It’s that time of year again! This past weekend marked the 5th Annual TCM Classic Film Festival, which has grown steadily in scope and attendance since 2010. 2014 marked an expansion into additional theater venues– including the El Capitan Theater, which had occasionally been a site for screenings in the past– leading to some difficult decisions on the behalf of most attendees (Hitchcock’s The Lodger with an orchestra or The Wizard of Oz in IMAX 3D – gah!). Moreover, this year’s festival honored the careers of Richard Dreyfuss, Charlton Heston, Quincy Jones, Jerry Lewis, and Maureen O’Hara, leading to a diverse program that featured everything from John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941) to Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995). We’ll be offering up detailed coverage of the Festival over the coming days, beginning with Drew Morton’s breakdowns of his screening selections.
Thursday: Day One
The first day of TCMFF is traditionally pretty light, as most of the screenings begin in the early evening. This year the opening night red carpet/gala screening was Oklahoma! (1955), but I chose to go with a Joan Crawford double-bill: Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954).
Longtime Baby Jane fan and DVD commentary participant Charles Busch introduced the film, highlighting both its bargain basement production values (funding for the film was infamously minimal, despite the presence of its stars Crawford and Bette Davis – who were unjustly viewed as being “over the hill”) and its relevance to the LGBT community (due to its campy tone). While I would differ with Busch’s assertion that Baby Jane is Aldrich’s best film (Kiss Me Deadly – no contest!), the horror film is a sight to admire due to the performances of the leading actresses. Beginning in the 1910s, the film relishes in the shifted dynamic between the formerly famous vaudevillian sensation Baby Jane (Davis) and her sister Blanche, a contemporarily admired actress bound to a wheelchair (Crawford). Set primarily in the house they share over the course of a couple days (the timeline of the film is incredibly muddled actually, considering that it begins several decades after a car accident with a title card that reads “Yesterday”), the film follows Blanche’s plight as she is terrorized by her insanely jealous sister.
The film is tonally and logically a bit uneven. Specifically, it’s one of those horror films that seems to hold a special place in the hearts of those that grew up with it. The wild fluctuations between genuine horror and “bitchy” laughter – the camp factor Busch spoke about – really diffused both the horror and the drama on my end. I constantly felt like I was being pushed aback by the film, unable to really align my sympathies with Blanche because of the almost ironic tone and because of pretty large leaps of faith. Specifically, there are far too many times when Blanche has an opportunity to yell out to neighbors or house guests to help her. Yet, lest I be condemned for looking for realism in what is generally an Expressionistic horror film, I openly admire the scorching turn by Davis (who was nominated for an Oscar) who chews up the scenery around the house and Crawford, whose role is less “showy” but still – in those final scenes on the beach – provides her with a welcome range of emotions to play.
While I criticize Baby Jane for being a bit too baroque for my tastes, the baroqueness of Johnny Guitar is precisely what brings it to life. This is due to a difference in genre expectations, as the former is largely a horror film without any prolonged moments of horror and the latter is a Western that utilizes the baroque to draw our attention to the artificiality of the genre’s conceits. Specifically, despite its name, Johnny Guitar is less about its gunman turned musician (Sterling Hayden) and more about Vienna (Crawford), a business woman who has constructed a saloon and casino at the future site of a railroad. The film makes no secret that Vienna is the real masculine figure in its frontier landscape. In one of the first scenes of the film, Crawford looms over the floor of her vacant casino in pants, a blouse, and a bandana and tells the male croupier that works for her to spin the roulette wheel. When he responds, perplexed, “What for? There’s no consumers!” Vienna tells him, pointedly, “I like to hear it spin.” It’s a winning bet that he spins that wheel.
Moreover, when a posse is formed by the rabid Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) to run Vienna out of town, it’s Vienna who straps on a gun and does (most of) the killing – not Johnny Guitar. However, while the men of this Feminist Western may shrink into the background, they’re not completely undermined. Vienna still loves Johnny, just as she has loved many a men before him. Considering the reversed gender politics of the film, the quotable screenplay (“Bart, you don’t drink, you don’t smoke, you’re mean to horses. What do you like?”), and the rich themes (the film was written by blacklisted screenwriter Ben Maddow, whose fate plays a large thematic role in Emma’s witch hunt), there’s no secret as to why the French New Wave critics were such admirers of Johnny Guitar. Moreover, as we were informed in an introduction by writer Michael Schlesinger, the DCP print was restored (in contrast to the infamously ugly DVD transfers of the TruColor negative), further enriching the experience.
Friday: Day Two
I started off my second day with a more traditional Western: John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), a film I’ve seen more times than I can count. The film was introduced by Vanity Fair writer Nancy Schoenberger, who is working on a book about John Wayne and John Ford. Overall, despite the greatness of the film, I found the presentation somewhat lackluster. Schoenberger’s introduction covered greatest hits of the film’s production and the 35mm print supplied by the UCLA Film and Television Archive (often screened in our History of American Film classes) was a bit of a mixed bag, starting off scratchy and dirty in the first hour before gradually cleaning up. That said, after looking at the DVD Beaver review of the Criterion Blu-Ray, I’m not sure how much of this was the product of the original negative and how much of it was this specific print. Fortunately, the AV presentation of Stagecoach experience was an anomaly within my experience of the Festival.
After Ford’s classic (If I give the film short shift, it’s primarily because it’s probably one of the most discussed American films ever made and I’m struggling to add any new insights to what has been a very long and detailed conversation), my wife and I went to beautiful 35mm presentation of Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow (1937). This is film I’ve been avoiding for a nearly a decade because, as both programmer Dennis Bartok – who introduced the film – and Orson Welles have noted (“It would make a stone cry”), it is a emotionally draining experience. Set in the midst of the Great Depression, Make Way focuses on the lives of Barkley (Victor Moore) and Lucy (Belulah Bondi), an elderly couple who have lost their home due to foreclosure. The couple is forced to split up for the first time in their fifty years of marriage as Barkley goes to live with his daughter while Lucy goes to live with their son George (Thomas Mitchell) some 300 miles away. Initially, their separation is justified as being temporary, just long enough for one of the other children to get the house ready for two additional inhabitants. However, it does not come to pass and the couple is set to be split up between New York (where Lucy will move into a retirement home for women) and California (where Barkley will move in with another one their children). Given their old age and modest economic means, their separation is implied to be permanent; their tearful goodbye at the train station will be their last.
Crying yet? While I often roll my eyes at autobiographical criticism, I find I cannot avoid it here. My wife and I are involved in a long distance marriage and while I’m fortunate enough to see her frequently, the emotional charge of that goodbye rattles me to the point of tears even now as I write this. While the film may sound melodramatic, it’s success is contingent upon McCarey’s even hand. The reason why the film is emotionally unbearable is not because it wallows in depression. I laughed more frequently than I assumed I would and the final act of the film – which follows Barkley and Lucy out on the town – is a progression of scenes defined as much by glimmers of happiness (cocktails in the hotel they honeymooned in) as it is by immense loss that McCarey often understates. The moment that broke my heart was when Barkley notices a Help Wanted sign at a menswear store while he’s window shopping with Lucy. He tells Lucy he needs to go buy a shirt and the camera remains outside with her. However, we know what he is trying to do and the moment he lies to his wife (“They didn’t have my size.”) to save face is shattering. While its no surprise that Make Way will leave you a raw and blubbering mess, it is also one of the best and most honest films I have ever seen.
I obviously needed an “upper” after Make Way for Tomorrow and I gladly received it in the form of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946). I’m a relatively latecomer to the work of the Archers, simply because I often procrastinated in watching their films because I wanted to see their glorious work “properly.” It was announced by Powell’s wife (and Martin Scorsese’s editor) Thelma Shoonmaker that the DCP of A Matter of Life and Death being projected was based on a recent restoration completed by Sony Pictures, so hopefully its long-awaited HD treatment is forthcoming. And, like all Powell and Pressburger films, what a sight it was!
While the story and characterizations in A Matter of Life and Death are a bit thinner than some of their other productions, the film’s stylistic triumphs are more than enough to compensate. The film focuses on the love affair between a WWII British pilot Peter (David Niven) and a U.S. radio operator June (Kim Hunter) that ignites when Peter radios in an SOS as he is about to jump from his wounded bomber without a parachute. Peter somehow survives the free fall and finds himself stuck between two worlds, as the agents of Heaven try to claim him as being dead while the Earthly June tries to keep him by her side. While the film never really defines the two lovers (we never really learn anything about them!), the chemistry Niven and Hunter share in the film’s first scene ensures our empathy. Moreover, it’s the Technicolor Poet’s – Jack Cardiff – cinematography (which transitions beautifully between monochrome for the scenes shot in Heaven and glorious Technicolor for the scenes shot on Earth) that gives additional weight to this fantastic romance. I hope the Criterion Collection gets on this DCP right quick and gives A Matter of Life and Death the release it has long deserved!
I stayed in “uplift” mode for my next two screenings on Friday: Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon (1973) and Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles (1974). Unfortunately, Ryan O’Neal – who was scheduled to introduce Paper Moon – had to cancel and I dozed off for part of Blazing Saddles (albeit after Mel Brooks introduced it– damn jet lag–but I wanted to have enough momentum to go into the midnight screening of Eraserhead!). Despite O’Neal not showing up, I was pleasantly surprised by Paper Moon. The relatively minimalist film about a con man (Ryan O’Neal) and the young girl who is probably his daughter (played by his actual daughter, Tatum O’Neal) scheming their way across the Midwest in the midst of the Great Depression is a fantastic 1970s comedy, on par with The Sting (1973) in my opinion. The scene in which the two bicker over a Coney Island (I think Ryan O’Neal must tell her to eat her hot dog fifteen times in the span of five minutes) sets the tone of their relationship early, as it quickly becomes clear that the con man is going to be conned. Moreover, the script (written by Alvin Sargent) features some hilariously cutting exchanges like the one where Ryan tells Tatum “I got scruples too, you know. You know what that is? Scruples?” and she responds “No, I don’t know what it is, but if you got ’em, it’s a sure bet they belong to somebody else!” It doesn’t hurt that the film is beautiful to look at, be it in the form of the high contrast black and white cinematography or Madeline Kahn’s goofy prostitute.
Speaking of Madeline Kahn, Mel Brooks gave her his highest salute in a touching tribute before Blazing Saddles. He spoke about the awkward process of casting her on the basis of her legs, which she didn’t care for, and sung praises about her voice. He also claimed that he didn’t think the film could be made today, which made me wonder if he had yet to get around to Django Unchained (2012). As aforementioned, I dozed off for part of the film out of sheer exhaustion (watching six movies in one day is tiring in its own way!), but I was struck by how shaggy the structure of Blazing Saddles is. The long digressions and – dare I say it – relatively slow pacing of the film makes Spaceballs (1987) look like a tightly wound machine. Watching the film for the first time in a decade, it felt more desperate in how far it was willing to go to please, more fractured – like watching a collection of Saturday Night Live defined by extreme peaks and valleys. The film’s commentary on race is still – even in the face of Django – biting, but it seems to lose its potency when surrounded by the deserts of its broader humor.
I closed out day two and began day three with a midnight screening of David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977), beautifully projected on 35mm and hilariously introduced by comedian Patton Oswalt, who lovingly described the Festival as being “Coachella for shut-ins!” Having seen Eraserhead numerous times before and knowing full well that it’s a fool’s errand to try to make sense of out Lynch’s surrealist masterpiece beyond the sentiment that having children makes life a living hell, I paid less attention to the film (which I love) and more attention to the reactions of friends who had never seen it before. There was a perverse magic in watching my friends – who are more accustomed to “classical narratives” – try to make sense of the truly disgusting images and overwhelming soundscapes of the film. I relished witnessing the terrified awe – a mixture of a half-turned away face and the masochistic fascination of being unable to close one’s eyes – of friends encountering Henry’s screeching baby for the first time, the same way I do when I show my students Un Chien Andalou (1929) for the first time. I may have dozed off somewhere in the midst of Lynch’s hallucination. If I am somewhat disappointed in myself, it is only because I didn’t awake screaming from a cinematic fever dream.