Adventures in Paradise: The TCM Film Festival
On April 25-28, 2013, I did something that, in the not too distant past, I never really believed I’d ever do – I attended the Turner Classic Movie Festival in Los Angeles, California. Now in its fourth year, this year’s classic film event featured more than 80 films, including silents, documentaries, dramas, comedies, musicals, horror, pre-Code, and film noir – there was truly something for everyone.
For me, the fest consisted of numerous delights, including spotting – up close and personal – such celebrities as Norman Lloyd, James Karen, Michael Badalucco, and the cast of Deliverance; taking pictures with Robert Osborne and Ben Mankiewicz; and meeting many of the friends I’ve made over the last year or so via Twitter and Facebook. But the highlights were seeing four films noirs and one pre-Code on the big screen, and enjoying the special guests that accompanied each. Here’s the lowdown . . .
The first film I saw at the fest was The Killing (1956), starring Sterling Hayden, Marie Windsor, and Elisha Cook, Jr. The Killing tells the story of an intricately planned racetrack heist, carried out by a most unique cast of characters, including a small-time hood recently released from prison, a bartender caring for his invalid wife, and a meek cashier married to a ball-busting babe from way back.
The Killing kicked off with an interview with the delightful Coleen Gray, who “bookends” the film with appearances in the opening and closing scenes as the devoted girlfriend of the Sterling Hayden character. Gray told film producer/writer Dennis Bartok that she got the part after hearing that director Stanley Kubrick was looking for a “Coleen Gray type. And someone said, ‘Why not get Coleen Gray?’”
Gray recalled that she’d been looking forward to being directed by “this great man,” anticipating that Kubrick was going to “invest in me all of these great qualities I had never known before, but it wasn’t so. He never directed me. He [just] printed it.” Gray praised the film’s “glorious cast” and, in particular, co-stars Hayden and Windsor, opining that the latter should have won an Academy Award for her performance as the duplicitous Sherry Peatty.
The petite, 90-year-old actress also shared that she was unfamiliar with the term “film noir” at the time The Killing was made. “They were just movies,” Gray said. “They were black and white and they usually had a good story.” She likened a good movie to a triangle, stating that a good story is the apex of the triangle, with the director to the left, and the cast to the right. “We don’t get that so much these days because we have sex and violence and drugs.” As for The Killing, Gray said, she was “thrilled and delighted” when she saw the finished product.
(Note: I interviewed Coleen Gray by phone about 15 years ago, when I was working on my first book, Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film, but I’d never met her in person. Fortunately, after her appearance at the TCM fest, she remained in the audience to watch the film, and afterwards, I got the opportunity to introduce myself to her. It was truly the greatest moment of the entire festival for me – and I confess to shedding more than a few tears afterward – it was just such an awesome experience to finally meet her.)
Safe in Hell
Film number two on my hit parade was Safe in Hell (1931), a tawdry little pre-Code number starring Dorothy Mackaill as Gilda Carlson, a prostitute who hides out on a remote Caribbean island after she accidentally kills one of her johns. The film’s cast features Nina (pronounced with a long “I”) Mae McKinney and Clarence Muse, two black performers whose roles in this picture represent a refreshing departure from the often demeaning parts played by minorities during that time period.
Before the picture, the packed house was treated to a discussion by film historian and prize-winning author Donald Bogle, and William Wellman, Jr., son of the film’s famed director. Incidentally, I was surprised to learn that Wellman, Jr., a producer, writer, and actor, was in such films as High School Confidential, Black Caesar, and It’s Alive, and also appeared on numerous popular television shows including The Brady Bunch, Dallas, Beverly Hills 90210, Charlie’s Angels, Alias, and JAG. Wellman, Jr., shared that Safe in Hell was made at Warner Bros., where his father worked for three years, directing 18 films between 1930 and 1933 – he considered it to be his favorite period.
The discussion focused on McKinney and Muse; according to Bogle, McKinney made her film debut in 1929 in Hallelujah, an all-black musical directed by King Vidor. She was the first black performer to land a contract at a major studio (MGM); several years later, she was tapped for the lead in The Duke is Tops (1938), but she fell ill and the part was given instead to Lena Horne, who became a star. One of McKinney’s best roles was in Pinky (1949), where she played a maid named Rozelia.
Considered as the first black love goddess, McKinney was called “The Black Garbo,” Wellman said, sharing that his father was so appreciative of her talent that he added a song in Safe in Hell for McKinney to sing. “It’s an incredible moment in this picture,” he said. The song, “Sleepytime Down South,” was co-written by Clarence Muse; Wellman stated that Muse was also a playwright and held a law degree. “When you hear him speak, you will know that he is part of the intelligentsia,” Wellman said.
The Narrow Margin
On the second day of the film festival, I took in The Narrow Margin (1952), starring Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor. This film centers on a cop’s effort to transport a mobster’s widow by train from Chicago to Los Angeles, where she is slated to testify before a grand jury. Meanwhile, a gang of bad guys is also on board the train, trying to prevent the widow from reaching her destination alive.
The guest for this showing was 90-year-old Jacqueline White, who shared with the audience how she landed her third-billed role in the film as Ann Sinclair. After making The Capture, with Lew Ayres and Teresa Wright in 1950, White retired to Casper, Wyoming, to start a family with husband Bruce Anderson who, White said, didn’t want her to work. One day, while visiting the RKO studio to show friends pictures of her new baby, she was spotted by Narrow Margin director Richard Fleischer, who said he’d like her to be in the film. (Fleischer had directed White three years earlier in Banjo – White had the audience in stiches with her story about an experience on that picture involving an uncooperative dog.)
Despite her husband’s “lack of enthusiasm” about her offer, White accepted the part, and the film was shot in just three weeks. “We, of course, were not on a real train,” she explained, “but the effects that they had were absolutely wonderful.” The actress also praised co-star Charles McGraw, describing him as a “no-nonsense tough guy.”
“That’s just the way he was all the time,” White said, “but he was a very nice person.”
The Narrow Margin was White’s last picture. When she was pregnant with her second baby (she eventually had a total of five children), she returned to Los Angeles to have the baby and was asked to make a screen test for a role in a Lana Turner movie. Her husband, however, was “very unhappy.”
“I got home and there he was in bed. He had a thermometer in his mouth, and he was groaning, and I said, ‘Bruce, what’s the matter?’ And he said, ‘Don’t worry about me – the children and I will get by somehow. You go ahead, make your movie,” White recalled, acting out her husband’s weakened demeanor as the audience roared with laughter. “So I knew that there was just no way that we could work this out. But I said, ‘Bruce, you’re the one who should be in pictures, not me.’”
Next up was one of my all-time favorites, Mildred Pierce (1945), which tells the story of the title character and the lengths to which she goes for the love of her spoiled, self-centered daughter, Veda. (For more on why I love this movie so, click here for a post I wrote last year as part of the Seven Shadows blog event with Andrew of 1001 Movies I [Apparently] MUST See Before I Die.)
Before the film was shown, the full auditorium at the Egyptian Theater was treated to an interview with Ann Blyth by TCM host Robert Osborne. As the interview began, Osborne jokingly invited the audience to “hiss” Blyth, who portrayed Veda in the film. Blyth played along, put her hand on her hip, and responded, “I don’t care!”
Blyth told the audience that she had to test for the role of Veda, and learned years later that several other actresses had sought the part as well: “I was the lucky one,” she said, adding that her screen test was done with the film’s star, Joan Crawford. “That was so unusual for a star of her stature at that time. It was a dream come true, obviously, and it makes a huge difference in how you even start to think about this character that you’re going to play,” Blyth said. “I have nothing but wonderful memories of her. She was kind to me all during the making of the movie and kind to me in private afterwards, for many, many years.”
With Gilda (1946), my film noir/pre-Code fest experience came to an end. This feature, starring Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford, centers on a deadly triangle between the title character, her sadistic husband, and her former lover. A famous highlight of the film is Hayworth’s performance of “Put the Blame on Mame.”
Gilda was introduced at the fest by actress Debra Winger, best known for her roles in such films as An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) and Terms of Endearment (1983). She was also in the well-received independent film Rachel Getting Married (2008), in which she played the mother of Anne Hathaway. Winger told the crowd that Gilda was one of the films she’d selected when she appeared as a guest programmer on TCM in May 2012. “I love Rita Hayworth – how can you not love Rita Hayworth?” Winger said. “I want to tell you a line that I remember – and, unfortunately, it probably colored most of my Hollywood career – but Gilda says, ‘If I were a ranch, they’d call me the Bar Nothing.’ “
During the festival, in addition to these film noir and pre-Code films, I also saw the silent film It, starring Clara Bow, accompanied by a full, live orchestra; Libeled Lady, starring Spencer Tracy, William Powell, and Jean Harlow; and Cluny Brown, a sexy, witty comedy directed by Ernst Lubitsch. I also participated in two trivia contests – the second one focused on music in the movies and was hosted by Jeopardy’s Alex Trebek. I was on a team of six that included Raquel of the Out of the Past blog, and our team (called “The Musical Chairs”) tied for first place with three other teams! (Unfortunately, we were knocked out on the first tie-breaking question, but STILL.) I also saw a presentation by author Cari Beauchamp about women in early film, and observed several interviews conducted at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, including one with Bill Hader of Saturday Night Live, and another with author John Bengston, who explores silent-era film locations. The entire festival was a wonder, like something I could only have dreamed of. Even now, it’s a little hard for me to believe that I was actually there, actually sitting in those historic theaters with hundreds of other classic film fans from all over the country – all over the world! – seeing on the big screen these wonderful films that I love so dearly. Did it really all happen?
I suppose I’ll have to go back again next year – just to be sure.