My Top 10 TCMFF Special Presentations
March 11, 2019
Besides the incredible guests TCM assembles for each film festival, my favorite moments are the exceptional programs they bring to Hollywood. Year after year, I find myself marking down these unique productions as my must-see fest picks. As we inch closer to TCMFF #10, below is a list of my top 10 favorite TCMFF special presentations from years past.
“A Trip to the Moon and Other Trips Through Time, Space, and Color”
Two words: Serge Bromberg. I’ve seen the French archivist a few times at TCMFF and outside the festival, but my first introduction to him, for this program, was my favorite. Most of the shorts on the docket, including A Trip to the Moon (1902), The Acrobatic Fly (1907), and A Trip Down Market Street (1906), are bona fide classics and often screened at events like this. That said, what truly elevated the program was Bromberg himself. His energy and passion for movies are enthusing and contagious; in fact, it’s not unusual to see him dart back and forth between center stage and a piano or some form of accompaniment. What dynamism!
The 'cast' providing voices and sound effects for the soundless The Donovan Affair.
The Donovan Affair (1929)
The Donovan Affair was such a momentous program for me that it turned out to be the first thing I wrote about for this blog. This picture was touted as Frank Capra’s first sound film, but audiences can only see it now. Back in the early 1990s, Film Forum’s Bruce Goldstein discovered that the Library of Congress’ holding was missing sound discs, so he set out to recreate the dialogue and special effects live with a troupe of actors taking on multiple roles and sound effects. But this was no easy task; no full script existed, so his crew relied on a dialogue copy and lip reading. I called it a cinematic circus in my review, a mind-blowing, super rare one (performed once in 1992 and once in 2013!) that synced sound and screen up perfectly. Mind = blown.
Cinerama Holiday (1955)
Cinerama Holiday, the second picture shot in the Cinerama process, starred two real life couples, one from St. Louis and one from Switzerland, who switch places to discover each other’s countries/continents. As an avid traveler, it was a thrill to see landmark cities (Paris, New York, Las Vegas) across three pristine, newly restored panels, and the cinematography was magnificent, beautiful, and captivating. To add to the experience, TCMFF brought both surviving wives to the festival, who shared their memories of filming and how their lives returned to normal afterwards. (Yes, you read that right.) It was also a treat seeing a film shot in Cinerama at the Cinerama Dome, which is one of the only venues left in the world with the capability to show pictures photographed this way.
Ben Burtt and Craig Barron presenting Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939).
Burtt & Barron
If you’ve seen Ben Burtt (sound effects) and Craig Barron (visual effects) more than once at TCMFF, you know how hard it is to choose from their appearances, so I'm just not gonna do it. I’ve been a fan of the Oscar-winning duo since their first TCMFF presentation, Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939). Since then, they’ve progressively become more popular with audiences due to their infectious enthusiasm and expert interweaving of entertainment and education. Over the years, I’ve caught their informative programs on Gunga Din (1939), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), The War of the Worlds (1953), It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), and The Ten Commandments (1956); to my knowledge, I’ve only missed one, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). As someone who knows very little about modern technology, let alone older technology, I’m constantly fascinated by their charming explications, from matte paintings to rear projection to unpacking sound effects and beyond.
Without a doubt, the star of "Return of the Dream Machine" was the 1909 hand-cranked camera.
“Return of the Dream Machine: Hand-Cranked Films from 1902-1913”
The star of this early 1900s night out at the movies program was, believe it or not, a 1909 hand-cranked Model 6 cameragraph motion picture machine. (Actually, that shouldn’t be unbelievable for TCMFF.) From the projector to the humorous glass slides the attached Magic Lantern shuffled through to the 1908 Edison Phonograph providing period music, this collaboration was a true performance, and it shows just how much care TCM took to bring this century-old atmosphere to life as authentically as possible. Many of the items screened were early classics—innovative works with color, animation, and special effects. But there was also one short that I will never forget or forgive for the nightmares it gave me: The Dancing Pig (1907). Look it up, if you dare.
An assortment of photos from the Scent of Mystery (1960) screening.
Scent of Mystery/Holiday in Spain (1960) Presented in Smell-O-Vision
TCMFF offered attendees the chance to see the first—and only—picture presented in Smell-O-Vision, Scent of Mystery/Holiday in Spain. Yes, the process is real, though it obviously wasn’t successful, and we found out firsthand why. Each seat at the Cinerama Dome was outfitted with a numbered packet that included, among other trinkets, a small vial of… well, something. When your number showed up on screen, it was your turn to spritz. In a theater that big, it was hard to get a sense of all the different scents, and aromas that popped up in a row frequently intermixed. Still, the audience participation was a hoot, and it helped because the picture was not, um, strong—the producers were obviously relying on that gimmick factor. In this case, I say it worked, because it was a memorable ride!
Poverty Row studio Republic’s library is now under the care of Paramount Pictures, and their team has undertaken a 100-title-a-year initiative to save films that are in most desperate need of preservation first… many of which are Republic titles. Paramount archivist Andrea Kalas shared a clip reel consisting of fragments from about 20 films that the Paramount crew has worked on, and out of those, I only recognized one—that’s how rare these movies are, and Kalas admitted that this was the first time many were seen in decades. What I also loved about this program was the intimacy; it felt like a mini archival convention within TCMFF, with many familiar faces asking questions, so we got to hear about the condition of the material and detailed information on subjects such as workflow and distribution channels, specifics we aren’t usually privy to at TCMFF screenings.
“The Great Nickelodeon Show”
This program took us back over a century to the Nickelodeon’s heyday. Little did I know that the nickelodeon was much more than movies—in addition to shorts, we were treated to songs, glass slides, a magic act, and recitations. Variety was king, and some of the entertainment, well, was questionable for today’s world. The songs were hilariously odd (“The Chicken Rag,” “On a Monkey Honeymoon”), the magic show was queasy (the magician hammered a nail into his nose and then pulled it out), and the recitations were frankly disturbing (covering President McKinley’s assassination and an electrocution?!), but hey, I guess that’s what audiences liked back in the day? Regardless, it was a treat to be taken back in time by TCMFF once again.
Inside Club TCM before "Mostly Lost" began.
“Mostly Lost: Identifying Unknown Films at the Library of Congress”
Anything related to film archiving or preservation will catch my eye, and the fact that this event was basically the West Coast version of a yearly Library of Congress identification workshop sounded exquisite to me. I found it fascinating to hear all the different ways in which films are identified, some that were obvious to me and others (like using lamp posts to pinpoint approximate dates), not so much. We even had the chance to play along as they screened a clip from an unknown film in an attempt to identify it live. It was then that I realized I’m not really great at this documentation thing; I feel like you have to know silent film and the players really well to add anything of substance, so while I contributed nothing, it was fun to follow along nonetheless!
A panoramic view of the Academy's Fotoplayer, which accompanied part of the Harold Lloyd program.
“Harold Lloyd: New Dimensions in Sight and Sound”
To be honest, I didn’t know 3D photographs were a thing until quite recently. And it was Harold Lloyd who introduced me to them—well, technically it was his granddaughter, Suzanne. Between the otherworldly 3D photos of stars (like Marilyn Monroe), landscapes, and Lloyd just kidding around, I found the program enthralling. Other highlights included Lloyd’s enchanting home movies, especially as narrated by his granddaughter, who was in some and provided fantastic insight; they really gave the audience a sense of Lloyd as a loving family man. Not to mention, the home movies and select Lloyd shorts were accompanied by a Fotoplayer, which is so behemoth that it sits permanently outside the Linwood Dunn Theater—a live stream broadcast it into the theater, along with accompanist Joe Rinaudo, so we could witness its magic as the movies played. What a unique experience all around!
The full TCMFF 2019 schedule has yet to be divulged, but rest assured that I’ll be all over the special presentations this milestone event has to offer—schedule permitting, of course!