Adventures of a TCM Fest-Goer

festopener3Last 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.

WILLIAM WARREN SOILS LORETTA YOUNG IN EMPLOYEES' ENTRANCE.

WILLIAM WARREN ZEROES IN ON LORETTA YOUNG IN ‘EMPLOYEES’ ENTRANCE.’

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.

THE AFTERMATH OF GODZILLA RECALLS THE DESTRUCTION OF THE A-BOMB.

THE AFTERMATH OF GODZILLA’S RAMPAGE RECALLS THE DESTRUCTION OF THE A-BOMB IN HIROSHIMA AND NAGASAKI.

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.

RAYMOND BURR HOVERS THROUGHOUT THE AMERICAN VERSION OF 'GODZILLA,\: KING OF THE MONSTERS.'

RAYMOND BURR’S PERFORMANCE CONSISTS OF HOVERING IN  ‘GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS.’

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.

THE NICHOLAS BROTHERS PERFORM "JUMPIN' JIVE."

THE NICHOLAS BROTHERS PERFORM “JUMPIN’ JIVE.”

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.

THIS SHOT COMBINES LIVE ACTION AND A MATTER PAINTING. THE LIVE ACTION BEGINS ON THE SHORT LEDGE. THE DROP TO THE GROUND IS A MATTE PAINTING.

THIS SHOT IN ‘ROBIN HOOD’ COMBINES LIVE ACTION AND A MATTE PAINTING. THE LIVE ACTION BEGINS AT THE  LEDGE. THE AREA BELOW THE LEDGE  IS A MATTE PAINTING.

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.

ROBIN'S SPECIAL ARROWS WITH JUST THE RIGHT ZING

ROBIN’S SPECIAL ARROWS WITH JUST THE RIGHT ZING

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.

JIMMY CAGNEY WAS ANNOUNCED AS THE LEAD IN 'ROBIN HOOD.'

JIMMY CAGNEY WAS ANNOUNCED AS THE LEAD IN ‘ROBIN HOOD.’

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.

11 Responses Adventures of a TCM Fest-Goer
Posted By Karen : April 21, 2014 3:41 pm

I really enjoyed your write-up, Susan — I did not attend a single event/movie that you discussed, and I felt like I was there! (Also, I am pea-green with envy about the pre-Code presentation by Bruce Goldstein — I’d have loved to see that clip with Frances Dee!) Really good stuff.

Posted By heidi : April 21, 2014 4:26 pm

Thanks for the post! For those of us that are unable to make the trek to see the festival for ourselves, it really brings it alive. I would have dearly loved to have been there for the Robin Hood section. I think The Adventures of Robin Hood is my second favorite movie of all time. I love the action, story, and the color of it. The actors play a huge part, too, of course. I have seen it so many times, but I still see things I didn’t see on previous viewings. I will have to watch it again, armed with what you reported, and enjoy yet another aspect of it. I love the story, and adore the 1973 animated Disney version too. Every time I see Errol Flynn on screen, I think to myself, “Robin was a foxy lad,” and it just tickles me to no end. (I am easily amused, apparently)

Posted By LD : April 21, 2014 4:42 pm

Since I was unable to attend the TCM Film Festival, I followed the blogs and watched the clips provided on the web site. I would love to have seen THE LODGER, THE GREAT GATSBY and THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD. I have the two disc special edition of the latter which includes a lot of background info including the Cagney story. What stayed in my memory was the story of Korngold and how he came to score the film. Unfortunately, the set does not include a big screen theater or an audience with which to view it.

Posted By MedusaMorlock : April 21, 2014 6:18 pm

Sounds like a wonderful experience! I would have loved the Robin Hood especially, as well as the “Godzilla” presentation. I’m a big fan of Burr in the Americanized version, which though of course not the original in any case, still rather ingeniously turned a truly foreign film that at the time would probably never have found an audience into something that is beyond a cult classic character and will live on forever.

I remember grilling somebody from Sony/Columbia about the earlier Broderick remake at the time it was coming out and asking if it was a good remake, not a mess, and being told it was. Pure lie, of course, and you are no doubt right about this upcoming version. No matter how out-of-place or low-budget the version Burr headlined, nothing is as sad as the huge amounts of money today being thrown at the screen for tepid and dumbed-down results.

Glad you were at the festival, Suzi!

Posted By Susan Doll : April 21, 2014 6:33 pm

Thanks everyone. I like to share anything that I learn with my readers. The more people know about classic film, and the more this information is shared, then the better the chances of keeping classic movies alive for future generations.

Posted By Doug : April 21, 2014 9:32 pm

Sounds like a great event-Susan; I appreciate that your post covers so many genres at the Film Festival.
As for the passing of Hollywood Golden era participants…part of life, and we appreciate who is still with us. In the future, as you said, younger stars will have their day-I could imagine a Rene Zellweger hosting a showing of “Pillow Talk” as she starred in the homage, “Down With Love”. That has probably already happened-but that will be the future when all the Golden-agers have passed.
Just pulling a name out of the air, Bradley Cooper is one of the current crop of leading men-he could be tapped to host a Warren William series.

Posted By tdraicer : April 21, 2014 11:11 pm

>Pure lie, of course, and you are no doubt right about this upcoming version.

From the trailers, I wouldn’t make that assumption. Which doesn’t mean the new Godzilla will be good, but based on what I’ve seen, I see no reason to assume in advance it will be bad.

Posted By Richard Brandt : April 23, 2014 2:06 am

One of my single favorite edits in any movie is one of Ralph Dawson’s in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD…it’s during the announcement introducing Prince John in the banquet hall, and anyone familiar enough with the movie knows exactly which cut I’m talking about. Sheer genius.

Posted By swac44 : April 23, 2014 12:07 pm

As much as I love Cagney, there’s no doubt in my mind that for Errol Flynn, Robin Hood was, as they say, “the role he was born to play.”

I’ll get to TCM Fest one day….at least, I keep telling myself that. If I keep doing that it’s bound to happen, right?

Posted By #1Osfan : April 23, 2014 10:51 pm

I enjoyed reading your post. I share your opinion that the festival would be better served in the future by having true film historians/critics/experts introduce films rather than younger actors. Quite often (as we’ve seen in some of the “Guest Programmer” spots) these au current Hollywood types just don’t have the depth of knowledge or insight that we amateur fans who’ve spent our lifetime learning about the art of film have. And so many of them are not articulate- they can’t put two sentences together without saying “like” and “sort of” twenty or thirty times. Of course there are exceptions, however I would still prefer a Brett, Burton or von Meuller.

Posted By robbushblog : April 24, 2014 8:53 pm

The Adventures of Robin Hood is the greatest adventure film of all-time. It is also in my top 10 favorite movies of all-time. Everyone since Errol Flynn has paled in comparison when portraying Robin. I am very jealous, Suzi.

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