2013 TCM Classic Film Festival: Dispatch #1

Film critic Danny Baldwin covers the 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival for Critic Speak...Hello from Hollywood. We’re a day and a half into this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival and I’ve been able to catch three movies so far — perhaps not as many as I would have liked, but still a decent amount given the hustle and bustle of taking the train up from San Diego, sprinting to pick up my media credential before the office closed, et cetera. Here are some quick reactions before I walk over to the Chinese for today’s lineup.

Two of the films I saw, Ernst Lubitsch’s “Ninotchka” and Leo McCarey’s “Ruggles of Red Gap,” share something in common: they’re both broad 1930s comedies with surprisingly sophisticated political undercurrents about “old world” versus “new world” ways of life.

Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas star in Ernst Lubitsch's "Ninotchka" (1939).In the case of “Ninotchka,” released in 1939, just before World War II, that contrast is drawn between France and the USSR. The plot is devilishly clever: three goofy Russian emissaries (Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart, and Alexander Granach) have traveled to Paris to sell royal jewels confiscated in the Revolution of 1917, to raise money for basic services in the motherland. But the exiled Duchess Swana (Ina Claire) believes she’s entitled to them, sending lover Count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas) to steal the jewels back. In the process, the Count unknowingly falls in love with a fourth Russian emissary sent to supervise the others, Greta Garbo’s Nina Ivanova “Ninotchka” Yakushova.

Sure, there’s a lot of humor in Garbo’s against-type portrayal of a steadfast Bolshevik who travels with a photo of Lenin as she desperately tries to stick to her Communist principles in spite of the iridescent lure of the City of Lights. But director Lubitsch, himself having left a Germany still influenced by Communism to make movies in Hollywood, mines the story for a lot more than amusing theatrics, suggesting that individual freedom isn’t just the power to consume brand-name goods (though, it is that, as we humorously witness), it’s the ability to love your social opposite (not mandated equal), as we see in Ninotchka and the Count’s surprisingly moving relationship.

Charles Laughton stars in Leo McCarey's "Ruggles of Red Gap" (1935).In 1935’s “Ruggles of Red Gap,” the old world is England and the new world is the American Old West, specifically that of the titular fictional town in Washington. After his master, Lord Burnstead (Roland Young), gambles him away in a poker game, the prim and proper English butler Ruggles (Charles Laughton) must go to work for the crude, noveau riche Americans Egbert and Effie Floud (Charlie Ruggles and Mary Boland), who were vacationing in Europe. In the land of opportunity, Ruggles is transformed into his own man—thanks in no small part to Egbert referring to him as “Colonel Ruggles,” which leads the townsfolk to believe he comes from a high social rank.

Certainly, reputation matters in a free society—Ruggles’ (often funny) American exploits are expedited by the misinterpretation of his occupation—but “Ruggles of Red Gap” nonetheless pays tribute to the distinctly American principle that one can forge a new reputation for himself and not be forever tied to his family’s (as Ruggles was in England). The film is not as overtly nationalistic as the Frank Capra films that came a half-decade later, but boasts similar sentiments. It’s most remembered for a powerful scene in which Charles Laughton—in a truly great performance that masters the film’s binary of surface comedy and deeper seriousness—recites the Gettysburg Address in a bar, where no native American can remember Lincoln’s words. The film is certainly one to check out if you haven’t seen it (or, in my case, hadn’t heard of it, despite my affinity for many of McCarey’s other films).

George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman star in Roberto Rossellini's "Voyage to Italy" (1954).Both “Ninotchka” and “Ruggles of Red Gap” were screened on archival 35mm prints, so I figured I needed to bridge them with one of the many new digital restorations screening at this year’s festival for good measure. The remastered 2K version of Roberto Rossellini’s “Voyage to Italy” fit the bill perfectly. (And, interestingly, fits in with the culture clash theme of the other two, albeit without overarching political commentary.)

It’s no wonder Cahiers du Cinéma proclaimed “Voyage to Italy” the “first modern film,” as its largely improvised, neorealist scenarios still feel radical for a film made in 1954 (at least one starring actors popular in the West like Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders). The scenario is simple—Bergman and Sanders are a feuding couple moseying around Italy while they try to sell an inherited property—but the harsh, at times passive-aggressive rapport between them is not. There’s little evidence of what these two found attractive about each other in the first place, but that’s really beside the point: the film is more about the paralyzing space that develops between a couple in decline. And in this sense, Bergman and Sanders are extraordinary, rivaling Taylor and Burton in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, which may have taken a few cues from Rossellini’s film. The Italian scenery and people offer intriguing subtext, especially the ruins of Pompeii, which provoke the closest thing to a “plot development” at the end of the film. And this new restoration is breathtaking, with scarcely a patch of print debris — a marvel to watch via the Barco digital projector set up for the festival.

And now, I’m off to grab some lunch and hopefully make it into George Stevens’ appropriately titled epic “Giant,” in a new restoration at Grauman’s. Again, for more information on and the schedule for this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival, check out http://filmfestival.tcm.com.