It’s time for me to take a moment to reflect a bit on what I learned from my rather hectic but definitely fun and enlightening time at the TCM Fest. As previously reported here and everywhere else, it turned out to be a fairly roaring success and is promised to be repeated next year in Hollywood. Because of time constraints and because I wasn’t able to enjoy the truly titanic number of films seen by, say, a Dennis Cozzalio — currently working on a detailed and sure to be great summary of the event — I’m going to limit myself to a few random observations covering material I have not mentioned in prior TCM-centric posts. (Here, here, and here.) Naturally, it’ll still turn out to be much longer than I originally intended.
Borgnine, Donen, Rainer
As someone with parents in their eighties and nineties, I’ve become especially interested lately in the way things work for people of a certain age. So it was with some some special interest that I listened to the words of 100 year-old thirties star Luise Rainer, 93 year-old star character actor Ernest Borgnine (“Marty,” “The Wild Bunch”), and 86 year-old directing great and one-time boy genius, Stanley Donen — best known for co-directing “Singin’ in the Rain” and other MGM musical classics with Gene Kelly but also an outstanding director in his own right of both musicals and “straight” films.
Both Donen and Borgnine could have easily passed for ten or even twenty years younger than their actual age and had plenty of interesting comments. Borgnine struck a sympathetic note with me in mourning the lack of movie westerns these days, speaking after a screening of the powerful, unusually emotional 1956 oater, “Jubal.” For his part, Donen remains a charmingly self-effacing and sharp-witted man and as in-touch with our present day as the man who celebrated and spoofed hipness in films like “Funny Face,” “Charade” and the 1967 “Bedazzled” should be.
The Luise Rainer interview, which was prior to a screening of her key performance in 1937’s “The Good Earth,” was something else again. Organized as a television taping, it started as something of a potential fiasco when the charming but frail Ms. Rainer confessed that she had lost her hearing aid that morning. It quickly became obvious that, no matter how loudly host Robert Osborne might shout in her ear, she couldn’t hear a word. While Osborne outwardly maintained his professional-yet-sympathetic cool, he must have been panicking inwardly just a bit.
It took a shout from the audience to remind Osborne that writing the questions down would probably work. After that, the event went nicely since the actress, whose “inside out” technique marked her as well ahead of her time in terms of technique, has no problem chatting up a storm. Even though I was distracted by the (very temporary) loss of a recording device, I don’t think anywhere there was left unmoved. Ms. Rainer possesses a winning candor along with some genuine sweetness and wisdom and the delicate appeal that made her special as a young woman is still there today. Most amusingly, she discussed how she and co-star Paul Muni, a method actor himself but a far more temperamental by Rainer’s account, were perhaps “not so much in love.” Something, by the way, not one bit in evidence onscreen.
Last Sunday was, by the way, my first time seeing “The Good Earth.” It’s longish and episodic in the way of many of MGM’s epics, but it’s a remarkable film that is far better and more sensitively made than you would expect from a largely “yellow-face” production. Rainer really is entirely believable and moving in a part that offered little dialogue, but plenty in the way of emotion. Muni was almost as good in the lead.
You may be feel some slight discomfort…
* Speaking of ethnic issues and the movies, another highlight for me was seeing author Donald Bogle’s presentation of Warner Brothers cartoons pulled out of circulation in 1968 due to cartoonish African-American stereotypes. I had seen Bob Clampett’s brilliant, and not quite as offensive as you might think, “Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs,” previously, but each cartoon was in it’s own way a revelation — not always a good one, exactly.
Still, it’s fair to say that while the films portrayed offensive stereotypes, these weren’t hateful in the way of, say, “The Birth of a Nation.” Indeed, in a world where the Confederacy whitewashing “Gone With the Wind” remains a very popular classic film staple, it’s perhaps not entirely fair for most of these film to be singled out. Indeed, several of the films celebrated the work of such legitimate black American cultural heroes as Cab Calloway and Fats Waller and were arguably more progressive in their way than the bulk of Hollywood films of the time, which routinely portrayed African-Americans as non-entities.
* On an entirely different note, the British-made New York-set “No Orchids for Miss Blandish” was preceded by an introduction from a borderline apologetic Tim Roth. The English actor, who actually knows how to do a proper American accent, humorously explained that this once controversial crime curio is a kind of love-letter to America, for all its often amusing flaws. Notorious on its release for its combination of sexiness and violence, the first act basically has numerous seemingly major characters introduced, only to be summarily knocked off a few minutes later. The mayhem slows down a bit after the very late introduction of the main character well-played by Muni-esque American actor Jack La Rue.
Still, for Americans today, the obvious issue is that this is an attempt by a British cast and crew at essentially making a gangster film in the classic U.S. style. Now I know how British viewers must have felt seeing any of the innumerable films where thoroughly American actors portrayed thoroughly English characters with little or no believability.
* Re: “The Day of the Triffids.” This famed bit of early sixties British sci-fi/horror that is still in the midst of a hugely painstaking restoration which has resulted in an oftentimes visually stunning presentation, despite the goofy-by-modern standards monster effects. However, one of the film’s restorers introduced the midnight screening of the film and was equally painstaking and time-consuming in describing his work. This attention to detail lead to some audible discomfort from the audience — and some worry by me because I’d been told the garage I parked in closed promptly at 2:00 a.m. Still, it’s hard for a geek like me to come down too hard on anyone for an excess of film love, and we all got our cars out in time, I believe.
The Big Finish
That would be the final screening of the four day long event, the newest reconstruction of the silent science fiction film, Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.” As someone who’s been viewing various versions of the silent tale of futuristic class conflict my entire life, I have to admit to never really really loved the film despite it’s undeniably stunning visual brilliance. Though that extra hour might involve a bit of film-watching work for me, at over 2.5 hours some previously very minor scenes and characters are fleshed out in fascinating ways. Visually, it’s more a marvel than ever and totally worth checking out for anyone who cares about movies, science fiction, or sheer spectacle.
This is a strictly digital restoration and, since I’m a believer in the superiority of celluloid, I was skeptical about the digital projection of it in the enormous Grauman’s Chinese Theater. I have to say, however, that I’ve never seen the amazing sets and matte work of Lang’s film look more grand. Similarly, the performance of the original score by the three piece outfit, The Alloy Orchestra, was thrilling and received an entirely deserved standing ovation.
Oh, and there was free food and booze for us lucky pass holders at the party afterward. That always makes for a thrilling conclusion.