During the 1970s I attended Hunter College’s film school in Manhattan with movie critic, historian, author and CUNY-TV programmer Brian Camp, who has the most cinematic encyclopedic mind of anyone I’ve ever known. Luis Reyes has actually co-written an encyclopedia about film, Hispanics In Hollywood , as well as two movie history books with me, including Pearl Harbor in the Movies. Both Brian and Luis are motion picture purists, who often grouse that today’s audiences, especially the younger generation raised on a steady diet of TV, videos, DVDs, Blu-ray, videogames, the Internet, etc., have little or no interest in watching vintage films on the big screen in their original formats -- especially those that are silent and/or black and white. I confess to holding similar filmic fears. To paraphrase that old counterculture expression: Don’t trust any viewer under 30.
But ye of little film faith! The April 22-25 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival at historic venues along (appropriately!) Hollywood Boulevard’s celebrated Walk of Fame gives reason to hope that my fellow cineastes have little to worry about. Judging by the festival’s huge turnout, cinephilia is alive and well. Audiences came from far and wide to be regaled by star-studded panels and Q&As with notables (often conducted by TCM hosts Robert Osborne and Ben Mankiewicz) before and after screenings, and, above all else, to watch features, shorts, cartoons and documentaries (yes, on a motion picture screen in the formats they were originally projected in), stretching from the silent era all the way to the first in a series on film history that TCM won’t air until next November. Auds viewed oldies but goodies as avidly as SEC regulators gawked at porn.
Audience turnout was a filmfest organizer’s dream come true, and there was a great camaraderie among the countless devotees united by movie madness. Indeed, despite the fact that your humble scribe was credentialed to cover the TCM Film Festival, due to the overflowing crowds he was unable to get a place on the red carpet for the screening of 1954’s A Star Is Born or even a ticket to watch the Judy Garland/James Mason classic inside of a mobbed Grauman’s Chinese Theater, the 1927 movie palace which reportedly seats 1400-plus ticket buyers. And while many of the moviegoers were indeed senior cinema citizens and middle-aged movie addicts enjoying once again the films of their youth, a surprisingly substantial percentage of the fans consisted of under-thirty cinephiles likewise reveling in reels of undiluted, unspooled silver screen Nirvana.
There used to be a comic strip in the Village Voice that guaranteed all of its dialogue was overheard on New York’s streets, mass transit, etc. So in that same surreptitious spirit and at the risk of seeming to surveill my fellow film fans, allow me to report on some of the conversations I eavesdropped on – uh, accidentally/ on purpose overheard – while sitting in theater seats waiting for the curtain to rise, made by some wistful whippersnappers besotted by movie magic. Before Mel Brooks was interviewed at a showing of 1968’s The Producers in Grauman’s, two young men in their late teens or early twenties who seemed to be film students intently discussed with great relish the various films they were catching at the festival. The conversation turned to Alfred Hitchcock, and they told stories about the Master of Suspense and his work as if they personally knew Hitch, who was long dead well before they were born. Among the things they said was that there are no pictures of Hitchcock laughing, but these budding cinephiles should check out the photo of Sir Alfred at Hitch’s Wikipedia entry. In any case, while they spoke, in the cinema of my psyche I flashbacked to Brian and I, and our fellow film school acolytes, Kenny, Mario, Lenora, etc., animatedly discussing, debating, Howard Hawks, Bernardo Bertolucci or whatever auteur du jour.
Upstairs, at a Mann’s Chinese screening of The Proposition attended by Anjelica and Danny Huston, before Mankiewicz interviewed the latter who starred in the 2005 Aussie Western, I overheard a pretty 20-ish female gushing over the white haired Robert Osborne. “I’d love to marry him and discuss movies all day!” Here’s some of my personal highlights of the TCM Film Festival:
To tell you the truth, on the opening night instead of inside at Grauman’s for A Star Is Born I preferred to be poolside at the historic Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel (where the first Oscar ceremony took place in 1929 and I was filmed for the 2005 Australian documentary Hula Girls, Imagining Paradise) for Neptune’s Daughter, the 1949 crowd pleaser featuring Esther Williams, Betty Garrett, Ricardo Montalban, Red Skelton and Xavier Cugat. The screening was preceded by the Aqualilies’ synchronized swimming to disco versions of songs immortalized by Marilyn Monroe and Edie Adams in honor of swimmer/actress Williams. In a poolside interview with Mankiewicz the 89-year-old wheelchair-bound “aquamusical” star seemed to be quite a diva. In any case, while Neptune’s Daughter appears on the surface to be innocuous mindless entertainment (and it is indeed good fun with lots of slapstick, mistaken identity, nautical dance numbers, etc.) the film actually reveals much about the era’s racial attitudes, from the interracial romance between Williams and Montalban to an extremely “exotic” work performed by Cugie’s orchestra and dancers from south of the border. Mel Blanc, best known as the voice of Warner Bros. cartoon characters, plays a stereotypical Hispanic, and the country one Latino is identified as coming from is called “South America.” Aye Chihuahua!
And speaking of RED Skelton, lest we forget, Larry Parks, the late husband of Williams’ co-star, Garrett, gave the most heart-wrenching testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee on March 21, 1951, not long after he starred in two Al Jolson biopics. When HUAC asked Parks: “Are you now or have you ever been?” and to inform on other La-La-Land leftists, he told the congressional Committee: “Being a member of the Communist Party fulfilled certain needs of a young man who was… idealistic… for the underprivileged, the underdog… I don’t think this is American justice to make me… crawl through the mud… This is what I beg you not to do…I am no longer fighting for myself, because I tell you frankly that I am probably the most completely ruined man that you have ever seen. I am fighting for a principle, I think, if Americanism is involved in this particular case… I do not believe it befits this Committee or its purposes to force me to do this… I don’t think that this is fair play. I don’t think that it is in the spirit of real Americanism. These are not people that are a danger to this country, gentlemen, the people that I knew. These are people like myself.”
TCM is doing its bit to make sure that auds today don’t forget the despicable mud crawling and throwing of the Hollywood Blacklist. According to a trailer with the Hollywood Ten’s Dalton Trumbo and his son Chris, part of TCM’s upcoming seven-part series Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood deals with movie McCarthyism in the portion on 1950s films. The coming attraction was shown at the Egyptian Theater after the screening of the series’ first installment to air in November 2010, Peepshow Pioneers, a superb re-telling of the creation of moving pictures, the sagas of photographer Eadweard Muybridge, inventor Thomas Edison and those mostly immigrant early moguls such as the Brothers Warner, plus the talents who wrought the art and craft of cinema, including Edwin S. Porter and D.W. Griffith. While this is familiar territory for those in the know about movie history, Peepshow Pioneers is told in a highly entertaining, engrossing way, with great clips from Georges Melies, Lumiere Brothers, Griffith, etc., films. Although I’m a film historian, I too learned much, including the staggering assertion that Magic Lantern shows began in France around the time of the French Revolution (who knew? Was there a Magic Lantern equivalent of Sergei Eisenstein?), and by the time of the nickelodeon and movies being projected on screens in the 1890s, audiences had already been watching moving images onscreen for more than a century. And did you know that at the turn of the last century Fort Lee, New Jersey was the Tinseltown of its day? Holy Kinetoscope, Batman! I can’t wait for the entire Moguls & Movie Stars series to play on TCM, and its 1950s chapter will premiere shortly before 2011, the 60th anniversary of the second wave of HUAC hearings aimed at Tinseltown’s reds under the beds.
One of the worst informers of the Blacklist era was Elia Kazan; nevertheless, I went to see a restored version of Kazan’s 1960 New Deal drama Wild River, co-starring Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick and Jo Van Fleet as a stubborn old lady who refuses to vacate her home as the Tennessee Valley Authority prepares to flood the area. Convincingly playing a character 30 years older than her, Van Fleet’s Big Government hating Ella Garth seems like the grandmother of today’s Tea Party activists. TCM is big on film preservation and it aired a short featuring Martin Scorsese, Anthology Film Archives’ Jonas Mekas, etc., on this subject prior to Wild River.
According to TCM’s Festival Programming Guide 1946’s Leave Her to Heaven was not only “The top-grossing 20th Century-Fox film of the 1940s” but “One of the most subversive of all Hollywood films.” In this bone chilling film noir-ish tale Gene Tierney plays a terrifyingly psychopathic femme fatale, who stops at nothing in her monomania for Cornel Wilde, destroying everybody who stands in her way – including her overzealous self – all in glorious Technicolor. Leon Shamroy’s cinematography won him an Academy Award, while Tierney’s tyrannical depiction scored her an Oscar nomination.
A sold out Grauman’s screening of Hitchcock’s masterful 1959 North By Northwest was preceded by Osborne interviewing co-stars Eva Marie Saint and Martin Landau. Marie Saint revealed she was half-Quaker and gave a shout out to her fellow Friends in the audience. Landau revealed that, with Hitch’s blessing (and this is a story those two young film students would relish), he played his killer as a homosexual who wanted to have Marie Saint liquidated because he was jealous of her relationship to Cary Grant’s character. Landau disclosed that screenwriter Ernest Lehman added a line of dialogue, wherein Landau’s gay character refers to his “woman’s intuition, if you will.” Indeed, if you must.
During the festival Club TCM was established adjacent to the Roosevelt’s lobby. Complimentary food was sometimes dished up there, as were panel discussions and interviews, such as the one I attended featuring 96 year old Norman Lloyd, with great stories about old timers such as Charlie Chaplin and Nigel Bruce (best known for playing Dr. Watson in the 1940s Sherlock Holmes movies), and clips from Lloyd’s TV shows and films, from Alfred Hitchcock Presents (more Hitch trivia!) to St. Elsewhere to The Dead Poets Society.
While seeing Mel Brooks live was a dream come true, my personal favorite of the filmfest was the presentation of “Out of Circulation Cartoons” from 1931 to 1944 by Tex Avery, Friz Freleng, Chuck Jones, etc., presented by Donal Bogle, the preeminent film historian of the celluloid stereotypes of Blacks. Bogle put into context the racial, sexual, religious, musical, etc., caricatures and tropes of Blacks in ‘toons such as Uncle Tom’s Bungalow, Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs, Hittin’ the Trail for Hallelujah Land, Isle of Pingo Pongo. Needless to say, all of these animated shorts were created by the dominant majority culture, not by African Americans, and are so culturally dubious that they have been censored since 1968. Amidst their racial archetypes, as well as what Bogle readily admits is the ‘toons’ indisputable wit and talent, are other telltale signs of their times. Napping bloodhounds in Uncle Tom’s Bungalow are drolly referred to as “sit-down strikers,” while anti-fascist agitprop is inserted in a wartime ‘toon, as a creature clearly resembling Soviet leader and U.S. Ally Joseph Stalin kicks the derriere of another character who looks like Hitler.
Other flicks presented at the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival included 1923’s Safety Last, 1933’s King Kong, 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1967’s The Graduate, etc. (Go here for full festival info.) The most common “complaint” overheard at the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival was too many movies, too little time to see them all, often at competing screenings. I for one lamented missing seeing Jean-Paul Belmondo in person at a screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 Breathless. Alas! A cinephile’s motion picture cup runneth over! As movie mania descended upon Hollywood and divine, I imagine that my cineaste brothers Brian and Luis would have enjoyed the films, panels and bonhomie of fellow buffs. With this filmfest TCM is not only my favorite TV channel, but now one of my favorite festivals. Hooray for Hollywood – and TCM!!!