Friday, April 14, 2017

TCM Day 2: Nitrate as far as the eye can see

Friday was cool and sunny, which was fortunate, since I had to walk a mile-and-a-1/2 to the Cinerama Dome.

There were many choices in the time slot: a program of 30s cartoons hosted by Jerry Beck, Rafter Romance, an unseen-for-a-while pre-Code that I find just okay, The Maltese Falcon (seen it a million times), and Cry, the Beloved Country (not really something I want to see first thing in the morning, so I opted for the beginning of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which, even though I’ve also seen it a million times, still love. 

The big attraction, though, was that Craig Barron and Ben Burtt were going to do a pre-show lecture on the background, production, and making of the film. The program itself was interesting enough (not as good as I’d hoped), but when the film began, it was obvious (to me) that it was a digital, rather than film, image. (I’d heard a while ago that there are only two 65mm prints of the movie left in existence; one is pretty good, but is either in a format that is unsuitable for the Dome [or is being held back from being shown there by the owners], while the other is a little beat-up, but can be shown in the Dome. I was told that weekend, though, that the Dome has basically unplugged its large-format film projectors, so anything they do show has to be digital. How this affected the later screening of This Is Cinerama in true three-screen Cinerama, I have no idea.)

 An always-welcome sight

I stayed through Phil Silvers’s entrance (since, in my opinion, he swipes the picture; not easy to do), then left for round two of the trivia contest.

(I’ve been thinking about IAMMMMW and, even though I’ve known for quite some time that as many—or more—people hate it as love it, I realized that mine is really the last generation that is going to "get" it. Unless a viewer goes in with a real knowledge of who Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Ethel Merman, Edie Adams, Mickey Rooney, Buddy Hackett, and company were, the movie is just going to be three hours of unpleasant people yelling at each other—and some people already have that opinion. But I digress …)

I walked back to the Roosevelt—passing the footprint ceremony for Carl and Rob Reiner at the Chinese on the way. It was an odd experience. Billy Crystal was doing one of the intros and I could hear him from across the street, just kind of yammering away. There was a crowd watching (on both sides of the street), but it seemed like he was just talking to no one.

 Heard, but not seen

(Another digression. I heard later that security guards were overly aggressive in keeping passholders from watching the ceremony if they weren’t seated. That security was a major problem this year. The usual procedure is that, an hour before showtime, ushers hand out numbered Post-Its, basically. A patron can either stay in line or go away until a half-hour before curtain, then get back in line in numerical order and be admitted to the theatre. 

In past years, the ushers have been friendly and efficient. This year, though, they seemed untrained, uninformed, and confused. They weren’t unfriendly by any means [security excepted]; they were just out of their depth. Any time the patrons are better-informed than the staff on house-loading procedure is cause for concern; a concern which didn’t seem to get addressed. [That said, the staff at the Egyptian seemed to have a much better handle on it than did the staff at the Chinese.] The security guards just seemed menacing and looking for trouble. That’s their job, I suppose, but c’mon; it’s a classic film festival full of old people and film geeks; how much trouble can they make?)

I arrived at the Roosevelt, found basically no one else from my team or the other (nor any of the TCM people), but everyone arrived presently and we began the contest. Unfortunately, we lost in a not-very-close match, but I was a little relieved, since it meant that I didn’t necessarily have to go back for the finals on Sunday (I did, but wasn’t obligated.)

The nominees for the next time slot were Beat the Devil (a movie I saw years ago and just didn’t get; from the reports of this screening, though, I might get it now), Born Yesterday (an  okay picture at best, but Judy Holliday did not deserve to win the Oscar over either Bette Davis in All About Eve or Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd.), and Lady Sings the Blues (one of those—to me—“why are they screening that?” pictures). 

I opted for One Hour with You, a pre-Code musical with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. I have problems with both actors—the former for his questionable conduct during WWII, and the latter for how stiff she became once she left Paramount for MGM), but I do like them together in Lubitsch movies and hadn’t seen this one in years

 You know it's a pre-Code because they're in the same bed

It was an utter delight, with Chevalier shattering the fourth wall and dancing on the remnants, a beautifully tinted print, and a good and receptive crowd. It’s hard to beat a combination like that, and I felt I’d made the right choice.

After that, I wanted to head back to the Roosevelt to catch some of the presentation on “second bananas” by my friend Kliph Nesteroff, but realized that, if I was going to make it back to the Egyptian in time for the next show, I’d have had about five minutes watching him.

The next slot had some interesting choices: Panique, a French film noir, The Princess Bride (which was tempting in that I’d have like to have seen Andre the Giant, but is really working the fringes of the definition of a “classic” movie), and Barefoot in the Park (which, like Chevalier and the fourth wall, smashes the definition of “classic” to the ground and mocks the pieces; I’d dare say that it’s not even “good,” let alone “classic”). 

My choice was the Marx Brothers in Monkey Business, which even though I’ve seen it many, many times (especially on the big screen), I didn’t want to pass up the chance to see a really good print with a full house. Surprisingly, it didn’t play as well as I might have hoped. Some of the jokes are really tied into 1931, and even if the crowd is primed to get them, sometimes it just doesn’t work. (It played well, just not what I’d hoped.) Of course, the screening may have been tainted by the overlong and self-congratulatory introduction by Dick Cavett. Cavett gassed on and on about his knowing Groucho and pretty much took the air out of the place. I know he means well, but he went on for what felt like hours.

The Four Marx Brothers - with their father, Frenchy, 
in the Panama hat in back of them

I called an audible for the next time slot. I was originally going to see So This Is Paris, a 1926 silent also directed by Lubitsch, but went for W.C. Fields in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, his last feature and an utterly dadaesque romp. The picture intentionally makes no sense and is virtually the definition of a shaggy dog story. The real treat of the program was that it was led off with an early Fields short, The Barber Shop, which absolutely killed. The feature didn’t do so bad, either, but the short just had them in the aisles. (The other option, The Magic Box, was never really in the running.) I had originally thought about The Bridge on the River Kwai (which I’d realized at last year’s program on widescreen formats that I’ve never seen in a theatre), but didn’t want to commit to something that lengthy. Broadcast News (again, really stretching the definition of “classic”) was the other possibility, but despite the presence of James L. Brooks and (unannounced) Albert Brooks, it was never going to happen.

 The Great Man meets his match in Jody Gilbert

The early evening lineup had some unsatisfying choices: Red-Headed Woman with Jean Harlow and Chester Morris (seen it; didn’t need to see it in a theatre), The Great Nickelodeon Show, which combined live vaudeville acts with shorts (quirky and tempting, but not enough of either), and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (which might have been an option had it not been outside by the Roosevelt pool; those shows have never worked for me), but I went with the “see what you haven’t seen” choice and saw Vigil in the Night, a Carole Lombard picture that I’d never even heard of. It wasn’t bad, but it was obvious Oscar bait and pretty predictable.

 It's a movie about British nurses with very stiff upper lips

The late evening offered harder choices, but High Anxiety was not among them. I love Mel Brooks and I love his personal appearances, but this is, frankly, not a good movie and really undeserving of being shown at a festival like this, but it's the price you have to pay to get him.


It’s a real example of something that plagues the festival, that in order to get people who were involved with making these films, they have to show newer, and dicier, stuff. (A couple of years ago, they honored Richard Dreyfuss and showed Mr. Holland’s Opus, which stretched the “classic” definition almost beyond recovery). They want guys like Brooks, who’s always entertaining, but they’ve run out of good Brooks films to show (if they show Robin Hood: Men in Tights next year, it’s over).

The other possibilities offered some difficulty. The first was Twentieth Century, one of the best screwball comedies that was being introduced by a friend (and which I don’t know if I’ve seen in a theatre). Cat People was showing later, but didn’t really appeal to me. The other choice was this year’s “really quirky” candidate, Those Redheads from Seattle, a 3D musical from the 50s with no one you’ve ever heard of. That probably would have been my choice, given that the other quirky stuff has almost always paid off, but they were showing Laura (a movie I’d never seen) in a nitrate print, and I didn’t want to miss that.

Laura offered nothing I didn’t expect. I knew the plot and its various twists in advance, so I wasn’t seeing it for that; I was there for the picture—literally—and, unfortunately, came away disappointed. The print itself is in terrible shape, full of splices and missing dialogue, and (unlike everyone else, apparently) I didn’t see that much of a difference in the quality of the image. It was very, very good in spots, but not to the extent that I might have hoped. I enjoyed it, but wasn’t as blown away by it as I had hoped (though Gene Tierney was as gorgeous as one could ever hope for).

 Gene Tierney and Vincent Price -- doing a sort of prescient 
Tennessee Williams imitation.

The picture let out just after 11:15, which meant I had the choice of going back to the hotel or the midnight screening (Zardoz—for which the number of wild horses needed to drag me there has not been calculated). Since I had a long day ahead of me, I opted for the former.

 No, not even this could get me to see Zardoz

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