Monday, April 17, 2017

TCM Day 4, Part I: Too many reruns

Sunday arrived quickly at this year’s festival. I don’t know if it was my being older (and time generally flying by) or if it had anything to do with being away from home so long, but it felt like things had gone by like lightning.

The good thing was that there was a lot I wanted to see on the final day. The bad thing was that I had to get up really, really early to do it; so early, in fact, that I shaved the night before just to give me an extra ten minutes of sleep.

I feel like I’m listing the nominees at the Oscars when I list everything in a particular time slot, but if I want to convey the scope of the programming and my thought processes, I feel I owe it to my readers. For this slot, I had Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick’s last good picture, and one I’ve seen many times, but didn’t really feel like enduring that early), the re-screening of Arsenic and Old Lace (which we’ve previously discussed*), Bonnie and Clyde (sorry, but I don’t think it’s aged at all well; like so many movies from that period, it looks like it was set in the mid-60s), and The Egg and I (and no matter how much I may like Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray, there was no way I was going to sit through that).

 Colbert and MacMurray. Oh, my sides ...

Fortunately, the other choice was Cock of the Air, with Chester Morris and Billie Dove, produced by Howard Hughes. Hughes as a film producer was always trying to push boundaries, and this was a prime example of that, which was pretty raw, even by pre-Code standards. Heather Linville, the woman who introduced it, quoted someone as saying Hughes had two obsessions: “airplanes and female mammary glands … make that three obsessions.” All of them were visible in great abundance in this one. It was so full of “objectionable” content that, after cutting twelve minutes from it (which rendered it incomprehensible), Hughes basically abandoned it as a pawn to get the version of Scarface he wanted to be released. It was all but lost until it recently surfaced in a foreign archive, and has not been restored, even if the censored soundtrack is still lost (modern actors and Foley artists filled in the gaps). It was a ball, full of the life and energy that only pre-Codes possess. Morris was very good (why his career slipped so badly, I have no idea. Maybe he was tough to work with?), as was Dove.

 Morris and Dove, in one of her more modest outfits

A little later, we had Lured, a bizarre film-not-quite-noir starring Lucille Ball, Karloff again, and George Zucco. I’ve seen it a couple of times and find it more puzzling than entertaining. (Though a lot of people raved about it. Maybe it’s something that needs to be seen with an audience?) The other possibility was the film I was really most interested in: the 1931 version of The Front Page. The Front Page is probably my favorite play of all time, but the film adaptation was always problematic. It went public domain and every print I’d ever seen of it was about seventh generation, so the sound and picture quality were never good. It, too, was produced by Howard Hughes, and at roughly the same time Cock of the Air resurfaced, there were preparations to issue a new version of this one. As the print was examined, though, the restorers realized that what they had was different from the other prints they’d seen before. A check of the Academy archives revealed that three versions were released: one (with the best takes and performances) was intended for American audiences, another (the second best) went to the UK, and yet another (the third best) went international. That third version was the one everyone had seen for decades, whereas this print was the first version and in great shape. It was restored, and I was finally going to be able to see it. 

It’s still problematic. There’s the Adophe Menjou issue (he’s good, but he was a rat in the McCarthy era) and Pat O’Brien began his career-long mistaking of barking in a monotone for acting. There’s a lot to like in it—especially the reporters (and especially Edward Everett Horton)—but the leads will always be troubling. The audience loved it, though, as they should have, especially the last line (the greatest in theatre history), which brought the house down. It was more than worth the wait.

 The son-of-a-bitch stealing a watch

The afternoon was pretty dismal, overall. Unfaithfully Yours was showing again (which surprised me, since it hadn’t been full the night before), as well as The Landlord (meh), and Postcards from the Edge. This last was another example of an un-classic movie. There was a push this year to salute both Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher. I’ll admit here that I never liked Debbie Reynolds; there was just something phony about her acting to me**, and while she was a good friend of Hollywood history and the festival, I thought it was going a little overboard—as was the tributes to Fisher, who (while beloved) had a pretty dismal movie track record. But if you’re going to salute them, I suppose this is the one you’re going to want to show. (Frankly, I’d rather have seen them screen Albert Brooks’s Mother, Reynolds’s last starring performance, and a legitimately funny movie, unlike this one.) Fortunately, The Palm Beach Story was showing in the main theatre of the Chinese multiplex, and it was a pleasure to see a really great comedy on a huge screen with a full house reacting fully to everything, especially Robert Dudley as The Wienie King in a scene I consider one of the greatest in film history. (Joel McCrea's grandson was interviewed before the movie, and mentioned that, early on, he realized that Claudette Colbert's insistence on being photographed from the left would expose his own hair thinning, so he changed the part of his hair from his right to his left. And it's true, if one watches the picture, Colbert is always seen from the left and one never notices the change in his hairstyle.)

 Dudley as "the inventor of the Texas wienie. Lay off 'em; you'll live longer."

McCrea's hair, Colbert's left, Rudy Vallee being Rudy Vallee

After the screening, I went across the street to the Roosevelt to catch the final round of the trivia contest, and saw the TCM team beat the fan team, even as I realized that our team could have beaten the pros. “Wait ‘til next year!,” as the saying goes.

The afternoon offered more non-choices. A rerun of One Hour with You, Detective Story (which was tempting in that I’d never seen it in a theatre and it was one of the first plays I ever did), Hell Is for Heroes (which was supposed to be introduced by Bob Newhart, but who begged off because of the death of Don Rickles the day before), and Singin’ in the Rain. Now, Singin’ is a great musical (it’s not the greatest musical, despite its rep; in my opinion, it’s not even the best MGM musical or the best Technicolor musical), but this was the third screening in the eight years of the festival, and that’s just too many. It was part of the Reynolds tribute, so I fully understand why they were showing it, but surely there were other of her films they could have shown. It was never going to be an option for me.

What’s Up, Doc? was an option, though. I hadn’t seen it since it opened, and it was going to be introduced by Peter Bogdanovich, so there was really no choice as to what I was going to see. I was surprised to see how well it held up (despite those 70s clothes and hair; no one got out of the 70s well), and it played as it did in 1972. I don’t think Ryan O’Neal was as charming as he thought he was (he was apparently trying to do a Cary Grant imitation), but it’s still a legitimately funny film.

 I kept trying to identify San Francisco locations; I had no luck

We finally came to the final slot of the day—and of the festival. Red-Headed Woman was reshowing, as was Casablanca (it was shown in 2012, and, like Singin’, is a great movie, but we really didn’t need it again), and Beat the Devil. These reruns left me with only two possibilities, but fortunately both were good. 

There was Harold Lloyd’s Speedy, accompanied by a live orchestra, and Lady in the Dark in nitrate and Technicolor, both of which proved irresistible. I was hesitant to pass Speedy by, since it’s a picture I do love, and the live accompaniment is always a treat. As it turned out, I stopped in to catch the last few minutes of it, and was actually glad I had passed it by, since the score that was played was dreary and really didn’t reflect the fun and excitement of the movie itself.

Lady in the Dark, though, may have been the most problematic movie of the whole festival, and I lay those problems right at the feet of Rose McGowan, who introduced it.

I have a feeling that dealing with it is going to take a lot of words, so I’m going to leave those words until the next installment.

(*There are actually two television versions of this I’d rather see. One from 1962 that I saw years and years ago at UCLA, with Tony Randall and Karloff himself, and another from 1955, with Orson Bean, Karloff, and Peter Lorre. Tell me that wouldn’t be great.)

(**Back in the 70s, Reynolds starred in a revival of Annie Get Your Gun in Los Angeles that was obviously intended for a Broadway run [it never made it]. I heard an interview with Gower Champion, who’d directed and choreographed it, and he mentioned that, the night before, Reynolds had had an accident with some plates and had ad libbed her way out of it, to the great delight of the audience. “Debbie is such a pro, though,” he assured the audience, “that, even though it would never happen again, if it did, she’d be able to handle it.” I saw it a few days later, and darned if she didn’t have the same “accident” all over again and handled it with the same “ad libs” again.)

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