Apr 30, 2014

Blu-ray Review: Lon Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
Directed by: Wallace Worsley
Starring: Lon Chaney, Patsy Ruth Miller, Norman Kerry
Produced by: Irving Thalberg
110 minutes
Flicker Alley (Blackhawk Films Collection)

Back in the 1800s, Victor Hugo had no idea he was writing a novel perfectly suited to Lon Chaney's persona, but it is hard to believe otherwise. The versatile actor built a screen career out of making sacrifices for, and losing, beautiful young women: Leatrice Joy in The Ace of Hearts (1921), Norma Shearer in He Who Gets Slapped (1924), Joan Crawford in The Unknown (1927). A man who would blow himself up, get mauled by a lion or cut off his arms for love couldn't be better suited to play the hapless, loyal hunchback Quasimodo. In a beautiful new Blu-ray from Flicker Alley, it is possible to absorb every nuance of Chaney's brilliant performance.

I remember seeing a copy of this film on VHS several years ago and barely being able to last through the running time. It was so frustrating to watch a Chaney film and not be able to clearly see his face. It was like watching a musical with the sound down. This edition offers greatly improved clarity; it was fantastic to be able to catch all of Quasimodo's little tongue flicks and reactions. Though covered in make-up, Chaney's expressions are finely-tuned and his hunchback much more sympathetic when you can appreciate the full content of his performance.

That make-up took hours to apply, and Chaney did it himself. The film's cinematographer Virgil Miller recalled that the actor would arrive at the studio as early as 3:30 in the morning and would not be ready to shoot until 8:30 or 9.

Stories like these, and marketing featuring the star, can make it easy to forget how much else happens in this huge production. While Chaney's performance does dominate, he actually disappears for long stretches. He's crucial to the plot, but the romance and peril of a gypsy girl to whom he is devoted drives the action.

Quasimodo's absences have the effect of causing renewed shock each time he reappears. Your guts grind again as he lunges across the screen: tortured posture, face bulging with disgust over the treatment his ugliness inspires.

The special features on the disc are appropriately Chaney-focused and include footage from his first appearance on camera without make-up and a clip from Alas & Alack (1913), in which the actor also played a hunchback. An HD gallery of the sets is so sharp and clear that it's hard to believe the photos are over 90 years old. I can think of no better choice than Chaney scholar, biographer and professional make-up artist Michael Blake for the audio commentary. An essay by Blake is also included. It's a nice package, but if I just had that gorgeous print I'd be satisfied, because it has been such a long time coming.

Many thanks to Flicker Alley for providing a copy of the Blu-ray for review.

Production history source: The Films of Lon Chaney, by Michael Blake

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Apr 28, 2014

Book Review: Simone Signoret and Her Garden of Dreams

A Garden of Dreams: The Life of Simone Signoret
Patricia A. DeMaio
University Press of Mississippi, 2014

When Patricia DeMaio began to research Simone Signoret, she came against significant resistance from concerned family, colleagues and friends. The people in her life were protective of the star, who had always valued privacy. They said, "enough has been written about Simone…let her rest in peace…everything you need to know about her is in [her autobiography] Nostalgia [Isn't What it Used to Be]." Even the actresses' daughter Catherine Allégret refused an interview or to give permission to quote from correspondence the author had discovered. Others she interviewed declined to be named.

Given the aura of silence around Signoret, and the admirable loyalty of those who knew her, it is remarkable what DeMaio has accomplished in this first English language biography of the legendary actress. While many of Signoret's motives and emotions have remained hidden behind the carefully-constructed persona she offered to the public, this is a satisfying portrait of an intellectual, artistic woman who became undone when she could no longer protect herself from the outside world.

Signoret spent her young adulthood in occupied France, working for a newspaper with Nazi sympathies. While she would later feel guilty about her inability to join the resistance in these years, at the time she was simply struggling to support her mother and brother, after her father had disappeared at the dawn of the war. She eventually left her employers when she decided in a rather matter-of-fact way to become an actress in the movies.

Determined, intelligent, beautiful and a distinctive presence even in her teens, Signoret found film work easily. Throughout the war, she kept the family fed with plentiful work in small parts or as an extra. After armistice, she progressed to more significant roles, including a brief, but attention-grabbing appearance in Max Ophüls' La Ronde (1950) and a breakthrough performance as the lead in Casque d'Or (1952).

Signoret in Casque d'Or (1952)
The post-war years were also a time of dramatic romantic entanglements for Signoret. She became pregnant by her then-married lover the film director Yves Allégret at age 24, losing her son nine days after birth. The pair were married when she gave birth to daughter Catherine a year later, but it was never a passionate union. Signoret did not take to motherhood either, often leaving her daughter in the care of others while she pursued her career.

When Signoret met singer and actor Yves Montand in 1949, she found the feelings of devotion which had eluded her in marriage and parenthood. To put it simply: she was hooked. For a time, the actress would essentially give up her career, much to Montand's consternation, so she could follow him on the road and help manage his singing career. She must have also realized that her presence would help to discourage Montand's frequent affairs. They were married in 1951 and their rocky union would last until her death in 1985.

Signoret would eventually return to acting and go on to have a remarkable career, becoming the first French citizen to win an Academy Award, for her performance in Room at the Top (1959), and finding significant roles years after her peers were able to find work. She was also politically outspoken and devoted to causes in favor of workers, the common man, the kind of person she struggled alongside as a child. And yet, it seems the true focus of her life was Montand. She lived for him, and while he remained devoted to her throughout their decades-long marriage, he clearly did not share her obsession.

The uneven affections between Montand and Signoret would have a deep impact on her life. While DeMaio devotes satisfactory attention to the actresses' work in classics like Les Diaboliques (1955) and late life successes such as La Veuve Couderc (1971) (in which she seduces Alain Delon), she is aware that acting was not the central focus of Signoret's life. At times it is almost as if the book is a dual biography, and there is no other way to properly address her story. She was deeply intertwined with her husband.
With Laurence Harvey in Room at the Top (1959)

Though Signoret never revealed much about how she felt about Montand's affairs, and his headline-grabbing relationship with Marilyn Monroe in particular, the effect of these betrayals was evident. After the Monroe affair, the actress began to age quickly. She put on weight and began to drink. Clearly her soul was not at peace, and a successful career was not enough to heal her wounds.

That Signoret stayed in the public eye while aging less than gracefully is another issue, and DeMaio approaches it with delicacy. She shares a lunchtime conversation that takes place between gossip columnist Liz Smith and author Mario Puzo, where the pair observed Signoret from afar in a restaurant. While Puzo was critical of the actress for seeming to abandon her appearance, Smith reminded the writer that, with his own growing paunch, he was not as dishy as he'd been in his youth either. That Signoret did not give in to these pressures, and continued to succeed as an actress is downright revolutionary, especially considering today, where aging actresses are shamed into altering their appearances and then mocked for making the effort.

In the end, Signoret led a rich, full life, but one in which she was a victim of her desires. DeMaio can be a bit repetitive in relating the dark and light of her turbulent career and affairs, but she succeeds in creating a revealing, fascinating portrait of the actress and woman.

Many thanks to University Press of Mississippi for providing a copy of the book for review.

Apr 27, 2014

Quote of the Week

Who do I have to screw to get off this picture?

-Attributed to Carole Lombard on the set of Supernatural (1933)

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Apr 25, 2014

How To Navigate TCM Classic Film Festival: What I Learned in 2014

My first year at TCM Film Festival went pretty smoothly. This was mostly because I got a ton of great advice from people on Twitter and from blogger friends who had been to the festival before. Still, I had plenty of surprises, and I made a few missteps that I am keeping in mind for future festivals. I thought I'd share some of the things I learned in my final TCMFF post.


The minute the TCMFF schedule came out, I had that thing printed out and a highlighter in my hand. At the time, I thought I was a bit crazy for poring over it so obsessively, but that ended up being a good thing. By the time I got to the festival, I'd gone over so many different possibilities that I knew exactly what I had to see as opposed to what I would only like to do.

I focused on the things that seemed once-in-a-lifetime to me, mostly seeing stars like Margaret O'Brien, Maureen O'Hara and Kim Novak. It was easier letting a few other opportunities go knowing that I'd done the things at the top of my list. The beautiful thing is that I never felt like I entirely missed out on everything else, because I got a flavor of those other events by talking to people who had gone to them or catching updates on Twitter. I heard it said many times during the festival: you can't go wrong, no matter what you choose, it's going to be amazing.

Snack? Brunch? Who cares? Just eat! (photo credit @Irishjayhawk)

I'm not the best traveler when it comes to food. I've got lots of food allergies and sensitivities, so eating can be tricky on the road. That coupled with the stories I heard of people living on coffee and popcorn for four days made me determined to find a way to eat right during TCMFF.

There's a great grocery called Fresh and Easy on Hollywood Boulevard. When I got into town, I stocked up on fresh fruits, vegetables, yogurt and other snacks I knew would treat me right. The first couple of days at the festival, I happily chomped on cucumber slices and grapes while waiting in line for the next flick. I felt great! By the middle of the third day, I never wanted to see another cucumber again, but I was okay with eating junkier stuff that last part of the festival, because I was in the home stretch.

It also really pays to have one good sit-down meal a day. I know some festival-goers are hardcore and just power through the day on snacks, but it makes a big difference to pause for a bit and have something decent to eat. It's a way to slow down that adrenaline rush of jumping between screenings and build up some much-needed energy for late night screenings.

The key to sit down meals at TCMFF is just to grab them when you can. So if you have time at 10:30, go eat. There's no breakfast, lunch and dinner at this festival, just food.


I was certain I'd planned the most brilliant wardrobe for TCMFF. Skirts for the days that were supposed to be hot, jeans for when it cooled down. I had two pairs of shoes that I'd worn a lot in my everyday life, and which I thought would be perfectly comfortable. Well, I got it only half right.

My problem was that I packed what would be comfortable to wear for a normal day, not for the festival. So the jeans ended up being a bit uncomfortable for sitting down half the day, and a pair of shoes that was fine for running errands around town didn't work out for standing in line the other half of the day and dashing down Hollywood Boulevard to the next screening. Next year, I'm wearing more skirts and dresses, and I'm going to make sure my shoes are as comfortable for standing as they are for sitting.

I did get one thing right: wear layers. Some theaters can get chilly (the El Capitan should be called El Frigidaire) and even having an extra wrap to go around your cardigan can be nice.

TCMFF: The most fun you'll ever have standing in line

On of my favorite things about TCMFF was that I felt like I could talk to anyone and make a connection. I traveled by myself to the festival, with just a couple of plans to meet blogger pals I'd known online for a few years. It was a leap of faith for me.

Though I'm fairly active on Twitter, I wouldn't call myself the most social user, and yet, everyone I met who had even heard of my blog or handle was immediately welcoming. I felt like I was attending a reunion, which is bizarre since I hadn't met any of these people in person before the festival, but it felt right. Our shared interests were all we needed to quickly form a bond.

I was also surprised to find how much I loved standing in line for screenings. It's almost one of the best parts of the festival! Not only did it give me the chance to get to know people I'd met online better, but I had great conversations with people I'd never met in my life. I talked to a lady from my hometown, chatted up several wired fans in the line before a midnight movie and geeked out over big and little Edie with an equally obsessive admirer in line for Grey Gardens. I was amazed when a man I'd never met before told me he read my blog (it sounds strange, but I never connected my blog stats to real people!) You'll hear this from every other blogger who writes about this event: this is where movie geeks find their people. It's true!

Coming Home

The downside to an amazing event like TCMFF is that it can be very hard to transition from living and breathing movies to your regular life, where people make a "huh?" face when you mention Joan Blondell.

This was the longest I'd ever left my daughters, so I was excited to go home, but it took me at least a week to get back to normal. Mentally and emotionally, there's a lot to unpack after TCMFF; you've got to give yourself time to adjust. It helps to have an event or even a special movie (sort of like the hair of the dog, but cinematically?) or something else you particularly like to look forward to upon your return. I plunged into Jeanine Basinger's free online course about marriage and the movies and found it to be a great way to transition to home.

Overall, TCM Film Festival 2014 was one of the best weekends of my life. By the middle of the first day, I already knew that I was going to come back in 2015. I'm grateful to TCM for putting on such an amazing event and for the network's loyalty to bloggers, who I think provide the most heartfelt coverage of what Patton Oswalt called, "Coachella for shut-ins." I can't wait for next year!

Apr 21, 2014

A Dark Tale of Old Hollywood: The Brutal Illusion

The Brutal Illusion
Stephen Jared
Solstice Publishing, 2014

I saved Stephen Jared's latest novel for the plane ride to Hollywood when I flew out for TCM Film Festival. Set in 1936 Hollywod, I thought it would be perfect to read about the very places I would soon see myself: Hollywood Boulevard, Grauman's Chinese Theater, the Blossom Room at the Roosevelt Hotel (site of Club TCM for the festival).

Stephen Jared has always been a strong, brisk storyteller, but with The Brutal Illusion he's grown noticeably as a writer. The story is darker, the historical detail richer and his first crack at a female protagonist is both sensitive and fascinating. His Allyson Rockwell is your friend from back home, an innocent in bad circumstances, and while she is responsible for the path she takes, you can't help but understand why ambition overtakes her sense of reason.

The Brutal Illusion is noir 1930s style. Rockwell finds herself in the moral quicksand of that genre when she takes favors from a mobster in her desperate bid to be a movie star. The way she paid for that bad judgement surprised me. Every time you think you know where things are headed, there's a change in direction.

The heroine's sweet relationship with a screenwriter and the small triumphs and glamour she encounters keep things from becoming unbearably bleak, but it is the dark moments that are the most gripping in this addictive little book.

It's been great to see Jared develop his literary chops with each new novel. With The Brutal Illusion, he made some interesting choices that really surprised me. I can't wait to see what he comes up with next.

Thank you to Stephen Jared for sending a copy of the book.

Apr 20, 2014

TCM Film Festival 2014: Jerry Lewis Immortalized in Cement

There's hardly anything better in life than the experience of something you anticipated with great excitement exceeding your expectations. This is what happened on day three of TCMFF, where I started my day witnessing Jerry Lewis' hand and footprint ceremony in the forecourt of Grauman's (TCL Chinese) Theater. It was pure joy. My favorite event of the festival.

I had only recently become a fan of Jerry Lewis. The announcement that he was to be honored at the festival inspired me to watch several of his films in an attempt to understand why he was considered a legend. While a lot of those movies were uneven, I did come to adore Lewis. I think he was best on the stage, where the strangely harmonious blend of meticulous planning and improvisation inspired by the energy of a crowd brought out his edgy, wild charisma.

This is why I wanted to see Lewis go free form. I thought he would be great in an interview, but brilliant totally off script. I was not disappointed.

The press had to show up an hour and a half before the ceremony, and there was a lot to see. It was exciting to watch a group of men preparing the cement for Lewis. No one ever thinks of these guys, but where would we be without them?

It was also lots of fun to watch random celebrities milling around, calm, but probably aware that they were constantly being photographed. It wasn't unusual to see TCMFF regular Illeana Douglas there, but I did a double-take when I saw comedian Richard Lewis. He still wears the same black t-shirt and suit. It was even more surprising to see Quentin Tarentino! I had no idea he was going to show up.

Illeanna Douglas looking perfect
As the ceremony drew near, it was interesting to see Lewis behind the scenes, preparing to address the crowd:

Then he was on. Silly, insulting, unpredictable and loving every minute of being there.

He laughed:

Photo courtesy of Getty Images
He took pictures of the photographers:

Photo courtesy of TCM
He bit Quentin Tarentino:

Photo courtesy of TCM

He flipped off the photographers:

I loved how Lewis paid special attention to the fans on the sidelines, making sure everyone had good sightlines and could get the perfect shot:

I think he's looking at his wife and daughter here, but he also loved looking at the fans.
The ceremony went by quickly, but I felt more than satisfied by the experience. It was a great performance by a man who loves to play for the crowd.

Then something totally unexpected happened. A fan behind us yelled to Quentin Tarantino that she wanted a photo with him. He said he wouldn't do that, but he would shake our hands. Here's blogger friend Raquel shaking Tarantino's hand while Jessica, Daniel and I wait in disbelief for our turn:

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

I was really excited and happy in that moment, and I'm delighted it was captured on film.

This was my favorite event of the festival because it had some of the most spontaneous, exciting and unexpected moments. And seeing Jerry Lewis! It's just amazing when a star you admire turns out to be exactly as you'd hoped.

More photos from the ceremony:

Lewis with his wife and daughter, photo courtesy of TCM
Photo courtesy of TCM
Playing to the fans

Photo courtesy of TCM

Richard Lewis, Jerry Lewis, Illeana Douglas and Dane Clark walked into a bar.../photo courtesy of TCM
After the ceremony a group of us walked over to the Roosevelt Hotel for something to eat, when we found out Lewis was being interviewed in the lobby. I had to check him out again. He was much calmer in his chat with Ben Mankiewicz and very sharp:

Photo courtesy of TCM
That's one of the things I love about TCMFF: I raced out on a table full of people before I'd even ordered and no one thought that was odd. There's so much to see at this festival that you almost lose your mind, but in the best possible way.

All photos property of A Classic Movie Blog unless otherwise noted.

Quote of the Week

Shirley was the instrument on which her mother played.

-Allen Dwan, about Shirley Temple

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Apr 19, 2014

TCM Film Festival 2014: The Movies, Day Three and Four

I took it much easier the last two days of the festival, watching three movies each on Saturday and Sunday. While my crazy binge-watching Friday was a lot of fun, I knew I'd go crazy if I kept up that pace. It was nice to give the movies a little breathing room these last two days of TCMFF.

Day Three

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How Green Was My Valley (1941)

After Maureen O'Hara made her appearance before this Oscar-winning classic, several members of the audience left, apparently having gotten what they came for. I'm glad I was not one of them, because while I was shivering under every layer of clothing I could find, it was worth braving the frigid temperatures in the El Capitan Theater to see this deeply satisfying film.

When you tell the story of a coal mining town, you know that there will be tragedy. Ford offsets the inevitable heartbreak with the story of a strong, warm family surrounded by culturally rich, if occasionally socially stifling community.

It is the perfect film to honor O'Hara, who is simultaneously strong, weak, regal and humble. I couldn't believe she pulled off a performance this nuanced so early in her career. She was truly born to perform.

The rest of the cast is also amazing, from the sympathetic young Roddy McDowall, to the hardy, but loving Sarah Allgood and Donald Crisp. It was impossible not to get choked-up watching this remarkable film after seeing an equally emotional O'Hara in person.

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Bell Book and Candle (1958)

I desperately needed to lighten my mood after the one-two emotional punch of seeing Maureen O'Hara and watching How Green Was My Valley. Fortunately, my last two movies of the day were much lighter.

As I wrote in my Stars post, the possibility of seeing Kim Novak was one of my primary motivations for attending TCMFF. I would have watched her in anything, but how fantastic that TCM screened my favorite Novak flick: a sexy romance about a witch who puts a spell on a hapless publisher.

It's hard to believe Novak and Jimmy Stewart made this movie the same year they co-starred in Vertigo. Beyond the theme of a man falling under the spell of a mysterious woman, the two flicks have very little in common. I love how the fun of the magic tricks and the top notch cast, including Elsa Lanchester, Ernie Kovacs, Hermione Gingold and a very young Jack Lemmon, give the lightweight comedy an extra punch.

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The Women (1939)

With my spirits lifted by Novak and Stewart smushing noses, I sailed into yet another lively film, the George Cukor-directed classic with an all-female cast (including the animals!). The screening was in the El Capitan, which is as I mentioned before the chilliest TCMFF venue, but still one of my favorites because of the onstage organ which is played with great enthusiasm before each movie. I never get tired of seeing that enormous instrument being lowered beneath the stage before the movie starts.

Anna Kendrick introduced the film with Ben Mankiewicz. It was fun to hear of her budding obsession with The Women as a twelve-year-old, but I didn't love all the f-bombs she was dropping. I mean, I've got a foul mouth, I can't judge there, but it seemed out of place at TCMFF. Still, she was a lively interview and provided a decent introduction to the film.

This was the point in the festival where I could not get through a screening without a catnap at some point, and at 133 minutes, this was a long comedy. Still, I laughed at every joke, even if I had to wake up to do it a couple of times. If anything, this movie gets funnier every time I see it. I don't know if there has ever been a cast so on top of their game as this one. Comedy is hard, but you wouldn't think it to look at these ladies.

Day Four

Though I had hoped to start the final day of the festival with Sunday in New York (1963), I knew I'd have a nervous breakdown if I didn't get a little extra sleep. I think I made the right decision. The rest of the day was lovely and, being the end of TCMFF, very poignant.

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5th Ave Girl (1939)

I was so happy when this lesser-known Ginger Rogers comedy was announced as a TBA re-screening. It ended up being one of the most pleasurable discoveries of the festival for me. This is mostly because I adored Rogers' dry, understated delivery. It was a clever script and she laid out those perfect lines as if she never had to put any thought into them. Like that girl who always fell asleep in the back of your high school Spanish class, but somehow managed to get an 'A' anyway. I'd love to see this one again.

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The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1968)

The main draw for catching this late-sixties flick was seeing Alan Arkin in person. While I'd seen the movie before, I didn't remember being more than mildly impressed. I think I must have been too absorbed in comparing it to the Carson McCullers book, which I'd read right before my first viewing, because this time around I was mesmerized by Arkin's performance as a lonely deaf-mute.

I've seen thousands of films, and I can say without hesitation that Arkin's is one of the most effective performances I've ever seen. He understands Singer's heartache, the conflict he feels between his good nature and his increasing frustration at never getting the care and attention that he lavishes on others. I had to duck out early to catch the Great Gatsby screening, so I missed the ending. Remembering the devastating impact it had on me many years ago, I was almost glad to not have to deal with it on this already emotional last day of the festival.

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The Great Gatsby (1949)

I've wanted to see this noirish take on the classic F. Scott Fitzgerald ever since I missed a screening of the film at the Seattle edition of the Noir City festival a year or two ago. When it conflicted with the screening for How Green Was My Valley, I thought I'd lost my chance again. Oh how I love TCM for the TBA idea! The second screening of this extremely rare film was my last of the festival, and because I'd wanted to see it for so long, I felt it was the perfect way to close out an amazing four days.

Alan Ladd's son David was interviewed before the movie began. The actor and producer is as handsome as his dad was, and even has the same perfectly-proportioned short stature. While he was a baby during the production of the film, Ladd Jr. knew how important playing Gatsby was for his father, because the character came up from nothing just like him. Ladd Sr. fought hard for the role, and while it wasn't a financial success, it is a fascinating film.

I don't know what it is about Daisy, why this part is so hard to cast, but I think Betty Field may have offered the worst interpretation yet in this version. It's painful for me to write that, because I adore Field. Ladd was right to want Gatsby so badly though, he's perfect in the role: vulnerable, but also clever and determined. I thought Shelley Winters and Howard Da Silva were great as well, perhaps my favorite renditions of the hapless Wilsons.

Other standouts: Elijah Wood Jr. for once not playing a squirrely hood, and shining in a sympathetic role, Barry Sullivan hitting all the right notes as the insensitive, but clever Tom Buchanan and MacDonald Carey, whose deadly-dull screen persona works for him brilliantly in his role as Nick Carraway.

This is not necessarily a good adaptation of the book, but as my clever seatmate noted, a very strong interpretation of the story. I enjoyed it very much and hope to see it again soon.

More to come! The Jerry Lewis hand and footprint ceremony and an overview of my TCMFF experience.

Apr 17, 2014

TCM Classic Film Festival 2014: The Movies, Day One and Two

I saw fourteen films at this year's TCM Film Festival. The first day was a sort of warm up with two movies. Then I had the most bonkers Friday, where I watched six flicks. That's basically only watching movies from 9am to 2am. I never quite got full energy back after the second day, but I had plenty of what I've started calling "festival adrenaline" to keep me going. That and caffeine.

Day One

Ben Mankiewicz, Bo Hopkins, Candy Clark and Paul Le Mat/ photo courtesy of Getty Images 
American Graffiti (1973)

One of my big goals for the festival was to watch a movie beside the gorgeous Roosevelt Hotel pool. The first night was the perfect time to do this, since the opening night party overflowed into the pool area.

Before the movie there were dancers in 50s outfits performing around the pool. A DJ who was supposed to look like Wolfman Jack, but who had a wig that made him look more like Wayne Newton, spinned some great tunes. I didn't quite have my festival mojo yet, I think jet lag might have finally hit me, so I pretty much spaced out watching the dancers, but I really enjoyed the atmosphere. It was a perfect night to be outside.

American Graffiti stars Bo Hopkins, Candy Clark and Paul Le Mat spoke with Ben Mankiewicz before the film. They had a good time kidding each other. Since Clark managed to drag John Huston's first name into three syllables, I think she might have been a little tight, which fit the party feel.

Once the movie started, I realized my view was blocked by a palm tree. It was getting cold too, so I joined a group of bloggers in a booth inside Club TCM to watch. Though I'd been looking forward to the pool experience, I liked watching inside the Club much more. It was gorgeous! Check out the ceiling:

It had been years since I'd seen American Graffiti and I really enjoyed the youthful energy (and soon-to-be famous stars) of the production. It was the perfect way to start the festival. I should also mention that we ate fries from Mel's Diner, just like the drive-in in the movie.

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Johnny Guitar (1954)

I had to leave American Graffiti early so I could catch this wonderfully odd western with Joan Crawford, Mercedes McCambridge and Sterling Hayden. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the flick, and the premiere of a new restoration.

Film archivist Michael Schlesinger introduced the movie and he was hilarious. This self-deprecating, seriously silly man could be a stand-up comic. He got the audience ready for a wild ride, preparing everyone for the most bizarre moments in the movie.

The print was gorgeous and Johnny Guitar was every bit as campy and strange as I remembered. This isn't to say the film is insubstantial though. It's gorgeous to look at, full of tension and the performances, especially a delirious turn by the movie-stealing Mercedes McCambridge, are flawless.

Starting the festival with a pair of fun, undemanding films was the ideal cure for jet lag.

Day Two

Stagecoach (1939)

I continued with my western theme (and John Carradine theme, he was in both movies) the next morning with the John Ford classic that made John Wayne a star. This is such a perfectly balanced film. For one, it's gorgeous, filmed with the care of an artist swiping a brush across a canvas. Who else but Ford could give you chills by simply filming the Duke walking down a hallway?

Stagecoach also handles many elements beautifully. It succeeds as drama, action and even a comedy. That last part was a surprise for me. The audience laughed often, and yet there were also moments of unbearable sadness and intense action. This has got to be one of the most remarkable casts ever assembled too, including Claire Trevor, Thomas Mitchell and Andy Devine.

Author Nancy Schoenberger, co-author of the fascinating Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century, introduced the film. She's working on a book about the relationship between Ford and Wayne. I can't wait to read it!

Director Albert Maysles/ photo courtesy of TCM

Grey Gardens (1975)

Oh how I love this film! It's a bit of an obsession for me. Apparently I'm not alone: I chatted with a lady in line who had seen it ten times. It's documentary about a mother and daughter, known as big and little Edie, who are the aunt and cousin of Jackie Onassis. Grey Gardens explores their lives in a decaying mansion in the Hamptons, and the film is unique by any standard. It tells the story of these two eccentrics shut away from the world in a manner so compassionate that you question why you ever could have judged someone just for being a little unusual.

I was a bit disappointed in the audience experience for this one. It is a seriously quotable film, with lots of classic, funny moments. I was hoping to watch it with a crowd anticipating and applauding all those brilliant things, but it was not to be. I think the movie was new to too much of the crowd. I've since heard that you have a much more party-like atmosphere watching Grey Gardens at the Castro in San Francisco. I'm sure of that! Might need to make a trip down the next time they show it.

Co-filmmaker Albert Maysles made an appearance before and after the film, and it was marvelous to see him. He spoke about his philosophy as a documentarian, essentially that it is important to have affection for the subject. He and his brother David had originally planned to make a film about Princess Lee Radizwell, but he said that when he met her cousin Edith, "it was love at first sight." Maysles also said that upon seeing the film for the first time, Little Edie stood up and said, "the Maysles have made a classic!" I can just picture that.

It was an honor to get a glimpse of this deeply compassionate, observant director.

Margaret O'Brien and Richard Corliss/ photo courtesy of Getty Images
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Part of the fun of seeing this glorious MGM musical was getting a chance to check out the gorgeous restoration of the Grauman's Chinese Theater (today known as TCL Chinese Theater). Getting a chance to see films in some beautiful old theaters is definitely a huge perk of attending the festival.

I was delighted to meet a fellow Seattleite while waiting in line. She and I chatted about Seattle International Film Festival, of which we have a great deal of city pride! We joined a bunch of bloggers in the second row, which provided a perfect view of Margaret O'Brien, who I discussed in my previous Stars post.

I've never been a fan of episodic movies, and while I've always appreciated the production quality of Meet Me in St. Louis, I was never very interested in watching it. Seeing it on the big screen changed my mind in a big way. Musicals really should be seen that way, with a large, enthusiastic audience. I also enjoyed the edge O'Brien's character had. She was quite the troublemaker, even making a streetcar go off the tracks for a prank. A lot of musicals may look like they're all sweetness and light, but that's usually just a camouflage for some dark stuff.

Leonard Maltin and Suzanne Lloyd/ photo courtesy of TCM
Why Worry? (1923)

After a quick break for food, it was time to dash to the Egyptian Theater (another gorgeous old building) to catch the debut of Carl Davis' new score for this underseen Harold Lloyd silent. Leonard Maltin interviewed Suzanne Lloyd, the comic's granddaughter. She has worked very hard for several years to protect her grandfather's legacy.

I'd never seen a silent movie with a full orchestra before, and it was an entirely different experience from an organ or a lone piano. We all gaped at the musicians when the film began, in awe of the gorgeous music. About five minutes later, we totally ignored them, which is a testament to the perfection of the score.

The restoration was just as beautiful as last year's new print of Safety Last! (1923). It was an amazing movie experience, with all elements working together brilliantly. Ms. Lloyd should be very proud of her work.

And then of course there was the movie. It was hilarious; definitely deserving of classic status. Lloyd's use of a seven foot giant for several bits was clever and inventive. This was one of my favorite movies at the festival.

Image Source
Employees' Entrance (1933)

As soon as Why Worry? ended, a few of us made a mad dash down Hollywood Boulevard to catch a screening of this funny, and often very dark, pre-code at the TCL Multiplex. Since it was screening in one of the smallest festival venues, we were lucky to get in.

Film Forum Repertory Programmer, and Founder of Rialto Pictures, Bruce Goldstein introduced the movie with a segment he cheekily called "Pre-codes 101." Though I'm a huge fan of this period in film, I learned a lot from his talk. He also showed a great reel of clips from some of my favorite pre-codes. There were even some movies I hadn't seen!

The movie was a serious crowd-pleaser, with lots of typically pre-code naughtiness, snappy humor and Depression-era social commentary. I was grateful that we managed to squeeze into this popular screening.

That's me on the right waiting with TCM Party for Eraserhead. The jolly storm before the unsettling calm
Eraserhead (1977)

I needed a major infusion of caffeine to make it through the screening of David Lynch's excruciatingly brilliant feature debut, but I was determined to make it through. I'd only seen the film on DVD and I wanted to check out the audience reaction to this strange and often revolting masterpiece.

My husband once saw it in a theater, and he said it was the quietest audience he'd ever been in. There was a party atmosphere in the theater before the TCMFF screening. I think everyone was delirious from exhaustion and a bit high from double espressos and cola. Patton Oswalt's introduction was hilarious, he welcomed us to "Coachella for shut-ins," which is a perfect description of TCMFF. However, once the movie started, it was dead silent.

Eraserhead is a tough film, especially when you have already seen five films that day. I found it challenging to make it through, but there's something about it that draws me in. Perhaps because it is so personal and yet also so open-ended that you could easily give it your own interpretation. As tired as I was, it wasn't easy to sleep after watching this intense flick.

Coming up next-- The Movies: Day Three and Four

All photos property of A Classic Movie Blog unless otherwise noted.

Apr 16, 2014

TCM Film Festival 2014: The Stars

TCMFF is quite a starry event. You can expect to run into famous people everywhere. Tippi Hedren in the restroom of the Roosevelt Hotel. Leonard Maltin walking down Hollywood Boulevard. Illeana Douglas, Robert Osborne and Ben Mankiewicz seemed to be everywhere.

It was exciting to see these glamorous faces, but without a doubt, the guests that drew the most interest were the legends from the classic age of Hollywood. In their special appearances, these stars inspired laughter, made tears flow and all demonstrated that they still knew how to mesmerize a crowd.

Here are the legends I was fortunate to see at this year's festival:

Margaret O'Brien

Day two was my busiest at the festival, and the highlight was seeing Ms. O'Brien before a screening of Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) in the gorgeously-restored Graumen's Chinese Theater (yes, I know it's the TCL Chinese Theater officially, but not in my heart). The former child star was the most enthusiastic guest I saw at TCMFF. Dressed impeccably, and looking very hip with her silver nose stud, O'Brien hardly needed to be interviewed. She plopped down on her seat, feet dangling in the air, and began to tell stories. She still moves her head from side to side in that charmingly mannered way she did as a child, and her voice has kept its girlish warmth. It looked like she would have loved to stay and chat more, which I'm sure would have delighted the audience!

Jerry Lewis

While day two was the most overwhelming schedule-wise, day three was the most emotional for me. This is because I saw three legends of the silver screen in person, something I never could have imagined happening to me as a teenage film fan mainlining Bette Davis movies. The coolest by far was seeing Jerry Lewis put his hands and feet in cement for the courtyard of the Graumen's Chinese Theater. As a new fan of Lewis, I was overwhelmed to see this legend in person. He still knows how to entertain a crowd, clearly born to it. I've got a lot more to say about this special morning, so I'll share the rest in a future post.

Maureen O'Hara

After a rare sit-down meal with a bunch of great bloggers, a few of us ran to wait in line at the El Capitan to see Ms. O'Hara before the screening of How Green Was My Valley (1941). One of the most sought-after guests for the festival, fans were lining up outside the theater two hours before show time. And it was so worth it! The Irish star is still sharp, sassy and clever.

O'Hara, now in a wheelchair, was visibly overcome as she was wheeled out to an enthusiastic standing ovation. She was in tears many times during her interview with Robert Osborne. While touched, at one point she told the crowd, "don't be fooled into thinking I do magical things," which inspired Osborne to tell her that she certainly did.

With a heavy emphasis on spirituality, O'Hara discussed her life philosophies while giving encouragement and advice to the crowd. She said, "all of you do what you're supposed to do, better than you are supposed to do." The actress was also concerned when she heard a cough in the audience, she insisted that the woman stand up and wished her good health. Oh to be that cougher!

It wasn't all emotional though, this dame is funny. When Osborne opened the interview by asking about Ford, O'Hara snapped back, "I thought we were here to talk about me!"

At the end of the interview, while O'Hara received another standing ovation, she was clearly trying to stand up to give thanks to the crowd. However, despite appearing to speak about it to the TCM staffer who was there to push her wheelchair, it didn't happened. That was probably for the best, though it was touching to see how much she wanted to pay tribute to her fans. This appearance was the high point of the festival for many.

Kim Novak

As a huge fan of Kim Novak, seeing the star was on the top of my list. That she had appeared at the festival before, and was likely to do so again, was one of the factors that motivated me to attend TCMFF this year. When I found out she was going to be interviewed before my favorite Novak flick, Bell, Book and Candle (1958), I couldn't believe it!

While Novak has had rather extreme plastic surgery, she is still very alluring and magnetic. With her husky voice and mesmerizing eyes, she brought plenty of glamour to the stage. Always known to speak her mind, I wasn't surprised that she addressed what interviewer Robert Osborne called, "the elephant in the room," the star's controversial appearance at the 2014 Academy Awards ceremony.

Novak called the negative feedback she received what it was, "it's bullying and we've got to fight back." She added, "we've got to stand up to these bullies, we've got to be stronger than they are." When the crowd applauded her honesty and bravery in addressing this clearly painful issue Novak smiled and said, "I've got to confess, I feel like I'm home with you."

Feeling very moved by what Novak had said, when she went back up the aisle I told her, "you show 'em Kim!" She responded, "don't forget to stand up!" And I most certainly will Ms. Novak! It was one of my high points of the festival to exchange words with this amazing woman.

Photo courtesy of TCM

Alan Arkin

This was my favorite interview of the festival. I wanted to see Arkin so I could enjoy his butter-smooth voice in person, and yes, that was dreamy, but he was also a fascinating person. Everything that comes out of his mouth is quotable.

When interviewer Ben Mankiewicz joked to Arkin, "I know you don't care about awards, but I do, because I'm more shallow than you. Which is readily apparent," the actor launched into an interesting tirade about industry awards. Using his Oscar nomination as an example, Arkin said that he was pleased by the nomination, because it was a surprise and he enjoyed being honored with his peers and promoting his film. He was less thrilled when he won, because he didn't like the implication that he was better than the other nominees noting that, "isolation is bullshit," when it comes to honoring great performances.

The whole interview was so interesting, and Arkin was so darkly charismatic, that I almost didn't want the film to begin. Here are some more gems from this intelligent actor:

3/4 of [current] American films are made by draftsmen or engineers.

There's something kind of ennobling in not knowing the answer to something.

[Improvisation] is at the core of everybody's life, whether they like it or not.

I have a dread of failing as a human being, not as an actor.


I still can't believe I got to see all of these amazing performers in person. They were all so charismatic, clever and engaging--truly born to entertain.

Coming up next: TCM Film Festival, The Movies

All images belong to Classic Movies except where noted.

Apr 13, 2014

TCM Film Festival 2014: Day One Press Conference With Robert Osborne and Co. and More!

I didn't set eyes on a movie until the sun went down, and yet I lived and breathed movies the entire first day of the TCM film festival. It was beautiful to spend the day in a happy cinematic bubble, soaking up the enthusiasm of the festival-goers around me. I can see why people do TCMFF every year; I'm all ready to sign up for next year myself!

Here's what happened before the movies rolled on day one:

Press Conference

I got my first ever glimpse of Robert Osborne yesterday morning at the press conference, and it was surprisingly not a big deal! It was like seeing my cool uncle up there. He's so handsome in person. Swoon! I thought he kind of looked like Robert Wagner up close, which is funny since they're pals and name twins. Here's what he said:

  • He paid touching tribute to the people who were helped through hard times by watching TCM. Osborne said he never expected to be a sort of "nurse" to people enduring difficulties like joblessness, divorce and illness, but he relishes the role and says it makes the network and its fans feel like a family. Very appropriate given the family theme at this year's festival
  • Osborne shared lots of stories about his mentor Lucille Ball, the woman who encouraged him to follow his interest in film history. He told a funny story about how Ball resented Maureen O'Hara because she'd always upstage her as the hot redhead in nightclubs. Once the Irish lass made her appearance, Ball said, "then I'm chopped liver."
  • It was also interesting to hear about Osborne's connection with character actress Jane Darwell. The two met while he was in the service, and performed on stage together in Seattle. She took an interest in him and encouraged him to try film acting. Osborne even stayed in her Hollywood home while he got started, a fact which intrigued Ball and got her interested in the young actor.
  • It took Osborne only two weeks to get a six month contract at 20th Century Fox! He said it was very different when he got started and that, "in those days, if you could walk and say words at the same time, you could get a contract." Still, I was impressed that he found work so quickly.
  • On a less personal note Osborne answered a questions about how to attract young people to classic movies by saying that he didn't feel the need to recruit a younger generation for the network. That's because 50% of attendees to TCM events are in the younger age bracket and 60% of network viewership is age 18-49.
  • I loved Osborne's story about an 11-year-old TCM fan who was determined to make it to TCMFF. He did odd jobs to make money, but couldn't quite make enough. When TCM heard of this, they gave this lucky kid a pass to the festival for the next couple of years, and he's gone every year since. What other network would do this? It's amazing.
  • It was sad to hear how Olivia deHavilland's health troubles have prevented her from traveling to TCMFF and even conducting an interview with Osborne. Her last trip to visit her daughter in Malibu was so taxing that it took her a year to recover. As active as she's been late in life, she's 97-years-old and not up to travel anymore.
  • Osborne shared his favorite films: A Place in the Sun, The Razor's Edge, Sunset Blvd.--and Spinal Tap! I mean, that is a great film, but I was so tickled to hear him mention it with those other flicks.
  • He did an impression of Ida Lupino at the end of High Sierra that was actually pretty darn good. Almost made me tear up. From what I remember, Lupino wasn't fond of him when she met him in his reporting days. I think she might have even tried to turn the garden hose on him once, but I could be mixing him up with someone else.

Ben Mankiewicz took the stage next:
  • In answer to a question about how he felt about his job, he said "grateful is an understatement." I was surprised to learn that he had auditioned for his position. I always thought he had been invited to take the job based on his family history. He seems to think that helped him seal the deal, but he definitely had to go through a few rounds first.
  • He spoke a bit about his famous family, and told an interesting story about his grandfather Herman Mankiewicz and the Oscar he won for Citizen Kane. Apparently he wasn't sentimental about his trophy and resented the bother of protecting such a valuable award. He kept it in a safe deposit box for years. When he found out he could make thousands of dollars by selling it, he grabbed the chance.
  • I loved Mankiewicz's response to a question about whether he ever got starstruck. He was nervous about talking to Max von Sydow and Peter Bogdanovich, though both men turned out to be kind and receptive interview subjects. He's also very nervous about interviewing Jerry Lewis this weekend, which I can understand after seeing his appearance on the Dick Cavett show. If he gets a fact wrong, that guy is toast. I don't think he will though.
  • He also talked about how bizarre it was to meet famous people who were his fans. I loved his story about Eli Wallach waving his cane at him in greeting. How funny to be adored by your idols!
  • Mankiewicz also told a few stories about the recently departed Mickey Rooney. He talked about his infamous on-air interview with the actor where he got so wound up that he actually stood up! However, ever the professional, Rooney saw he'd run off the rails and let Mankiewicz steer him back on topic. He also told a touching story about Rooney's appearance on a TCM cruise. The actor relished meeting the passengers and was devastated when a fall forced him to cancel the rest of his onboard appearances. The two had a long talk, where Mankiewicz realized just how much Roooney lived to entertain, and how the limitations of old age frustrated and disappointed him. 
  • In what would be a running theme for the day, Mankiewicz also noted the unique bond TCM's audience had with the network. It's true, who feels the way classic movie fans do about HBO or Showtime? 

Charles Tabesh, Senior VP of TCM Programming and Genivive McGuillicuddy, Managing Director, TCM Classic Film Festival wrapped up the event:
  • The pair discussed how TCM discovered how devoted its viewers were with the rise of social media. They are very responsive to fan input and monitor comments on Twitter, message boards, etc. So if you have a strong opinion about programming or anything else, let it be known--they're listening.
  • They consider the TCM Film Festival to be an extension of that online community.
  • Tabesh said that the network is committed to providing programming that reflects all walks of life, from balancing attention to the sexes and different races to showing more international titles, which makes sense after the huge success of the world film-focused Story of Film series.
  • I was also thrilled to hear that TCM is considering featuring a few kid programmers. What a great idea! I know a lot of classic film fans fell in love with the era at an early age.
  • When asked about their greatest pleasures and challenges in previous film festivals, Busch mentioned how difficult it can be to find good prints of films and dealing with last minute schedule changes. He most loved the thrill of discovery fans experienced watching new-to-them movies at the festival. McGuillicuddy was most challenged by the many logistics of the event  and most loves the experience of watching a great film with an enthusiastic audience.
  • When asked which guest they most wished to feature at the festival, both agreed they wanted Doris Day to make an appearance. I'm sure people would camp out to see her!
  • Neither Tabesh or McGuillicuddy are concerned about the rise of new digital channels with a classic focus like GetTv, though they are monitoring the progress of these new networks.
  • When asked if TCM would ever offer a stand-alone, online subscription service, the pair seemed reluctant to even comment. They acknowledged that they would need to consider the network's relationship with the cable companies when considering such a move.
  • McGuillicuddy praised the festival technical team Boston Light & Sound Tech. I was amazed to hear this top-notch team actually removes digital equipment from theaters for the festival in order to make space for 35mm projectors. What an enormous task that must be.
I then headed over to Meet TCM: Special Edition at the gorgeous Grauman's Egyptian Theater. A panel of TCM staffers that stretched across the stage spoke about the network and TCMFF:
  • One of the staffers mentioned the bond people form at TCMFF. There have even been people who have met their spouses at the event!
  • They also discussed how much the Internet has changed the way TCM approaches the considerable research needed for programming. Instead of spending hours at the library with books, staffers can now find most of their information with a quick search.
  • However, phone calls are still very important to TCM programmers, because most of the talent are not plugged in to email and social media. That doesn't mean that none of them are though; one staffer mentioned that she had recently received an email from Eva Marie Saint. I'm not a bit surprised that gal knows how to stay with the times.
  • In the early years of the network, classic stars and their family members were wary of TCM's requests for interviews and other appearances. It took about five years for the network's reputation to put these stars at ease and even make many eager to participate in programming. 
  • Ann Bancroft was a huge early fan of the network, but she didn't have the channel at home. Instead, she would call a neighbor with her flick picks every week and get them recorded. 
  • Now TCM is maintaining relationships with several stars, including nurturing a relationship with Doris Day that they hope will lead to an appearance on the channel or TCMFF. They seem to have some hope this could happen since Day's recent audio interview with Robert Osborne was such a success. This lovely conversation can be found on the Watch TCM app.
  • Speak of that app: apparently director Francis Ford Coppola couldn't get it to work. When TCM staffers helped them to get it running, he sent champagne in thanks.
  • The group also spoke of how they revered Robert Osborne, who is now almost as much of a star as the people he interviews. I can remember who said it, but someone on the panel mentioned that his experiences in the entertainment industry and as a film fan put him "on a trajectory to come to this network." It's true. I can't imagine how he could be better suited for the job.
  • I loved the stories the panel members told about Maureen O'Hara. Apparently she has very protective grandchildren, who were very particular about the way their beloved grandmother was transported to the festival. When her grandson tried to cancel her appearance because he didn't like her accomodations, the still quite feisty O'Hara told him that she was determined to attend.
  • One of the things that most impressed me about this group was the dedication all staff had to TCM and Turner Broadcasting. Each of them state how long they had been with the network and the range was from 13 to over 20 years, before TCM had even launched.

After the panel, I walked over to the Hollywood Museum to check out Gods and Monsters, a talk with monster make-up genius Rick Baker and director Joe Dante. 

I admit I only attended with mild curiosity, more excited about checking out the museum afterwards than hearing the discussion, but it ended up being fascinating. Both men have been in love with monsters and movies their entire lives. 

Baker didn't even know if what he wanted to do was a job, but he didn't leave himself any other options. He had to succeed. I found that so inspiring. I also loved Baker's long, silver-white hair. It was the same color as his white dress shirt! 

It was a funny, interesting talk, and it taught me that at TCMFF, sometimes it's best just to show up to a panel, or even a movie, and just see what happens. Discovery is just as important as seeing your favorite things. 

It was also great fun to check out the museum afterwards. It wasn't very big, but it was packed with loads of costumes and props. My favorite part was seeing Mae West's costumes. My goodness she was a curvy woman!

More to come! Movies! Special guests! This is the most amazing event. I can't wait to share the rest of my experiences.