TCM Fest part 3- The Rare and the Unknown, by Scott Nye
In the first piece of this series, I brought up the LA Weekly article “The Death of Film,” specifically in relation to what it means for the theatrical experience. Another, perhaps more potent element the article touched on is one, I hope, upon which we can all agree:
“‘What worries me is there’s a vast number of films that exist,’ says Bernardo Rondeau, assistant curator of film programs at LACMA. ‘Will all those millions of films make the transition to DCP? Certainly they won’t. A lot of the films haven’t even made the transition to DVD.’
With every move to a new screening format, a percentage of films doesn’t make the jump. And once they’re gone, they’re gone. It is a gradual winnowing down of the past. Our entire knowledge of the silent film era, for example, is barely a glimpse of what was actually produced.”
Beyond any questions of artistic integrity, beyond the grand feeling one gets upon viewing a great (or, honestly, not-so-great) celluloid print splashed across the screen, this is what is truly at stake, and TCM, very much to their credit, regularly seizes the opportunity their platform affords them to give audiences something they really won’t be able to see otherwise, and possibly would never have heard of. The rarest films on my viewing slate were shown on 35mm – how else could one see them? – and marvelous they were to behold.
The first was Zoltan Korda’s The Macomber Affair (1947). Korda was an interesting director who’s sadly been somewhat lost to time; born in Hungary, he migrated to the United Kingdom when his brother, Alexander, founded London Films. He went on to build a uniquely adventurous career, seeking out exotic locales and singular images inspired by the natural world with such films as The Four Feathers, Elephant Boy, and The Jungle Book. Even in a melodrama like Forget Me Not, he took the opportunity of his ocean-liner setting to include the view of sea life from the deck. While he’s leagues apart from him thematically, his pursuit was not unlike that which Werner Herzog would adopt decades later.
This urge to capture wildlife, along with his tendency to undercut traditional images of masculinity, makes The Macomber Affair a perfect fit to his sensibilities. Adapted from a 1936 short story by Ernest Hemingway by screenwriters Casey Robinson and Seymour Bennett, the film deals with an ambitious man of means who hires a professional hunter to take him and his wife on a safari. Francis Macomber (Robert Preston) has had hunting experience, but chiefly of the ducks-and-rabbit variety, though he’s quick to make a point of his experience with elk to Robert Wilson (Gregory Peck), who, while he quickly admits himself to be a bottom-of-the-barrel hunter, more than knows how to handle himself around their targeted game – lion, buffalo, etc.
He advises Macomber not to bring his wife, Margaret (Joan Bennett), along, for the reasons one might expect a man in the 1940s to mention (they get upset and bored, you know), but as we soon learn, this trip was intended for the two of them. Their marriage is on the rocks, and this represents a second chance. And it looks like things might go okay, until Francis, when faced with a charging lion, drops his rifle and runs for the nearby jeep, leaving Wilson to ably handle the beast. This instantly demolishes any respect she had gained for her husband, and her affections turn instantly to Wilson, the more capable man.
So, again, the text strongly indicates that the sympathies of the creators are turned sharply against Francis, who is plagued with feelings of inadequacy. But Korda’s directorial hand is much finer than that. He brings a sensitivity that isn’t present in the screenplay nor, from what I can gather, Hemingway’s story, highlighting the cultural motives behind Francis’ attitude, questioning everybody’s reactions to each story beat as much as his. Whereas a more superficial director might view Francis as purely a pathetic figure, which in many regards he is in defining himself by a standard that does not apply to him, Korda views him sympathetically, even tragically. Meanwhile, Wilson, the “strong, silent type” is given a harsher treatment than would seem to apply on the surface. He’s capable in the field, yes, but avoids any personal interaction for fear of the slightest conflict.
Margaret probably gets the worst of it, pathetic from beginning to end in her need to constantly undermine her husband to prop herself up, but Korda is not shy about her particular charms. Joan Bennett, who by 1947 was not unaccustomed to using and losing men onscreen, is a firecracker of a performer, tough and ruthless but endlessly appealing, and it’s not hard to see why so many men throw themselves away to win her over. But Margaret is a little bit different in that she’s constantly seeking out the company of men, largely for her own pleasure and totally indifferent to theirs. It’s a fascinating character, the intricacies of which could have been easily lost in the era of the Production Code, but are translated marvelously onscreen (the Code did wreak some havoc on the ending, which is more than a trifle out of place but thankfully doesn’t diminish the picture terribly).
The next rarity was perhaps my favorite of the entire festival – Pál Fejös’ 1928 film Lonesome. Made as a silent film, then forced into a sound format with three scenes directed by someone else entirely, it is an astounding experience from start to finish, giving the thrills of the silent era one would typically associate with Murnau or Eisenstein, but a hell of a lot more romantic. Mary and Jim are two single, desperate twentysomethings who separately head to Coney Island, meet, and fall in love. Now, there are a lot of films about falling in love, but few as aggressively centered around that initial feeling – the loneliness immediately preceding, the ecstasy upon declaration, the fear and doubt that settles in upon a moment’s rest, and the reassurance of true intimacy – as this.
In accomplishing this seemingly simple but in result monumental task, Fejös pulls out all the stops of silent filmmaking. Though not made with a synched sound track, Lonesome feels full of the hustle and bustle of city life, and the Coney Island setting the dominates the film’s latter half is an explosion of life and commerce and excitement and romance. He even brings out two-strip Technicolor to bring the ferris wheel to life after the sun has set in what amounts to one of the most emotionally overwhelming compositions I’ve ever seen. That one frame can be touched with so much hope, life, and warmth that it seems to come spilling off the screen is just astounding. Free from all the trappings of cynicism or self-awareness, Lonesome is pure without naivete and spectacular without spectacle. I was simply exhilarated, breathless with the wonder and joy on display and in awe for every second. I know some people want to live on Avatar’s Pandora; I want to live in Lonesome.
The final rare treat was the one I highlighted first on my schedule – Max Ophüls’ Letter From an Unknown Woman. Ranked 94th on the esteemed They Shoot Pictures Top 1000 Films, it is one of the five or so most-acclaimed films to still not have a Region 1 DVD release (never mind the Blu-ray it deserves). I didn’t feel quite as strongly about it as I did Ophüls’ later, and more obviously problematic, Lola Montés, but that is picking the finest of nits, as Letter from an Unknown Woman is everything you could dream of and more. We were treated to an introduction by Rose McGowan (I know, I don’t understand why either), who highlighted Joan Fontaine’s lead performance that spans more than a decade. The courage to allow a 30-year-old actress to play a 14-year-old is typically reserved for the stage, but Fontaine makes a strong argument for that practice onscreen as well. She possesses all of the hope, innocence, and pretensions of a teenage girl in love with a man who doesn’t know she exists, finding distinct physicality for each stage of her character’s life while never making you question that this is the same person.
The quiet tragedy in Ophüls’ films is one of his most remarkable characteristics, no less absent here than you’d expect, and the deft touch he employs to totally wreck you is unforgettable. I’ve reached a point in my moviegoing at which I don’t get all that perturbed by terribly depressing stories, so enriched I often am by the filmmaking, but I won’t lie – Letter from an Unknown Woman got to me. This is hardly to say that Ophüls’ mastery is any less present here, however. In one of his trademark tracking shots, he takes us from the ground floor of an apartment building to the loft, perfectly illustrating the wonder and mystery of a new, unknown, exciting presence in one’s neighborhood.
Like Lonesome, the pleasures of this film are somewhat ethereal, less grounded. It is melodrama, and I know a great many will be turned off by what they see as rather simplistic characterizations, but melodrama isn’t about relating life as we know it, but life as we feel it, and typically a certain strain of feeling constantly nagging at us. One that says we’ve missed out and been left behind, not quite noticed in the way we expected nor fulfilled in the ways we were promised. It’s so often regarded as a rather square genre, but the truth is it couldn’t be more subversive.
Preserved by the Film Foundation, the print we were treated to was extraordinary, and I can only hope it provides the basis for a new theatrical tour, or at the very least a Blu-ray, so more people can finally see what may just be Ophüls’ masterpiece.
One final element uniting these films is worth calling attention to – none of them run more than 90 minutes (Lonesome is only 60!). In his introduction to The Macomber Affair, Leonard Maltin, still a working critic, said that while he loves films of any era, the biggest thing the classics have going for them is their brevity, an insight with which I am in total agreement. He specifically noted that he’d be surprised if anyone felt cheated by Macomber’s 89-minute running time, and indeed he was right. I have nothing against terribly long pictures (Fanny and Alexander, the five-hour version, mind, is among my favorites), but there is something beyond commendable when a movie gets in and gets out, wasting not a second nor leaving anything remaining to be said. I frequently paraphrase a Lester Bangs line from Almost Famous, so I won’t hesitate to do it again – pictures like these take less than 90 minutes to accomplish what it takes many modern films hours to not accomplish.