The 10th Annual TCM Classic Film Festival was held this weekend in Hollywood, California. As a TCM Ambassador this year, I wrote this piece to celebrate the festival's high points in the context of just how important this yearly event is to classic film fans around the world.
Ten years ago, I left the closing night party of the first annual TCM Classic Film Festival without knowing a soul. Last night, on the closing party of the festival’s 10th anniversary, the lobby filled with the voices of not just my own friends and loved ones—but those of hundreds of others, just like me, who have traveled a similar journey. For some it was their first time at the festival—a fact which gave me overwhelming joy because they, just like all of us in attendance this weekend, were on a very personal journey that has only been made possible by the people at Turner Classic Movies.
Twenty-five years ago, TCM first took to the airwaves. What started as the ambitious brainchild of Ted Turner (please don’t @ me in comments about colorization) was transformed into a vibrant community under the warm, familial lead of its host Robert Osborne. It became a place to come home to, as it were. Every night we invited Mr. Osborne into our homes as we would a dear friend while the creatives and producers behind the scenes created programming not only aimed at celebrating the great films and their stars, but introducing us to deeper cuts that educated, enlightened and, yes, challenged us. (To this day, some of those classic bits of original programming make us nostalgic for those early days of the network.)
I was satisfied with this. In the late 2000s, I’d started blogging and discovered a wonderful network of like-minded classic film writers—a platform in which we could express, personally, our love for these films. For so many years these passions had been bottled up and met with the same degree of indifference from family and friends who just didn’t “get it”—as is the case with all fandoms. With the announcement of the first TCM Classic Film Festival it became clear that the network understood what I hadn’t: we were, in fact, a fandom.
All of a sudden, everything made sense. Yes of course we needed a festival. Yes of course we needed a place to meet our fellow film fans to share, learn and grow. The channel filled the need for access to films; the festival would fill the need for physical interaction with them—and celebration of them.
This year, yet again, it has accomplished just that. Fellas dressed in tails, gals dressed in (faux!) fur and heels—it is the classiest sight to ever be seen on the faded streets of Hollywood. The festival pulled out all the stops for its 10th anniversary which happily coincided with the network’s 25th anniversary, amplifying the screening options (which included appearances by Billy Crystal, Kurt Russell, Jeff Goldblum and Angie Dickinson) with engrossing panel discussions, exhibitions and even a brand-new venue: the beautiful Legion Theatre at Post 43 in Hollywood.
I saw a total of 15 films and presentations this year, and while I didn’t get into some of the films I really wanted ( I swear, the Chinese 6 is like a fight club) it was still a vastly entertaining lineup. The following is a rundown of my favorite films and events of the festival including the events leading up to the festival. After all, with so many film fans—and friends—pouring in from all over the world, pre-gaming classic Hollywood-style is inevitable. (Note to the unaffiliated: classic film fans know how to party because we learned from the best. Thank you, Nick and Nora.)
Saturday: On the Saturday before the festival, the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation (LAHTF) hosted a preview of the Legion Theatre at Post 43 in Hollywood. Martin and I are LAHTF volunteers and were delighted to see a few familiar faces in town for #tcmff who came to take a sneak peak at the latest venue added to the festival. The Legion has a long affiliation with classic Hollywood's heyday, with members of the club including Clark Gable, Ronald Reagan and Gene Autry to name the few, and its recently renovated theatre is now a state of the art screening facility with 16mm, 35mm, 70mm and digital capablities. The 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival was the Legion Theatre's grand opening, and this special preview showed off its world-class capabilities...and even invluded a trip up to the projection room. This was followed by a birthday party that evening to honor the one and only Cora Sue Collins, surrounded by a warm group of friends old and new.
Monday: I was delighted to join a small band of classic film fans on a tour of the Warner Bros. lot thanks to the hospitality of Jack Fields! Fields, who works for Warner Bros, was kind enough to invite us onto the tour which culminated in a fantastic exhibit tracing the studio's illustrious history: Jack Warner's phone, a microphone used for The Jazz Singer, and costumes galore: Jimmy Cagney, Eddie G, Olivia, Joan, Lauren—all the heavyweights of Warner Bros' golden years were on display and I could not stop the feels.
Tuesday: Film fashion historian Kimberly Truhler held one of her highly popular lectures on fashion in the movies on Tuesday evening at the beautiful Women’s Club of Hollywood. (Jean Harlow briefly attended school here as a teenager, so how’s that for Hollywood history.) Truhler’s discussions that are held around the time of TCM Fest always focus on the films being screened at the festival which must have been a joy for her to put together: Marilyn’s pink dress in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Lana Turner’s shorts/midriff/turban combo in The Postman Always Rings Twice, even the neutral palate of Meryl Streep’s safari ensembles in Out of Africa were highlighted to the sold-out crowd.
Wednesday: Over at the Hollywood Roosevelt’s poolside, the always energized members of Facebook’s “Going to the TCM Film Festival Group” held their annual poolside chat. Under the direction of Kelly Wickersham and Danny Miller, film veteran Ted Donaldson gave the crowd a delightful account of his years in Hollywood, and the marvelous Cora Sue Collins—the effervescent child star who appeared opposite the lies of Greta Garbo and William Powell—signed autographs for eager fans. (Honestly, she is a national treasure.) Plus, silent film accompanist Ben Model (who'd flown in that morning from NYC) discussed his #tcmff Tom Mix presentation, and author Jennifer Churchill was on hand to sign copies of her children's book Movies Are Magic. Also, a solemn moment: #tcmff ten-timer and much loved member of the classic film community, Jackie Brady, paid tribute to one of TCM's most passionate fans who passed away a few months ago. We all raised our glasses to toast the memory of Andrea Rosen whose smiling face and sparkling wit was deeply missed by all.
Thursday morning: Karie Bible led one of her famous tours of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, the final resting place to so many myriad classic Hollywood stars. Martin and I weren’t able to attend this particular tour, but were lucky enough to take in the tour late last year and I am so happy for all who were able to attend! Bible, a published author and revered member of the classic film community, has been Hollywood Forever’s “lady in black” for years and is an authority on silent-era and classic Hollywood history. Her histories on the cemetery’s buried luminaries, from Doug Fairbanks to Judy Garland, are equal parts smart, sensitive and accessible…much like TCM itself. (If you've never taken one of her tours, add it to your "must do" lists the next time you're in Los Angeles.)
Thursday evening: And, finally, the opening night of the 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival! I decided to kick the festival off with a back-to-back slate of two all-time favorites: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and a nitrate print of The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer. Opening night screenings are my favorite, and the energy in the packed out Egyptian Theatre was simply infectious: it was also filled with many friends and familiar faces which, to those who have yet made the trip to #tcmff, is always just as much fun as the films themselves. And the cherry on the top? The nitrate print for Bachelor, which was pristine by the way, was from the personal collection of Shirley Temple herself! Swoon!
Friday - Sunday:
Favorite New-To-Me: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
I’m married to a film noir addict so he was properly horrified to discover I’d never actually seen Postman...which for many is the seminal film noir. Thankfully #tcmff was able to remedy that situation, and…wow. I'm glad I waited this long to see it because it did not fail to deliver.
This was one of those movies where I’d seen so many clips for the film my brain tricked me into believing I’d already seen it. Introduced by the "Czar of Noir" Eddie Muller, I must confess: for the first 30 minutes or so, I thought this was going to be a yawner because I smugly thought I knew what was about to happen. Hoo boy, I have never been happier to admit my being so spectacularly wrong about something. With so many twists and turns I oughtta sue MGM for whiplash.
Favorite Screening: Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Full disclosure: this screening was filler for me. Not particularly impressed with the Friday mid-morning block of films, I thought why not see a cartoon I hadn’t seen since I was a little kid. Little did I know it was going to be one of the top screening experiences I have ever had at #tcmff, and hands down my favorite Disney screening the festival has ever held. And yes, that includes the 2014 screening of Mary Poppins with with Richard Sherman AND the 2011 closing night presentation of Fantasia.
Leading the charge were two of the original animators on the film, both of whom were just kids when they worked on the film in the late 1950s. One was an African American lad, the other a white young lady, and their stories of the inclusivity on the Disney lot were simply touching. And as for the film? Let’s just say that Sleeping Beauty’s sweeping beauty led me to tears, more than once, and I was definitely not alone.
Favorite Overall Experience: A Woman of Affairs (1928)
Ever since the first TCM classic film festival in 2010, silent film presentations have always been a festival highlight. And closing night silent films, well, they tend to be the best on the bill. Sunday evening’s presentation of Clarence Brown’s A Woman of Affairs (1928) was among the very best in the festival’s history. This year’s winner of the Robert Osborne Award, the legendary silent film preservationist Kevin Brownlow, was on hand—signature baseball cap in tow—to introduce the Greta Garbo/John Gilbert drama to a max capacity crowd at The Egyptian.
As if that weren’t enough, Carl Davis—whom I consider to be the John Williams of silent films—conducted a beautiful new score for the film. Even my husband, who only recently started dipping his toes into silent film, was riveted. Watching Garbo on the big screen, as nature intended, is something every film fan needs to experience at some point in their lifetime. Bucket list item = achieved.
Favorite Panel Discussion: The Complicated Legacy of Gone with the Wind
Since I wasn't going to be able to catch the festival's closing night screening of Gone with the Wind, which was screened in honor of TCM's 25th anniversary, I made sure to attend this panel discussion. Without question, Gone with the Wind is among the most complicated films for 21st century sensibilities to reconcile although it is far from the only classic film that should be "problematic" to "woke" 21st century culture vultures.
Donald Bogle, who is a preeminent black cinema historian and a familiar face at TCM, led an engaging, lively panel with an interracial panel of women: film producer Stephanie Allain, film producer, film critic Molly Haskell, and the University of Chicago's Professor of Media Studies, Jacqueline Stewart. (A highly fitting choice since the most powerful characters in GWTW are women and, on a personal note, as a woman of color? I am exhausted by white males mansplaining to me why the film should be scrapped from history.) I really hope this particular panel will be made available by TCM because it really was a deeply provoking discussion. To quote Molly Haskell: “I think we are too afraid of being uncomfortable. Why shouldn’t we watch movies that make us uncomfortable? This is part of us.” She’s not wrong. More. To. Come.
Favorite Interview: Barbara Rush at Magnificent Obsession
The regal Barbara Rush was resplendent for the Sunday morning screening of Magnificent Obsession, which she stars in alongside Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson and Agnes Moorehead. (How this 92 year old acting legend is still as beautiful as she was 70 years ago I’ll never know.)
Rush has worked with so many greats over her long career that she is a treasure trove of Classic Hollywood anecdotes. Rush says that "the greatest actors are the greatest teachers," but that didn't stop her from a rather feisty head-to-head with Marlon Brando whom she basically told, "you do the scene your way and I'll do it mine." She also focused on Jane Wyman (who terrified her), Rock Hudson (who made her laugh till it hurt) and…the late Robert Osborne, who was one of her dearest friends. She recounted one particular experience with Osborne when the two of them went to an early screening of a new Spielberg film by the name of E.T. The fact this film is one of Rush’s all-time favorites makes me love her even more.
Favorite Acting Performance: Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity
Ok, yes, y’all know I’m a Monty fan but I swear this decision was made without bias! Remember this choice is based on films I saw at #tcmff, so if I'd ended up at Nashville or, even Gone with the Wind, the result might have been different. But I'm including Monty's performance as "Prewitt" because watching From Here to Eternity at the Chinese theatre was a shining example of the transformation that occurs when you see a film on the big screen for the first time...even when you've seen it countless times before on the small screen. I think the earliest memory I have of FHTE is probably around 13 years old, sprawled out on the floor of my grandparent’s house. That movie has just always, always been around so it’s I’ve taken it a bit for granted.
I feel this is something that has happened to others, for many other movies, for that very same reason. We see it come on TV and say, eh, not that one again and turn the channel. But it’s true: watching a movie on the big screen is like seeing it for the first time, and even for me, someone who deeply admires Monty’s work, it was a revelation. Without the option of switching the channel you are thrown into the experience and the complex layers he has to navigate to make the story work is really quite incredible. It is a very, very hard role and he carries it off seemingly effortlessly. (Also, listening to Donna Reed's daughter introduce the film was a tremendous treat.)
And that's all until next year! See you in Hollywood for #tcmff 2020!