TCMFF 2019, Day Two: One Lost Wallet, One Serial Reel, and Four Movies
April 18, 2019
I had a full schedule planned for Friday and tried to hit the ground running, but that didn’t quite happen. Somehow, I thought it would be completely acceptable to roll up to a 9am pre-Code (1932’s Merrily We Go to Hell) at about 8:20 but... yeah, no. I knew it was going to present a difficulty when I woke up at 7:20, looked at Twitter, and found that people were in line before 7am.
Instead, I took a leisurely stroll over to the Cinerama Dome for my backup, Cinerama’s Russian Adventure (1966). I always try to make these rare screenings at the festival, showcased in one of three venues left in the world capable of projecting Cinerama movies. Given that this Cinerama entry ran over two hours, I only stayed for the intro and about 45 minutes of action, but it was a travelogue, so there wasn’t much of a narrative I missed.
Leonard Maltin did a wonderful job elucidating just how complex the Cinerama format was to work with, and to help him illuminate that process was a projectionist (whose name escapes me—if you know, please tell me!) who worked with Cinerama. He explained that they had to thread the projector to ensure every frame was perfectly in sync, and if one reel broke during the movie they had to stop everything and go back and line them up again, which could take 20-30 minutes. Also on hand was editor Hal Dennis, Jr., who worked on this picture with his father. Dennis Jr. reported that 15 hours of film were shot—all in Russia by a Russian crew—and his dad’s team was tasked with editing and Americanizing the footage they captured. He also brought an actual Cinerama reel, which is comically huge and made me wonder how these shots were rigged with the size of the equipment involved, especially when you see scenes capturing skiers flying down mountains! Was the camera put on a sled? Whatever the method was, the total immersion it provided was awesome, but it made me dizzy, which is one reason I couldn’t stay for the whole movie.
Yes, that reel is about half the size of Maltin.
The other reason is that I had to make the 30-minute trek up to the fest’s newest venue, the Hollywood American Legion Post 43, which is a marvelous step back in time. On the docket was “What’s Not to Love about Republic Serials” presented by Paramount archivist Andrea Kalas. I’ve caught one of Kalas’ previous programs before, and I admire the energy and sense of history she brings to these presentations. After looking up a few Republic serial titles (G-Men vs. The Black Dragon, The Tiger Woman, Government Agents vs. Phantom Legion, etc.) I knew this would be a hoot, and it was! Two points I found humorous were that 1. For action-packed serials, Republic tended to cast actors that looked like the stunt members, and not vice versa, and 2. Republic serial writers actually had a jar in the writer’s room in which they had to deposit coins if they ever got too close to satire and parody (which, ironically, make them funnier to view today).
One wall of the American Legion was painted with the TCMFF key art! Ironically, this would be the next movie I'd see on Friday.
Kalas stepped up her game with this clip reel, organizing it by ‘rules’ like “Don’t fall asleep on the job,” “Don’t be a dummy,” and “Stunts so nice they used them twice,” which were packed with life and death situations taken way too seriously, mind-bending miniatures, and one actor who always popped up as the driver in perilous car sequences, among many other things. The screening ended with the last full chapter of Perils of Nyoka (1942), featuring two ruling ladies going head to head for hidden treasure… and a giant chained gorilla that of course breaks free and attacks the main character. Boy, was that zany—and a welcome example of ladies kicking butt in the 1940s.
I hoofed it back to the Chinese Multiplex afterwards, ready to snag a queue card for Sunrise’s 3pm screening and race over to the Chinese IMAX for Ben Burtt and Craig Barron’s intro for Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), but when I went to buy a coffee, I found my wallet was missing! This discovery resulted in more than one sprint to and from the American Legion (I finally got it back that evening thanks to the staff there), but that meant I only caught a few minutes of Burtt and Barron’s conversation; I dropped in upon a part in which Burtt explained how he added the sound of a jet over a whip, which left me thoroughly confused. However, it did warm my heart to see this massive theater packed, and I later heard from a few Burtt and Barron first timers that it was an entertaining presentation. Plus, they were dressed as Indy, which I was 100% hoping for.
Burtt and Barron presenting Raiders of the Lost Ark.
From there, I made my way to Sunrise. I was semi-surprised to find there was no live accompaniment, but as I was to learn, the film was presented in 1927 with a Movietone recorded orchestral score, sound effects and all. To be honest, I was a bit worried for this screening, because I didn’t have any caffeine to prop me up for a 95-minute silent, but to my amazement, the film felt much shorter, which is a feat considering it is very deliberately paced. I don’t recall seeing a silent picture as lyrical and lulling as this, and I was awed by the attentive cinematography, thoughtful direction, compelling acting, and of course, the unique title cards and technical achievements. As I actually had no idea what this movie was about going in, I found myself very much invested in it, particularly near the conclusion; for real, I was extremely worried for a while that it would end on a sad note. (Spoiler alert: it doesn’t).
One example of Sunrise's technical innovation.
After the lights came up, 90% of the Sunrise crowd piled out of the theater and circled right back in line for Vanity Street (1932). The Multiplex staff were a bit overwhelmed when the lobby went from completely empty to 600-700 people within a matter of minutes, and it was a struggle to collect a queue card for the movie; I actually just barely made it in! This short and snappy Columbia pre-Code features a rather sweet (and odd) budding romance between Helen Chandler and Charles Bickford, who share an apartment for part of the movie, and a rather risqué gigolo (George Meeker) whose actions with a middle-aged lady seemed to border on prostitution, in my opinion. Meeker shacks up with Humphrey Bogart’s first wife Mayo Methot, an insecure, jealous firecracker who appears at one point in what may be the sheerest nightgown I have ever laid eyes upon. Though not over-the-top, Vanity Street exhibited definite pre-Code earmarks, and I relished watching a new-to-me title from this era with an enthusiastic audience.
Cari Beauchamp presenting Vanity Street.
From there, I retrieved my wallet (and thanked the Legion staff 100 times) and grabbed a quick dinner with friends before heading over to Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939). Batman producer Michael Uslan, a name I actually know from my work as he lives in the superhero world, said he tried to talk Greer Garson out of retirement in the 1980s, and now I would love to sit and hear all of his Garson stories, please. Mr. Chips was her Hollywood debut, and I was charmed to find her so effervescent and spunky; she was ushered into motherly roles so quickly that I really didn’t see her play many women like this (though we see sparks of glee in Pride and Prejudice and Julia Misbehaves). And Mr. Chips himself, Robert Donat, won the Oscar in 1939 over heavyweights like Clark Gable for Gone with the Wind, so you know his performance knocked it out of the park. His Mr. Chips undergoes so many character transformations (aka aging) and growth, all of which Donat handled expertly with charm and poise. But back to Garson… I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a movie of hers on the big screen before, and as this was one of the last of her films I’ve yet to view, I was very happy to have the opportunity to enjoy it with an audience at TCMFF.
Donat and Garson meet in Goodbye Mr. Chips.
Goodbye Mr. Chips let out just in time for the midnight movie. I’d seen Santo vs. the Evil Brain (1961) before, but I did stay for the introduction, as two of my boyfriend’s friends/colleagues were presenting; they did a wonderful job setting the film and experience up, and I enjoyed seeing their reaction to the TCM midnight audience, especially considering how involved fans get—there were people dressed as luchadores, Santo masks, Santo cookies, and more! One year I will stay for the midnight movie, and though this would have been perfect because it was such a short film (and I even had two friends there who don’t normally attend TCMFF), I was super tired and would have fallen asleep. I loved hearing that it was an entertaining screening though, especially from my friends I recommended it to. If you missed my previous article on Santo vs. the Evil Brain, I interviewed Viviana Garcia Besne, one of the evening’s guests, whose family made many Santo movies and her archive, Permanencia Voluntaria, is now helping to save and restore some of them. If you’d like to read that interview, here it is.
Peter Conheim, Santo, and Viviana Garcia Besne introduce Santo vs. the Evil Brain.
Friday was so long my eyes are getting a bit heavy just recounting it! Look out for my recap of TCMFF day 3 next week. (If you missed my review of opening night, you can find that here.)