I’m privileged to be able to cover several great Los Angeles-area film festivals each year (I even help program one of them) but the TCM Classic Film Festival has emerged as my personal favorite. Why? Because it doesn’t involve schmoozing, bidding, soliciting or having to find and define the best new movies out there. The TCM Fest, which just celebrated its fourth smash year this past weekend, is all about movie lovers coming together to proclaim their love of classic films, however “classic” is defined. There are no distribution deals to make or potential Oscar contenders to peg; the films screened received distribution or were nominated for or won Oscars decades ago.
In addition to fans seeking out long-lost movies or newly-restored versions, musicals are always a top draw and this year was no exception. Indeed, the festival opened Thursday night with both a new print of Barbra Streisand’s star-making 1968 Funny Girl (which is being released on Blu-rayfor the first time today alongside Streisand’s more recent big-screen outing, The Guilt Trip) and a screening of 1958’s adaptation of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific. Whereas Babs was a no show for Funny Girl (Cher served as a crowd-pleasing substitute), South Pacific stars Mitzi Gaynor and France Nuyen participated in a lively pre-screening Q&A with TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz.
Gaynor, fit and feisty at the age of 81, discussed the torturous path she took to win the role of Navy nurse Nellie Forbush. She playfully dissed rival Elizabeth Taylor, saying “Liz was too busy getting married” and “Unlike her, I could sing.” Mankiewicz was even more flummoxed, amusingly so, by Gaynor’s description of the late Ricardo Montalban as “a bitch.” She went on to share how badly she had wanted to co-star with Marlon Brando in Sayonara but was turned down because Brando insisted on an Asian actress, Miyoshi Umeki. The famously Latino Montalban, on the other hand, was cast in Sayonara as an Asian! Finally, Gaynor demanded that Mankiewicz’s wife bring their newborn baby out for the approval of the crowd gathered around the Roosevelt Hotel pool for the outdoor screening. Mrs. Mankiewicz dutifully complied, to everyone’s delight.
Neither South Pacific nor Funny Girl holds up as well cinematically as their reputations would have one believe (I hadn’t seen Funny Girl in its entirety prior to this weekend). Each runs over 2 ½ hours and is sluggishly-paced. Director Joshua Logan has long been criticized for his use of different colored filters for some of South Pacific’s musical numbers, but his true offense was to make the World War II-set production dull. Funny Girl, directed by three-time Oscar winner William Wyler, is the livelier film for its first hour or so before it too gets bogged down by the doomed love affair between Streisand’s Fanny Brice and gambler Nicky Arnstein, played by the then-controversially cast Omar Sharif. However, the lead performances and stunning scores for both shows/films remain beyond reproach.
Another big-screen musical I had never seen and was determined to catch at TCM Fest was 1955’s Kismet. A rare box-office flop for Vincente Minnelli, this Arabian Nights-inspired confection is energetically choreographed by the great Jack Cole and beautifully designed. It also boasts fun performances by Howard Keel, Ann Blyth (who was on hand to discuss her work on Kismet as well as her Oscar-nominated turn as vile daughter Veda in the original Mildred Pierce with TCM’s Robert Osborne), Sebastian Cabot and the absolutely scintillating Dolores Gray, who steals the show as the favorite yet scheming wife of Cabot’s wicked Wazir. Her performance of the show-stopping “Not Since Nineveh” drew sustained applause from the screening audience, which applauded pretty much every musical number. The 35mm print shown wasn’t in the best condition but the film is available in a likely better-quality version on DVD. I agree with the festival’s program guide that Kismet is ripe for re-discovery.
It isn’t a musical but I couldn’t resist the chance to catch George Stevens’ Giant on the big screen of the TCL (formerly Grauman’s) Chinese Theatre, especially since I had never seen the Texas-set epic in its 3 ½ hour entirety. Wow! The 1956 film adapted from Edna Ferber’s sweeping novel boasts terrific performances by leads Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean (who died just two weeks after shooting completed) as well as great supporting turns by Mercedes McCambridge, Jane Withers (who introduced the TCM Fest screening) and then-newcomers Carroll Baker, Sal Mineo, Dennis Hopper and Rod(ney) Taylor. Stevens won the Oscar for his superb direction but Giant ultimately lost Best Picture to the more entertaining but artistically inferior Around the World in 80 Days. Some critics and viewers have carped that this still-timely exploration of commerce, greed, family and race is overlong, but I couldn’t find a single scene to cut without potentially diminishing the film’s power. It is a true classic by any measure.
So impressed and overwhelmed was I by Giant that I had little remaining interest in or energy for the many other cinematic treasures shown over the weekend. Thankfully, the spectacular success of the TCM Classic Movies Festival — it has grown from approximately 2,000 attendees its inaugural year to more than 25,000 today — virtually ensures that I will have another opportunity next year.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest, Rage Monthly Magazine and Echo Magazine.