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At the TCM Classic Film Festival, movies the way they were meant to be seen

Jane Fondher brother Peter Fondpose next their father's hfoot print outside TCL Chinese Theatre Saturday 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival

Jane Fonda and her brother Peter Fonda pose next to their father's hand and foot print outside the TCL Chinese Theatre Saturday at the 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, California. 4/27/13 ph: Adam Rose

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Updated: June 4, 2013 6:07AM

HOLLYWOOD — Though Cannes, Toronto and Sundance might lead the pack, the place to be for film buffs last weekend was the fourth annual TCM Classic Film Festival. This cinematic extravaganza of more than 80 movies drew more than 25,000 classic film fans during its four-day run at the historic Grauman’s Chinese cineplex, the Egyptian, Cinerama Dome, Avalon and El Capitan theaters.

For its gala opening night, the festival presented the world premiere of the restored 45th anniversary version of William Wyler’s “Funny Girl” (1968), starring Barbra Streisand in her Oscar-winning role as comedian Fanny Brice. Though the reclusive Streisand (who recently turned up to accept a lifetime achievement award bestowed by the Film Society of Lincoln Center) stayed home, fellow Oscar winner Cher saved the day with a surprise appearance.

As usual, serving as master of ceremonies was the incomparable TCM host Robert Osborne, who kept reminding attendees of the festival’s main purpose: to experience movies on the big screen — the way they were meant to be seen: “There’s nothing like watching a film with a live audience.”

Like the cable channel itself, the fest spotlights movies from Tinseltown’s golden age. For this year’s run, the festival program­­med landmark works such as the silent “It” (1927), with Clara Bow in perhaps her most famous role (accompanied by an orchestra playing contemporary silent-film composer Carl Davis’ new score); a rare screening in the wide-screen Cinerama format of “It’s Mad Mad Mad Mad World” (1963), with cast members Mickey Rooney, Marvin Kaplan and Barrie Chase in attendance, and John Boorman’s “Deliverance” (1972), with the director and surviving cast members Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds and Ned Beatty sitting for Q&A sessions.

Also featured were world premiere restorations of classic films such as Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” (1973), King Vidor’s silent “The Big Parade” (1925), Buster Keaton’s “The General” (1926), George Stevens’ “Giant” (1956), John Sturges’ “The Great Escape” (1963) and Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront” (1954).

Plus, there were special tributes to Ann Blyth, Jane Fonda, documentarian Albert Maysles, Eva Marie Saint and Max von Sydow.Among other Hollywood royalty gracing the aisles: Mel Brooks, Marge Champion, Peter Fonda, Mitzi Gaynor, Tippi Hedren, Nor­­­­man Lloyd, producer Walter Mirisch, Barbara Rush and Jane Withers. And expert commentary from film historians Kevin Brownlow, Donald Bogle, Leonard Maltin and Eddie Muller, among others.

So many movies but so little time. With six titles running simultaneously, it was difficult to choose, but here are some highlights:

“The Donovan Affair” (1929): This early talkie by Frank Capra, the first “100 percent sound film” released by Columbia Pictures, was almost lost to history. The sound was recorded on shellac discs, which disappeared decades ago. Film historian Bruce Goldstein, founder of Rialto Pictures, launched an investigation even more interesting than the movie itself (a stagy drawing-room murder mystery).

Using censorship board records and other archival information, along with lip readers, he re-created the dialogue and sound effects. For this screening at the Egyptian, which Goldstein called the film’s first L.A. showing in 80 years, actors read the dialogue as the movie unspooled. “The Donovan Affair” itself is merely an interesting curiosity, without any of Capra’s signature touches, but this was a rare opportunity to experience a one-of-a-kind cinema event.

“I Am Suzanne!’’ (1933): An­other rarity, shown in a new 35mm restoration from the Museum of Modern Art. MoMA archivist Katie Traynor told the crowd: “It just arrived from the lab; it’s an actual wet print.” She added the film hadn’t been seen in 80 years in its original format. The now-forgotten German star Lillian Harvey plays a dancer, who after an accident, turns to puppetry at the urgings of a would-be beau (Broadway star Gene Raymond). Directed by programmer specialist Rowland V. Lee, this musical drama features tinted frames and lovely cinematography from the Peoria-born Lee Garmes (Oscar winner for von Sternberg’s “Shanghai Express”). The marionette sequences, done by the Yale Puppeteers (also sadly forgotten) steal the show, especially with a charming version of the quartet “Bella figlia dell’amore” from Verdi’s “Rigoletto.”

“Voyage to Italy” (1954): The influential Ca­hiers du Cinema once called Roberto Rossellini’s scenes-from-a-marriage drama “the first modern film” — mainly because it was shot without a script.

Though Rossellini’s then-wife Ingrid Bergman rolled with the punches, co-star George Sanders was extremely ticked off by the director’s methods. “In its improvisational way, this film was truly groundbreaking,” said writer-filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer in his intro. But the usually acerbic and stoic Sanders was never better than he is here, displaying a rare vulnerability, probably thanks to Rossellini. Shown until now mainly in faded public domain prints, “Voyage” has been beautifully restored (the fest marked its U.S. premiere) and is being re-released by Janus Films. It already has opened in New York, and let’s hope Chicago is on the film’s release list.

“Scarecrow” (1973): This road movie/buddy tragicomedy with echoes of “Waiting for Godot” won the Palme d’Or at Cannes but now has fallen into obscurity. Gene Hackman and Al Pacino, as a kind of Vladimir and Estragon, give standout performances. (Hackman has called his performance in “Scarecrow” his favorite.) The third film by photographer turned director Jerry Schatzberg, it deserves rediscovery. As Leonard Maltin noted in his introduction, “This film seems as fresh as ever.” But in 1973, “Scarecrow” opened two weeks before “The Exorcist,” and Warner Bros., the studio behind both, lost interest when the latter turned into a blockbuster.

Schatzberg, looking youthful at 85, told the TCM audience that he replaced the film’s original director, whom Hackman didn’t like. (Hackman had just won the best actor Oscar for “The French Connection,” so he didn’t hesitate to use his clout.) After he signed on, “Gene seemed paranoid when he learned that I had worked with Al before [on 1971’s ‘The Panic in Needle Park’],” Schatzberg said. But they quickly hit it off. The film was largely shot in sequence, so that pleased Hackman because “it was like doing a play.”

He learned not to cut on Hackman; “I’d just let [the cameras] roll,” because he would come up with great ad-libs. In a diner scene early in the film, Hackman tussles with a surly waitress. After giving her a complicated order, he adds, “And give me a beer and a chocolate doughnut.” That impromptu line “cracked Al up, so I left it in the film.”

Though Schatzberg last directed in 2000, he has written a sequel to “Scarecrow,” and “I’m in talks with Al,” he said. Hackman, unfortunately, has retired — unless Pacino and Schatzberg can persuade him to take on one last role.

“Safe in Hell” (1931): Another pre-Code rarity, this melodrama centers on a former prostitute (Dorothy Mackaill) seeking refuge in the Caribbean after murdering her attempted rapist. It’s notable for its unstereotyped depictions of blacks, unlike most movies of its era. Nina Mae McKinney and Clarence Muse were allowed to play fully rounded characters, thanks to director William A. Wellman. “This is a gem of a movie and one that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves,” said film historian Donald Bogle in his introduction. Bogle called McKinney “Hollywood’s first black love goddess” and noted that Muse wrote “When It’s Sleepytime Down South” for this film.

In the Q&A afterward, William Wellman Jr., the director’s son, said that his father raised his children without prejudice and that attitude was reflected in his films. For instance, when his father was shooting “Goodbye, My Lady” (1956) in Georgia, the hotel where the cast and crew were staying would not admit Sidney Poitier. The hotel’s management relented a little and allowed Poitier to eat in the kitchen, “and my dad joined him there” to make a point.

His father “was a young thinker,” and that helps to explain his long career, which stretched from the silents to nearly the end of the studio era. He even took on the role of producer occasionally to keep studio bigwigs like David O. Selznick off his set. While making “A Star Is Born” (1937), which went on to win Wellman Sr. an Oscar for best original story, he had a rule: “Selznick could come on the set once a month — and that was it.”

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