TCM Classic Film Festival 2022: Part Three, by David Bax
TCM Classic Film Festival 2022 Part Three
William Dieterle’s (again!) Portrait of Jennie has the distinction of being quite possibly the weirdest-ass movie I’ve ever seen at a TCM Classic Film Festival. Granted, the bar’s not set all that high when it comes to weirdness at a festival focused mainly on beloved old favorites. But a film kicking off with quotes from Euripides and John Keats is not normal. Portrait of Jennie may have the David O. Selznick pedigree associated with multiple crowd-pleasers but this is maybe as much of a full-on art film as you’re going to get out of the 1940s Hollywood studio system. Right from the beginning, there’s a surreal feeling to the goings-on. Part of that is down to the score (based upon the themes of Claude Debussy) but there’s also the fact that the central couple’s meet cute includes existential musings and, oh yeah, Jennifer Jones, a full-grown adult actor, is portraying a literal child the first time her character meets Joseph Cotten’s (a full-grown adult actor playing a full-grown adult male). Don’t worry, though, she gets older and at a faster rate than he does. Yes, Portrait of Jennie is not just surreal, it’s supernatural. But, beneath all the gauzy, dreamy oddity, there’s an impassioned statement about the power of art, not just for the artist but for the audience.
But TCM Fest, for me, isn’t only about checking out obscurities I might never have gotten to on my own. It’s also about experiencing movies with a crowd of people and getting more out of them than I would have streaming them from an app. That’s certainly the case with W.S. Van Dyke’s After the Thin Man. I kicked off my final day of the festival, tired and bleary-eyed, with a 9am screening of the crime comedy sequel, coffee in hand. But I might not have needed that jumpstart because the uproarious laughter of my fellow moviegoers would have woken me up all on its own. By the time we got to the hilarious finale, in which William Powell’s (again!) Nick Charles has gathered all of the suspects together to reveal what he’s deduced, I was wide awake and ready to spend one last day watching movies.
Not that I would have needed much extra energy to get through Robert Siodmak’s Fly-by-Night, a relatively little-known noir (that, for rights reasons, has never aired on the TCM network). Just calling it a noir might give the wrong impression, though. It’s got a Hitchcockian wrong-man premise when a man is forced to go on the run after being unfairly suspected of responsibility for the dead body in his hotel room. But it’s also a romantic comedy, a road movie and, by some measures, even a bit of a science fiction story. With quick cutting by Arthur P. Schmidt and workmanlike cinematography from John Seitz, it resembles the effect of the hyphens in its title, each thing leading breathlessly into the next with no room or time to pause. By the time we start throwing in elements like a damned impressive car stunt and a proto-Ace Ventura plot in which Richard Carlson‘s Dr. Geoffrey Burton intentionally gets himself locked up in a mental institution, there can be no resisting the movie’s energy or goofball charm.
As I always do at the TCM Classic Film Festival, I tried to find time to fill in at least one major blind spot. This time, that slot happened at the very end of the festival and came in the form of John Huston’s Key Largo. The cast–Humphrey Bogart (again!), Edward G. Robinson, Lauren Bacall, Lionel Barrymore–and the screenplay, adapted from Maxwell Anderson’s play, are of the finest vintage. What really came across in seeing it for the first time on a great, big screen, though, was how much of a technical marvel it is. It takes place largely in a single room but Karl Freund’s cinematography and Max Steiner’s (again!) score help keep things lively and varied. It’s a slow boil (and I do mean boil; everyone’s dripping sweat the entire time) but when the hurricane rolls in and the fans start to sway violently, it goes off like a torpedo. Thematically, it’s a seminal noir, too, testing the limits of the genre’s reputation for nihilism. Even as Frank’s (Bogart) is well-earned from his experiences in the Second World War (which reflect, to some extent, Huston’s own as both director and character were present at the battle of San Pietro), Key Largo insists that, when put to the test, a good person’s humanity can never be fully snuffed out.
Final note: It didn’t occur me to until writing all of these up but I now realize I hit the Barrymore trifecta (John, Ethel, Lionel) at this year’s festival.
TCM Classic Film Festival 2022 Part Three