TCMFF 2018 Day 1: One Night, Two Nitrates

April 30, 2018

How can four days fly by in the blink of an eye? The 9th annual TCM Classic Film Festival wrapped yesterday (technically, it ended around 1am this morning at In-N-Out for me) and in a way, it feels like it was all a dream. An incredibly long, blissful reverie, at that.

In my opinion, TCMFF is adopting cues from San Diego Comic Con: Though officially the program kicks off Thursday, press events begin the day before and many unofficial TCM fan groups organize meet-ups in the days leading up to opening night. I’ve never been able to attend any media conferences or fan get-togethers because I’m usually still punching the clock Wednesday (and part of Thursday!); as such, it’s certainly not easy scrolling through all the social media posts documenting the proceedings – which this year included conversations with stars like Cora Sue Collins and Barbara Rush – especially since I’m only 5 miles away from all the action! But while I couldn’t partake in any daytime activities, I kicked off TCMFF #9 Wednesday night, sharing a meal with some Twitter friends and attending a social media party at the Roosevelt later in the evening, where I got to reconnect with many more digital pals.

I wonder if this would fit in my living room? (Picture by Kim Luperi)

Despite Thursday being the shortest day of the fest, a lot was packed in the schedule, even for me. I bolted from work in Beverly Hills to make it to the red carpet, and to my astonishment, Hollywood traffic at 4pm was somehow worse than usual. (I really shouldn’t be surprised at that, or they might take my LA residency away.) I finally made it to the carpet and was met with a plethora of familiar faces, including Christy, Nora, Jessica, Raquel, Jeff, Carrie, and Kristen, which helped calm my nerves. This year I was placed next to Jessica, and given that the bloggers are situated near the end of the press line, we decided to team up on interviews, which seemed to work well for the talent and for me as well! I learned a lot from watching and listening to her, as she’s much more proficient at interviewing than I am. Keep an eye out for my red carpet highlights soon, right after I get my daily fest recaps out!

The First Festival Miss

By the time the last stars made their way down the carpet – that was Romeo (Leonard Whiting) and Juliet (Olivia Hussey) – it was about 6:40. That meant I would again miss my first selection of the festival, Finishing School (1934), which I wouldn’t have made anyway, because my friend Danny reported that he hopped in line 2.5 hours early… and was number 6. That sincerely surprised me, especially for a movie that is hardly a rarity, but it is a pre-Code – and you basically have to expect the unexpected when it comes to those. (Passholders were also turned away when Finishing School was slotted as a TBA on Sunday!) 

This year I finally got some photos with red carpet buddies Jeff (above) and Christy (below),

At that point, the only movie from that first block I could catch (given its short length and late start time) was Detour (1945)... but I took a scheduling detour instead, opting to head over to 25 Degrees with carpet pals Jeff, Christy, and Carrie to break bread and break down the red carpet proceedings. 

Nitrate Night

After a quick bite, I raced over to the Egyptian for my official first screening of the festival, Stage Door (1937) on nitrate. Luckily, I made it there moments before the previous picture let out and secured my spot as 95% of those exiting paraded right back in line from the theater.

The Letter (2018)

Before Stage Door, director Bill Morrison surprised the audience with the debut of his new short film, The Letter, which was crafted specifically for the festival. Morrison mentioned that he has a “unique arrangement” with the Library of Congress’ nitrate vault manager; in short, before any nitrate gets disposed of, Morrison is asked whether he’s interested, and his chosen selections are put aside for him. Thus, the director has amassed an archive of nitrate scraps, and in viewing these fragments (after they've been digitally transferred), he noticed certain similarities – in actresses, plot points, etc. Upon learning that the 2018 TCMFF theme was the written word, Morrison went to work crafting a short about a love letter landing in the wrong hands, using footage culled from seven films made between 1912 and 1928.

Example of a decomposed nitrate frame used in Bill Morrison's Dawson City: Frozen Time

I’m not too familiar with Morrison’s work, having only seen his documentary Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016). That said, I was mesmerized by the way he used the decomposing frames – which is the actual film physically breaking down – and a stirring score to tell a simple story. The marks of deterioration actually changed the way I perceived the action originally etched into these films, and it astounded me how the diverse visual effects the decay left rendered a completely novel texture to the images. The fact that Morrison was able to resurrect these 90-106 year-old fragments, many of which are probably the only (barely) surviving relic of these movies, and bring them back to life to craft a story that is brand new speaks to the impact of the medium and how incredibly malleable the art form can be. Quite simply, the effort left a remarkable impression.

Katharine Hepburn and Andrea Leeds in Stage Door

Stage Door (1937)

I hadn’t watched Stage Door in about a decade, so viewing it on nitrate with an audience was certainly something I was looking forward to. Not gonna lie, I had forgotten how fast Ginger Rogers spewed those jabs, how snarky those ladies are (looking at you, Lucille Ball and Eve Arden), and how much heart lies just below the surface. In my opinion, the talent here – in addition to those mentioned, this includes Katharine Hepburn, Gail Patrick, Constance Collier, Ann Miller – rivals that of The Women (1939), with each character finding her place so perfectly in the ensemble. I was also absolutely floored by Andrea Leeds as the delicate, tragic ingenue desperately trying to win a second part after her breakthrough role. So strong was her turn that I instantly hopped on IMDb to add more of her films to my ever-growing queue. But, like her character, Leeds’ career was short lived; she only worked in Hollywood for four years, from 1936 to 1940, eventually quitting the industry for marriage. She did, however, leave a mark on Hollywood, earning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for this role.  

 

Thank you for reading! Highlights from TCMFF day 2 will be coming soon – stay tuned.

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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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