It’s hard to believe that this is the tenth year that Turner Classic Movies has staged a film festival in the heart of Hollywood. I’ve been lucky enough to participate from the beginning, although my assignments are so varied and random—and the bill of fare so jam-packed—that one could go through all four days without catching sight of me. Nevertheless I had a great time and want to share some of my experiences.
Opening night on the red carpet felt bittersweet because I was reminded of all the great people from Hollywood’s golden age who are no longer here. Tony Curtis, Debbie Reynolds, Mickey Rooney, Ernest Borgnine, Luise Rainer and so many others were part of this celebration just a few years back. Even so, everyone was in high spirits as they prepared to watch When Harry Met Sally with its stars, Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, and director Rob Reiner in attendance. The festival’s audiences are unfailingly enthusiastic and that’s one of the reasons I have such fun, meeting people who are so happy to be there. As usual, I had to make a bee-line downtown to teach my Thursday night class at USC so I missed out on all of that…but I heard the movie played extremely well.
I was wide awake for my Friday morning gig, introducing Cinerama’s Russian Adventure at the Cinerama Dome on Sunset Boulevard. Veteran projectionist John Sittig helped explain the logistics of the three-panel system before I welcomed Hal Dennis, Jr., son of the film’s American producer and editor. Hal, Jr. and his brother worked as assistants to their father in cutting 15 hours of footage down to a more manageable two. Best of all, Mr. Dennis brought along two items for show and tell: a massive takeup reel and the six-headed editing unit that was rigged to accommodate three 35mm picture negatives, a magnetic soundtrack, and a work print. It weighed 35 pounds and gave us all an idea of how cumbersome it was to work in this format.
Dennis Sr. also arranged for Bing Crosby to appear on camera and narrate the film, putting a distinctly American stamp on the package, which (lest we forget) came out at the height of the Cold War. I was able to stay for the first hour of this expansive travelogue and enjoy the variety of sights and sounds on display, from a whaling expedition to the Moscow Circus. As a point-of-view shot of reindeer pulling a sleigh appeared on the giant curved screen I was reminded of Cinerama’s accurate claim that it “puts you in the picture.”
The TCM Festival generally shows popular and beloved movies rather than rarities. I’m told the 70mm presentation of The Sound of Music at the TCL Chinese Theatre was simply magnificent. But I was excited to see a film I’d never heard of called Vanity Street, a Columbia Pictures programmer from 1932 directed by B movie specialist Nick (billed as Nicholas) Grinde and photographed by the great Joseph August. Pre-Code movies are always saucy but this one turned out to be a pointed Depression fable. After a montage of Times Square stock footage establishes its Manhattan setting, we meet a forlorn Helen Chandler (best remembered as Mina Harker in Dracula). She hurls a brick through the window of a busy corner drugstore and then waits to be hauled off by the police. Why? Because “at least in prison they feed you.” Tough-talking cop Charles Bickford takes pity on her and invites her to stay in his apartment until she can find work. He’s a square guy who genuinely wants to help her out. When she’s hired as a chorus girl in a show whose stage door and alley abut the drugstore (an impressively elaborate set) she’s exposed to the seamy world of show business. Here, the loose women of the Follies soak the well-heeled Stage Door Johnnies who wait for them every night. The plot thickens when the show’s star, fiery Mayo Methot, is fleeced by her oily boyfriend George Meeker, who also puts the moves on Chandler. This snappy 67-minute picture was a real discovery for me and fun to watch with an enthusiastic audience, especially in a flawless 35mm print. (It slipped by me when Sony released it on DVD in their movies-on-demand program five years ago.)
On Saturday I was set to interview the child actors who appeared with Cary Grant in Father Goose, but the timing was such that I could play hooky while that picture was running and revisit Leo McCarey’s wonderful Love Affair. TCM borrowed a 35mm print from the Museum of Modern Art, a tonic after suffering through so many inferior copies. And what a glorious film it is. The final scene, in which star-crossed lovers Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer are reunited, is nothing short of masterful. Actress Dana Delany, who studied film at Wesleyan University, provided a lively and knowledgeable introduction.
Then I had the pleasure of chatting with three lovely women who worked in Father Goose and have happy memories of the experience. Laurelle Felsette Johnson said the best part was not having to go to school for the duration of filming. Her sister Nicole Felsette Reynolds remembered that while on location in Jamaica the children (including director Ralph Nelson’s) ran riot. Sharyl Locke told a great story about having to bite Cary Grant’s finger. She didn’t want to hurt him but he explained that the only way the scene would work was for her to really bite down. She did as told and Grant proudly showed off her tooth marks to the crew. Seems to me that qualifies him as a method actor.
Saturday night I volunteered to introduce Life Begins at Forty because I love Will Rogers and regret that his movies are so little seen nowadays. I remembered this one being enjoyable but I wasn’t prepared for the belly laughs it yielded from the TCM audience. They loved it!
On Sunday I revisited Yours, Mine and Ours for the first time since it came out in 1968! It’s a cute movie and I moderated another panel of former child performers who appeared in it: Kevin Brochette, who started out in his native Canada and had a fairly substantial acting career; Mitch Vogel, who debuted in this film and went on to join the cast of Bonanza, costar with Steve McQueen in The Reivers, and amass a lot of film and TV credits; and Tracy Nelson, who was only four at the time and got the part because the movie’s star, Lucille Ball, knew that Harriet Nelson had a granddaughter who could fill a slot in the cast of eighteen kids. Lucy and Harriet—then Harriet Hilliard—became friends when they worked together at RKO in the 1930s. Tracy followed in their footsteps as an actress on TV’s Square Pegs and The Father Dowling Mysteries. All three former juveniles were happy to see their younger selves again on a big screen and charmed the audience with their warm recollections.
My last official duty was to introduce Greta Garbo in A Woman of Affairs (1928) at Grauman’s Egyptian Theater along with Kevin Brownlow, who received TCM’s Robert Osborne Award on Saturday. Kevin’s frequent musical collaborator Carl Davis conducted his original score with a fine orchestra which included John Gilbert’s great-great-grandson Dylan Hart on French horn. Every seat in the theater was filled for this presentation, which was rewarding, but I must admit the movie didn’t live up to my memory of it from years ago. Gilbert’s character is downright dull so the actor has little to work with. Johnny (then John) Mack Brown commits suicide by suddenly leaping out a window and we’re told he did it “for decency.” In the source novel The Green Hat it’s because he has syphilis; the film provides a much duller explanation, but only after an endless array of furtive looks and pregnant pauses. Of course, it’s never dull watching Garbo and the audience enjoyed the experience of seeing this star vehicle with live musical accompaniment, which is always a treat. It was a great way to wind up a wonderful weekend.
As I sat watching Greta Garbo on the giant Egyptian screen I couldn’t help feeling excited, knowing that in four weeks our own MaltinFest will be taking place in the very same location. Our first such event isn’t nearly as ambitious as the TCM Classic Film Festival has become, but if we enjoy even a fraction of its success we’ll be very happy indeed.