Getting ready for the TCM Film Festival — decisions, decisions

Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint in “On The Waterfront” (1954). Saint will attend the TCM Film Festival later this week.

This week’s TCM Film Festival should be truly fascinating, a chance to be among classic film buffs during a concentrated four-day period.

Many of you will know the feeling of seeing a movie made decades ago with an audience that doesn’t “get” older movies; there’ll be howls of laughter at dated special effects or theatrical acting styles. I don’t expect to encounter that sort of thing at this event.1

Reveal Shot will have full coverage of the event, so please keep an eye out for my posts and tweets.

In what is apparently a proud tradition, TCM has maddeningly scheduled very compelling offerings directly opposite each other, even world-premiere restorations. So there will be some difficult choices. Fortunately, in other cases, my decisions are simple.

For a definitive look at the entire festival schedule, see writer Will McKinley’s “Obsessive-Compulsive Guide To The TCM Film Festival.”

TCM13-logoThursday, April 25

Right away, on the opening night, there’s trouble.

From a journalistic standpoint, it may make sense to go to the 6:30 p.m. screening of “Funny Girl” (1968), the Barbra Streisand musical, in a world-premiere restoration at the storied Grauman’s Chinese Theater (now officially known as the TCL Chinese Theater; wouldn’t the world be a better place without corporate sponsorship of everything?) where the celebs, TCM brass, and probably most of the reporters covering the festival will be gathered. If anything “newsworthy” occurs that evening, it will be here.

I’m not big on musicals, though I can see the value of examining a William Wyler film; I almost always like his stuff, even from the later period. And I realize that these big late-’60s musicals — “Funny Girl,” “Star,” “Sweet Charity,” “Hello Dolly,” et cetera — have been cited as prime examples of traditional Hollywood’s tone deafness at a time of such political and cultural upheaval. I’m not sure I’m interested in aiming at so easy a target, though, especially since it has been done so well elsewhere.

That leaves a choice between Greta Garbo in “Ninotchka” (1939) and the early Stanley Kubrick crime thriller “The Killing” (1956). I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never seen “The Killing” in its entirety, so that’s probably the right call. Coleen Gray will be in attendance. I do like “Ninotchka,” and it is being screened in a new 35mm print. I’ve never seen a Garbo picture on the big screen, so this is still a game-time decision.

Then, at 9:30, there’s the pre-Code “Safe In Hell”(1931) (yes, really — that’s the title) which film professor Christopher Sharrett mentioned in a Reveal Shot item a couple of months ago. It’s opposite “From Russia With Love” (1963).

Had I not seen (an admittedly mediocre) print of the Bond movie at the Parkway Theater in Oakland several years ago I would probably go with that. Possibly there’s still a strong case for it, but I think I’ll go with “Safe In Hell.” The esteemed African-American film historian Donald Bogle and William Wellman Jr., the son of the film’s director, will be there. I’ve been on a Wellman kick lately, having seen “The Public Enemy,” “Night Nurse” and “Westward The Women” in the first four months of this year, so from that perspective it’s a logical move. Also, “Safe In Hell” prominently features black performers in interesting roles (Nina Mae McKinney and Noble Johnson), certainly a rare phenomenon in 1931, and I want to hear Bogle’s comments. Wellman is also very interesting when he talks about his dad’s work. His appearances on Dick Dinman’s addictive radio show, “DVD Classics Corner On The Air,” are always worth hearing.

Friday, April 26

benhur59-1Possibly the biggest day of the festival for me. At 9:30 a.m. there is a screening of “Ben-Hur” (1959), in a recently restored version that is purportedly amazing. One of the criteria I’ll be using to determine whether or not to attend a film at the festival is the degree to which a film must be seen on the big screen to be completely appreciated; on that basis, this will be one of easiest choices I’ll make over the four-day period.

I last saw this epic in tattered form at the old UC Theatre in Berkeley, Calif. in either 1999 or 2000. For some reason one thing that sticks in my memory is that, as the film went into its intermission, with Charlton Heston stomping away from Haya Harareet determined to take revenge on Stephen Boyd, this old print just broke, after the Intermission card came up, cutting off Miklós Rózsa’s dramatic end-of-Act-I music. The same thing happened at the end. A couple behind me who brought their young daughter to see the film tittered in an embarrassed sort of way, both times.

I’m not the stickler that some cinema buffs can be, but I have to see “Ben-Hur” under ideal theatrical conditions. This is my chance.

It’s too bad that I’ll have to miss “River of No Return” (1954), the Fox CinemaScope western with Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum. “Ben-Hur” will still be short of the three-hour mark when this screening starts.

I may want to have lunch, see some friends or get some writing done that afternoon. “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) and “Notorious” (1946) are being shown at 2:30. “Bonnie and Clyde” might be a good idea as a sort of postscript to the Reveal Shot Warner Bros. Gangster series, as an example of a late ’60s take in that genre from the same studio — several years after the end of the true studio era. Finding time to write is going to be one of the biggest challenges I can foresee at this stage.

The next must-see, at 5:30, is a world-premiere 50th anniversary restoration of “The Great Escape” (1963), the John Sturges WWII epic. One of the best arguments for skipping any movie after “Ben-Hur” ends is that “Great Escape” clocks in at three hours, and two long films in one day is a feat I’ve never attempted theatrically. I want to be able to concentrate, maybe taking a couple of notes in the dark. It’s been nearly 20 years since I’ve seen this one, oddly enough, and one of the things I want to re-examine is whether the movie’s length creates any problems, and if so, what Sturges does to solve them.

At 9:30, there’s a difficult call to make between “Hondo” (1953), the John Wayne western being shown in 3-D; “On the Waterfront” (1954), the Elia Kazan classic, which will include an onstage appearance by Eva Marie Saint; and “On The Town” (1949), a musical, but one that always intrigued me because of Leonard Bernstein’s involvement; after studying”West Side Story” in high school, I became interested in his work. (Yes, I know Bernstein also wrote the score for “On The Waterfront.”)

Again, as a reporter, the most relevant screening is “On The Waterfront,” because of Eva Marie Saint’s presence. Maybe she’ll have something intriguing to say about working with Marlon Brando, or Rod Steiger, or Lee J. Cobb.

“Hondo” in 3-D is certainly tempting. I like the film, whatever my feelings about Wayne’s politics (and his views of black people). But I can satisfy my curiosity about the ’50s 3-D experience with “Dial M For Murder” on the closing night of the festival.

In the next post, I’ll go over the last two days of the event, which both promise to be spectacular.

— David B. Wilkerson

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  1. This said, please let me know, in the comments section, if you’ve run into any of that behavior at the TCM Film Fest in previous years.  

7 Responses to Getting ready for the TCM Film Festival — decisions, decisions

  1. David – Thanks for the shout out.

    As for the choices, each one of the 18 blocks could engender a lengthy debate. For the first block, I suspect that SOUTH PACIFIC may be a better choice from a coverage standpoint, only because two stars will be in attendance. FUNNY GIRL without Streisand and Sharif doesn’t really seem like it would generate many headlines.

    That said, I’ll probably be at THE KILLING, because the noir screenings at TCMFF are always fun, with packed houses and great guests.

    Hopefully I’ll run into you and we can compare notes. Thanks again!

    • I completely forgot about “South Pacific.” It does seem as if, for an event with two stars present, they sort of shunted it off to the side by not having it at one of the marquee theaters.

      I’m still deciding between “The Killing” and “Ninotchka.”

      I do hope we meet at the festival, for sure.

  2. Janet says:

    David, this is going to be an amazing festival. I look forward to reading your coverage! Janet

  3. Pingback: Hard choices, great times — getting ready for the TCM Film Festival (Part II) « REVEAL SHOT

  4. Wade Sheeler says:

    I can’t believe you failed to mention Road to Utopia on opening night. (You’re supposed to answer…”I know.”)

    • Ha. Guilty as charged.

      I knew I couldn’t list everything, so I concentrated on film slots that present challenges for me. “Ninotchka” vs. “The Killing” is my challenge that night.

      Thanks for reading!


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