Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Reverend’s Report: Godzilla, Gatsby & Greatness at TCM Fest 2014

The 5th annual TCM Classic Film Festival, which just concluded April 13th in Hollywood, also marked the 20th anniversary of cineastes’ cable channel of choice. True to form, the four-day event celebrated blockbusters and little-seen treasures as well as actors and filmmakers from the silent era through the 1960’s. Increasingly, though, a number of post-1970 movies are being showcased during each year’s fest, with 1995’s downright contemporary Mr. Holland’s Opus shown this year as part of a tribute to actor Richard Dreyfuss.

This year’s festival opened the night of April 10th with a stunningly restored digital transfer of 1955’s Oklahoma! All the more impressive on the Chinese Theater’s new IMAX screen, the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical stars a still-dreamy Gordon MacRae and served as a then-20 year old Shirley Jones’ film debut. Jones, who just turned 80 and looks great, was on hand to discuss the production as well as its follow up, Carousel. She revealed to the scandalized delight of the crowd that Frank Sinatra was initially cast as Billy Bigelow in Carousel but bowed out at the last minute and flew to Africa, where his wife at the time, Ava Gardner, was allegedly having an affair with Clark Gable on a movie set. Jones subsequently called MacRae and asked him to fill in for Sinatra. MacRae reportedly responded with “Give me three days; I’ve got to lose ten pounds!”

I devoted myself to screenings of a handful of films rarely shown on the big screen. One of them, the Alan Ladd-starring 1949 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, hasn’t been shown in any format anywhere since 1974. Paramount pulled all exhibition rights to the movie that year in light of their pricey, soon-to-be-released remake starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. Ladd’s version is an interesting, film noir-ish take on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s jazz age novel. Of particular note, It was produced and the screenplay co-written by Richard Maibaum, who would go on to write many of the James Bond movies. Maibaum and company take some liberties with the source material but Ladd, best remembered today in the title role of 1953’s Shane, gives an exceptionally sensitive performance as the lovelorn millionaire. Ladd was also in his physical prime at the time of Gatsby’s filming and sports a form-fitting period swimsuit in two scenes. The excellent supporting cast includes Shelley Winters in one of her first screen roles, the great Howard Da Silva and a delightfully sardonic Ruth Hussey. Now that Paramount is allowing this version to be shown again after 40 years in the vault, watch for it to be broadcast on TCM in the not too distant future. While I didn’t enjoy it as much as last year’s over-the-top Baz Luhrmann production, it is certainly better than the dreadfully dull 1974 adaptation.

Having only ever seen the heavily edited, Americanized version of Japan’s 1954 monster classic Godzilla (a.k.a. Gojira) and its numerous campy sequels/remakes, I couldn’t miss the world premiere on April 12th of a beautifully restored Godzilla: The Japanese Original. This deadly serious depiction of a rampaging behemoth awakened by post-World War II nuclear testing in the Pacific obviously served at the time of its release as a metaphor for the unexpected damage endured by Hiroshima and Nagasaki nine years prior. Despite the film’s obvious and dated special effects, Godzilla remains potent in this regard as well as in light of more recent, tsunami-caused destruction in Japan and other parts of the world. In an inspired nod to the 60-year reign of the “King of the Monsters”, young director Gareth Edwards was invited to speak before the premiere about the character’s history and the big-screen “rebirth” he helmed that will be released next month. Wittily taking note that he was seated before an audience not exactly friendly to remakes, he assured attendees his version is a similarly serious take and that Godzilla “will not be doing any highland kicks” before adding jokingly “he does more of a can-can.”

Another rarely-shown movie I had never seen was 1947’s A Matter of Life and Death, conceived by fantasists Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger of The Red Shoes fame. Released and better known in the US as Stairway to Heaven, it stars David Niven as a World War II fighter pilot who bails out of his crashing plane without a parachute and miraculously washes up on a beach alive. But should he be? That is the question debated in Heaven by a celestial tribunal and a number of the pilot’s fallen comrades when Heaven’s projected number of new arrivals comes up one short. Niven, his new girlfriend (Kim Hunter) and a kindly doctor initially doubt the pilot’s sanity when he begins to report visits from a mysterious Frenchman who claims to be Heaven-sent (the campily marvelous Marius Goring, so memorable as the creepy shoemaker in The Red Shoes). Eventually, Niven’s physical health and potentially-premature salvation are put on trial. Powell’s widow, the Oscar-winning film editor and regular Martin Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker, introduced the fest screening and noted this was her husband’s favorite out of all his acclaimed films. Beautifully directed, designed (especially the massive, working escalator that links Heaven and Earth), photographed and acted, A Matter of Life and Death is a must-see for both classic and contemporary film buffs.

As is the case every year at the TCM Classic Film Festival, more great movies are shown (and often simultaneously) over four days than any one person can take in. Thankfully, we have the TCM channel and a growing number of restored classic films on home video to help make up for what fest-goers and those unable to attend missed. Here’s to another twenty years — at least — of TCM!

Reverend’s Ratings:
The Great Gatsby (1949): B
Godzilla: The Japanese Original: B
A Matter of Life and Death: A-

Report by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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