It took a long while, but we are back to regular programming. The TCM Classic Film Festival has been a yearly tradition for me and a major event that I cover for this blog each year, but the Covid-19 pandemic put the tradition on pause for two long years, until the festival returned last year. Despite the gap in between, I was happy to see that little had changed with the festival and it was the same wonderful experience that I had enjoyed in years before. Now, one year later, it is time to gear up for yet another TCM Film Fest. Like many years past, each of the festivals have a theme to them. For this one, their theme is tied in much more with the parent studio behind TCM. The classic movies station is a part of the Warner Brothers Discovery company, which this year is celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Warner Studios. As a result, the programming of this year’s festival is skewed much more heavily with films from the Warner Brothers library, spanning across their 100 year history. The films date as far back as the mid 1920’s, and are as recent as Steven Soderberghs’s Ocean’s Eleven (2001), which gets a prestigious Friday night showing. There are other studios represented in this year’s program, but the Festival is put on by a wing of the Warner Brothers Discovery company, so it stands to reason why they would indulge themselves a bit more this year. Thankfully with movie theaters in recovery, the venues this year are just as vibrant as they have been in past years, though sadly the Egyptian and the Cinerama Dome are still M.I.A. because of ongoing refurbishments. Hopefully those two will be back at next year’s festival. This year, the Chinese Theater, the Chinese Multiplex, and the American Legion Hollywood Post are all back to thrill us classic movie fans with not just great movies but great atmosphere as well. I will be chronicling all four days of the Festival with my own first hand experience. My hope is to not only see a few new movies this year that I have missed up to now, but to also see some of the VIP guests that have often been the highlight of these Festivals, especially if they are very old-timers. So, let’s take a look at my TCM Classic Film Festival 2023 experience.
THURSDAY, APRIL 13, 2023
Just like last year’s festival, I have limited time for movies on the first two days due to work, but it’s far less of a problem on the first day, as the festival itself doesn’t begin until the evening hours. Heading to the festival central straight from work, I caught the earliest show that was available to me. The main venue of the festival, the legendary Grauman’s Chinese Theater, naturally was closed off to everyone except for passholders; and it was exclusive to a few even there. I was able to get across to the other side of Hollywood Blvd. to catch a view of the red carpet set up they had for all their special guests. There wasn’t too much to make out from a distance, but it certainly looked glitzy. Every opening night showing in the Chinese Theater is reserved for a special premiere with especially high profile guests in attendance. This night was no exception. Before the film, there was a special sit down interview between TCM host Ben Mankiewicz and directors Steven Spielberg, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Warner Brothers CEO David Zazlev. Their discussion was primarily about film preservation, and the importance it should have in the industry. The subject tied in with the marquee showing of opening night, which was the movie Rio Bravo (1959), directed by Howard Hawkes, which Warner Brothers just recently completed a 4K restoration on. That new 4K remaster was making it’s big first look premiere at this festival, playing on the giant Chinese Theater screen (the largest in North America as the festival hosts were constantly reminding us). After the discussion with Spielberg, Anderson and Zazlev, Ben Mankiewicz then interviewed one of the stars of Rio Bravo, Angie Dickenson. I was on the outside looking in, so there’s not much else I can say about the opening night premiere. I had a different movie to catch.
The Chinese 6 Multiplex situated within the massive Hollywood & Highland complex (now re-christened as Ovation Hollywood) was also hosting a few screenings this opening night. For my selections, I went with two different experiences for me; a film I have seen but not on the big screen, and a film that I hadn’t seen at all. The first movie was the one I had seen before, which was Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller Shadow of a Doubt (1943). The movie was thankfully easy to get in for all, even for the standby guests. Given that I am attending these festivals on a budget, I always have to use the standby lines, which means the last pick of the seats. It’s a gamble seeing the movies this way, as the likelihood of being left out due to a sellout is much higher than with a pass. But, off all the screens in the multiplex, this one was playing in the largest. I got a seat closer to the screen than I normally do for most other movies mainly because it gets me close enough to having a close look at the special guest for the showing. In this case, it wasn’t anyone involved with the film (which would be difficult for a now 80 year old movie) but rather a famous fan of the film. The guest in question was actor John Hawkes, who was there to express his own longtime appreciation of this movie, and especially for it’s star Joseph Cotton; an actor that especially looks up to as a model for his own acting career. Interviewed by TCM host David Karger, Hawkes discussed the subtleties of Cotton’s performance in the movies, and how he brought such effective menace to the villainous Uncle Charlie in the film. For a movie it’s age, the film still looked remarkably good on a big screen, and it was nice to finally have the oppurtunity to see the film this way. Immediately after the film was over, I got right back in line for the next movie of the night.
The second and last movie of Day One for me was a film that I had yet to see, which was the 1953 film The Wild One, produced by Stanley Kramer and starring a very fresh-faced Marlon Brando. Brando had already debuted on the big screen as Stanley Kowalski in the classic A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), but The Wild One was his first true starring role, and it’s the first movie to really cement him with this bad boy, rugged image, which followed him for most of his career. The film is pretty much a B-Movie with not much of a plot, but Brando definitely stands out, especially considering his more modern style of performance is so different from all the other actors in the movie. This screening of the movie offered up an unexpected surprise for those of us in the room. The listed guest who was going to introduce the movie for us was supposed to be the Archive VP of the Motion Picture Academy, Randy Haberkamp, but he was not present at this screening. Instead, we got an unannounced special guest; famed movie director Joe Dante. The man behind such classics as The Gremlins (1984) and The Howling (1981) offered up his own short introduction to the movie. He discussed the impact that the movie had on Marlon Brando’s career, how well Brando and co-star Lee Marvin worked together(and didn’t work together), and various other little tidbits about the movie. The fact that I was not expecting to see someone of Joe Dante’s ilk at this late night screening was a special surprise, and it marked a good start to my festival experience. The following day was going to be especially challenging though as it had a movie that I believe would be the most difficult to get into out of all four days.
FRIDAY, APRIL 14, 2023
Because of work, I missed out on 3/4’s of the entire day’s offerings. But, I had already planned on focusing on one movie in particular for this night, so I wasn’t concerned on missing out on the rest. I made sure that I was very early in line for the 9:30pm showing in the Chinese Theater. This particular showing was for the movie Ocean’s Eleven (2001), the all-star remake of the Rat Pack classic. The reason why this was going to be a must see was because of who was going to be the special guests. Initially the guest was listed as just director Steven Soderbergh, who would’ve been a great draw just on his own. But, a last minute addition was announced just the night before, as Danny Ocean himself, George Clooney, had committed to joining his collaborator on stage to talk about the movie. So, given the fact that a major star like Clooney was going to be there, I definitely had to try to make this show no matter what. I showed up plenty early and got almost the front spot in the standby line. Unfortunately, things got a little weird and scary during the waiting time for the movie. Down the street from where I was waiting, a loud bang could be heard. It seemed like nothing at first (maybe a car had made the noise. But soon, police cars and an ambulance were racing down Hollywood Blvd. Soon after, a security team for the festival were gathering all of us in the standby line and moving us indoors. Then the alert came across on the Festival App, telling everyone to shelter in place. A person had been shot near the festival venues, and the shooter was still at large. It was a tense and scary moment, but thankfully brief. The assailant was apprehended quickly in the nearby subway station and the alert was lifted no that the coast was clear. I only saw the aftermath later, as police tape had roped off the area where the incident took place. Thankfully, the quick resolution of the situation allowed the rest of the festival to go on uninterrupted, and I am very grateful for the resourcefulness of the security team to make sure we were all safe in line.
After all that drama, I was able to make it into the screening, as the massive Chinese Theater was able to accommodate just about everyone. The theater did fill up fairly well, so it seems like word got out that Clooney was going to be there. After a brief introduction from Ben Mankiewicz, who shared that the first Clooney/Soderbergh film Out of Sight (1998) is one of his all time favorite films, both George and Steven took the stage. Their conversation touched on a number of things, namely their long time relationship in the business, being co-producers on a number of movies including 6 of which George Clooney starred in, and why they were interested in doing this remake of the Sinatra classic. For Soderbergh, this was what he saw as the best avenue for him to make what he considered a “mainstream” studio film, which he commonly didn’t do. And Clooney was interested in moving his career in a decidedly different direction, given that this was not too long after his disastrous stint as Batman. The two also talked a lot about the movie’s late producer, Jerry Weintraub, who was quite the character in his own right. They also talked about the assemblage of all stars that they had for their film, including long time vets like Elliot Gould and Carl Reiner. George Clooney remained entertaining throughout the interview, offering up some hilarious stories and anecdotes, but he also did a great job of not taking the spotlight away from Soderbergh, who also got his fair share of time to talk about the movie. Ocean’s Eleven is a movie that I missed the first time around on the big screen, and only finally watched it on home viewing later. It is still a movie that is fun to watch and it holds up well over 20 years later.
The movie finished very close to midnight, but I wasn’t finished just yet. Just like last year, I was interested in catching one of the midnight screenings at this festival, though this time I had it planned rather than doing it as a backup. The choice for the midnight showing this second night of the festival was an interesting one, because it was a campy B-Movie from Mexico called “La Mujer Murcielago” or in English, The Batwoman (1968). This movie, it would appear, takes heavy inspiration from the 1966 Batman series (especially in the color palette) but the similarities end there. The heroine is no Adam West, as her costume is stripped down to just a two piece bikini with a cape and cowl. The film is pretty ridiculous, but it does offer an interesting look into mid-century Mexican cinema. The film does also present some stunning visuals of the port city of Acapulco throughout the movie. The guests for the film were people involved in the recent 4K restoration of the film. They were restorationist Peter Conheim, Restoration producer Charles Horak, and Viviana Garcia-Besne, the founder of Permanencia Voluntaria Film Archive, who were responible for the restoration of the film. Viviana was especially focused on discussing the needed value of restoring films, as many of the movies made throughout Mexican cinema history have been damaged or lost over time given the lack of resources need to preserve them. She and the others recommended to those of us in the audience to read more about the organizations that are working hard to preserve the vast library of Mexican films needing care, many of which are funded through generous donations. It was very interesting to see a movie from a film industry that I still know so little about, and yet I’m learning a lot more about how important it has been. Multi Oscar winner Guillermo Del Toro himself considers The Batwoman one of his favorite films from his childhood, and given what we see in the movie itself, it stands to reason that he took quite a bit of inspiration from it as well.
SATURDAY, APRIL 15, 2023
Given that I went to the midnight showing the night before, I decided to arrive a little later to start my third day of the festival. The earliest shows this day were nothing I was dying to see, and it gave me the opportunity to prepare for the one I did want to see with time to spare. My first showing was at the multiplex; the 1984 Oscar winner Amadeus, which was a movie that I had seen many times before but not on the big screen. My one gripe is that the screening was in one of the smaller venues of the festival and not on any of the more massive screens like at the Legion Theater or the Chinese. A lavish period film like Amadeus calls for a larger screen, but that’s a preference that is out of my control. Seeing it in a theater with an audience still helped to make the experience of watching it this way still worthwhile. For this screening, the festival was also honoring a special guest; the film’s Oscar-winning Production Designer Patrizia von Brandenstein. After playing a short career retrospective, she was brought to the stage to be interviewed by Ben Mankiewicz, and right away she pointed out that they got the pronunciation of her name all wrong. The moment got a chuckle from the audience, as well as from Ben, who then went through all the many credits that Patrizia has had in the film industry. Patrizia talked more about what it was like working on the film, as well as collaborating with director Milos Forman. It was a fascinating talk and it’s nice to see an unsung legend in Hollywood get her due recognition for a lifetime of great work; including her historic Oscar winning work on this film. Given the near three hour length of the film, there wasn’t much time I had afterwards to get to my next must see film.
After Amadeus, I made my way quickly to the line for Bye Bye Birdie (1963), which was being screened in the Chinese Theater. Despite getting in line fairly late, I somehow managed to get a low enough number for the standby line that allowed me to get into the show. I would have thought that this would be one of the harder shows to attend given that the special guest was one of the film’s stars, Ann-Margret. But, I guess the Chinese Theater is a more spacious venue than I give it credit for. The theater still filled up pretty well, but everyone who wanted to see the movie and it’s star got in. TCM host David Karger welcomed Ann-Margret on stage to discuss the movie, and it was an engaging interview. Ann-Margret mentioned the funny thing that she did this film which pokes fun at the Elvis Presley craze, and then the next movie she worked on was Viva Las Vegas (1964), where she acted opposite the real Elvis. She also talked about what it was like to work with her co-stars Dick Van Dyke, Janet Leigh, and Paul Lynde. Once the interview was over, David Karger had a special surprise in store for Ann, since she has a birthday coming up this month. A special birthday cake was made for her by chefs from the Food Network (a sister station of TCM under the Warner Bros. family tree) and on top it was decorated with dancing legs sticking out of the top; a nod to Ann-Margret’s own dancing legs seen in so many movies. She was very happy to receive this surprise and all of us in the crowd sang her “Happy Birthday” before she made her wish and blew out the candle. As for the movie, it was my first time seeing it. I wouldn’t say that it’s among my all time favorite movie musicals, but it’s a cute enough movie to appreciate, and Ann-Margret is certainly the highlight with her then impressive dance and singing skills.
Halfway through my goal of 12 movies at the festival and I’ve been able to get into every movie I wanted. That however came to an end when I arrived at the Multiplex for my next movie. I decided I wanted to see the film Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), starring Barbara Stanwyck, mainly because it was another film that I had yet to see. Unfortunately, this was where my winning streak ran out. The film sold out without a single person from the standby line getting a chance to go in. I heard that even some passholders got turned away too, which is shocking that this one movie would be so popular out of all at the festival. Thankfully for me, I did have another option available starting at the same time. It was the heist comedy How to Steal a Million (1966), starring Peter O’Toole and Audrey Hepburn. The reason why I passed on this film initially is because it’s a movie I had seen before. But, given that my first choice was unavailable, I decided that this was the next best option, given that it was in the same location and it would still give me enough time to reach my next film, though less than I would have with Sorry, Wrong Number. I got into the screening late, and the interview with the special guest was just winding down. The guest in question was David Wyler, son of the film’s director William Wyler. I caught too little of the conversation to get a sense of the whole interview, but I was able to catch the entire film itself. While I had seen the film, watching it on a big screen was new to me, and it had been a while since I had seen it last, so the experience was still worth it and I didn’t mind that this was a back up movie in the end.
After the movie was over, it was time to head up the hill to see my first film at this festival in the American Legion Theater. It was hard to know how busy this screening would be, because it was the late night showing, but it was also one of the marquee films of this festival. It was a 50th Anniversary screening of the legendary Bruce Lee film Enter the Dragon (1973). The film was preceded with an interview conducted by the Director of the Academy Museum Jacqueline Stewart of the film’s screenwriter Michael Allin and hip hop performer and producer RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan. The interview was interesting from two perspectives, considering that we had one person involved with the movie as well as one whose career was heavily inspired by the movie. RZA talked about how the movie Enter the Dragon was released the same year that hip hop started in the music scene, and that the film’s legacy runs parallel with that of the new breakthrough form of music. Naturally, RZA took inspiration from Bruce Lee’s kung fu movies as a part of crafting the sound and character of the hip hop identity of Wu-Tang, and he sees Enter the Dragon as this major cultural touchstone for both Asian and African-American communities, particularly with how inclusive the movie was in showing martial arts masters of all races. Michael Allin offered up some interesting personal stories of working with Bruce Lee and what he was like on and off screen. The most remarkable story he shared was the quick turn around the movie had. Allin wrote the screenplay in only three weeks and the movie from script to final cut was accomplished in as little as five months. This was a first time viewing for me, and while I may not be a kung fu movie person, it was still good to finally see this movie that I’ve heard so many things about. So, thus ended my full third day of the festival. It was time to head home to prepare, with far fewer hours of sleep in between.
SUNDAY, APRIL 16, 2023
So, I have come to my final day at the 2023 TCM Film Festival. There was no time to waste as I was starting early in the morning this time. My first show ironically was in the same venue that I ended the night before in; the Hollywood Legion Theater. Not only did I need to get to the venue early, I had to get there with an uphill climb. Thankfully, early morning shows rarely sell out, and I was able to get into the theater without waiting. This morning I was seeing the Henry Fonda/ John Ford military comedy Mister Roberts. The main reason why I was seeing this movie was because it’s another that I had never seen before. Here I was getting the chance to watch it on a big screen in a venue built for war veterans, so that gave the showing an extra bit of meaning. Unfortunately, it was little more to it than that; no special interview or introduction. Just one of the TCM hosts giving some pre-show backstory. After the film, I made my way back down the hill to my next show. In order to give myself some extra time before the big show of the day, which would come in the afternoon, I chose to see the comedy The In-Laws (1979), directed by Arthur Hiller and starring Alan Arkin and Peter Falk. This screening, which was at the multiplex, did have a pre-show interview with two of the film’s co-stars; actresses Nancy Dussault and Penny Peyser. Though he was unable to attend, Alan Arkin did write a letter for us attendees, which Penny Peyser read out for us. It was a nice little talk about, where the two ladies discussed what it was like working with actors like Falk and Arkin. They also discussed the way that director Arthur Hiller approached the comedy in the movie, which the director usually wasn’t too involved in having made movies in the past like Love Story (1970). Though dated in some ways, the movie was still very funny for the most part, and it was an interesting discovery for me, considering that I wasn’t familiar too much with the movie before.
From that, it was off to the big draw of the day. In the Chinese Theater for the afternoon show, they were screening the 1962 musical extravaganza The Music Man, with actress Shirley Jones as the special guest. Unlike the other films I had seen at this festival, there was no interview before the movie, but instead the moment would be saved for after the film. I had seen The Music Man before, but not on the big screen. Just like Bye Bye Birdie the day before, there’s just something extra special about watching a lavishly staged musical film on the “largest screen in North America,” and The Music Man did not disappoint. These grand widescreen movies splashed with color demand to be seen in this fashion, and it made the whole experience worth it just for that. I even love the way that the audience I was seeing the movie with would applaud at the end of the musical numbers. One thing occurred to me about this, that musicals made back in those days often had a moment of pause at the end of the songs where audiences could applaud. That’s something that you just don’t see in movie musicals anymore, as modern musicals don’t pace themselves like stage productions but rather like other movies without a pause at the end of songs. For a movie like The Music Man, it works well because an audience can applaud without missing anything in the movie; which makes me think that audiences back in those days must have been doing it too. But, we had a good reason to be applauding, as Shirley Jones, the film’s star, was watching it along with us. The appreciation must have been heartfelt for her, as she took the stage at the end of the show to a standing ovation. The cool thing is that she brought all of her grandkids with her, and they all got to share the spotlight and take in her special moment by her side. She didn’t stay long, but still made it known how much she appreciated the warm reception. This was the last movie that I felt would be a challenge to get into, so I’m very happy to have checked it off my list and not have missed it.
The last show for my Festival experience was also in the Chinese Theater. It was the 40th Anniversary screening of the Lawrence Kasdan movie The Big Chill (1983). The screening was the official closing night presentation, so host Ben Mankiewicz started off the presentation by reading off the names of all the behind the scenes people who worked to make this Festival happen. He especially noted the Security team, given that they were in the unprecedented situation of having to deal with an active crime scene near the center of the Festival. The audience showed their appreciation with a very heartfelt applause to the Security staff. For the movie itself, two of the film’s stars were there to talk about the making of it; Tom Berenger and Jobeth Williams. They talked about having to live together during the film shoot in the single location that was the house in the movie, and how they passed the time playing games and other things. They talked about their co-stars Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, Meg Tilly, Jeff Goldblum, and the late William Hurt, as well as director Lawrence Kasdan. Jobeth told the funny story of how she was mistakenly speaking with Berenger’s stunt double thinking that it was actually him, which Berenger found very funny. Ben Mankiewicz also joked that they had a third cast member at this screening, Kevin Costner, but in the spirit of the film, they were going to keep him backstage and out of sight, referencing the fact that Costner was the one playing the corpse seen in the opening of the movie (of course he wasn’t really there). After that, then it was time to see the movie. It’s fitting that the night ended on another movie that I had yet to see. Overall, of the twelve movies I saw this year, 7 were new to me, which is a pretty good tally. After the movie, I slowly left the Chinese Theater, soaking in the waning moments of this year’s Festival before heading home.
This year had some high moments to be sure, but at the same time, I felt that there were some issues that concerned me as well. It seems that this year that there was some downsizing compared to Festivals in years past. For one thing, one of the things that I always keep with me as a souvenir from each Festival is a complimentary booklet that features descriptions of all the movies playing at the festival along with a flip out program schedule. This year, they didn’t have those, instead choosing to have guests download the Festival app as their guide. There was a program schedule available at info desks across the Festival venues, which was little more than pamphlet sized, but it just re-enforced a feeling of downsizing that I was getting from this year’s festival. The reach of the festival’s footprint also feels lesser. Yes, the Egyptian and Cinerama Dome are still unavailable in general, but other venues from past Festivals that are open like the Avalon and the El Capitan across the street were not a part of this year’s festival either. My hope is that this is not another symptom of the budget cuts conducted by David Zazlev and the Warner Bros. accountants in their re-structuring of the company post-merger. Hopefully next year when the Egyptian is re-opened we’ll see it as part of the Festival once again. Apart from my gripes in these matters, the Festival still delivered when it came to the screenings and the interviews with the special guests. I’m hoping that we’ll see a more robust Festival come next year. Ben Mankiewicz said in his closing night remarks that this is his favorite week of the year, and for many of us classic movie fans, this is indeed something that we look forward to every year. Hey, I can’t complain too much considering there was a point for two years during the pandemic when we didn’t have any Festival to go to at all. So, I’m glad I was able to share yet another TCM Classic Film Festival adventure with all of you. Here’s hoping for something special next year that will be just as good if not better than the one I was able to enjoy this last weekend.