The ninth annual TCM Classic Film Festival was held on April 26 – 29 in Hollywood, CA. This year’s theme was Powerful Words: The Page Onscreen so many of the films screened were based on novels, created from original screenplays, or depicted the life of writers – real and fictitious – onscreen.
I find it so hard to believe that I’ve already attended the TCM Classic Film Festival twice. Twice! I had been aching to go since, like, 2012 and until last year I lived vicariously through social media posts waiting for the year I could go. I feel so fortunate to have the ability to attend such a huge event with many others in the classic film community.
My friend Jeremy and I drove about two hours to the airport in St. Louis, MO starting around 1:30 AM on April 23rd for an early flight. We made our journey to Burbank, CA, which is just a few miles from Hollywood and waited for our friend Amelia to land.
Once we reunited, the three of us packed ourselves and our luggage into a Lyft and checked ourselves into our Airbnb, which was located near Hollywood Boulevard (what an experience that was – ha!)
Okay, onto TCMFF.
I feel like I accomplished way more at this year’s festival than I did last spring; I watched nine feature-length films (including my first midnight movie; yay!), attended one Q&A panel, and the “Hollywood Home Movies” program, presented by the Academy Film Archive.
Beyond the festival itself, I got to visit the Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study in Hollywood and Fotokem (film lab) in Burbank with Amelia. Shout-out to her for setting up the tours, as she is preparing to make a career of film archiving. Amelia and I and a couple of other friends also toured some of the Warner Bros lot with a small group, composed entirely of TCMFF-goers. A few of us also attended the Fashion in Film of TCMFF 2018 talk at the historic Woman’s Club of Hollywood. It was presented by Kimberly Truhler of glamamor.com, a scholar in film fashion, who specializes in costuming of the Golden Age of Hollywood.
The night before the festival is annually reserved for a poolside meetup for a Facebook group called “Going to TCM Classic Film Festival!“. The folks who administer the group and some active members go above and beyond by bringing special guests to speak before group members who are able to attend. This year, Meredith Ponedel, whose aunt, Dorothy Ponedel, applied makeup to some of the Golden Age of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Also in attendance were a couple of Mary Astor’s family members made an appearance and brought her Oscar for everyone to see up close. Last year’s guest of honor, actress Barbara Rush, came back, as did actress Cora Sue Collins.
My favorite part of the night was spotting former child actor Ted Donaldson in the crowd. I had no idea he was going to be there, so I was extra excited. After the meetup events ended, I made my way to Mr. Donaldson and spoke to him for about a minute. He was sweet and soft-spoken and graciously took two pictures with me (one on my phone and one on my Fujifilm instant camera). That’s a moment I’ll always cherish.
Day 1: Thursday
TCMFF always kicks off on a Thursday evening with the full red carpet treatment and several film screenings in the various theaters on Hollywood Boulevard.
My friend Amelia and I made our way to the historic Egyptian Theatre and sat with another friend for our first film of the festival, which was a nitrate screening of Stage Door (1937). I had watched it only once before and it had been several years back, but I remembered how moving it was and didn’t think twice about seeing it once again, especially as it was on nitrate.
Unfortunately I was pretty tired by the time we settled into the Egyptian and it was all I could do to keep my eyes open by the end of the film. But I made it. I wasn’t going to miss the “calla lilies” scene for anything. ♡
If you’d like to watch Stage Door at home, it will be airing on TCM on August 5th at midnight (EST). It’s also available to purchase online – physical copy and streaming.
Day 2: Friday
Friday was my most productive day in terms of the number of movies I watched (plus, I attended one event at Club TCM).
Amelia and I ventured to the Egyptian Theatre once again, this time to watch The Merry Widow (1934), at 9 AM. The film, directed by the great Ernst Lubitsch and starring Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier, is a lively period musical/romantic comedy co-starring Una Merkel and Edward Everett Horton. It was projected on 35mm. My drowsiness was probably at least partly to blame, but I didn’t really get into this film. I especially like Jeanette MacDonald in her other films, but I’m just going to say that watching The Merry Widow that early wasn’t my cup of tea. With that said (????), hey, I got myself into a theater to watch a movie pretty early in the morning. I’ll give myself that! (haha)
My second film of the day was The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944). This was one of the highest-ranking titles on my unofficial list of movies I had been wanting to watch but hadn’t gotten around to it yet.
I’ve really been lucky in my first two years of TCMFF; last year, I watched Harold and Maude (1971), a movie I’d been wanting to watch for ages, for the first time. (Best of all, it was the first movie I ever watched at TCMFF.)
Anyway, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek was a hoot. Directed by one of the masters of screwball comedy, it’s basically about a young lady named – I kid you not – Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) who stays out a bit too late at a going-away party for some soldiers one night, gets drunk, agrees to impulsively marry one of the soldiers, forgets her new husband’s name by the next morning, doesn’t know how to find him, then discovers she’s pregnant. Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), a local socially awkward boy who’s been in love with Trudy for years, volunteers to help her. It gets extremely zany, further fueled by her hilariously overprotective policeman father (William Demarest) and spunky sister Emmy (Diana Lynn).
At the time of its release, this made for a pretty risqué plot!
The screening was so popular that TCM put it in one of their TBA slots on the final day of the festival, which is typically reserved for the most popular screenings of the first three days. It gives those who got turned away from packed-house screenings a chance to watch them.
Here’s one scene from the film, featuring Eddie Bracken and William Demarest. It will give you a taste of how zany Miracle is:
A real quick side note: I got really excited before the movie started because I saw Kate Flannery (who played Meredith in the US version of The Office) sitting a number of rows down from Amelia and me. I almost said hi to her in the lobby, but it looked like she was making her way out of the theater. From the brief glimpses I got, she seemed really cool and chill.
Film Biographers: A Life was an event that I automatically took interest in (in????) when I first read the festival schedule. Three successful authors of various classic film books were interviewed by one of TCM’s newest hosts, Alicia Malone, about their careers and why they do what they do.
Up next was Three Smart Girls (1936), presented on 35mm. It was probably my favorite screening of TCMFF – it’s tough for me to choose an ultimate favorite, so I’m not going to make myself do that! I had never heard of it before TCM released the festival schedule. I looked up the trailer online, thought it looked cute, and decided to take a chance on it. I’m so glad I did.
The screening was extra special because Bob Koster, the son of the film’s director Henry Koster, was interviewed about his father’s career before and during Three Smart Girls was being made. Henry Koster, a Jew, had escaped from Germany in 1932 after knocking out a Nazi SA officer, briefly lived in France and Budapest, then made his way to the United States to direct this film.
Because of the film’s enormous success at the box office, Koster, Deanna Durbin, and co. literally saved Universal Studios from falling into bankruptcy. Not a bad way to debut in Hollywood.
Anyway, Three Smart Girls is basically the prototype of The Parent Trap – both the 1961 and 1998 versions. (How hadn’t I heard about it before?) I’ve been a fan of The Parent Trap since childhood, so I was really looking forward to the screening.
This was my first Deanna Durbin movie, which legitimately felt like a big milestone for me. I’d watched/listened to several of her musical numbers from various films awhile back on YouTube, but had never gotten around to watching her films until TCMFF. The moment she appeared onscreen, I thought she was just about the most angelic thing I’ve ever seen and heard.
The above images from Three Smart Girls courtesy of Doctor Macro.
Leave Her to Heaven (1945) was the second nitrate film that I watched at TCMFF. Remembering how gorgeous the Technicolor radiated from the TV screen at home, I knew we, the audience, were in for a rare treat.
The experience was every bit as glorious as I imagined it would be. Gene Tierney’s majorly jealous and homicidal Ellen radiates on the big screen. The elements which are already intense on the small screen become incredibly unsettling, but the gorgeousness of the Technicolor makes it strangely beautiful.
My only issue with the screening was that several audience members laughed at parts that weren’t actually funny; apparently I wasn’t the only one who got mildly irritated by it. But that’s something that happens during some classic film screenings. Some folks who aren’t used to watching the old stuff see and the vastly different acting styles of the era probably think that it comes off as unintentionally comical at times.
Nevertheless, attending that screening was well worth it.
Day 3: Saturday
Outrage (1950), presented on 35mm, tied with Three Smart Girls and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek as my favorite screening of TCMFF 2018.
Like Three Smart Girls, I had never heard of Outrage until this year’s schedule was released. I wasn’t even planning on attending this one, but Amelia had it down on her schedule and I decided last minute to join her. That’s one of the fun parts of attending a film festival: mixing it up and improvising every so often. You never know what you’ll discover.
Outrage is a B-movie crime drama starring Mala Powers as a working young woman named Ann who is raped by the man who works at a concession stand near her place of work. (Note that because of strict censorship, the word “rape” is never actually said.)
After it happens, Ann clearly suffers from PTSD and believes that, despite the support of her family and boyfriend, everyone is talking about her and judging her behind her back. Ann leaves her boyfriend because she no longer feels pure and decides to run away from home to escape it all.
When she is found by a kindhearted preacher named Bruce Ferguson (Tod Andrews), Ann’s life gradually begins to feel peaceful again, until an incident intended to be innocent causes her to relive her trauma.
Toward the end of Outrage, there’s a scene in which Rev. Ferguson stands up for Ann in the courtroom when just about everyone else condemns her, showing no interest in empathizing with the situation. Rev. Ferguson delivers a wonderful monologue about how people who suffer from mental illness (even illnesses caused by traumatic events like rape) are in need of so much more help than they are given in society. This monologue caused a number of us in the audience to clap because of its relevance nearly seventy years later. That scene firmly stuck with me.
Sunset Boulevard (1950) …What is there to say about this film that hasn’t been adequately said before? Little, if anything (????)
Before this screening, I had watched Sunset Boulevard just once and it was back around 2012 or 2013. Because it’s one of the most iconic films of all time, I remembered most of the scenes, but watching it in the TCL (Grauman’s) Chinese Theatre almost made me feel like I was watching it for the first time. It was a rare treat.
Several moments/scenes especially stand out to me, like the scene in which Norma screens one of her silent films for Joe (the film is actually Queen Kelly, which starred Gloria Swanson and was directed by Erich von Stroheim), the scene in which Norma is chauffeured onto the Paramount Studio lot and a crew member in the sound stage shines a spotlight on her when everyone realizes who she is, and – of course – the final scene – the scene to end all scenes:
In attendance was 89-year-old Nancy Olson-Livingston, who is the last surviving cast member; she was accompanied by several of her family members and spoke about the process she went through to land the role of Betty Schaefer and what it was like to work on the film. I thought it was cool that she wore her own clothing in the film.
Hollywood Home Movies: Treasures from the Academy Film Archive was a last-minute decision. The person sitting next to me at Sunset Boulevard mentioned it and told me that she had attended the home movies presentations in years past and was never disappointed. Well, I’m a sucker for anything candid, especially when it comes to film, so I ventured from the Chinese Theatre to Club TCM in the Roosevelt Hotel. It was a delightful presentation, showcasing home footage of stars such as Carmen Miranda, George and Ira Gershwin, and Marilyn Monroe.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
My first midnight screening of TCMFF! It was originally going to be introduced by director Edgar Wright (which I was psyched about) but he had to cancel his appearance this year. However, being the cool guy he is, Edgar sent in backup – none other than actor Simon Pegg, another guy who seems chill and really cool. Simon gave praise to the film and its director, George A. Romero, and credited it as the obvious inspiration for Shaun of the Dead (2004).
I came close to drifting to sleep several times during this screening which sucked, but I fought drowsiness and managed to enjoy it. This was my second viewing of the film.
Day 4: Sunday
A Star is Born (1937)
The final block was one of of the tougher ones for me. I hated missing Animal House (’78), especially since a handful of cast members were in attendance and it’s one of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had watching a movie.
However, since I had already seen Animal House on the big screen and it was up against a movie I greatly admire and had not seen on the big screen, I chose to end the TCM Classic Film Festival with a nitrate screening of the original version of A Star is Born (’37).
To say A Star is Born was magnificent on nitrate feels like an understatement. I’m not sure what word could possibly give the experience, so I won’t try to find one.
Amelia, Jeremy, and I flew back home the day after the festival ended. Jeremy and I grabbed In-N-Out before we checked in to the airport and that familiar feeling of being ready to go home but also wanting to stay just a little longer came over me. However, I was ready to see the people I’d missed seeing for a week.
Until next time, TCMFF –