TCM Goes Hollywood—Again

Euphoric: that’s the best word I can think of to describe the feeling that permeated the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood this past weekend.

Fantasia unspools at the glorious Grauman’s Chinese Theater on closing night. (photo courtesy TCM)

Attendees from 49 states and four foreign countries circulated from festival headquarters at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel to Grauman’s Chinese Theater, from the Mann’s Chinese multiplex at Hollywood & Highland to the Egyptian Theater a few blocks away. As my colleague Cari Beauchamp put it last year, these folks were away at movie camp and loving every minute. So did I.

After all, I got to spend quality time interviewing Jane Powell, Hayley Mills, Debbie Reynolds, Marge Champion, and cinematographer Haskell Wexler, as well as presenting my own program of Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies. (In attendance was Walt’s genial—but shy—grandson, whose full name is Walter Elias Disney Miller.) I also had the privilege of introducing a screening of Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman accompanied by my favorite band, all the way from New York City, Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks. Now my L.A. pals know what I’m always raving about. I even got to revisit a movie I love, Hoop-la with Clara Bow, which I hadn’t seen since I worked at the Museum of Modern Art Film Department back in the 1970s. I cried at the final shot, just as I did back then. (I like the 1928 version of Kenyon Nicholson’s play The Barker too, but it doesn’t have the same emotional punch.)

TCM host Robert Osborne was, of course, the primary master of ceremonies, presiding over opening and closing night screenings at Grauman’s Chinese, as well as a hand-and-footprint ceremony for Peter O’Toole in the theater’s famous forecourt. But I didn’t get to see—

Jane Powell turns on the charm. (photo courtesy TCM)

—any of his programs, or others with TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz, Cari Beauchamp, or Pete Hammond because there were four or five screenings going on at any given moment, not to mention panels, signings, and other events. (The organizers use the Telluride Film Festival as their template, with longtime Telluride directors Bill and Stella Pence as consultants. This means one can’t see everything, but it also enables more people to attend the festival as they disburse among the varied shows.)

My experiences over the weekend will stay with me forever. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is not only my wife’s favorite movie, but my daughter’s as well, so imagine what a kick it was for me to watch them chat with its star, Jane Powell. (It was also neat to say hello to her husband, Our Gang alumnus Dickie—now Dick—Moore.) She then won over a packed house of fans with her unpretentious charm. When she referred to making her first movie at the age of 14 back in 1943, she looked out at the crowd and said, “I’ll save you the trouble—I’m 82.” At the end of our conversation, my family and I sat back and enjoyed Seven Brides all over again on the big screen.

Hayley Mills was an audience favorite three times over. (photo courtesy TCM)

On Saturday I interviewed Hayley Mills twice, back to back: after a screening of Walt Disney’s Summer Magic at the Mann, then just before a showing of The Parent Trap at the Egyptian. She couldn’t have been more engaging, and the crowd was thrilled to have her there. TCM produced a lovely three-minute tribute to her that moved her to tears—in part, I suspect, because it also included her father, John Mills. She said it was watching how he dealt with fame, and his fans, that taught her lifelong lessons, while it was her mother, writer Mary Hayley Bell, who made sure she answered her fan mail. (Cari Beauchamp, interviewing her the next day with a showing of Whistle Down the Wind, scored a coup by asking a question I never thought of: had she been offered the part of Lolita in Stanley Kubrick’s film? The answer was yes! Hayley was intrigued at the time, but her parents said no, even though the producers tried to sweeten the deal by offering them an original Renoir painting.)

I knew Marge Champion grew up in Hollywood and attended Hollywood High, but when I chatted with her after a screening of That’s Entertainment! she revealed that she was born in a house on Orange Drive just around the corner from where we were sitting.

Marge Champion is still vibrant at 91. (photo courtesy TCM)

She remembered watching both the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and Grauman’s Chinese Theater being built! At 91 she remains not only spry but sharper than a tack. When I asked her about the beautiful dance she and husband Gower performed to “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” in Lovely to Look At, she recalled that MGM editor Adrienne Fazan came to the set when they were blocking the number and told them exactly where they could make cuts and what overlapping action she would need to make the finished piece look seamless.

Debbie Reynolds is going through yet another upheaval in her life, forced to auction off the Hollywood memorabilia she collected so diligently over the years, but you’d never know it from the sassy show she put on for another packed house at the Egyptian Theater on Sunday, following The Unsinkable Molly Brown. She had the crowd roaring with her self-deprecating wisecracks, and then, on a more serious note, told how hard she worked to get the role of Molly—which was earmarked for Shirley MacLaine—and satisfy her demanding director, Charles Walters. When it was time for me to escort her off the stage she lingered to shake hands, blow kisses and smile for her adoring fans.

Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks salute Buster Keaton after playing for The Cameraman. (photo courtesy TCM)

Every veteran cinematographer I’ve ever met has lived in the present or the future, not in the past, and Haskell Wexler is no exception. As we said hello in the green room prior to introducing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (which won him an Academy Award) I realized he was recording me, and everyone else around him, with a digital Flipcam! When he pooh-poohed the audience’s possible interest in anything a cameraman might have to say, a chorus of voices rose up to assure him that they were very interested indeed. He spoke with great fondness of Elizabeth Taylor and recalled that she would hug him every morning—and he would have to warn her not to crush his light meter, which was attached to his belt.

On display outside Club TCM at the Hollywood Roosevelt: three first three cement slabs ever created for Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theater, long since removed from the sidewalk on Hollywood Boulevard. They’re barely readable now, but if you look carefully you can see Douglas Fairbanks’ signature at the bottom. The others were Mary Pickford and Grauman himself.

All through the weekend, right up to the closing night party, I met scores of dedicated fans and buffs who couldn’t believe how lucky they were to be right in the middle of movie heaven. Believe me, I felt the same way.

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July 2024