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2012 TCM Classic Film Festival Wrap Up: Day 1 and 2

I had originally intended on writing a singular in-depth review for each of the movies I saw at the TCM Classic Film Festival over the course of its four days, but when the point came to sit down and begin writing, I realized just how daunting a task this turned out to be.

What makes this festival so special is the sheer amount of films available to be viewed.  Seeing classic films on the big screen is a cinephile’s dream, and it was a joy to be running in-and-out of theaters constantly for four days.  And between myself and the other two Screen Invasion writers who attended the festival, we still were not able to cover everything, and I don’t think a single one of us ever actually saw the same movie together.  (You can read all of our coverage here.) It just goes to show the diversity the festival organizers were able to put together.

And while it is a blast to write reviews for classic films (I seriously cannot believe I get to write things like, “I don’t really think Steve McQueen brought it to the table”), where the festival really shines is it’s guest speakers.  Q & A’s with the various filmmakers or actors shed life on these films and make them seem alive decades after they first came out.

Best yet, it’s a fun place to meet people.  Numerous times standing in line for the next screening, I would just turn to the person next to me and start chatting them up.  “Have you seen this movie before?  What’s the best thing you’ve seen so far?  Where are you from?”  As it turned out, people visiting the TCM Festival came from all over the United States, and I even met one couple from London.  All these film fans descended upon Hollywood not to see the premiere of the latest blockbuster, but to see old movies on the big screen, even though in many cases it would have been far easier and more affordable just to rent the DVD.

He drinks your blood from a sippy cup.

Why?  Because there was a sense of excitement and celebration of cinema in the air.  Many assume classic movies are geared towards the older generation, but there were people of all ages at the festival.  Check out the kid I saw at the Dracula screening!

In an age where the studios seem to be cranking out mindless special effects extravaganzas with far too often a hollow shell of a story on the inside, the TCM fest is a reminder that there is still a draw for great cinema, and that classic storytelling never goes out of style.

Without further adieu, here come some mini-reviews from my first two days:

THE WOLF MAN (1941) – I kicked the festival off with one my personal favorite classic monster movies, The Wolf Man.  The film was introduced by a personal hero of mine, Rick Baker, legendary makeup artist responsible for some of the greatest creature effects in cinema’s history.  Some of his most ground-breaking (and Oscar-winning!) work has consisted of the werewolf effects in American Werewolf in London, the myriad of alien creatures in Men in Black, and bringing the world of Dr. Seuss to life in How The Grinch Stole Christmas.

Rick Baker: Oscar-winning makeup artist or back-up musician for your favorite classic rock band?

With thick white hair drawn in a ponytail, sharply-angled full beard, and tall stature, Baker looked a bit like a makeup effect himself.  He opened the screening with the famous line, “Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, can become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright” (it’s no surprised Baker has this quote memorized, as it’s repeated three times throughout the film).  Baker preceded to give some interesting information about the movie, as well as talk about how the old Universal horror films inspired him as a child to become a makeup artist himself.

The film was the career-defining role for actor Lon Chaney Jr., who plays the Larry Talbot, the man who is transformed into the titular monster.  Interestingly, Chaney Jr. was not the original choice to play the character.  Universal horror actors Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi were both considered at a certain point.  Lugosi, in fact, appears in the movie, albeit as the gypsy Bela who ultimately gives Talbot the curse (one must wonder though, why Bela was offering to read fortunes on a night where he knew he would become a werewolf).  Chaney Jr. still gives a fine performance, and the sympathetic nature of The Wolf Man is part of why it is probably my favorite of the classic Universal monster films.

Physically Chaney Jr. is not as dashing as a number of “classic” Hollywood leading men (I’d say he’s more bear-sized than wolf-sized if you catch my drift), but it adds to his everyman quality.  It’s also amusing to see how much of a “wolf” he is in pursuing the love interest Gwen (Evelyn Ankers), whom the film makes a point of saying is engaged to another man from the get-go.  But hey, go for it Larry.  A-wooo!  Baker mentioned that apparently Chaney Jr. and Ankers did not get along well on set, though it is impossible to tell on screen; they have solid chemistry.

The true star of The Wolf Man, however, is makeup artist Jack Pearce, who in many ways gave us the definitive “werewolf” creature that has been a starting point for werewolf movies ever since.  In addition the rich musical score and lavish sets make the movie come alive in a truly classic way.  For the scenes in the woods, trees on the Universal lot were painted black with glycerine, and toxic mist was pumped in to create fog (reportedly causing Ankers to pass out at least once).

It is easy to forget that many of the classic werewolf tropes did not actually exist before The Wolf Man was released.  Writer Curt Siodmak researched countless legends of werewolves and other creatures and then mixed, matched, and came up with his own mythology to create this quintessential tale.  For example, many iconic ideas of wolfbane, silver as a fatal device, or the mark of the pentagram were not widespread until the film was made.

Rating: 5/5

And you thought Leia's outfit from "Return of the Jedi" was risque...

CLEOPATRA (1934) – Next up was Cecil B. DeMille’s version of Cleopatra starring Claudette Colbert.  Unlike many of the other screenings I went to, I am pretty sure I was the youngest guy in the theater this time (certainly the youngest male).  The film was introduced by costume designers Deborah Noodleman Landis (responsible for costumes on “Thriller”, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Animal House) and Bob Mackey (designer for Carol Burnett, Madonna, and Cher, among many others), who spoke about the truly wild costuming typical of many DeMille features.  The movie was made towards the end of Pre-Code Hollywood, allowing for far racier, jigglier costumes than would be expected.  While the costuming of many of DeMille’s servants is completely outlandish (and the historian in me could not help but giggle at the inaccuracy of the so-called “Romans”), Colbert apparently refused to wear the costumes DeMille asked for her, and instead brought in her own costume designer.  It was also interesting to learn that, despite being a black-and-white film, many of these costumes were actually brightly colored in real life, supposedly to keep the actresses from getting bored (what divas!).

As a film, Cleopatra has everything expected from DeMille.  The costumes are impressive, but even more jaw-dropping are the insanely lavish sets, made even more incredible by the fact that these were built, not aided by special effects.  Yet as a film I personally did not think the movie held up to more modern standards.  Most of the movie is just showcasing Antony and Cleopatra’s extravagant parties as they woo each other, and in the midst of all this opulence I could not help but think how the movie must have felt to the unemployed people during the Great Depression watching it (but what do I know…they probably ate it up).  At one point we even see one of Cleopatra’s slaves keel over after taking a drink of wine, at which point another servant remarks to Antony, “The queen is testing poisons.”  It’s hilarious, but I practically wanted all of Cleopatra’s slaves to rise up and shout, “We are the 99 percent!”  And while it’s unfair to make these types of criticisms to such an old film, Claudette Colbert is probably one of the least Egyptian-looking women on the planet, but of course the only people with even the slightest hint of dark skin are a few of the servants in her palace.

Overall it was a lot of fun to marvel at the production design of old Hollywood, but as a story it does not hold up as well as other timeless classics.

Rating: 3/5

CHINATOWN (1974) – I was only able to attend one film on Friday, but it was a good one.  Chinatown is a film I’ve seen numerous times over the years, and every time I watch it I notice something new.  Being able to see it on the big screen in the Mann’s Chinese Theater was quite a treat.

"Hey Robert?" Evans, Towne, and Osborne, from left.

The film was introduced by a trifecta of people named Robert.  Familiar TCM face Robert Osbourne, producer Robert Evans, and screenwriter Robert Towne.  Evans received a standing ovation (rightfully so for having not only been head of production at Paramount, but also for producing such classics as Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby, Love Story, and The Godfather).  Upon receiving his ovation, however, Evans turned to Towne and remarked that Towne was the best writer he had ever worked with.

The story of how Chinatown came together is an interesting one.  Evans apparently wanted Towne to write “The Great Gatsby,” with Jack Nicholson playing the part of Nick Carraway.  This project never came to fruition (Towne did not want to be known as the guy who butchered F. Scott Fitzgerald), but instead Towne explained to Evans about another project he was working on, called “Chinatown.”  Evans admitted he did not understand the project at first, but liked the title.  A while later when Towne was running out of money, he went back to Evans and asked him to back the project.  In a stroke of serendipity, the day the script was finished the writers’ guild went on strike, allowing a 30-day option of the script to become a 5 month option.  The extra time allowed for an all-star cast and crew to be put together, and the rest is more-or-less history.

One very interesting anecdote that I had often heard, but never from the actual source, were the debates that went on over the ending.  The film always had a bittersweet finale, but originally it was not quite as bleak, with at least one variation having Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) and her daughter (sister?) escaping on a boat as a dying Gittes watched them from the dock.  Director Roman Polanski supposedly hated these endings, and was continuously asking Towne to write something new.  At one point a fed-up Towne wrote the “worst” ending he could imagine, and Polanski loved it and put it in the film!  At the screening Towne mentioned how he had always felt guilty about receiving his best screenplay Oscar for Chinatown for this reason.

The film itself was glorious as ever, and gains more resonance the longer you live in Los Angeles (early in the movie someone mentions the Pig ‘n Whistle pub, which was literally down the street from where we were watching the movie).  And on the big screen, with the beautiful pristine 35mm print, it’s a wonder to marvel at the performances, fantastic cinematography, score (the use of a singular trumpet was suggested by Evans), and even subtleties in the sound design, such as a fly buzzing in Giddes’ office during a tense moment.  Chinatown is a true Hollywood classic, and seeing it at the Mann’s Chinese Theater was definitely a highlight of the festival.

Rating: 5/5

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2012 TCM Classic Film Festival Wrap Up: Day 3

The Author

Daniel Johnson

Daniel Johnson

Daniel Johnson grew up in Santa Barbara, CA. Son of an archaeologist, he spent his childhood years developing a fondness of nature and the outdoors, which was rivaled only for his love of filmmaking and storytelling.
In 2008 he graduated from the University of Southern California's film program, and currently makes a living as an editor in addition to working on his own creative projects.
He has a weakness for redheads, seafood pasta, and dinosaurs.