From Buster Keaton To Shirley MacLaine: The TCM Classic Film Festival

I’m still recovering from the whirlwind that is the TCM Classic Film Festival. What a glorious event, attended by the most enthusiastic moviegoers in the world, run by a friendly staff, and filled to the brim with screenings, panels, interviews, and more. Because TCM stalwart Robert Osborne was recovering from a minor medical procedure and Ben Mankiewicz can’t be in two places at once, I had even more hosting duties than usual. My personal highlights were chatting with Christopher Plummer before a screening of The Man Who Would Be King, introducing a new restoration of Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. with Carl Davis debuting his new orchestral score, and interviewing Shirley MacLaine—twice.

It was equally enjoyable for me to introduce films I care about to such a receptive audience, including Walt Disney’s underappreciated So Dear to My Heart (1949), John Ford’s little-seen Airmail (1932), Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight also known as Falstaff (1965).

I even treated myself to an extracurricular screening on Friday afternoon: the Museum of Modern Art’s new 35mm print of Don’t Bet on Women (1931), a saucy pre-Code comedy starring Edmund Lowe, Jeanette MacDonald, and Una Merkel. What fun!

The only time I felt imperiled all weekend was when I had to end a brief conversation with Shirley MacLaine before a screening of The Apartment on Saturday. The audience didn’t want to let her go! Fortunately, we had more than an hour to talk the next day at Club TCM (in the historic Blossom Room at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel). Never shy, Shirley knew what people wanted to hear and gave it to them in spades: candid opinions, canny observations, and plenty of “dish.” (She names Dean Martin as the funniest man she ever met, and spent three years in an affair with Robert Mitchum, trying to figure out the elusive actor.)

Christopher Plummer regaled the crowd at the Egyptian Theatre with his impressions of director John Huston and costar Sean Connery, who rescued Plummer’s job on The Man Who Would Be King by telling the backers that if they cut his role as Rudyard Kipling, Connery would not be there the next day! I also asked Plummer to share an arcane but interesting fact that he told me the first time we met: his cousin was the great character actor Nigel Bruce, although (sadly) they never met.

On Saturday evening I interviewed longtime studio executive Sherry Lansing about a movie that left a deep impression on her when she first saw it as a teenager and still makes her cry today: Imitation of Life (1959). But as we were taking our seats I
realized I shouldn’t miss the opportunity to ask her about working as an actress with Howard Hawks on the John Wayne movie Rio Lobo (1970), early in her career. Sherry obliged with several
amusing—and insightful—anecdotes. She recalls that when Hawks didn’t get his way with the studio he suddenly developed a pain in his leg and wasn’t able to work—for three successive days. It was then, she says, that she learned who really had the power in Hollywood.

With scores of screenings and special guests taking place simultaneously, it wasn’t possible to take in all the films or question-and-answer sessions I would have liked to see…but that’s what makes the TCM Festival an embarrassment of riches. I feel very fortunate to be a part of it.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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May 2024