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TCM Classic Film Festival

For years now, film lovers in Los Angeles have enjoyed the yearly TCM Classic Film Festival held at the TCL Chinese Theatre complex in Hollywood. That area of town becomes the cinephile center of the world for several days, with world premiere film restorations, screenings of movies famous or rare, and the presence of the stars or filmmakers to discuss their work.  In 2020, the Covid pandemic precluded an in-person gathering, so the event was held on the TCM television channel instead. The upcoming 2021 festival, beginning on May 6 and running through May 9, will be broadcast both on the TCM channel and have more content available to stream on HBO Max. Here’s a general preview for the festival, with a discussion of some highlights I was able to screen in advance of the event.

Image above: from Bill Morrison’s film, let me come in.

The Opening Night presentation, featured on both TCM and HBO Max, will be the 60th anniversary screening of West Side Story, with new interviews from stars Rita Moreno, George Chakiris and Russ Tamblyn. This screening may be of even more interest considering the upcoming remake of the movie from Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner slated for later this year. The TCM premiere of the 1932 horror film, Doctor X, is an intriguing addition on multiple levels. It’s a recent restoration of a two-color Technicolor master, a precursor to full color films, and its odd combo of black and white and occasional greens and browns give it a unique sepia tone nightmare feel. Also, being a pre-Hayes Code feature, it’s significantly freakier than one might imagine for its time, with murder, prostitution, rape and cannibalism as plot points. A short documentary on the horror films of director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, Mildred Pierce, The Adventures of Robin Hood) is attached, which provides lesser-known information about the famed helmer.

Restorations and premieres are the heart of any film festival, and the TCM Classic Film Festival has plenty of both. May 7th sees the TCM premiere of 1950’s Annie Get Your Gun, in a 4K restoration from the original nitrate Technicolor negative. Preceding that musical is the world premiere restoration of 1951’s The Whistle at Eaton Falls, a drama starring Lloyd Bridges. The following day sees the world premiere of 1947’s They Won’t Believe Me, a crime drama starring Robert Young and Susan Hayward, in a 4K restoration from the nitrate film that includes 15 minutes of previously excised footage. Ernst Lubitsch’s 1926 silent film, So This Is Paris, the first movie to ever depict a choreographed dance scene (the Charleston), has its world premiere restoration (including a new score) screened on May 9th.

American Masters (PBS) TV Series Season 10 Episode 5: Nichols and May: Take Two May 22, 1996 Directed by Phillip Schopper Shown from left: Elaine May, Mike Nichols.

The festival also features some world television premieres, such as the restoration of 1930’s pre-Code melodrama, Her Man. Josephine Baker stars in 1935’s Princess Tam Tam, a restoration shown on the 9th, a film she followed up by spying for the French Resistance. 1947’s film noir starring Franchot Tone, I Love Trouble, (not to be confused with the 1994 Nick Nolte/Julia Roberts comedy) is a TCM premiere on May 8. Another TCM premiere that same day is the 1996 documentary, Nichols and May: Take Two, a terrific collection of their legendary sketch comedy. This screens along with Nichols’ directorial debut, the magnificent Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and a new interview by Nichols biographer Mark Harris.

One of the best things about the TCM channel other than its presentation of classic films all year long are the scholarly and interesting introductions to the movies, along with special content such as interviews or documentaries. The festival of course offers a banquet of such content, with celebrity film introductions from luminaries such as Jacqueline Bisset, Bill Hader, Danny Huston, Michael Caine and Michael Douglas. More in-depth celebration will include conversations with selected film “Masters,” this year spotlighting Barbara Kopple, Barry Levinson, Steve McQueen, Mira Nair, Chantal Akerman and Rob Reiner. Along those lines are tributes to Danny Glover, Ali MacGraw and Martin Short, featuring discussions with the subjects and screenings of their films. “Essential” movies and “Discoveries” will also include supplemental content for the festival, one of the best of which is the short doc about the making of the Bogart film, Chain Lightning, called Jet Jockeys in Love. Famed Hollywood sound wizard Ben Burtt and visual effects artist Craig Barron demonstrate how the special effects for Lightning, the first film about jet planes, were created, uncovering the amazing fact that the jet engine noises for the film were also used in Road Runner cartoons.

Production photo for Doctor X.

Some of the most enjoyable content from the TCM festival doesn’t center on the work of one filmmaker, such as the “Hollywood Home Movies” segment. It’s a collection of home movies curated by the Academy Film Archives, representatives of which provide running commentary, as the footage is silent. Highlights include a visit with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall on their boat and at home, Shirley Jones talking about the making of Oklahoma! and a plethora of stars (Errol Flynn, Peter Lorre, Billy Wilder) at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club. The SF Sketchfest reading of Plan 9 from Outer Space, adapted with witty asides by Dana Gould, is an amusing tribute to the low-budget “classic,” featuring Gould, Bob Odenkirk, Maria Bamford and Laraine Newman, who excels with her deadpan narration.

A few of the short documentary features focusing on the work of a filmmaker were compelling to me as I wasn’t as familiar with these people’s work and these pieces provide a solid introduction. Cinema of Decay is an exploration of the oeuvre of experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison, whose films include focus on the physical signs of decay on nitrate stock. Clips from his short, Decasia (a combination of Fantasia and “decay”), display images from the distant past struggling to survive amidst a storm of melted film bubbles and tears and static – it’s a unique vision. His latest film, let me come in, is also included in its world broadcast premiere. A look at Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman is included in the “Masters” series, and it’s a welcome survey of her career – her film, News from Home and her short, La Chambre, will be screening on May 9th.

A Trip to the Moon (1902 France) aka Le Voyage dans la lune, A Trip to Mars, Voyage to the Moon Directed by Georges MÈliËs Shown: the projectile striking the “Man in the Moon”

Of all the material I was able to access and watch before writing this preview, the documentary The Méliès Mystery was my favorite, a love letter to cinema whose very existence is miraculous. The first half of the film covers the career of pioneering French filmmaker Georges Méliès, a prolific genius who brought his expert knowledge of theatre staging and magic tricks to the big screen, and whose influential works such as A Trip to the Moon made him one of the most successful filmmakers in the world. However, this didn’t last, and after a series of downturns, in a fit of despair Méliès burned the original negatives of his 500-plus movies. And there begins an amazing tale, as film historians scour the earth for remaining prints, a decades-long story that leads from attics and basements to the producer of the Bugs Bunny cartoons and ultimately to the Library of Congress. The true story of how we today have any Méliès films to look at is fascinating, but the opportunity to look at so many restored scenes from his work is the real gift. This film exemplifies the TCM Classic Film Festival in its love of cinema and in displaying the importance of film restoration.

The TCM Classic Film Festival airs on the TCM channel and on HBO Max from May 6 – May 9, 2021.

Terry Morgan

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