Posted by Moira Finnie on November 30, 2012
“Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” – Henry James
Those words keep echoing in my mind whenever I think of my trip to TCM a few months ago. I was asked to be one of the Morlocks who appeared as a guest programmer on the evening of Friday, November 30th earlier this year. Saying “Yes” to this experience was transformative. I used to just be a hardcore fan of old movies. After this visit, I am also a fan of the people who work at Turner Classic Movies–and with good reason.
Getting to know the people who make Turner Classic Movies the network that inspires so much intense joy among its viewers has been a long learning experience. That the network does this by continuously striving to offer a feast of classic films to a world starved for storytelling that speaks directly to the human experience is key to the network’s success. The overwhelming kindness of the individuals associated with the network both in person and online has brightened a life that has taken more than a few hairpin turns in the last few years.
Of course the initial excitement, terror and “who, me?” quality of the whole thing was pretty overwhelming. It became even more surreal after a series of medical emergencies almost led me to miss this opportunity. I had originally been scheduled to visit Atlanta with my fellow Morlocks, Susan Doll, Richard Harland Smith, and Pablo Kjolseth, who will be seen with Robert Osborne this evening introducing three films they cherish: The Locket (1946), Dracula’s Daughter (1936) and Five Million Years to Earth (1968).
After notifying the TCM staff that I was a.) in the hospital after an operation and b.) taking medications that left me feeling (and looking) like a very large wet noodle, they generously rearranged the date of my visit to Atlanta to film my segment.
Still not fully recovered several weeks later, I was exhilarated to finally glide into Atlanta for a whirlwind visit.
In the 24 hours I was there, I knew there would never be time enough for me to catch such Atlanta visitor “must-sees” as the spot where Gone With the Wind premiered in ’39, the Margaret Mitchell house, The World of Coca-Cola, or even the spots where Sherman marched to the sea, but I was immediately taken with the way that this often beautiful, bustling place had lush flowers and greenery everywhere in between the modern and older brick buildings, which included rose-colored crepe myrtle, apricot-colored trumpet vines, and wild infestations of kudzu strangling telephone poles that softened even the outlines of a highway overpass.
My experience with the unexpected kindness of strangers began almost immediately with the gentleman named Moses who was behind the wheel of my ride to TCM. He wasn’t wielding any stone tablets, but he had a fine sense of humor, and shared info about the landmarks we passed, such as The Martin Luther King Memorial, The Varsity Hot Dog stand (believe me, it’s big there–even attracting another visitor that same day named Barack Obama), and. Moses also demonstrated a bizarre insistence that I allow him to do things like haul my bag out of the trunk and open car doors for me. After looking over my shoulder to see who Moses could possibly be talking to, I just decided to try to go with the flow, concluding that this might be some quaint Southern custom.
My regret that I would not be able to meet several of the people whose writing I admire on this blog was real. (Someday, I am hoping that we’ll each find our way to the TCM Classic Film Festival at the same time, Suzi, Richard & Pablo). However, I was overjoyed to finally meet two of the Morlocks during my first evening there when I had such a great time sharing HighHurdler (Mark) and MorlockJeff (Jeff). None of us had ever met one another, though we had each corresponded in the past and got a kick out of each other’s work online.
Our discussion that evening bounced from topics as diverse as pre-code bad boy Monroe Owsley as husband material, the brothers actor Ricardo and cinematographer Stanley Cortez, acting legend Lionel Barrymore‘s obscure non-acting careers as a director, composer and artist, Dorothy Mckaill‘s life in a Hawaiian hotel room, and all things TCM. One of us confessed a bit of an aversion to Vertigo, another didn’t get the enduring appeal of Double Indemnity and each of us made the others laugh, (my face hurt from smiling so much). We parted with some regret but delighted to discover much more about each other’s taste, background and knowledge.
After not much sleep in a glorious hotel (thank you, TCM!), but lots of anticipation while I practiced trying to put into words the many (well, too many, actually) things I had to say about my choice as a guest programmer, this keyed up Morlock emerged at 8 AM for a limo ride to TCM Central.
First stop after admission to the Turner complex, was the Green Room, where I finally met TCM staffer’s Sean Cameron, Courtney O’Brien, and Amanda Dabbas, in person, each of whom had helped to arrange my trip in the first place. The encouraging wardrobe and makeup ladies gently helped me to choose the best item to wear on camera from my bag. Never having had professional makeup applied before, this brave new world became far less daunting for me thanks to the consideration, skill and patience of the young women who so deftly worked to make me look presentable.
Finally, I was guided me to the strangely familiar setting in the studio. Sure, I knew where I was (like hell I did!). But yes, this setting was where Robert Osborne has led so many of us into a deeper understanding of the art, fun and fancy of great and not-so-great movies. Beautifully lit, the studio set looked like a cozy New York loft with old exposed brick (as one of the crew pointed out, though it was explained that it is actually made from the same material used on the exterior of mobile homes), real wooden shutters with a scrim showing a glowing night time cityscape behind it, and, oh, yes, those beautiful red leather chairs set at an angle toward one another. The familiar fixtures were all there–the cerulean blue ceramic vases, stairs going up to a landing with a bench and pillows, and best of all, a French neo-classical style lamp I’ve always coveted with the base in the shape of a mythical griffin. The tolerant crew members even let me touch these things, all of which probably came from Pottery Barn (or someplace a bit more upscale, but similar).
Finally, I was introduced to the very tall man being readied for the camera–Robert Osborne. Warmly greeting me and then studying his notes about our segment, our brief conversation soon included Sean Cameron, who described what they wanted to do, how this should go, and when to look at Robert and the camera. Since I am quite short and very round at the moment (damn those steroids), a board was placed under the seat to make me appear taller, enabling me to sit comfortably while we filmed the intro. Robert explained that he would let me pronounce the French words, while he tackled the English and guided me through this high wire act that he does every day. “Yeah, sure, Mr. Osborne. You bet…I’ll be glad pronounce the French…(*gulp*),” I smiled like an idiot.
I had chosen to introduce the French film, Touchez Pas Au Grisbi (1954) for my segment since my first encounter with this fascinating movie, which took the genre of the gangster movie and gave it a unique French twist.
The title of the film, drawn from French slang for “Don’t Touch the Loot,” marked a new phase in the career of French actor Jean Gabin (1904-1976). Formerly associated with the poetic realism of the pre-war period, expemplified by the work of such directors as Julien Duvivier in Pépé le Moko (1937) and Jean Renoir in La Bête Humaine (1938), Gabin had excelled at imbuing his working class characters with a blend of lyricism and masculinity that helped to make him a truly international star.
The postwar period (and critics) had been less kind to the visibly older Gabin, but when I first saw Touchez Pas Au Grisbi, it struck me as both an engaging gangster movie, and a superbly acted character study about a middle-aged man sorting through the things (and people) he has picked up along the way. The film, directed by Jacques Becker and drawn from a novel by Albert Simonin, has a deliberate, yet almost contemplative quality that evolves into an unexpected conclusion. The action and character of the central figure was given even greater resonance because of the thoughtful, laid back style of the leading man and his past history on screen. (Who but Gabin could make a scene showing the deft preparation of a midnight snack into a revelation of the aesthetic underpinning of a weary romantic’s way of life?).
Jean Gabin plays a smooth, disciplined character who has apparently been quite successful in ordering his underworld fiefdom. Younger gangsters seek him out to learn from him how to navigate the alleys and byways of being a crook. He dresses well, lives sensibly, and only slowly reveals his inner life to the viewer or to his closest friend, and believes that a fortune in gold (a heist that occurs off-screen, as if the film wants to remind us that crime is really beside the point here). It is only when a threat to Max’s not overly bright cohort, (Rene Dary) is revealed that the inner life of Max begins to show. Eveb Max seems a bit chagrined that the person he has shared so much of his life with turns out to be his henchman.
Yet Max the Mentor (Gabin) becomes increasingly aware that the neatness of his world is going awry. As he points out to his less imaginative henchman as they breathe in the air of an amusingly tawdry nightclub, the pursuit of the same things as they did in the past has grown stale. More importantly, they have grown older. Its time to reap that one last reward . As the film chronicles Max’s business-like disposal of stolen goods, the almost complete absence of the police from daily affairs, his somewhat lackadaisical flirtations with (apparently) every female in this movie, (who include a 24-year-old Jeanne Moreau), and the intrusion of a new, and needlessly vicious generation of gangsters are all incidents that conspire to make Max reflect on his life in a uniquely Gallic manner and ultimately, to take (explosive) action when the one thing that truly mattered to Max was threatened in this bleak world. All of this is conveyed in a minimalist style by the actor and the viewer is left surprised at times, amused (the movie is quite funny sometimes, especially in the exchanges between Max and his hapless pal, Riton), and perhaps quite moved by the stoicism of the central character.
Writing when I can for the Movie Morlocks Blog has been both daunting and enlightening. Speaking about a movie I loved (in front of Robert Osborne yet!) was another thing. I know that I had a million things I wanted to say about Touchez Pas Au Grisbi, actor Jean Gabin and director Jacques Becker, the influence of French film on the world (!) and my love of classic film, I also knew that I have never harbored a desire to be on television-though this trip was just too sweet to miss.
Relying on Mr. O. for guidance through the segment (I had to speak up since I am very soft spoken), Sean and the crew were great as I stumbled a few times over words that came tumbling out. Even Robert Osborne fluffed a few lines, perhaps to make me feel more at ease (or maybe because my slight nerves were contagious?). Gradually, something like a conversation emerged and it was a wrap—though I could have expounded for an hour or more about the topic, in my amateurish but enthusiastic way. It was over faster than I expected, though I knew that TCM’s editors would have their work cut out for her editing my segment.
Everyone assured me that I (strangely) didn’t look nervous and was very articulate. (Could they possibly have been in in the same room as I?). In any case, it was a delightful experience to have behind me. Best of all, meeting four of the fantastically creative people who were to follow me filming their guest programmer segments with Mr. Osborne were not individuals I ever would have met without this hastily rescheduled visit.
One of them, Jerry Beck, the animator, animation historian, author of fifteen books, and one of the creators of the website, Cartoon Brew, was introduced to me just before my segment was filmed. Jerry was at TCM to film with Robert Osborne an introduction and discuss an evening of the UPA Jolly Frolics Cartoons that was recently featured on TCM. He modestly refused to take credit for saving cartoons, but admitted that he had helped curate some of the cartoons selected for inclusion on the recently issued three disc set of 38 UPA (United Productions of America) cartoons under the banner of the TCM Vault collection. These DVDs include Gerald McBoing-Boing, The Tell Tale Heart and The Unicorn in the Garden, among other animated classics created by artists who approached animation in the 1950s from a different, somewhat more contemporary aesthetic than previously presented on film.
Jerry was very personable, funny, and reassuring, even as he asked if his very nice new shirt (a navy blue Ralph Lauren) and jacket were okay for the camera. Discovering that we both felt a bit fluttery about the day’s events, I immediately bonded and pelted the poor man with a million questions about cartoons as we discussed everything from Betty Boop to Georgie and the Dragon until it was his turn to sit in the big red, chair too.
Next, I encountered two more fascinating gentlemen, both of whom are innovators in their fields, and multiple Oscar nominees and winners. Craig Barron, a visual effects specialist whose career began with his groundbreaking matte work on Star Wars and has developed enormously since then (you know his work, believe me!), and Ben Burtt, a sound engineer (currently the voice designer at Pixar) who was responsible for creating the sounds of aliens such as Chewbacca, E.T. and many others. Both individuals were visiting TCM to discuss on camera with Mr. O. their studies of the sounds and sights in classic films. Ben showed me his replication of the specially designed arrow used by archer Harold Hill to create that singularly satisfying “whoosh” sound of the arrows in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1937), which is described here in detail. We also discussed the unique Warner Bros. sounds of bullets, briefly. Both guys have given lectures on that film as well as Forbidden Planet (1956), quite recently at AMPAS, described here.
Lastly, I met Debra Levine, a delightful dance historian whose blog arts*meme explores the arts with a special attention to the work of choreographer Jack Cole. His innovative jazz-inspired dance routines were showcased on TCM on in September when Debra was the guest programmer who introduced four of the movies that Cole worked on during his Hollywood years.
I never would have been able to meet any of these exciting people or to have spent as much time one on one with TCM’s friendly staffers if I had come earlier in the year to record my intro. Needless to say, I hardly needed a plane to fly back home. I was already walking on air.
Perhaps it was a touch of Cinderella at work in my sub-conscious when I packed up to leave TCM and catch my plane back to reality. I left behind one of the sandals I wore on the air with Robert Osborne in The Green Room (They over-nighted it to me, but I honestly have no memory of leaving this) But at least I have some great memories of fun, a fish out of her water, and the kindness of those who helped her. Thank you, everyone, for your kindness.
Now, if I may suggest an appropriate introduction for this evening’s lineup of my colleagues…
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