I don’t know about your home, but at Castle Leigh, the first channel we always check out on ye olde flat-screen is Turner Classic Movies. (Just nod if you understand. To those who don’t have the habit yet, I can only pity you. To those who know, well… you know.)
They (yes, the mysterious “They”) should make one of those pharmaceutical commercials about TCM. “Feeling depressed or stressed out? Try TCM — it’s better than Xanax! Side effects may include laughter, tears, and yes, sometimes drowsiness.”
Of course, one of the great things about TCM is the lack of commercials. Movies are run uncut and uninterrupted, so it’s one of the few channels that I don’t have to DVR in order to fast-forward through the ads. (Though I still do DVR a lot of their programming since not even I can watch all of the better movies live.)
So in that sense, it’s like HBO, only it doesn’t suck out and shred your soul with nihilistic trash.
If you’re a TCM fan, then Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on the weekend of April 12-15 would have been your version of heaven. And not just because that’s where they have the footprints of old movie stars in the forecourt. But it was ground zero for the 3rd annual TCM Classic Film Festival.
The festival HQ was ensconced across the street at the Roosevelt, a charming old hotel which hosted the very first Academy Awards. With the sidewalks literally star-studded (that famous Hollywood Walk of Fame), the entire neighborhood is marinated in Tinseltown history.
Of course, the once celebrated renown of Hollywood proper has faded into a mere tourist attraction. The streets throng with tourists walking very slowly, everyone staring down at their feet (trying to read the brass-lettered stars).
People dressed in costumes from the world of entertainment hit you up for money, charging to pose for photos. You can see Darth Vader, Elvis and Spider-Man mingling with tourists from Japan and Holland. The closest you’ll come to a real star in Hollywood these days is a homeless guy wearing a furry red Elmo suit.
But inside any TCM festival screening, Hollywood’s glory times are back again. First up on opening night for me was “Sullivan’s Travels.” (The main opening-night movie was “Cabaret,” screened at the Chinese Theatre complete with red carpet and stars Liza Minnelli, Joel Gray and Michael York in person. As for me, I’ll take Joel McCrea over Joel Gray any day.)
Every filmmaker should be required to watch “Sullivan’s Travels.” Aside from being very funny, it also has a message that all should take to heart — when it comes to movies, people want to be entertained rather than be preached at.
Watching it on the big screen for the first time, I really came to appreciate Veronica Lake’s charms. (One of the great things about old movies is you can have crushes on the actresses and your significant other can’t get jealous.) The screening was introduced by Ron Perlman. Not sure why, exactly, though he did say it was one of his favorite movies. And that’s a good enough reason for me.
Most screenings were introduced by either an actor, someone associated with the movie, or a historian or critic. The screening of “Casablanca” was hosted by Leonard Maltin. (It’s his favorite movie of all time, he said. And it should be.)
The crowd’s reactions were part of the fun. People actually applauded the first appearance of their favorite actors in the movies. (Like when the debonair Claude Rains saunters on-screen in “Casablanca.”) One movie actually received a standing ovation at the end (“The Women,” a hilarious — and terrifically non-PC — comedy that stars, yes, only women).
If you’re a classic movie buff, and you couldn’t go this time around, it’s really worth the effort to make it next year. Sure, it’s great to watch old movies from the comforts of your own sofa, but it’s no comparison to gaping at your favorite stars on a sixty-foot-high screen as they were originally meant to be seen. And the communal aspect can’t be matched at home, either.
Of course, the highlight of the festival was getting a chance to see the great Robert Osborne in person. Osborne, for the uninitiated, is the revered host of the network. How revered? Well, let’s just say that after my visit to the TCM gift shop, I’m now the proud owner of my very first bobble-head doll. (Yes, they actually make Osborne bobble-head dolls.)
There was a scare last summer, when Osborne took several months off from hosting the network. His absence made you realize just how essential the 79-year-old is to the network. One can’t help but fear what will happen when he inevitably retires.The younger weekend host, Ben Mankiewicz, who presumably was brought in to appeal to a hipper audience, lacks Osborne’s gravitas. Mankiewicz, who used to co-host the “Young Turks,” a “progressive” online political talk show, is obsessed with the Hollywood blacklist — he never fails to work in a reference when he’s on-screen. He doesn’t evince the same level of respect for old movies as does the dignified Osborne, affecting a cynical smirk as his standard expression.
Speaking of politics, the festival was blessedly free of it except when it came to “The Fountainhead.” The screening was introduced by Matt Tyrnauer, the architectural critic for Vanity Fair magazine. Tyrnauer interviewed the grandson of Franklin Lloyd Wright, who was the inspiration for Howard Roark’s character in the original Ayn Rand novel.
Tyrnauer didn’t express much love for the film, interested only in the movie’s depiction of architecture and Frank Lloyd Wright’s relationship to it. (Apparently Wright was asked to design the sets but demanded too much money.) Tyrnauer in particular blanched at the movie’s philosophical views, saying with a shudder of horror, “We might have a big dose of Ayn Rand in the next few years.” (I assume he was referring to the upcoming presidential election, implying that Mitt Romney will not only win, but will govern as an Objectivist — hardly a safe bet.)
The heart of the festival was Club TCM, a screening area in the Roosevelt with an overpriced cash bar at one end. It’s where Osborne and Mankiewicz, with Kim Novak (who’d introduced “Vertigo” the day before) toasted TCM’s 18th birthday. A number ofother classic stars were present, including Margaret O’Brien, whom Judy Garland brought to tears in “Meet Me in St. Louis” with her heart-rending delivery of “Have Yourself a Very Merry Christmas.”
After basking in the presence of Osborne himself, cutting the birthday cake with the still-beautiful Novak, I came face to face with Mankiewicz, who mingled freely and graciously with the attendees. I was sorely tempted to upbraid the snarky weekend host for his occasional injections of politics. If I want policy prescriptions, I will not seek them from a film critic. But I remembered what I learned from the movie I saw opening night, “Sullivan’s Travels.”
Instead of sending a message, I chose to focus on the one thing that really matters — the movies. We shook hands goodbye and I emerged onto Hollywood Boulevard, my eyes glued like the callowest tourist to those glittering sidewalk stars.