The 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival Recap, Days 3 and 4: Sophia Loren, Home Movies, and A Whole Lot of Silents and Magic

April 2, 2015

The first midnight movie of the festival, Boom! (1968), screened Friday evening. A handful of those involved with the Social Producers program attended, and somehow, all of them managed to make it to the 8am Social Producers breakfast/meeting on Saturday, which requires mad skill. I don't think anyone got a full night's sleep, and even though most all of us had a coffee cup firmly planted in hand by 8am, I think we all knew it would be a very long day.  

 

I began my morning at 9:15am with a pre-code, 1929's tantalizingly titled Why Be Good? starring Colleen Moore and Neil Hamilton. I figured a pre-code would provide as much of a boost as the caffeine in my coffee, but sadly, it was a bit of a struggle. This had more to do with the fact that Why Be Good?  is one of those in-between sound and silent movies that was screened with a synchronized score and sound effects but didn't include spoken dialogue. Those types of films always spark my interest, but in general, silents are tough for me to sit through in a theater, especially first thing in the morning. However, the film was surprisingly modern and gathered an enthusiastic response from the crowd.  A few of the title cards even received rousing rounds of applause, and one of those in particular would justify dropping $22 on the newly released Warner Archive DVD (currently on sale for $18.50) just so I could take a screen shot. That's how awesome this 'dialogue' was. More on this pre-code later.

That tagline though...

Why Be Good? ended a little before 11am, and my original plan was to hop into Club TCM at 12:30pm to catch part of Bruce Goldstein's "Character Actors 101." Instead, I picked up a fruit/sherbet smoothie in a pretty tame attempt at eating healthy and headed to the Social Producers room to charge my phone (this is another running theme of the festival) and get some work done (that also happened a lot). Then it dawned on me that it might be wise to head over to the Montalban Theater, which is about a mile walk from the Roosevelt, an hour or so before 2pm when Sophia Loren was slated for her "Live from the TCM Classic Film Festival" taping. So, I decided to skip the "Character Actors 101" presentation all together and started off for the Montalban. I arrived around 12:45pm and was greeted with an incredibly long line, though I only ended up being around number 160 or so (I swore there were at least 300 people in front of me). I honestly had no clue what I was getting myself in to, and I figured that it would be no problem to leave the event early, since it was scheduled for a whole two hours. Well, it turns out the "Live" part of the title is almost entirely true. Though not broadcast live, this was a normal taped event, which means we spent the first 15 minutes capturing audience reactions - applause, slow clap, laughter, thoughtful looks, and, of course, the 'awwww,' which was precipitated by TCM's Sean Cameron taking invisible puppies out of his jacket. 

This was taken at the front of the line, and I felt like I was at lease two miles back. Wonder what time people started lining up...(Photo credit TCM)

Robert Osborne was originally slated to interview Sophia, and apparently it was an interview that he was very much looking forward to. In his absence, Sophia's son, Edoardo Ponti, took Robert's place. Though I know an interview with Robert would have been just as lovely and informative, the bond mother and son shared during the discussion was undeniable, and it set the stage for a surprisingly intimate and wonderfully touching conversation (even though they were surrounded by roughly 500-600 people). My favorite parts were when Sophia needed help with a word in English and her son translated for her. Once or twice, she continued speaking in Italian, to which Edoardo interrupted, "In English!" I'll report back on more of what Sophia shared with the audience in the coming weeks. 

Much more about this interview with Edoardo Ponti and Sophia Loren later! (Photo credit TCM)

By the time the Sophia interview was over, it was about 4:15pm. I started off on the mile walk back to the Multiplex/Roosevelt Hotel and found myself stopped by a young man not too far from the Montalban. He inquired about my badge, and I told him it was for the festival and I had just come from hearing Sophia Loren talk to two hours. To my surprise, even this random stranger walking on Vine Street found the Sophia Loren interview really awesome, and I, in turn, thought his reaction was pretty darn cool.

 

Back in the cold indoors, I settled into Club TCM to await the start of Hollywood Home Movies at 6pm. The Academy occasionally presents an evening of films from their extensive collection, and the events alway sell out. You usually never know what you're going to get, but that's the main pleasure of home movies; they always remind the audience that movie stars are, in fact, normal human beings too. The highlights of this particular installment for me included footage of Esther Ralston and Gary Cooper shooting a now lost film, Half a Bride, in the late 20s (really, this may be the only footage that exists from that movie in the world!); Charles Laughton playing with puppies in a film from the Henry Koster Collection (Henry's son Bob was in attendance); Jane Withers surrounded by every animal imaginable (dogs, cats, even deer) and behind the scenes footage from her movie sets, enthusiastically narrated by Withers herself; Sophia Loren on location for one of her early American films; and a shirtless Steve McQueen riding motorcycles with his kids, narrated by his first wife, Neile Adams.  

The Academy's Lynne Kirste and Randy Haberkamp with Jane Withers at the Hollywood Home Movies presentation.(Picture by Kim Luperi)

After grabbing a bite to eat, I headed over to the Multiplex to get in line for "Return of the Dream Machine," which I figured would be packed. To my surprise, the line wasn't too long...but then again, it was about 8pm and the show was slated to begin at 9:30pm; once a few other films let out, the line jumped dramatically in size. My friend Nora was waiting in standby, but sadly, the screening sold out before all the passholders could get in, so she sadly didn't get to see it (though she caught The French Connection instead, so...she did just fine!).Due to technical difficulties, we weren't actually seated until almost 10pm. Once inside, everyone flocked to the real star of the program: the 1909 hand-crank power’s Model 6 cameragraph motion picture machine. Between that, the pre-screening music played from a 1908 Edison Phonograph at the front of the theater, Joe Rinaudo's hand-crank operator inspired attire (complete with top hat), the Magic Lantern glass slides shown while the reels were changed out, and Randy Haberkamp's excellent commentary, it really felt like we had traveled back in time to the early 1900s. The effort put into that atmosphere was greatly appreciated. 

Galen Wilkes and his gorgeous 1908 Edison Phonograph. (Photo credit TCM)

The only downfall? The hand-cranked machine made the room quite hot, and combined with the late hour, almost every single person I spoke to (at least 10 people) dozed off for a few minutes or even more. Luckily, most of the shorts screened, including A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Great Train Robbery (1903), had been watched by a handful of audience members before. The only one I hadn't seen was 1907's The Dancing Pig, which was...terrifying. More on all the selections, including a surprise screening of a Pathe short featuring a hand colored Serpentine Dance unseen in its entirety in over 100 years, at a later date.

Here she is! The star of the show: the 1909 hand-crank power’s Model 6 cameragraph motion picture machine. (Photo credit TCM)

Since "Return of the Dream Machine" began roughly 30 minutes late, we got out at about 11:45pm. I headed home, early for once, and instead of crashing immediately, for some reason I got some work done instead...only one more super early morning left, I told myself.

 

To my utter shock, everyone was not only on time on Sunday morning, but when Ariel and I walked in the Social Producers room at 8am on the dot, almost every single person was already there. It seemed that collectively the group had been getting there earlier and earlier each day...or perhaps some people just never left the area!

 

My Sunday schedule was pretty firm because it included a handful of screenings I really wanted to see. The film noir-ish Nightmare Alley (1947) was the only entry on my list that I originally didn't mind missing if an amazing TBA happened to fall into the spot instead. Well, Don't Bet on Women was the TBA that morning, and though I would have loved to see that rarity again, I'm glad I chose Nightmare Alley, because the film ended up on my favorites (of the festival) list. I'm a Tyrone Power fan, and I love film noirs...and I really enjoy Joan Blondell in, well, anything. So I'm not sure how I didn't see this one coming.

 

As presenter Eddie Muller warned us, this was a very heavy film for a Sunday morning. He was absolutely correct, but it was also extremely intriguing. Both Power and Blondell played characters outside their general wheelhouse, and I absolutely loved how the film charted Power's rise and fall to mirror Blondell and Pete (Ian Keith)'s relationship. That exact arc was something I didn't see coming, but on the same note, it was a fantastic twist that was executed very naturally. This is definitely a film that I may have to purchase...

Coleen Gray in Nightmare Alley...yup, something's weird about this one.

This year, TCM installed a booth in the lobby of the Chinese Multiplex where attendees could record a two minute video sharing the origin of their love of movies. The campaign came with a hashtag (as all do, nowadays), #HeartMovies, and all the Social Producers were encouraged to record a video. By the time Sunday rolled around, I realized I hadn't stopped by yet, but after Nightmare Alley all my remaining films were playing at the Egyptian down the street. Furthermore, the turnaround time in between each wasn't long enough for me to run back to the Multiplex, which is only .3 miles away, but the walking time triples when you have to ward off the likes of Jack Sparrow and creepy Spiderman on Hollywood Blvd. So, I had to make a decision to miss either Gunga Din (1939), the 1pm show, or The Children's Hour (1961), the 4:45pm movie, so I could run to the Multiplex to film the video. This would still allow me to stay for both of their intros, which included a discussion with Shirley MacLaine for the latter and a special presentation by the awesome Oscar winning team of Ben Burtt and Craig Barron for the former. I ended up staying for Gunga Din, and I'll elaborate more on Burtt and Barron's amusing technical discussion/Douglas Fairbanks Jr. home movie screening later. (I'm just now realizing how huge of a work load I'm giving myself here).

 

In hindsight, I should have missed Gunga Din, because, though fun to watch in parts, the movie itself drags on way too long, in my opinion, and it doesn't hold my attention well (yes, even with Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.). I remarked to my new friend Jeff, who was sitting next to me, that the La-Z-Boy type seating in the front of the Egyptian would probably not bode well for my increasing tiredness, and I was correct. Furthermore, the film seemingly didn't resonate with the audience the same way The Children's Hour did. Though I'd seen The Children's Hour only a month or two ago and I hadn't viewed Gunga Din in years, I could tell by the flutter of reviews on Twitter afterwards that The Children's Hour was absolutely riveting with an audience. Oh well. Now I know for next time (if that movie is ever screens again, of course). However, I am very glad I at least stuck around for Shirley MacLaine's interview beforehand, because she was surprisingly frank when discussing the movie's thematic implications, namely the overtly implied homosexuality of her characer in particular. MacLaine's intro wasn't the only memorable moment of that screening for me; minutes earlier, I had an interesting run-in with her in the ladies room at the Egyptian in which I held open the door for her while a fan in front of me desperately tried to chat her up. MacLaine was sweet about it, but it was definitely an awkward situation that lasted a good thirty seconds or so! 

Oscar winner Craig Barron presenting Gunga Din. (Photo credit TCM)

After I recorded my video, which I hope never surfaces online because I hate being in front of the camera, I headed over to the Social Producers room to charge my phone and wrap up some Instagram posts and tweets. Noralil, one of the TCM social media rock stars, saw my #HeartMovies video and played it on her laptop. I made her put on head phones so I wouldn't have to hear it. For the record, she thought it was "cute." Haha, thanks Noralil!

 

I thought skipping out on The Children's Hour would help me beat the crowd when lining up for the world premiere restoration of Houdini's first film, 1919's The Grim Game, but it turns out I walked up to the line just as The Children's Hour was letting out. The only surviving copy of The Grim Game had been held for years by Houdini fan Larry Weeks, and as such, it was unseen by the world (save for probably less than 100 people) for almost a century. That fact, coupled with a brand new score performed live, assured a full house, even though it played against Marriage Italian Style (1964), which boasted Sophia Loren in attendance. In line, I chatted with Danny of Pre-Code.com and Miguel of Horrible Imaginings Film Festival and Podcast. Danny was nice enough to give me a copy of his book, Thoughts on The Thin Man, which I am very eager to read!

 

As for The Grim Game, the screening began with magicians Dick Brookz and Dorothy Dietrich unveiling an authentic Houdini vest and performing a card trick that floored Ben Mankiewicz. Another added bonus was Rick Schmidlin, the man who rescued The Grim Game from Weeks and oversaw its restoration. I'm glad I chose this screening overall, but I felt the story was a bit weak and it was executed rather dully. The only saving graces, for me, were Houdini's signature tricks - escaping from handcuffs, a straight jacket, chains, and the like - and that infamous mid-air plane collison at the end, which was in fact real, though thankfully no one was hurt. That finale stunt alone, in which a double (not Houdini, as he would always boast) lowers himself on a rope from one plane to another below him - both in mid-air, but the way! - to rescue his girl, was insanely tense. Even though we all knew what was coming, I still held my breath, absolutely terrified for that stunt man!

 

The Grim Game also boasted a brand new score composed and conducted by Brane Živković. Though it's always a treat to hear live music, I have to admit that the score, was, well...different. There were a handful of intentional pauses and not a lot of variety, save for the end. I understand that there are probably a billion artistic reasons for this that are well over my frame of musical knowledge, but when played alongside the film, the composition didn't add much value for me. 

Ben Mankiewicz, Dorothy Dietrich, and Dick Brookz with Houdini's vest. (Photo credit TCM)

The Grim Game, which was supposed to screen at 8:15pm, also started quite late, so it was almost 10:30pm by the time most of us walked over to the Roosevelt for the Closing Night Party. Though my plan was to leave by midnight to actually get some sleep before returning to work Monday morning, of course that didn't happen. I ended up staying until about 2:30am (and many, many people were still there when I left), but it was worth it to hang out and chat with new and old friends one last time.

 

Overall, I had a blast at the 6th Annual TCM Classic Film Festival, and, like all the other fans, I can't wait for next year's event.  Thanks again to TCM for including me in the Social Producers program - I was honored to take part in such an incredible opportunity!  

 

If you attended TCMFF this year, what were some of your festival highlights?

thanks for stopping by!

I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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