On Thursday, Turner Classic Movies and NCM Fathom Events presented Singin’ in the Rain (1952) at nearly 500 venues nationwide. And I thought long and hard about not going to see it — even though I love old movies in general, and this film in particular.
Let me explain. I’ve attended the TCM Classic Film Festival annually since its inception in 2010, and have enjoyed countless pristinely presented classics at Hollywood landmarks like Grauman’s Chinese and the Egyptian Theatre. I also live in New York City, where respected institutions like the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the Museum of Modern Art, and Film Forum present old movies on a regular basis, usually in the best available 35mm or digital prints.
I mention this not to brag, but rather to establish a benchmark. When it comes to watching movies I love on the big screen, my bar is high — so high, in fact, that I can pick and choose my screenings, based upon setting, audience and technical expectations.
And that’s why I almost didn’t see Singin’ in the Rain Thursday — because thus far, I’ve been entirely unimpressed with the partnership between TCM and Fathom. The 70th anniversary, “one night only” screening of the “restored” Casablanca I attended in suburban New Jersey in March was a comedy of errors, with improper masking of the wide screen for a 1:33 aspect ratio film, poor image quality and the exclusion of nearly half of the heavily promoted pre-show documentary presentation. The encore Casablanca screening in April — I called it “one more night only” or “Another Night in Casablanca” —was equally disappointing, with missing audio on the documentary and a near-riot from angry attendees at the show I attended on the East Side of Manhattan.
In both cases, I was frustrated by the nearly unanimous accolades from classic film fans on Twitter, even though many acknowledged similar (or far worse) technological imprecision at their theaters. The consensus seemed to be “any classic film on the big screen is better than no classic film on the big screen.” In both cases, my rebuttal was, “Why should I pay to see something that looks worse than what I already own at home?”
Fathom delivers its content to partner theaters via satellite, not physical (or digital) prints. That means that, while a gorgeous, DCP “print” of Casablanca may be available from Warner Bros' recent, million-dollar restoration, the version I paid to see was a recording of a 1080p transmission — the equivalent of DVR’ing something from HBO, projecting at on a gigantic screen, and charging full, movie theater prices.
It didn’t help that Casablanca screenings I attended were both in charmless multiplexes, with somewhat sparse attendance from a sedate, mostly older crowd. From a brand management perspective, everything about the experience seemed tin-eared, and counter to the curatorial brilliance that TCM works so hard to maintain on-air, at their festival, and in the national Road to Hollywood screenings that precede it. Frankly, nobody loves Turner Classic Movies more than I, and it pains me to give poor marks to an entity that brings me so much joy. Some of the greatest movie-going memories of my life have occurred at the TCM Film Festival, and I am loath to sully them with sub-par experiences outside of their direct purview, even if they carry the TCM name.
And so, it was with all this emotional baggage that I chose to attend the matinee presentation of Singin’ In the Rain at the Empire 25 AMC Theater in Times Square Thursday. And I’m glad to report that I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. While I still have reservations about the flawed nature of Fathom’s delivery method, the benefits of attendance today far outweighed the technological drawbacks. In fact, this screening was the closest thing I have experienced to the TCM Classic Film Festival outside of the festival itself. The audience was delightfully diverse and almost absurdly responsive. They burst into a spontaneous, shrieking round of applause at the opening titles, and every single dance number was met with a similarly enthusiastic response. It reminded me of the times I’ve attended live TV tapings, and a producer or stand-up comedian has warmed-up the crowd and told everybody when and how to respond. Only with this audience, it was entirely genuine.
I’ve seen Singin’ in the Rain at least 20 times over the years, but Thursday, it felt like seeing it for the first time. If I had forgotten that the film was a musical comedy, my fellow audience members reminded me, over and over again, with loud laughter at moments I had forgotten were laugh-out-loud funny. It was infectious, and the youthful giggles from the large contingent of pre-teen kids were genuinely inspiring. Young children are non-existent at the TCM Film Fest, but Thursday, they were in summer-vacation abundance. The domino of giggles that accompanied every one of Donald O’Connor’s slapstick antics warmed the heart of this classic film curmudgeon, like nothing in recent memory. If these kids would chose to watch Singin’ in the Rain over any one of the cacophonous cinematic confections playing in all their 3-D, CGI-filled glory in the very same theater, maybe there is hope for the future after all.
Another improvement was the pre-screening documentary emceed by TCM primetime host Robert Osborne. The Casablanca intro essentially spoiled the whole movie, with lengthy clips from most of the film’s iconic moments. This may have been fine for repeat-viewers, but it ruined nearly every key moment of the film for newbies. The Rain documentary, however, consisted primarily of an interview with eternally youthful star Debbie Reynolds conducted by Osborne three months ago at the TCMFF, supplemented with brief clips from the film, as well as context-establishing quotes from Gene Kelly’s widow Patricia Ward Kelly, and archival sound bytes from Donald O’Connor and Cyd Charisse. And unlike the undated Casablanca interviews with numerous, long-dead cast- and crewmembers, the interviews with O’Connor and Charise were identified as having been conducted in 1997. And we were spared the hodgepodge of incongruous talking heads that littered the Casablanca doc. (Graydon Carter? Hugh Hefner?)
Before I get all Jimmy Stewart-y and start running down the snow-covered streets proclaiming my love for Fathom Events, let me bring it back down to Earth for a moment. I was one of nearly 370 people in Auditorium 18 at the Empire 25 (with another 256 in the adjoining auditorium) that paid $12.50 to watch Singin’ in the Rain projected in Blu-ray quality. I spoke with Daniel, the AMC projectionist, after the screening and he confirmed it: Both rooms were playing back a 1080p DVR recording of a satellite transmission. And it looked like it. Bright scenes were generally crisp and clear, but anything that took place "at night" or in low light looked muddy and under-lit. I’m sorry to say that this included the iconic, titular dance sequence, which might have been better described as Singin’ in the Murk. There were also moments in the particularly colorful sequences where pronounced digital artifacting was visible, especially on Cyd Charisse’s gowns in the “Broadway Melody” ballet finale.
Every ounce of my classic film snob being wants to call these quaity discrepancies a deal-breaker. But I can’t. The experience I had at Singin’ in the Rain was truly transformative. When more than 350 other people started screaming and cheering at the end of the film, I was genuinely moved, and that would not have happened in my apartment, alone with my Blu-Ray player.
That said, I am now getting down on my knees and begging Fathom and TCM to figure out a way to make these screenings look better. Because this partnership is not going anywhere. Just a few days ago, it was reported that Fathom will be presenting three more TCM-branded screenings in coming months: Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) on September 19, likely featuring a pre-show interview with 82-year-old star Tippi Hedren; a double feature of James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride Of Frankenstein (1935) on October 24, perhaps with an interview Robert Osborne conducted with Boris Karloff’s daughter Sara at the TCM Film Fest; and Robert Mulligan’s To Kill A Mockingbird (1962), potentially featuring Mary Badham (who played Scout).
These screenings may not draw the sold-out crowds of Singin’ in the Rain, and the audiences may not make the seats vibrate with applause like my crowd did today. But there’s a good chance that a few longtime fans who can’t afford to fly out to Hollywood for a film festival will experience the joy of sharing a movie they love with hundreds of people who feel the same. And it’s likely that some people who might have otherwise discounted classic films as dated relics may change their tune, thanks to TCM and Fathom Events.
If this is the best available technology to get these films into 500 theaters in a way that makes financial sense, I'm OK with that. This classic film snob has changed his tune, for now. Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls.