Book Review--Jimmy and Fay: A Suspense Novel


Jimmy and Fay: A Suspense Novel
Michael Mayo
Open Road/Mysterious Press, 2016

The setting is New York City, during Prohibition, and Fay Wray is on the verge of stardom. King Kong is about to premiere at Radio City Music Hall, but the actress is troubled by blackmailers who claim to have racy pictures of her in settings from the film. Enter Jimmy Quinn, proprietor of a humble speakeasy, acquaintance of gangsters and police detectives alike. This third mystery in Michael Mayo's Quinn series goes to places far beyond this initial set-up. It's an engrossing story, though not necessarily an ideal fit for classic film fans.

Quinn is a likable character, making do with short stature and a limp; compensating for those shortcomings with a sharp wit and survivor's mentality. Given his lifelong association with crime, he's almost a bit too good, with a moral compass that would likely not be so sure given the scuzzy characters in his past. He's got enough grit to keep you with him though.

As an enthralling interview with Wray inspired Mayo to include her in a mystery, it's a bit surprising how thin her character is here. You get a bit of her personality, like the way she says "golly" and her innate dignity, but for the most part this could be any actress. It's also difficult to engage with her distress, as the reason she's being blackmailed never inspires a true sense of peril.

While there are some intriguing period details, the milieu is not quite detailed enough to make you feel as though you are in a different time period. The rhythm of the dialogue and the profanity have an almost modern feel. However, I think this approach could appeal to some kinds of classic film fans, though others could be turned off by the raunchier elements of the plot and language. Here's the acid test: if you like TCM, but feel horrified by TCM Underground, you might want to give this one a pass. If you like both, then this is your read.

As a straight-ahead suspense novel, Jimmy and Fay is enjoyable, with touches of humor, sharp dialogue and unpredictable twists and turns. Sometimes the pay-off for the various mysteries of the book can be a bit underwhelming, but the strength of the characters picks up the slack. I felt engaged enough with the Quinn character at the end to want to read the previous mysteries in the series. He's good fun.

Many thanks to Saichek Publicity for sending a copy of the book for review.

TCM Classic Film Festival 2017 Wrap-up: Taking it All In


Navigating a film festival is a skill, and each one has its own character. After four years of having a great time at TCM Classic Film Festival, but making all sorts of mistakes, I have finally determined the perfect formula for making the most of these four days. In essence: I have learned to relax.

When I first attended TCMFF, it was a point of pride among many to be able to binge as many movies as possible, forgetting about sleep and living on soda and popcorn. While never hardcore, I did fall into that pattern to a degree, and my body, and sanity paid a significant price. Now I have learned to skip a program block or three, sit down in a restaurant for a real meal every day and spend some time relaxing with my people. It's a huge privilege to spend a few days among so many fans of classic films, taking the time to enjoy each other's company should be a priority and this year my experience was much more enjoyable because I did that.



If I really wanted to attend a film, I showed up early, but I didn't worry excessively about getting in to anything. I went with my moods, changing my schedule to go with the rhythm of the day. Perhaps most importantly, I went into movies, events and social events with an open mind, replacing expectations with a spirit of adventure. While I had still my responsibilities as a member of the media, all of these strategies made the festival feel less like work and more like the celebration it was meant to be.

My advice to prospective festivalgoers, or those who have felt a bit steamrolled by the event: breathe, enjoy the moment and realize your own health and sanity will always be more important than seeing everything TCMFF has to offer.

The first thing I saw when I got off the shuttle bus
Robert Osborne

TCM did a great job of keeping the spirit of Robert Osborne present throughout the festival. In addition to dedicating the event to the dearly departed representative of the channel and creating a meaningful tribute in the décor of Club TCM, love for Robert O ran throughout the four days.

The festival opened with the A Tribute to Robert Osborne program, which featured guests like friend Diane Baker. Before each film the first day of the festival, there was a short video tribute to Osborne, which spotlighted how amazing this man was with all kinds of people.

Presenters also paid their respects. On the opening night of the festival, before a screening of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Martin Scorsese said, "It's hard to believe that he's gone. I'd like to think he'd be proud the festival is thriving and I don't think there's any better way to celebrate it and celebrate him." Rose McGowan also paid her respects on the last night of the festival, before one of the final films of the festival, Lady in the Dark (1944), though while she was sincere, audience members were a bit confused when she asked for five seconds of silence for Robert O, and then, without pausing, went on to talk for five more minutes. Oh well, we all got the idea.

TCM plans to continue its tributes to Osborne, and many of those efforts are still in the planning stages. While the channel has never replayed film intros, it may do so with some of Robert's classic moments. There is also the possibility that some of his Private Screenings interviews will be aired again, though rights issues offer some complications. It is laudable that programmers threw caution to the wind and aired some of Osborne's best interviews for its 48 hour tribute to him, despite the fact that not everything was technically cleared. It is clear that while TCM is thinking a great deal about the practicality its tributes, ultimately love for Robert O inspires many key decisions.



Nitrate

My post about watching nitrate films at the festival inspired a spirited discussion on the Going to TCM Film Festival Facebook group. On one hand, there was the "Nitrate Schmitrate" crowd who saw nothing special in the experience. On the other, there were those who felt they saw something unusual in those screenings that they hadn't experienced before, something in the way light played on subjects and the luster of the images.

Perhaps most interesting of all was the input from a pair of archival film experts who claimed that the whole nitrate mania was bunk. As this is a private Facebook group, I can't share names or specific comments, but these men, who have extensive experience with many different types of formats, insisted that it was great filmmaking, not the magical effect of a certain format that moved those who enjoyed the experience. One expert in particular had a lot of interesting insight to share about his own experiences with nitrate and what he felt American Cinematheque could do to enhance the showing of nitrate films at the Egyptian Theatre.

So what to make of that? Did I adore these screenings simply because the films were made by some of the best directors in the business? Filmmakers who gather the best craftspeople around them? Is that enough to account for what so many of us enjoyed, not simply when we were looking for something special, but when the exhaustion of a day of watching films came over us and an unusual moment of beauty struck us out of the blue? Something we had never seen before.

I don't know. I've got an expert who has spend a lifetime working with film insisting nitrate had nothing to do with that experience on one side. Then there's Scorsese on the other saying: "the blacks are deeper, richer…the grey are spanning a huge spectrum…. there's a different kind of beauty to it, nitrate has a luminosity, images are lustrous. People talk about it glowing." It's hard for me to discount what I saw when in moments where I was lost in the film, these words came back to me and began to make sense.

Interesting isn't it? Experts with completely opposing opinions. Each of them certain of the truth. All I know is that I saw something remarkable in those four films that I hadn't seen before. I don't go looking for magic, and I have always been highly skeptical of the belief of any superiority of 35mm to digital. I haven't seen enough nitrate to be sure of anything, but I intend to grab any other opportunities to view the format. It only makes sense. If I had four remarkable viewing experiences, it's worth following the same road again.

Like I said, breathe...

Warner Archive Blu-ray: Cowboys and Dinosaurs in Valley of the Gwangi (1969)


Cowboys and dinosaurs in a movie together? In The Valley of Gwangi (1969) the combination is as entertaining as it sounds. It is the last dinosaur film of effects designer Ray Harryhausen, and showcases some of his best work, in addition to being a rousing action flick. The film is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

In turn of the century Mexico, Wild West showrunner T.J. Breckinridge (Gila Golan) is in desperate need of a big attraction to build up ticket sales. Former show stuntman and estranged paramour Tuck (James Franciscus) wants her to settle down with him. Though their relationship is strained, they are still passionate about each other. However, T.J. is determined to make the show a success, and when a tiny horse comes into her possession, her hope for riches is renewed.

Tuck becomes acquainted with Professor Bromley (Laurence Naismith) a paleontologist, who declares the unusual horse a prehistoric breed. When he learns the animal has come from the mysterious Forbidden Valley, the scientist is eager to go there to look for additional specimens. Tuck envisions finding more fantastic creatures for T.J. so she can make her fortune and retire with him. He tricks the blind gypsy woman Tia Zorina (Freda Jackson) into telling him the location of this mysterious place, ignoring her warning to avoid the area and return the horse or face ill fortune.

When the horse is stolen to be returned to the Forbidden Valley, T.J. thinks Tuck is behind it. She follows him with the men from her show to the Valley, where they find more dangerous creatures than they had bargained for. Though they fight for their lives, their greed never lessens, causing chaos in the Valley and beyond.

Gwangi had originally been conceived by Willis O'Brien, the pioneering effects designer responsible for the creatures in King Kong (1933). He had also been Harryhausan's mentor and thus inherited the project when O'Brien failed to produce it before his death in 1962. Despite a dramatically different setting, the story has a lot of parallels to King Kong, carrying on the theme of greed blinding humans to their own best interests.

The story takes a while to truly get rolling. While appealing actors and a brisk pace keep the action riveting enough in the first half of the film, it becomes truly special when the group first encounters the creatures of the Forbidden Valley. 

Harryhausen's prehistoric figures are marvels of detail and emotion. In addition to making the dinosaurs seem real, he manages to telegraph their thoughts, showing them as fully-realized characters in moments of confusion, anger and fear. It is partly this attention to the creatures' inner life that makes his figures so timeless.

In an amusing element of the story, Dr. Bromley is aware of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures,  while the less educated cowboys are not. Completely baffled by what they are seeing, they think they've come across a plucked ostrich or a lizard who has grown out of control. To be fair, that actually makes a lot more sense than part of the earth existing in a time warp.

It's a fun adventure, made special by its mixing of genres and helped along by a rousing western score.

While there are a few brief moments in the beginning where the film seems fuzzy, overall the image is sharp and clean, with the Technicolor presented to striking effect. Special features on the disc include the featurette Return to the Valley, which includes commentary from Ray Harryhausen.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

TCM Classic Film Festival 2017: Club TCM, Leonard Maltin and Dick Cavett


What a shame that Club TCM exists for only four days out of the year, a sort of Brigadoon of classic film fan hang-outs. Of course, I'd never leave if I had year-round access. Housed in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the club serves as a meeting place and event location for TCM Classic Film Festival passholders. This exclusive bit of movie lover paradise is made even more magical by the fact that it is in the hotel's Blossom Room, which was the location of the first Academy Awards banquet in 1929.

Club TCM is the location for the festival's opening and closing night parties, extended conversations with special guests and presentations like the much-loved Hollywood Home Movies program. It is also a popular gathering place for passholders, with a bar, lots of plush seating and decorations ranging from custom murals and movie posters to photographs and memorabilia. It's one of the best places at the festival for chance encounters with celebrities, in addition to being a good setting for meeting other attendees.

I spent a lot more time in Club TCM this year because I skipped a couple of programming blocks in order to relax and soak up the high-spirited festival atmosphere. In spending more time there, I came to appreciate how much this space brings to the festival experience.


Debbie's Good Mornin' costume
Each year the club is decorated to honor the festival theme and special guests. The 2017 set-up was a bit poignant, because despite the comedy theme, this has been a particularly bittersweet year for classic film fans, partly due to the passing of Debbie Reynolds and TCM host Robert Osborne. Reynolds was honored with a display of three of her costumes, one her famous sweater and skirt combo from the Good Mornin' number in Singin' in the Rain (1952), the other two a pair of glittering gowns she wore in The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964). Appropriately enough, nearly all of the rest of the décor was in tribute to Osborne, to whom the festival was also dedicated.

That's Robert O. in the back, standing next to a seated Anne Bancroft
A wall of sticky notes was set up next to the club's doors for fans to write their tributes to Osborne. TCM will gather these into a book for his family. The walls were also full of photos from the host's favorite movies, including All About Eve, Sunset Blvd and the favorite that always delighted me: This is Spinal Tap. I was most moved by the inclusion of Osborne in the custom photo mural that covered the back wall of the club. The work featured stars from many of the films on the festival schedule sprawled across an elegant room, most of them comically in various stages of undress. Osborne stands in the back, with that familiar welcoming, serene look on his face.

In addition to having fun catching up with friends and meeting other passholders, I attended a pair of fascinating special events at Club TCM this year:

Leonard Maltin

The last afternoon of the festival I attended the Leonard Maltin Q&A at the club. While I had seen Maltin introduce several films at previous festivals, I'd never had the opportunity to see him speak about his own career and cinema in general. For a session like this to truly work, the questions have got to be good, fortunately that was the case here; the audience gave Maltin many ideas worth discussing.

Maltin's bubbly daughter Jessie took on some of the microphone duties, adding interesting insights about her father. She told the audience about his shortest review, which was actually accepted by the Guinness Book of World Records. It was his response to the film Isn't It Romantic? His response: "No". At one point she also introduced his wife, and her mother Alice, who in answer to a question asked of Leonard informed the crowd that of course she was interested in movies.

It's nice to be able to watch presentations on the screens at the back of the room if you can't snag a seat

The critic shared that he rarely watched a film more than two times to review it and, "that I shouldn't have to." He also spoke at length about the way he approached compiling his famous movie guides in a world without the Internet and IMDb. I don't think he gets enough credit for how much he has contributed to the preservation of film history by laboriously researching titles to be sure he had his facts right and also insisting that not only the stars, but also directors and others who contributed to these productions were acknowledged in his books.

I love the book Our Gang: The Life and Times of the Little Rascals, which Maltin co-wrote with Richard Bann, and for years I'd wanted to ask him what it was like to talk to Matthew "Stymie" Beard, my favorite member of the ever-evolving cast of characters in that series. While I didn't think that would be an interesting question to ask in front of the crowd, when I found out the critic would be taking more questions one-on-one at the end of the presentation, I grabbed the chance to finally ask him about it.

As it turned out, it was Bann who spoke with Beard for the book and Maltin had never met him. I failed to hide my disappointment, so he told me that Dickie Moore adored Beard and that he'd enjoyed interviewing the Rascals he did meet so much that he'd stayed in touch with several of them, which I found pretty charming.

In my excitement to talk to Maltin, I sort of butted into the conversation he was having with the guy who asked a question before me (sorry guy). He'd asked Leonard what he thought of the live action production of Beauty and the Beast. His response: it left him cold because the animated objects didn't have the same range of emotion as human actors or full animation. For weeks I had wondered why this perfectly lovely movie had appeared so bland to me; that observation was a revelation and I couldn't help telling him how grateful I was to finally understand my own reservations.

I was delighted that a couple of my friends took photos of me talking to Maltin. It hadn't occurred to me at all to commemorate the moment. I was just excited to talk to this kind-hearted, thoughtful man who possesses such an astounding wealth of knowledge. It's nice to have something to remind me that moment was real:

Listening to Mr. Maltin and loving every moment. (Photo credit: @materialgirl850)

Dick Cavett

As I wrote in my TCMFF stars post, of all the talk shows I've watched over the years, Dick Cavett's is the only one where I'll watch episodes over and over, as if I am listening to a favorite piece of music. That's why I was so excited to hear him speak with Illeana Douglas in Club TCM, after the Maltin program. How amazing to see these two within an hour of each other.


Cavett is 80, and looks and acts like he's about 60. In his appearance and book signing, he seemed to have endless energy for telling stories and spending time with his fans. The host and writer handled having the spotlight to himself with ease, keeping the audience laughing throughout the interview, sharing stories about his career and the celebrities he's known over his long career. He got his biggest laugh sharing that one of his early successes was writing an introduction for the Jack Paar Show in which the host would say, "Ladies and gentlemen, what can I say about my next guest, except here they are, Jayne Mansfield!" You could tell he'd told that story many times and for good reason.

My full TCMFF 2017 coverage is here.

TCM Classic Film Festival 2017: The Films, Part Two


I enjoyed my overall viewing experience at the TCM Classic Film Festival this year more than I had before. My schedule felt better balanced this year. It was fascinating to see films on nitrate, I enjoyed some flicks I hadn't seen or heard much of before (Panique, So This is Paris, Cock of the Air, Lady in the Dark), saw some of my favorites on the big screen (Best in Show, The Jerk, Red-Headed Woman) and reacquainted myself with a few movies I had viewed before, but hadn't seen for a while and wanted to give another look (Love Crazy, What's Up Doc?, The Awful Truth). Of course there was also the always-memorable midnight movie experience. I think Zardoz was responsible for some crazy early morning dreams this year.




Love Crazy (1941)

At the last minute I decided to skip seeing the red carpet to get rolling with the films. This Myrna Loy and William Powell marriage comedy was a perfect, light-hearted start to the festival. Actress Dana Delany introduced the film, and while I enjoyed her comments, I almost wish she hadn't mentioned that Loy was despondent at the time over her recent divorce from the love of her life Arthur Hornblow Jr. She said that she thought the actresses' sadness showed up on the screen, and I agreed. A bit of a mood dampener which reminded me of the former juvenile actor who once told me, "sometimes it's best to leave it to the silver screen and forget the rest."

I did enjoy Love Crazy though; Loy and Powell were in the middle of their long run of co-starring roles and by now they had polished their sexy, silly chemistry into comic perfection. These two were a great pair because they always appeared to be sharing a private joke. They play a married couple heading for splitsville, much to the distress of Powell. He pretends to be insane to hold off the divorce proceedings, but his charade is a bit too convincing. One of the highlights of the film is beholding Powell dressed like a lady, and sporting yarn ball boobs.



Panique (1946)

I lined up early for this French post-war thriller, based on the book by prolific Belgian novelist Georges Simenon. It took a lot of effort to go into this new-to-me film cold, but I wanted it to be a true discovery, so all I knew was that I would be seeing one of my favorite actors, Michel Simon, in a genre I adore.

Simenon's son Pierre spoke with Film Forum repertory program director Bruce Goldstein before the screening. It was a fascinating conversation, because we were essentially a theater full of movie fans learning about a man who didn't care much for films, though he was good friends with Jean Renoir, Federico Fellini, Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock. Goldstein is a great interviewer, energetic, funny without being snarky and adept at finding the details that best illuminate the subject at hand.

The movie was a tightly-wound, dark and heartbreaking thriller about a man (Michel Simon) who is under suspicion for a murder he didn't commit. He falls under the spell of a woman (the incredibly named Viviane Romance) who has just been released from serving time for a crime her lover (Max Dalban) and who plots to frame him for the crime. This was a perfect role for Simon, who specialized in playing somewhat loveable, occasionally off-putting, hapless characters.

I was thrilled to realize Norman Lloyd was sitting behind me in the theater. Though I didn't want to bother him, it was nice to hear his lovely voice before the screening. Goldstein introduced him to the crowd and I thought the woman next to him was going to faint from shock. Actor James Karen also sat a few seats down from me, and the two men had an affectionate exchange before the show.



So This is Paris (1926)

On to another new-to-me flick, an Ernst Lubitsch silent about which I also knew very little. Frequent TCMFF guest Cari Beauchamp gave a typically info-packed introduction; her comments are always more like little lectures. She cracked wise about the stylish, but sometimes over-decorated star Lilyan Tashman and told the audience to stay alert for a literally blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance by Myrna Loy as a maid.

I was delighted to see accompanist and composer Donald Sosin at the piano. I'd seen him play for several screenings at the Seattle International Film Festival and have long admired his skill and creativity. As I'd always seen him perform on his electric keyboard, it was a treat to hear his stylings on a different instrument.

The movie was everything you'd expect from Lubitsch: characters giving in to their naughtiest impulses, the prospect of sex always lingering in the air and mix-ups and deceptions galore. This story of a wife who falls for a handsome actor she spies through the window of the house across the street and her husband who reconnects with his old love (Tashman) who is married to that very neighbor delights in its superficiality. Though infidelity, scandal and prison threaten the characters, everything is kept light and incredibly silly. I laughed so hard I snorted.



Red-Headed Woman (1932)

After those new discoveries, it was nice to settle into an old favorite, an Anita Loos-scripted pre-code starring Jean Harlow in one of her naughtiest roles. As an ambitious, husband-stealing secretary, the actress is at her funniest as an unpleasant character who amuses through her power to shock even modern audiences. Chester Morris works his Easter Island profile as Harlow's first victim and Una Merkel is her sassy and sexy best friend (I think she got the biggest response from the theater audience). It was a lot of fun to see this on the big screen with an appreciative crowd.



Zardoz (1974)


The pretentious, outrageous and unintentionally hilarious Zardoz was a perfect choice for a midnight movie. Most famous for Sean Connery's skimpy red costume and long, braided hairdo, this is a film that delights with its weirdness as much as it tries the patience. Set in a future where part of the population is immortal and disgusted by baser instincts, while the other lives in animal-like brutality, the film seriously approaches what happens when Connery, who falls into the latter category plunges into the rural placidity of the immortals.


Decorated like Connery, looks like Reynolds
I was glad to have seen the film before, because I knew when to nap and when to laugh. It was not as easy going for the many baffled newbies in the audience. I'm sure it helped that a couple had the brilliant idea to make gingerbread man cookies decorated with Connery's legendary costume. The curiously Burt Reynolds-reminiscent treats offered enough pre-screen levity to get us all through the end credits.

The next morning I was inspired to try my hand at recreating one of the more outrageous looks from the film. If I'd have known TCM was going to pick up my Instagram post, I would have done a better job with the mustache:







The Awful Truth (1937)

After taking a leisurely morning post-midnight flick, I checked out this classic screwball comedy at the Chinese Theatre. It had been years since I'd seen it, and while many consider it one of the best films ever made, I didn't recall liking it very much. Since I laughed the whole time, I'm glad I gave it another try. It is possible that my teenage self was not sophisticated enough to appreciate relationship humor. How I could have ever been left cold by a movie starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne is beyond me though.

Filmstruck host Alicia Malone introduced the film, sharing anecdotes about director Leo McCarey (who said "I think you gave it to me for the wrong picture" when he won the best director Oscar for the film), Grant's hesitation about the slapdash method the director had of putting together the script and reflecting on the comic chemistry of the charming leads. She also shared that the dog in the film had also played Asta in the Thin Man movies. I was feeling a bit underwhelmed by the lack of depth in Malone's comments until I realized she was smoothly rattling off all those stories without notes. Maybe she isn't Carrie Beauchamp, but Malone is sharp and well-informed, and I am curious to learn more about her work and her upcoming book on the history of women in Hollywood.

As I snickered my way through this film, I was struck by how incredibly erotic it was. I mean, Dunne and Grant had this sexual tension thing down. Poor Ralph Bellamy plays the jilted lover again. This time he was out of the race before the pistol blast.



The Jerk (1979)

While I normally snobbishly reject post sixties films at TCMFF, I was ridiculously excited to see The Jerk at the Chinese Theatre. I have quoted this film innumerable times, sometimes much to the distress of people I know, often right along with them. This is a loveable, beloved film, and a lot of that has to do with the adorable pairing of Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters.

As I discussed in my stars post, Reiner went into great detail discussing specific scenes in the movie. While this had its tedious moments, for the most part it was charming to see a 95-year-old man geeking out about his own movie.

It was so intensely enjoyable experiencing such a goofy film in a setting as elegant as the Chinese Theatre. I thought about other childhood favorites I'd like to see that way. Monty Python and the Holy Grail anyone?



Best in Show (2000)

This Christopher Guest comedy, which is one of my favorite films and the only one I attended at the festival that I had already seen before on the big screen. The draw was the guests. I am in awe of anyone who can be funny and Guest regulars Bob Balaban, John Michael Higgins, Jim Piddock and Fred Willard are among the best when it comes to making people laugh.

As I wrote in my stars post, seeing these guys together was more charming than hilarious, but it was interesting to learn more about how Guest's unusual mock documentaries come together. I also noted that while some people say funny things, there are others who are just inherently funny. That is Fred Willard all the way. Just looking at him sitting there or hearing the sound of his voice made me want to giggle.

Though I'd seen this film about a cast of unusual characters showing their canines at a dog show countless times, I still managed to make a total ass of myself choking with laughter the whole time. It was so much fun to see this with an audience again. That my seatmate was as obsessed with it as I was surely made us extra obnoxious, but that's comedy!



Cock of the Air (1931)


I feared I wouldn't be able to snag a seat for this rare pre-code airing the final morning of the festival, as that has been the case at past festivals with films from this period. As it turned out, I either overestimated audience interest or people were simply too tired to show up in droves for an early morning screening. In any case, there was a good crowd in attendance for this racy comedy romance starring Billy Dove and Chester Morris.

I've always had mixed feelings about Dove and Morris. They can be an uptight drag in dramas, but let them be silly and they become irresistible. As a cocky, womanizing pilot and the mysterious woman who humbles him, they have sizzling chemistry. The spirit of the film is nicely encapsulated in a scene where the two play chess with glasses of champagne on a tabletop turned into a chessboard by a patterned lampshade. Restraint is not an option with these two unless it makes the game more fun.

This was an unusual screening as the print was essentially a patchwork job. Upon its release, about twelve minutes of footage were excised due to their suggestive nature. These scenes were rediscovered years later, but with no audio. In order to restore these moments, actors were hired to record the dialogue, which was then added to the footage. In her introduction, Academy Film Archive preservationist Heather Linville explained that wherever these re-recorded bits appeared in the movie, an icon of a piece of film would appear.

It was an interesting approach to the restoration , and for the most part it worked. The insertion of modern voices wasn't seamless, but also didn't interrupt the flow of the film. I suppose there's no way to sound quite as effortless as Dove and Morris, after all, they weren't attempting to sound like anyone but themselves, so while sometimes I thought the effect was a bit forced, the voice actors did a fine job filling in the blanks.



What's Up, Doc? (1972)

While I like this screwball comedy, I mostly went to it because it was my one chance to see Peter Bogdanovich at that year's festival. His interview was a lot of fun and he was funnier than I'd expected given his usual dour expression. I guess you really can't judge a book by its cover. It was interesting to hear that even on the set, and at table reads, it was clear that Madeline Kahn was going to steal the film in her first role. She was one of those inherently funny people, just like Fred Willard.

All I remembered about this screwball comedy was that while some bits went on a shade too long, Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neal were a lot funnier together than I had expected. So I went in expecting a good time and figuring that it would be much more entertaining to watch with a crowd. For the most part the auditorium was filled with helpless laughter. There's so much action and so many details to take in that you can feel a bit exhausted after watching it, especially with a crowd. I left wondering if it was possible to make a film with such a light spirit anymore.

Check out more stories about the special pre-screening guests here.

My full TCMFF coverage is here.

TCM Classic Film Festival 2017--The Films Part One: Nitrate and the Newly Restored Egyptian Theatre


Of the many things I looked forward to experiencing at TCM Classic Film Festival 2017, checking out the Grauman's Egyptian Theatre remodel and the four nitrate films to be shown there were at the top of my list.

I have wanted to see film on nitrate for years. Stories of how the format shimmers, and brings out the depth of images fascinated me, not to mention that the stock actually has silver in it. This is literally how the term "the silver screen" came to be.


The forecourt of the Egyptian
While I have always enjoyed seeing films at the Grauman's Egyptian Theatre, at last year's festival I noticed how threadbare the carpet had become and that parts of the building were beginning to crumble away. It was clear that the facilities needed some TLC. This year I was delighted to find the theatre looking as good as new.

The Theatre Remodel and Restoration


The Egyptian Theatre was last remodeled in 1998, when the not-for-profit cultural organization American Cinematheque took on ownership of the building and launched a massive renovation project. This restoration returned the theatre to its former glory and updated its technology.




However, after nearly two decades of heavy use, the theatre was once again in need of attention. Water leakage caused extensive damage to the ceilings inside and in the portico just off the forecourt of the building. The elaborate Egyptian-themed paintings in the forecourt were faded and cracked by the elements. In addition to worn carpet, the auditorium seats were beginning to show their age.

While not as elaborate as the last restoration, it nevertheless took a major effort to once again restore the theatre. With funding primarily from The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, all these issues were addressed, from restoring the murals and inside paint, to fixing the water damage and ensuring that the building was better protected from rain and other elements.


A gorgeous design and that new carpet smell!

Every seat in the auditorium was recovered and new, custom-designed carpets were installed. One of the most fascinating elements of these new floor coverings is that their design mirrors that of the ceiling details in the auditorium. A semi-circle starburst on the floor of the theatre entry matches exactly with the design inside the theatre.

The ceiling art that was mirrored in the lobby carpet design
In addition to restoring the facility, the projection room was completely rebuilt to accommodate new technology and to enable the safe projection of nitrate film. Fire curtains, high-tech extinguishing equipment and other features will help to ensure that if any nitrate film ignites during a screening, the theatre and its patrons will remain unharmed.


Restored forecourt art

Nitrate Film

In her opening night introduction, Deborah Stoiber, collection manager of the moving image department of George Eastman Museum told the audience that the ability to show nitrate at the theatre, from facilities to films was funded by The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, Turner Classic Movies and The Film Foundation in partnership with the American Cinematheque and the Academy Film Archive. That's an impressive group, offering an amazing experience for classic film fans. It is easy to see why TCM staff were so eager for festival goers to attend the four nitrate films on the schedule.

I liked the films that were selected, because they offered a diverse look at nitrate film. Two black and white and two color films were shown and each was stunning in its own way. There was Alfred Hitchcock's original 1934 take on The Man Who Knew Too Much, the quintessential noir Laura (1944), Powell and Pressburger's visually stunning Black Narcissus (1947) and the odd, but beautiful Lady in the Dark (1944).

I found the format to be a revelation, with sometimes subtle, but often noticeable differences in the way light and shadow appeared on the screen, and images more lush and with deeper dimension. These were among my favorite screenings of the festival, living up to my expectations for an excitingly different cinematic experience.

One of the most interesting things I noticed about viewing nitrate with an audience, was that it was not a unanimously thrilling experience. Some festival goers were rendered speechless by the beauty of the images, while others were completely underwhelmed. I spoke to quite a few attendees who could not see what was so magical about this format. While my seatmates raved about the look of Laura, another audience member was disappointed in the experience and felt it was a bad print. I hadn't expected that division of opinion and still haven't got a theory as to why so many of us experienced nitrate in such dramatically different ways, though you could really say the same thing about tastes in film overall.


The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)


A nitrate film was shown each night of the festival at the Egyptian. Stoiber spoke about the opening night selection, sharing some information about the film print itself. Struck in 1946 for David O. Selznick, it had been donated to the George Eastman Museum by his son Danny. The producer had been interested in viewing the British works of his contracted director Hitchcock. Stoiber also noted that this was Peter Lorre's first film in English.

Then Martin Scorcese took to the podium to offer a more wide-ranging assessment of nitrate, which I found to be an essential introduction. He noted the drawbacks of the format: that it was highly flammable, did not even extinguish in water and would decompose into powder. He said that by the late forties the format had been replaced by acetate, also known as safety stock. No further feature films were made with nitrate after around 1952. The director told a groaning audience that many nitrate prints had been destroyed so that the silver in them could be removed.

Then Scorsese raved about the look of nitrate: how its high silver content resulted in deeper blacks, and a greater spectrum of greys and how with Technicolor the colors were pressed into the film, as if the images were embossed, making the films highly resistant to fading. He called the format, "a different kind of beauty," with lustrous images and a luminosity to it.

I don't know how I would have experienced The Man Who Knew Too Much without this introduction giving me a sort of heads up as to what to observe. I suspect I probably would have thought it was exceptionally filmed or a high quality print. As it was, I saw exactly what Scorsese was talking about, not at first, but as the film progressed.

In this tightly-paced, tense Hitchcock thriller, there are lots of dramatic contrasts in color. I first understood the power of those contrasts in a nightclub scene in which the deep blacks of the men's tuxedos were a stunning contrast to the shimmering glow of the ladies' gowns. I also enjoyed the almost liquid look of the light when it reflected on shiny objects, and in particular the way it snaked down the barrel of a gun in a climactic scene. On the light side of the spectrum, I was spellbound by several profile shots of leading lady Edna Best, where the light on her skin and curled coiffure seemed almost to take on a life of its own.

The most stunning visual effects were in the tense final scene, which took place at night. My first glimpse of the deep blacks on a dark street made me gasp. They were so intense and showed so much detail. Overall I felt more engaged in this film which I had always liked, but not found terribly interesting, because the visual experience was more dramatic.


Laura (1944)

The screening of this Otto Preminger film noir was my favorite of the black and white nitrate presentations. In contrast to the more stark feel of The Man Who Knew Too Much, the look of Laura was luxurious and sensual. I understood what Scorsese meant when he said it was, "one of the most haunting uses of black and white." While the rest of the nitrate films shown tended to have certain moments where the effect of the format was more pronounced, viewing this film was a uniformly mesmerizing experience.

As many in the audience had seen the film several times before, there was a bit of collective disappointment that there were so many breaks in the film. Those who had all but memorized the script were somewhat taken out of the moment by lines that cut out in the middle and other minor breaks. I wasn't too bothered by this, but that was most likely because I had attended the screening with the intention of making the most of the nitrate experience.


Black Narcissus (1947)

In his opening night comments, Scorsese said that he believed this 70-year-old print was one he had seen at the Academy theater in the 1970s. He said he had been late to the screening and sat in the third row, which to him made the film appear like 3D. After wandering the theater with a pair of seatmates as indecisive as I am, we ended up in the second row and got to see the film as he had.

Normally I hate sitting that close, but I suspected it would be an amazing way to see this film, and I was right. This intense story of a group of nuns who attempt to establish a nunnery in the Himalayas, only to be driven mad by the strange environment and mystical feel of the place is best experienced in total immersion.

It was at this screening that I found the most rapt response from the audience. There were moments when I could tell that others were experiencing the same wonder I was. The most stunning moment was in a flashback scene with Deborah Kerr, in which she is standing with a fishing pole in a river. I remember thinking this was a pretty scene before, but the sparkle of the water in nitrate was unreal. You could feel a crowd of hundreds collectively holding its breath. I still think about that moment with wonder, because I never knew film could have such an utterly overwhelming effect.

I also found it interesting which scenes were most entrancing to me in nitrate. While the mountain backdrops were as beautiful as I expected, I found that the interiors most often grabbed my attention, from the play of light on a nun's habit, to the flicker of a young student's eyes. There's one scene in particular that amazed me, where a simple bar cart appeared as perfectly bathed in light as a Vermeer, with the bottles and glasses shimmering and seeming almost to be 3D.


Lady in the Dark (1944)

My final nitrate film was also the last of the festival for me. Scorsese had praised its, "real, vibrant Technicolor," but I had heard the story of this rarely seen film was not to modern tastes.

This was the one nitrate film that most of the audience hadn't seen, and there was an interesting buzz about it afterwards. It stars Ginger Rogers as a emotionally-conflicted magazine editor who is chided by her co-worker Ray Milland for her seriousness and supposedly plain and manly clothes. She struggles to understand her anxiety, and her reluctance to commit to both her longtime lover (Warner Baxter) and a much sought-after movie star (Jon Hall) who takes an interest in her. She begins to see a psychiatrist (Barry Sullivan), who brings all his 1940s male chauvinism to her diagnosis, but does uncover the reasons for her distress.

This is a profoundly sexist film. While I was a little surprised by the pearl clutching by audience members afterwards, after all, as classic film fans we see plenty of plots like this one, I did have to admit that this take on the duties and roles of females was particularly distasteful. Even Rogers' therapist thinks that she'll be fine as long as she eases up on the work responsibilities and starts dressing prettier.

I still adored this film though, because like most films directed by Mitchell Leisen, it is gorgeous. With outrageous costumes by Edith Head, including a show-stopping mink and sequin number that cost thousands, luxurious set dressings and surreal dream sequences that could stand on their own as entertaining shorts, this was definitely a film to soak in on a superficial level. If you can set aside your analysis of 1940s society, it can be an intensely enjoyable experience.

Once again it was clear why Lady in the Dark had been chosen for the nitrate screenings. The colors really popped, skin looked velvety and touchable and even something as simple as a leather chair had a shimmering wow factor.

I am delighted that my nitrate experience at TCMFF turned out to be as impressive as I'd hoped. Though I don’t know if I prefer it to other formats, I do think it is a wonderful way to view films. I'd love to see more movies on nitrate and hope that TCM will screen the format again in future festivals.

This is a great video with more details about the Egyptian Theatre restoration:



Check out my full TCMFF 2017 coverage here.

All photos property of A Classic Movie Blog

TCM Classic Film Festival 2017: The Stars



I always like to give a little extra attention to the special guests of TCM Classic Film Festival, because these are the people who have created, restored and promoted the movies that make the whole event possible in the first place. Moments with these stars of classic movie fandom are unique, and in the cozy, affectionate setting of TCMFF, more likely than not to be deeply satisfying.

Festival 2016 was nearly overwhelming in its star power. It was the year of the fascinating, multi-faceted movie queen, with guest appearances from Gina Lollobrigida, Angela Lansbury, Eva Marie Saint and for me the most astounding of all, Anna Karina.

This year I was a little less starstruck, but none the less fascinated by a group of filmmakers and cultural figures who have become as legendary for helping to preserve and promote classic films and stars as they have for their own works. I'll write more about these guests in my posts about the movies at TCMFF, but I wanted to first gather them together as a group to spotlight just how important their contributions to film history are.



Martin Scorsese

One of the great thrills of TCMFF 2017 was the last minute announcement that Martin Scorsese would be introducing the opening night nitrate screening of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). Geeks that we are, the first reaction for many of us was fear that we wouldn't be able to get in to check out the splendor of nitrate because of a rush of passholders eager to see the great director and advocate for film. But yes, we were all excited to see what the knowledgeable and passionate Scorsese would have to say.

It's no surprise that the director attended the festival, as his Film Foundation contributed funding to the Egyptian Theatre remodel, which included building facilities for projecting nitrate. As thrilling as it was to see this great man in the flesh, that feeling wore off fast as we collectively realized how thoroughly this man can geek out over formats. It was fun to hear him talk about his own experiences watching nitrate at revival screenings in the seventies. For those of us who were nitrate virgins Scorsese's description of the sensation of watching films on the highly-flammable stock was so tantalizing that we almost wished he'd let us get on with the film.


Getting a taste of the professorial side of Scorsese and soaking up his passion for film was a wonderful way to start the festival. 


Carl Reiner

I was lucky to attend two of Carl Reiner's appearances at the festival. After spending a lovely morning soaking up his fatherly love for son Rob in the forecourt of the Chinese Theatre for their hand and footprint ceremony, the next day I enjoyed his amusing conversation with Ben Mankiewicz in the Theatre, before a screening of The Jerk (1979).

While the current political tensions in the US were alluded to by presenters several times throughout the festival, Reiner was the only one to speak bluntly and at length about the current administration. Perhaps he never cared what people thought about his political views, but at ninety-five, he truly seems to feel free to say whatever he wants. From what I heard, the audience was happy to play along.

The comedian also spoke at length about Steve Martin, who has had a turbulent life. As an extremely affectionate father himself, it seemed to truly hurt Reiner that the actor had had such cold, distant parents. 

He also described many of the scenes from The Jerk in detail, almost more as if he were an enthusiastic fan. At first it seemed to me that he was going a bit too far with his long descriptions, and it seemed Mankiewicz was even trying to steer him in a different direction, but in the end I did appreciate this film, which I have seen many times, much more because of what he had to say.


Leonard Maltin

The last star film critic, Leonard Maltin has always been an essential part of TCMFF. I've enjoyed his presence at the four festivals that I have attended, partly because he always seems to be so delighted to be among film fans who adore the movies as much as he does. This year I didn't catch any of his film introductions, but did enjoy a Q&A he gave the last day of the festival in Club TCM.

As always, I was impressed by Maltin's enduring passion for his profession. He hasn't let what has surely been years of bad movies, in addition to the rare gems, make him cynical. Instead he remains clear-eyed in his views, interested in both cinema past and present (though he clearly leans towards the former) and eager to speak openly about cinema with his fans. The critic's charming daughter Jessi circulated in the crowd with a microphone, adding a word here and there in support of her father.

At this event I also finally had the chance to speak to Maltin myself, which was both thrilling and fascinating. 


Dick Cavett

Of all talk shows, Dick Cavett's is the only one where I will watch episodes several times, as if I am enjoying a good piece of music. He's one of my favorite interviewers, smooth, well-prepared and funny and yet always with a bit of the star struck Nebraska boy in him. Cavett introduced Monkey Business (1931) and Way Out West (1937) at the festival. While I missed those screenings, I was able to catch his appearance at Club TCM on the last day of TCMFF.

At age 80, Cavett is still boyish, playful and full of amazing stories. With his shows, books and his column in the New York Times, he has done much to preserve the history of many important film personalities. In his conversation with Illeana Douglas, he discussed the high points of his career and the stars he encountered along the way. Afterwards he charmed a delighted group of fans at a signing for his latest book. All I've got to say is that selfies featuring this man's smiling mug are now featured on a lot of Facebook profile pics.


Peter Bogdanovich

I love Peter Bogdanovich as much for his film scholarship as I do his movies. He has done so much to keep classic stars and directors visible while promoting their work to new generations. The director is also better than anyone at giving modern films the feel of a classic production.

I'd missed Bogdanovich's interview in Club TCM with Ben Mankiewicz (I hear it was the hit of the festival) and his introduction of The Last Picture Show (1971), so I was delighted to finally see him talk to entertainment journalist Dave Karger before a screening of What's Up Doc? (1972) at the Egyptian Theatre.

One thing I love about Bogdanovich is that while he's got this eternally dour look on his face, he's one of the funniest guys I've ever seen. He's so good at mining a story for humor that sometimes you fail to see the tension below the surface; the anxiety flowers into hilarity. Here he told several stories about Barbra Streisand and you could sense that it wasn't easy for the director to navigate her envy of Madeline Kahn (who was stealing the movie in her debut role), but he makes that friction seem light and funny.


I also love his star impressions. He is understandably famous for his Cary Grant and he does a pretty good Jimmy Stewart as well. That an unsmiling man in a neckerchief and dark glasses is performing his take on classic stars with such gusto makes it all even funnier.


Cast Members from Christopher Guest's Best in Show (2000)

I never thought I would see a film from this century at the TCM Classic Film Festival, but anything directed by Christopher Guest is a must-see for me. The announcement that Bob Balaban, John Michael Higgins, Jim Piddock and Fred Willard would be attending a screening of Best in Show was incredibly exciting. Guest's mock documentaries are among the few newer films I own and I love the way the director uses a sort of repertory cast for his films à la Preston Sturges (see, I found a classic movie link after all).

Bob Balaban was the cast member I was most excited to see, so I was saddened to learn he had lost his voice, but amusingly enough I love him the most because of his silent reactions, especially in the Guest films. He had a stack of index cards and a pen, but for the most part could communicate just fine without them.

The rest of the guys, while they had not all appeared in scenes together, had great chemistry. I had expected a hilarious presentation, and while there were a lot of laughs, it was much more charming than anything else. It was fun to learn about how they worked together and clear that they held each other in high regard. There's definitely a vastly different energy level when you have a panel of big personalities like this together as opposed to a one-on-one interview. 

Ben Mankiewicz oversaw the proceedings and made it all look a lot easier than it had to have been. In fact, I think the TCM host is underrated as an interviewer because he so often helps the conversation to flow in such a relaxed, natural way. 

Check out my full TCMFF 2017 coverage here.

All photos property of A Classic Movie Blog
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