New Discoveries at TCMFF 2021

June 29, 2021

Besides special guests and presentations, I always look forward to discovering new movies at TCMFF. Though the experience wasn’t exactly the same this year, I still got to revel in films I’d never seen – and some I hadn’t ever heard of before! Here’s a brief overview of some of my favorite new-to-me movies from 2021’s fest.

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The Whistle at Eaton Falls (1951)

I made sure to get up early to catch this live with the east coast crowd at 7am PST because not only had I not watched it before, the title didn’t even ring a bell!

 

Lloyd Bridges stars as a union leader who suddenly finds himself taking over the presidency of the plastic plant he works in after the owner dies in a car crash. With the threat of layoffs looming large, he has to figure out how to please both the workers and management and innovate to save everyone’s jobs. What a tall order!

 

The labor-management struggle serves as the backbone of this movie. Though I feel like big business and capitalism today are nothing like the business represented in this picture (which, my goodness, seems to maybe care a little about its workers?), I appreciated the balance shown here and character study in Bridges’ Brad; he sits in a near-impossible situation, and he genuinely tries to do the right thing by both sides. Though parts of the plot may seem improbable today, the layoffs and inventions that hard times prompted reminded me of what many are going through today with the COVID pandemic.  

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Chain Lightning (1950)

This movie caught my attention because: 1. Ben Burtt and Craig Barron’s presentation about the sound and visual effects utilized, and 2. Eleanor Parker + Humphrey Bogart, as a jet pilot no less. (Also, Chain Lightning premiered the same year Caged did, which just goes to show Parker’s range. And the fact that she should have won an Oscar for the latter.)

 

Chain Lightning is a fine drama with fine performances that held my interest. And I’m not usually taken by these kind of stories, either; that said, the action surrounding the race to get these dynamic, cutting edge jets out there captured my attention, as did Bogart and Parker’s melodramatic relationship, even though I’m still not 100% convinced of their chemistry. I ended up watching this after seeing Burtt and Barron’s short film about the effects, and I’m happy the order went like that, because it made me appreciate all the technical wizardry that went on behind the scenes on top of the story and performances.

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The Mystery of Méliès (2021)

So, I thought I knew a little about George Méliès (even without having seen 2011’s Hugo), but this doc reminded me that I literally was only aware of about five years of his life and work. The first half of this film focused on his backstory and his contributions to the industry, including many of his groundbreaking shorts that I’ve seen before. But I had no idea about his upbringing, and I found it shocking (and sad) that his fall from fame came so quick; for such an innovative, creative man, it was unfortunate that he couldn’t – or wouldn’t – adapt to the demands of an ever-changing industry.  

 

What fascinated me most, though, was the second half’s focus on the rediscovery and restoration of many of his films. Who knew that he burned his negatives? I certainly didn’t! And who knew about 80 of his original negatives were later uncovered in the US? Not me! (Also, how?) The real kicker was how the doc traced that story backwards to reveal how some of those films ended up surviving. Basically, his brother moved to the US to distribute the director’s movies, and the reels he circulated were slightly different than the films audiences saw in France; turns out, Méliès actually used TWO cameras to record his shorts, setting the lens centimeters apart to create almost identical movies. Mind. Blowing. Really. I highly recommend this doc!

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They Won’t Believe Me (1947)

The restoration of They Won’t Believe Me ranked high on my list because 1. Restorations always do, especially ones that reinstate several minutes’ worth of footage back in the movie and 2. It’s a film noir with a killer cast, led by Robert Young, Susan Hayward, and Jane Greer.

 

While I thought the plot really twisty and packed to the brim with a ton of moving parts – Did Young murder Hayward? How many girlfriends does he have? – I surprisingly found it all easy to keep straight, even when I wasn’t 100% certain of some of the character’s desires and motivations at times. That said, the leads were all fleshed out rather well with realistic attributes and flaws. I was fascinated with Young’s character in particular, not only because we rarely see him in this type of womanizing, darker role, but also because his struggles with money and decisions were remarkably authentic.

 

I also really enjoyed Eddie Muller’s live tweet, informing fans exactly where cuts were restored and what they did for the story. Though I didn’t read those in real time (I wanted to pay attention to the film), I found them super informative when I revisited his insights later.

Princess Tam Tam (1935)

There’s a lot to say about this movie, and maybe, one day I’ll write more about it.

 

But first, Josephine Baker, who played Alwina. I’ve never seen her perform before and, let me just say, WOW. Her presence onscreen was absolutely magnetic, and I’m so glad that TCM programmed this movie. As someone on Twitter mentioned, fans will spot many problematic elements in Princess Tam Tam, but it’s important to screen the movie, acknowledge the changing times, and appreciate Baker’s phenomenal singing, acting, and dancing.

 

There’s a lot of social, racial, and classist implications in having Baker play an uncivilized African woman who is brought to France by a writer and paraded about as a princess. Mainly, Max (Albert Préjean) uses her and his power over her to ‘civilize’ the ‘savage’ Alwina, basically just to mess with his wife and help shake his writer’s block. Even though that main plot device is definitely not great (though not terribly uncommon for the time), it allowed for a Black woman to be pampered on screen, which was – and still is – a rare sight. Seeing Baker bask in that, despite the circumstances of her character, was a delight. I also got a kick out of the reveal, in which the audience finds out it was all a dream. The final result is Max’s novel Civilization, which he gifts Alwina, along with his villa. We see her living there, with her baby and plenty of animals, as a mule (at least I think that’s what it is!) rips off and chews up the cover of Civilization. How’s that for commentary?  

 

Princess Tam Tam was denied a seal of approval in the US because of an interracial romance. I’m not sure which ‘pairing’ that refers to, because Max and Alwina aren’t really together, and neither is Max’s wife Lucie (Germaine Aussey) and the Maharajah of Datane (Jean Galland), who donned excessive makeup to appear Indian. Either way, I’m glad we were given the opportunity to watch the movie now.

 

I always look forward to new discoveries at TCMFF, and this year did not disappoint! Watch out for my coverage of some of the fest’s special presentations next month.

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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