TCM Classic Film Festival: Build Your Own Festival

March 26-29, Hollywood CA


The TCM Classic Film Festival had an amazingly intimate quality, despite screening over 80 films and presenting multiple special events in ten different venues. A number of factors contributed to this feeling. The event’s well-tuned organization and the helpful staff created a relaxed atmosphere. The audience’s mutual love of classic film brought a true sense of camaraderie to what can feel like wasted time, waiting in line or in the auditorium for a movie to start. Granted, the drunken woman next to me providing her own running commentary during The Invisible Man (1933) was a bit of a drag. Although the film’s director James Whale would probably have found her amusing and cast Una O’Connor to play her in a bit part in one of his droll pictures.

The programming’s depth and breadth, spanning both decades and a multitude of genres, allowed attendees to essentially program their own unique festival within the festival. Again this made the event an intensely personal experience; my two favorite films from the TCMFF reflected the diversity of the programming (and my own tastes in film). Friday morning, after attending the opening night screening of Rouben Mamoulian’s Queen Christina (1933) with the pleasant surprise of my heroine Cari Beauchamp introducing the classic Garbo picture, I settled down for a Universal Western, The Proud Rebel (1958). Presenter Eddie Muller, founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation, warned us, “You’re heartstrings are going to get a workout today.” Boy, did they ever.

proud rebel still

The father and son relationship isn’t always easy in The Proud Rebel.

In Michael Curtiz’s sensitively wrought film, a Confederate vet (Alan Ladd) wanders in the post-Civil War North, searching for a doctor who can cure his son (Ladd’s real life son David) of his trauma induced muteness. They are accompanied by a contender for the best dog to ever grace the big screen, their border collie Lance. The pair forms an unlikely alliance with a spinsterish farm owner (Olivia De Havilland) against a sheep farmer (Dean Jagger) and his two sons who are trying to force her off her land. They also begin to form a new family, beautifully expressed by cinematographer Ted D. McCord when he frames the three of them siting together at the dinner table with a single light source cozily enveloping them.

While gorgeously shot, the film had a patina of realism common to Universal’s Westerns illustrated in De Havilland’s remarkably plain look in the film, the depiction of the endless hard work involved in farming, and the barren trappings of the farmhouse.  The characterizations of the film, in both writing and acting, are subtle and complex which also contributes to the film’s veracity. These three work for their happiness, and when it is in endangered, reluctantly fight for it, allowing the audience some exciting action and suspense. In the pre-screening interview with the younger Ladd, he credited his truthful performance in part to the senior Ladd, “When you work with your father, he will keep you honest.”

The father and son relationship is also explored in another one of my festival favorites, John Power’s The Picture Show Man (1977).  The film is based on E. Lyle Penn’s memoir of his traveling days with his father. Outfitted in a horse-drawn wagon (with another border collie contending for the best dog in cinema award), Mr. Pym (John Meillon) and his son Freddie (Harold Hopkins) screen hand cranked films for the denizens of small towns scattered across an impressively vast, varied and beautiful Australian landscape. The pair’s picaresque adventures portray the familiar family drama of a son breaking out from his father’s shadow and the ups and down of the performers’ life on the road, as well as expressing a deep love of the cinema’s magic spell.

The film effectively captures the leisurely pace of travel in the late ‘20s by letting its own story unwind with the same pace. Each little adventure adds to the understanding of the characters and the changing times: The running battle with the old man’s protégé turned rival (Rod Taylor), romantic encounters, some joyous, some bittersweet, and the inevitable adaptations of the show for the audience’s changing tastes.  As the film progresses, so do the modes of travel and the motion picture business. By the end of the film, the wagon has been traded in for a motorized van. Their accompanist (John Ewart), accepting his job will be redundant with the “talkies”, invests his savings in a sound projector for the troupe. The son decides to marry and settle down away from the traveling life. He also wants to actualize his father’s much talked about dream of owning an independent cinema. The movies and the son have grown up together. The father still retains his affections for both as well as for his life as a traveling entertainer.

hand cranked film

The magic of the hand cranked projector.

TCM astutely presented Return of the Dream Machine: Hand-Cranked Films From 1902-1913 later the same day. It was exciting to experience films the way the audiences did in Picture Show Man. In a similarly smart piece of programming, the restored Harry Houdini silent film The Grim Game screened after a showing of the not strictly factual Hollywood biopic Houdini.  Both screenings were presented by two magicians, “the female Houdini” escape artist Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz who founded the Houdini Museum. During the former screening Dietrich performed an impressive straitjacket escape in less than four minutes. Impressive and fun.  While Michael Mortilla’s accompaniment was excellent for Return, conductor and composer Brane Živkovic’s score for Grim was a disappointment, full of repetitions and awkward silences.

The TCMFF delivered, on the whole, a faultless experience. A wide choice of classic films along with a plethora of interesting moderators and guests ensured that there truly was something for everyone. Best of all, it was the chance to see excellent films up on the big screen with an enthusiastic crowd—the way movies are meant to be seen. Films, while bigger than life, at their best reflect the human experience and allow audience members to connect with each other through them.