This may have been related to what I experienced within myself while watching childhood favorites like Bride of Frankenstein, the 1933 King Kong and The Good Earth on a movie screen for the first time rather than on TV. On one hand, I felt older than I ever have before but, on the other, I realized these classic films are a part of me to a quasi-physical degree. I felt the movies I watched in a way I hadn’t previously. They are in my blood, and clearly in the blood of many other people, who attended the festival from all across the nation and even some foreign countries, as well.
The opening night premiere of a newly restored print of the 1954, George Cukor version of A Star is Born (it will be released June 22 on DVD and, for the first time, Blu-Ray) drew an impressive array of Oscar winners and nominees, including Cher, Alec Baldwin, Anjelica Huston, Martin Landau and a dapper Eli Wallach as well as a younger generation represented by Ben McKenzie, Chris Klein and out actor Wilson Cruz. Director Peter Bogdanovich was there, as well as TCM’s resident film host-critics Robert Osborne and Ben Mankiewicz.
While the sound system in Grauman’s Chinese Theatre didn’t sound well-balanced on opening night, resulting in loud but tinny-sounding musical numbers and sometimes hard-to-hear dialogue, repeat viewings of A Star is Born confirm that it remains one of Judy Garland’s best vehicles as well as contains one of James Mason’s best performances (both were Oscar-nominated for their work here).
The following morning found me back at Grauman’s Chinese and in line for King Kong with a cute, chatty USC film student named David. As critic Leonard Maltin noted during his introductory remarks, we were in the same theatre where Kong had its world premiere nearly 80 years ago for the world premiere of a new, digitally restored print that included the film’s long-lost overture by Max Steiner. While I was surprised to discover the movie more graphically violent (for 1933) than I remembered it, with close-up shots of Kong’s giant foot squashing villagers into the ground, it remains one of the most gripping and mythical of all big-screen adventures.
During the afternoon of day 2, I took in two films I’d never seen: the caustic, Manhattan-set morality tale Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and Douglas Sirk’s tear-jerking account of interior racial conflict, Imitation of Life (1959). Tony Curtis, who gives a memorable performance in Sweet Smell of Success as ambitious press agent Sidney Falco alongside Burt Lancaster as vicious columnist J.J. Hunsecker, made an odd appearance prior to the screening.
Making his entrance and exit in a wheelchair (the actor has apparently suffered a stroke) and wearing shorts, a T-shirt and a cowboy hat, Curtis rambled on about his “hazardous experience” growing up in New York and his opinions on acting. Most disturbingly, he uttered the word “lesbos” at one point while referring to women who appeared less than feminine to his observation, and he recounted his efforts at “making sure some guy wasn’t trying to grope me” while watching movies as a kid in a darkened theater.
Fortunately, my festival experience regained its classy aura once Curtis was out and Sweet Smell of Success began. The script, by Ernest Lehman and blacklisted playwright Clifford Odets, holds up remarkably well in its study of journalistic ethics and power. Lancaster and Curtis give blistering studies in contempt, and a handsome young Martin (billed here as “Marty”) Milner is great as the young musician who dares to challenge them. The film also boasts excellent direction by Alexander Mackendrick and photography by the legendary James Wong Howe, and a fine jazz score by Elmer Bernstein.
The Oscar-nominated co-stars of Imitation of Life, Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner, appeared following the screening of what they both admitted was their finest achievement as actors. Moore, who will turn 100 this year, doesn’t have the best memory but looks great. Kohner spoke more fondly of her role as mother to contemporary directors Chris and Paul Weitz than she did of her brief career in Hollywood. Still, both actresses and most audience members were pleased with Sirk’s then-controversial final film that ultimately focuses on a light-skinned black girl desperately trying to pass herself off as white. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house during the finale.
Sunday afternoon’s screening of the excellent 1937 film The Good Earth, adapted from Pearl S. Buck’s China-set novel, was remarkable for a rare appearance by its Oscar-winning star, Luise Rainer. Now 100 and living in England, Rainer braved ash from the volcanic eruption in Iceland as well as the loss of her hearing aid to be at the TCM festival. The still-lovely Rainer walked down the aisle of Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre to the stage with only the help of a cane and quickly revealed a still-razor sharp mind and memory.
The audience and interviewer Robert Osborne, who had to write his questions for Rainer down so she could read them, listened with rapt delight as she spoke about the making of The Good Earth (good-naturedly dissing co-star Paul Muni and MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer in the process) as well as about her two marriages (her first, which ended in divorce, was to the aforementioned Clifford Odets) and her admiration for fellow actresses Greta Garbo and Julia Roberts. As TCM Channel’s production chief accurately announced after Rainer’s appearance, “This was the biggest event of the year in Hollywood.”
The North American premiere of a recently discovered, nearly complete cut of Fritz Lang’s science fiction masterpiece Metropolis (1927) served as the TCM fest’s grand finale. I had never seen Metropolis all the way through in any of its previously incomplete incarnations, and it was a thrill to do so with a very enthusiastic crowd of devotees in Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. The silent film was provided with extraordinary musical and sound-effects accompaniment by a live ensemble, the three-man Alloy Orchestra, performing the original score.
Prior to the Metropolis screening, Osborne announced to a roar of approval from attendees that the first TCM Classic Film Festival was such a success that another will be held next spring. While dates are yet to be announced, fans of Hollywood classics — GLBT and otherwise — should start planning now to attend. After all, these movies are in our blood.
Report by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.