The TCM Classic Film Festival Makes History

By Nathaniel Thompson

As is tradition now at the TCM Classic Film Festival, Sunday is the day the schedule fills out with encore screenings of hot tickets that left many fans clamoring for a second chance after the theaters filled up. Traditionally film noir and pre-Code titles rank at the top of the list, and that was the case again this year as word-of-mouth favorites like REIGN OF TERROR, TOO LATE FOR TEARS, and THE SMILING LIEUTENANT returned along with a bonus screening of HOUDINI complete with a live escape artist demonstration by Dorothy Dietrich, a magician and curator of the Houdini Museum. Never let it be said this festival didn’t know how to go out with a bang!

hunchback
The history theme of the entire festival continued on its final day with a variety of surprising and diverse choices that made it difficult to pick only a handful. For example, how do start off your morning: the 70mm grandeur of PATTON or the new digital restoration of the 1939 version of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME? I opted for latter, which rarely pops up on the big screen, and it turned out to be spectacular indeed. The film is famous for many reasons: Charles Laughton’s stunning portrayal of Quasimodo, Maureen O’Hara’s American film debut as the gypsy Esmerelda, the striking score by Alfred Newman, and no-expense-spared treatment from RKO Pictures, hot off of another major property the same year, GUNGA DIN (also featured in this year’s programming). As an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel the film is questionable at best, with the Production Code in particular requiring some drastic alterations to both entire characters and major plot points (including the much-discussed ending). However, it’s often cited as the best version of the famed story thanks to its rich, enchanting atmosphere, parceling out one jaw-dropping set piece after another under the sure hand of director William Dieterle, whose magical touch is well in evidence here. The presentation was a stunner throughout with TCM favorite Illeana Douglas offering fine introduction, referring to Laughton as “an actor other actors always talk about” and sharing a great anecdote about celebrating Richard Drefuss’s birthday during a TCM Classic Cruise, with all of the celebrants (including herself, Dreyfuss, Diane Baker, and Shirley Jones) turning their attention to watch this film all the way through when it was playing in the background.

diary

Speaking of Baker, she’s a familiar face to TCM viewers as well and was present along with Douglas again and star Millie Perkins to introduce a powerhouse screening of George Stevens’s Oscar-winning classic, THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK. Baker remembered Stevens as wanting “simplicity, naturalness” from the thespians, while Perkins (who, along with Baker, was making her debut) became homesick halfway through the shoot and wanted to go back east to be with her family. Wisely, Stevens gently urged her to stay on, and the rest is history. Among the other memories were Perkins subsisting on Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese and Baker living in costume and without makeup over the nine-month production. They also remembered Shelley Winters (who took home an Academy Award for her performance and donated the statuette to the Anne Frank House) as “a wonderful actress and a pain in the neck! She was wonderful, entertaining all the time.” Among Winters’s acting tips: cracking ammonia capsules to induce crying on camera and getting Perkins tipsy before shooting the Hanukkah scene. However, they closed out on a serious note when asked whether they agreed with the real Anne Frank’s most famous statement, “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” When asked whether that was still true, Perkins wistfully stated “I don’t know,” while Baker opined by gesturing to the audience, “We can’t control everyone else, but we can try to be good at heart.”

outsight
In between screenings I finally had a moment to sit in one of the new additions this year, the #heartmovies video booth in the main lobby of the TCL Multiplex, where people can record a two-minute video about the film (or films!) that turned them into lifelong movie fans. It’s a great experience that will hopefully be making a return appearance next year. From there it was a jump across the lobby for the most recent film on the schedule, and indeed, one of the most contemporary films to screen at the TCM Classic Film Festival to date: Steven Soderbergh’s OUT OF SIGHT (1998), which seemed right at home thanks to its snappy dialogue (expertly adapted by Scott Frank from Elmore Leonard’s novel), wildly charismatic lead turns by George Clooney and a radiant Jennifer Lopez, stylish direction by Steven Soderbergh, and an incredible roster of supporting actors including Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle, Albert Brooks, and a scene-stealing Dennis Farina, to name just a few. However, the real focus here was Anne V. Coates, who appeared earlier in the weekend to discuss her award-winning work on LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. However, she handpicked this film as well to showcase the evolution of her work and regards it as one of her finest achievements, explaining to TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz before the screening that it “has some of my most interesting editing in it.” Our TCM host agreed with her and explained that this is one of his all-time favorite film (having seen it at least a dozen times and finding something new with every viewing), and their conversation also branched out to discuss her work on such films as THE EAGLE HAS LANDED, IN THE LINE OF FIRE, and her surprising recent stint of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, which had one significant flaw: “I didn’t think it was as raunchy as it should have been!” She also shared memories of being hired by John Ford (in his dressing gown), who left her to her own devices after one simple statement: “If you cut for David Lean, you’re good enough for me.” As for her work on OUT OF SIGHT, it’s still as fresh and invigorating today as its opening weekend with such standout moments as the Nicolas Roeg-inspired hotel bar sequence still packing a sexy, witty punch.

kisskate
That would more than enough to whet any cinephile’s appetite, but I decided to close out the day and the entire festival with a sweet dessert: KISS ME KATE, the 1953 MGM screen version of the famous Cole Porter musicalizing of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shew, which has experienced a major reappraisal in recent years thanks to the much-needed availability of screenings in 3-D. The flat and 3-D versions are completely different beasts, and the latter works far better thanks to its audacious compositions and killer dance numbers, with Ann Miller, the underrated Tommy Rall, Bobby Van, and a young Bob Fosse (who got to choreograph part of the show-stopping “From This Moment On” number added for the film) often stealing the limelight from barnstorming leads Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson. You couldn’t ask for a tastier way to end the evening, and it’s hard to believe we’ve reached the end of another year and another unforgettable weekend of movie nirvana with hundreds of film-loving friends we’ll all see again next year with plenty of newcomers to join the fun as well.
Nathaniel Thompson runs the website mondo-digital.com, authors the DVD Delirium book series, and is a regular writer for tcm.com.

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