Report from the TCM Classic Film Festival.

Esther Williams at poolside, center, with Betty Garrett, left, at the TCM Classic Film Festival screening of Neptune's Daughter.

It turns out that the answer to the question, “Do I really need to see Casablanca and Sunset Boulevard again?” is “Yes.”

This is my conclusion from having attended the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood last week. In four days of films in four theaters (including the festival’s flagship, Grauman’s Chinese) — preceded or followed by talks by the stars, filmmakers, and film historians — I discovered new meanings in films I’d seen hundreds (if not thousands) of times before.

I discovered that when you see these films on the big screen, with excellent projection and sound, you pick up on visual and auditory details that deepen your understanding of what the films are about. The bits of atmosphere in the background and the small gestures and the muttered remarks of the minor characters that always escaped your attention before — because of seeing and hearing them now, you are at a deeper level of immersion in the film’s world, and this turns out to hold the keys to surprising epiphanies. I know, I know, I wouldn’t have believed it myself. That’s why it’s surprising.

Then, too, nothing focuses your mind on a movie like sitting in an audience of several hundred fellow film fans all paying as close attention as you. In live theater, we know that the audience, in the quality of its attention, writes the play as much as the dramatist and the actors on the stage; the give-and-take of mental and emotional energy may even result in the actors discovering things about the material they didn’t know. A change in the actors’ performances won’t happen in a film, but the collective energy in a movie house can have a potent impact on each audience member. It’s like the power of religious ritual and collective prayer. If I believe in God, I can reach out to Him (if I so choose) while walking to the corner to pick up my dry-cleaning, but my most deeply religious experiences are likely to occur in the presence of ritual and several hundred of my fellow congregants. It’s why organized religion still exists, in the face of centuries of complaints about its “meaninglessness.”

Also deepening the experience of films at the TCM Fest were the chats before and after by the surviving stars and filmmakers. When I was a boy, and walked out of the Crest Theater in Baltimore with my knees shaking after North by Northwest, what would I have made of the knowledge that one day I’d be in the presence of Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) and evil henchman Leonard (Martin Landau), telling me anecdotes about the making of the film before a screening of it? My mind would have been blown. Well, it was. The sheer pinch-me-osity of it made me look at the film with new intensity. The same with the interview with “Betsy Schaefer” (Nancy Olson) before a screening of Sunset Boulevard. The same with the interview with Mel Brooks before The Producers, and with the interview with Jean Paul Belmondo before Breathless.

On the last night of the festival, at a screening of a newly-restored Metropolis, when Robert Osborne announced that the decision had been made by the TCM powers-that-be to put on the festival again next year, a cheer went up from the 1100 sitting in Grauman’s.

You know those “what was I thinking?” moments we all have? (I have them all the time; I assume I’m not alone.) I had them repeatedly during the four days of the festival, when I asked myself, “What was I thinking when I thought I didn’t really need to get a better camera to take with me on this trip?” Alas, I had the camera I had. But I’ll show you some of my snapshots.

At a screening by the pool of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel of the Esther Williams movie Neptune’s Daughter, Esther Williams shared anecdotes, along with co-star Betty Garrett. In between the Q&A and the showing of the film, a group of young synchronized swimmers called The Aqualillies performed for Esther, Betty and us. Through serendipity, my friend and I were positioned directly across the short dimension of the pool from the classic movie musical stars. In the photo at the top of this post, Esther is the poolside figure at the center of the frame in red; Betty Garrett, her face in shadow but her hair a white halo, can be seen to your left.

The next morning, Mel Brooks received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Carl Reiner was part of the tribute. Mel asked, “Carl, did you have garlic for breakfast this morning? Folks, I don’t know what it is, but this man has been my friend for sixty years, and he always smells like garlic.” At the screening of The Producers in the afternoon, Mel told a story about the backer of the film, Joseph E. Levine, and how he offered Mel $50,000 to fire Gene Wilder after he viewed the first dailies. Mel solved it by telling Levine he’d fire Wilder for $60,000, knowing Levine wouldn’t go higher than his original offer. (When the film was finished and started to receive good reviews, Levine decided Wilder had something, after all.)

Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, at the event dedicating Brooks' star on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame.

You’ll have to take my word for it that this is a picture of Eva Marie Saint and Martin Landau being interviewed before the North by Northwest screening by Robert Osborne. Landau said it was his idea to play his character as gay, to give it some dimension beyond “evil henchman.” In response to the performance taking shape before the cameras, screenwriter Ernest Lehman added a line of dialogue for him to help make this explicit, “Just call it my woman’s intuition.”

Robert Osborne interviews Eva Marie Saint and Martin Landau.

You’ll have to trust me on this one also, but this is Tab Hunter being interviewed by Ben Mankiewicz (grandson of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz) after a screening of the musical Damn Yankees. Gwen Verdon in the film is a force of nature, but I was surprised how not-bad Tab was. At the time, he didn’t get a heck of a lot of respect, but looking at his performance in the film now, it’s pretty much exactly what it needs to be. I’d go so far as to call it unimprovable. I hadn’t seen the film from beginning to end on a big screen since the year it came out, 1958.

Ben Mankiewicz interviews Tab Hunter (left) after a screening of Damn Yankees.

The saboteur who hung by a thread from the Statue of Liberty in Hitchcock’s 1942 Saboteur was played by Norman Lloyd. (You may also know him from the television show St. Elsewhere.) Here, turning 96 in November (my God!) and robust and sharp as the day he was 70, is Lloyd being interviewed after a showing of the film by Leonard Maltin. Lloyd worked for Hitchcock again in the fifties, producing and directing many episodes of Hitch’s television show, so he had some good Hitchcock observations to share.

Leonard Maltin interviews Norman Lloyd after the showing of Saboteur.

At the closing party after Metropolis, TCM host extraordinaire Robert Osborne pressed the flesh. TCM programming head Charlie Tabesh can be seen just behind Osborne and slightly to your right:

TCM host Robert Osborne, with brains-behind-TCM Charlie Tabesh in background.

Those of you who watch TCM know that the channel projects, for our age, unusual intelligence and competence in its presentation of classic film. The TCM Classic Film Festival was the spirit of TCM made manifest. I’ll be back.


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