May 18, 2016

TCM Classic Film Festival 2016: The Films, Part One

Sometimes you can get so wrapped up in the excitement of spending time with fellow movie obsessives  and getting to see real life movie stars and cinema experts that the films at TCM Classic Film Festival could almost seem to take a backseat. 

It isn't so though. Festivalgoers obsess over their schedules, stand in line for hours to see their favorites, and yes that passion often has much to do with wanting to see special guests, but there is still much love for the thing that brought us all together: films that move us.

We love watching our favorites on the big screen: seeing a widescreen presentation on a truly wide screen in the Egyptian, enjoying a silent film with live accompaniment, or seeing a pre-code you can't see anywhere else, with an enthusiastic audience, in a packed theater. It's even more exciting to take a chance on a movie you haven't seen before and find you love it. It is exhausting, but exhilarating to spend four days gorging yourself on this diverse cinematic glory.

It is common knowledge among TCMFF attendees that watching 3-5 films a day without proper food and rest is a killer. The result: everyone ends up falling asleep, at least for a minute or two in a screening. As one friend noted, "sometimes it's better to just give in for a moment  so you can make it through the rest of the day." It sounds crazy, but it is so hard to say no to once-in-a-lifetime screenings, many festivalgoers are unwilling to miss anything in favor of a full night's rest.

In the interest of having a higher quality experience, this year I did my best to lessen that exhaustion. I watched fewer films, thirteen instead of the fifteen to sixteen in years past. 

It was still a lot to absorb in four days, but I felt like I enjoyed the experience more than I would have if I'd insisted on seeing more. I took time to eat every day; I went for a long walk down Hollywood Boulevard and  I even slept in one morning. I highly recommend this slower festival experience.

Cinematically speaking, TCMFF 2016 was one pleasant surprise after another for me. I made dramatic changes to my planned schedule, resulting in a few disappointments, like missing The Passion of Joan of Arc with live musical accompaniment and not seeing Rita Moreno and The King and I because I wanted to get in line early for other events. For the most part I was happy though, as I caught a handful of favorites and enjoyed many new-to-me films, some of them exciting discoveries.

Day One

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)

I started the festival with an emotional whopper. Based on the classic novel by Betty Smith, this drama of poverty in the Brooklyn tenements in the early 20th century is full of tragedy and heartache, but also a lot of love and hope. 

Everyone in this film is on the top of their game, including child actor Ted Donaldson, who was on hand to introduce the film, James Dunn who is a simultaneously lovable and hapless alcoholic husband and father, Dorothy McGuire as an underappreciated, but steely and resourceful mother and Peggy Ann Garner as their dreamy, but intellectual daughter. Lloyd Nolan is immensely touching as a good-hearted neighborhood policeman and no one but Joan Blondell could have found the right combination of naughtiness and good cheer to play the story's free-spirited Aunt Sissy.

Sitting there in my first movie of the festival, I found myself already getting a bit homesick because Garner reminded me so much of my daughter. I realized I hadn't seen the movie since I'd become a parent. Her character's obsessive love of books, penchant for  daydreaming and the way she wrapped her arms around her father's neck reminded me so much of her.

I was lost in these thoughts when some winner in the TCL Chinese Multiplex set off the fire alarm. Even though we were all ripped out of a major climactic and emotional moment in our movies when it happened, everyone was so calm and orderly, from the various audiences to the TCMFF staff, that the interruption was almost more amusing than annoying. Fortunately everyone was given the opportunity to go back and finish watching, with all films set back a few minutes so that everyone could get adjusted to the story again.

Brief Encounter (1945)

Though I was looking forward to watching the Argentinian noir Los Tallos Amargos, I just missed getting a number. That didn't bother me too much though, because Brief Encounter has been one of my favorite movies since I first saw it as a teenager. I got shivers watching the commuter train swoop across the opening credits to the strains of Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto. It was so powerful to see that familiar sight on the big screen.

While I could have probably recited every line of this story of the doomed romance between a married British doctor and housewife, I found that I experienced it differently than I had in previous viewings. When I was younger, I focused on the delightful tension of the romance, relishing the way leads Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard could barely restrain their passion. Now, eleven years into a strong marriage, I saw the heartbreak in the story, because I understood how much these two, and particularly Johnson, had put into their marriages. As strongly as these two felt for each other, I could see how their love was not worth the cost of those happy, if not freshly romantic unions.

Day Two

Trapeze (1956)

I had a hard time deciding what to see first on day two of the festival, but ended up deciding to watch this circus drama because I would be certain to see one of Gina Lollobrigida's appearances at the festival. While seeing the actress in person justified my choice, the film was my least satisfying experience of TCMFF. I do like the warmth of 35mm film, but this print was in shabby condition and the picture often seemed out of focus. It was one of the few times in my life that a bad print distracted from my theater experience.

This film was also the first time I'd experienced significantly rude behavior from audience members. I sat in front of and next to a handful of VIP seats. The two women next to me would not stop making loud comments, though I asked them to stop multiple times. A man behind me was equally inconsiderate of other audience members, for a moment respecting, but then ultimately ignoring my requests that he stop talking. Frankly, it ruined the movie for me.

Part of the reason I love TCMFF is that the audiences are so committed to being there and thus more respectful than a lot of the people I share theater space with back home. After that experience I decided to at least increase my odds of respectful behavior by avoiding sitting near the VIP section. My theory: when you've paid a lot of money for a pass, you're going to be much less likely to yammer away through a movie.

It probably doesn't help that Trapeze has never been one of my favorites, though it does have a lot to recommend it. As the romantic triangle at the center of the drama, Lollobrigida, Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster are jaw-droppingly gorgeous, the stunts are exciting and there's always something interesting to see at the circus. Of course there's also the magnificence of Lancaster's butt, which I was pleased to see in many close-ups.

Private Property (1960)

My next movie experience that day obliterated the bad taste of Trapeze in every way. It was a tense, sleazy independent thriller that left the audience in stunned, uncomfortable silence. This was my favorite film of the festival, a real find.

I'd originally planned to try to snag a seat for the pre-code comedy Pleasure Cruise, but, as she does, Farran Smith Nehme wrote an intriguing review of the film for Film Comment and convinced me I had to see it. I also figured I couldn't go wrong with a Warren Oates flick.

Made in five days for $59,000 and starring the director's wife, this film had a pedigree for either disaster or wild success. It has all the markings of exploitation: a pair of slimy drifters played with menace by Corey Allen and Warren Oates, a plot of sexual obsession and dysfunction and the ever present threat of violence. That is why it is so impressive the emotional impact it has, how strong the performances are and how beautifully filmed it is, with great attention to staging and a stunning action scene in a pool that definitely doesn't seem low budget.

The film is essentially a three-hander, with Allen as a high-strung psychopath, Oates as his doofy sidekick and the deeply sympathetic Kate Manx as a sexually unfulfilled housewife. There are so many elements that should make Private Property a joke, from the fake swear words to the plentiful double entendres Manx lays on her inattentive husband.

It all works though. There's a constant feeling of dread and burgeoning eroticism that keeps you on the edge. One moment the action gets steamy, and the next you feel like you're watching a horror film. This movie was an intense, unusual experience. I hope to get the chance to see it again.

The Manchurian Candidate

After enjoying Angela Lansbury's interview with Alec Baldwin, I was ready for a long winter's nap. Still, the awesome sight of this bleak political thriller on such an enormous screen was enough to keep me alert for a while. 

This is a movie of performances that get in your gut: Lansbury, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh and especially an unusually vulnerable Frank Sinatra. They all feel so real, with clear motives and emotions, so that even though the movie gives you the feeling of life going tragically wrong, there's hope that the good among them will find a way to make a change in the rot on display.

I was glad that I'd recently seen the film, after reading the massive second volume of Sinatra's biography, so that the fact that I passed out from exhaustion a few times didn't keep me from understanding this somewhat complex story. In my somewhat delirious state, I found myself fixating on things that only such an enormous screen could reveal, like why have I never noticed that mole on the bridge of Sinatra's nose?

Before the movie started, Aurora turned to me and said, "after this film, the festival will be half over." I couldn't believe it.

Though I'd considered going to check out the Midnight movie presentation of Roar, I was too tired from standing in line so long. As we all literally staggered up the aisle after the movie, someone commented that it looked like the zombie apocalypse. Well said.

Come back tomorrow for Part Two of TCM Classic Film Festival: The Films.

Check out my full TCMFF 2016 coverage here.


  1. I'm so glad I'm not the only one who tried to take it easy this time around :) It's funny though, at the 2014 festival I tried to keep up with my friends and saw 8 films, this time I decided to go at a slower pace but somehow I managed to see 11!

    I'm so sad that I missed out on Private Property, I really wanted to see it, even more so now that I know it was your favorite screening! I remember seeing it described somewhere as the closest America ever got to having our own New Wave.

  2. Really enjoyed reading your takes on these movies. I hope to watch BRIEF ENCOUNTER a second time soon as I really enjoyed it but later realized that I'd completely missed part of the plot, a victim to that late-night exhaustion you mention. And it was only the first day of the festival! LOL.

    It's really a shame that there were such issues with audience behavior this year. I can't recall it ever being a problem at past TCM fests, nor has it been a problem at other festivals I regularly attend, yet there are such widespread reports of "entitled" negative behavior this year along with what I experienced myself. Makes you wonder what was in the Hollywood water this year!!

    Best wishes,

  3. Kate--It paid off for me to take it easy. I think in previous years I've been in a panic to get enough quality time with these people I don't see the rest of the year, but I realized I needed to respect my own need to have some down time as well. I'm planning to take it a a little further next year and fit in some more sit-down meals as you did. Oh you would love Private Property! It's got that mix of style and edge that you seem to enjoy. The American new wave idea is apt. I forgot when I wrote this that Farran actually wrote in her review that it will be available on Blu-ray this summer. I'm going to have to get it.

    Laura--If there's any movie to watch over and over, it's Brief Encounter. It has so much to offer, so many little levels of meaning. I'm glad you at least got an introduction to this remarkable film!

    The thing that bothers me about the bad audience behavior is how defiant people seemed to be about continuing to talk after being called on it. Especially that one comment that "I'm a VIP"--like that means this person can disturb everyone else because of their supposed status. I've been a VIP for music shows before though (because of hub's employee status), and it doesn't make you special, if anything it just gives you a responsibility to be worthy of the luxury. I really hope this isn't a trend, because I can't think of anything that would reach people with that kind of attitude. Here's hoping the SIFF audiences are still great this year!