. When asked how it was being a child star, the now-87 year-old Jane Withers, a former box office rival of Shirley Temple’s, responded “Awesome!” Withers was soon joined by Ann Blyth for a brief moment, the two are dear friends and had been each other’s bridesmaids. Later during the festival, Blyth described working in Hollywood as like being part of a family — “these same people there for me and looking out for me. I felt very cared for.” — and even mentioned how she, Jane Withers, Jane Powell and Joan Leslie meet at least four times a year. Each star was bubbling to be there, so appreciative of the fans who came out, and wasn’t trying to hock anything (unlike a few festivals we could mention).

These legendary actors spoke fondly of their films, but gushingly of their families, adding a distinctive warmth and sense of community you can only find at the TCM Classic Film Festival. On the red carpet, Von Sydow credited his wife for his longevity, Blyth’s grandchildren (her granddaughter bearing a particularly striking resemblance) were in attendance for the festival’s screening of “Kismet,” Hedren mentioned how her move to Hollywood was for the sake of her daughter Melanie Griffith “because in living in New York City, there isn’t such a sentence as, ‘Mommy, I’m going out to play,’” during her introduction for “The Birds.” Meanwhile, Withers mentioned that the rave reviews Barbra Streisand gave about her daughter (who works for Streisand) meant more to her than any for her films. In the midst of so many great events, we missed the Jane Fonda handprint ceremony, but we gather it was a very moving moment as Fonda placed her hands in cement to be forever immortalized in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (TCL, my foot!) and placed next to her father’s own cement prints, especially with her brother, children and grandchildren in attendance. Overall, the red carpet and other festival encounters with these legends created a magical and near-intimate atmosphere, making the festival a true once-in-a-lifetime experience for stars and civilians alike.

Funny Girl (1968)
Introduction by Robert Osborne with Catherine Wyler and Cher

For this year’s gala red carpet screening, TCM chose the 45th anniversary restored print of “Funny Girl,” starting this year’s festival with a characteristic colorful and musical bang (past festival openers — “A Star is Born,” “An American in Paris” and “Cabaret”). Special guests and fans alike packed Grauman’s and watched the stunning copy of “Funny Girl” in all of its Technicolor glory. The introduction was hosted by stalwart Robert Osborne and included director William Wyler’s daughter Catherine (who read out a letter from Babs herself) and surprise guest Cher (host of TCM’s “A Woman’s World” showcase). Whether you’ve seen it a million times or not, seeing “Funny Girl” on the big screen at Grauman’s is truly breath-taking, you’ll find yourself feeling the same emotions you would in your living room or at your local theater, but so much more amplified – being swept away with Fanny from train station to tugboat on her trek to Nick during “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and with your heart slightly broken and eyes slightly watering by Fanny’s own heartbreak in “My Man.” Other than Streisand popping up in front of the screen during those key moments, nothing could have pulled the heartstrings more than this beautiful restoration of such an iconic film at such a historic theater.

The Twelve Chairs (1970)
Introduction by Robert Osborne with Mel Brooks

One of the quirkier picks at this year’s festival, “The Twelve Chairs” was an unexpected delight about an impoverished aristocrat (Ron Moody) after the Soviet Revolution (a White Russian making his way in a Red world) and his attempts to recover the family jewels, with Dom DeLuise as a money-grubbing priest, Mel Brooks as the not-so-bright former servant Tikon and Frank Langella as a charming young stud (no really, check him out, this was his screen debut). To be honest, we went mostly with the hopes of being in the same physical vicinity as comic legend Mel Brooks.

Brooks sat down with Robert Osborne, gushing that he was with “the Robert Osborne,” and with usual irreverent flair, Brooks poked fun at one of the festival sponsors, asking, “Who the hell can afford a Porsche?” and saying he may accept one as a gift “if Porsche apologizes for World War Two, maybe.” Moving on from the niceties, Brooks shared how he got the story for “The Twelve Chairs.” He was a part of “a club, gourmet society… in Chinatown” with “Steve Vogel, a wrecked metal sculptor and great guy, Julie Green, Mario Puzo and Joe Howard.” It was Green who referred him to the book “The Twelve Chairs,” after having read its sequel “The Golden Little Calf” by Soviet authors Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov and deeming it “the craziest book I’ve ever read.” So Brooks read “The Twelve Chairs” and “was in love with it, every page.”

Going through the plot, Brooks referred to Dom DeLuise as “the piece de resistance, the funniest man that ever lived” and revealed that this film “has a lot to say about my basic thing in the movies – money or love. Usually, in real life I go for money, but on the screen I go for love.” On an ending note, Brooks said that he didn’t think “anybody’s seen this picture in twenty or thirty years” and spoke about the importance of seeing films with an audience – “When you make comedies and you can imagine one bald guy eating spaghetti all alone in a room watching your program, it’s sad. Once there’s a whole bunch of people… Comedy is a cumulative experience.” Sensing the cue as Brooks was scheduled to only be there five minutes, ten tops, Osborne concluded with this apt assessment of Brooks – “He’s the person we’d all like to take with us on a desert island trip, he’s so much fun.” – and we couldn’t agree more.   

Gimme Shelter (1969)
Part of a Tribute to Albert Maysles
Introduction by Haskell Wexler with Albert Maysles and Joan Churchill

Read highlights here.

Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)
Introduction by Dana Gould

One of two midnight screenings, “Plan 9 From Outer Space” is an infamously all-out cult classic. If you feel like you’ve seen it enough times (aka zero) or know enough about it from “Ed Wood,” you really should see the film on the big screen with a packed house, its worth it just for the audience’s laughs and jeers in near-unison. Comedian and former “Simpsons” writer Dana Gould introduced the film with a spattering of self-deprecating jokes, film trivia and personal anecdotes. Turning it into a bit of a show-and-tell, Gould brought out one of the film’s original “flying saucers,” around the size of a dinner plate and dangling from a string, and regaled the audience with a few stories from his friendship with Maila Nurmi (aka Vampira), who features heavily in the film. One thing we’ll never forget (once you read, you can’t un-read it) was when he mentioned how he and Vampira would meet up regularly at a diner and how she would sometimes forget her lower teeth (oh dentures…). A kitschy intro for a kooky film and another real once-in-a-lifetime event.

The Ladykillers (1955)
Introduction by Bill Hader

We won’t pretend to be impartial to this Ealing comedy, therefore seeing “The Ladykillers” on the big screen in an actual theater (rather than a pull-down in a lecture hall or on TV) was flipping incredible, even at 9 AM on a Saturday. For a description, check out our 20 Great British Crime Movies. Some highlights from the screening include Alec Guinness’s prop teeth being on full display (this theatergoer may have physically lurched at the shot reveal of “Professor” Marcus), a few hoots for a young Teddy Boy Peter Sellers, and awwwws from the audience at the indomitable Katie Johnson and her scatterbrained, old lady loveliness.

Acting as host, Bill Hader started off with some (we assume) fake Italian (a nod to Vinny Vedecci on ‘SNL’) and thanked the crowd “for coming out so early for a droll British comedy.” Hader shared his own experience with “The Ladykillers,” having discovered Ealing comedies during his twenties and this being his first one and overall favorite. Hader explained how movies couldn’t get away with such larger-than-life, bordering on ludicrous, characters like the Professor, “Doing sketch comedy, we can put in crazy teeth and… have insane hair and talk like this [puts on British accent[ and all these things and it works. It doesn’t really work in movies now and it’s cool seeing Alec Guinness somehow make this character that he plays, it taught me at least how you can do it, but still make it grounded and feel real. The guy’s funny, but he still poses a real threat.” As an ending note, Hader mentioned how modern comedies don’t quite have the same attention to detail and concluded that “The Ladykillers” is “beautiful. Every shot is like a painting to me.” Though we’re sad to see him leave SNL, hopefully now Hader will have his chance to be a part of a painting-esque movie, if he doesn’t have one in the pipeline already. 

Deliverance (1981)
Introduction by Ben Mankiewicz with John Boorman, Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, and Ned Beatty

See what we learned here.

Mildred Pierce (1945)
Introduction by Robert Osborne with Ann Blyth

Probably the most receptive and therefore fun audience during the festival was at the evening screening of “Mildred Pierce.” With a line that went around three blocks (at least by the time we got there, with a half hour to spare), the Egyptian Theatre was packed and thrilled to see the classic on the big screen, especially with an introduction by Robert Osborne with Ann Blyth.

In regards to “Mildred Pierce,” Blyth spoke of working with director Michael Curtiz, who by many reports was difficult to work with (e.g. after 12 films together, Errol Flynn refused to work with him ever again) — “for some reason he and I hit it off, we just did from the very beginning.” –, her screen test with Joan Crawford — “It was so unusual for a star of her stature at that time. It was a dream come true. Obviously because it made a huge difference in how you even start to think about this character that you’re going to play and the actress who will be playing your mother doing the test with you made a world of difference.” — and those pesky “Mommie Dearest”-related rumors — “I have nothing but wonderful memories of her. All I can say was that it was a wonderful learning experience and she was kind to me during the making of the movie and kind to me in private afterwards for many, many years.”

On her leading men co-stars (Gregory Peck, Robert Taylor, Paul Newman, Charles Boyer – tellingly, she did not mention Mario Lanza, later saying she did not have any issues working with the late tenor, who notoriously was so difficult to work with that Doretta Morrow refused to make another movie after playing his love interest), Blyth said, “They were all so talented in their own particular way, never mind that they were all so good-looking. That was the easy part.” It was clear within moments that Blyth was nothing like her “Mildred Pierce” character Veda, the typified ungrateful child that she had played so eerily well, even staying for the screening and reacting along with the audience (we’re witnesses, we heard her laugh a few times), and relished being able to share her memories of Hollywood’s golden age.

Badlands (1973)
Introduction by Ben Mankiewicz with Ed Pressman and Billy Weber

Producer Ed Pressman and editor Billy Weber gave an in-depth look into the production behind the Terrence Malick classic about a teenager (Sissy Spacek) and her older boyfriend (Martin Sheen) going on the run, killing and robbing along the way.

Producer Ed Pressman spoke about the business side of making “Badlands,” which was a troubled production, including a fire and multiple crew changes (including editor Bob Estren leaving, which led to Weber becoming editor). The film cost less than $750,000 to make and its main financier was Pressman’s mother, whose funds came from Pressman Toy Corporation, the still-running family toy business.  Even after production was finished and Warner Bros. had given them $1 million deal to distribute, the film had some issues while being screened. Warner set up a test screening of “Badlands” paired with “Blazing Saddles” as a double feature, which did not go so well, receiving “the worst cards in the history of Warner Bros.” This resulted in an interesting pre-screening trajectory, including Little Rock and Dallas.

For all of you Terrence Malick fans, Weber spoke of the enigmatic director and said, “Working with him was like walking down the garden path. He doesn’t know what’s going to come up in the next curve on the path. He approaches everything like that… It’s always a wonderful adventure working with him… He allows you to express yourself artistically with an end… It’s unlike most mainstream filmmaking.” To read more about their working relationship and friendship, check out the highlights of our conversation with Weber.

The Birds (1963)
Introduction by Ben Mankiewicz with Tippi Hedren

Even if you’ve seen it almost a million times, read every academic text on Alfred Hitchcock and watched HBO’s “The Girl,” there is nothing comparable to seeing “The Birds” on the big screen at Grauman’s after an introduction with Ben Mankiewicz and star Tippi Hedren discussing the film and her career.

The discussion began on the topic of Hedren’s transition from modeling in New York to acting in Hollywood and her uncertainty at that stage. Fate stepped in and she “received this call on Friday the 13th of October 1961.” The caller remained vague about the interested director, but Hedren went to Universal and left off her film and fashion photobook anyway. A few days later, she was told finally that it was Hitchcock and signed the contract, beginning a whirlwind of cinematic history. About a month in, Hedren shot one of the most dream-worthy screen tests ever – “We did scenes from “Rebecca,” “Notorious” and “To Catch A Thief,” three entirely different women. Edith Head did my clothes; that’s quite a woman. Alfred Hitchcock and his wife Alma were my drama coaches… And then, three days of filming, which was wonderful fun. Hitch’s main crew, Bob Burke the DP, Bob Boyle who was the set director, it was huge.” Three weeks after that, Hedren went to dinner the Hitchcocks and Lew Wasserman, and was presented with a pin – “gold and sea pearls of three birds in flight,” (which she wore to this event) – and the role of Melanie Daniels, the much-coveted lead in “The Birds.”

As for the legendary director, Hedren spoke of Hitchcock’s two sides with equal fervor – the mentor and the man obsessed. Hedren credited Hitchcock for teaching her in  “becoming a character, how you break down a script, how you work on and develop that character and develop your relationships with the other players in the script.” Though once they got to work, his mentoring made a not-so-nice turn. On “The Birds,” when Hedren questioned why her character would go up into the bird-ridden attic in that now iconic albeit still baffling scene, he said, “Because I tell you to.” One of the most horrifying shoots in Hollywood history, Hedren went into a chainlink fence and had birds tied to her, nearly losing an eye. As for the man with an obsession (dramatized in “The Girl”), Hedren sympathized with women out in the audience who had experienced similar situations (an unrequited extreme infatuation) and said, “It’s a horrible, confining situation that is unbearable.” She continued to spurn his advances while still under contract with him, which left her unable to work elsewhere for many years. With great dignity and resilience, Hedren concluded that, “Hitchcock said he’d ruin my career, but he didn’t ruin my life.”

The Seventh Seal (1957) / Three Days of the Condor (1975)
A Tribute to Max von Sydow
Introductions by Ben Mankiewicz and Robert Osborne with Max von Sydow

Check out a few choice excerpts here.

Along the way, we were lucky enough to speak with filmmaker Susan Ray about her late husband Nicholas Ray (who is the subject of her documentary, “Don’t Expect Too Much”), editor Billy Weber about his decades-long professional relationship and friendship with Terrence Malick and TCM host Ben Mankiewicz about the festival and much more.

As this barely scratches the surface of all that the TCM Classic Film Festival had to offer, here are a few more screenings we regret to have missed – “On the Waterfront” introduced with Eva Marie Saint, “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” in Cinerama with an introduction including the still alive and kicking Mickey Rooney, “Airplane!” with directors Jim Abrahams and David Zucker along with star Robert Hays, “They Live By Night” with Susan Ray, “Suddenly, It’s Spring” with Kate MacMurray who shared wonderful stories about her father Fred MacMurray, “the pre-code “Safe In Hell” which was so popular that they had to turn people away at both of its screenings, and “Bugs Bunny’s 75th Birthday Bash” hosted by Jerry Beck and Leonard Maltin.

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