“Just tweet something about ‘Beef Mankiewicz’.”
The last day of the 2015 Turner Classic Movie Film Festival was a bittersweet one. The days had run together, creating a world where no sleep was the norm, weird social interactions were common, and I began to feel that echo of solitude that I’ll be returning to soon enough.
After the stupid, stupid things I did the day before, I decided to sleep in. When my alarm clock rose me for the 11:30 showing of The Smiling Lieutenant, I smiled myself and hit the snooze button. Sunday would be a one movie day.
There were other factors to that too—frankly, I was just really damn sick of the TCL Chinese Multiplex, which is totally fine as a theater and the staff couldn’t be any more darling (even refilling my medium Coke when they noticed how many of my words simply slurred together). But the theaters themselves were just same-y, and moments like in Don’t Bet On Women where a light pre-Code comedy is momentarily interrupted by the surround sound explosions from the theater next door was an unfortunate reminder during delicate experiences that the reality of modern movies still loomed over us.
So I slept in and went to brunch with my friend, Mike, who had generously hosted me in Studio City. It was nice to walk around outside without the sense of urgency nor anyone dressed as Spider-Man accosting you, so it was a pleasant interlude.
I made it back to Club TCM around 1 PM and found the place packed. I managed to snag myself a corner couch and listen to…
2:00 PM – A Talk with Shirley MacLaine
MacLaine, who’s known for her frankness, was undeniably gleeful in dishing dirt on her favorite stars. Though Leonard Maltin did a good job in controlling the chaos (only inviting MacLaine’s wrath once when he made a joke about reincarnation), it definitely wouldn’t have been mistaken for Inside the Actor’s Studio by any means.
She told some very funny stories, including one about seeing Jack Nicholson naked—her response to one adventurous person’s ‘What was it like?!’ is mentioned in the title of this article. She noted a couple of things about pre-Code stars, such as seeing Marlene Dietrich spend three hours before her cameo in Around the World in 80 Days adjusting her dress down to the sequin. She also talked about Miriam Hopkins in The Children’s Hour and how she spent a lot of time playfully sniping with former lover and director William Wyler on set.
It went over time a little, which was a bit welcome to many people since so many of the events were so carefully orchestrated. I had noticed Christina and Darin enter earlier in the talk, so I went up to talk to them. Christina presented me with a copy of her follow-up to the Ann Dvorak book, The Inseperables, and a still of Dvorak from the 40s that the actress had personally owned. To put it bluntly, it is so fucking cool.
Christina had talked to someone about being one of the festival’s social media producers for the next year, and I spotted Kellee across the room and offered to help her get the lowdown. But when I went to ask Kellee to come over she pointed behind her and said, “Just a minute,” because she was trying to get a picture with Leonard Maltin, who was less than two feet away from her. I had tunnel vision, bad.
Kellee got that picture and joined us. For those of you who weren’t obsessively following the #TCMFF tag on Twitter or Facebook, social producers had spent the festival handing out buttons. Each producer would do something different—Emily toted around a Robert Osborne Bobblehead and got festival goers pictures with it. Kelllee did trivia questions. I think Nitrate Diva had people go to the TCMFF Tumblr.
Kellee told Christina about the process of applying, the relatively meagre privileges and how it was a job perfect for an extrovert, and Christina laughed and said ‘nah’.
After a few bittersweet hugs, Christina and Darin took off. I went and talked to Kellee and her husband for a bit, mostly about the film scene in Lawrence, Kansas, which is surprisingly hopping.
Miguel came by next, and we headed out by the pool to do a podcast about, if you can believe it, pre-Code Hollywood cinema. You can look for it later (actually, through the magic of time dilation, here it is!), but Miguel’s enthusiasm and love for what he does as a podcaster is so palpable that I’d be amazed if he’d ever had a bad guest. (And definitely hasn’t in the episodes I’ve listened to.)
We wanted to head back into Club TCM post-podcast, but were unhappily surprised to find the door by the pool locked. Thinking a nearby open door led back into the hotel (at least, I did), Miguel and I instead got to spend about 10 minutes locked in a neighboring office building. Only my very manly and not panicky at all poundings on the door freed us, and, luckily, we did not get arrested for accidental entering of a building.
We took a break to get some writing done before hurrying to get in line for the film’s final showing, a world-premiere restoration of The Grim Game, one of only a handful of silent films that Harry Houdini starred in and one of the even fewer that survive in a complete print. But more on that below.
Before the movie I caught up with Anne Marie again and gave her one of the copies of Thoughts on The Thin Man I’d brought with me. Upon other passholders seeing the book, I suddenly realized that I should have brought a lot more books. I also gave one to Kim who mentioned that she liked the film series, and I hope both of them like it.
Since Kim and I were talking, she joined me and Miguel, after the numbers were passed out, to run and find a quick dinner. I treated them both to pizza slices from across the street. I also managed to crush a Styrofoam cup with my bare hands. … which isn’t very impressive, especially considering it was still filled with pop at the time.
After some frantic mopping, we made it back in line and I finally, after searching for her a few days earlier, met Kendra, the Vivian Leigh biographer. She was one of those salt of the earth people who I can’t help but like, and we ended up going to the balcony of the Egyptian Theater along with Diane to finally watch…
8:15 PM – The Grim Game (1919)
There were several presenters before the movie, and it’s easy to understand why. The only surviving print of the film had had a long and harrowing history, basically being in one man’s closet for 70 years and only receiving a few obscure screenings since. In fact, there were more people in that theater than had seen the film in total since it was in wide release.
A few magicians introduced the movie by showing off another artifact of Houdini’s—a vest of his that helped them perform a card trick with Ben Mankiewicz. It was a pretty good trick for a vest that had no one wearing it.
Mankiewicz also gave the closing remarks for the festival, reading a few kind words sent from Robert Osborne and then tenderly explaining to the audience that the plane crash you were about to see was completely real—and, miraculously, no one got hurt.
The film itself is wonderfully contrived, a fake murder plot that turns into a real one and implicates Houdini’s Harold Lloyd-esque newspaperman. The plot puts him through escaping being tied down in a prison cell, escaping a straightjacket while dangling from the top of the building, and practically every other escape artist trick the magician was famous for.
But, I have to be honest, the moment that most killed it for me in the movie was his first demonstration of his abilities. His fellow employees at the newspaper decided to play a joke on Houdini by placing a pair of handcuffs on him while he sleeps. He wakes up, notices the handcuffs and proceeds to break the fourth wall by delivering a big smile directly at the camera before setting on freeing himself. It’s so utterly charming and playful, and really elevates the rest of the movie, including the insanely thrilling plane crash climax.
The only way that could have been topped is if the final title card had been the police chief turning to him at the end and asking, “Have you ever considered becoming an escape artist?” but, alas, it was not to be.
9:00 P.M. – Goodbye Party at Club TCM
I walked from the Egyptian to join the second hour of the Club TCM goodbye party with Angela. Along the way we got to see a Captain Jack Sparrow run amok through the crowded sidewalk and the police arresting a woman in a neon pink mesh body stocking, which I can leave in ellipsis for you to figure out why she might have been in trouble.
Angela and I talked about our other, non-film hobbies, since at this point everyone seemed to be worn out on movies. Once at the party, in fact, we got to all talk about that episode of “The Nanny” where Elizabeth Taylor loses her diamonds and Raquel’s husband, Carlos, impressively revealed himself to be a connoisseur of that show.
I used the goodbye to meet up finally with Jill who I knew through a mutual friend before I knew her from blogging, and I got to say goodbye to a great many people. It was emotional, as you can imagine.
I ended up sitting in the restaurant at the front of the hotel with Angela, Kim, Diane, Carly, Anne Marie and others and just unwinding. This was mostly in listening to unrequited sexual desires for Ben Mankiewicz– some of them had been drinking– and eating a lot of wonderful cheese.
Anne Marie graciously—fucking graciously since I’d forgotten that the subways stopped—shared her Lyft with me and dropped me off back at the house. I got about an hour and headed out on the rest of my two-week jaunt across America.
Final Thoughts on the 2015 TCMFF
When this year’s schedule came out, there was a great deal of skepticism. A handful of prominent venues for films that were less than twenty years old put off a number of people who mostly celebrated the Golden Age of Hollywood, and I will admit that some of that is warranted since this is one of the few places where you celebrate that period in specific. It definitely hung like a cloud over the festival, with the network’s representatives feeling a bit worn by the guff they’d gotten and a few festival goers still irritable about it and that fear they have that TCM is going the same path of AMC– though I remain doubtful that that course will ever materialize.
However, even with the complaints, there was more than enough on the schedule for movie fans of all preferences– even if you don’t want to watch Out of Sight, you’ll still get three other black and white movies to check out. There were definitely a number of movies that I wish I’d made but couldn’t for a number of reasons—On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, The Picture Show Man, Marriage Italian Style, Apollo 13, Malcolm X and probably my biggest regret, Roman Holiday. But the movies I did see, which I do believe I covered here in halfway decent depth, were for the most part great experiences with a majority having good introductions. I’m glad I spent as much time in Club TCM as I did, not just to get some relative solitude at several points, but to enjoy the presentations and discussions. I’m glad I made it into all of my ‘musts’ for the festival, from the great Dawn of Technicolor presentation to Don’t Bet on Women to The Grim Game.
I met some wonderful people there, whom I’ve listed all several times so far and would gladly take a bullet for now. (Or just host in Japan for a trip, whichever one is less dangerous.) As many others have said, it was great to put faces to the names, but more than that it was fun– nay, fantastic– to talk about old movies with a group of people who clearly know their shit.
Even the multitude of strangers who I met in lines as we waited for movies were very fun, very nice people. Both the company and the fans repeat the mantra that TCM isn’t a channel, it’s a family, and while I strive to remain a skeptic, it’s hard to deny the kinship that thousands of strangers share over one whirlwind weekend each year.
So with one final, wrenching sigh, I bid farewell to one of the most engaging experiences I’ve had in ages. And, in the words of someone way cooler than me, I’ll just echo this: