This year at the TCM Classic Film Festival, I made more of an effort than usual to see things projected from film. It’s not usually a priority for me and it is my general opinion that celluloid purism tends to be a bit anti-egalitarian; I’d prefer a sort of sliding scale between the best looking and sounding version of a movie and the version that allows the most people the ability to see it. That said, I’m not blind to the benefits of film and I know that TCM is unlikely to saddle me with a lousy print. Plus I was already in the rarefied air of the festival so, you know, when in Rome.
With that in mind, I spent of good deal of my time this year in the two cinemas equipped for film, the beautiful and massive Egyptian and the relatively tiny Chinese 4. It was in the latter, disappointingly unfilled room that I sat down to watch Norman Taurog’s 1938 version of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. While it was clear this wasn’t a brand new print and was likely a couple of generations removed from the archival elements (given its hissing soundtrack and some color separation issues that occasionally made Tom look like he was wearing blue eye shadow), the brilliance of it was a reminder that a Technicolor print from the 1930s is likely to hold up better than, say, an Eastmancolor print from the 1950s. As for the movie itself, Taurog’s adaptation is lively, funny and charming, with winning performances from the young cast, including Tommy Kelly as Tom, Jackie Moran as Huck, David Holt as Tom’s half-brother Sid, Ann Gillis as Becky Thatcher and, as little Amy Lawrence, Cora Sue Collins, who graced us with her presence at the screening of this 80 year old film.
After that, it was back to the Egyptian for another bit of 35mm, 1931’s Girls About Town, the only pre-Code movie I took in this year. One of the earliest films by the great George Cukor, Girls About Town doesn’t quite exhibit the grace with actors or the mastery of mood and pace that would come to define his later masterworks but there’s a boundless sense of fun on display. First of all, this is peak pre-Code stuff, all loose morals and wet t-shirts. Lilyan Tashman and Kay Francis play the girls about town—which pretty much means escorts—hired by a businessman to spend a weekend on a yacht helping him woo potential investors from the Midwest. Francis’ Wanda falls in love with her mark, played by Joel McCrea, while Tashman’s Marie falls in love with her mark’s money. Eugene Pallette plays the gregarious, prank-loving cheapskate whom Marie decides to bilk for all she can and have fun doing it. What’s especially wonderful about Girls About Town is that neither woman’s choices are presented as more valid or right than the other. A scene in which Marie sells off some of the hard-earned gifts she’s acquired in her years of service in order to help Wanda is not framed as any sort of penance on her part; the implication is that they’ll be replaced soon enough by the next rich cad she sets sight on. It’s delightful both to watch and to imagine how twisted up the proto-Moral Majority types must have gotten over it. As a last note, I’ll mention the fun you get, while watching old movies, out of trying to track the history of their rights. The print of Girls About Town was heralded as having been brought to us by Universal, immediately after which the movie started with the words “A Paramount Picture” on the screen.
TCM Fest’s main stage is the TCL Chinese Theatre (formally Grauman’s), which has more grandeur but less history since it was renovated and converted into an IMAX sized theater back in 2013. All of the festival’s selections are introduced by special guests (none more special than Illeana Douglas, whom I saw introduce no less than three films this year) but the Chinese is where you’re most likely to see a major star. My one and only foray into the big room this year was for 1978’s Heaven Can Wait, which was preceded by a conversation with co-star and co-director Buck Henry (who shared both credits with Warren Beatty) and co-star Dyan Cannon. Both had great quips. Cannon, unprompted, on her marriage to Cary Grant: “We had great sex.” Henry, when moderator Ben Mankiewicz charitably offered that the later, Chris Rock-starring version of the movie, Down to Earth, was “okay”: “No, it’s not.” Unfortunately for me, though, I think I enjoyed the pre-screening conversation more than the movie itself, despite the beautiful new digital transfer. Things start off quite promisingly, especially once Beatty’s Joe Pendleton dies because of Henry’s celestial being’s mistake and the two set out to find a new body for Joe to inhabit. There’s a deliciously dark sense of humor to these scenes, as Beatty and Henry argue about the fitness of a candidate who is, say, dying in a fiery car wreck just outside of the frame. The ending, as well, where the romance between Joe and Julie Christie’s Betty crescendos, is a marvel. The whole middle, though, is a lot of treading water. If you’re a fan of the comedy of loud, sudden noises (clanging silverware, booming cannons) or of the Los Angeles Rams (whose logo shows up onscreen roughly twice a minute), maybe this movie will be your speed. For me, though, there’s far too little of the absurdity of Cannon and Charles Grodin’s characters or the subtle jokes like the presence of a standard-issue angel accoutrement harp in Joe’s personal gym.
Maybe it’s because I was already in a grumpy mood because of the letdown of Heaven Can Wait or maybe it’s just the fact that I was tired at the end of a very long day of watching movies but my first ever viewing of Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound left me cold. There ought to be something perversely compelling about a movie in which Ingrid Bergman falls for Gregory Peck only after he reveals that he is not the man he says he is but rather that man’s murderer. But what we get instead is a dull and overly literal bit of pop psychology. Even the very cool dream sequence, designed by Salvador Dali, is undercut by the fact that it comes with a neat explanation for every bit of symbolism, like a hidden pictures game in Highlights magazine. There are a few interesting things here—a sympathetic depiction of post-traumatic stress disorder; a culturally imposed dichotomy in which Bergman’s character is seen by others as either a woman or a doctor but never both; the most romantic reading imaginable of the word “liverwurst”—but on the whole Spellbound is like the overly explanatory dialogue about Norman Bates’ mental illness at the end of Psycho but dragged out to feature length. The nitrate print, however, was a thing of beauty, like a crisp, clear swimming pool whose surface is as yet undisturbed, inviting you to dive on in.