Posted by Susan Doll on April 23, 2012
Recovering from the TCM Classic Film Fest, which was held last weekend in Hollywood, took a few days, but it is now a glorious memory. The fest proved to be a communal experience, a learning opportunity, and a chance to reflect on the power of movies to connect us as a society and culture. Watching 14 movies in four days was exhausting but also rejuvenating.
LOST ON THE MEAN STREETS OF FILM NOIR. The fest included ten programming themes, and my friend Maryann and I managed to see at least one film from six of the programs. (By the way, attending with a friend is a must, because the urge to talk about the movies immediately after the screenings is overwhelming.) However, one theme attracted us more than the others—The Noir Style, programmed by author Eddie Muller, who is also the founder of the Noir Foundation. We watched four of Muller’s selections: Criss Cross, Cry Danger, Gun Crazy, and Raw Deal. In addition, we caught Fall Guy, a rare noir film that was not part of Muller’s program.
The Film Noir Foundation was responsible for the restoration of Cry Danger (1950), which was produced by star Dick Powell. Powell began to produce films independently of the studios in post-WWII Hollywood because, according to Muller, he wanted to appear in darker, meatier roles than the studios were offering him. He found two major investors, who were credited as producers on Cry Danger, and he tapped editor Robert Parrish to direct, but the film is definitely Powell’s vision. I have always appreciated Powell’s ability to deliver well-written dialogue in a natural rhythm but with a tone or emphasis that can be funny, poignant, sarcastic, or dramatic, depending on the context. The dialogue by writer William Powers provided him with ample opportunity to crack wise with an all-knowing cynicism. Those who liked Powell in Murder, My Sweet will love him in Cry Danger. Powell stars as Rocky Mulloy, who is back in town after serving five years for armed robbery. He wants to clear his friend, who is still in prison for the same crime. No one believes Rocky is innocent, not even the witness who cleared him on a false alibi, and he still has a yen for his buddy’s glamorous wife, played by Rhonda Fleming in her first role. Richard Erdman costarred as Rocky’s newfound friend Delong, a cynical former Marine wounded in body and spirit during the war. The talented character actor matched Powell for delivering caustic wisecracks and glib one-liners, and their interplay provided an excellent example of Golden Age acting, which showcased the beauty of the written word. Fleming, one of my favorite stars, appeared in support of the film and told some wonderful stories about her career. Cry Danger turned out to be one of my favorites from the fest. It is now available on DVD; I can’t recommend it enough for noir fans.
Gun Crazy (1950), which I have seen several times, holds up remarkably well on repeated viewings, primarily because of Peggy Cummins’ star turn as the ultimate femme fatale, Annie Laurie Starr. Starr is so hard-boiled that she suggests to her husband that they use a toddler while on the lam because no one would dare shoot at them with a baby in tow! Cummins was interviewed before the screening, and it was fun to hear her speak about her career in Hollywood and her experiences on Gun Crazy. A native of Wales, Cummins left the U.S. for London in 1950 to marry and to work in the British film industry. The TCM fest marked her first visit to the States in 62 years. Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal (1948) proved so popular that it quickly sold out, and a second screening was added to the schedule on Sunday, which was the day we caught it. Unfortunately, Raw Deal costar Marsha Hunt did not return for the second screening, so we missed out on seeing our third noir actress. It would have been fun to compare and contrast their memories of appearing in these types of roles. I enjoyed Raw Deal because the voice-over narration was provided by the other female character, played by Claire Trevor, noir’s perpetual bad girl. I don’t recall seeing another noir in which the voice-over is from the point of view of the woman, and it was interesting to understand the skewed morality of the femme fatale archetype from a female perspective. Plus, John Alton’s beautiful low-key and high-contrast cinematography was quite effective on the big screen in a 35mm print.
I had never seen Criss Cross, starring a handsome and buff Burt Lancaster and a sultry Yvonne De Carlo, who took a break from her usual historical adventures to be the double-crossing dame who foils Lancaster’s heist. Unfortunately, I did not care for this noir, which lacked the sizzling characters and sharp dialogue generally found in the genre. I did enjoy the venal Dan Duryea, who wipes the screen with a morose, inert Lancaster. The best scene in the film features an uncredited Tony Curtis who rumbas with DeCarlo to a sexy Latin number in the hothouse atmosphere of a 1940s night club. It was the only scene in Criss Cross that generated any buzz in the audience.
CATCHING THE FALL GUY. Though not part of the Noir Style series, Fall Guy proved to be an interesting viewing experience because of the people involved in its production. A rare film about narcotics trafficking, Fall Guy starred Leo Penn (billed as Clifford Penn), the father of Sean and Chris Penn, in his first starring role. Penn was blacklisted during the mid-1950s but returned to television drama during the late 1950s. In the 1960s, he became a sought-after television director. Fall Guy marked the debut production of Walter Mirisch, the legendary producer responsible for everything from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) to The Pink Panther to In the Heat of the Night. The 90-year-old Mirisch attended the screening, charming the audience with his humility as he apologized for the film’s weaknesses. Maryann and I sat in the second row during that screening, but that turned out to be a blessing when we were easily able to move down front to personally speak with Mirisch after the discussion. He was quite touched when he learned that both of us habitually show In the Heat of the Night in the film courses that we teach. Definitely a festival highlight for me.
DISCOVERING A FORGOTTEN GEM. My favorite film of the entire festival turned out to be Counsellor at Law (1933), starring John Barrymore as a highly successful New York lawyer. Based on a play, the film was set entirely in Barrymore’s stylish, modern offices, which could have made for a stagy and static viewing experience. But young director William Wyler energized the material by using a constantly moving camera, which tracked with the characters as they scurry in and out of the offices, down the hallways, or across the reception area. Plus, the fast-paced dialogue, which reminded me of the rapid-fired delivery in Howard Hawks’s comedies Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, was unusual for 1933—still considered the early sound era. And, audiences of the day surely got a kick out of the variety of accents and vocal inflections of the melting pot of characters that populate Counsellor at Law, especially Isabel Jewel as sassy receptionist Bessie Green. Barrymore was in top form as the high-powered lawyer who had worked his way out of poverty to his lofty position, though when he tells his story to the young immigrant Communist, the latter is not impressed. Counsellor at Law is a pre-Code film, and I doubt that their political bantering would have passed the Production Code the following year, when the Code would be enforced.
MORE HIGHLIGHTS. As an avid Martin Scorsese fan, I was excited to hear Scorsese’s long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker speak on Black Narcissus, which was directed by her late husband Michael Powell. Scorsese sought out Powell in the late 1970s and sought his advice on Raging Bull as well as other films. Schoonmaker met Powell through Scorsese, and the young editor and aging director married. What a story! What a life. Schoonmaker preferred a Q&A with the audience over a post-screening chat with host Robert Osborne, and the knowledgeable audience asked intelligent questions about Powell and Scorsese. Schoonmaker was smart, articulate, and knew a great deal about her craft; listening to her was a learning experience. For example, Powell, like John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock, shot only one or two takes of each shot, so that the editor had little choice in the editing room, giving Powell control over the outcome of his films without stepping foot in the editing room. More poignantly, he was completely in love with Narcissus star Deborah Kerr, which made a significant if subtle impact on her performance.
I may have been impressed with Schoonmaker, but I was completely starstruck when we wandered into a screening of The Pink Panther, and Robert Wagner strolled out to chat before the film. Handsome, suave, and charismatic, Wagner is one of the last of the old-school movie stars. I have seen The Pink Panther previously, but watching this Technirama comedy projected on a huge screen with an appreciative audience brought out the humor in director Blake Edwards’s well-timed and cleverly blocked sight gags. The timing and use of offscreen space simply do not translate to television, reinforcing my firmly held belief that there is no substitute for watching a film in the theater with a respectful audience. Another pleasant surprise of a different kind was Call Her Savage, a pre-Code talkie starring the outrageous Clara Bow. Bow’s character endured a notorious family history, a bad marriage to a cad who contracted venereal disease, the death of her child, and the snobbery of New York’s upper crust only to return home to the “half-breed” who had always loved her. And, she went through all of these misadventures very obviously bra-less. I admire Bow’s spirit, who was trying to make a comeback after scandal and industry changes had made her box-office poison. Long unavailable, Call Her Savage was restored by the Museum of Modern Art.
LAST CALL. We closed the fest by watching the silent film The Thief of Bagdad accompanied by the Mont Alto Orchestra at the Egyptian Theater. Jeffrey Vance, the author of the latest biography of Douglas Fairbanks, introduced the film with Ben Mankiewicz and revealed that the film had made its original debut at the Egyptian in 1924. Though directed by Raoul Walsh, Thief was the creative vision of Fairbanks, who hired young William Cameron Menzies to design the elaborate sets. He also approached the Thief differently than previous roles. Influenced by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, he approached his performance like a dancer, with exaggerated but graceful moves that made his character more charming and his physical stunts more appealing.
A FINAL WORD. The only sour note to the whole festival was the weather, which was unseasonably cold. Plus, rain all day on Friday contributed to the difficulty of standing in line for over an hour for each film and to the head cold I have now. Consequently, tempers flared and chaos prevailed when too many people showed up for the initial screening of Raw Deal, and over 100 people were closed out after standing in the rain for at least 45 minutes. Considering the devotion of the fest-goers to TCM and these films, I suggest that the Powers That Be consider tents for future fests, which I have seen at other film festivals. But, that is a minor complaint. Over all, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing a wide range of well-known classics and unknown gems on the big screen introduced by stars or scholars. And, I am impressed at TCM’s commitment to restoration so that future generations can view these films the way they were intended.
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