TCM Film Festival: 1930s Rarities

Though of course it’s great getting the chance to see any older film on a big screen, there’s a special thrill that comes with seeing things that you know aren’t easily available elsewhere or that haven’t been seen for a long time. That’s the case with all three of these films, early 1930s films that have been out of circulation for over seventy years, pretty much only seen in the interim by scholars, archivists, and collectors with bootleg copies. Even though I rate all of them as three or three and a half stars, which is generally not that great a rating from me, that’s mostly because I doubt the films will hold that much interest for people who aren’t massive ’30s film buffs. But for those of us who are, getting to see them with a theatre full of like-minded ’30s film buffs was a real treat, and had an extra edge of rediscovery that was almost palpable in the air. And, as Robert Osborne said when introducing Night Flight (which he admitted he’d only seen in bootleg copies and didn’t think entirely worked as a film), “it may not be that good, it might even be bad, but when you’re a film buff, you can’t have a movie with Myrna Loy, two Barrymores, and Clark Gable in it and not look at it.” The 500 people filling up the theatre agreed vociferously.

This is the Night (1932)

A fifth-billed Cary Grant makes his first screen entrance walking up the stairs to his lavish apartment singing and carrying a quiver full of javelins – he’s an Olympic javelin thrower whose wife (Thelma Todd) is stepping out on him with Roland Young. That in itself is kind of a ludicrous proposition, but somehow the cast makes it work. When a ticket delivery mixup (caused by the very funny and flustered Charles Ruggles) results in Grant getting suspicious, Young makes up a wife, then hires actress Lily Damita to play his wife as they all go on a holiday together in Venice. Where things get even more confused.

Of all these names, only Grant is well-known now, but at the time, these were all fairly major stars, and their collective sense of comic timing makes this farce extremely enjoyable to watch. Made in 1932, the film is pre-Code, relying a lot on naughty suggestions (one repeated gag is Young’s chauffeur repeatedly closing doors on Todd’s dresses, causing them to fall off, leading to the patter song “Madame Has Lost Her Dress”) and double entendres – Grant’s not carrying around javelins for no reason. Damita gets a bit too wishy-washy at times and the ending is far too pat, but the comedy bits are extremely winning. This was pretty easily the most pleasant surprise of the festival for me – I expected to only watch it for the historical value of Grant’s debut, but ended up enjoying pretty much everything about it.

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TCM Film Festival: “Drugs Are Bad” – 1950s Edition

Depicting drug addiction on-screen in the 1950s was heavily frowned upon by the Production Code office, but a few filmmakers pushed the limits of the subject, including Otto Preminger with 1955’s The Man With the Golden Arm and Nicholas Ray with 1956’s Bigger Than Life. Both films are hard-hitting, difficult to watch at times, and signs that the cinema was ready to move on and tackle the darker sides of modern life.

Bigger Than Life

After tackling rebellious youth culture in Rebel Without a Cause, Nicholas Ray turned his lens on middle American adults in this drama of a schoolteacher (James Mason) struggling to keep maintain the perfect facade of 1950s America, taking a second job as a taxi dispatcher to support his young family. The film opens with shots of purity and innocence, as groups of laughing kids leave the school building under the opening credits, and our first introduction to Ed’s family is essentially stereotypical 1950s suburbia – clean cut young boy, about eight or nine years old, watching a western on TV in the living room while aproned mom (Barbara Rush) prepares dinner in a spotless kitchen. If you made a movie today and wanted to suggest “perfect 1950s home,” this is exactly what you’d do. In many ways, Bigger Than Life is ahead of its time, as it’s about to break apart this facade just as many later films looking back at the ’50s would do, but it was actually made during the time it’s indicting.

Even as this family is being set up, though, we know all isn’t well. We already know Ed is working two jobs to keep afloat, and he’s also experiencing bouts of debilitating pain. When one of these overwhelms him at home, his wife and best friend (a very young Walter Matthau) take him to the doctor for a series of tests, which eventually determine a very rare disease that is usually fatal within a year, but an experimental drug, cortisone, can hold it off – with potentially damaging side effects; not unlike Vicodin addiction. Sure enough, Ed recovers completely from the pain, but soon begins experiencing mood swings, going from manic (on top of the world, wanting to buy his family lots of pretty things they can’t really afford) to depressive, curled up on the couch unable to do anything.

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TCM Film Festival: The 7th Voyage of Sinbad

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In a movie-going environment full of computer-generated effects that seek to impress through seamless integration with green screen live action, there’s something charming and dare I say it, enormously endearing about the stop-motion effects of Ray Harryhausen. Though these effects were groundbreaking at the time, the seams between animation and live-action and between multiple composited shots are clearly visible, yet it doesn’t seem to matter – the audience I was with were totally caught up, allowing imagination to fill in the gaps while simultaneously enjoying the obviousness of the effects.

The Arabian Nights-inspired story has Sinbad and his crew, enroute to Bagdad to finalize a treaty involving his marriage to the princess Parisa, stopping at the island of Colossa to take on supplies. One Cyclops attack, genie lamp rescue, and magician pick-up later, and the basics of the plot are set – the magician wants to return to Colossa to get the lamp back from the Cyclops again, and will do anything, including miniaturizing Princess Parisa and telling Sinbad the only cure is on the island, to get back there.

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TCM Film Festival: The Constant Nymph

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Acording to TCM host Robert Osborne, they’ve been trying to get the rights to show this film on TCM since the network started some eighteen years ago. It’s taken them this long to sort out the legal intricacies binding up the rights, but now they finally have, allowing this screening and eventual airings on TCM as well. At the time Warner made the movie, they had only secured the rights to the original novel (which was also made into a play, which I think played into the issues as well, it sounded pretty complicated) for five years, which didn’t seem like a problem at a time when most films were released and forgotten. They neglected to renew the rights when they expired in 1948, there was a whole deal where the film was accidentally and illegally included in a bunch sold to TV (but not really aired), so it’s hardly been seen except in a few bootleg copies since its original release in 1943. Gotta admit, I kinda felt special being among the first 500 people to see it in a theatre since then.

Joan Fontaine got an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Tessa Sanger, a rather fascinating role that fit her breathless naïveté quite well. Tessa and her sisters are daughters of an aging musician living in Switzerland, delighted by the periodic visits of Lewis Dodd, a modernist composer played by Charles Boyer who has been friends with the family since the girls were little. Tessa’s love for Lewis clearly goes beyond mere childhood affection for a kind friend, though Lewis is totally oblivious to it. When Sanger pere dies, the girls’ relatives in England take them in, introducing Lewis to their cousin Florence (Alexis Smith), with whom he’s immediately infatuated. The rest of the film explores this love triangle, and not always in the ways you’d expect.

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TCM Film Festival: Walt Disney Laugh-o-Grams

Well, here’s a bit of movie history I didn’t know at all before. Most of this is a condensed version of the introduction given by J.B. Kaufman, who is the historian for the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco.

Before Walt Disney came out to California and pioneered the feature-length animated film, he worked as an artist for an advertising firm in Kansas City, where he learned of animated cartoons. In 1922, at the age of 19, he started experimenting with animation, sending sample reels of advertisements to a local theatre chain. They liked it, and were soon running his “lightning drawings,” a drawing that appeared under Disney’s hand as if he was drawing it rapidly. But he wasn’t happy with advertisements, and soon wanted to do complete stories. He recruited some friends (including Rudolf Ising) to help him, having discovered that animation is work-intensive. After the success of their first short, Little Red Riding Hood, they incorporated as Laugh-o-Grams and began producing more shorts, most of them heavily modified versions of fairy tales and folk stories.

The friends tried and failed to get national distribution for their films and the company went bankrupt by the end of 1923, the films all heading into public domain to be largely forgotten for a short while. Walt headed out to Hollywood, where he would soon stop animating himself, preferring to focus on directing and producing instead. Around 1929 when the Mickey Mouse character took off, other distributors picked up on the old Laugh-o-Grams, and distributed them under new titles, but capitalizing on Disney’s name. Because of the retitling, a few of these films were actually not recognized as Laugh-o-Gram films until as recently as last year; many were thought lost, until archivists at MOMA realized they had had these films all along, just under different titles.

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TCM Classic Film Festival: 2011 Lineup

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The second annual Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival is almost upon us (April 28-May 1), and I have been slacking off on drawing attention to it. From what I can tell, they’re doing fine without me, though – passes have already sold out, though individual tickets are available at the door to almost every screening. For classic film fans in or able to get to Hollywood, this festival is a mecca of opportunity – opportunity to see high-profile favorites on some of the best screens in the country, opportunity to see personal appearances of classic stars from Kirk Douglas to Debbie Reynolds to Leslie Caron to Angela Lansbury, opportunity to see rare films that have been out of circulation since their release, opportunity to hobnob with fellow film buffs from around the world, opportunity to hang out in the heart of a Hollywood more filled with film fans than tourists for once, and opportunity to see classic films treated with a care and love that they aren’t always given these days.

The overarching theme of this year’s festival is music in films, which informs the major sidebars, celebrating George and Ira Gershwin, Bernard Herrmann, Walt Disney, and Roy Rogers. Even in the Essentials and Discovery sections, which are not exclusively music-centric, there’s a large quantity of classic musicals and great scores to be found. The full schedule, encompassing four days and five+ screens, can be seen here. This year has presented me with a number of scheduling conundrums, but I think I’m largely heading to Discovery screenings, taking the opportunity to catch films that may not turn up again over films that I can easily find on DVD or playing at rep cinemas. And that’s one thing I’d mention to Angelenos who are considering hitting individual screenings at the fest – a lot of the major films screening here play the American Cinematheque with relative frequency, so if you live in the area, you may want to seek out lesser-known things at the festival. Although, I must admit, it’s difficult to pass up the chance to see ANYTHING at Grauman’s Chinese, which is likely the best screen in town.

Descriptions are mostly cribbed from the festival website, edited judiciously to fit in a reasonable amount of space. The longer descriptions (linked at the end of each blurb) are full of historical tidbits, very fun to read if you’re interested in behind-the-scenes details. I’ve marked which ones I’m planning to see, but my schedule is subject to change. I’ll be tweeting throughout the event at @faithx5, maybe some at @rowthree if I remember, and posting reviews/reactions as I get time.

Nice Work If You Can Get It: The Film Music of George and Ira Gershwin

An-American-in-Paris.jpgAN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951)
Vincente Minnelli; Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Georges Guétary, Oscar Levant, Nanette Fabrey

Academy Award winner for Best Picture in 1951, An American in Paris combines the music of George Gershwin with the romantic story of an expat living in Paris for genuine movie magic, not least of all due to the extravagant title ballet, a fifteen minute sequence highlighting Kelly’s choreography, Minnelli’s rich Technicolor compositions, and a journey through French art history. This Opening Night Gala presentation is a brand-new restoration for the film’s 60th Anniversary, and will include a discussion with Leslie Caron. TCM Festival.

Girl-Crazy.jpgGIRL CRAZY (1943)
Norman Taurog, Busby Berkeley; Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Rags Ragland, Guy Kibbee, June Allyson

Mickey Rooney is a city boy sent out west when his hard-partying ways get him in trouble. Seems like he’s in for a tough, boring time – until he meets the local postmistress, Judy Garland. A slightly more grown-up romance for the formerly teen couple plus a boatload of Gershwin classics (including “Embraceable You,” “I’ve Got Rhythm,” and “But Not For Me”) make this arguably the best of the ten Rooney-Garland collaborations. Mickey Rooney will in attendance. TCM Festival.

Manhattan.jpgMANHATTAN (1979)
Woody Allen; Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Michael Murphy, Mariel Hemingway, Meryl Streep

No tribute to George Gershwin’s influence on the movies would be complete without Woody Allen’s love letter to the composer–to New York City. Along with the lilting score and the shimmering photography, the real star of the film is Allen’s wit as he explores the efforts of everyday people trying to survive, “in an essentially junk-obsessed contemporary culture without selling out.” Mariel Hemingway will be in attendence. TCM Festival.

See the full lineup after the jump.

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