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TCM festival salutes Hollywood’s golden age

Kim Novak greets fans before her footprint ceremony Grauman’s Chinese Theatre during TCM Film Festival Hollywood. | Joe Klamar~AFP/Getty Images

Kim Novak greets fans before her footprint ceremony at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre during the TCM Film Festival in Hollywood. | Joe Klamar~AFP/Getty Images

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Updated: May 21, 2012 8:19AM



HOLLYWOOD — What is good is sitting all alone in your room with your DVDs and Blu-rays? For film buffs, the place to be last weekend was the third annual TCM Classic Film Festival, a cinematic “Cabaret” of more than 80 films during a four-day run at the historic Grauman’s Chinese, Egyptian, Cinerama Dome and Avalon theaters.

For its gala opening night, the festival presented the world premiere of the restored 40th anniversary version of “Cabaret” (1972), with Liza Minnelli in her Oscar-winning role as that American chanteuse in Weimar-era Berlin, Sally Bowles.

Joining Minnelli on the red carpet leading to Grauman’s were fellow Hollywood legends Tip­pi Hedren, Margaret O’Brien, Debbie Reynolds, Eva Marie Saint, Robert Wagner, and directors Stanley Donen and Norman Jewison.

Serving as the festival’s master of ceremonies was TCM host Robert Osborne, who reminded the opening-night crowd of the festival’s main purpose: to experience cinema on the big screen — the way it was meant to be seen. “Of course we love TCM, but there’s nothing like watching a film with a live audience,” he said.

Like the cable channel itself, the festival spotlights movies from Tinseltown’s golden age. For this year’s run, the festival screened landmark works such as “How the West Was Won” (1962), in the rarely seen, wide-screen Cinerama format; a digitally restored “Rio Bravo” (1958) with Angie Dickinson in attendance, and fan favorites such as “Casablanca” (1942) and “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952), also with Reynolds in the house.

With five titles running simultaneously, it was difficult to choose from the wealth of riches, but here are some highlights:

“Vertigo” (1958) with Kim Novak: Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest and most personal film, shown here via crisp digital projection, never has looked better. And the chance to view this tale of doomed romantic obsession with Madeleine/Judy herself in the audience was enough to push any “Vertigo” fan into spirals of ecstasy.

Earlier in the day, Novak taped an interview session with Osborne at the Avalon, and the talk turned confessional, as she revealed that she has bipolar disorder and that she still feels the psychic toll exacted by the studio system. The scenes in “Vertigo” when Scottie (James Stewart) transforms her were especially difficult for her to film. “It was so reminiscent of the studio trying to manipulate me, trying to make me over and then me giving in because I wanted to be loved,” she said.

A native Chicagoan, Novak recalled her emotionally distant parents and broke into tears at times. “My father never said he loved me until the day he died,” she said.

Moments like these evoked the climax of “Vertigo,” with Judy in the bell tower, on the brink again.

“Gun Crazy” (1950) with co-star Peggy Cummins: This was one of several noirs programmed for the festival by “The Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller, perhaps the leading American expert on this film style. Introducing Cummins, Muller called her “the No. 1 female noir star” — ahead of the genre’s icons such as Barbara Stanwyck and Claire Trevor. “Having Peggy here, during a screening of this great work, is the ultimate thrill,” he said. “Without performances like hers, there would be no ‘Breathless’ or ‘Bonnie and Clyde.’”

Cummins, who left Hollywood in 1950, had returned for her first visit in 62 years. “I’m breathless,” she exclaimed, echoing Muller’s praise. “This was such a meaty part — I always wanted to get Bette Davis’ roles, and here I did.”

“A Trip Down Market Street” (1906) with “A Trip to the Moon” (1902): To accompany the restored 2011 version of Georges Melies’ pioneering short, French historian and director Serge Bromberg presented a series of rare shorts, including the 12-minute “Market Street,” a mini-doc of jolly traffic mayhem, as recorded from the front of a cable car. Just four days later, much of the city was destroyed by the great earthquake of 1906. This time capsule survives, because the footage was sent to New York City for processing.

Of Georges Melies’ “A Trip to the Moon,” which figures prominently in the plot of Martin Scor­sese’s “Hugo,” “it was the ‘Avatar’ of its day,” Bromberg said. This latest revision features an original score by the French electronica duo by Air, as part of an attempt to make it, Bromberg said, “a ‘Sgt. Pepper’ for a new generation.”

“Fall Guy” (1947) with legendary producer Walter Mirisch: His Mirisch Co. went on to deliver blockbusters like “Some Like It Hot” (1959), “West Side Story” (1961) and “In the Heat of the Night” (1967), but he started small at age 24 with this gritty “coke noir.” Shot in eight days for $85,000 on the Monogram Pictures back lot, with sets that Mirisch said “probably weren’t any larger than this [screening] room,” “Fall Guy” remains “proof that one can overcome adversity and then go on to achieve something in life.”

“The Thief of Bagdad” (1924) with the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra: The festival screened this epic silent at the Egyptian, where it had its original premiere 88 years ago. Douglas Fairbanks gives “such an outsized performance,” said silent-film historian and Fairbanks biographer Jeffrey Vance, “that it only works on the big screen.” Fairbanks regarded this lavish fantasy as his favorite film, and Vance noted its influence on “The Artist,” especially in the development of hero George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). The Oscars for “The Artist” meant a lot to Vance, not just because of his silent-film research, but also “it put Douglas Fairbanks back in the air. There’s been a great resurgence of interest in him since ‘The Artist.’”

“Seconds” (1966) with Richard Anderson: John Frankenheimer completed his trilogy of paranoia with this underappreciated sci-fi thriller (preceded by “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Seven Days in May”). Cast against type, Rock Hudson gave his best-ever performance as a disaffected exec who undergoes a surgical rebirth.

“Paramount didn’t want to make this film,” said co-star Richard Anderson, now 85, who plays Hudson’s surgeon in “Seconds,” and consequently the studio let it languish after its release. Anderson himself languished in bit parts until Betsy Drake, then married to Cary Grant, spotted him and suggested that her husband should have the young contract player added to Grant’s “Dream Wife” (1953). “I had almost given up on my film career at that point,” he said. “Working with Cary gave me the boost I needed.” Grant also gave him some sage advice: “The most important thing in a movie is to say the last words.” Anderson laughed and added, “which I do in this film.”

“Letter From an Unknown Woman” (1948): A rare chance to view director Max Ophuls’ greatest American effort, with Joan Fontaine in yet another tragedy of romantic obsession. Rose McGowan, a former TCM “Essentials” co-host, called Fontaine “the ultimate doe-eyed heroine,” and imitated the actress at her dewy best.

“20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (1954) with Kirk Douglas: I caught only the end of this Disney classic but Charles Horak, artistic director of the Plaza Classic Film Festival in El Paso, Texas, reports that one of this screening’s best moments came during the introductory discussion: TCM host Ben Mankiewicz asked Kirk Douglas, still hale and hardy at 95 despite the lingering effects of a stroke, if he remembered the lyrics to “A Whale of a Tale,” which his character warbles in “20,000 Leagues.”

Not only did the mighty Kirk know it, he immediately broke into verse: “Got a whale of a tale to tell ya, lads/A whale of a tale or two/’Bout the flappin’ fish and the girls I’ve loved/On nights like this with the moon above/A whale of a tale, and it’s all true.”

That’s the TCM Classic Film Festival — a veritable Great White Whale of a cinema experience.



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