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5th Annual TCM Classic Film Festival Recap, Days 3 and 4: City Lights, How Green Was My Valley, and The Lodger

April 17, 2014

After spending about five hours with my bed on Friday night, my original Saturday morning plan included catching Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas. I missed Double Indemnity the night before, and really, what is a classic film festival experience without seeing Miss Stanwyck sizzle on the big screen? It’s lacking, that’s what it is, but when it came down to it, I was tired and felt like laughter would be my best bet to stay awake, and it was, in the form of Chaplin's 1931 masterpiece City Lights, in which his Little Tramp wrestles (almost literally) to help a blind flower girl he's in love with.


Actor Jason Lee gave a beautifully brief yet warm introduction to City Lights, admitting: "I get speechless for Chaplin." City Lights is his all time favorite film, and the actor/director/writer/editor/composer is a huge inspiration to him. The movie, a silent, was developed in 1928 and produced in 1931, and even though silents were all but eradicated from American cinema by 1931, Chaplin stuck to his guns, determined that his Little Tramp shouldn't talk. That resolve and confidence is something Lee greatly admires in Chaplin.


Lee also spoke about his belief that audiences still want to see these types of movies - case in point, there was a full house for this film. “I’m as sentimental as they come and that’s why I’m a Chaplin fan…I feel like some of that is missing nowadays. I like to go to the movies and cry, to be honest,” he admitted. Pretty soul baring stuff for 9:15am on a Saturday morning!.


But he didn’t stop there: Lee hoped that those who hadn't seen the film will "walk away with a little sense of that inspiration, and you feel that sense of sentimentality and romance and you’re not ashamed to feel those things, because I’m certainly not.”


Off topic: Is Jason Lee single?

Good morning, Little Tramp! And good morning, TCM Film Festival, Day 3!

It was delightful following the Little Tramp's ups, downs, and pursuit of love with a crowd - the feeling of laughing with an audience, especially early in the morning, is invigorating, a much better stimulant than caffeine (and natural too!). Chaplin's chemistry with the Blind Girl (Virginia Cherrill) added a warm touch of sentiment that balanced nicely with sequences of absolute hilarity, such as the famous boxing match and basically any screen time involving the Little Tramp's friendship with the Eccentric Millionaire (Harry Myers), which was drunkenly on-again, soberly off-again. I also spotted some great pre-code moments in scenes before the boxing match and in the Millionaire's bedroom. You'll have to watch the movie to find out what they are!


City Lights ended around 11am, and my focus turned to the standby line for How Green Was My Valley, because Maureen O'Hara would be there. At some screenings of this magnitude, fans (read: teen girls or fan boys) line up hours before or even overnight to catch a glimpse of their favorite star. Though this is a classic film festival with patrons of a generally older(ish) age and calmer, more mature disposition, you never know, so I frequently checked the status of the line in front of the El Capitan. With two screenings before How Green Was My Valley’s 3pm start time, it didn’t seem like anyone was there yet for standby, so I took my chances and hopped into the world premiere restoration of the original Japanese Godzilla, which featured an introduction and Q&A with film scholar Eddy von Mueller and the director of this year's Godzilla remake, Gareth Evans. This film and discussion I will write about more in depth in a later post.


I skipped the slide show that followed Godzilla so I could race over to the El Capitan to get a standby number for How Green Was My Valley, and I’m glad I did. I was number 42, and within 30 minutes, there were well over 200 people in standby and over 600 pass holders in line...with 40 minutes to show time. It was touch and go for a while for all of us in “steerage,” as one fellow standby-er affectionately put it; at one point, we were told there was a very slim chance of getting in, and if we did, only the last row of the balcony would be available. I started making alternate plans to perhaps catch a rare screening of 1949's The Great Gatsby, but a few minutes before the show started, those of us in standby were slowly allowed in! I’m not sure at what number they cut off entry, but afterwards I heard from some people in the 100s that they were turned away, which means well over 1000 people came out and successfully lined up on Hollywood Blvd for the screening, the latter of which may be the bigger feat of the two.


I had never been in the El Capitan before but the balcony was definitely not a bad place to be: I had a clear view of the stage and took an empty seat as a sweet retrospective of O’Hara’s career played on screen. Afterwards, O'Hara was brought out on stage in a wheelchair to a lengthy (and well deserved) standing ovation, which had the actress, and in turn the audience, in tears almost instantly. Yes, even the men.

Standing ovation for Maureen O'Hara. This made her (and the audience) cry like babies (Picture by Kim Luperi)

O’Hara only spoke for about 10 minutes, but right away it was clear she still retained that Irish sass she is so well-known for: when asked to share stories about John Ford, she replied, “I thought we were here to talk about me!” The lady’s obviously still got it! The discussion quickly veered towards O’Hara’s beliefs and her understanding of a life well lived after her 93 years on Earth, as she bestowed broad bits of wisdom, inspiration, and advice on those in attendance instead of anecdotes - fine by me, if it's anecdotes I want I can re-read her memoir - while also calling out some members of the audience (“who coughed?) and getting a few laughs in. The audience sat enraptured as she hoped that “every one of you will do what you’re supposed to do better than you’re supposed to be able to do it and that you have a wonderful old age and for God’s sake don’t make fun of it…It’s a very important life that’s coming to each one of you.” Excuse my French, but Damn. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house.


And the tears kept flowing for How Green Was My Valley, the film famous for winning 1941's Best Picture Oscar over Citizen Kane. I'd actually never seen it before, and I'm delighted that my first viewing was in a packed theater surrounded by so much love; the atmosphere inside fit perfectly with the story onscreen. Once again, the pick was a no-brainer for the festival's Family theme, as the movie follows a tight knit Welsh mining clan as they struggle through personal hardship, tragedies, and changes to their way of life and livelihood, recalled through the eyes of the family's youngest son, Huw (Roddy McDowell), years later.


I must say that young Roddy McDowell turned in the most impressive performance as Huw, who develops over the course of two hours from a child who uses his allowance to purchase taffy to an educated young man helping his family in the mines and moving in with his widowed sister-in-law to help care for her child. I also thought both Sara Allgood and Donald Crisp, as parents Beth and Gwilym, gave moving performances that helped anchor the cast as a realistic looking and sounding family; the trials and tribulations the Morgans endure fall heavily back on both their performances and McDowell's as well, since he serves as the film's narrator.

This was all I knew about the movie going in.

On the romance front, Maureen O'Hara (daughter Angharad Morgan) and Walter Pidgeon (new town preacher Mr. Gruffydd), two of my favorite actors, created strong, memorable characters in the film’s only real romantic storyline. I didn't know too much about the movie going in (I based my coupling assumptions on the poster), and I'll admit the way Angharad and Mr. Gruffydd's relationship turned out took me by surprise. Okay, spoiler alert: it's extremely tear jerking. See: the way they look at each other during one of the final mine scenes. Heart. Wrenching.


After How Green Was My Valley concluded and the tears dried, I joined the standby line for an extremely rare screening of the recently rediscovered pre-code Hat Check Girl. “Rare," "recently rediscovered" and "pre-code" generally guarantee a sold out house, which was the case here. Thus, back to the El Capitan I went to line up for The Women, which was preceded by a fun discussion with TCM host Ben Mankiewicz and actress Anna Kendrick. More about this Q&A and film later. Though a comedy, The Women clocks in at just over 2 hours, and by the time the film let out it was after midnight, too late to catch the midnight screening of Freaks.

Sleep prevailed over Freaks. For the record, I had no bad dreams.

My Sunday morning kicked off bright and early with Oscar winners Ben Burtt and Craig Barron, who followed up their excellent Tarzan presentation last year with an illustrated talk on the making of The Adventures of Robin Hood at the Egyptian Theater at 9:15am. I'll be dedicating a post to this discussion soon, because Burtt and Barron’s presentations always deserve my full attention.


TCM leaves several slots open on Sunday for movies that sold out during the previous days, and selections like On Approval and Employee's Entrance were definitely on my radar...and everyone else's too. On Approval, in particular, is a little known English film from 1944 that I hadn’t heard of but intrigued me based on the logline: Two rich widows make their poor suitors try out platonic marriage for a month to see if they’re compatible. Yeah, I needed to see that. I had read rave reviews on Twitter from the film’s first screening, which I’m sure helped promote a second sell out. Funny how new technology can encourage people to get out and see a 70 year old film. At number 4 on the standby line, I just barely made the cut off for On Approval and excitedly shared congratulatory remarks with the 3 people in front of me. (Yes, that’s how standby line works, especially for popular movies). The British comedy is absurd, quirky, and uproarious, all words that prompted me to dedicate a full post to it, which is also coming at some point in the next few weeks. This fest put a lot of writing on my plate. 

On Approval: Looks weird = must see.

After On Approval, I returned to the notorious standby line with some familiar faces to wait for Employee’s Entrance. Most of us in line were shut out of the films in Theatre 4, the festival’s smallest venue, days earlier, and this was our second attempt to catch them. On a few occasions, both the first and second screenings of a film have sold out with just pass holders - the standby line, and even some pass holders - didn't make it in at all; last year's screening of the pre-code Safe in Hell is an example, and this year, 1933's pre-code Employee's Entrance joined the sold-out-twice ranks.


(Note to TCM Film Festival for next year: Rare pre-codes and obscure titles, many of them in the Discovery section, seem to always sell out. Sometimes twice. We like to rediscover movies, especially on the big screen! Please put them in a larger theater. Thanks.)


My final film of the festival was a treat: Hitchcock's 1927's silent The Lodger, in which a landlady suspects her new tenant, who is falling in love with her daughter, of being responsible for the murder of several women in London. I've wanted to see this movie for years, and there's nothing like a Jack the Ripper tale on a Sunday evening (with live music, to boot!).


Silents can be difficult to watch in a theater, but TCM and several other venues generally provide live accompaniment, which was the case here and in the past with TCM Fest screenings such as Metropolis and The Donovan Affair (a sound film that lost its soundtrack! I wrote about its presentation at last year's TCM Fest here). For The Lodger, the wonderful Mont Alto Picture Orchestra performed an original score never before heard by an audience.


TCM co-host Ben Mankiewicz delivered one the final introductions of the festival for this film, in which he reminded the audience to put ourselves in the movie’s context: it’s 1927, and it's Hitchcock’s 1st suspense film. The picture’s star, Ivor Novello, is considered the Valentino of England and is a popular actor, so really, this is Novello’s picture, not Hitchcock’s (interestingly, Novello was deemed “too English” to be successful in Hollywood a few years later and went on to write for Hollywood movies, contributing the line “You Tarzan, Me Jane” to Tarzan the Ape Man). Even so, Mankiewicz joked the director’s mark was easy to spot: the opening sequence features a blonde being murdered. Yup, that’s Hitchcock, no doubt.

Ivor Novello is terrifying and wears too much makeup. Still, he is beautiful.

And so ended my 5th year attending TCM’s Classic Film Festival. From Oscar winners (in movie and human form) to British comedies and thrillers, the films I saw this year were an eclectic mix, which is just how I like it. Year after year, TCM never fails to impress with this event – they just get better.


Let the countdown to next year’s fest begin…

The El Capitan theater (Picture by Kim Luperi)

Note: All three movies discussed in depth above are available on DVD:

City Lights has been released as a Blu-Ray/DVD combo by the wonderful Criterion Collection.

How Green Was My Valley is included in Fox's Studio Classics.

The Lodger is available for purchase on several DVDs and as part of many different Hitchcock sets. This is one of them. (Orchestra not included).


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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