Sunday at the 2011 TCM Classic Film festival ended up a completely different day than the one I had planned. I had envisioned a day spent with The Sid Sagas. But an unexpected family event pulled me away from the festival on Friday afternoon, so when it was announced that Bigger Than Life would be positioned in one of Sunday’s coveted To Be Announced slots, that changed the trajectory of my final day with the classics in Hollywood. So, all wrapped up better than well on screen, bawdy pre-code delights bookended by family tragedies of harrowing dimensions. And as we spilled out into the night, news of another real-life event put a spin on the weekend, and one film in particular, that could never have been anticipated. Look for my detailed account of the entirety of the festival coming soon in Slant magazine. (Thank you again, Keith Uhlich and Ed Gonzalez.)
Barbara Rush was in the house, guiding the faithful who couldn’t get in to Friday’s sold-out screening of Bigger Than Life (1956; Nicholas Ray) through her memories of making the film as well as her feelings on the studio system. Rush was always one of my favorites, and she was as delightful as I always hoped she would be. The movie remains a waking nightmare which would not be approached in terms of its effectiveness within its subject matter—the dark currents churning under the placid surface of an idealized American life—until 1986, when David Lynch would unleash Blue Velvet on a unsuspecting public which had by then all but forgotten Nicholas Ray’s film.
Anyone who believes that to evoke old movies is to wax nostalgic over museum product that can only be stodgy in comparison to today’s output 1) is sadly lacking in experience with classic films, and 2) has likely never seen This is the Night (1932; Frank Tuttle). This epitome of saucy, salacious pre-code farce stars upper—crust spokesman supreme Roland Young, sexy Thelma Todd, an innuendo-riddled Charlie Ruggles, the charming and also very sexy Lily Damita and Cary Grant in his very first picture, sporting a bag of javelins and the wherewithal to brandish them in just the right way to make the most of their suggestive symbolism. An unexpected riot.
Oh, for the day when on-screen beauty had room for the likes of the Clara Bow. Hardly a standard-bearer for the kind of emaciated allure that characterized so many female movie stars (and permeated our society to its very roots), Bow looks like a real woman, with the come-hither swagger to break down any resistance to any charms presupposed to balance on her waist measurements. Clara bowed out of Hollywood after Hoop-la, (1933; Frank Lloyd), another nasty-minded but charming pre-code romantic dramedy set amidst the world of the traveling carnival, and it’s our loss. The movie is a grand showcase for her generosity as a screen performer and her embracing of every pinnacle of beauty and empathy with an audience that Hollywood tried to insist that she was beyond; as the movies gained their voice, they lost this great silent-era star to a world outside the movies that would never reject her for what she was.
Nick (George Segal): “Who did the painting?”
George (Richard Burton): “Some Greek with a moustache that Martha attacked one night.”
Martha (Elizabeth Taylor): “I disgust me. You know, there's only been one man in my whole life who's ever made me happy. Do you know that? George, my husband. George, who is out somewhere there in the dark, who is good to me - whom I revile, who can keep learning the games we play as quickly as I can change them. Who can make me happy and I do not wish to be happy. Yes, I do wish to be happy. George and Martha: Sad, sad, sad. Whom I will not forgive for having come to rest; for having seen me and having said: yes, this will do.”
Martha (Taylor): “You're all flops. I am the Earth Mother, and you are all flops.
One of the great emotional slash-and-burns of all time, Mike Nichols’ invasive adaptation of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1967) has lost almost none of its ability to lacerate flesh and find bone in its relentless examination of the ritual humiliation and horrors that are exposed between a warring couple during one drunken night. Elizabeth Taylor’s finest hour on screen, and maybe Richard Burton’s too, was filmed by Oscar-winner Haskell Wexler (who was in attendance) with the kind of immediacy that invites you closer and seduces you with promises of voyeuristic intimacy even as it repels you with emotional violence. I’d never seen it on the big screen before, and I doubt I’ll ever forget, even after seeing it so many times before, the grand showcase it was given at the TCM Classic Film Festival on closing night 2011.