Annual TCM Classic Film Festival Features Vintage Films and Stars Galore From Movies of Yore

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France Nuyen, Ben Manchiewitz, Mitzi Gaynor

It was “Hooray for Hollywood!” as the TCM Classic Film Festival held its 4th annual filmfest in the heart of Tinseltown. From April 25 through April 28 thousands of fans attended screenings of vintage films, discussions with and personal appearances by movie talents, dressed in period garb (Film Noir attire being a favorite), partied like it was 1929 and witnessed an Academy Award winner’s footprints and handprints immortalized in cement at the fabled Chinese Theatre. Most of the movies were presented the way they were intended to — projected on the big screen, many of them in glorious black and white, including silent films such as Buster Keaton’s The General and Clara Bow’s It, accompanied by live orchestras in Hollywood’s movie palaces, the Chinese and Egyptian theatres.

Following an opening night party in “Club TCM” at a ballroom of Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel — ground zero for the filmfest — buffs went outside to the pool for a screening under the stars of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1958 South Pacific. The projection was preceded by a rousing performance of Hawaiian hula, Maori haka,  Samoan fire knife and slap dancing presented by the Tausala Polynesia troupe. Then Ben Mankiewicz — one of the hosts of the Turner Classics Movies TV channel and grandson of Citizen Kane co-screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz — moderated a talk with the musical’s surviving co-stars, the feisty Mitzi Gaynor (Nurse Nellie of Little Rock) and France Nuyen (Bloody Mary’s daughter Liat, the “Happy Talk” girl).

tcmBoth discussed how they were cast in their roles, what it was like to appear in the beloved movie set during World War II’s island hopping campaign in the Pacific and their leading men. While still a teenager, the demure Nuyen — who came from a modeling background in Europe and landed her first big screen role in South Pacific — gushed: “I was the luckiest woman in the world. John Kerr [who played Lt. Cable opposite her “younger than springtime” Liat and passed away in February] was so handsome. I miss him very much.”

In contrast to her co-star, 81-year-old Gaynor was downright racy in her recollections of Rossano Brazzi, the Italian actor who played the French planter Emile De Becque. This is the man, as Gaynor sang, she’s “gonna wash right out of my hair,” her love interest on- — and possibly off- — screen. “He was the most gorgeous, most beautiful man. Never has so little material covered so much Italian.” The comment caused Mankiewicz to quip: “And Mitzi Gaynor has just made her last appearance at a TCM Festival!”

Regaining his cool, Mankiewicz went on to point out that South Pacific “teaches a very powerful message… the idea that people of different races can fall in love was a big deal in the 1950s.” The spunky Gaynor interjected, citing the specific song Mankiewicz was referring to: “‘You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught,’” which stresses that racism is inculcated into children before, as Oscar Hammerstein II’s lyrics put it, “Before you are six, seven or eight… You’ve got to be taught to be afraid, of people whose eyes are oddly made, And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade, You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

jane fonda

Jane Fonda

Nuyen revealed, “We almost lost that song,” which studio executives wanted cut from the film version of the Broadway hit.” But Gaynor insisted, “Oscar wouldn’t stand for it. He was really a fine man. He was for world peace.” In “South Pacific,” the “younger than springtime” Liat is Tonkinese — from northern Vietnam — and has a red hot love affair with the Marine Lt. Cable, just a few years, ironically, before the dubious Gulf of Tonkin incident led to LBJ’s escalation of the Vietnam War.

Later that night, across Hollywood Boulevard’s “Walk of Fame” and beside the TCL Chinese Theatre, the Festival screened in the Chinese Multiplex one of those rare gems almost lost to moving picture posterity, William Wellman’s 1931 film Safe in Hell, which is set at a Caribbean island. The sexy pre-Code (that is, produced prior to stringent censorship under the Motion Picture Production Code) flick was co-presented by William Wellman Jr. and Donald Bogle, the preeminent historian of the African-American screen image. In his remarks Bogle noted that the Black actors Clarence Muse, Noble Johnson and Nina Mae McKinney did not behave or speak in the stereotypical manner usually associated with Black actors during Hollywood’s Golden Age.

On the morning of April 27 crowds gathered to watch Jane Fonda enshrine her autograph, footprints and handprints in wet cement during a ceremony honoring the two-time Oscar winner at Hollywood’s TCL Chinese Theatre. As she dipped her hand in the cement Fonda, who was an antiwar leader during the Vietnam War, made the peace sign, so that it is now, literally, written in stone. The ebullient actress told hundreds of fans, reporters, relatives and celebrities, including brother Peter Easy Rider Fonda, Jim Carrey and Eva Longoria: “What’s particularly special to me is that I’m going to be right next to my dad,” said Fonda, referring to the slabs of concrete bearing the prints of both herself and father Henry Fonda, amidst those of the other stars that decorate the Chinese Theatre’s world famous courtyard near Hollywood Boulevard.

Referring again to her famous father, who starred in masterpieces such as the 1940s John Ford directed The Grapes of Wrath and Fort Apache, the joyous Jane declared: “I can feel his presence right now, and he used to say to me, ‘Jane don’t let this town walk all over you!’Well Dad, right now the town can walk over both of us,” joked Fonda, who is next portraying Nancy Reagan in the upcoming The Butler.

max von sydow

Max Von Sydow

After the cement ceremony, Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne, who’d emceed the concrete accolade, interviewed the iconic activist actress prior to a packed Egyptian Theatre screening of 1981’s On Golden Pond, the only film Fonda acted in with her father. She choked up while discussing shooting intimate scenes with the aging Henry, who went on to win his sole Best Actor Oscar for the role Jane had handpicked for him. Fonda also impersonated and dished the dirt on co-star Katharine Hepburn, revealing that after Jane failed to win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for On Golden Pond she’d called to congratulate Hepburn on winning her fourth golden statuette, who cackled: “Now you’ll never catch up to me!” in terms of Oscars won.

The TCM Classic Film Festival featured personal appearances by many other movie greats, such as Fonda’s Coming Home co-star Jon Voight (Angelina Jolie’s dad) with his Deliverance co-actors Burt Reynolds and Ned Beatty; Swedish actor Max Von Sydow who discussed working with Ingmar Bergman and on The Exorcist; Mel Brooks; actress Ann Blyth; and Tippi Hedren, the human lead in the 1960s Alfred Hitchcock movies The Birds and Marnie, who was also cast opposite Marlon Brando in Charlie Chaplin’s cinematic swan song, 1967’s underrated A Countess from Hong Kong and in I Woke Up Early the Day I Died, a movie by the man dubbed Hollywood’s “worst director,” Ed Wood.

Tippi Hedren

Tippi Hedren

In a live interview conducted by film historian Foster Hirsch in Club TCM, Hedren — Melanie Griffith’s mother, who is still a blonde beauty at 83 — dished the dirt on her directors and leading men. As has been recounted in the recent HBO movie The Girl Hitchcock was allegedly abusive to Hedren and tried to ruin her acting career. Although Hedren described being Hitch’s “object of obsession” as “unbearable” she nevertheless gave the filmmaker who discovered her his artistic due. Hedren called the Master of Suspense “my acting coach… We discussed the psychology of my character… He directed offstage. We all knew what to do, to hit our marks… Hitchcock was so well prepared, with storyboards,” in contrast to Chaplin: “Charlie would get onto the set and acted out the whole scene for the actors. It was perfect — but it didn’t work with Brando… a cerebral Method actor who wanted to get out of the movie. I only saw him when his scene was ready for action.”

If Hitch tried to control her, Hedren claims, “Chaplin was nice but lied to me,” withholding the script and tricking Tippi into believing that her role was far bigger than it really was. When she finally went to Europe for the part and was given the screenplay, she asked Chaplin why he hadn’t told the actress that her character doesn’t appear until the last quarter of the film, Chaplin supposedly replied, “Because I was afraid you wouldn’t come.” Hedren also related asking Hitch how she could play a frigid woman opposite “Sean Connery, who was on the cover of Time as the sexiest man in the world, and Hitchcock replied: ‘It’s called acting.’”

The filmfest also unearthed and screened little seen and known, latgely forgotten films, such as  1943’s Warner Bros. Technicolor musical The Desert Song, which Osborne called, “The movie more than any other I want to see at the Festival because it hasn’t been seen for 45 years,” due to a rights dispute. Two Festival screenings dealt with the Hollywood Blacklist, when La-La-Land leftists and others talents who wouldn’t inform on progressives were purged from the movie industry. Eva Marie Saint presented 1954’s On the Waterfront, with its coded justification of snitching, made by screenwriter Budd Schulberg and director Elia Kazan, ex-Communists who “named names” before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s.

Beau Bridges, son of actor Lloyd Bridges — who ran afoul of the Blacklist — co-introduced with author Eddie Muller the stark black and white 1950 Film Noir  classic Try and Get Me, wherein Lloyd plays a murderer who is killed by a lynch mob, following a riot whipped up by yellow journalism. Muller said the class conscious movie came out “at the height of the Hollywood witch-hunt and was deemed ‘un-American’ at the time because of its vigilante justice.” This made Bridges’ eyebrows rise, and he added, “Cy Endfield [the director, who subsequently went into exile in England] was a victim of the witch-hunt, like my dad… My father was in Stanley Kramer’s [1949] ‘Home of the Brave,’ the first film about racism. Because dad took the Black star home to dinner they called him a ‘Communist’ and said you’ve got to talk to the Committee [HUAC].”

Documentarian Albert Maysles, who along with his brother David was a pioneer of cinema verite, was celebrated with screenings of the Maysles Brothers’ 1970 Gimme Shelter — about the Rolling Stones’ disastrous Altamont concert — and 1968’s Salesman, which followed a quartet of door-to-door Bible peddlers hawking their wares around the country. In an interview with Mankiewicz preceding Salesman the 86-year-old said, “The film parallels what’s going on at Wall Street. It’s about the defects of the capitalist system. Maybe I should make a film about Wall Street?” mused Maysles.

ed rampell

Ed Rampell

In describing his fly-on-the-wall technique with lighter camera and sound recording equipment that allowed the Maysles to be more mobile and less intrusive, Albert stated that he aims to reveal a “genuine experience… where the camera isn’t in the way… Engagement, that’s the word I love. I give my hearts to my subjects,” who he “humanizes,” from Grey Gardens’ eccentric Beales to the Beatles in What’s Happening! to Meet Marlon Brando” to boxer Muhammad Ali to the rockers of Monterey Pop to the Roma of  When the Road Bends: Tales of a Gypsy Caravan.

The TCM Classic Film Festival proves there’s still a big audience for period motion pictures, and that like fine wines, vintage films improve with age.

For more info, go here.

Ed Rampell

Photos courtesy of the TCM Classic Film Festival

Sunday, 5 May 2013

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