By Jordan R. Young.
To vintage film enthusiasts–more than 28,000 last year–April means it’s time for the TCM Classic Film Festival. The eighth annual event took place over three days and four nights in Hollywood this past April, where attendees feasted on a staggering number of films and an impressive lineup of special guests. This year’s theme? Make ‘Em Laugh: Comedy In The Movies. The official host of the event, TCM host Ben Mankiewicz (grandson of screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz), was but one familiar face on the festival’s jam-packed agenda. The honored guests included Peter Bogdanovich, Michael Douglas, Martin Scorsese, Beau Bridges, Leonard Maltin, Sara Karloff (daughter of Boris), Suzanne Lloyd (granddaughter of Harold) and Kate MacMurray (daughter of Fred).
There was something for everyone with an average of five films in every time slot, including restorations of the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business (1931) and Laurel and Hardy’s Way Out West (1937), both introduced by Dick Cavett; a special program of scenes from restored films made by B-movie studio Republic Pictures; rare nitrate prints of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and film noir favorite Laura (1944); a 75th Anniversary screening of Casablanca (1942); and 50th anniversary screenings of 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and In The Heat Of The Night, the latter with Sidney Poitier and Quincy Jones in attendance.
There was also a 40th anniversary showing of High Anxiety (1977) introduced by Mel Brooks, an almost annual guest; The Jerk (1979), introduced by Carl Reiner; and a 30th anniversary screening of The Princess Bride (1987), introduced by Rob Reiner. The Reiners were honored with a first-ever father-and-son hand and footprint ceremony at the TCL Chinese Theatre IMAX (formerly Grauman’s Chinese), one of the key venues for the festival. The Egyptian Theatre (where the first Hollywood premiere was held in 1922) was a primary venue as well, being equipped to screen every conceivable format including nitrate.
Just a handful of the festival’s highlights:
Speedy (1928), Harold Lloyd’s last silent film, held up brilliantly—especially shown as it was meant to be seen, with live music, in this case an original score performed by the Alloy Orchestra. Instead of hanging off the sides of buildings this time out, the great daredevil comedian with the trademark horn-rimmed glasses engages in a wild cross-town race as thrilling as any chase scene filmed in the silent era. The plot, which has Harold as a baseball fanatic en route to Yankee Stadium, permits a cameo appearance by Babe Ruth as himself (and Lou Gehrig too, if you don’t blink). Lloyd and director Ted Wilde make terrific use of New York City locations, giving us a rare glimpse of the Big Apple as it looked during the Jazz Age (including Coney Island), instead of the usual Hollywood simulation.
Beyond the Mouse: The 1930s Cartoons of Ub Iwerks proved a revelation to many festival attendees. Iwerks, the pioneer who served as Walt Disney’s head animator in the early years and created Mickey Mouse, has been largely forgotten; film historian Jerry Beck’s presentation included restorations of 10 of his best efforts, beginning with Mickey’s prototype, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Steamboat Willie (the first synchronized sound cartoon, starring Mickey), The Skeleton Dance (which launched Disney’s celebrated Silly Symphony series), Movie Mad (featuring the shenanigans of Flip the Frog in a film studio amid caricatures of Hollywood stars) and Merry Mannequins (an Art Deco homage to the era’s movie musicals) were among the cartoons shown.
The Front Page (1931), based on a classic Broadway play, sparkled in a newly restored print and fired on all cylinders. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s outrageous satire of the newspaper business spawned dozens of imitations; this initial film version of the play, directed by Lewis Milestone, is considered the most faithful of the many cinematic adaptations though Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday is the more popular. Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front) and his cast (headed by Adolphe Menjou, Pat O’Brien and Edward Everett Horton) keep it moving and give it a manic energy seldom seen in pictures of its era, many of which were little more than filmed stage plays.
Cock of the Air (1932), a virtually forgotten a Pre-Code romantic comedy produced by Howard Hughes, would have been a treat had it simply been shown as originally released. Instead, a recently rediscovered print of the uncensored version was screened with 12 minutes of footage never seen by audiences. The controversial film, starring Chester Morris as an aviator with a roving eye and former silent star Billie Dove (in a series of low-cut gowns) as a singer and the object of his attention, is a spirited romp; with contemporary actors hired to dub the missing dialogue from an extant script, little is left to the imagination.
The Palm Beach Story (1942) was one of two offerings in this year’s festival written and directed by Preston Sturges, also represented by the underappreciated Unfaithfully Yours. The madcap filmmaker often lauded as the most original of Hollywood’s comedy creators inspired a generation of hopefuls to follow in his path, most notably Billy Wilder. This screwball romantic farce, equaled or surpassed only by Sturges himself, co-stars Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert as a husband and wife headed for divorce—as a solution to their monetary problems. Singer Rudy Vallee reinvents himself as a comic actor, Mary Astor demonstrates her versatility, and a gaggle of character actors including William Demarest run riot like few ensembles before or since.
Black Narcissus (1947), one of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s lesser known titles, was a repeat in a sense, having been shown at the festival in 2012. In place of the digital version presented last time however, programmers pulled the original 35mm nitrate print out of mothballs. It was an astute choice; Jack Cardiff was one of the British film industry’s top cinematographers, and this Technicolor gem is perhaps his greatest accomplishment. Recreating the film drama’s Himalayan setting at Pinewood Studios he took inspiration from Vermeer, emulating the lighting in the Dutch master’s paintings. The art direction is first rate as well. Deborah Kerr heads the cast as a young mother superior whose charges are trying to establish a chapel in a remote mountain village.
King of Hearts (1966) was a little ahead of its time when it was released to indifferent audience and critical reception half a century ago. Directed by Philippe de Broca, this cult film anticipated a wave of anti-war comedies, including How I Won the War and Catch 22; disenchantment with the Vietnam war made it a hit in revival cinemas during the ‘70s. Alan Bates stars as a Scottish soldier who’s sent to a small French town to disarm a German bomb at the tail end of World War I, and becomes a hero to the inmates of an insane asylum who’ve taken over the town. Geneviève Bujold, a relative newcomer at the time of the film’s premiere, introduced this 50th anniversary screening, digitally restored for the occasion.
Jordan R. Young’s work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other publications. His books include Acting Solo, Spike Jones Off the Record, Reel Characters, and King Vidor’s The Crowd, which the Huffington Post acclaimed “one of the best film books of 2014.”
For more on the TCM Classic Film Festival, see their website here.