Tuesday, April 17, 2018

My Top Picks for the 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival



This time next week I'll be in Hollywood for the TCM Classic Film Festival. It'll be the sixth year attending the festival and also my sixth covering the event as press. Stay tuned as I'll have lots of posts coming up including daily recaps and in-depth looks at individual screenings and panel discussions.

Last year I scaled my TCMFF schedule back a bit and had more fun than I had ever had in the previous 4 festivals. I'm taking that approach this year as well. Leaving time for food, shopping at Larry Edmund's Bookshop, hanging out at Club TCM and having drinks with friends. Most of all it will let me appreciate the events I do go to, take care to take notes, record audio and report back. Last year my reporting was better for it so I'm excited to take a similar approach.

Below is my tentative schedule. I left room for some free time but also for some last minute decisions. Flexibility is key. No one's TCMFF ever goes according to plan! Also, because I live near a city where classic films are shown on the big screen on a regular basis, my focus in planning is always on the special guests. These are people I don't get access to here but do get to see at TCMFF!

Are you going to TCM Film Festival? If so what are you planning to see?


Thursday

Red Carpet - Over the past three years, the opening night red carpet has been the #1 highlight of the entire festival. And for the last two years I've been on the red carpet interviewing and photographing some of the special guests! This year I'll either be reporting from the red carpet or being a spectator on the bleachers. Either way this is not something I'll want to miss. This year's opening night picture is The Producers (1968) with special guest Mel Brooks. There will also a ceremony to honor director Martin Scorsese for the inaugural Robert Osborne Award. I won't be able to attend either the ceremony or the film but it will be a blast to see all the guests saunter on the red carpet!

Fail-Safe (1964) - This Cold War drama starring Henry Fonda piqued my interest recently. I'm glad I haven't watched it yet because TCMFF is an ideal way to watch a film for the first time. 98 year old screenwriter Walter Bernstein, who worked on numerous movies and TV shows and was blacklisted during the HUAC era, will be on hand to discuss the film. I can't miss this opportunity!


Friday 

Intruder in the Dust (1949) - Usually I attend the Hand and Footprint Ceremony at TCMFF but I decided to do something different this year. I'll be heading over early in the AM to catch this William Faulkner adaptation starring Juano Hernandez and David Brian. Former child actor Claude Jarman Jr. will be on hand to discuss the film and the discussion will be moderated by Donald Bogle Jr., one of the top experts on African-American film history.

Witness for the Prosecution (1957) - Another first for me! I look for those when I peruse the schedule. This courtroom drama will be playing on the big screen at the Egyptian and actress Ruta Lee will be discussing her role in the film. The discussion will be moderated by The Hollywood Report journalist Scott Feinberg.

None Shall Escape (1944) - This was a tough block. I would love to see the Pigeon Sisters at The Odd Couple screening, to see The Set-Up on the big screen at the Egyptian or to see the 1 hour interview at Club TCM with James Ivory. But seeing Marsha Hunt in person has been a dream of mine for years and all of those events put that dream in danger. So I'm blocking out as much time as possible to make this dream a reality.

Romeo and Juliet (1968) - This adaptation of Shakespeare's famous play is one of the first classic films I ever watched. It had a profound affect on me in my teen years and I still hold it dear to my heart. The stars Olivia Hussey, Leonard Whiting and Michael York will all be on hand to discuss. This is my #1 pick for the festival. It will be the 50th anniversary of the film and I just can't wait for this screening.

Saturday

Bullitt (1968) - I love Steve McQueen. After seeing The Great Escape at the TCL Chinese Theater back in 2013 (when it was still Grauman's) I knew I had to repeat with another McQueen movie. Seeing the King of Cool race down the streets of San Francisco on that gigantic screen will be EPIC. Actress Jacqueline Bisset will be on hand to discuss the film beforehand.

Maurice (1987) - Before I fell in love with classic movies, I was an angst-ridden teen who lived for period pieces. The Merchant-Ivory films of the 1980s and 1990s and the other adaptations of that era fueled me. Maurice was a recent discovery for me. I watched it after I was quite moved by Call Me By Your Name (2017). James Ivory wrote the script for CMBYN and directed Maurice and he'll be on hand to discuss the film.

Scarface (1932) - This classic gangster film has eluded me for years and I'm going to finally watch it. TCMFF will be a perfect venue for this! Legendary director John Carpenter will be on hand to discuss the film. How can I miss that?

Note: This is only three films on a packed Saturday but I'm leaving room for a last-minute choice. Wish I could see the only Robert Mitchum film (the first they've played since 2013!), The Story of G.I. Joe but it conflicts with Maurice. Darn.

Sunday

I take it easy on Sundays because TCMFF exhaustion will have kicked in and I'll need some time to pack. I might be able to sneak in a TBA, which would be a TCMFF first for me, or I might use the time to do some writing and browse the TCM gift shop before it closes.

Places in the Heart (1984) - Is it terrible that I'm going to this because I want to see Robert Benton and Sally Field? Because that's all I got and it works for me.

Mostly Lost at Club TCM - It's not TCMFF without going to one of the fascinating panels or presentations at Club TCM. I might only be able to fit in one and this is a goodie! Rachel Del Gaudio and Rob Stone of the Library of Congress will be on hand to discuss unknown films that have yet to be identified. Silent film accompanist Ben Model, who I had the pleasure of meeting at CineFest back in 2015!, will be on hand to play music to the screened clips.

Animal House (1978) - I've never seen Animal House and I would love a get a chance to see this with my husband Carlos who adores the film. Last year Best in Show had an impressive special guest list and this year it's Animal House. On hand to discuss the film are Stephen Bishop, John Landis, Tim Matheson, Bruce McGill, Mark Metcalf, Martha Smith and James Widdoes.

Closing Night Party at Club TCM - This will be a somber moment to drink to the end of TCMFF and say goodbye to friends.




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Saturday, March 31, 2018

Topaze (1933)

Myrna Loy and John Barrymore in Topaze
Myrna Loy and John Barrymore in Topaze

Professor Auguste A. Topaze (John Barrymore) teaches his young pupils about the moral philosophies that will make them honest and kind men. But one spoiled little rich kid, Charlemagne (Jackie Searl) doesn't want to hear it. Topaze gives him failing grades but doesn't realize what he's up against: The La Tour La Tour family. Baron Philippe (Reginald Mason) is the patriarch. He splits his time between his mansion where he lives with his neurotic wife Baroness Hortense (Jobyna Howland) and his son, the aforementioned failing student. The rest of the time he spends in his grand Art Deco apartment with his fashionable mistress Coco (Myrna Loy). When Charlemagne's tantrums leads Hortense to get Topaze fired from his job, Philippe offers Topaze a proposition. Help him create Sparkling Topaze, a tonic cure-all. Topaze takes this opportunity to use his education in chemistry for good. What he doesn't realize is that he's essentially a frontman for a money making scheme meant to fool the general public. And Topaze, enamored with Coco who quickly develops an affection for him, doesn't realize what's going on between her and Philippe. Will the morally minded Topaze's world fall apart when he learns the truth?

Directed by Harry d'Abbadie d'ArrastTopaze (1933) is half fun, half serious and all Pre-Code. The fun comes from La Tour La Tour's scheming (and let's be honest, his ridiculous name is also a factor), the Art Deco splendor and the foolish antics of the upper class. The seriousness comes from Topaze's commitment to living a transparent and moral life. We raise our fists at La Tour La Tour for trying to corrupt this gentle soul who only wants to pave the way for good in the world. The Pre-Code comes from the blatant adultery as well as from some of the sexual connotations and innuendoes. The film ends with a marquee reading Men and Women Sin, Twice Daily, with that last part blinking over and over again in neon lights.

Based on a French play by Marcel Pagnol, Topaze was adapted to screen by writers Ben Hecht and Benn W. Levy. While the story is set in France and there are some references to French life, the movie has a decidedly American feel. Perhaps it's because of the political theme that runs throughout. Topaze is accused of being a Communist because of his philosophies and the Barron La Tour La Tour exemplifies Capitalistic greed. While this film comes during the Pre-Code era, it still had to be toned down. An American movie about an older man having a rather open affair with a younger woman can be excused for it's French sensibilities. Audiences could easily displace the fault to the other side of the Atlantic. The end result was saucy enough that the censors banned the film in 1936. The play was adapted to film in France in 1933, 1936 and 1951. It was also adapted in Britain as Mr. Topaze starring Peter Sellers in 1961.

Topaze was produced by David O. Selznick for RKO. John Barrymore does a marvelous job as the awkward old professor with high ideals. He's matched beautifully with Myrna Loy who is fabulous despite not having much to do in the film. Despite the marvelous cast, this film is so-so. I wasn't quite captivated by it as I'd hoped. It's worth seeing though for the social message but most importantly the mind-blowing Art Deco apartment that La Tour La Tour keeps with his mistress. It's a thing of beauty. It boasts the clean lines, empty white spaces and exoticism that makes me love that aesthetic so much. The apartment has circular rooms, square chairs, opulent door handles, a fire place with snake plants growing out of built-in planters, lamps with sculpted hands as the base, ridiculously narrow shelves with tiny ornaments and an Art Deco clock I wanted to steal. I was ready to pack my bags and move in.





Topaze (1933) is available on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber. The extras include commentary by Kat Ellinger and trailers from other Kino Lorber classics. There are no subtitle options for this disc.

Many thanks to Kino Lorber for sending me a copy of the Blu-Ray for review!

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Fritz Lang's While the City Sleeps (1956)

Ida Lupino and Dana Andrews with director Fritz Lang

After two decades of making films in America, director Fritz Lang was at his wits end. The 1950s was difficult time in the film industry. Television was a major rival for audience’s time and attention. For Lang, good opportunities were fewer and far between. It also didn't help that Lang had developed a reputation for being cruel to his actors. In an effort to salvage his Hollywood career, Lang met with producer Bert Friedlob. Friedlob was quite a character. He had dabbled in many different businesses, (he was a liquor salesman and even managed circus acts) and became a film producer while he was married to his third wife actress Eleanor Parker. His films included A Millionaire for Christy (1951), The Steel Trap (1952), The Star (1952) and others. Lang needed a producer and Friedlob was ready and available. According to Lang biographer Patrick McGilligan, after Lang signed with Friedlob, the producer wasn’t interested in any of the directors ideas however the two agreed on one project in particular. Friedlob owned the rights to the novel The Bloody Spur by Charles Einstein. The former  journalist's book was based on the true story of William Heirens, a Chicago based serial killer who targeted women and left messages behind scrawled in lipstick. Lang was familiar with the “lipstick killer” case and agreed to direct the movie. According to McGilligan, the killer in this story reminded Lang of Peter Kurten from his German film M. When William Friedkin interviewed Lang in 1973, they discussed Lang’s interest particularly in films about murderers and criminals. Lang didn’t want to admit it but he did agree that his interests did lie in “social evils.”

While the City Sleeps (1956) follows a cast of characters at the Kyne newsroom at a time when the company as at the brink of major change. Amos Kyne (Robert Warwick), head of the Kyne empire, died just at the time when his newsroom was working on their biggest scoop. A lipstick killer is on the loose. On the story is Edward Mobley (Dana Andrews), the head of the Kyne telecast, Mark Loving (George Sanders), head of the Kyne newswire and Jon Day Griffth (Thomas Mitchell), the Kyne Newspaper’s chief editor. They are in competition for the top spot along with resident newspaper artist Harry Kirtzer (James Craig) to take over where Amos Kyne left off. Unfortunately they're faced with Kyne’s son Walter Kyne (Vincent Price), the spoiled rich brat who has no newsroom experience but likes the power his new position gives him. While the team battles for the top spot by trying to solve the lipstick killer case, the women of the newsroom are also making their mark. Mobley’s girlfriend Nancy Liggett (Sally Forrest) is Loving’s secretary and also Mobley’s pawn to lure the lipstick killer. Women’s story report Mildred Donner (Ida Lupino) isn’t afraid to manipulate her coworkers to play office politics with the big boys. And then there is Kyne’s wife Dorothy (Rhonda Fleming), who is having a secret affair with Harry. Dorothy and Nancy catch the eye of the lipstick killer (John Drew Barrymore, billed as John Barrymore, Jr.). Will Mobley and his police detective friend Burt Kaufmann (Howard Duff) get to them in time before the killer does?

Dana Andrews, Sally Forrest, Thomas Mitchell and Ida Lupino

Producer Friedlob's screenwriter Casey Robinson adapted Einstein’s novel to screen. According to Lang biographer McGilligan, "Robinson had no journalism experience; and the script would lack the real-life verisimilitude the director usually boasted." It did seem unrealistic to me that Andrews’ Edward Mobley was more instrumental in solving the mystery than Howard Duff’s Lt. Burt Kaufman. Friedlob and Robinson also injected an anti-comic book message into the story which did not age well. According to the AFI, “Friedlob announced that the film would address one of the concerns currently publicized by Senator Estes Kefauver, that of the effect of comic books on "juvenile delinquency’" and how the film would be a "weapon in the growing battle against the corrupting force of comic books on young minds." Comic book publisher Tony London pushed back saying that the film's message cast a bad light on an entire genre when only a few bad apples were to blame. Fast forward to 2018 and comic book franchises drive the current film industry. What would have Friedlob thought of that?

Rhonda Fleming and Vincent Price

In a publicity piece for the film, Fritz Lang said the following regarding Rhonda Fleming, "She amuses all the male instinct and she displays her physical assets to great advantage in the picture." Fleming often played such roles which were the complete opposite of what she was like in real life. In an interview with George Feltenstein for the Warner Archive Collection podcast, Fleming said,
“We went on to do While the City Sleeps with Fritz Lang. Which is one I really didn’t want to do because it was what my moral values didn’t stand for. A cheating wife, betraying her husband and lying. I almost turned it down but I guess I wanted to work with Fritz Lang and a great cast. But some of those naughty and not so nice roles were actually wonderful opportunities to play a wider variety of roles and not be mixed up in nice and sweet roles. It’s a favorite of many of my fans, these films.”

Independently produced, United Artists was originally going to distribute the film but in a last minute effort to get the film out on the market quickly Friedlob sold the completed film to RKO. Released in May 1956, While the City Sleeps was well-received. McGilligan said "it was considered a taut, well-made suspense film” and got good reviews in the trades. Friedlob and Lang went on to make Beyond a Reasonable Doubt released that same year (a review of that title coming soon!). Unfortunately, Friedlob died suddenly, just a month after the release of their second film together.

Fritz Lang is my favorite director and that’s because I’ve come to enjoy all the movies I’ve seen of his, even the not so great ones. (To date I’ve seen all but four, his two lost silents and his last two films made in Germany). In While the City Sleeps, the serial killer storyline is besides the point. This movie is really a suspenseful newsroom drama. It’s more about the social politics of an office than it is the hunt for a murderer. Everyone in the film plays to their strengths. And what a cast! Andrews, Lupino, Sanders, Mitchell, Fleming, Forrest, Craig, Price, they are all superb in this picture. Even Barrymore is convincingly frightening as the blood-thirsty Robert Manners. One thing I love about Lang’s films is how the female characters are portrayed. In a male-driven office, the three principal women are not simply pawns in their game. When Sanders tries to manipulate Lupino to get ahead, she manipulates him right back. Forrest isn’t content being the spurned fiancee who Andrews cheats on. A brief moment of defiance helps save her life. Fleming’s part is probably the weakest of the three but she also has her strengths including fighting off the killer. The film has some editing problems. There were some loops added for dramatics that were too noticeable to be taken seriously. A few shots seemed to be sped up or shot in reverse for a similar effect.




While the City Sleeps (1956) is available on Blu-Ray from the Warner Archive Collection.


Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to Warner Archive for sending me a Blu-Ray copy of While the City Sleeps (1956) to review!

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