Better late than really, really late, I sometimes say.
With that in mind, more than two months after the 2014 Turner Classic Movies film festival (TCMFF) screened its last movie, sold its remaining souvenirs, and served up its final cocktail, I am finally getting around to writing about my experience at this event.This was my second year at the festival – my inaugural visit was to the 2013 fest, and I fully intend to be at every one that I can physically attend – even if I have to walk every step of the way! (Sorry. Gone With the Wind flashback.)
Last year, I saw a total of eight films, only one of which (Cluny Brown, with Jennifer Jones and Charles Boyer) was new to me. This time around, I was determined to not only see more movies, but to also see more movies that I’d never seen before. I accomplished both – I saw 11 (woot woot!), and only three were films that I’d seen before. In all, I only saw one noir (Double Indemnity) and one pre-Code (Hat-Check Girl), in sharp contrast to my maiden TCMFF voyage where, of the eight features, four were noir and one was pre-Code.
Here’s what happened this time around.
(Warning. This post is kinda long.)
Check-In: Wednesday, April 10, 2014
The view outside our room. For real.
Like my first go-round with the TCMFF, I attended the 2014 festival with Kim, one of my few real-life friends who shares my affinity for classic movies. Last year, we were fortunate to be able to bunk with her sister, who lives in L.A. But a few months ago, her sister had her first baby, so we thought it best to make other plans – three’s company, five’s a crowd, as the saying goes. (Or something like that.) The Roosevelt Hotel and the Loews were quite a bit out of our price range, but I lucked upon an adorable little hotel right behind the Loews, called the Hollywood Liberty. The prices were affordable, and the website photos showed a low-budget but altogether adorably quaint décor that I thought would be perfect for the occasion. Score!
When Kim and I arrived, though, we were greeted by the realization that the entire hotel was under renovation – there were power tools, stacks of building materials, and large buckets of plaster and paint in the lobby; mattresses, lamps, and miscellaneous debris piled up in the hallway; and a row of toilets lined up outside the back door. It was beyond belief – I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything like it. Fortunately, the staff was pleasant (when we requested towels, for instance, we were very pleasantly told that they would bring them as soon as they got them out of the dryer) (seriously). Also, after spending our first (harrowing) night in the Norman Bates Suite, we were moved to one of the renovated rooms, which was like the difference between Marie Windsor and June Allyson, if you know what I mean. And if you can believe it, I am actually considering staying there again next year. Not strongly considering it, but considering it.
Shirley Jones looked GREAT. (photo by Annie I. Bang.)
The First Day: Thursday, April 11, 2014
In an upgrade from last year, we purchased the Essential pass this time around, which gives you entrance to the opening night screening, which was Oklahoma!, one of the new-to-me movies. In case I haven’t mentioned this previously, I’m not a huge musical fan. There are several that I love dearly – Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, The Wizard of Oz [duh], Singin’ in the Rain, Bye Bye Birdie, Annie Get Your Gun, West Side Story, and a handful – a very small handful – of others. So, I wasn’t necessarily thrilled at the prospect of seeing Oklahoma!, but I was looking forward to getting all dolled up to walk the red carpet, as well as seeing the film’s star, Shirley Jones, in person. Walking the red carpet was a real trip! Because I didn’t know any better, we arrived relatively early, so I only got to see a few stars – Shirley Jones, Tippi Hedren, Margaret O’Brien (or, to be more accurate, Margaret O’Brien’s back). I didn’t find out until after I’d returned home that we missed a number of other luminaries who didn’t step on the carpet until later, like Kim Novak, Maureen O’Hara, George Chakiris, Diane Baker, Leonard Maltin, and Wink Martindale. You can bet your bottom dollar that I’ll be more hip next time. But the entire atmosphere was positively electric – I felt like such a celebrity, especially when I walked past the cheering fans sitting in the bleachers. It was so much fun.
Oklahoma took a surprising dark turn.
The highlight of the evening was seeing the gorgeous Shirley Jones, who was interviewed by TCM’s Robert Osborne. She was clad in all black – a short, flowing top, what appeared to be leggings (!), and black, high-heeled boots. She was as sharp as a tack. During her interview, I learned that she’d been, at age six, the youngest member of her church choir, and that she’d made her film debut in Oklahoma! at the age of 18. She said that her co-star, Gordon MacCrae, was her favorite singing partner (“I just loved his voice,” she said), and she told a juicy little story about the movie Carousel (1956), in which she was originally to star opposite Frank Sinatra. All of the pre-recording had been done, costumes had been fitted, and the film was practically in the can when Sinatra abruptly quit. He said that it was because the film had to be shot twice – for Cinemascope and for CinemaScope 55, and he’d “only signed on to do one movie.” But Jones revealed that he actually left the picture because he’d gotten a phone call from his then-wife, Ava Gardner, who was shooting Mogambo in Africa. “She told him to get down there or she was going to have an affair with Clark Gable,” Jones said. Scandalous! Incidentally, and to my pleasant surprise, I enjoyed Oklahoma! immensely. The songs were engaging, the colors were exquisite, and it was surprisingly dark in theme – which is always appreciated by a noir lover.
The Second Day: Friday, April 12, 2014
On Approval: It’s already on my Amazon.com wish list.
I saw three movies on the second day – the only one that was new-to-me was the first one, On Approval (1944), a delightfully witty, smart, and rather scandalous British comedy which evoked so many laughs that I feel compelled to see it again because I know I missed some of the lines. The plot is too complicated for me to try to encapsulate and make any reasonable amount of sense – in a nutshell, it’s about two Victorian-era couples who embark upon a month-long trial marriage to see if they are suited to each other. The film stars Beatrice Lillie, Googie Withers (who I know best from Night and the City), and Clive Brook, who also directed.
Movie number two was my favorite film noir: Double Indemnity. I’ve seen this on the big screen before, and more times on the small screen than I care to count, but there was NO WAY that I was going to pass up seeing it at the TCM fest.
Funniest movie of all time? Quite possibly.
My final movie of the day was another one that I’ve seen many times – Blazing Saddles – but I absolutely love this film and, as a bonus, Mel Brooks was there in person, interviewed by Robert Osborne. He was just as hilarious and engaging and endearing as I always thought he’d be – he told the audience that Blazing Saddles may be his favorite movie, and then added, “I really think – and it’s not right for me to say this – I think this could be the funniest motion picture ever.” Brooks shared that there were very few laughs when he first screened the film for Warner Bros. execs – one of them gave Brooks a list of scenes he wanted changed. “No farting. You can’t punch a horse. You can’t beat up an old lady. There were about 20 of them,” Brooks recalled. “If I’d listened to him, the movie would have been around 12 minutes long. I didn’t cut a sentence or a word or even an expression on somebody’s face. It was beyond vulgar – it was dirty. But I was just a scruffy little kid from Brooklyn and there were no rules.”
The Third Day: Saturday, April 13, 2014
The scenes with Douglas and Hackman “sizzled” in I Never Sang For My Father.
Kim and I parted ways on Saturday, each doing our own thing – I started out the day seeing I Never Sang for My Father, starring Gene Hackman and Melvin Douglas, and introduced by Douglas’s charming granddaughter, actress Illeana. The film focuses on the struggle between a father and a son – Illeana said that her grandfather may have been a little intimidated by Hackman “and I think he upped his game a little bit. The scenes with Hackman really sizzle.”
Next up was The Great Gatsby, starring Alan Ladd and Betty Field, which I’ve long wanted to see. The film was introduced by Ladd’s son, David, who said that Gatsby was very important to his father. “Paramount didn’t want him to make it. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Alan Ladd don’t really go together – he was more of an action guy,” David Ladd said, adding that his father finally threatened to go on suspension if he wasn’t allowed to do the film. “This and Shane are my father’s two favorite roles, and I believe this is the best version [of The Great Gatsby]. This movie is not cinematic art, but the casting is impeccable. This one, he was especially proud of.”
Hatcheck Girl. It had these people in it.
Movie number three was Hatcheck Girl (1933), the only pre-Code film on my schedule and one of the films I was most looking forward to seeing. Introduced by Katie Trainor and Ann Mora from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Hatcheck Girl stars Sally Eilers – “coined as the Janet Gaynor with hips,” Mora said. The film, which co-stars Ginger Rogers, centers on, well, a hatcheck girl. To be honest, though, I don’t have a clue what this picture was about, what happened in it, or pretty much anything else. The only thing that stuck with me is that it was rather dull and I was rather disappointed. And sleepy.
I love this movie so much I could eat it on a biscuit.
I’d originally planned to join Kim at this point to see The Pawnbroker, where Quincy Jones was the special guest, but at the last minute, I gave into my innermost desire and saw one of my favorite films, the single movie that I have seen more often than any other – The Women (1939). What a kick it was to see this classic on the big screen! Also, I saw it in the El Capitan Theater, which was my first time being in this classic venue. Before the screening, Ben Mankiewicz interviewed actress Anna Kendrick, introducing her to the audience by telling us that the guest he was about to bring out was born in 1985. “That only gets a laugh at the TCM Film Festival,” he added. Kendrick said that she was introduced to The Women when she was 12 years old, while she was doing a show on Broadway. “I was just so in love with it. I watched it over and over and over. When I went back to Maine, I tried to make my friends watch it,” Kendrick said. “Sylvia is the greatest character of all time, [but] every time Miriam Aarons comes in, I’m like, ‘That’s a bad bitch.'”
The Final Day: Sunday, April 14, 2014
The last day of the festival, I can now say from experience, is bittersweet and fraught with mixed objectives. I’m sad at the thought of the fest being over for another year, and no longer being in the swirling whirlwind of people who are as obsessed about classic movies as I am. On the other hand, I’m pretty exhausted and longing for a salad, some grilled chicken and a glass of fat-free Lactaid milk. I’m practically all-movied-out, but I feel an almost desperate need to cram in, on this last day, as many movies as are physically and logistically possible. I’d love to take a nap, but I can hardly wait to get to the closing night party, take pics with old and new friends (and even meet some more!), and down a glass of something.
Tokyo Story was beautifully done, but so sad.
My first movie of the day was Tokyo Story (1972), a Japanese film about an older married couple who travel to Tokyo to visit their children and grandchildren. It was introduced by Illeana Douglas, who told the audience that she’d been in an independent movie in the early 1990s called Grief, whose director had been obsessed with Tokyo Story. “The characters (in Grief) keep leaving to see Tokyo Story,” she said. The film was slow-moving, but beautifully shot and terribly sad. Having recently lost my grandmother, and getting closer each day to having an empty nest, the film was particularly moving to me. In fact, Kim and I went to lunch at a nearby Japanese restaurant after the movie and I completely broke down in sobs during the meal. It was CRAZY.
The Academy Award-winning Best Boy was a highlight.
And as if I hadn’t cried enough already, our next movie was Best Boy (1979), an Oscar-winning documentary that basically left me in a sizable puddle on the floor. This film depicted several years in the life of Philly Wohl, the 52-year-old mentally retarded cousin of the film’s director, Ira, showing his development from dependence on his elderly parents to independent living in a group home. When I re-read this description, I can appreciate that one might wonder why the film evoked such emotion in me, and it’s kind of hard to explain. First off, the film managed to make you feel that you really knew Philly and his family members, and you grew to care about them. Secondly, it was just so real, showing the director’s efforts to convince Philly’s mother to let him go, and her understandable reluctance to release him into the world. I feel like I’m still not doing a good job of explaining myself – plus I don’t want to give away any key events – so let’s just say it was an excellent movie, it made me cry, and I wasn’t the only one in the theater snuffling and mining my purse for tissue. Ira Wohl, who is now Philly’s guardian, was on hand for a question-and-answer session after the screening; he shared that Philly recently turned 86 and “he still has a better social life than I do.” Wohl also told the audience that he became a social worker after the release of the film. “I decided to go back to school and become a therapist when I was in my 40s,” he said. “But in my eyes, there’s not that much difference between a social worker and a documentary filmmaker.”
Another highlight was Ben Mankiewicz’s interview with Alan Arkin. (photo by John Sciulli)
My final film of the day was the only movie from the festival that I’d originally had no intention of seeing: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968). But after seeing Best Boy, we weren’t yet ready to call it a day, and our remaining choices were The Quiet Man, which, I’m kind of ashamed to admit, has never held any great fascination for me; Employees’ Entrance, which I love, but I own on both VHS and DVD; and Easter Parade which, well, it’s a musical. Plus, we learned that Alan Arkin would be at the Lonely Hunter screening, so off we went. Arkin was interviewed before the screening by Ben Mankiewicz, offering us a fascinating glimpse into his persona (which was once described, Mankiewicz told us, as “short-tempered and moderately cantankerous”). Arkin talked about his family, his experiences with such films as Glengarry Glen Ross, and the start of his career with Second City in Chicago. “Acting used to be the reason for my existence, but thank God I’ve gotten past that,” Arkin added. “You are more than your profession.” He also shared his feelings about being nominated and ultimately winning the Academy Award for Little Miss Sunshine, stating that one of the reasons he became an actor was because of the sense of family and camaraderie that is generated on a production. “Awards separate the actors,” Arkin said. “The moment of nominations is joyous because it unites you with others. . . . but the rest is bullshit.”
In The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Arkin portrayed a deaf-mute named John Singer, who moves to a small town in order to be near his institutionalized best friend, and develops a friendship with the sensitive teenaged daughter of his boarders. I confess that I wasn’t necessarily bowled over by the movie, which seemed to be especially ham-handed when it came to issues like racial strife. Still, Arkin turned in an excellent performance and I’m glad we chose this screening as our movie-going swan song.
More on this later . . .
On my last day in Los Angeles, Monday, April 15th, I took a tour of Hollywood Forever Cemetery. It was a wonderful experience and a perfect ending to my trip to California. I learned some fascinating tidbits about the stars buried there – so much so that I’ve decided to cover the tour in a separate post. So stay tuned!
One of my favorite things about seeing movies at TCMFF is the way the fest attendees clap for everything – the title of the film, the names of the performers and the director, when certain stars first appear on screen, following musical numbers, the end of the movie – it just fills me with joy.
The historic Musso and Frank’s.
Outside of being at the fest, I had several other memorable experiences – on the first day, Kim and I visited the Iguana Vintage Clothing Store on Hollywood Boulevard, where we spent at least an hour trying on sunglasses, looking at clothes, and trying to decide between the Michael Jackson cigarette case or the Jackson Five buttons. It was a blast – even though before I returned home four days later, I’d managed to lose not one but BOTH pairs of the glasses that I bought there. On another day, I had lunch with my friend, Alan Rode, at the famed Musso and Frank’s restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard, where I had their flannel cakes! It was very historic. (It’s also where I lost the first pair of my glasses.) (Okay, I promise not to mention the glasses again.)
Unlike last year, I didn’t spend much time checking out the celebrity interviews that were conducted in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. However, while passing through one day, I did catch part of one – which just happened to be none other than the great Jerry Lewis. So awesome.
See you next year!
After we attended the screening of Oklahoma!, Kim and I had planned to see Johnny Guitar, but it started before Oklahoma! let out. So, instead, we went to a karaoke party at the famed Pig ‘N’ Whistle, had a couple (three) martinis, and wound up closing the place down!
And that about wraps it up for another year. The TCM Film Festival is simply all that. From the real-life meetings with friends you’ve conversed with on Twitter or Facebook, to the star sightings, to the almost painful (but, for me, SO much fun) process of deciding which movies to watch, to the experience of seeing, on the big screen, one classic film after another, there’s nothing like it. That’s why I’ll be back again next year. And the year after that. And the year after that . . .