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TCM Classic Film Festival Reveals Secret Histories of Cinema Treasures

It’s fitting that the third iteration of the TCM Classic Film Festival – a four-day extravaganza for fans of classic cinema – marked the 18th anniversary of the Turner Classic Movies cable channel.  Both revel in recounting the hidden history of the movies, establishing an oral record of great artists and their times.  Last weekend, it was hard to escape the feeling that TCM was staging an elaborate theme park re-creation of Hollywood’s golden age.  Filmgoers packed monuments like Grauman’s Chinese and the Egyptian to see films from Hitchcock, Ford, and Preminger, and starring names like Bogart, Hepburn, and Wayne.  Out on Hollywood Boulevard, the tourists still boarded the Starline sightseeing buses and the celebrity impersonators (if you can call any Transformer a “celebrity”) still posed for photos.  But inside the theater, at the movies, the glorious illusion remained intact.

TCM wields considerable influence in constructing the American film canon and, increasingly, the international canon, as attested by the presentation of the Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Technicolor epic Black Narcissus (1947).  The writing/producing/directing duo was mostly a favorite of hardcore cinephiles until contemporary filmmakers, including a vocal Martin Scorsese, encouraged a re-evaluation of Powell and Pressburger’s daring, worldly melodramas.  Part of a postwar wave of British films that established that nation’s film industry as a critical and commercial force, Black Narcissus was typical of Powell and Pressburger’s risk-taking style, following an order of nuns that struggles to maintain its spiritual fidelity amid the sensual temptations of the Indian subcontinent.  Gorgeous photography from the legendary Jack Cardiff, combined with impressive matte work and art direction, captures the essence of the Himalayas entirely within London’s Pinewood Studios.

Pinewood is perhaps most famous as the traditional headquarters of the James Bond series, and the 50th anniversary screening of 007’s first big-screen adventure, Dr. No (1962), was a highlight in a program full of commemorative restorations.  Anticipating the imminent British Invasion in 1960s popular culture, the freewheeling Dr. No establishes the Bond formula without making a big fuss about it.  There’s no theme song and there are no gadgets to be found, but you better believe there is a secret lair inhabited by a villain with an exotic physical deformity – the titular doctor with pseudo-cyborg claws, a sly reference to timely fears about the nuclear technology featured in the film someday “falling into the wrong hands.”

By the time of Sean Connery’s debut as Bond, the cosmopolitan sub-genre of thrillers had its own well-established language, one that would be reconstructed and riffed on throughout its 1960s heyday.  Indeed, the appearance of The Pink Panther (1963) and Charade (1963) on the festival schedule could be an indication of how TCM wants to expand the definition of “classic” cinema.  There were plenty of noirs and westerns to be seen, but the next great analytical goldmine seems to be in the tales of excitement and anxiety surrounding the first stirrings of globalization.  Still, The Pink Panther and Charade are lighthearted responses to a new era where the potential for international intrigue accompanied any jetliner trip:  cooperation leads to ruin for the good guys in Panther’s heist farce, and Charade’s clever script features Audrey Hepburn going rogue against the gendarmes of Paris and her American pursuers.

Charade was part of the festival’s tribute to famed choreographer and director Stanley Donen, whose Singin’ in the Rain (1952) could have justified the festival’s existence all by itself.  Many of the festival screenings were accompanied by illuminating conversations with actors, directors, and film historians, but Singin’ in the Rain was a uniquely raucous affair.  Star Debbie Reynolds held court with an overmatched Robert Osborne – TCM’s most recognizable on-air personality – but her bawdiness was taken in good stride by the avuncular host and historian.  Author Patricia Ward Kelly (the widow of Rain co-director and star Gene Kelly) took a more scholarly approach, and politely refuted some of Reynolds’ own recollections about the production with documents from her late husband’s personal archives.  Success has many fathers, they say, and it has just as many narratives.

Much more than an outlet for nostalgia, the TCM Film Festival encourages an ongoing conversation about what makes a film a “classic,” a topic that transcends time and place.  (A handful of 1970s Paramount blockbusters crept onto the program this year, as well as a film from – gulp! – the 1980s.)  It’s heartening to know that beyond the audience’s predicable griping about the shortcomings of modern movies – does anyone really expect Wrath of the Titans to hold a candle to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea? – is an inclusive spirit of re-examination and rediscovery.  Old souls may sometimes see the past through rose-colored glasses, but at least they make the entire landscape appear even sharper than before.

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The Author

Eric Ambler

Eric Ambler

Eric Ambler is a film critic and correspondent for Screen Invasion, as well as the founder of Ambler Amblog (https://ambleramblog.blogspot.com/). His parents named him after a Welsh spy novelist they found in a reference book. Someday he will get around to watching all the VHS tapes he bought at Goodwill.