Several months ago I had the TV tuned into TCM when a promo spot for the TCM Classic Film Festival came on. I’d seen these spots dozens of times and had longed to go, especially since joining Twitter in 2015 and forlornly watching the #TCMFF hashtag pass through my feed. It was only when my husband piped up “Hey, we should go to that this year!” that I realized I wasn’t some latter-day Stella Dallas, gnawing on my glove in the rain while life’s tender moments carry on without me, but that I was, in fact, a grown woman with a bank account and a set of suitcases.
I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me that I could go to this festival before, but go we did, and now that I’m back home in my post-vacation misery pajamas, I thought I’d share my Hollywood experiences with you, both as a travelogue for posterity and as a form of distraction therapy while I face returning to my normal, non-nitrate life tomorrow.
THOSE WONDERFUL PEOPLE, OUT THERE IN THE DARK
Los Angeles is a kind of Oz that exists not over the rainbow, but under a blanket of smog. We flew in two days early and stayed one day after the festival, but having decided to walk everywhere, we barely made it past the Lollipop Guild clubhouse on any given day before returning to our hotel to take off our ruby slippers and cool off. As such, my impressions of Hollywood are limited to the several blocks surrounding Hollywood Boulevard and, well, Hollywood Boulevard is a place you take one look at before deciding to walk the other way.
We were just five minutes into our first walk down the Boulevard before we were treated to a real “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” street scene as a man with a shopping cart full of stolen goods was being chased from the CVS by a security guard, who proceeded to slap the thief not a foot in front of us, sending his paper cup of Coke (gotta have an ice cold Coke when you’re shoplifting) splashing across the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
We avoided Hollywood Boulevard as much as possible throughout the festival, although sometimes necessity sent us strolling past the dozens of competing sex shops and ratty mascots that make up what I think has to be one of the most fake (and garbage-strewn) places I’ve ever seen. Still, there are joys and pleasures to be had in this tourist mecca, not least of which is the theaters. And oh, friends, the theaters…
Day 1: “…a producer could make more money with a flop than he could with a hit.”
Our Essential passes granted us entry to the opening night film, a 50th anniversary restoration of The Producers (1968), with Mel Brooks in attendance. I had no idea when I bought the passes that this also meant that we would be walking down a red carpet, but the setup is such that even the shy and awkward can painlessly make their way into the TCL Chinese Theater without the spotlight singeing them too badly.
We decided to hang out with our fellow passholders on the edge of the carpet for a little while. Celebrities filter in from a different side of the street, but once you’re atop the Chinese Theater footprints, it becomes a hodgepodge of celebrities, fans, and security guards. I’m a firm believer in not meeting one’s heroes (Mel Brooks does not need to hear what I have to say), but I was hoping to catch a glimpse of a legend or two up close. This desire faded the second I watched a passholder reach out to grab 91-year-old Cora Sue Collins, an action which was then intercepted by a security guard who told the fan, essentially, that she could look but she couldn’t touch. The fan showered apologies onto Ms. Collins, and before letting my own inner bodyguard pop out, we decided to take our seats in the theater. I’m a reserved person by nature, but watching this interaction gave me an extra-gross feeling and a newfound sense of empathy for celebrities, who can’t go anywhere without someone reaching out to physically touch them.
The opening night screening was fabulous, and Mel Brooks was his indefatigable, sweet self, but my highlight of the night had to be Martin Scorsese receiving the inaugural Robert Osborne Award. Scorsese gave a sincere, moving speech about the importance of film preservation, and he passed the torch to us, as an audience, to keep fighting for the precarious lives of the movies we love so much. The speech set the tone for the rest of the weekend and put a fire in my belly to keep showing up as an audience member for old movies.
Great as opening night was, in the future I’d skip the Essential pass unless the screening was of a film I can’t miss. In going to The Producers, we missed out on the restoration of Detour (1945) and didn’t have time to line up for a nitrate screening of Stage Door (1937).
Straight after The Producers we hoofed it in our highly impractical shoes to a screening of Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe (1964), which neither of us had seen. My husband especially loved the film. I was completely exhausted by that time and loved it less, although I was blown away by how chilling and effective the ending was, considering the film is 95% phone calls and images of a Cold War Battleship game board. Fail Safe was the first of three Henry Fonda films we watched throughout the weekend, and also the first screening that had the occasional instance of bizarre audience tittering. But more on that in a bit.
Day 2: “I’ll never let you go. Never, never, never.”
The tricky thing about attending the TCM Classic Film festival is deciding what ratio of seen-to-unseen films you’d like to attend. This becomes even trickier when you’re attending with a friend or spouse who may have different desires. Fortunately me and my husband are sympatico on most things movie related, so on Friday morning we both wanted to check out the new-to-us Grand Prix (1966) at the Cinerama Dome—he to see a racing movie, me to experience Cinerama. I’m glad we went, not only because the movie is exactly the kind of beautiful-people-in-good-wardrobe-leading-sexy-lives kind of epic I enjoy, but also because being at the Dome corrected some of my misconceptions about the Cinerama screen. I’d always imagined it was a shorter, wider screen that truly envelops the audience, but it was more akin to an IMAX screen, and with a deeper curve than I’d thought. At first you don’t think it’s going to give you that awed, big-screen effect (when did I get so jaded about big screens?), but after 10 minutes of Frankenheimer’s incredible, immersive racing sequences, I can totally understand why some 1966 audience members went running for a barf bag.
The screening was followed by a brief chat between Eva Marie Saint and Leonard Maltin that I’d describe as, well, a bit awkard. Eva Marie Saint has an absolutely impish sense of humor, but she also gave the impression that the movie doesn’t live among her personal favorites—and who can blame her, when the revving of cars gets more reverent screentime than she does. I think, also, there is often a certain clunkiness that comes when interviewers (Maltin is warm and enthusiastic and knowledgeable, so this isn’t his fault) are trying to draw out anecdotes about a job that an actor might have done more than fifty years in the past. The stories don’t always flow free and easy. When conversation sputtered out, there was time for one audience question, and oh, how I was begging it wouldn’t be “What was it like to work with Marlon Brando?”. But it was, and Saint’s initial response (which was followed by a gracious answer) was “I didn’t see him in this film, did you?”. But hey, it’s not a real Q&A unless you want to crawl under your chair at least once, right?
We decided early on that we’d be game for three movies a day. I know some people attend five a day, and those people should be studied by science for their astonishing hanger control. After a big brunch we lined up to catch Eddie Muller and Marsha Hunt introduce a new restoration of the (astonishingly) rarely-seen None Shall Escape (1944). I can’t tell you how meaningful this screening was, with the luminous Hunt reminding the audience to watch the film closely for its lesson in how a fascist is made. Muller’s love for Hunt was so clear, and the audience’s love for both Muller and Hunt gave this particular event an extra feeling of goodwill and audience unity. The film features a strong, chilling lead performance by Alexander Knox as the Nazi on trial, and one particularly devastating scene where Richard Hale, as the town Rabbi, delivers a warning about the dangers of “tolerance.” I was happy to see that None Shall Escape is essential not only as an historical document, but as a wonderful film, and both me and my husband count it as a highlight of the festival.
The final film of Friday was Leave Her to Heaven (1945) in nitrate at the Egyptian theater, a screening that proved to be a mixed bag that I’m still trying to figure out. First of all, I love this movie. Well, I love this movie right up until the trial sequence, but that doesn’t really matter because before that we get one of the most toe-curling nightmares ever done up in lipstick and a monogrammed robe. My instinct has always been to take the twists of Leave Her to Heaven as seriously as I would take The Third Man or Out of the Past, which is to say, I wouldn’t find occasion to laugh at it. But laugh this audience did, or at least 20% of them, with the laughs seemingly building as the film went on. I’ve seen conflicting opinions as to what was making the audience laugh, or whether this was a laugh-at or laugh-with situation, but I can’t figure it out. My husband, who had never seen the film and had no idea what it was about going in, turned to me several times throughout that movie to make his “why the hell is the audience reacting this way?” face (reader, I’d marry him again).
In my opinion, these were the laughs you’d hear at a camp classic or a midnight movie. A laugh that says “I’m not buying what this movie is selling me and I don’t think it’s very good.” And if the audience was enjoying the movie, I still don’t get the consistency of the laughs. I wondered at one point if this was the reaction of a modern audience to seeing a sociopathic woman onscreen, and if a nurturer-made-murderer seemed more clownish to them than frightening. I also wondered if David Karger’s intro, which was light-hearted and charming, and which quoted Bosley Crowther’s pan of the movie, failed to set the tone for what was to come. If you were there, or have experienced titters with this film in other venues, I’d love to hear from you in the comments because my stony face simply didn’t get it. Despite the laughter, I treasured seeing Gene Tierney’s icy eyes looming over the movie palace, and my husband adored the movie.
Day 3: “…kiss the babies for me and God bless you.”
Saturday morning’s screening of The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) at The Egyptian was a punch in the gut, and I mean that in the best possible way. Author Scott Eyman was on hand to introduce the film, counting us among “his tribe” because we had come to see a lynching movie at 9 a.m. He told a story about Henry Fonda, the film’s star, witnessing a lynching and its aftermath as a child, adding another layer of pain and poignancy to William Wellman’s film. Eyman’s “tribe” comment proved to be even more accurate for me, because as the house lights went up I turned, with tear-blurred vision, to see my seatmates (and Twitter friends I had only just met, in real life, on Friday night) hunched over, weeping fat tears onto the Egyptian floor. 12-year-old me, watching westerns alone in the basement, could never have imagined it. It was the kind of experience that makes the TCM Classic Film Festival so special.
I was still overcome by The Ox-Bow Incident by the time we were seated for Bullitt at the IMAX theater, which perhaps played into the result that I did not care for Bullitt. At all. I had heard that the movie surrounding the car chase was a slow burn, but for me it was more like an Easy-Bake Oven, producing a low-grade heat and treats too meagre to enjoy. Lalo Schifrin’s jazzy score kept me awake for the proceedings, but I watched Steve McQueen’s cop with about the same level of interest with which I’d watch security footage of me doing data entry at work.
Nitrate was a major draw for the weekend (the only time I can see any kind of on-film screening in my neck of the woods is when a major event like Dunkirk in 70mm rolls through the local IMAX), so our final film for Saturday night was Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945). I hadn’t seen the film in over a decade and was happy to confirm that you simply cannot go wrong watching Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman’s big, beautiful mugs for two hours. The Dali dream sequence was much shorter than I recalled and while I was expecting tittering during that scene, the most audience giggles came during the rear projection skiing sequence that happens near the end of the film. It’s not what I expected to hear at a classic film festival (rear projection and terribly imitated ski movies barely even register with me anymore), but I suppose one of the intellectual joys of attending these screenings is seeing for oneself how an audience reacts to these movies.
Day 4: “I could squash you like a wormy apple.”
In the two days since the festival has ended I’ve been trying to narrow down my favorite moment, and I keep coming back to Sunday morning’s screening of Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968). Little bumpkin me had no idea that the curtains at the IMAX theater opened up to reveal a widescreen format that fills your entire field of vision, so when those curtains started moving I felt my eyes start to water. The only other Leone movie I’ve seen (and loved) is THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966) and, Jesus, I loved this one ten times more. Director John Sayles introduced the film, mentioning that large portions of it are pure cinema, and boy, did I ever feel that in the scene where Claudia Cardinale’s wagon rides into Monument Valley, while Ennio Morricone’s “Jill’s Theme” sweeps over the audience like a warm prairie wind. At one point I started to cry and did so intermittently throughout the film, it was just so overwhelming. You simply cannot live out this level of spectacle in your own living room.
The next film of the day was Olivier’s Hamlet (1948), the only screening where my eyes closed, for about ten minutes. I’d seen the film before, so my levels of guilt were low and at this point in the festival, it seemed that everyone was tired. We decided to keep things upbeat for the final film so we caught Blessed Event (1932) with a fabulous intro and outro by Bruce Goldstein, who had the audience shouting out the names of character actors and, in unison, “ROSALIND RUSSELL!”. I’m the kind of person who gets rather grim at the end of a holiday, but I grinned through the entire film and left wanting to go back to our hotel room and watch more movies.
THE STARS ARE AGELESS, AREN’T THEY?
A couple of thoughts before we turn the house lights up again. This festival is a tight ship. I was blown away by the kindness, helpfulness, and organization of the staff. Literally every person who gave us directions or ushered us into a theater was friendly and efficient. Occasionally I’d hear some complaints wafting through the queue, but my experience was nothing but comfortable and straightforward. I think it’s important to attend the festival with a “go with the flow” attitude because, inevitably, things will not work out as you had planned and if you can’t be okay with that, your experience will be miserable.
Speaking of misery, be smart and wear comfortable shoes. I didn’t (and to be honest I probably won’t next time either because I am a slave to fashion) and I spent the week moving Band-Aids to various locations just so I could take the load off of some blister or another. Many people found this year’s weather to be chilly, but as a Canadian from a very dry climate, I got hot and sweaty any time I started moving around. Jeans in the evenings (which were cool) were great, but my best daytime uniform was dresses. You’ll see every type of fashion at the festival, so it’s a real “you do you” event, which I loved.
The social experience of the festival was as meaningful to me as the movies. The queues were a great place to meet people, chat about what we’d seen, and crack jokes that nobody else in our lives would understand. Before screenings I got to meet several people I’ve only “known” online and they were all as lovely as I could have wished them to be. The festival gave me that bittersweet feeling that accompanies all of life’s best moments. By having the time of my life, I opened myself up to the sting of letting it all go. But there’s always next year, and, the stars willing, the years after that.
P.S. A couple of times I brushed past Claude Jarman Jr. and if that sounds like as much of a thrill to you as it was to me, then this is the film festival for you.