Posted by Susan Doll on April 21, 2014
Last weekend, I attended the TCM Classic Film Festival as just another movie-lover in the crowd. The 2014 festival featured appearances by big-name stars Maureen O’Hara, Mel Brooks, Alan Arkin, Shirley Jones, and Jerry Lewis (left, at Grauman’s Theater with Quentin Tarantino). Interestingly, while waiting in line with other fest-goers, conversations drifted to the rapidly declining roster of Hollywood legends available to attend these events. Perhaps it was the recent death of Mickey Rooney, who was honored with a screening of National Velvet, that prompted these solemn conversations. Fest-goers speculated on what could possibly replace the interviews and appearances by these incomparable stars. Some presumed that TCM would showcase the films of younger stars and then reach out to them to appear in person—along the lines of the Richard Dreyfuss tribute this year. Others speculated that offspring of the major stars could step in to honor a famous parent, as Fraser Heston did for his father, Charlton, and Suzanne Lloyd did for her grandfather, Harold.
My solution would be to line up more presentations by scholars or industry personnel. While that might sound too academic, the presentations that I caught at this year’s festival were anything but. They were not only enlightening but entertaining. Bruce Goldstein, the Repertory Programming Director of New York’s Film Forum, seemed to be everywhere, introducing several films with clips and well-organized, state-of-the-art visual aids. He introduced the 1932 drama Employees’ Entrance starring Warren William as the ruthless manager of a department store with “Pre-Code 101,” a delightful run-down of the era between 1930 and 1934. He offered entertaining historical facts such as the Warner Bros. memo that insisted that “two out of five stories should be hot” with selected clips to illustrate just how “hot” Pre-Code films could get. My favorite was a scene from Blood Money in which sweet-faced Frances Dee encounters an angry young woman who had answered an ad for a model placed by a man named Johnson. Apparently, Mr. Johnson brutalized her during the interview, which was the part of the story that so excited Dee, a masochistic nymphomaniac, that she demanded to know where she could find Mr. Johnson. The look of lust and excitement on Dee’s face was very disconcerting. “Pre-Code 101” was a terrific intro to Employees’ Entrance, because it not only provided context but gave audiences something to look for while watching the movie.
Goldstein was also on hand after the screening of the original Japanese version of Godzilla. Fans know that director Ishiro Honda’s 1954 sci-fi classic Gojira was re-edited and retitled as Godzilla: King of the Monsters in 1956 when it was released in America by Joseph E. Levine. A new character was added to the American version in the form of Raymond Burr, who plays reporter Steve Martin. Martin mostly stands around describing the devastation he views into a tape recorder for his editor in Chicago. In his monotone voice-over, he offers such scintillating commentary as “They’re moving a tank corps” as we see shots of tanks roll down the street, then adds, “I’m saying a prayer, George, a prayer for the whole world.” Goldstein’s post-screening presentation consisted of a comparison and contrast of the American and Japanese versions, and the effect was to understand that the two films are completely different in tone and purpose. The aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki haunted the Japanese long after WWII, and the ravages of nuclear devastation cling to every frame of Honda’s original version. Not only is Godzilla awakened by atomic testing in the ocean waters, but scenes of Tokyo in the wake of Godzilla’s indiscriminate destruction look remarkably similar to the photographs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the bombs were dropped. The imagery combined with the musical score by Akira Ifukube create a solemn tone to Honda’s film that is surprisingly moving if you have seen only the American version by Levine. Levine cut out 40 minutes of Honda’s original, including every single reference to the atom bomb, nuclear fallout, or atomic testing, and he re-arranged the existing footage so there is no build-up to the destruction of Tokyo. A major scene that occurs over an hour into the original was edited into the first 15 minutes of the American version. Goldstein also included excerpts of Levine’s meager attempts to integrate Burr with the Japanese stars. The result reminded me of Ed Wood’s recasting of his dentist to replace Bela Lugosi in Plan 9 from Outer Space. For Godzilla, Asian-American actors were costumed and made up to resemble the Japanese stars. The Asian look-alikes were shot from behind or in profile, speaking to Burr in English as the reporter asked questions designed to advance the plot. Levine’s poorly executed edits, additions, and changes give the American Godzilla a campy effect that Honda’s film does not have.
Prior to Godzilla, Eddy von Mueller, who is an instructor of film studies at Emory University, gamely interviewed Gareth Edwards, the little-known director of Warner Bros. 2014 reboot of Godzilla. Despite some misplaced critical attention for his film Monsters, Edwards is primarily a visual effects person, which explains why WB hired the newbie director for what they hope will be the summer’s biggest blockbuster. While Edwards expressed his admiration for the serious tone of Honda’s film, and both he and von Mueller danced around the question of special effects versus depth of story, one would have to be impossibly naïve not to know that the upcoming Godzilla will be a CGI fest waiting to blossom into a franchise for 13-year-old boys. In the glossy TCM festival program, von Mueller’s highly informative essay on Honda’s classic notes that Toho produced 28 Godzilla films. Thus, sequels, series, and reworkings have always been a part of the monster-movie genre. I have no problems with monster remakes of monster movies, but the industry’s current pandering to the teenage demographic suggests that this summer’s Godzilla will likely sacrifice story, theme, and subtext for empty-looking CGI effects. I hope I am wrong.
Goldstein also showed up after the screening of Stormy Weather to discuss the Nicholas Brothers, the tap-dancing siblings who stole this all-African American musical from stars Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Lena Horne. With Cab Calloway leading the orchestra, Fayard and Harold Nicholas concluded the film with “Jumpin’ Jive,” a tap number that featured the brothers leap-frogging over each other as they descend a flight of stairs, landing on each stair in the splits. Goldstein, who produced the documentary The Nicholas Brothers: We Sing and We Dance, showed rare footage of the brothers from a 1964 episode of the Hollywood Palace in which they re-staged their famous number for the television audience. Except this time, Fayard was 50 and Harold was 42 or 43. Offspring of the Nicholas Brothers were in attendance for Stormy Weather; they must have been proud when the audience roared and cheered for Fayard and Harold. Prior to the screening of Stormy Weather, the incomparable Donald Bogle, one of my favorite film historians, offered a socio-historical context to appreciate Stormy Weather, released in 1943. That year also saw the release of another all-black musical, Cabin in the Sky. According to Bogle, African American soldiers, who had done their share of fighting in Europe, were returning home permanently or on leave. They were looking for respectable images of themselves on the big screen that were more than the servants or comic relief that Hollywood films typically served up.
Sound designer Ben Burtt and visual effects supervisor Craig Barron offered an amazingly detailed introduction to The Adventures of Robin Hood. Using visual and audio clips, plus rare film stills, the pair used their expertise to provide insight into the mechanical effects and matte work used to recreate the fictional but believable world of Robin Hood. The visual effects in the film consisted of matte work in which paintings of background scenery, castles, or other images are combined with live action via double exposure of the film. After the matte paintings have been photographed, a stencil in the precise shape of the painted images is placed over the camera lens as the re-wound film records the live action with the actors onto the part of the film that has not yet been exposed. That mask or stencil over the lens had to be exact, or a line would be visible between the background and the main action, ruining the seamless blend of images. In addition to visual effects, the film made use of a variety of mechanical effects, including live trees that were “enhanced” with extra branches and trunks by the production design department. The tree that Robin Hood lands on as he swings through the forest was completely constructed from scratch so Flynn could land on a flat surface that would bear his weight. Burtt, who has won two competition Oscars and two special Oscars for his sound work, admitted he became obsessed with the high-pitched, whirring sound effect used for Robin Hood’s arrows. Only Robin Hood’s arrows made this unique sound, which helped to suggest his deadly abilities with the bow. By experimenting with different styles of arrows with various shaft designs, Burtt was finally able to duplicate the sound by using an arrow whose shaft was made from a specific material cut in a special design.
Burtt and Barron also revealed how the sword-fighting choreography performed by Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone was enhanced by the editing. Flynn and Rathbone learned about half a dozen thrusts, moves, and falls, which they rehearsed until they could be executed flawlessly. After that part of the fight was shot, the pair perfected another set of thrusts and moves—and so on. The fight was seamlessly constructed in the editing room by Ralph Dawson, who added pacing, timing, and tension to the sequence. Dawson won a much-deserved Oscar for his skills on this film.
Some of the insights into the film had little to do with the magic of the movies but provided the audience with a private peak into the movie-making process. Original director William Keighley was replaced half way through by Michael Curtiz; the two shared directorial credit on the film. Keighley specialized in working with stars to establish characters and to speak lines with authority and believability. Behind-the-scenes photos reveal Keighley sitting very close to the actors, urging the emotion from their performances. Curtiz was considered an action director; production photos show him sitting back from the performers, taking in the action from a distance. Another fascinating behind-the-scenes bit of trivia created titters in the audience: James Cagney was originally tapped to play Robin Hood, because he was an amateur archer. He belonged to the Hollywood archer’s club and was eager to use his skills in a film role. Cagney lost the role because of a contract feud with the studio.
By the time Burtt and Barron were finished, the audience was primed for The Adventures of Robin Hood and armed with afore knowledge that made a familiar film fresh again. That is part of the reward of the TCM Classic Film Festival. Not only do fest-goers discover forgotten gems they have never seen but they are also treated to old favorites presented in a new light.
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