By Paul Fischer and Calhoun Kersten
Hollywood boulevard is a bustling sea of energy. Even more than usual. Not just because tourists are busily photographing the Hollywood stars but avid move lovers are gathering en masse for the 2012 TCM Classic Film Festival. There are lots of film festivals but none that celebrate Hollywood’s golden age. The saying they don’t make them like that anymore is no exaggeration and applies when one sees some of the greatest of Hollywood achievements on the big screen and not on DVD. Many of the fils are being screened at the original movie palaces that once dominated the film premieres of the past, such as the still grandiose Grauman’s Chinese Theater which can seat over a thousand patrons and they gathered for some special screenings. Of course one can’t see them all but what follows are some of the highlights we enjoyed throughout the festival.
When one studies the art of Alfred Hitchcock, few of his films have been more analyzed than Vertigo, restored with a pristine print and screened at the Grauman’s Chinese. The film’s plot of course is irrelevant but does revolve around acrophobic Police detective John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson (James Stewart) who is asked by an old college friend, if he would have a look into his wife Madeleine’s odd behavior who’s taken to believing that she is the reincarnation of a woman who died many years ago and Scottie’s pursuit of her leads to obsession and tragedy. The fifties were probably the greatest period in the Master’s career, from Rear Window to North by Northwest but Vertigo is a symbol of Hitchcock’s psychological obsessions. A dark, somber and moody work, the film has less of the director’s trademark humor as it so devilishly explores sexual obsession with such brilliant finesse. His use of color, reds and greens richly symbolize the director’s themes, and Edith Head’s costumes enhance the Madeleine character so beautifully. Add to that the remarkably evocative score of the brilliant Bernard Hermann used so perfectly. For James Stewart, his work in this period of his career demonstrates a great maturity and assurance, and Kim Novak shimmers with elegance and quiet fragility. Vertigo is a visual tour-de-force that looks gorgeous on the big screen and remains a perfect blend of suspense and sexual imagery.
Fear is contextual; it’s representative of a time and a place. In the midst of the Cold War, it was the fear of alien invaders and the unknown. Before that, in the Victorian era and the days of Bram Stoker, Dracula spoke to the fear of human sexuality. It’s rare that you find something as timeless as Frankenstein. While the film has not aged as gracefully as some of the others in the TCM line-up, that should not discount the film in any way. Frankenstein itself remains as universal as when it was first published by Mary Shelley. The folly of humankind, the fragility of life, and the moral gray area of “what makes a monster” are still topics of literature, music, movies, and more. Nevertheless, the film falters for its acting style, if nothing else. Colin Clive’s turn as the mad scientist, Dr. Henry Frankenstein, may have been chilling when Frankenstein was first released, but since then, it has become an incontrovertible icon of camp. Karl off fares better with minimal moans and groans and his mechanical way of moving, but even then, the reason to return to Frankenstein is most certainly not the acting.
It isn’t even the scares, which are bound to be more baffling to modern audiences than they are terrifying. Frankenstein stands the test of time thematically, but it remains an undeniable artifact of film history. That might be why re-watching the 1931 film is so charming, after recognizing what it did for the advancement of horror and my unadulterated love of all the Universal monster classics.
Still, Frankenstein has more to offer than just a walk down memory lane for horror fans. Despite its somewhat stilted acting, Frankenstein manages to tap into something extremely emotionally resonant, even after all of these years. After all, when looking at Mary Shelley’s original intentions of writing it, shortly after suffering a miscarriage of her own, many of the emotional scars made it into the source material and transfer beautifully to the film.
Perhaps that is part of what I find so puzzling about Frankenstein. Frequently referred to as a “horror classic” it reads more like a tragedy than anything else. In between Frankenstein’s personal problems and the monster’s misguided attempts to integrate himself into the human world, Frankenstein is far more depressing than it is frightening. Maybe that has more to do with what is considered scary in modern horror, but regardless of the reasons, the fact remains that Frankenstein’s monster is one of the more tragic and misunderstood monsters of film history.
While Frankenstein is far from a perfect film, showing its age as the years pass, it remains an unforgettable exercise in the art of making monster movies. The look of the film may bore the casual film-goer, but monster movie fans and those who look for a more thought-provoking film will enjoy Frankenstein’s countless moral quandaries. Nevertheless, while certainly a monster movie, Frankenstein functions better as a tragedy and an exercise in ethics than it does a horror film. Those looking for scares may want to look elsewhere, but Frankenstein remains a fascinating part of film history that expertly defies horror conventions.
Auntie Mame is rarely seen on the big screen, and TCM’s decision to include the legendary classic was a highlight of the festival. With its splashes of color and elegance, this Warner Bros classic of 1958 is the ultimate study in ferocious optimism and featuires a tour-de-force performance by the wonderful Rosalind Russell who won an Oscar for her work. Russell plays Mame, an unconventional individualist socialite from the roaring 20’s. When her brother dies, she is forced to raise her nephew Patrick. However, Patrick’s father has designated an executor to his will to protect the boy from absorbing too much of Mame’s rather unconventional perspective. Patrick and Mame become devoted to each other in spite of this restriction, and together journey through Patrick’s childhood and the great depression, amidst some rather zany adventures. Beautifully directed by the underrated Morton DaCosta [who directed the film version of The Music Man a few years later], this skillful adaptation of the Broadway play is clearly a one woman show, but the film is deftly handled, with that right combination of rich humor and quiet sentiment. A film that is resonant today with its themes of acceptance and egalitarianism, this beautifully emotive and hilarious film looks fabulous and is ageless. Russell delivers a full on larger than life performance, much like Mame. In all, a great work by any standards.
I still remember the first time I saw Bringing Up Baby. It was actually on Turner Classic Movies, so it’s only fitting that I should return to it after all these years at the 3rd annual Turner Classic Movies film festival. For any fans of the magnetic Katharine Hepburn or the charismatic Cary Grant, you will be happy to know that the movie is still as charming as it was on my first viewing.
While it may be trite to say it, the fact remains that movies like Bringing Up Baby don’t exist in today’s cinematic world. The simplicity of the premise and the outlandishness of its principal players is unique to the all-too-undervalued and often-forgotten world of screwball comedy.
For those unfamiliar with the film, it revolves around hardworking paleontologist, David (Cary Grant) as he tries to finish a long-standing project and secure funding for his museum from airhead heiress, Susan (Katharine Hepburn). Through a series of misadventures, including several run-ins with the titular leopard, Baby, the two are constantly at odds with each other which, in true fashion with screwball comedies, gives way to romance.
It’s a difficult film to describe to audiences because everything about it sounds like it shouldn’t work, but somehow, there’s an indescribable charm and absurdity to the film, even after all these years. In the same vein as the screwball comedies of the late 1930s and early 40s, Bringing Up Baby gives in to its sill ways without seeming self-indulgent. There’s a lot to be said for the script itself, which has aged like a fine wine and only gotten better with age, and the direction of Howard Hawks, but I would be remiss in not giving a fair amount of the credit to the casting of the incomparable Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant.
I’m not sure what about these two works so well for me in this film, but there’s something there. As a tremendous Katharine Hepburn fan, it’s great fun to see her play against her real life persona. A notorious feminist and charmingly outspoken, to see Hepburn embody the antithesis of that is perhaps one of the greatest jokes of the film. Nevertheless, Cary Grant is in fine form as well. He does his best to keep a stiff upper lip as his life falls apart around him, but his acerbic wit always seems to get the best of him. However, you don’t need to be a fan of Hepburn or Grant to see their obvious chemistry onscreen. Their ability to play off one another is reason enough to see the film, even with its other obvious charms.
At the heart of it, Bringing Up Baby is a fine exercise in screwball comedy. However, to characterize it as just that does a great disservice to this remarkable piece of film history. Its surface offerings, such as the guaranteed laughs, are obvious, but the simplicity and the sweetness of the story are just as enchanting as its leading lady and man.
It’s impossible to know the number of times I’ve seen Casablanca, the 1942 Warner classic that is greatest as one of the greatest films of all time. We all know the film, that timeless world war 2 set romance that pits the cynical hotelier against the idealistic underground hero and the beautiful woman they both love. And of course there’s the corrupt but disarming French police chief, Nazis, patriotism in spades, and a kiss being a kiss. Or not. Casablanca remains cinematic perfection, a flawless, witty and succinct script, the perfect performances, the ending that almost never was. There’s that stunning Max Steiner music, and each performance from even the bit players adds to the film’s perfection. Casablanca was not destined to be a classic, but here we are. Sixty years on, it’s as sharp, gorgeous, sentimental and entertaining as ever, and the print shown at the festival was a brand newly restored print that looks marvelous. What can one say that has not been said? Not much, except it’s still a masterful classic.
Certain films deserve to be seen on the big screen, and the TCM Festival did themselves proud with the world premiere of a newly restored print of Singin’ in the Rain. A joyous, exuberant experience, directed with verve and panache by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, this film is great, but this print makes the film seem new again. Set in the late twenties, the film parodies the transition that Hollywood was making from silent to sound films at the tail end of the 1920s. With a razor sharp and snappy script by Green and Comden, and a memorable score that includes classic songs from the zany Make ‘Em Laugh, to the haunting Broadway Melody, and of course the new rendition of the title song. The choreography is ingenious and the film is both broadly comic and beautifully romantic. This print accentuates the right color tones and looks gorgeous. This remains one of the great MGM musical classics, and the trio of actors, Kelly, the fabulous Donald O’Connor and the inexperienced Debbie Reynolds, were all sublime in this perfect cinematic concoction.
While Hitchcock’s Vertigo was the Master at his darkest, his earlier To Catch a Thief, was Hitch at his more playful. A more superficial work than many others made in this period, it is still breathtakingly gorgeous, and the repartee between Cary Grant and the luminous Grace Kelly is fabulous. Set and largely shot in the south of France, Grant is the ex jewel thief whose past comes back to haunt him when a raft of copycat burglars surface, and Grant’s Robie is the prime suspect. To Catch a Thief is as much about sex as it is about jewels being burgled, and Hitchcock has a devilish time with sexual subtext. Grant is always great to watch and does splendid work with Hitch, and Kelly is just glorious. It may not be one of the Master’s greatest works, but it’s sure as hell is damn grand and stylish entertainment.
It was great to see so many people flock to Hollywood from across the country to see classic films unspool on the big screen. TCM did a fine job in programming this wonderful festival, and this was a short glimpse into what was offered. They really don’t make films like these anymore, and it’s good to be reminded that movies were once made by individuals not by conglomerates. Thank God we have these classics to remind us.