Friday, April 3, 2015

Reverend's Report: Everything Old is New Again


Now in its super-successful 6th year, the TCM Classic Film Festival continues to draw approximately 25,000 fans of older movies to Hollywood from far and wide. The just-concluded 2015 edition, which ran March 26th-29th, entailed a pair of controversial yet necessary developments that will likely continue in future fests. These were in addition to the absence of beloved TCM host Robert Osborne, who had to bow out of this year's event due to a long-delayed medical procedure. Hopefully, the 82-year old will return in 2016.

First, several films screened (albeit in new editions or restorations) that had been shown during the inaugural fest in 2010. This was likely lost on anyone who didn't attend then but more movies are sure to be repeated in the future as the list of available, previously unscreened classics gets smaller. Second, the fest's definition of a classic has gotten broader (as exemplified this year by such camp landmarks as Boom!, Earthquake and The Loved One) or at least more recent, with a handful of 90's films (Malcolm X, Apollo 13 and Out of Sight) shown this year. The inclusion of 1998's Out of Sight was particularly disconcerting to some based on pre-fest debate on several online forums but it was reportedly requested by festival honoree Anne V. Coates, who edited it as well as Lawrence of Arabia (for which she won an Academy Award) and a number of other great films including one of my all time faves, 1983's The Pirates of Penzance.

This year's TCM fest opened with a 50th anniversary restoration of The Sound of Music, a sold-out event that largely eschewed the campy sing-along/dress-along following the film has enjoyed more recently. Stars Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer were in attendance, both looking radiant and Plummer finally admitting his admiration for the Oscar-winning musical he has frequently dissed over the last five decades as "The Sound of Mucus." Other celebs present whose work was spotlighted during the weekend were the still gorgeous Sophia Loren (see my comments below about her appearance in 1972's Man of La Mancha); Shirley MacLaine, who selected her 1961 lesbian-themed The Children's Hour to be shown in addition to The Apartment; actor Norman Lloyd, whose career has spanned eight decades and includes such classics as Hitchcock's Spellbound and Chaplin's Limelight as well as TV's St. Elsewhere; and renowned stuntman Terry Leonard, repped at the fest by Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Wind and the Lion.

Regretfully, I was only able to take in Saturday's offerings this year since it was Palm Sunday weekend and church duty called, but I caught some genuine goodies. First up was a rare screening of one of the few Disney films I've never seen, 1949's So Dear to My Heart. This lovely and surprisingly religious story about a farm boy (adorable Bobby Driscoll) who adopts a black lamb rejected by its mother was introduced by critic Leonard Maltin as the most personal of Walt's productions. It was also intended to be his first feature completely in live-action but the nervous distributor, RKO, pressured Disney to add several animated segments to draw fans of his cartoons. He reluctantly did so and, to Walt's credit, they and the songs written for them are charming. So Dear to My Heart has a number of other things to recommend it including singer-actor Burl Ives in one of his first movies, the great Beulah Bondi as the boy's God-fearing grandmother, Winton C. Hoch's beautiful cinematography and the precocious star sheep, Danny. The film has not been restored but the 35mm print shown was in excellent condition, proving those Disney folks take great care of the classics in its storied vault.

Incidentally, I had a conversation after this screening with a few other attendees about the ridiculous, ongoing "blackballing" of Disney's Song of the South by festivals and even the Disney studio itself. The 1946, live-action/animation combo inspired by Joel Chandler Harris' "Tales of Uncle Remus", set in the post-Civil War deep South, has been condemned the last few decades for allegedly racist content despite its having won two Academy Awards. And also despite the fact that one of the most popular and more recent attractions at Disney parks around the world, Splash Mountain, owes its raison d'etre to Song of the South. I have re-watched the film more recently, thanks to a DVD of it available in Europe, and it is no more racist in light of the story's setting and the era in which the movie was produced than Gone With the Wind. In fact, its probably less offensive than GWTW. We all agreed a serious re-appraisal is needed. How is the modern Disney Studios' continued caving to pressure by certain groups demanding that they never allow the film to be shown again any different from North Korea threatening Sony over The Interview? Re-release Song of the South or put it out on home video and let people decide for themselves whether or not to view it.

Such traditional American freedoms were celebrated at this year's TCM fest via 1776, Jack L. Warner's 1972 adaptation of the Tony-winning Broadway musical. As Ben Mankiewicz joked while introducing this restoration, which screened in the recently renovated TCL Chinese Theatre IMAX, "it is a fine example of the grand genre of Revolutionary War musicals." Director Peter H. Hunt as well as cast members Ken Howard and William Daniels were on hand, and spoke of their surprise that the stage version was so well-received at the height of the Vietnam War. Alas, the movie wasn't as successful, in part due to wrangling over its final cut between Warner and none other than sitting president Richard Nixon. Of particular dispute was the Republican-skewering number, "Cool Considerate Men." The song was cut but restored with other previously cut material to the film for its DVD release in 2002. The latest version which premiered Saturday was 20 minutes lighter than the 166-minute cut on DVD but retains "Cool Considerate Men." It will be released on Blu-ray in July and is definitely worth checking out for its score and performances (the great Howard DaSilva is a delight as Benjamin Franklin) as well as its more-timely-than-ever critique of the US Congress, which drew considerable laughter from Saturday's audience.

Lastly, I caught a rare big-screen showing of 1940's Christmas in July, the second feature written and directed by Preston Sturges. What would become Sturges' signature satirical take on American values and the foibles of the 1% was well in development as he made this film. I had never seen Christmas in July and so was struck by its plot about a talented but unrecognized clerk, Jimmy (played by golden age fave Dick Powell), who has entered a coffee company's contest to determine a new sales slogan. Three of his co-workers pull a prank on Jimmy leading him to believe he has won, and the joke quickly spirals out of control. The movie takes a little while to get going but, once it does, proves to be smart, funny and preternaturally observant on economic and political matters. Its climax also features one of the best feline performances ever on film, with a related commentary on the fickleness of what we consider luck.

While I was unable to make it back to the fest on Sunday, I did record and watch Man of La Mancha. The poorly-received 1972 film version of the Broadway hit made its TCM debut on Friday as part of the channel's celebration of "roadshow" musicals of the 1960s-70s. Despite a starry cast led by Peter O'Toole as Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes and his creation Don Quixote, the previously mentioned Sophia Loren and James Coco, the movie was a notorious flop, largely due to the fact that neither of its three leads could sing very well (in fact, O'Toole was dubbed). It has its pleasures in other respects, especially a tuneful score that includes "The Impossible Dream," a genuinely funny and occasionally moving script, and some robust dancing by its primarily male cast. I believe Man of La Mancha may be ripe for re-discovery by a generation of younger viewers accustomed to movie musicals that haven't been dependent on great singing by their stars, i.e. Johnny Depp, Tom Cruise and, most egregiously, Russell Crowe.

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

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