Apr 26, 2019

TCM Classic Film Festival 2019: The Guests

There was such a reflective vibe at TCMFF 2019. I'm sure this was due in part to the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the festival and the 25th year of TCM, but I think it was mostly because we are living in chaotic times and are in constant need of getting our bearings. I found this mood in many of the conversations the festival guests had before screenings. There was a strong feeling of the past informing the changes we are seeing in some arenas today, in addition to a frustrating lack of change in other areas.

Susan King and Sara Karloff

After missing several opportunities to see Sara Karloff, the daughter of Boris Karloff, I was happy to finally be able to catch her interview with Susan King before a screening of Night World (1932), a pre-code starring Papa Karloff. Ms. Karloff was born on her father’s 51st birthday. She called herself an “expensive birthday present.” It’s clear she adored her dad, who despite a busy career seemed to make plenty of time to bond with his daughter.

Floyd Norman, Jane Baer and Mindy Johnson

Despite an uncooperative microphone, the author of Ink & Paint: The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation Mindy Johnson conducted a lively interview with animators Floyd Norman and Jane Baerbefore the Friday screening of Sleeping Beauty (1959) at the Egyptian Theater. Norman and Baer were an engaging pair, with Norman particularly seeming to enjoy cracking jokes and kidding his former co-worker.

It was a thrill to be in the presence of these animation legends and their stories were especially effective because of an accompanying visual presentation with photos of their days in the studio and the work they did. Baer mentioned that she had animated the flames on the candles of Aurora’s birthday cake, which amusingly led to the first time I’ve ever heard an audience applaud candles in a film.

Norman and Baer were right out of school when they started working at Disney. It’s remarkable what they were able to accomplish as art college graduates in a world where animation school was not yet an option. As a woman and a black man, they were also in the remarkable position of being accepted solely for their prodigious talents, because to Disney, that’s all that mattered.

Joie Lee, Ruth E. Carter, Robi Reed and Ben Mankiewicz 

It was overwhelming to absorb the beauty and power of Do the Right Thing (1989) at the Chinese Theater. The brand new restoration print that was shown arrived from Universal Studios just 24 hours before the screening. This movie has always ripped me to shreds, but to see it presented so beautifully is to appreciate its artistry in a completely new way.

As much as I wanted to see this unique film in my favorite theater, the biggest draw for me was having the chance to hear now Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter speak. In her long career, she has created some of my favorite modern cinematic costumes. The other guests, casting director Robi Reed and actress and Spike Lee sibling Joie Lee, were equally intriguing in their conversation with Ben Mankiewicz. Though Ben did a great job leading the discussion, I felt that it would have been best to have a black journalist or film historian asking the questions before this particular screening. It was a fascinating talk, but I craved that perspective from the moderator.

Reed acknowledged how relevant the film’s message remains today, and how it also reflect its times. She said, “Spike was pretty much putting on the screen what was happening in real life…we were heated, it was a very intense time.” This was the horrific era of the murder of Yusuf Hawkins and the racist violence at Howard Beach, both of which were mentioned in the conversation.

Carter talked about how Lee wanted “heightened realism” in the costumes and “color saturation.” This approach not only increased the intensity of the film, but removes it enough from reality that the costumes, while of their time, are also timeless. Carter also talked about the nerve-wracking experience of being next to the stage on the night she won her Oscar, which made her think “why are we so close? That means something.” When she finally had her moment on the stage, winning after 32 years as a costume designer, she said “it just came to me that this was my time.”

I loved hearing about how Reed cast Rosie Perez, who had not acted before the film. She found her dancing in a nightclub and said, “she was raw and she was real….She was fearless.”

Joie Lee spoke affectionately about her brother Spike, making it clear that he’s a handful, but that she’s grateful for the opportunities he has given her. She said, “He’s very comfortable. There’s not too much about Spike that’s uncomfortable.”

The women also had what I found to be the most measured conversation I’ve heard so far about Green Book and its best picture Oscar win. Reed said that she still “gets worked up about Green Book,” partly because it made her recognize “the importance of us telling our own stories.” It was at this point that I realized how uncomfortable I was with Mankiewicz leading the conversation, good as he was. Carter thought Black Kkklansman and Black Panther audiences split the vote for Best Picture, opening it up for a Green Book win. I could see the logic behind that.

Shaken, but wide awake, I went right from Do the Right Thing to the first Midnight screening of the festival, the Mexican luchador flick Santo vs. the Evil Brain (1961). Archivists Viviana Garcia Besne and Peter Conheim spoke before the film. They provided great context for the movie we were about to see, emphasizing that if you go into it prepared to boo, hiss and cheer like it’s a silent film serial, it’s going to be a much better experience.

As always, the San Francisco Film Geeks: that is, husband and wife super-team Beth Accomando and Miguel Rodriguez, continued their tradition of bringing themed treats to the Midnight screening. They wore luchador masks and capes (no spandex), handed out cookies and chocolates with luchador designs, and gave everyone their own paper luchador mask as well. I love how these two make my favorite screenings of the festival even more fun.

The next morning I slept in, but made sure I got in line early enough to get a good number for Academy Conversations with Ben Burtt and Craig Barron, featuring Tarzan and His Mate (1934). Burtt and Barron are always popular with TCMFF audiences, because they put so much joyful effort into uncovering the technical mysteries of classic films. They’re like a pair of cinematic detectives.

That morning, I remembered a fun moment I had with Burtt and Barron at TCMFF 2016. It had been so long since I’d thought of it! I was sitting in Club TCM one day, and they asked if they could sit in the empty seats next to me. I noticed they had programs from the Scent of Mystery Cinerama presentation and mentioned how disappointed I’d been to miss it. So these two lovely gentlemen told me all about it, props included, and made me feel like I’d been there after all. You could call it a mini Academy presentation.

Discussing smell-based cinema with Barron and Burrt at TCMFF 2016

After I got my line number, I went to talk to a couple of my friends who were sitting on a couch in the Chinese multiplex lobby. The gentleman next to them offered to make room for me to sit down. It took me a moment to realize it was Mr. Burtt, waiting to go in to do the presentation. As I had just dug it up to repost on Twitter, I showed him the picture of our meeting long ago and was amused that he tried to figure out the date based on what baseball cap Barron was wearing.

I also enjoyed his interaction with a teenage boy who was sitting nearby, clearly stunned to be in the presence of a man he admired. I couldn’t hear what Burtt said to him, but the kid said, “I’m just soaking it all in.” I thought he was very kind and gracious with this young man, understanding the idolatry, but remaining humble.

The presentation was as entertaining as always. I’m consistenly amazed by how much these men prepare for their intros; the presentations could stand alone as an event. They went deep into the sounds and effects in jungle films and shared shots which showed how a set in Culver City could look like deepest Africa, with the help of rear projection and back drops. The highlight was Burtt’s extensive research into the composition of the Tarzan yell, which he finally determined was a mix of a human voice and a clarinet.

Ronee Blakley, Jeff Goldblum, Joan Tewksbury, Keith Carradine and Dave Karger
I waited a long time to get into the screening of Nashville (1975). With a panel comprised of stars Ronee Blakley, Keith Carradine, Jeff Goldblum and writer Joan Tewkesbury, to be interviewed by TCM host Dave Karger, I knew that it was going to be a festival highlight. Lily Tomlin had also been announced to appear, but cancelled at the last minute. Honestly, there was enough star power in that group. Tomlin would have been almost too much.

Goldblum is the most active listener

Goldblum was clearly the big draw for this crowd. The intensity of the response to his appearance was unlike anything I’d experienced at TCMFF. I’d never seen personnel crowded along the aisles like that before, all of them frozen, watching Goldblum. With his fur-trimmed shirt and eccentric speech patterns, it’s clear he definitely understands his oddball image and plays up to it. Seeing him reminded me of a screening I once attended where Nicholas Cage was a guest, like him, Goldblum is almost a bit too much to absorb in person, a personality so big that he truly belongs in the movies.

Blakely, Carradine and Tewkesbury had a different vibe, more down-to-earth. Tewksebury gave a good perspective on the way Nashville was constructed, saying she ended up writing as many as 24 characters for this practically plotless, but richly-detailed film.

Carradine briefly became a pop star for performing his own composition I’m Easy for the film. Though he was deprived of gold record status because there were two versions of the song in release when it came out, he said “I think I have two bronzes,” Karger noted he also won an Oscar for best original song. Carradine said that stunned him when Diana Ross’ Mahogany was also a nominee. 

He also talked about how he hated his womanizing character and when he asked Altman for more direction, he simply told him he was doing fine. This was good non-direction, because he realized in the end he was “an actor who doesn’t like the guy he’s playing, but what the audience is getting is a guy who doesn’t like himself.”

It was also interesting to see how much Blakley had to do with the feel of the film because of the seven songs she contributed, in addition to her gut-wrenching performance as the troubled singer Barbara Jean. I was also fascinated to realize how much Altman is responsible for Goldblum’s Hollywood career, because he lured him from the New York stage to come to Los Angeles and appear in his films.

Anne Morra and Stephanie Rothman

The second Midnight screening was my favorite late night film of TCMFF 2019. The Student Nurses (1970) is a fascinating example of what happens when a woman directs an exploitation film. Instead of feeling like exploitation, it’s kind of sexy and it has heart.

Nurses Director Stephanie Rothman spoke with curator Anne Morra before the film. While it was interesting to hear Rothman speak about her career, I was a bit frustrated that Morra focused so much on why her career was not bigger. I think the fact that producers wanted a "Stephanie Rothman film," but wanted to hire a less-experienced man to direct says it all. I wish they’d acknowledged the patriarchy is the pits and move on to discussing her work. I know Rothman directed at least six films of interest and I wanted to know more about them.

My amusingly-labeled Rothman meds

It was a shame that San Francisco Film Geeks Beth and Miguel were held up at a screening that ran late and missed the beginning of the film, because they brought these great pill bottles filled with red hots to share with the audience. They did manage to hand them out after the film at least. I love these two and their creativity!

My favorite screening of the festival was the increasingly wild ride that is the horror film Mad Love (1935). While it was a blast simply to see this bizarre Peter Lorre flick at the Egyptian Theater, the experience was greatly enhanced by comedian and actor Bill Hader’s introduction. His first words: “you guys are like the hardcore nerds,” which you are if you show up at 9am on a Sunday morning for a film.

Hader then proceeded to flash his own film nerd credentials. He first saw Mad Love late night at night on TCM and found it so unusual that he researched it for the rest of the night. I saw lots of heads nodding in the audience at that comment. He added, “It’s like the most Peter Lorre Peter Lorre performance” and then proceeded to joke about the odd trailer for the film, which consists of Peter Lorre sitting in a chair, having a phone conversation about the film. All of this was hilarious coming from a comedian like Hader, who does a crazy good Lorre impression. Film geek comics are the best at doing TCMFF intros.

Hader also noted that Cora Sue Collins, a child actress who retired at age eighteen and had the distinction of playing a Garbo character as a child, had a brief scene in the film and was in the audience that morning. He had her stand to enthusiastic applause. She was a rock star to this crowd.

If you are delicate when it comes to language, you might want to skip this clip from Hader's recent appearance on the Conan O'Brien Show, but I got a good laugh out of the uncomfortable experience he talks about having in the bathroom line at the Egyptian after the screening. His giggle makes me melt.

Barbara Rush was a pure delight before the screening of Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession (1954). She had a lot to say and interviewer Alicia Malone wisely gave her space to reminisce. Of Sirk she said, “He was so kind and so interesting….I thought he was fatherly.” While she had a good working relationship with the more experienced Jane Wyman, at first Rush was terrified of her. In an early scene she was carrying a cup of coffee on a saucer and it was rattling because it was shaking so much Wyman asked “What is that noise?”About which Rush though, “Oh my God it’s me.” Rush also enjoyed working with Rock Hudson. He called her Oona, dos, tres, eventually shortening it to just Oona, and he always kept her laughing on the set.

Rush was a good friend of Robert Osborne, as they’d both been under contract to Lucille Ball. She said they were walking buddies, part of a friendly group, and that “he was like a very dear brother to me.” She also said “he just knew everything” and he’d always help her with crossword puzzles. In thinking about his legacy she said, “I think it was Bob who really got this classic thing going.” He even invited her to an early screening of E.T. (1982), which blew her away. It was sweet to hear about the private Osborne, who was apparently as charming in person as in public.

Ben Mankiewicz and Angie Dickenson
Angie Dickinson is one of the most charismatic guests I’ve seen in six years of attending TCMFF. It was a thrill to catch her in an interview with Ben Mankiewicz before a screening of The Killers (1964). Not only is she funny, sharp and friendly, but she’s still so darn sexy. As she struggled a bit to climb up on her tall seat (honestly, I would have struggled too, it was really tall), she said “I’m old” and an audience member shouted, “But you’re so beautiful!” to which she said, “I know!” She’s just speaking the truth.

Dickinson loved her costars in The Killers, a film that was made for television, but then released in theaters when it was found to be too brutal for broadcast. When asked about screen love John Cassavetes, she said “what a Greek,” adding that she found him “so watchable.” She had a lot to say about Ronald Reagan, who played the villain to whom she was mistress in the film. Apparently he was upset to even have to pretend to slap her and apologized profusely. Dickinson also mentioned Clu Gulager, who I thought stole the film from a formidable cast in his performance as a quirky, but heartless hit man.

It was endearing how little interest Dickinson seemed to have in her own work. She loved talking about Brian DePalma (with whom she worked on Dressed to Kill [1980]) and other films she enjoyed. Eventually she did talk at length about the 91 episodes she filmed as the star of the television show Police Woman, a grueling experience she called “a hell of a grind.”

Despite the brutal work schedule, Dickinson felt she had to take the show because her other options for work seemed to have dried up. When asked why her promising start in films didn’t lead to greater roles she said, “I don’t think I had that much drive to tell you the truth. I also like life. It’s not an easy thing to answer. I certainly struggled to get bigger parts I didn’t get.” I could have listened to this fascinating woman for hours.

Carl Davis and the TCM Orchestra

Having just watched Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in A Woman of Affairs (1928) and finding it only mildly interesting, I probably wouldn’t have caught the TCMFF screening except for two factors: finally being able to see film preservationist and filmmaker Kevin Brownlow in person and watching the film with a live orchestra.

As Brownlow had been presented the Robert Osborne award earlier in the festival, TCM prepared a career retrospective short which it screened before he came out. This was useful, because Mr. Brownlow’s got one of those careers so full of accomplishments that even if you are familiar with his work, you’ll always forget something.

After the video, Leonard Maltin spoke with Brownlow about the film. While discussing the lasting appeal of Garbo with Maltin, he praised cameraman William Daniels for doing much to create her mysterious image. He then talked about the film, based on the scandalous novel The Green Hat, which studios were “ordered by [Hollywood censor] Will Hayes never to make.” Brownlow said, “MGM had to change the title. They had to change the character’s names and they had to change the plot. Otherwise it’s identical to the book.”

Among the challenges on the set: the once steamy love affair between Garbo and Gilbert had cooled, so despite their professionalism, the pair was not as hot as they’d been in Flesh and the Devil (1926). In addition to that, Brownlow said Gilbert “suddenly changed his acting style in the middle of the film.” He adopted an over-the-top approach which was his misguided response to the approach of sound film. Fortunately director Clarence Brown reigned him in.

John Gilbert's great grandson Dylan Hart played French horn in the TCM Orchestra

The musical accompaniment by the TCM Orchestra was stunning, sometimes drawing attention away from the film, which is something I hadn’t experienced before. Composed and conducted by Carl Davis, the director looked rightfully triumphant at the end of the performance. Maltin also noted that Gilbert’s great grand-son Dylan Hart was playing French horn in the orchestra.

What a great line-up of guests at the festival this year! I'm so grateful to have seen all of these brilliant people.


  1. I've been enjoying all your fest posts! This was great! I loved the story about the SLEEPING BEAUTY candles being applauded and the multiple times you've connected with Ben Burtt over different festivals. Great stories.

    The bits about Disney are so important. It's a great frustration to me when certain people (like a famous actress who shall be nameless here) rip Disney based on their conceptions of how many females, etc., "should" have been in certain roles in the '30s, '40s, or '50s -- not bothering to educate themselves on what a groundbreaker for his era Disney truly was in hiring and advancing the careers of women, blacks, etc. Floyd Norman has done his best to set the record straight and I'm glad he keeps doing it in forums such as TCMFF!

    Loved all your reminisces of a great fest.

    Best wishes,

  2. Thanks Laura! One of my favorite parts of the festival is the surprise meetings each day. You never know what interesting person is in your next line or sitting next to you in the multiplex!

    I was interested in what Norman and Baer had to say about their personal experiences with diversity. I'd like to learn more about what other animators felt about Disney's hiring practices. They definitely shared an intriguing piece of the story.