45th Annual Seattle International Film Festival: A Collage of James Mason Clips in Invest in Failure (Notes on Film 06-C, Monologue 03) (2018)

While I think that it is usually best to go into a film cold in order to enjoy it fully, the work of Austrian filmmaker Norbert Pfaffenbichler benefits from some explanation. His experimental works are accessible, but require preparation. Invest in Failure (Notes on Film 06-C, Monologue 03) (2018), which features clips from 160 James Mason films is a riot if it catches you in the right frame of mind.

The film is the final installation in Pfaffenbichler’s Monologue Trilogy, a series of films in which he has compiled clips of male movie stars in surreal juxtapositions of moods, ages, and situations. In the first two films, which featured Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff, his stars interacted with themselves in different roles. I had the opportunity to watch the Karloff film, A Masque of Madness (2013) at SIFF 2014 and found it mesmerizing to watch the actor performing with himself across time, even chasing himself at one point.

This time Pfaffenbichler shakes things up by adding women to the mix. Mason is shown loving, beating, berating and romancing his leading ladies in seventeen thematic episodes. Unlike the Karloff film, Mason disappears from the screen for lengthy periods as the women in his cinematic life regard him with disappointment, fear, and very occasionally admiration. It is in essence a violent portrait with a sprinkling of lust and romance to make it a shade more palatable.

Pfaffenbichler uses sound and music to challenge the emotions evoked by these clips, placing lushly romantic music with grim imagery or adding repetitive clicks and the like to increase the tension of a sequence. It is this editorial hand that makes the film more compelling than the strictly-themed collection of clips it first appears to be.

I hate to say that a film is not for everyone, but I have to admit this might move too slowly and erratically for those who prefer a conventional narrative. It’s worth a look for fans of classic film though and especially Mason fanatics. While firmly advancing through its structured themes, it is also curiously freeing, because it releases the viewer from narrative storytelling and allows somewhat untethered exploration of all the feelings, images, and sounds that make movies, and their stars, so thrilling.

The SIFF screening of this film includes Austrian filmmaker Virgil Widrich’s amusing short Copy Shop (2001).

Tickets for the May 30 screening of Invest in Failure (Notes on Film 06-C, Monologue 03) can be purchased here.

Book Review: A Lively Biography of Legendary Screenwriter Ben Hecht

Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures
Jewish Lives Series
Adina Hoffman
Yale University Press, 2019

Hollywood movies would have been very different without the brilliance of screenwriter Ben Hecht. He not only wrote enduring classics, but in the early days of the talkies gave shape to major film genres. In a new book, which is part of the extensive Yale University Press Jewish Lives series, Adina Hoffman explores the life of this volatile personality and devoted craftsman.

Hecht got his start as a newsman and the life experience he got from big city reporting would have a big influence on the street smart, lightning fast dialogue he would later pen for the movies. He gave the gangster genre prominence with early entries like Underworld (1927) and Scarface(1932), which drew heavily from reporting life. The same could be said of screwball comedy, which truly began to emerge after he adapted his stage play for Twentieth Century (1934).

There are so many other good films he wrote beyond these genre builders. It’s almost overwhelming to take into account all the classics that Hecht created, whether credited or behind the scenes. Among them: Nothing Sacred (1937), Gunga Din (1939), Wuthering Heights (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), Spellbound (1945), and Notorious (1946).

Hecht was always a bit scornful of Hollywood, but was happy to draw large paychecks over many decades doing work that came easily to him. Hoffman reveals a man who may have been skeptical of his film work, but who approached screenwriting seriously, with a careful eye to what would delight an audience. Part of that life included his frequent writing partner and close friend Charles MacArthur, an underrated talent with much of the same inborn skill for lively dialogue.

The Hollywood stories are bookended with tales of Hecht’s raucous early life and his later devotion to projects that would promote his Jewish activism. That activism would be the source of controversy for years and eventually threaten his career, but with a talent that big, he found a way to keep working. It seems his life was never dull, with wives, lovers, hard drinking writer friends, and political and artistic drama to fill all the corners of his existence.

Hoffman’s writing is lively and wry, with a fidelity to revealing detail and great storytelling. It’s rare to see the personality and work of a biographical subject so expertly intertwined. As a result, the tone of the book is as acutely mischievous as Hecht himself.

I found this to be an especially entertaining and informative biography. It cuts right to the action and moves with crisp, invigorating efficiency through a remarkable life.

On Blu-ray: Doris Day and Rod Taylor in The Glass Bottom Boat (1966)

I wrote this review days before the legendary Doris Day passed on. It is in a way a tribute to her charm and talent, because every word I've ever written about her has been a tribute. She was the living embodiment of sunshine and so phenomenally talented.

Produced in the last decade of Doris Day’s prolific career, the cheerfully chaotic The Glass Bottom Boat (1966) has the not unpleasant feeling of being crafted from a reliable formula. It’s got a jaunty DeVol score, boisterous direction from Frank Tashlin, who was born to work with Day, and a cast full of actors who tend to go with one note and do it very well. This light-hearted romantic comedy with spy intrigue is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

Day is the widowed daughter of a glass bottom boat tour operator (Arthur Godfrey). She helps her Pop entertain his customers by dressing up as a mermaid and swimming underneath them. One day a NASA scientist (Rod Taylor) snags her tail with his fishing pole and rips it off, leaving her bottomless. She’s furious, until she realizes he’s her new boss at the laboratory where she does public relations. She also likes the looks of him.

A misunderstanding leads Day’s employers to suspect she works as a spy for Russia. She’s more indignant that they assume she’s dishonest than afraid of any trouble she might face. With still more miscommunication to follow, she takes revenge for their mistrust in her.

This was one of two films Day made with the profoundly underrated Taylor (they made Do Not Disturb together the year before). Though Rock Hudson was her best screen match, you could never imagine them hitting the sack the way you can her and Taylor. Of all her leading men, she’s got the most heat with him.

That said there’s a charming feeling of camaraderie between Day and Taylor. For the most part the film is comically turbulent, but there’s a quieter scene where Day sings songs with her Pop, his girlfriend and Taylor where they all appear to genuinely be having fun together. Here Taylor seems especially delighted and full of admiration for his costar and he's not alone. She lights up any setting, and here all involved seemed delighted to bask in her glory.

Paul Lynde, Dom DeLuise, and Alice Pearce are among the reliable supporting cast. It’s full of actors like these who knew precisely how to plug their personas into any situation. There are few surprises, but everyone is working to a high standard.

The Glass Bottom Boat succeeds where a lot of spy spoofs fail, because it relies more on the quirks of its cast than genre jokes for laughs. It’s a real mood lifter and a great moment for Day and Taylor.

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

Book Review--Forbidden Hollywood: The Pre-Code Era (1934), When Sin Ruled the Movies

My introduction to the concept of pre-Code as a film category probably began with the Forbidden Hollywood VHS series hosted by Leonard Maltin and featuring Warner Bros films. Having delighted in those saucy flicks, I would eventually devour Thomas Doherty and Mick LaSalle’s books on the era, learning as much as I could and writing long lists of films I wanted to see.

As helpful as all of those resources were, the pre-Code book that had the most profound effect on me was Mark Vieira’s Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood. It was an impulse buy at a used book store, which turned into an obsession. Something about the way he combined glowing photographs with a deep dive into the films got me hooked. I got a taste of the period and just enough information to make me want to learn more.

For this reason, I was thrilled to learn Vieira would be returning to the subject with Forbidden Hollywood: The Pre-Code Era (1930-1934). In the twenty years since Sin in Soft Focus was published, pre-Codes have increased exponentially in popularity among classic film fans, perhaps even equaling film noir as a beloved film category. That TCM has partnered with Running Press to publish the book is especially amusing, as pre-Code screenings at the TCM Classic Film Festival are notorious for filling up quickly and leaving long lines of fans in the lobby of the multiplex.

The beauty of Vieira writing this book is that he knows the topic so well that he’s able to write about it efficiently, relating vital facts and revealing the essential character of the period. Using various films from the era as starting points, he explores different genres, controversies, and production stories, while steadily moving through the overall history of the birth of the Code and its eventual enforcement.

Forbidden Hollywood looks good, with lots of the gorgeous photos for which Vieira’s books are best known, but there’s also a lot of solid research here, related in an engaging way. This is an entertaining, informative read that deserves to endure as a classic reference book.

Many thanks to TCM for providing a copy of the book for review.

Pre-Code on DVD: Constance Bennett in Our Betters (1933)

I’m a big fan of pre-code Constance Bennett, with her razor sharp hip bones and saucy quips. She doesn’t get nearly enough credit for her contribution to the lively adult-themed flicks of that time. While Our Betters (1933) is not the best of those films, Bennett is reliably excellent as an American heiress who marries a titled man and thrives in the morally flexible world of British aristocracy. Now available on DVD from Warner Archive, this was an entertaining flick.

As the wealthy Pearl Saunders, Bennett is still in her wedding dress post-ceremony when she realizes her new husband (Alan Mowbray) has a lover and he has only married her for her money. Years pass, and she has discarded any pretense of wedded bliss, instead becoming a scandalous society sensation among the upper class. Though not given to passionate affairs, she keeps an open mind and doesn’t clutch her pearls at the prospect, a fact her squeaky clean sister Bessie (Anita Louise) begins to realize with alarm.

While there are multiple romantic dramas unfolding at any given time, Our Betters is an essentially plotless look at the energetic if meaningless lives of these social elite. With characters given to comments like, “If I leave you, you’ll have nobody but your husband” and a bizarre reference to bananas as a “most unpleasant vegetable, so fattening,” the action may occasionally flag, but it is never entirely dull. As empty as these people may ultimately be, you want to blow raspberries when a sanctimonious outsider makes a plea for “honor, decency, and self-restraint.”

After seeing many a film where a pre-code heroine sins freely until she accepts matrimony in the last act, it is almost a relief that Bennett is only temporarily punished for playing the game as she sees it and remains essentially her own woman. In the end, she emerges triumphant because she retains her power to manipulate any situation as she sees fit. If her perspective has become a bit more moral, so be it. You get the impression the halo won’t stay in place for long.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

45th Annual Seattle International Film Festival: Picks for Classic Film Fans

The schedule for the 45th Annual Seattle International Film Festival is out, and it is a jawdropper. SIFF is going to be an especially happy place for classic film fans this year. With restorations, rediscoveries, and a diverse array of voices, the selection is especially tantalizing.

This year’s festival runs from May 16 to June 9, and I’ll be writing about several screenings in more detail as the month progresses. For now, here are my recommended flicks. All film titles link to schedule and ticket purchase information:


The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
with Live Soundtrack by the Invincible Czars

This is the third time the Austin, Texas-based indie band The Invincible Czars have provided musical accompaniment for a silent at SIFF. I loved the knowledge of music history, creativity, and craft that went into their score for John Barrymore’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)which they performed at SIFF 2017, so I’m looking forward to seeing what they come up with for another horror silent.

As the Earth Turns (1938)
Shot in Seattle, this newly remastered sci-fi thriller has been out of circulation for 80 years. Seattle native Richard Lyford directed and starred in the film, which includes location footage of Boeing Field and Gasworks Park. I love that even the new score has been composed by a Seattle composer, Ed Hartman.

Spies (1928)
Fritz Lang’s take on the thriller is his penultimate silent film. Of epic length, but fast-paced, there are many elements which would eventually become genre tropes and spy gadgetry in this mixture of intercultural agent romance and intrigue. SIFF will be screening a 2K restoration.


Barbara Rubin & the Exploding Underground (2018)
A brisk portrait of the brief life of Barbara Rubin, an experimental filmmaker who boldly established herself in the primarily male arenas of  movies and Orthodox Judaism in 1960s New York. The story of the woman who introduced Andy Warhol to the Velvet Underground is bound to be interesting.

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (2019)
Via recordings he made while writing his autobiography, Miles Davis himself gets to narrate much of this straightforward and thorough documentary about the legendary jazz trumpet player. Former loves, family, bandmates, and experts present a justifiably critical, but empathetic portrait of an artist, who had a reputation for being difficult, but whose impact on and complete adoration of music is undeniable. Movie fans will love the in-depth segment on the unorthodox way Davis created the soundtrack for the Louis Malle film Elevator to the Gallows (1958).

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael (2018)
The polarizing, long-time New Yorker critic Pauline Kael gets the documentary treatment in a film that alternates her own words and life with clips of the films she reviewed.

The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011) director Mark Cousins examines race and privilege in Hollywood by comparing the lives of stars Susan Hayward and Lena Horne. Born in the same year, on the same day in Brooklyn, these talented women had dramatically different careers. The film primarily consists of the Fox musicals Stormy Weather (1943) and With a Song in My Heart (1953) , which starred Horne and Hayward respectively, playing side-by-side on two quarters of the screen, while text with trivia about the women and their lives occasionally appears on the other half of the screen. At first I found the presentation headache-inducing and the comparison not as compelling as I'd hoped, but the story gradually builds and deepens. You begin to understand the exhaustion both actresses felt as women in Hollywood, but how much more profoundly draining it was for Horne as a black woman. A tonal shift in the final ten minutes of the film firmly establishes that divide.


Enamorada (1946)
I have been dying to see the films of Mexican movie star María Félix for years. After being limited for so long to admiring her in stills, I’m excited that I will be seeing her in action for the first time on the big screen,costarring with Pedro Armendáriz (From Russia with Love [1963]). The restoration of the print was overseen by Martin Scorsese, who has done so much to bring classic international film to a wider audience.

I Am Cuba (1964)
A gorgeous film that is notorious for its Soviet propaganda, but celebrated for magnificent cinematic technique. Whatever you think of the politics of these four stories of Cubans struggling under the Batista dictatorship, Mikhail Kalatozov’s long, climbing tracking shots are a baffling wonder.

Directed by Women

The Bigamist (1953) and The Hitch-Hiker (1953)
Kino Lorber will present restorations of two of the best films Ida Lupino directed. Both broke new ground: The Bigamist covered sensational subject matter with a sympathetic approach while The Hitch-Hiker was unusually brutal subject matter for a female director at the time.

Between the Lines (1977)
Director Joan Mickin Silver’s (Chilly Scenes of Winter [1979]) joyful and devastating film about a group of journalists working for an underground newspaper in Boston touches on the same takeover anxiety that plagues the industry today, but is for the most part about the lives of these difficult, but intriguing people. Baby faces abound in this flick that came early in the careers of Bruno Kirby, Jeff Goldblum, John Heard, Lindsay Crouse and Jill Eikenberry.

Sonja: The White Swan (2019)
Norwegian filmmaker Anne Sewitsky directs this biopic of skating star Sonja Henie, who was all smiles in her Hollywood movies and apparently the exact opposite off-screen.


The Legend of the Stardust Brothers (1985)
Every description I see of this Japanese new wave musical about a manufactured pop duo compares it to another movie: Rocky Horror Picture Show, A Hard Day’s Night, The Apple. All of these comparisons are apt, but insufficient to appropriately describe this silly, chaotic, and immensely entertaining movie. With zombies, manga, inventive slapstick and wall-to-wall music, there’s always something interesting, and sometimes astounding, happening. While there will be three screenings of the film at varying times of day, this is definitely a Midnight must-see.

DJ NicFit Presents Fantastic Planet (1973)
DJ NicFit returns to SIFF (last year’s production: spinning sounds to Highlander[1986]) to parallel the sounds of The Flaming Lips with this beautifully bizarre French animation sci-fi classic.

I’m not a big fan of Billy Wilder’s Cold-War comedy 1,2,3(1961), but I did want to mention the festival screening. It’s a good opportunity for fans of the director and star James Cagney to see the film on the big screen.

In Theaters--Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché

I’ve been waiting years for the release of Be Natural:The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, a documentary about pioneering French filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché directed by Pamela Green. As an early Kickstarter backer of the film, I’d frequently receive enticing updates about the production, and now that it is here, I can’t wait for the world to rediscover this important figure in film history. 

Guy-Blaché is responsible for so much of what cinema is to this day, both from a technical and narrative standpoint. She was not only a pioneering director and producer, but helped cinema to endure by expanding beyond simple documentation and making it a vehicle for storytelling.

As the secretary of Léon Gaumont at what would eventually be called Gaumont Studios, Alice witnessed the birth of cinema. In 1895, she attended a screening of Lumière Brothers films with her employer and marveled at the possibilities of this new medium. Eventually, she found herself behind the camera, where she transformed movies from records of daily life into stories and fantastical visions that would capture audiences far longer because they engaged the imagination.

Given this, why aren’t the history and works of Alice Guy-Blaché taught in film schools, even in France? There is a sequence in Be Natural where a succession of famous directors and actors look blank-faced at the mention of her name. Why do so few prominent filmmakers today know her name? Green digs into that question, which unsurprisingly has much to do with the patriarchy, but also with access to Blaché’s work. There are many works available by Edison, Méliès and the Lumière Brothers ensuring that their legacies are secure. Despite filming hundreds of productions, very few of Alice Guy’s movies are available to the public. To appreciate her work, it obviously must be seen.

Green tells Guy-Blaché’s early story with a slick collage of graphics which more than make up for the lack of footage from the time. She then transitions into a sort of detective story, her own quest to learn as much as she can about the director. There is a bit too much time dedicated here to voicemails and overlays of maps over a car rolling down a highway, but it is interesting to get inside Green’s research process.

In one simultaneously exhilarating and depressing sequence, one of Guy-Blaché’s American relatives shares an astonishing stash of items belonging to the director. It’s an amazing treasure trove of history, but he gives it up to Green without a second thought, because he tells her no one else cares about it. While this may be debatable, there’s no denying the fact that Green was the first person to make the effort to contact him.

I was most fascinated by the second half of the film, which goes into more detail about the films Guy-Blaché made. She is responsible for the first film with an all-black cast, A Fool and His Money (1912), in addition to innovating with new concepts like double exposure, split screen, special effects and sound. In the days before censor boards formed to police content, she dove into content that would soon be deemed too scandalous for the screen: raunchy stories, randy men, and the frank portrayal of a pregnant woman. She captured life as she saw it.

Guy-Blaché worked hard to preserve her own legacy when her film career faded. As late as 1939 she was having films incorrectly credited to Gaumont director Louis Feuillade put back under her name. She spent her later life tangling with the challenges of finding her films and getting her memoirs published, the latter of which finally happened eight years after her death in 1968.

In modern times, there has still been resistance to reviving and restoring the work of Guy-Blaché. Even in her native France there are those who question the profitability of preserving her work, a crass refusal to acknowledge the historic importance of doing so.

In the film, writer Nicole-Lise Bernheim put it best: “Here is a woman who helped invent cinema, and there is a silence around her. It’s absolutely intolerable and even stupid that we can’t see these films.” Hopefully Green’s documentary will help to change that. I believe it has the power to do so.

Thanks to SIFF for providing access to the film for review. Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché will play at SIFF Film Center May 3-5.

On DVD: Garbo and Gilbert in A Woman of Affairs (1928)

With Clarence Brown directing and a polished cast headed by Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, A Woman of Affairs (1928) rises above the limitations of its material: a scandalous novel neutered for the screen. Now available on DVD from Warner Archive, this second pairing of Brown and Garbo’s celebrated seven film screen collaboration is one of their best.

The source material was Michael Arlen’s scandalous novel The Green Hat, which he had also adapted into a play. So outrageous was the material, with references to venereal disease, drug use, and homosexuality, that the version that made it to the screen became a dramatically different story. Unfortunately, it was the risqué material that made it a hit in the first place, but that ultimately mattered little to the Garbo fans that made the production a modest success. They just wanted to see their queen and Gilbert was eager to re-team with the actress in an effort save his faltering career.

The supporting cast is a plush assembly of MGM players at varying points in their careers: Lewis Stone, Johnny Mack Brown, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Dorothy Sebastian (who would have an affair with her director). I was particularly fascinated to see Fairbanks Jr. in an early performance, struggling to emerge from his father’s towering shadow and playing Garbo’s brother Jeffry in an angry, dispirited role so different from the playful persona that he’d eventually develop.

Garbo is the wealthy Diana Merrick, loved since childhood by Neville (Gilbert) and David (Brown). Though she wants to marry Neville, his father disapproves of her freewheeling ways and sends his son abroad to make his fortune. Diana marries David, who commits suicide on their wedding night. Not knowing the secret of David’s despair, Jeffry (Fairbanks) blames Diana for his demise and begins to slowly drink himself to death. Diana eventually reunites with Neville for a night, which seals her fate in a way the censors approved with vigor.

When director Clarence Brown had first worked with Garbo and Gilbert on Flesh and the Devil (1926), the stars were in the midst of a passionate love affair. As clinches performed for the camera would continue after the end of a scene, Brown got in the habit of letting the lovers go on and discreetly excusing himself. The situation was much different on the set of A Woman of Affairs, with their romance thoroughly done and the pair much cooler toward each other, a feeling which unfortunately translated to the screen. However, Garbo’s growing maturity as a performer did much to inject more life into the picture as a whole.

It’s definitely a film where you are required to read between the lines, translating an “illness” to pregnancy and miscarriage and understanding that the pain endured by David and Jeffry are for reasons too scandalous to be spoken. It is the direction and the cast that elevate this lesser, but still worthy Garbo vehicle.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

TCM Classic Film Festival 2019: The Guests

There was such a reflective vibe at TCMFF 2019. I'm sure this was due in part to the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the festival and the 25th year of TCM, but I think it was mostly because we are living in chaotic times and are in constant need of getting our bearings. I found this mood in many of the conversations the festival guests had before screenings. There was a strong feeling of the past informing the changes we are seeing in some arenas today, in addition to a frustrating lack of change in other areas.

Susan King and Sara Karloff

After missing several opportunities to see Sara Karloff, the daughter of Boris Karloff, I was happy to finally be able to catch her interview with Susan King before a screening of Night World (1932), a pre-code starring Papa Karloff. Ms. Karloff was born on her father’s 51st birthday. She called herself an “expensive birthday present.” It’s clear she adored her dad, who despite a busy career seemed to make plenty of time to bond with his daughter.

Floyd Norman, Jane Baer and Mindy Johnson

Despite an uncooperative microphone, the author of Ink & Paint: The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation Mindy Johnson conducted a lively interview with animators Floyd Norman and Jane Baerbefore the Friday screening of Sleeping Beauty (1959) at the Egyptian Theater. Norman and Baer were an engaging pair, with Norman particularly seeming to enjoy cracking jokes and kidding his former co-worker.

It was a thrill to be in the presence of these animation legends and their stories were especially effective because of an accompanying visual presentation with photos of their days in the studio and the work they did. Baer mentioned that she had animated the flames on the candles of Aurora’s birthday cake, which amusingly led to the first time I’ve ever heard an audience applaud candles in a film.

Norman and Baer were right out of school when they started working at Disney. It’s remarkable what they were able to accomplish as art college graduates in a world where animation school was not yet an option. As a woman and a black man, they were also in the remarkable position of being accepted solely for their prodigious talents, because to Disney, that’s all that mattered.

Joie Lee, Ruth E. Carter, Robi Reed and Ben Mankiewicz 

It was overwhelming to absorb the beauty and power of Do the Right Thing (1989) at the Chinese Theater. The brand new restoration print that was shown arrived from Universal Studios just 24 hours before the screening. This movie has always ripped me to shreds, but to see it presented so beautifully is to appreciate its artistry in a completely new way.

As much as I wanted to see this unique film in my favorite theater, the biggest draw for me was having the chance to hear now Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter speak. In her long career, she has created some of my favorite modern cinematic costumes. The other guests, casting director Robi Reed and actress and Spike Lee sibling Joie Lee, were equally intriguing in their conversation with Ben Mankiewicz. Though Ben did a great job leading the discussion, I felt that it would have been best to have a black journalist or film historian asking the questions before this particular screening. It was a fascinating talk, but I craved that perspective from the moderator.

Reed acknowledged how relevant the film’s message remains today, and how it also reflect its times. She said, “Spike was pretty much putting on the screen what was happening in real life…we were heated, it was a very intense time.” This was the horrific era of the murder of Yusuf Hawkins and the racist violence at Howard Beach, both of which were mentioned in the conversation.

Carter talked about how Lee wanted “heightened realism” in the costumes and “color saturation.” This approach not only increased the intensity of the film, but removes it enough from reality that the costumes, while of their time, are also timeless. Carter also talked about the nerve-wracking experience of being next to the stage on the night she won her Oscar, which made her think “why are we so close? That means something.” When she finally had her moment on the stage, winning after 32 years as a costume designer, she said “it just came to me that this was my time.”

I loved hearing about how Reed cast Rosie Perez, who had not acted before the film. She found her dancing in a nightclub and said, “she was raw and she was real….She was fearless.”

Joie Lee spoke affectionately about her brother Spike, making it clear that he’s a handful, but that she’s grateful for the opportunities he has given her. She said, “He’s very comfortable. There’s not too much about Spike that’s uncomfortable.”

The women also had what I found to be the most measured conversation I’ve heard so far about Green Book and its best picture Oscar win. Reed said that she still “gets worked up about Green Book,” partly because it made her recognize “the importance of us telling our own stories.” It was at this point that I realized how uncomfortable I was with Mankiewicz leading the conversation, good as he was. Carter thought Black Kkklansman and Black Panther audiences split the vote for Best Picture, opening it up for a Green Book win. I could see the logic behind that.

Shaken, but wide awake, I went right from Do the Right Thing to the first Midnight screening of the festival, the Mexican luchador flick Santo vs. the Evil Brain (1961). Archivists Viviana Garcia Besne and Peter Conheim spoke before the film. They provided great context for the movie we were about to see, emphasizing that if you go into it prepared to boo, hiss and cheer like it’s a silent film serial, it’s going to be a much better experience.

As always, the San Francisco Film Geeks: that is, husband and wife super-team Beth Accomando and Miguel Rodriguez, continued their tradition of bringing themed treats to the Midnight screening. They wore luchador masks and capes (no spandex), handed out cookies and chocolates with luchador designs, and gave everyone their own paper luchador mask as well. I love how these two make my favorite screenings of the festival even more fun.

The next morning I slept in, but made sure I got in line early enough to get a good number for Academy Conversations with Ben Burtt and Craig Barron, featuring Tarzan and His Mate (1934). Burtt and Barron are always popular with TCMFF audiences, because they put so much joyful effort into uncovering the technical mysteries of classic films. They’re like a pair of cinematic detectives.

That morning, I remembered a fun moment I had with Burtt and Barron at TCMFF 2016. It had been so long since I’d thought of it! I was sitting in Club TCM one day, and they asked if they could sit in the empty seats next to me. I noticed they had programs from the Scent of Mystery Cinerama presentation and mentioned how disappointed I’d been to miss it. So these two lovely gentlemen told me all about it, props included, and made me feel like I’d been there after all. You could call it a mini Academy presentation.

Discussing smell-based cinema with Barron and Burrt at TCMFF 2016

After I got my line number, I went to talk to a couple of my friends who were sitting on a couch in the Chinese multiplex lobby. The gentleman next to them offered to make room for me to sit down. It took me a moment to realize it was Mr. Burtt, waiting to go in to do the presentation. As I had just dug it up to repost on Twitter, I showed him the picture of our meeting long ago and was amused that he tried to figure out the date based on what baseball cap Barron was wearing.

I also enjoyed his interaction with a teenage boy who was sitting nearby, clearly stunned to be in the presence of a man he admired. I couldn’t hear what Burtt said to him, but the kid said, “I’m just soaking it all in.” I thought he was very kind and gracious with this young man, understanding the idolatry, but remaining humble.

The presentation was as entertaining as always. I’m consistenly amazed by how much these men prepare for their intros; the presentations could stand alone as an event. They went deep into the sounds and effects in jungle films and shared shots which showed how a set in Culver City could look like deepest Africa, with the help of rear projection and back drops. The highlight was Burtt’s extensive research into the composition of the Tarzan yell, which he finally determined was a mix of a human voice and a clarinet.

Ronee Blakley, Jeff Goldblum, Joan Tewksbury, Keith Carradine and Dave Karger
I waited a long time to get into the screening of Nashville (1975). With a panel comprised of stars Ronee Blakley, Keith Carradine, Jeff Goldblum and writer Joan Tewkesbury, to be interviewed by TCM host Dave Karger, I knew that it was going to be a festival highlight. Lily Tomlin had also been announced to appear, but cancelled at the last minute. Honestly, there was enough star power in that group. Tomlin would have been almost too much.

Goldblum is the most active listener

Goldblum was clearly the big draw for this crowd. The intensity of the response to his appearance was unlike anything I’d experienced at TCMFF. I’d never seen personnel crowded along the aisles like that before, all of them frozen, watching Goldblum. With his fur-trimmed shirt and eccentric speech patterns, it’s clear he definitely understands his oddball image and plays up to it. Seeing him reminded me of a screening I once attended where Nicholas Cage was a guest, like him, Goldblum is almost a bit too much to absorb in person, a personality so big that he truly belongs in the movies.

Blakely, Carradine and Tewkesbury had a different vibe, more down-to-earth. Tewksebury gave a good perspective on the way Nashville was constructed, saying she ended up writing as many as 24 characters for this practically plotless, but richly-detailed film.

Carradine briefly became a pop star for performing his own composition I’m Easy for the film. Though he was deprived of gold record status because there were two versions of the song in release when it came out, he said “I think I have two bronzes,” Karger noted he also won an Oscar for best original song. Carradine said that stunned him when Diana Ross’ Mahogany was also a nominee. 

He also talked about how he hated his womanizing character and when he asked Altman for more direction, he simply told him he was doing fine. This was good non-direction, because he realized in the end he was “an actor who doesn’t like the guy he’s playing, but what the audience is getting is a guy who doesn’t like himself.”

It was also interesting to see how much Blakley had to do with the feel of the film because of the seven songs she contributed, in addition to her gut-wrenching performance as the troubled singer Barbara Jean. I was also fascinated to realize how much Altman is responsible for Goldblum’s Hollywood career, because he lured him from the New York stage to come to Los Angeles and appear in his films.

Anne Morra and Stephanie Rothman

The second Midnight screening was my favorite late night film of TCMFF 2019. The Student Nurses (1970) is a fascinating example of what happens when a woman directs an exploitation film. Instead of feeling like exploitation, it’s kind of sexy and it has heart.

Nurses Director Stephanie Rothman spoke with curator Anne Morra before the film. While it was interesting to hear Rothman speak about her career, I was a bit frustrated that Morra focused so much on why her career was not bigger. I think the fact that producers wanted a "Stephanie Rothman film," but wanted to hire a less-experienced man to direct says it all. I wish they’d acknowledged the patriarchy is the pits and move on to discussing her work. I know Rothman directed at least six films of interest and I wanted to know more about them.

My amusingly-labeled Rothman meds

It was a shame that San Francisco Film Geeks Beth and Miguel were held up at a screening that ran late and missed the beginning of the film, because they brought these great pill bottles filled with red hots to share with the audience. They did manage to hand them out after the film at least. I love these two and their creativity!

My favorite screening of the festival was the increasingly wild ride that is the horror film Mad Love (1935). While it was a blast simply to see this bizarre Peter Lorre flick at the Egyptian Theater, the experience was greatly enhanced by comedian and actor Bill Hader’s introduction. His first words: “you guys are like the hardcore nerds,” which you are if you show up at 9am on a Sunday morning for a film.

Hader then proceeded to flash his own film nerd credentials. He first saw Mad Love late night at night on TCM and found it so unusual that he researched it for the rest of the night. I saw lots of heads nodding in the audience at that comment. He added, “It’s like the most Peter Lorre Peter Lorre performance” and then proceeded to joke about the odd trailer for the film, which consists of Peter Lorre sitting in a chair, having a phone conversation about the film. All of this was hilarious coming from a comedian like Hader, who does a crazy good Lorre impression. Film geek comics are the best at doing TCMFF intros.

Hader also noted that Cora Sue Collins, a child actress who retired at age eighteen and had the distinction of playing a Garbo character as a child, had a brief scene in the film and was in the audience that morning. He had her stand to enthusiastic applause. She was a rock star to this crowd.

If you are delicate when it comes to language, you might want to skip this clip from Hader's recent appearance on the Conan O'Brien Show, but I got a good laugh out of the uncomfortable experience he talks about having in the bathroom line at the Egyptian after the screening. His giggle makes me melt.

Barbara Rush was a pure delight before the screening of Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession (1954). She had a lot to say and interviewer Alicia Malone wisely gave her space to reminisce. Of Sirk she said, “He was so kind and so interesting….I thought he was fatherly.” While she had a good working relationship with the more experienced Jane Wyman, at first Rush was terrified of her. In an early scene she was carrying a cup of coffee on a saucer and it was rattling because it was shaking so much Wyman asked “What is that noise?”About which Rush though, “Oh my God it’s me.” Rush also enjoyed working with Rock Hudson. He called her Oona, dos, tres, eventually shortening it to just Oona, and he always kept her laughing on the set.

Rush was a good friend of Robert Osborne, as they’d both been under contract to Lucille Ball. She said they were walking buddies, part of a friendly group, and that “he was like a very dear brother to me.” She also said “he just knew everything” and he’d always help her with crossword puzzles. In thinking about his legacy she said, “I think it was Bob who really got this classic thing going.” He even invited her to an early screening of E.T. (1982), which blew her away. It was sweet to hear about the private Osborne, who was apparently as charming in person as in public.

Ben Mankiewicz and Angie Dickenson
Angie Dickinson is one of the most charismatic guests I’ve seen in six years of attending TCMFF. It was a thrill to catch her in an interview with Ben Mankiewicz before a screening of The Killers (1964). Not only is she funny, sharp and friendly, but she’s still so darn sexy. As she struggled a bit to climb up on her tall seat (honestly, I would have struggled too, it was really tall), she said “I’m old” and an audience member shouted, “But you’re so beautiful!” to which she said, “I know!” She’s just speaking the truth.

Dickinson loved her costars in The Killers, a film that was made for television, but then released in theaters when it was found to be too brutal for broadcast. When asked about screen love John Cassavetes, she said “what a Greek,” adding that she found him “so watchable.” She had a lot to say about Ronald Reagan, who played the villain to whom she was mistress in the film. Apparently he was upset to even have to pretend to slap her and apologized profusely. Dickinson also mentioned Clu Gulager, who I thought stole the film from a formidable cast in his performance as a quirky, but heartless hit man.

It was endearing how little interest Dickinson seemed to have in her own work. She loved talking about Brian DePalma (with whom she worked on Dressed to Kill [1980]) and other films she enjoyed. Eventually she did talk at length about the 91 episodes she filmed as the star of the television show Police Woman, a grueling experience she called “a hell of a grind.”

Despite the brutal work schedule, Dickinson felt she had to take the show because her other options for work seemed to have dried up. When asked why her promising start in films didn’t lead to greater roles she said, “I don’t think I had that much drive to tell you the truth. I also like life. It’s not an easy thing to answer. I certainly struggled to get bigger parts I didn’t get.” I could have listened to this fascinating woman for hours.

Carl Davis and the TCM Orchestra

Having just watched Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in A Woman of Affairs (1928) and finding it only mildly interesting, I probably wouldn’t have caught the TCMFF screening except for two factors: finally being able to see film preservationist and filmmaker Kevin Brownlow in person and watching the film with a live orchestra.

As Brownlow had been presented the Robert Osborne award earlier in the festival, TCM prepared a career retrospective short which it screened before he came out. This was useful, because Mr. Brownlow’s got one of those careers so full of accomplishments that even if you are familiar with his work, you’ll always forget something.

After the video, Leonard Maltin spoke with Brownlow about the film. While discussing the lasting appeal of Garbo with Maltin, he praised cameraman William Daniels for doing much to create her mysterious image. He then talked about the film, based on the scandalous novel The Green Hat, which studios were “ordered by [Hollywood censor] Will Hayes never to make.” Brownlow said, “MGM had to change the title. They had to change the character’s names and they had to change the plot. Otherwise it’s identical to the book.”

Among the challenges on the set: the once steamy love affair between Garbo and Gilbert had cooled, so despite their professionalism, the pair was not as hot as they’d been in Flesh and the Devil (1926). In addition to that, Brownlow said Gilbert “suddenly changed his acting style in the middle of the film.” He adopted an over-the-top approach which was his misguided response to the approach of sound film. Fortunately director Clarence Brown reigned him in.

John Gilbert's great grandson Dylan Hart played French horn in the TCM Orchestra

The musical accompaniment by the TCM Orchestra was stunning, sometimes drawing attention away from the film, which is something I hadn’t experienced before. Composed and conducted by Carl Davis, the director looked rightfully triumphant at the end of the performance. Maltin also noted that Gilbert’s great grand-son Dylan Hart was playing French horn in the orchestra.

What a great line-up of guests at the festival this year! I'm so grateful to have seen all of these brilliant people.

TCM Classic Film Festival 2019: The Community

Bloggers and film historians looking all over the place in the lobby of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. I'm the Elizabeth Taylor stan in the front.
As much of a thrill as it is to spend four days gorging on classic films, ask anyone what they like most about TCM Classic Film Festival and they will probably say the people. There are no strangers at this festival. Though we spend hours a day waiting in line for films, we do it cheerfully, because it offers the opportunity to talk about movies with fans that care about them as much as we do.

Every year I look forward to catching up with my film-loving friends at TCMFF. Many of us knew each other online long before meeting at the festival and we stay in touch on a daily basis, but nothing beats sharing quality time together in person. It gets better every year as our friendships deepen, despite the distance that separates most of us the rest of the year.

That said I also love meeting new people in line, in the lobby of the Chinese Multiplex and at Club TCM in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. This year was especially fun in that regard. I met so many people from Chicago. Guess that’s prime classic movie fan territory! It was also great to chat with a retired opera singer who loves Barbara Stanwyck, a couple of foreign film fanatics, one of whom was wearing an Agnès Varda shirt like I was, and a friendly couple who recognized me from a TCM Backlots promo that seems to have neverending life on the network.

Meeting your fellow Varda shirt-wearing soul sister: only at TCMFF
Almost as soon as I arrive in Hollywood on Wednesday afternoon, I begin to see familiar faces. I always meet up first thing with my festival roomie Laura . Over the course of the afternoon as we eat lunch, pick up media passes and shop in the TCM Boutique, we  catch up with many other friends who are doing the same. The lobby of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel is always a busy hub of happy reunions on this day.

With my festival roommate of five years Laura of Laura's Miscellaneous Musings

Reunited with Jessica of Comet Over Hollywood and Laura
With Kelly of Outspoken and Freckled 
Top row: Eva of I Luv Cinema, Paula of TCMParty Bottom row: fabulous Twitter follow Jackie, Laura and Chris of Blog of the Darned
For the past two years, TCM has replaced its festival press conference with a more socially-focused media reception. This is a great opportunity to connect with fellow writers, and meet with festival guests, network personnel, and hosts to get answers to any burning questions you might have about the festival.

Catching up with Diana, Jessica and Casey at the media reception
 Sometimes those questions are not as serious as you might expect.

I know it looks like we’re having a delightful conversation about film with TCM host Ben Mankiewicz in the photo below, but we actually cornered him so Angela could ask him if he liked the television show ALF, which I have come to see with new eyes myself through her fandom. He does not. She might have convinced him to give it another try though (probably not).

Photo credit Laura
Before Mr. M. was whisked away by a pair of pleasant, but firm TCM folks (maybe to his relief?), I was able to thank him for calling my pen pal Angela (different from ALF stan Angela) to say hello. 

I became acquainted with this lovely lady a little over a year ago, because she saw me on that ubiquitous TCM Backlots promo and noticed I was also from the Pacific Northwest. She’d actually been to the Hollywood Roosevelt in the forties and recalled meeting Randolph Scott, Joan Blondell and Cary Grant, who she calls “grumpy Grant” because he refused to give her an autograph. 

Angela didn’t feel up to attending the festival, but asked if I could deliver a note to Ben during TCMFF 2018. When I did, he asked for her phone number, but I never thought he’d have the time to call. I was impressed by his determination to see it through months later. His response to my thanks? He smiled and said that it took him a while to convince her it was really him. I can just imagine!

I sent pen pal Angela some photos from TCMFF 2018. This is a pic of a page from the scrapbook her sweet daughter made for her.
After a quick dinner at Miceli’s, I headed to TCM’s Social Media Influencer Mixer at Teddy’s in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. This is yet another opportunity to meet up with TCM employees and fellow writers, with the added fun of chatting with members of the lively TCM Party community that frequently watches films together on Twitter. I didn’t get around to taking many pictures as I was having too much fun to think about it! I did get a shot of two of my favorite Instagram fashionistas though. Rachel and Casey bring a lot of beauty to the world through their devotion to retro fashion. I highly recommend following them both:

Rachel and Casey

It was touching to see how the TCM Party folks responded to the sudden and traumatizing deaths of #TCMParty regulars Vanessa Marquez and Andrea Rosen over the past year. There were all sorts of tributes to these much-loved members of the community throughout the festival. 

A pin tribute to Vanessa Marquez
I was most touched by a toast TCM Party regular Jeff, made to Rosen the night of the social media mixer. I don’t think it was easy for him to get up and do it, but he gave a beautiful tribute. 

While I did not know either of these two women well, I do remember Rosen bouncing up to me at Mel’s during a group breakfast the first day of TCMFF 2018 to introduce herself. She struck me as a person who enjoyed life immensely. Marquez was an actress, perhaps best known for her roles in ER and Stand and Deliver, but to this community she was simply a tender-hearted fellow fan. It seems both ladies have left a beautiful legacy.

A wild crowd before a screening of THE KILLERS (1964)
After the pre-festivities, socializing happens on the run, but it is no less satisfying. I get weary of all the selfies my friends like to take, but it’s wonderful to look at them later. Not only do I get to reminisce about our good times together, but I see myself grinning with pure joy and remember why I work so hard to make it to this event every year. All photos by me unless noted otherwise:

With Laura (photo credit) and Guy

Waiting for MERRILY WE GO TO HELL. I think? Photo credit Casey

Enjoying the Midnight screening milieu with fellow movie vampire Meg

Santo masks courtesy of Film Geeks San Francisco

Photo credit Danny

Photo credit Casey

Waiting for THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG on opening night/ Photo credit Paula

Getting rowdy before THE KILLERS (1964)

Last film of the festival THE DOLLY SISTERS

By the closing night party, I'm ready for a three-year nap, but parting is bittersweet:

Ariel, Sabina, Me, Jill
With Laura
With Ann Marie and Angela
Hollywood Roosevelt lobby during the closing night party

Adorable 25th anniversary cupcakes, served with champagne

Getting some post-party grease together at In'n'Out makes up for it a bit:

Photo credit: Danny

The camaraderie at this festival is unusual and addictive. Once you attend TCMFF, it’s hard to imagine missing a year, and indeed many people do attend every year they can. If you find your people, you keep them close.

When the classic movie weirdos get together

It can be hard to come home from the festival when you've spent days with friends new and old who care about the things that give you life. One of my favorite things about this community is the pins many people hand out to promote their work and share their obsessions, because they are a daily visual reminder of the fun I've had. I usually give away a lot of my pins, because I hate to hold onto them if someone gets especially jazzed about something I have, but I did end up with an interesting collection:

Loved the designs on these promotional pins:

Clockwise from the top: a tribute to Peter Lorre in MAD LOVE, Luchador love from the Midnight screening, ILuvCinema.com, TCM Party, Shadows and Satin blog, Ticklish Business podcast

The special interests are also fun:

Yes ALF, why not? Also a lovely Fredric March nametag, two Keanu Reeves pins and a tribute to the festival screening of SUNRISE

This one from Diana of Flickin' Out might be my favorite.

I always wear my Kate Gabrielle ID pin at the festival. She creates these great TCMFF pin packs every year. They're very popular, so if you've been to the festival, you've probably seen them:

With all that hardware on your lanyard, you feel a bit like a summer camp counselor, but it's lots of fun.

Another great way to stay connected to the TCMFF community after the festival is via the many blog posts and podcasts about the event. Here's a few to get you started (if you have a link[s] to add, please comment below!)


Day One: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Day Two: The Power of the Pre-Codes

Comet Over Hollywood
Goodbye Mr. Chips, The Dolly Sisters

Journeys in Classic Film
Day One, Day Two, Day Three, Day Four/Wrap-up

Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings
Day One, Day Two

Pre-fest,Day OneDay TwoDay ThreeDay FourWrap up

The Way We Watch
TCMFF 2019: The B Side, The Deep Cuts


Cinema Junkie
Episode 165:TCM Classic Film Festival, Part One (Interview with Charles Tabesh)/ Episode 165: TCM Classic Film Festival, Part Two

Cinema Shame
Live from TCMFF 2019 with Jessica Pickens

Classic Movie Musts
Day One Day TwoDay ThreeDay Four

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