Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on May 12, 2013
I wrapped up the TCM Classic Film Festival two weeks ago. It was their fourth fest and my first time there. I’ve been attending Telluride and Sundance for over 20 years, added SXSW to the roster about five years ago, and I like to check in on other film festivals too, be they local (in Denver, Estes Park, or Boulder), or outside the U.S. (ie: Vancouver, with Berlin next on my list). Every film fest has a different vibe, a different way of running things, and I’m not here to detract from any of that as I’m down with the whole idea of variety being the spice of life and I enjoy them all. I also need to be careful because, as a Morlock, I’m on the TCM dole and I realize that what I’m about to say might strike some as a conflict of interest. Still, here goes: TCM FF 2013 blew me away, and now, if anyone asks me about my favorite film festivals, I’m putting the TCM FF on the very top shelf. Most of the films I saw were on 35mm and the selection was – across the board – excellent. Every film was preceded with an introduction featuring very special guests, and not only were all the exhibition venues in dedicated film sites, some were in the best film theaters I’ve ever sat in, one even adding an award-winning organ player to an elaborate curtain show (El Capitan, I’m looking at you). Of the many films I saw at TCM FF, let me point to one particular title to illustrate the wonderfulness of it all, a mint-condition 35mm print of Tarzan Finds a Son! (Richard Thorpe, 1939), which screened at The Egyptian and was preceded by a special 45-minute presentation led by Oscar winners Craig Barron (matte painter) and Ben Burtt (sound editor and designer).
Given that it’s Mother’s Day today, it also strikes me as appropriate to discuss Tarzan Finds a Son! because it’s a film that allows Jane to partake in maternal duties. Those familiar with the story know that it’s not a Hallmark-perfect film. The story starts out by showing us a plane carrying Mr. and Mrs. Lancing (Morton Lowry and Laraine Day), and their infant son moments before it crashes in the African jungle. It turns out Tarzan’s home turf has Bermuda Triangle-like qualities. The bad patch of air that screws around with plane equipment is located on the Mutia Escarpment (named after Mutia Omoolu, the African actor who played Rencharo in the 1931 film starring Harry Carey as the eponymous character in Trader Horn). The crash kills everyone on board except for the child.
Spoilers ahead, and speaking of spoilers…
I normally like to watch a film fresh and then dig up information about it afterwards, but the presentation by Barron and Burtt that preceded Tarzan Finds a Son! was as entertaining as the film itself. Yes, they pulled the curtain back to reveal how all the magic was done, but the incredible treasure trove of information they uncover only added to my awe and appreciation for the film that followed. Did it detract from my experience to know that African elephants can’t be trained, so Indian ones were used, but the Indian elephants had small ears that had to be equipped with giant rubber prosthetic ones? Nope. Or that the famous Tarzan yell that was rumored to be a combination of hyena, violin and dog sounds (or maybe even a cow in distress), was probably a flipped analog recording helped midpoint by a clarinet? Again, no. The detective work alone that went into analyzing the Tarzan yell was both impressive and fascinating, with lots of video clips being shown along the way. One highlight included a rare TV spot showing Weissmuller on the The Groucho Marx Show being asked to replicate the Tarzan yell (close, Johnny, but no cigar).
Back to the spoilers for Tarzan Finds a Son!
As mentioned, the parents die in the plane crash, but the infant is rescued from hyenas and cannibals thanks to the quick work of some of Cheeta’s furry friends. Everyone’s favorite chimpanzee extraordinaire, in turn, hands over the baby to Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) and Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan). Jane convinces Tarzan they should keep the child and when we next cut to action we are introduced to Johnny Sheffield as the five-year-old and precocious Boy, who can then be seen running around and getting caught in giant spider webs and almost bitten to death by aggressive arachnids, or almost getting gored by rhinos, or almost eaten by tigers, or almost drifting off waterfalls. Tarzan and Jane are always, of course, quick to come to the rescue, but they also have that half-shrug and “whatever” attitude that seasoned parents get who understand that, hey, the world is a dangerous place, so if the kid gets banged up a bit here and there, that’s the way it goes. I found the whole experience such a gripping ride that despite flirting with a bladder emergency (courtesy of drinking far too much coffee earlier in the day), I couldn’t rip myself from the screen and chose, instead, to twist up my legs like a Russian ballet dancer and grip the arm-rests of my chair with the mental focus of a strong-man trying to bend a crowbar.
Here’s the thing: that moment when my bladder felt like it was extended far past any previous carrying capacity ever met in my life where it felt like everything might burst, that was also the moment when Jane was impaled with a spear in her back just before a pack of wild elephants trampled past the cannibal kingdom gates and all of chaos was unleashed. I went from twisting my legs like a Russian dancer to doing stuff Cirque du Soleil performers could only dream of, and if plastic could be crushed like coal, my arm rests would be encrusted with diamonds – and all of this because there was no way I could leave that theater to hit the men’s room until I found out what happened next.
As it turns out, Jane, who was supposed to die, lives thanks to early test audiences not liking the fact that she was speared to death. After all, you can’t do that to a mom, right? (Happy Mother’s Day!) This proves one thing only: the concept of test audiences should have been speared to death a long time ago, because for a fleeting moment I saw something surprising and uncompromising that would have touched on greatness. (No offense to my mom, whom I’m very glad is still very much around and not having been speared by cannibals.) All in all, though, aside for the cheesy spiders and Jane miraculously coming back to life, what a film! I’d have given it a standing ovation had I not hit the aisle running at the first sign of the end credits so as to deliver an African-sized waterfall of relief at the nearest urinal.
In my praise of the TCM FF something else begs to be said: a classic film fest has an unfair advantage over most other film festivals which are obsessed with bringing you the newest, latest, and supposedly greatest film premiere that they can get their hands on. The fact is, when you’re only, or primarily, selecting contemporary movies you are also, by necessity, going to be stuck with a largely hit-and-miss affair stuffed with a lot of turkeys that won’t survive the scrutiny of time. Only hindsight gives you 20/20 vision, and that’s exactly what the TCM FF has in its favor, lots of hindsight, no turkeys.
Even better, because it’s mostly classics, the TCM FF had access to more 35mm prints than any other festival I’ve been to in recent memory. At the last Sundance Film Festival, I saw 27 movies, and only one (one!) title that I screened was on 35mm film, everything else was digital. This is to be expected, as we’ve now long ago crossed the format divide. And even at TCM FF many of the classics were digital restorations, which in most cases were exceptional (especially when screened at El Capitan). But, for an old fogy like me, there is something truly special about still having access to rare and archival prints. I enjoyed the clean and bright colors afforded the digital restorations of Giant and The Great Escape that I saw at the TCL Chinese Theatre, but – boy! – even a somewhat dirty original 35mm print of a pre-code film like Safe in Hell screened in a smaller multiplex theater provided me with more of a thrill. Of course, it helps if, like with Tarzan Finds a Son!, it’s a stunningly gorgeous and mint-condition print. Most of the action may have taken place on the Culver City soundstages owned by MGM, but for a brief time there at The Egyptian, I was living on the Mutia Escarpment.
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