Revisiting the 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival

Yet another journey with classic films on the big screen thanks to TCM.
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Through some type of technical snafu that occured who knows when, the first part of my 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival coverage for Blogcritics has disappeared off their website, so it is being reposted here.

The 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival returned to Hollywood on April 25 - April 28 for its fourth annual outing for classic-film devotees, though most people I know who can't imagine watching movies all day for a number of days refer to us as something else. Aside from the usual tributes, essentials, and special presentations, this year's main theme focused on journeys, which included sub-themes featuring films dealing with trains, rivers, Italy, and self-discovery.

Day One

My festival journey began Thursday with the Road to Utopia, the fourth in the Bob Hope & Bing Crosby series. Comedian Greg Proops offered a hysterical, rapid-fire introduction about the film and cast, a good deal of which was wildly false yet no less entertaining. The film opens with Chester (Hope) and Sal (Lamour) as a well-to-do, old married couple. They get a visit from their pal, Duke (Crosby), and their adventure is told in a flashback.

Chester and Duke were vaudeville entertainers/con men who encountered Sal as she searched for her father's goldmine in Alaska. As is typical of the Road pictures, both men are interested in her and her mine is a very welcome bonus. Not only do Chester and Duke turn on each other to win the girl, but they also have to stave off the thieves who want to steal the mine. Road to Utopia offers a few songs and plenty of laughs as the duo zing each other at every opportunity, including jokes that break the fourth wall.

Before the pre-Code pulp melodrama Safe in Hell began, author/historian Donald Bogle had a discussion with William Wellman Jr., the son of the famed director who has another book about his father coming out. Wellman talked about his father's career in which he directed 76 films. The most interesting anecdote was the revelation that Wellman got into his contract for A Star is Born that producer David O Selznick was only allowed on the set six times.

Gilda (Dorothy Mackaill) has been working as a prostitute for over a year, in part because her sailor beau Carl (Donald Cook) is out to sea. She is sent to Piet (Ralf Harolde), a man she has a history with, and when she discovered this, she tries to leave. He refuses and they get into a fight. She knocks him out and causes a fire that kills the guy and burns down the hotel. To avoid getting arrested, Carl takes her to a Caribbean island where they have no extradition laws. They get married before he leaves, but temptation is all around as the hotel she stays at is filled with all sorts of nefarious characters who also appreciate the lack of extradition laws and are smitten over her being the only white woman on the island. The film is a bit slowly paced and the acting a bit hammy, but the story offers some good twists that made it worthwhile in the end.

Day Two

One of my favorite things about the TCM Film Fest is taking a gamble on a film I didn't know and having it pay off. On my second day, I was introduced to the Best Picture-nominated, screwball comedy Libeled Lady, which I was surprised I had never heard before considering it stars William Powell, Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow, and Spencer Tracy.  You can tell you are around classic-film fans when the mention of William Powell by the person introducing the film gets a rousing round of applause.

Warren (Tracy) and Gladys (Harlow) are engaged, and on the day of their wedding Warren, managing editor for the New York Evening Star skips the ceremony and goes into work at because the paper published an erroneous report about young socialite Connie (Loy) running around with a married man, which has led to Connie filing a $5 million suit against the paper. Gladys is furious about coming second to the paper again. Bill (Powell), a former writer for the paper, is brought in to get Connie to drop the suit. His plan is trap her in a situation where she does get involved with a married man. He intends to be the man, and with the help of Warren gets Gladys to marry him. After the suit is dropped and the marriage annulled, Warren says he'll marry Gladys. She accepts begrudgingly.

Bill then begin to inserts himself into Connie's life under the ruse of getting close to her father. Connie has her guard up but eventually develops feeling for him. Bill thinks he can get Connie to drop the suit, but things become soon become complicated. Not only does Bill start reciprocating Connie's feelings but Gladys grows attracted to him in their time cooped up together because he shows her more respect and attention than Warren does. Libeled Lady is a funny romantic comedy with a double love triangle that delivers an expected, welcome ending. The only odd note is the brief appearance of Warren's Chinese houseboy, Ching (Otto Yamaoka).

Producer Stanley Rubin and his wife Kathleen Hughes sat for a discussion with Leonard Maltin before River of No Return, a western starring Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum that stretches the definition of the word "classic." It took a little bit for the discussion to begin because of the logistics of moving Rubin around. At 95, his mobility is understandably limited. For some reason, rather than escort him down to the interview chairs, Rubin took a seat in the auditorium seats, which took some time. After the introduction, he had to maneuver down the stairs to the interview chairs in the front of the auditorium. Although he would forget to talk into the microphone, which his wife reminded him about, he told stories about working with the cast and confirmed that Monroe and director Otto Preminger didn't get along, which allowed Rubin to become pals with her.

Matt Calder (Mitchum) went to jail for killing a man. When his wife died, he sent for his son Mark (Tommy Rettig) to come west where he is setting up a farm. They meet up at a tent city where the boy had been taken under the wing of dancehall singer Kay (Monroe). Her fiancé, gambler Harry Weston (Rory Calhoun), arrives with a gold mine deed, though how he got it is questionable. Concerned about traveling through Indian country, Harry suggests they take a raft down the river to Council City where they need to file the deed. They have trouble when they hit the rapids, but luckily, they pass by Matt's farm, and he is able to throw them a rope to save them. Kay is grateful, but Harry isn't, knocking Matt out and stealing his gun and horse. Without the gun to protect him and his belonging from the Indians (who are bad guys in the story for no apparent reason), Matt, Mark, and Kay take the raft and go after Harry.

River of No Return was rather average, and I wish I had selected something else. The story is predictable, although after Matt attempts to rape Kay, they continue on as if nothing had happened for the most part, which is a bit odd. Naturally, they meet some nastier folk, making Matt seem decent, and he is until that aforementioned inexplicable scene. The characters end up where you expect them, and Marilyn's songs are okay. The rafting scenes shot in the studio look distractingly phony, as do the dummies tied to the rafts. The best thing the film has going for it is gorgeous countryside from the Canadian locations where they shot.

Based on E. M. Forster's 1908 novel, A Room with a View was the breakout film for the Merchant Ivory production team. Julian Sands was on hand and talked about what a pleasure it was working on the film.  He even took questions from the audience and they were better questions than might be expected from fans of the film. 

While vacationing with her older cousin Charlotte Bartlett (Maggie Smith) in Florence, Italy, Miss Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter) makes the acquaintance of George Emerson (Sands) and his father (Denholm Elliot). An attraction blooms between George and Lucy, but Charlotte attempts to squash it. Back in Surrey, England, Lucy accepts the proposal of Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day-Lewis) more so because it seems like the right thing to do. The engagement is thrown into turmoil when Cecil invites a young man and his father, recent travelers in Florence, to move to a nearby empty cottage. Led by an amazing cast, A Room with a View tells a wonderful love story that epitomizes turn-of-the-20th-century Britain. Lucy's suitors are from slightly different classes and she balances her passion with societal expectations.

Some people have "it" and some people don't. Clara Bow was the former, as can be seen in her star turn in It. Formerly a lost film until a nitrate copy was found in Prague, Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, a 15-piece orchestra playing Carl Davis' original score accompanied the TCMFF screening.

Bow plays shop girl Betty Lou, who sets her sights on store manager Cyrus Waltham, Jr. (Antonio Moreno), who is involved with Adela Van Norman (Jacqueline Gadsden). Cyrus has a friend named Monty (William Austin), who seems interested in Betty Lou, though he comes across as the gay friend at times. Betty Lou takes advantage of Monty, using him to buy groceries and get her closer to Cyrus. Betty Lou and Cyrus go out on a date, have a great time at an amusement park, but when he goes in for a goodnight kiss, she slaps him, which he accepts for overstepping his bounds. Their relationship seems doomed when Cyrus hears of Betty Lou having a child, a ruse she takes part in to help her sick, unemployed roommate keep her baby from social services. Betty Lou gets Monty to take her to Cyrus' yacht party where she expects to teach him a lesson, but walks away with much more.

Though It shows its age in spots in its overacting and pacing, Bow impresses throughout as a strong female character, which begs the question why Hollywood has so rarely created one over the nearly 100 years since It came out. The score was so natural and the orchestra so competent, I forgot a live performance was taking place under the screen. Events like this are what make TCMFF special.

Robert Osborne and director Rob Marshall, who announced he would start production of the film version of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods in June, introduced On the Town.  Sailors Gabey (Gene Kelly, who co-directed the film with Stanley Donen), Chip (Frank Sinatra), and Ozzie (Jules Munshin) are on a 24-hour shore leave in "New York, New York, a wonderful town." During the opening number, the three hit a number of tourist sights. Then while on a subway, Gabey falls for a girl on a poster, that month's Miss Turnstiles, Ivy Smith (Vera-Ellen). He is determined to find her, and his pals agree to help but their search results in Chip and Ozzie meeting taxi driver Hildy (Betty Garrett) and anthropologist Claire (Ann Miller), very horny girls that want to get right to it. It's surprising that they are so easy, especially in a 1949 film, but it must have helped navy recruitment. Gabey finds Ivy briefly, loses her, and then finds her again before returning to the ship with the fellas.

The musical is light on story, but the film reveals Kelly is a great dancer, Sinatra is a great singer, and NYC girls make great dates. When you see such delightful scenes of singing and dancing play out and the pleasure they bring the audience, who clapped after many of the numbers during the screening and who across the country make these types of shows popular on TV, it's a wonder why Hollywood doesn't make more of them.

Five movies seemed like more than enough for one day, but with Plan 9 from Outer Space shortly starting for the midnight show, why not check it out? Comedian/writer Dana Gould introduced the film. He was very funny and also very informative, offering anecdotes about his friendship with Maila Nurmi (Vampira) who revealed to him that Orson Welles gave her the clap on a USO tour. Gould disputed the common notion that Plan 9 is the worst movie of all time because the worst thing a movie can be is boring and Plan 9 never is. He then stated the real holder of that title is Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes.

Plan 9 finds aliens using zombies to make their presence known to humanity. It is unintentionally amusing with its bad dialogue, acting, plot, continuity, effects, and so on. Seeing it with a large number of like-minded folks at midnight was a great decision by the programmers of TCMFF.

Part Two of my 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival coverage can be found here.

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