Apr 22, 2019

TCM Classic Film Festival 2019: Mad, Sad, Crazy, Glorious Love

TCM Classic Film Festival 2019 has been my favorite of the six I have attended so far. It was a special year: the 10th anniversary of the festival and the 25th of the network, and you could see the extra care the organizers put into this year’s event to create a mood of celebration and nostalgia.

As was inevitable, I made a few changes to my schedule. For the first time, some of those choices were forced due to circumstances beyond my control. Long story short: the lines felt extra chaotic this year and a lot of screenings started late. Whatever happened though, I always felt grateful to be at this festival with my favorite kind of people, watching amazing movies.

There were lots of special guests who introduced these films, and I’ll share more about them in a future post. For now, I’ll focus on the movies.

This year’s theme was Follow Your Heart: Love at the Movies, which was more compelling than I expected, because it left me with a new perspective on love in the movies. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I’ve tended to view the subject narrowly as the domain of swooning romances and flirty comedies. There’s so more to cinematic love than that though. It’s the essence of film. Sometimes it can be toxic. Sometimes it can be platonic. Sometimes it is as much about fighting hate as it is embracing human interaction.

This was the first time I thought much about the festival theme at all. I think a lot of that had to do with how well the programming reflected the many facets of love. Considered together, the fifteen films I saw tell a fascinating story about the many ways you could Follow Your Heart.

Sleeping Beauty (1959) was the storybook romance I viewed; where love is the sole uncomplicated element of the story. Of course, love is more often a complication in the movies. Star-crossed lovers are a staple of cinema, and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) was an especially devastating example of that. The heart wrenching score, composed by the recently departed Michel Legrand, transforms the romantic dramas of ordinary people into epic heartbreak. Also hankie-worthy is the way lovelorn Greta Garbo embraces a bouquet of roses from her lost lover in A Woman of Affairs (1928), clinging to her sole remaining connection to the man she adores.

My favorite kind of cinematic love is where it serves as a refuge from the rest of the world. In the busy, sleazy nightclub milieu of Night World (1932) kind-hearted showgirl, Mae Clarke saves alcoholic Lew Ayres from the horror of his past. As newlyweds in the low budget, but expertly produced noir Open Secret (1948) Jane Randolph and John Ireland are an oasis for each other as they spend their honeymoon fighting the horrors of anti-Semitism. Maureen O’Sullivan escapes the restrictions of polite society for a dangerous but free life with Johnny Weissmuller in Tarzan and His Mate (1934).

Devotion is another aspect of love that plays beautifully on the screen. Throughout Do the Right Thing (1989), Ruby Dee as the stately Mother Sister haughtily resists the adoration of Da Mayor (real life husband Ossie Davis). A bond has been established though, and when she screams in horror at the erupting chaos in her neighborhood, she accepts comfort from the suitor whose fidelity to her has been her secret delight. Rock Hudson takes devotion to the extreme in Magnificent Obsession (1954); how many people become surgeons to help the one they love? In the ugly, violent world of Escape from New York (1981) Adrienne Barbeau’s post-apocalyptic mistress finds solace in standing by her beau Harry Dean Stanton to the end, perhaps because the love she feels is the only pure element of her life.

I saw more movies about toxic love than anything else, which makes sense when you consider the dramatic possibilities in ill-considered romance. Sylvia Sidney embarks on a nightmarish journey with alcoholic Fredric March in Merrily We Go to Hell (1932); he turns her placid world into chaos, but she loves him so much that she forces herself to embrace it. In Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), one of the first films to win the Academy Award for best picture, Janet Gaynor faces even greater danger from her husband (George O’Brien); he actually wants to kill her! As beautiful as the reconciliation that follows is, I can’t suspend my disbelief that all could be well after a betrayal like that. The emotional abuse that John Payne subjects wife Betty Grable to in The Dolly Sisters (1945) was common in films of the time, and hasn’t died completely today, but feels unsettling viewed in the present day. It was gut wrenching to see Ronald Reagan slap girlfriend/possession Angie Dickinson around in The Killers (1964). And Dickinson herself? Classic femme fatale and a fast track to tragedy for John Cassavettes, the race car driver she targets.

One-sided toxic love can be even more treacherous. As a demented doctor in Mad Love (1935), Peter Lorre nearly ruins the life of the woman who obsesses him, his passion overcoming his reason. Much of Nashville (1975) is devoted to the careless womanizing of country singer Keith Carradine, but even more disturbing is the fixation that causes the previously mysterious Kenny (David Hayward) to lash out at country singer Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley). Is he also driven by mad love?

I had to strain a bit, but I did find the spirit of love in the Midnight screenings, which are a delightful playpen for the most specifically “my people” of a festival full of my people. I mean, there are two luchadores in the Mexican action flick Santo vs. the Evil Brain (1961) and there is a moment where El Incognito does a little wave at El Enmascarado and I cooed to myself, “aw, buddies.” The Student Nurses (1970) is all about love. This exploitation film that doesn’t feel much like exploitation features plenty of romantic affairs, but it is the care these young women show for each other and the patients they serve (if not always within appropriate boundaries) which makes you care about what happens to them.

At the end of it all, I found myself viewing love in the movies with a more accurate perspective. I recognized that it comes closer to the complex bonds we have in reality than I thought.

Next Post: The many wonderful people who make up the TCMFF community!

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