Discover and Celebrate Classic Cinema in Hollywood
The virtues of the TCM Classic Film Festival, which takes over the Hollywood & Highland area of Los Angeles for four days every April (this year, April 25th-28th), are nearly endless, scientifically speaking. Easy as it is to see great older films year round in Los Angeles’ many magnificent rep houses, TCM Fest is really quite a singular experience, one that you could attempt to explain with the many stars and special presentations they show off, but which isn’t fully known until experienced. The people who attend these shows live and breathe classic cinema, and there’s a spirit of celebration to the weekend that’s simply unparalleled. Every screening a moment of joy. It’s really impossible for me to speak too highly of this event, which I’ve attended twice (this will only be its fourth year, my third), and which has never let me down, nor – does it seem – will it this time.
So whether you want to see Badlands or Ben-Hur on one of the biggest screens they’ll ever play, or check out a film you’ve probably never heard of, you really must get down to Hollywood at some point this weekend if it’s at all possible. This year, a company of actors will provide the dialogue for an early Frank Capra talkie that’s lost its sound track! Where else can you possibly see (hear!) such a thing? That should give you some indication that, while they’ll certainly celebrate the hits, you’d have to be a pretty savvy cinephile to not find more than a few personal discoveries in this bunch.
I’ll start there, with the films I either hadn’t even heard of prior to the announcement of their slate, or rarities I’ve been longing to see. Showtimes listed, but they also keep several slots open on Sunday to fill with these types of films (though typically only the ones that show initially in the Chinese Multiplex), and I’ll update my Twitter feed when that info comes in.
I Am Suzanne! (35mm) – A 1933 entree into my favorite genre, the musical, which pretty much makes it worth seeing alone, playing in a new restoration, at that, which will make its world premiere right here. (4/26, 4:30pm, Chinese Multiplex)
La Traversée de Paris (35mm) – TCM doesn’t show a ton of foreign films, but those they do tend to be keepers. This was exactly the type of film against which the French New Wave was rebelling, but even Claude Chabrol, who virtually launched the movement, came around to this one. (4/26, 2:15pm, Chinese Multiplex)
The Twelve Chairs – A Mel Brooks comedy from 1970, at which Brooks himself will appear. (4/26, 6:15pm, Chinese Multiplex)
It Always Rains on Sunday (35mm) – British kitchen sink dramas only get so far with me, but this sounds far more noir than all that, and the TCM program notes make mention that elements are “reminiscent of Robert Altman,” virtually guaranteeing my attendance. (4/26, 7:00pm, Chinese Multiplex)
The Donovan Affair (35mm) – The aforementioned Capra film, sans sound track, making it pretty much impossible to see any other way. While I do love the sound as much as the images of these early films, this is an experiment that I’m really eager to see in action. (4/27, 12:15pm, Egyptian Theatre)
The Train (35mm) – Sure, you’ve probably seen a John Frankenheimer film or five, but seeing this man’s muscular, visceral cinema in a theater is a whole other bag altogether. TCM showed his 1977 Black Sunday last year, and it was probably the most tense two-or-so hours I spent in any theater last year. This 1964 Burt Lancaster vehicle (pun absolutely intended) features, allegedly, some of the most spectacular use of trains ever put to screen, so scale is everything here, folks. (4/27, 3:00pm, Chinese Multiplex)
The Tall Target (35mm) – So here’s a thing – an Anthony Mann-directed noir film about the attempt to assassinate Abraham Lincoln before he could take the oath of office in 1861. While history had a detective uncover the plot and convince Lincoln to change his travel plans, something tells me Mann will take a few liberties with history for the benefit of our enjoyment. (4/27, 6:30pm, Chinese Multiplex)
Libeled Lady and Suddenly, It’s Spring (both 35mm) – If I ever get enough of screwball comedies of the 1930s and 40s, I’ll probably give up this racket. (4/26, 9:30am and 11:45am, Chinese Multiplex)
Along that same wave, if I may offer a few personal recommendations:
Safe in Hell (35mm) – William Wellman’s uncomfortably-saucy Pre-Code drama is about a prostitute who, after murdering an attempted rapist, flees to a remote island only to find her troubles considerably multiplied by the legion of men who have found their own safe haven there. (4/25, 9:30pm, Chinese Multiplex)
The Swimmer – Lest you think Mad Men was the first time someone found the emotional vacancy of the 1960s, well, just remember there was always John Cheever, upon whose 1964 short story this 1968 film is based. Though credited to Frank Perry, Sydney Pollack directed that bulk of the finished film, which has the sort of unspooling horror with which viewers of AMC’s signature show should be all too familiar. (4/26, 9:00am, Egyptian Theatre)
Voyage to Italy – I’ll be making brief mention of the assorted certified-classics playing at the festival in a moment, and this should absolutely belong in that group if not for its notorious unavailability in the digital era. However, having been recently restored, Roberto Rossellini’s perhaps-most-famous melodrama is now showing in its English-language version (the issue of languages in Rossellini’s work is one for another, longer day) of for all eyes to see, and, while far from my favorite of his films, that’s no mark against it. (4/26, 11:45am, Egyptian Theatre)
Ruggles of Red Gap (35mm) – If you remember one thing in making any voyage into classic film, it’s to not, no matter what, overlook Leo McCarey. He could do everything, and this film – a sort of screwball comedy by way of frontier patriotism with a dash of self-aware satire – is exemplary of his considerable skills. (4/26, 2:30pm, Chinese Multiplex)
Bugs Bunny’s 75th Birthday Bash – Missing any public screening of Looney Tunes is something of a tragedy for me, but seeing as The Ladykillers is showing at the same time, and, well, I haven’t seen The Ladykillers, I leave this to you. While they’ll naturally show some of the later, more famous cartoons (the program notes do not provide a complete list, but make mention of Rabbit Seasoning, What’s Opera, Doc?, and battles with Marvin the Martian, Yosemite Sam, etc.), they also note earlier, lesser-seen works like Wild Hare and Tortoise Wins by a Hare, which gives me hope that audiences will get a taste of a more dynamic rabbit than that which came to be the corporate mascot. (4/27, 915am, Chinese Multiplex)
The Big Parade – Another film that should be an absolute, cannot-miss classic that, nevertheless, isn’t even on DVD. King Vidor’s 1925 epic tells kind of the prototypical story of love and loss in wartime, and is an absolutely breathtaking, deeply moving example of big-Hollywood storytelling that is rarely achieved so elementally and effectively, shown here in a new restoration. (4/27, 3:00pm, Chinese Multiplex)
The Narrow Margin (35mm) – A lean, mean thriller about a pair of detectives assigned to protect a mob boss’ widow as they travel from Chicago to Los Angeles to get her to testify before a grand jury. (4/26, 12:00pm, Egyptian Theatre)
It (35mm) – If you’ve yet to fall in love with Clara Bow, boy are you in for the thrill of a lifetime. What is “it”? Well, whatever it is, she’s got it, and this 1927 romantic comedy is really one of those rare instances in which a talent was given the ability to completely own a film. Presented with live orchestral accompaniment. (4/26, 7:00pm, Egyptian Theatre)
As mentioned, there will be no shortage of those very famous classics, which, if you’ve not seen them for one reason or another (and I’ll confess to having thus far missed a few myself), are very important appointments (check website for showtimes) – The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956), Ninotchka (35mm; Ernst Lubitsch, 1939), From Russia with Love (Terrence Young, 1963), The Night of the Hunter (35mm; Charles Laughton, 1955), Ben-Hur (William Wyler, 1959), Notorious (35mm; Alfred Hitchcock, 1946), Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), The Great Escape (John Sturges, 1963), On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954), On the Town (35mm; Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen, 1949), Cape Fear (35mm; J. Lee Thompson, 1962), The Lady Vanishes (35mm; Alfred Hitchcock, 1938), Giant (George Stevens, 1956), The Seventh Seal (35mm; Ingmar Bergman, 1957), The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941), Mildred Pierce (35mm; Michael Curtiz, 1945), Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973), Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946) The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963), It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934), The General (Buster Keaton, 1926), Dial M for Murder (presented in 3D; Alfred Hitchcock, 1954), Salesman (Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin, 1968), It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (70mm; Stanley Kramer, 1963)
All the films I just listed? That’s about half of the total programming that TCM has in store for you. These really are a titanic four days in Hollywood.
Among the stars attending, look for Tippi Hedren, Max von Sydow, Norman Lloyd, Ann Blyth, Albert Maysles, Mickey Rooney, Carl Reiner, Billy Weber, Debra Winger, Malcolm McDowell, Eva Marie Saint, Jane Fonda, Cybill Shepherd, Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, along with a bevy of scholars and technicians, who really are stars to me. If you’ve never had the pleasure of seeing Eddie Muller, Jerry Beck, or Leonard Maltin introduce a film, let alone the veritable god of the weekend, Robert Osborne himself, introduce a film, you’re in for a treat.
Lastly (well, almost), you might have noticed that I made note of films that were playing in 35mm. I’m a strong, fervent supporter of showing films on film, and while that’s not always possible, I really respect TCM for continuing to make this happen. In fact, it’s possible to go through the entire festival without seeing a film made of pixels, and I aim to stay as close to that path as possible (Dial M for Murder in 3D is really impossible to resist, though). Rumors of 35mm’s demise seem to have been slightly exaggerated over the last few years, as restorations continue to be printed on that beautiful format, but there’s no denying that it will become rarer and rarer as time marches on, so seize it whenever you can.
Along those same lines, the TCL (formerly Grauman’s) Chinese Theatre will close later this year to be refitted as an IMAX theater. The Chinese has obviously gone through its share of renovations through the years, and while it hasn’t been revealed as to what extent the building itself will change as a result of this, time is running very, very short to see a film, let alone one of the greats that are playing at TCM Fest, in this absolutely gorgeous old-school movie palace. Furthermore, since the Chinese is such an enormous venue (over 1100 seats), it is rarely filled to capacity, and if you’re buying single tickets to events, your best shot at getting into anything is getting into something here. The first year I attended, I saw Spartacus in a primetime slot, with Kirk Douglas in attendance, was something like the 100th person in line, and still got a pretty damn good seat.
Which brings me to the most pressing question – how does one attend TCM Fest? The festival is a pass-based system, and while those are no longer available for purchase, one can – fairly easily – grab a ticket to any individual show. Just show up at the venue in question (at least a half-hour early), line up, and, if there’s space after the passholders have gone in, you can grab yourself a ticket for $20 ($10 with a student ID). Just be sure to have that in cash. If you need any more advice on this end of things, feel free to ask; I’ve done the whole system before.
After the festival, I’ll be providing a rundown of all there was to see and hear (or at least all that I could), with an aim to keep it in the context of what classic films meant and continue to mean to the cinema at large. Until then, join me…in Hollywood!