TCM Film Fest 2015: Don’t Bet on Women

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Jeanette MacDonald is mostly remembered for her series of light operettas with Nelson Eddy, and for slightly more adventurous classic film fans, for her series of Pre-Code musical comedies with Maurice Chevalier and Ernst Lubitsch. That doesn’t always stand her in good stead, since her particular brand of coloratura soprano singing phased out of mainstream popularity by the 1960s. I’m still a fan of her musicals, but I’m the first to admit they aren’t for everyone. It was a particular joy, then, to hear of Don’t Bet on Women, which is one of MacDonald’s very few non-musical roles, and quite a rousing Pre-Code as well.

Pre-Codes fascinate me not only because they tend to be more risque and innuendo-filled than films either earlier or later, but because the combination of nearly unrestrained sexuality and a society still bound to a great degree by traditional mores often yields films with a very conflicted view of masculinity, femininity, and gender roles. Don’t Bet on Women, aka All Women Are Bad (you can see where we’re headed here), starts off with Roger Fallon (Edmund Lowe) swearing off women following a tender scene where his ex-wife convinces him to pay her a generous allowance since she doesn’t want to make her new husband go to the trouble of, like, working. He and his buddy Chip decide to take a boys-only cruise.

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Shorts Program: The Dancing Pig (1907)

There’s more TCM Fest stuff to come, including a rundown of the Return of the Dream Machine program, which featured films from 1900-1913 projected with an original 1908 hand-cranked projector – it was a very special evening, and introduced me to one of the most amazing, incredible, and bizarre pieces of early cinema I’ve yet seen. It affected me so much that I feel the need to share it with everyone I know, in every outlet I have. Ladies and gentlemen, behold….The Dancing Pig.

[The most amazing thing about this short is that apparently this vaudeville program was so popular at the time that there were numerous film versions made of it, by almost every studio. This one from Pathe seems to be the main one that’s survived to today.]

TCM Film Fest 2015: So Dear to My Heart

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I grew up watching this film, and assumed that it was as much a part of everyone else’s childhood as it was mine, just like any other Disney movie, or other animal movies like Lassie Come Home or National Velvet. Apparently that’s far from the case, as only one other person I knew at the festival had seen it (and she’s a certified Disney fanatic who went to great lengths to obtain a copy), and most people had never heard of it until it was in the festival program. It has never been released on DVD except as a bonus through the Disney Rewards Program. I’m pretty sure we bought it on VHS when I was a kid, but it’s possible we taped it off the Disney Channel or something. As the sole person in my group who had nostalgia for the film, I found myself trying not to oversell it, fearing that it wouldn’t live up to my memories. Thankfully, while it’s definitely fairly minor Disney, its charm and winsomeness remain intact through some admittedly cornball plot development.

Young boy Jeremiah Kincaid wants nothing more than to own a prize racehorse someday (this being rural Indiana in 1903, it’s harness racing he’s thinking of, not Thoroughbred racing)…until one of the farm’s sheep has a black lamb and refuses to accept him, and Jeremiah convinces his granny (his parents are unmentioned) to let him raise the outcast. Soon Jeremiah has big dreams for the troublemaking lamb Danny, hoping to take him to the state fair and win a blue ribbon. Lots of other little vignettes fill out the story, notably a treacherous trip into the swamp for Jeremiah and his cousin Tildy seeking out a bee tree, and an overnight search for the lost Danny in a frog-drowner of a rainstorm.

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TCM Film Fest 2015: Why Be Good?

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I have a new favorite film seen in 2015.

Colleen Moore is absolutely, unequivocally the most adorable thing ever as Pert Kelly, a young girl who goes out and parties every night, embodying the carefree flapper spirit. We catch up with her when she’s agreed to go out with a super smarmy guy because he’s rich, but she clearly has limits on how far she’s willing to go. Exactly where those limits are become a sticking point when she trades out smarmfest for cleancut young Winthrop Peabody Jr (played by a very handsome Neil Hamilton) enjoying his last evening out before taking the job as personnel manager for his father’s department store. Turns out Pert is a clerk in the store, and when Peabody Sr discovers the kind of girl his son is going with, he objects – not because she’s a working girl (he’s too progressive for that), but because he assumes such a party girl has “been around,” as they say.

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TCM Film Fest 2015: Chimes at Midnight

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Orson Welles’ career is the stuff of legend – wunderkind Hollywood golden boy with Citizen Kane, then losing most of his subsequent films to studio interference, and eventually finding it impossible to raise enough money to even complete the films he wanted to make. By 1965 when he made Chimes at Midnight, the funding came from Spain and Switzerland, and the film barely got a release in the US. Even before becoming a big shot Hollywood actor/writer/director, Welles was already a noted Shakespearean scholar and actor, and in the late 1940s, his film output shifted to Shakespeare as well, with versions of Macbeth and Othello. He’d long intended to do a Falstaff story, combining the five plays featuring the characters – a stage version called Five Kings hadn’t quite gotten off the ground as early as 1939, then he staged it in 1960, when it was also unsuccessful. Undaunted, he focused on a film version, which became Chimes at Midnight (sometimes known as just Falstaff). Unlike many of his projects during his later career, Chimes at Midnight was finished, and finished pretty much according to Welles’ wishes.

Upon initial release, the film was dismissed by critics, but it has since gained a reputation as one of Welles’ greatest films – Welles himself felt it was his best work. Rights issues have plagued the film, however, and it’s been very difficult to see in any kind of decent quality (it is watchable on YouTube). Rumor has it that the print screened at TCM Fest (courtesy of Filmoteca España) will soon make its way to DVD/Blu-ray, which would be great. As of now, though, the people who saw it at TCM Fest have probably seen the best version of it since its original release.

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TCM Classic Film Festival 2015: A Preview

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The Sixth Annual TCM Classic Film Festival is nearly upon us – four glorious days of immersion in classic film in the heart of Hollywood along with hundreds of our fellow classic film fans. It’s the best time of the year for those of us who love Hollywood’s golden era of filmmaking.

This year hasn’t been without its controversy, as the early press releases announced programming such as Hollywood’s enduring classic…Apollo 13 (1995)? Malcolm X (1992)? Out of Sight (1998)?! But never fear – though TCM is bringing some newer films to the table, in order to woo some fans who haven’t quite made it as far back in Hollywood history as others, to expand the reach of their theme History According to Hollywood, and honor certain guests like editor Anne V. Coates and stunt coordinator Terry Leonard – they’ve still got PLENTY of pre-1970 films to choose from.

In fact, choosing is the hard part! Some of these time slots are so packed it’s nearly impossible to choose what to see. Such is our burden. I’ve gone through each timeslot, and detailed the choices in each one – basically what to look for if you want to catch all the essential films, if you’re looking for lesser known discoveries, or if you want to make the most of experiences you can’t get anywhere else. Obviously, these are all subjective to some degree.

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A few general suggestions to start with, based on my five years experience of this festival.

Plan Meals and Bring Snacks

The schedule is VERY packed if you want to see something in every slot. You’ll often be running directly from screening to another line without a break. Plan ahead and make sure to eat in any hour long breaks you have. It’s not a bad idea to bring some small bags of chips and a bottle of water with you, in case you end up crunched for time. The theatre doesn’t really make a big deal out of it for festivals – if you’d rather not sneak in food, they do have actual restaurant food and a bar as well as regular theatre food. Plus there are several relatively quick restaurants scattered around the top level of the Hollywood-Highland Center, including a pizza place, a Quizno’s, a Johnny Rockets, a Mongolian Barbecue, and a few more right next to the theatre.

See Something at Each of the Palaces

TCL Chinese, the Egyptian, and El Capitan are the centerpiece theatres and they are all pretty amazing venues. The Egyptian is a bit plainer these days than the other two on the inside, but the balcony is very nice. Head up there, because a lot of people don’t know it’s there and the middle front has the best view in the theatre.

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Finite Focus: Do You Know Mr Sheldrake? (The Apartment)

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[spoilers for The Apartment]

C.C. Baxter’s non-descript walk-up in The Apartment is like any other apartment in New York City – one bedroom, a kitchen, a washroom, and a cozy living area, with a table brought out only for meals. But this apartment is the key to C.C. Baxter’s potential success at Consolidated Life, where he hopes to move from pencil-pushing to a corner office faster than the company’s other 32,000 employees. Baxter’s apartment might not be much, but well-stocked with cheese, crackers, and a bit of booze, it’s the perfect rendezvous point for company execs and the girls they’re seeing on the side.

Baxter’s corporate interests rise significantly when Personnel Director Jeff Sheldrake gets wind of the apartment and offers a juicy promotion in exchange for exclusive use of the apartment. Baxter knows better than to ask any questions. Instead, now that he’s a well-heeled exec, he asks out Fran Kubelik, the comely elevator operator who’s been a breath of fresh air in an office otherwise full of men and women looking out for number one. She stands him up; he doesn’t know why (we do – she’s just renewed her relationship with Sheldrake). The next day, Baxter discreetly returns a compact with a broken mirror that Sheldrake’s girl left in his apartment.

This scene is the office Christmas extravaganza. Baxter is giddy with his new private office and ridiculous bowler hat, but Fran has just learned the devastating truth about Sheldrake. This is one of the most heartbreaking scenes Wilder ever filmed, and a perfect example of how his subtle filmmaking style could tell so much through showing, even though he’s best known for his trenchant dialogue. Lemmon and MacLaine are utterly perfect, as they each come face to face with the harsh reality of dashed hopes and yet must put up a front for the other.

Rewatched and Reconsidered: Sabrina (1954)

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Sabrina is one of a few films that continue to benefit from Audrey Hepburn’s ongoing popularity. There are a few “classes” of classic film – ones that everyone knows like The Wizard of Oz, ones that are loved by die-hard classic aficionados, and ones like Sabrina that find an appreciative modern audience of people who are open to classic films but aren’t necessarily big film buffs in general. These people gravitate toward Audrey Hepburn as a style icon, and certain films of hers (especially this one, Roman Holiday, Funny Face, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Charade and My Fair Lady) stay perennially popular because they highlight her effortless style, effervescent screen presence, and ineffable wide-eyed innocence.

Perhaps my own struggles with loving Sabrina stem in part as a personal backlash against its popularity, the assumption of certain classic film watchers that it’s a great and classic film.

Karina Longworth has a great podcast called You Must Remember This, an exploration of stories from classic Hollywood, and she has an episode devoted to Audrey Hepburn and specifically the making of Sabrina – what it meant for Hepburn’s career, how it solidified her style (it was her first time wearing Givenchy, whose Parisian couture became inextricably linked to Hepburn for the rest of her career), and how it really established her career and her persona. I suspect that has a lot to do with its endurance in the popular imagination. Those aren’t the things that bother me in the film, either.

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Favorite Films I First Watched in 2014

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Hi, there! Remember me? I’m hoping to get back into the swing of things in the third row this year, so I figured why not jump back in with a massive and massively solipsistic post all about things I personally watched in 2014!

Row Three’s big group post listing everyone’s Top Ten Films of 2014 will be out later this month, but I’ve been curtailed in my new release viewing this year and only had seven or eight films to choose from for 2014, so I opted to celebrate films I saw in 2014 regardless of release year in a number of hopefully entertaining categories. In keeping with my 2014 stance against evaluation, there is no winner in each category, nor ranking within them, nor strict limits on how many films could be in each category. Here’s my complete list of 2014 watches.

I will try not to include major spoilers, but for some categories I may have to in order to talk about why I chose the films I did. So just…keep an eye out, I guess.

[originally posted at The Frame]

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Whether in premise or character or storytelling, these are the films that made me think the most this year, sometimes for days or weeks after seeing them.

Snowpiercer (2013)
No film I saw in 2014 has a better premise than Snowpiercer, which envisions society as post-apocalyptic train segregated between haves and have-nots, complete with class warfare, rebellion, military subjugation, brainwashing, idealism, and cynicism. It’s very high concept, and gives you a lot to chew on, both about this society as its envisioned, and about our own in relation to it.

Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Most people (rightly) point to the first half of this film as the more iconic and memorable, but a lot of the depth and thoughtfulness is really in the second half, as we see what happens when these troops, trained by the drill sergeant from hell in the first half’s boot camp, actually hit Vietnam and discover how lacking any type of training is for the real hell of a war like Vietnam. The second half is messier, but it’s intentionally and thought-provokingly messy.

Employee’s Entrance (1933)
This is one of the few films of the year that I planned to write an in-depth post about, but I unfortunately never actually got around to it. Why did I find this piece of apparently Pre-Code fluff so striking? Warren Williams plays a confident, smarmy businessman as he so often does, the general manager of a Manhattan department store trying to keep his business afloat during the Depression – which often calls for reducing staff, making existing staff work longer hours, etc. And this doesn’t even include his horrific treatment of Loretta Young’s character and her fiance, his assistant who he wants unattached to better serve the business. Yet what could’ve been a straight-up underdog film about overthrowing evil Business for the sake of the underlings is actually more nuanced, thoughtful and relevant than I expected; today as in the Great Depression, balancing business and humanitarian regard isn’t always easy.

Kiss Me, Stupid (1964)
What? A slightly regarded late Wilder comedy about a pair of bumbling songwriters carrying out an elaborate ruse to get Dean Martin to listen to their songs is “thought-provoking”? Yeah, I know. I’m probably stretching a bit, but of the late Wilder films I’ve watched recently, this one’s sticking with me to a surprising degree, largely because it employs a level of sexual freedom that I wouldn’t have expected even in 1964, when such things were beginning to loosen up, and it does so with a frankness that’s refreshing even though I may not have ultimately agreed with the characters’ actions.

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2014 TCM Film Festival: Hat Check Girl (1932)

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After each TCM Film Festival, I’ve had a film that I considered my “discovery” of the Fest. It helps that TCM has a Discovery section dedicated to lesser-known and rediscovered films, but even out of that group, there’s usually one I latch on to as the one that makes me grateful for the Fest and for going in blind to so many of the Discovery films. In previous years, it’s been Lonesome, Hoop-La, or This is the Night – almost always late ’20s, early ’30s films. This year I pegged Hat Check Girl as most likely to be that film because it was one of only a couple Discoveries from that era; turns out I was wrong and the delightful The Stranger’s Return turned out to be my discovery, but that doesn’t mean Hat Check Girl wasn’t quite enjoyable.

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Sally Eilers plays Gerry Marsh, a hat check girl who wants to stay clean and honest, but keeps being pressured by her boss to sell bootlegged liquor and be an escort at fancy parties. At one such party, she winds up staying late and taking up the host on his offer to stay in a neighboring apartment whose tenant (Buster) is out of town – only he comes back IN town while she’s sleeping in his bed. Yes, this is a Pre-Code. There’s a lot more plot, with Buster romancing Gerry and getting involved in a murder, and it kind of goes off the rails because of course in a 64-minute movie you want to throw in everything but the kitchen sink.

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2014 TCM Film Festival: The Stranger’s Return (1933)

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The tightest scheduling block I attempted was between How Green Was My Valley (see here) and this film, and I was extremely lucky to get in – I was, in fact, the LAST person into a very full theatre. I felt kind of bad (and still do, since I know several people who tried the same schedule and didn’t make it in), because this was initially a filler film on my schedule. It’s short and fit in between How Green and Hat Check Girl, the Pre-Code comedy and MOMA restoration that I expected would be my favorite discovery of the festival. For some reason I didn’t read the program carefully on this film, and I thought “the stranger” was an aging man coming home to be with his family and their struggles in accepting him. I have NO IDEA why I thought that based on this program.

In the end, though, I’m very glad I did make it in, because THIS, not Hat Check Girl (though that’s fine too, post forthcoming), turned out to my gleeful discovery of the fest. Unlike the description I gave above, the story actually concerns a quick-witted and cantankerous old gentleman played by Lionel Barrymore sporting a gruff-looking beard, whose dubious excuse for a family is basically waiting around for him to die so they can take over his lucrative farm. The “stranger” of the title is his orphaned granddaughter from the city (Miriam Hopkins), who has never been to the farm but is cut from the same cloth as Grandpa.

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