This year the remote edition of the TCM Classic Film Festival will run from May 6-9. As with the in-person event, there will be multiple venues: the channel, HBO Max, and ZOOM.
While I enjoyed the Home Edition of the festival the network was able to pull together on short notice in 2020, I’m excited about what TCM has created with a lot more lead time. Overall this is a great opportunity for many people who have not been able to attend the annual event in Hollywood to experience a bit of what the fest has to offer.
Of course, that also means experiencing the familiar festival conundrum of what to see when there are so many great choices.
It pays to plan ahead and determine must-see events ahead of time when there are so many options. This year that means balancing between three possibilities: the live broadcast on TCM, a list of options on HBO Max that will be available from May 6-9, and attendance at free ZOOM events (some of which are now full) which require registration.
I wanted to share my game plan as a sort of guide to navigating all these options:
When TCMFF is in Hollywood, the Blossom Room at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel serves as Club TCM. This is a popular place to gather for a rest, a drink, and a chat, in addition to being a venue for special guests and presentations. While there isn’t a bar at the ZOOM Club TCM, there are events scheduled each day. Among them are the traditional Meet TCM panel which offers extra insight into the network, an opening night toast with the hosts, and a Mother’s Day chat with a trio of children of the stars.
My must-see is Sight and Sound Makers: A Chat With Ben Burtt & Craig Barron. These two Oscar-winning sound and visual effects artists are well-loved among festival regulars for their amazing talks about the process of making sound for the movies.
If you think you might want to check out a talk, be sure to sign up as soon as possible as events are already filling up. Also keep in mind that a chat link isn’t a reserved ticket, the event can still fill up, so be sure to log in a little early.
Opening night film West Side Story, 8pm ET (also available on HBO Max with additional special features)
One special element of TCMFF at home is that the audience for the opening night film isn’t limited to Spotlight passes and VIPs. This is going to be a special one too, with the still vibrant, still active trio of Rita Moreno, Russ Tamblyn, and George Chakaris appearing together as special guests before a showing of the musical that they will forever be associated with.
Doctor X, 1:30am ET
I’ve had a look at the restoration of this classic 2-strip Technicolor horror flick directed by Michael Curtiz and it is stunning. The improved look and sound of the film boosts the mystery and ghoulishness of the proceedings. There’s nothing like a gorgeous 2-strip-colored moon.
The Whistle at Eaton Falls, 10:00am ET
Each year of the festival, I go into at least one film with as little knowledge beforehand as possible. I know that Flicker Alley did the restoration of this drama and that is enough reason for me to give it a try.
I've already seen this chat with Loren and her son Eduardo, but it is so charming that I watch it any chance I get.
It’s impressive how quickly the art of ZOOM dramatics has advanced in the past year. We’ve gone from straight table-read style events to this stylishly-produced spoof of Ed Wood’s goofball sci-fi classic. From the black and white “cinematography” to amusing backgrounds and miniatures, this is a great-looking production. The cast of players, led by Gould, perfectly balances camp with straight-faced fidelity to the script. Laraine Newman is a highlight as the bemused narrator.
Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957), 9:30pm ET
You’ll definitely want to watch the real deal after the table read just to see that yes, those were the real lines from the movie and they were performed with dead seriousness.
TCM Underground Presents: Grease 2 (1982), 11:00pm ET
As I first saw this movie when I was twelve, no one will ever convince me it isn’t genius. This follow-up to the original box office sensation is a lot of fun and a perfect Midnight flick. From young and gorgeous Michelle Pfeiffer and Maxwell Caulfield, to the classic film connection via Judy Garland’s daughter Lorna Luft, the cast itself is enough of a draw, but the songs are also incredibly catchy.
If you can stay up, this Bill Morrison (Dawson City: Frozen Time ) short is a wonderfully mesmerizing experience. Made from decaying footage from a German silent, it is the mysterious story of a man and a woman, lost in waves of disintegrating nitrate.
Underworld U.S.A. (1961), 4:00am ET
Another film I’m going into with little previous knowledge. Bill Hader’s introduction to this is a must-see; he always provides valuable insight into movies because he’s well-attuned to the tone of a film and the details that contribute to its overall mood.
Tex Avery: The King of Cartoons (1988), 6:00am ET/ Tex Avery at MGM (1943-1955), 7:00am ET
There’s no better time to learn about the life and career of a subversive and mischievous cartoon great than a Saturday morning! This brief documentary will be followed by some of the best of Avery’s work (though I have never warmed up to that devious little Screwball Squirrel…).
I Love Trouble (1948), 8:00am ET
I saw and loved this lighter take on the detective movie at a Noirfest many years ago. It was the first time I enjoyed Franchot Tone, who seems to be having the time of his life as a snarky investigator.
Nichols and May: Take Two (1996), 11:45am ET
The best part of this episode of American Masters about the comedy team of Elaine May and Mike Nichols is that it includes full-length performances of some of the pair’s best routines. The intelligent and lightly erotic charge of these two has never been matched.
One of the biggest disappointments of TCMFF 2019 was that Jacqueline Bissett was unable to make her planned appearance before a screening of this slick crime flick at the Chinese Theatre. It was still a transformative experience, but I am glad she’s getting another chance to chat about one of her most memorable films.
This film noir starring Robert Taylor is another new film for me and a draw because it is newly restored in 4k from a nitrate print of the film.
Diana Ross was the first actress to win an Oscar nomination playing Billie Holiday. I’ve never seen this and I’m looking forward to seeing how Ross approached the part.
Her Man (1930), 8:45am ET
It’s just not TCMFF without a Pre-code. Watching Helen Twelvetrees starring as a bar girl in Havana sounds like a great way to start the day.
This restoration of Josephine Baker’s best film performance is a festival must-see. While film was a small part of this multi-talented artist’s career, she had a unique, vivacious effect on the screen. Worth a watch for her uninhibited and artful climactic dance performance alone.
Hollywood Home Movies: Stars at Work and Play, 7:00pm ET
This has been a popular annual feature at Club TCM, but I have never had the chance to attend. Now that I know what this presentation has to offer, I recommend it highly. There’s all sorts of goodies here, but the highlight is the films presented by the special guests: Tony Nicholas describes videos of his famous father and uncle, the Nicholas Brothers and Shirley Jones talks about footage of her on the set of her first film, Oklahoma (1955). They’re both incredibly charming and insightful. Also, you can’t miss the sight of Frank Morgan playing tennis in a hairnet.
All I remember about this silent is that when I saw it for the first time at TCMFF a few years ago I laughed so loud that I snorted. Enough reason to check it out again, especially now that this early Ernst Lubitsch film has been restored.
Fame (1980), 11:45pm ET
Debbie Allen has been my pandemic angel, because the free dance classes she started giving on Instagram Live last Spring helped me to deal with a lot of the stress and confusion of the first days of being homebound. I can’t wait to see her again in her most famous film even though I can't keep up with her dance routines.
News From Home (1977) 4:15am ET/ La Chambre (1972) 6:13am ET
If I can stay awake, I plan to finish the fest with this dreamy, drifting pair of films directed by Chantal Akerman. News From Home is a remarkable time capsule of a New York long gone. I especially love the scenes Akerman captures on the subway, where the wary passengers seem unsure of the lady with the camera, but unwilling to confront her. La Chambre is a perfect after-hours short as it consists of the camera’s slow journey around a peaceful bedroom.
I suspect that if I miss something I want to see at TCMFF this year, it will be on the HBO Max channel. There is so much amazing content scheduled, though the benefit of being able to see it at any time from May 6-9 helps.
Though I would like to see all of the conversations with the filmmakers and performers that will be posted there, I’m going to make sure I see the talk with documentary director Barbara Kopple, because she has such a perceptive and affectionate way of talking about her work and her subjects.
I’m also going to make time to watch Chain Lightning (1950) an action adventure drama starring Humphrey Bogart and Eleanor Parker. I recommend the Ben Burtt and Craig Barron special feature about the sounds in the film. As usual, they’re hilarious together and there’s a lot of interesting history here, including the frequent use of a single jet sound in several projects.
There are three stunning features in the Special Collections category that are worth making a priority:
One is the LA Rebellion collection, featuring the work of a trio of filmmakers who were students together at UCLA in the nineties. Jacqueline Stewart conducts a fascinating interview with directors Charles Burnett and Billy Woodbury about their work. The films in the collection: Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991), Woodbury’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1983), and Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger (1990) are diverse in subject matter, but similar in their attention to detail, strong characters, and realistic world-building. This is a truly magnificent collection.
Another can’t-miss: the premiere of the documentary The Mystery of Méliès (2021) which explores the life and work of the pioneering filmmaker in a lively, inventive way.
There’s also a collection of Powell and Pressburger films: Black Narcissus (1947), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and The Red Shoes (1948), which is accompanied by a deeply touching short featuring Thelma Schoonmaker, who was married to Powell for the last ten years of his life.
There’s so many other films in this collection that there’s sure to be something to please all tastes and the special features for each of them are a great way to emulate the festival experience.
As with the TCMFF on Hollywood Boulevard, you’re not going to be able to see everything, but what you do see will be memorable.
All photos courtesy of TCM.