Apr 19, 2017

TCM Classic Film Festival 2017: The Films, Part Two

I enjoyed my overall viewing experience at the TCM Classic Film Festival this year more than I had before. My schedule felt better balanced this year. It was fascinating to see films on nitrate, I enjoyed some flicks I hadn't seen or heard much of before (Panique, So This is Paris, Cock of the Air, Lady in the Dark), saw some of my favorites on the big screen (Best in Show, The Jerk, Red-Headed Woman) and reacquainted myself with a few movies I had viewed before, but hadn't seen for a while and wanted to give another look (Love Crazy, What's Up Doc?, The Awful Truth). Of course there was also the always-memorable midnight movie experience. I think Zardoz was responsible for some crazy early morning dreams this year.

Love Crazy (1941)

At the last minute I decided to skip seeing the red carpet to get rolling with the films. This Myrna Loy and William Powell marriage comedy was a perfect, light-hearted start to the festival. Actress Dana Delany introduced the film, and while I enjoyed her comments, I almost wish she hadn't mentioned that Loy was despondent at the time over her recent divorce from the love of her life Arthur Hornblow Jr. She said that she thought the actresses' sadness showed up on the screen, and I agreed. A bit of a mood dampener which reminded me of the former juvenile actor who once told me, "sometimes it's best to leave it to the silver screen and forget the rest."

I did enjoy Love Crazy though; Loy and Powell were in the middle of their long run of co-starring roles and by now they had polished their sexy, silly chemistry into comic perfection. These two were a great pair because they always appeared to be sharing a private joke. They play a married couple heading for splitsville, much to the distress of Powell. He pretends to be insane to hold off the divorce proceedings, but his charade is a bit too convincing. One of the highlights of the film is beholding Powell dressed like a lady, and sporting yarn ball boobs.

Panique (1946)

I lined up early for this French post-war thriller, based on the book by prolific Belgian novelist Georges Simenon. It took a lot of effort to go into this new-to-me film cold, but I wanted it to be a true discovery, so all I knew was that I would be seeing one of my favorite actors, Michel Simon, in a genre I adore.

Simenon's son Pierre spoke with Film Forum repertory program director Bruce Goldstein before the screening. It was a fascinating conversation, because we were essentially a theater full of movie fans learning about a man who didn't care much for films, though he was good friends with Jean Renoir, Federico Fellini, Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock. Goldstein is a great interviewer, energetic, funny without being snarky and adept at finding the details that best illuminate the subject at hand.

The movie was a tightly-wound, dark and heartbreaking thriller about a man (Michel Simon) who is under suspicion for a murder he didn't commit. He falls under the spell of a woman (the incredibly named Viviane Romance) who has just been released from serving time for a crime her lover (Max Dalban) and who plots to frame him for the crime. This was a perfect role for Simon, who specialized in playing somewhat loveable, occasionally off-putting, hapless characters.

I was thrilled to realize Norman Lloyd was sitting behind me in the theater. Though I didn't want to bother him, it was nice to hear his lovely voice before the screening. Goldstein introduced him to the crowd and I thought the woman next to him was going to faint from shock. Actor James Karen also sat a few seats down from me, and the two men had an affectionate exchange before the show.

So This is Paris (1926)

On to another new-to-me flick, an Ernst Lubitsch silent about which I also knew very little. Frequent TCMFF guest Cari Beauchamp gave a typically info-packed introduction; her comments are always more like little lectures. She cracked wise about the stylish, but sometimes over-decorated star Lilyan Tashman and told the audience to stay alert for a literally blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance by Myrna Loy as a maid.

I was delighted to see accompanist and composer Donald Sosin at the piano. I'd seen him play for several screenings at the Seattle International Film Festival and have long admired his skill and creativity. As I'd always seen him perform on his electric keyboard, it was a treat to hear his stylings on a different instrument.

The movie was everything you'd expect from Lubitsch: characters giving in to their naughtiest impulses, the prospect of sex always lingering in the air and mix-ups and deceptions galore. This story of a wife who falls for a handsome actor she spies through the window of the house across the street and her husband who reconnects with his old love (Tashman) who is married to that very neighbor delights in its superficiality. Though infidelity, scandal and prison threaten the characters, everything is kept light and incredibly silly. I laughed so hard I snorted.

Red-Headed Woman (1932)

After those new discoveries, it was nice to settle into an old favorite, an Anita Loos-scripted pre-code starring Jean Harlow in one of her naughtiest roles. As an ambitious, husband-stealing secretary, the actress is at her funniest as an unpleasant character who amuses through her power to shock even modern audiences. Chester Morris works his Easter Island profile as Harlow's first victim and Una Merkel is her sassy and sexy best friend (I think she got the biggest response from the theater audience). It was a lot of fun to see this on the big screen with an appreciative crowd.

Zardoz (1974)

The pretentious, outrageous and unintentionally hilarious Zardoz was a perfect choice for a midnight movie. Most famous for Sean Connery's skimpy red costume and long, braided hairdo, this is a film that delights with its weirdness as much as it tries the patience. Set in a future where part of the population is immortal and disgusted by baser instincts, while the other lives in animal-like brutality, the film seriously approaches what happens when Connery, who falls into the latter category plunges into the rural placidity of the immortals.

Decorated like Connery, looks like Reynolds
I was glad to have seen the film before, because I knew when to nap and when to laugh. It was not as easy going for the many baffled newbies in the audience. I'm sure it helped that a couple had the brilliant idea to make gingerbread man cookies decorated with Connery's legendary costume. The curiously Burt Reynolds-reminiscent treats offered enough pre-screen levity to get us all through the end credits.

The next morning I was inspired to try my hand at recreating one of the more outrageous looks from the film. If I'd have known TCM was going to pick up my Instagram post, I would have done a better job with the mustache:

The Awful Truth (1937)

After taking a leisurely morning post-midnight flick, I checked out this classic screwball comedy at the Chinese Theatre. It had been years since I'd seen it, and while many consider it one of the best films ever made, I didn't recall liking it very much. Since I laughed the whole time, I'm glad I gave it another try. It is possible that my teenage self was not sophisticated enough to appreciate relationship humor. How I could have ever been left cold by a movie starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne is beyond me though.

Filmstruck host Alicia Malone introduced the film, sharing anecdotes about director Leo McCarey (who said "I think you gave it to me for the wrong picture" when he won the best director Oscar for the film), Grant's hesitation about the slapdash method the director had of putting together the script and reflecting on the comic chemistry of the charming leads. She also shared that the dog in the film had also played Asta in the Thin Man movies. I was feeling a bit underwhelmed by the lack of depth in Malone's comments until I realized she was smoothly rattling off all those stories without notes. Maybe she isn't Carrie Beauchamp, but Malone is sharp and well-informed, and I am curious to learn more about her work and her upcoming book on the history of women in Hollywood.

As I snickered my way through this film, I was struck by how incredibly erotic it was. I mean, Dunne and Grant had this sexual tension thing down. Poor Ralph Bellamy plays the jilted lover again. This time he was out of the race before the pistol blast.

The Jerk (1979)

While I normally snobbishly reject post sixties films at TCMFF, I was ridiculously excited to see The Jerk at the Chinese Theatre. I have quoted this film innumerable times, sometimes much to the distress of people I know, often right along with them. This is a loveable, beloved film, and a lot of that has to do with the adorable pairing of Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters.

As I discussed in my stars post, Reiner went into great detail discussing specific scenes in the movie. While this had its tedious moments, for the most part it was charming to see a 95-year-old man geeking out about his own movie.

It was so intensely enjoyable experiencing such a goofy film in a setting as elegant as the Chinese Theatre. I thought about other childhood favorites I'd like to see that way. Monty Python and the Holy Grail anyone?

Best in Show (2000)

This Christopher Guest comedy, which is one of my favorite films and the only one I attended at the festival that I had already seen before on the big screen. The draw was the guests. I am in awe of anyone who can be funny and Guest regulars Bob Balaban, John Michael Higgins, Jim Piddock and Fred Willard are among the best when it comes to making people laugh.

As I wrote in my stars post, seeing these guys together was more charming than hilarious, but it was interesting to learn more about how Guest's unusual mock documentaries come together. I also noted that while some people say funny things, there are others who are just inherently funny. That is Fred Willard all the way. Just looking at him sitting there or hearing the sound of his voice made me want to giggle.

Though I'd seen this film about a cast of unusual characters showing their canines at a dog show countless times, I still managed to make a total ass of myself choking with laughter the whole time. It was so much fun to see this with an audience again. That my seatmate was as obsessed with it as I was surely made us extra obnoxious, but that's comedy!

Cock of the Air (1931)

I feared I wouldn't be able to snag a seat for this rare pre-code airing the final morning of the festival, as that has been the case at past festivals with films from this period. As it turned out, I either overestimated audience interest or people were simply too tired to show up in droves for an early morning screening. In any case, there was a good crowd in attendance for this racy comedy romance starring Billy Dove and Chester Morris.

I've always had mixed feelings about Dove and Morris. They can be an uptight drag in dramas, but let them be silly and they become irresistible. As a cocky, womanizing pilot and the mysterious woman who humbles him, they have sizzling chemistry. The spirit of the film is nicely encapsulated in a scene where the two play chess with glasses of champagne on a tabletop turned into a chessboard by a patterned lampshade. Restraint is not an option with these two unless it makes the game more fun.

This was an unusual screening as the print was essentially a patchwork job. Upon its release, about twelve minutes of footage were excised due to their suggestive nature. These scenes were rediscovered years later, but with no audio. In order to restore these moments, actors were hired to record the dialogue, which was then added to the footage. In her introduction, Academy Film Archive preservationist Heather Linville explained that wherever these re-recorded bits appeared in the movie, an icon of a piece of film would appear.

It was an interesting approach to the restoration , and for the most part it worked. The insertion of modern voices wasn't seamless, but also didn't interrupt the flow of the film. I suppose there's no way to sound quite as effortless as Dove and Morris, after all, they weren't attempting to sound like anyone but themselves, so while sometimes I thought the effect was a bit forced, the voice actors did a fine job filling in the blanks.

What's Up, Doc? (1972)

While I like this screwball comedy, I mostly went to it because it was my one chance to see Peter Bogdanovich at that year's festival. His interview was a lot of fun and he was funnier than I'd expected given his usual dour expression. I guess you really can't judge a book by its cover. It was interesting to hear that even on the set, and at table reads, it was clear that Madeline Kahn was going to steal the film in her first role. She was one of those inherently funny people, just like Fred Willard.

All I remembered about this screwball comedy was that while some bits went on a shade too long, Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neal were a lot funnier together than I had expected. So I went in expecting a good time and figuring that it would be much more entertaining to watch with a crowd. For the most part the auditorium was filled with helpless laughter. There's so much action and so many details to take in that you can feel a bit exhausted after watching it, especially with a crowd. I left wondering if it was possible to make a film with such a light spirit anymore.

Check out more stories about the special pre-screening guests here.

My full TCMFF coverage is here.


  1. Really enjoyed this (and all your posts!). I was particularly struck that we came into THE AWFUL TRUTH with the same mindset; I wrote in a post last night I think maybe their immaturity splitting up had bothered me in the past. It plays so much better with a laughing audience!

    Hope I get to see COCK OF THE AIR sometime as Chester Morris is someone who's really grown on me over the last few years. Sounds very interesting with the voices recreated for some scenes.

    So glad we got to enjoy a few of these movies together!!

    Best wishes,

  2. I'm glad we had more time together this year than we'd originally expected! COCK OF THE AIR is a lot of fun. I'd love to see it again. I'm in the same boat about Morris: used to think he was too uptight, but now that I've seen the lighter side of him, I appreciate him more.