2014 TCM Classic Film Festival: Wrap-Up

TCM Classic Film Festival 2014As I anticipated in my preview piece, this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival was a sublime experience. The festival keeps growing year after year, and it’s easy to see why: great movies, lovely audiences (despite the fact that they seem to clap an unhealthy amount for Ward Bond), entertaining guests, grand theaters, perfect projection. And if you weren’t able to make it to Hollywood in person, you can simulate the experience via the video section of the fest’s official website, which houses full-length clips of the introductions and Q&As. I had the privilege of squeezing in 11 films over the course of the event’s three-and-a-half days; some reactions/observations follow.

The iconic Bette Davis in "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?"
The iconic Bette Davis in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”

My first film of the festival on Thursday night was Robert Aldrich’s “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962), which was glorious to see in a theater, both for the visually stunning DCP (black-and-white glistens in a certain appealing way when digitally projected) and the uproarious audience reaction. I can’t say anything that hasn’t already been said about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s scenery-chewing performances as captor and captive, but I can reiterate what campy fun they are. Furthermore, the raw emotion on display here proves that “campy fun” doesn’t always mean “cheap thrills.” This film should be shown on revival house double-bills with “Sunset Boulevard” more often.

I returned bright and early Friday morning for W.S. Van Dyke’s “The Thin Man” (1934) on a beautiful, clean 35mm print in the Egyptian Theatre. I’m not sure how this title became part of film canon—nothing about it screams Major Work of Cinema—but it is a great pleasure. Stars William Powell and Myrna Loy are such a treat together that it’s no wonder they were paired 14 times throughout their careers, and the film’s proto-noir machinations are quite suspenseful, even though the ending expectedly comes out of nowhere.

Next up was George Roy Hill’s “The World of Henry Orient” (1964), with Peter Sellers, on another stunning archival 35mm print (what color!). As I watched the movie, I couldn’t keep thinking how impossible it would be to make today: two barely-teenage girls (Merrie Spaeth and Tippy Walker) headlining a film for adults, with the big stars (Sellers and Angela Lansbury) relegated to supporting roles? Forget about it. This impossibility only makes “The World of Henry Orient” all the more special, especially for filmmaker Hill’s ability to tenderly and authentically capture a certain age, even with Hollywood sheen.

Kim Hunter and David Niven star in "A Matter of Life and Death."
Kim Hunter and David Niven star in “A Matter of Life and Death.”

As soon as the credits rolled, I dashed across the hall to secure a good seat for a special showing of Powell and Pressburger’s “A Matter of Life and Death” (1946), introduced by Martin Scorsese’s editor and wife of the late Powell, Thelma Schoonmaker. Believe me: I came very close to asking for my first-ever “celebrity picture” when Ms. Schoonmaker, who watched the whole film, was standing right behind me afterwards, but I had the self-control to resist. Perhaps I felt iffy about the prospect because she wasn’t the main attraction at this particular event: the incredible film was. I’d like to write a longer piece about it soon, because I think this is my favorite Powell and Pressburger picture, capturing the fragility of life and human relationships and the notion of fate in ways only this singular duo ever could.

Normally, I would have considered a three-movie-day a victory and headed home—I have no idea how I used to sit through as many as seven films in a row at festivals—but my spirits were high so I kept going. Being that Douglas Sirk’s 1959 remake is one of my very favorite films of all time, it was a no-brainer for me to catch John M. Stahl’s “Imitation of Life” (1934), which I had never seen before. The film doesn’t measure up to Sirk’s masterful melodrama, but it was similarly groundbreaking for its era in terms of the way it put a microscope on race-relations. Louise Beavers’ Delilah may look like a racist caricature today, but in 1934, her depiction was actually rather progressive. The narrative is entertaining, too — a highly watchable implementation of Hollywood style.

My fifth and final film for the day—and my first in the newly remodeled Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (now officially called “TCL Chinese IMAX Theatre,” which I ignore out of allegiance to the way things were)—was “Blazing Saddles” (1974), with an introduction from none other than writer/director/star Mel Brooks himself. At 87 years old, Brooks has more energy than most twentysomethings (myself included), and he enthusiastically proclaimed “Blazing Saddles” to be “The funniest film ever made!” several times in between anecdotes of its production history. I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s certainly stacked with laughs, even funnier when viewed alongside over 1,000 fellow fans. Pictured on the gigantic Chinese screen, the WB Lot-reveal at the end packs quite the punch.

Irene Dunne is the enduring matriarch of "I Remember Mama."
Irene Dunne is the enduring matriarch of “I Remember Mama.”

First on the docket for Saturday was a 1948 George Stevens film starring Irene Dunne, “I Remember Mama.” I had never heard of it before the festival lineup was announced, despite the fact it received five Oscar nominations. Viewed today, the fake Norwegian accents and the rather bizarre subplots of this domestic drama—consider, for instance, the family’s failed attempt to put down their ailing cat with chloroform without the youngest daughter Dagmar, recently released from the hospital, knowing—veer into unintentionally funny territory. But there’s still something affecting about Stevens’ celebration of the maternal, as well as the distinctly post-Depression ethic of working hard and saving one’s money (despite the 1910s setting). The 35mm print shown was terrific.

After that, I strode down Hollywood Blvd. to the Egyptian for “The Goodbye Girl” (1977), with star Richard Dreyfuss present for the introduction. Dreyfuss was everything I could have ever hoped for, wearing a windbreaker-hoodie-type configuration rather than anything special and holding his microphone at an apathetic distance. He might not care about his appearance, but he does care about his work: Dreyfuss personally insisted that TCM play “The Goodbye Girl” and “Mr. Holland’s Opus” instead of three more popular films (presumably directed by Spielberg), the latter partially to remind people he didn’t disappear after the ’70s. This unfortunately meant screening a very pink print of “The Goodbye Girl”—it’s hard to believe there isn’t a nicer one in the vaults, but TCM always runs the best available—but the showing was still enjoyable. They don’t make as many just-plain-nice mainstream movies for adults as they used to.

I wrapped things up for the day with Richard Lester’s Beatle-pic “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964), which had the entirety of Grauman’s toe-tapping (rather annoyingly, in the case of the man sitting next to me, but I lived). Criterion’s new 4K restoration is absolutely stunning—on the humongous Chinese screen, it looked as good as any IMAX release made today—and the movie’s still great fun. You may have had to have been there to see it as the great film Roger Ebert always claimed, but watching it at TCMFF, I felt closer to the ’60s than I ever have.

And then there was the final day, time for last rites. Seriously, why can’t TCM be like Coachella and offer two identical weekends for double the fun? I could have easily made a just-as-enjoyable alternate schedule out of all the programming I wasn’t able to see. But because the fest is confined to one weekend, the only second-chances that viewers have are the four encore slots offered on Sunday, reserved for repeats of audience favorites. This year, those were “5th Avenue Girl,” “Employees’ Entrance,” “The Great Gatsby” (1949), and the one that I caught, Clive Brook’s “On Approval” (1944). It’s a perfectly amusing Victorian Era-set light comedy, with particularly delectable performances from female leads Beatrice Lillie and Googie Withers and a nice final twist, but I’m admittedly a bit surprised by its enormous success at the festival given how modest it is. Every single seat was full during the encore showing.

Maureen O'Hara in "The Quiet Man"
Maureen O’Hara in “The Quiet Man”

I couldn’t have picked a better finale than “The Quiet Man” (1952), John Ford and John Wayne’s ode to Ireland. The Technicolor looked radiant on the DCP copy screened—it’s moments like this when I don’t feel so awful that film is dying—and the gentle pace of the movie was also enhanced by theatrical viewing. It’s a shame that star Maureen O’Hara wasn’t able to make an appearance, as she did the prior day for “How Green Was My Valley” at the El Capitan across the street, but at 93 years old, who could blame her? Frankly, her strong presence in “The Quiet Man”—perfectly matched against Wayne’s—was all the audience needed.

That’s all I’ve got for this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival. A big thanks to all the TCM staff, publicists, and volunteers who make this event happen. See you next year.