Last year’s Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival began for me not unlike an action thriller. I landed in Hollywood the first day (Thursday) of the festival with only a scant half hour to make my way, with my two daughters in tow, across the street from the parking lot beneath the Hollywood and Highland complex to the Roosevelt Hotel, where the press office, which would close at 5:00, was holding my credentials badge. Unfortunately, the streets were swarming already, sidewalks closed off on the Chinese Theater side of the street to accommodate the festival’s gala premiere, which was only a couple of hours away, and no way on God’s asphalt earth to cross over to the other side without backtracking all the way to Highland, through an impenetrable thicket of humanity and costumed cartoon characters and in the opposite direction from the hotel. But just as desperation began to set in, out reached a hand from the mob—it was my friend Corky, who just happened to be checking out the scene. He literally grabbed onto me and told me to follow him, and after connecting hand-in-hand with my two girls, he led us around the back of the Chinese theaters and toward the crosswalk at Hollywood and Orange. (I swear, if he didn’t actually say, “Come with me if you want to live!” then I will go to my grave insisting that he did.)Twenty minutes later, with only about five minutes to spare, I entered the press office and grabbed my precious badge. Thank you, Corky!
I'm writing this quickly before embarking over the hill into Hollywood for my fourth Friday of great films, new discoveries and encounters with old movie-going friends at the TCM Festival, and my introduction to the first slate of films last night was considerably less dramatic than the start to TCM 2012. In fact, it was a harsh reminder that, yes, I am four years older than I was when I first boarded this great festival on its inaugural voyage. Where last year’s Thursday was adrenalin-packed (so much so that I hightailed it out of Hollywood and skipped the movies that night altogether), last night’s arrival into Hollywood was far more sedate. I’d picked up my credentials badge the day before, so no worries of tardiness or inadvertent exclusion there. And I’d dragged myself out of bed at 4:00 a.m. to do the dishes and get started on a day of office work that needed to be done before I could release myself from my bread0-winning responsibilities for the weekend. I arrived at the Hollywood and Highland train station with virtually no stress, and a full 90 minutes before the first show time, anticipating a long line to kick things off.
The lines for the evening’s screenings were virtually nonexistent at 5:00 p.m., so I took a brief stroll through the lobby to gander at the layout—the most obvious upgrade was a bar (with a full menu of overpriced sandwiches and salads to go along with the overpriced drinks) and seating area adjacent to the traditional popcorn-centered snack bar, it being traditionally overpriced as well. So I stepped over to Johnny Rockets and indulged my one-cheeseburger allowance for the weekend (I packed chicken salad sandwiches and bananas today) before coming back and grabbing my spot in line for Ninotchka (1939).
I had never seen Ninotchka—being the Lubitsch and Wilder enthusiast that I am, this has always been a ridiculous blind spot in my cinematic experience that I was grateful to finally minister to last night. I really enjoyed the movie (more on that in my full festival report for Slant and The House Next Door coming soon), though it did not immediately vault to the head of the class of either Lubitsch or Wilder for me—Trouble in Paradise and One Two Three, both of which have obvious thematic and stylistic connections to Ninotchka, occupy those lofty positions. But I was distressed to have to remember, 20 minutes in, long before Garbo laughed, or had even yet appeared on screen, I felt the heaviness of the burger upon me (my apologies of Piper Laurie and Margaret White) and began to get a bit dozy. I never drifted off though, and I credit the movie’s fizzy, gossamer-light tone and the perkiness of the actors for that (I especially enjoyed Ina Claire as the ostensibly wronged but obnoxiously entitled Countess Swana).
Fortunately, I was able to squeak into what was, of course, a packed house into the festival’s tiniest auditorium, good old Chinese #4, to see African-American film historian and exuberant fan Donald Bogle, who guided me though my first year at TCM with screenings of Carmen Jones and a spectacular program of racist cartoons from the studio system, introduce William Wellman’s spiky, nimble and endearingly strange pre-code potboiler Safe in Hell (1931), starring a heavy-lidded Dorothy Mackaill as a prostitute who kills a man, sets his room on fire and flees to an unnamed Caribbean island to avoid extradition, where she holes up at a fleabag hotel populated with other criminals hiding out from the law for similar crimes. Before the screening, Bogle interviewed the director’s son, William Wellman,Jr., an actor who I immediately recognized from his villainous turn opposite Fred Williamson in Black Caesar (1973), who had many interesting stories to tell about his father and the production of this movie. But the element of the talk I found most fascinating was Bogle’s focus on two of the African-American performers in the cast—Clarence Muse and Nina Mae McKinney, neither of whom I knew very much about beyond their names.
Bogle pointed out something that would become obvious minutes later when we saw it for ourselves, how Muse, as the hotel’s main servant, used his own cultured and articulate voice (Muse was, among many other things, a law student) rather than adopting a persona closer to the Stepin Fetchit caricature that audiences might have more readily expected at the time. That voice, combined with the man’s imposing physical presence, which again is not used in the way it might have more typically been in another film of the time, made Muse as naturally magnetic a performer as I saw on screen in either film last night. But even Muse had to bow in deference to Nina Mae McKinney, probably the first African-American actress to be featured in a movie for her qualities of sexual allure as much as her obvious acting and singing talent. Her performance was a revelation to me, and Wellman must have been similarly seduced—according to Bogle and Wellman Jr., the famously wild director loved her so much that he wedged in an unscripted musical number for her, one which is appreciated by the scoundrels of the hotel on screen as much as the awestruck members of the audience, the one in 1931 and the one in Hollywood circa 2013 last night. (More on McKinney in my longer piece as well.)
It was a memorable night to begin the festival, even if by the time I stumbled out of Safe in Hell I was beyond exhausted. I managed to see many friends in the lobby and the theaters already, so it was, of course, a wonderful re-entry into the typical riches of the TCM Film Festival, even if I was barely able to keep my eyes open. I made my way to the train and was home in bed by 12:15 a.m. Five hours later I’m up and writing, prepping to drive to Hollywood in another hour for the first full day of the festival, and it’s going to be a long and spectacular one. In two hours I’ll see Allison Anders introduce The Swimmer (1968; Frank Perry), followed by a newly restored Voyage to Italy (1954; Roberto Rossellini), Ruggles of Red Gap (1935; Leo McCarey), another fresh restoration, this one of Rowland V. Lee’s 1933 musical I Am Suzanne! With no break whatsoever, I’ll then be on to see Mel Brooks introducing The Twelve Chairs (1970), followed by either Albert Maysles introducing Gimme Shelter (1970) or a rare 3-D screening of Hondo (1953; John Farrow)—I still haven’t decided), and the cherry on top of the whole day, a very rare 35mm screening of Ed Wood’s immortal Plan Nine from Outer Space (1958) at midnight. No cheeseburgers today—I packed chicken salad sandwiches and a bushel of bananas into my back pack. Pray for me and my sustained energy- - it’s going to be a long, wonderful day.