Posted by Susan Doll on May 6, 2013
Once again, I attended the TCM Classic Film Festival as a civilian; that is, a regular fan who went for the movies, the stars, and the camaraderie. The festival was held at the end of April this year, which meant that it coincided with the end of the semester for me. I must have looked peculiar sitting on the floor in the queue lines grading final exams, but I would not have missed the fest’s four intense days of nonstop movie-going for anything.
The 2013 festival differed from last year’s in that it featured more tried and true classic films that are regularly shown on TCM, and it included several big-budget spectaculars with long running times. For those reasons, I did not see quite as many films as I did last year, but that is a minor quibble. The fest was still a highlight of my year, and I plan to go again in 2014. I thought I would share some treasures and surprises from this year’s fest for those who might like to attend but are still on the fence.
It is surprising at how gratifying it is to see movie stars, especially those who were part of the films chosen for the festival. The experience underscores the difference between celebrities and bona fide stars. Stars understand that they represent something to viewers, whether it is a direct connection to a favorite film, or an ideal or value associated with their key characters. Most stars respect that connection by offering anecdotes about a film’s cast and crew from an insider’s perspective that will enhance the viewing experience. At age 84, Ann Blyth, who played venomous Veda in Mildred Pierce, looked stunning as she graciously talked about Joan Crawford’s kindness toward her during the film’s production. In discussing her career with Robert Osborne, she offered a glimpse into her life as an actress under contract in the old studio system, talked about her final starring role opposite Paul Newman in The Helen Morgan Story, then coyly dodged Osborne’s question about why she retired.
Though Blyth was a touch of old-school Hollywood glamour, I preferred actress Coleen Gray’s reminiscences at a screening of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing. Gray, who played good girl Fay, appeared in only two sequences in this crime thriller, but she certainly had a handle on her director and costars. Gray admired the young Kubrick and recalled how she went to see his previous film, Killer’s Kiss, before shooting began. She said that Kubrick’s low-low-budget, independently produced film was on a double bill with a big-budget studio production, Summertime, starring Katharine Hepburn. After Killer’s Kiss, the audience applauded, but after Summertime, they did not, which impressed her. Though Gray was excited to work with Kubrick, ultimately he did not direct her very much, which was disappointing for her; instead, he worked closely with Marie Windsor, who dominated the film as femme fatale Sherry Peattie. As for her other costars, Gray noted that while leading man Sterling Hayden was nice, he stayed to himself as part of his acting process for his role as ill-fated Johnny Clay. Her most interesting comment concerned character actor Timothy Carey, who played an eccentric but intimidating hit man. According to Gray, Carey always seemed to be baring his teeth in a menacing way; she advised us to “watch his teeth.” Despite her small role, the actress was pleased with The Killing, complementing its “good story.” The way Gray sees it, the formula for a memorable film is a triangle with the director and cast at the bottom and a good story at the top, or apex, of the triangle. She sharply noted, “We don’t get this [a good story] much anymore” because there are “too many toys” in modern-day filmmaking.
When Burt Reynolds walked out to a standing ovation to help introduce Deliverance, there was no mistaking his impact on the crowd. Costars Jon Voight and Ned Beatty and director John Boorman were also there to answer questions from Ben Mankiewicz, but the applause was deafening for Reynolds. The three actors had obviously stumped for Deliverance before because they settled into a shtick, with Reynolds and Beatty joking about their lowly status during the film’s production compared to Voight, who had been Oscar nominated for Midnight Cowboy. If part of Reynolds’s star image revolves around his physicality and ability to do stunts, he did not disappoint the fans as he recalled how he actually went over that 90-foot, roaring waterfall in the film. Director Boorman had tested a dummy, but it looked “like a dummy going over a waterfall.” The stuntman refused to go over the falls, so Reynolds stepped up to do it himself. The force of the water threw him against the rocks on his back, breaking his tailbone and damaging his kidney. He flipped through the water, landing on his neck, before being thrown into a whirlpool. Fortunately, the stuntman had warned him that if he found himself in the whirlpool, he should dive to the bottom of the river, where the force of the circulating water would shoot him straight up. The stunt landed Reynolds in the hospital for several days. When he returned, he asked Boorman how the scene looked in the rushes. The director responded, “Like a dummy going over a waterfall.”
Another part of the festival that surprised me was the experience of seeing familiar films on a big screen. I was not the only one to notice this, because it was a common remark in introductions to the films and from fellow fest-goers while waiting in line. I noticed the impact of the big screen the most while viewing Libeled Lady, the 1936 screwball comedy with the high-powered cast, including Spencer Tracy, Jean Harlow, William Powell, and Myrna Loy. Generally, watching a classic on the big screen amplifies the visual design, helping viewers to understand the impact of light and shadow, camera angle, composition, and editing on their understanding of the story. But, when I saw Libeled Lady on the big screen, I better understood the talents of the four larger-than-life stars. Personality actors are underrated in our current era, especially when compared to method actors, who are lauded for their realistic portrayals of characters. But, personality acting, which was the style during the Golden Age, is deceptive because the stars make it look effortless. It consists of deliberate and faultless line delivery, exquisite timing, and a controlled physicality. Most of all, it depends on the actor understanding his star persona and playing into it to its best advantage. The way Libeled Lady introduces its four stars is a great example of the way material was shaped to the stars and their images, and the way a big screen amplifies those touches. A gruff, irritable Spencer Tracy opens the film as a would-be groom looking for an excuse not to get married. Tracy plays the entire scene without pants, setting up the audience to understand his bluster as all bark and no bite. A jilted Jean Harlow shows up a few minutes later in her satin wedding gown. In long shot, Harlow marches from the background to the foreground, dominating the shot with energy and verve. On the large screen, no one will miss that she is braless, which references an aspect of her image from the pre-Code era. William Powell is introduced in a montage of shots that reveals his playboy character, while Myrna Loy emerges in close-up after pulling a sweater over her head and mussing her generally perfect hair. I don’t think I have ever enjoyed this film so much.
Films that I have never seen before that surprise me with their complexity, wit, or style are like discovered treasures. At this year’s fest, two films qualified as treasures—Safe in Hell and The Tall Target. The former is a pre-Code film directed by William Wellman that reminded me of Rain, the torrid Joan Crawford drama about a fallen woman in a tropical den of inequity. In Safe in Hell, an actress that I had never heard of, Dorothy Mackaill, stars as Gilda, a New Orleans prostitute who thinks she murdered her ex-lover. She escapes to a Caribbean island, where she falls in love with a sailor. When he sets sail, he leaves her behind as the only female resident in their tropical hotel. The male residents leer, ogle, and stare as she fends off their advances. The dialogue drips with double entendre. When Gilda fetches water from the community cistern, she is appalled that the water has worms in it. The corrupt sheriff tells her that the worms are necessary to consume the bacteria that can cause sickness, but he begins the conversation by asking her if she is offended by “slimy wigglers.” The conversation takes on a sexual connotation when Gilda’s eyes shift down to the sheriff’s pants. Film historian Donald Bogle, who is the premiere scholar on the history of African Americans in Hollywood films, selected Safe in Hell because of the interesting black characters played by Nina Mae McKinney and Clarence Muse. Neither plays a servant who speaks in that exaggerated black dialect found in most Hollywood films. McKinney, who was the first black actress to land a contract with MGM, costars as the owner of the hotel, while Muse speaks with better diction than any of the white characters.
Bogle also introduced The Tall Target, another film with an unconventional African American character. Directed by Anthony Mann, The Tall Target is like a “history noir,” because it set in 1860 and tells the story of a New York cop who struggles to prevent the assassination of Abraham Lincoln before he is inaugurated. I first mentioned The Tall Target a few months ago in a post about Abraham Lincoln movies. I had no idea that I would have an opportunity to see it on the big screen. I highly recommend it for several reasons. The film was directed by Mann as he was transitioning from film noir to the western. The visual style not only includes the unusual angles, low-key lighting, shadow patterns, and claustrophobic spaces of noir but it creates the perfect atmosphere for suspense and intrigue. Dick Powell, who changed his image from light-hearted musical star to hard-boiled detective when he starred in Murder My Sweet, is suitably intense as the cop, whose name is John Kennedy. No kidding. A young Ruby Dee plays the slave of a Southern family on board the train where the principal action takes place, and, like the black characters in Safe in Hell, she defies the Hollywood stereotype. Most of all, I was struck by the themes of the film, which seem so relevant today. In The Tall Target, America is torn apart regionally and politically by the election of a president. Tensions are exacerbated by accusation and assumption as Northerners see Southerners as gun-toting secessionists, while Southerners predict the end of the country because of the election of Lincoln.
The TCM Classic Film Festival offers something for all movie-goers, from fans who are enchanted by their favorite star to movie lovers engrossed by an old favorite on the big screen to cinephiles excited to see a newly discovered treasure. Next year, get off the fence and join us.
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