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Welcome to another edition of TINTYPE TUESDAY!
Regular readers may recall just how very un-monstrous Boris Karloff was offscreen, visiting children’s hospitals to play Santa Claus and read bedtime stories—and even charming the little girl who played Maria in Frankenstein while bolted into full makeup. But can we talk for a minute about how insanely elegant he was?
He was the kind of guy who’d put sherry in his guacamole.
No really. I have proof.
Notice the cayenne is optional. The sherry isn’t.
And while most of us have to shlep to the grocer’s to make “avocado sauce”—and props to the reporter for describing guacamole as if it were an alien life form—Boris only had to head out to the backyard. He’d transformed his Beverly Hills estate into an earthly paradise—a sprawling, formal lawn ringed by lush flower beds and orchards dripping with oranges, grapefruit, lemons, limes, plums, peaches and yes, avocados. The only thing missing from his Eden were the apples and the snakes. And he tended his garden lovingly, every day, no matter what else he had going on.
“I’ll never forget, before we worked together in The Mask of Fu Manchu, during the summer we had a terrible drought,” co-star Charles Starrett once recalled. “Boris was making Frankenstein, and I lived above him in Coldwater Canyon. One evening, I was driving home when I suddenly nearly drove my car into a ditch—there in the beautiful garden was The Monster himself, tenderly watering the roses. Boris was such a dedicated gardener, he was afraid he’d lose the roses to the heat, so he rushed home without taking off his makeup to catch them at sundown, the best time for watering. It was quite a sight…”
His garden was such a heaven on earth that some of his friends longed to spend eternity there. “They loved to wander through the garden with Boris while he worked on it—they’d talk about their old times in the theatre,” remembered Karloff’s fourth wife, Dorothy. “They were very dependent on him when they were alive, and they loved the garden. That’s the way they wanted it—to be in a place they loved and to be near him… he felt it was his responsibility to do as they wished.”
Thus it came to be that the cremated remains of several of Boris’s oldest friends were buried among the roses behind his farmhouse. But Los Angeles real estate being what it is, a later owner subdivided the sacred space. Grieved Dorothy, “Pity they had to build all those ugly houses on top of them.”
TINTYPE TUESDAY is a regular feature on Sister Celluloid, with fabulous classic movie pix (and usually some backstory!) to help you make it to Hump Day! For previous editions, just click here—and why not bookmark the page, to make sure you never miss an edition?
Don’t say nothin’ bad about my Joanie.
Not long ago, in need of a tonic on a stifling summer day, I reread the closest thing we have to her autobiography, the wildly entertaining Joan Crawford: My Way of Life. On the cover, firmly gripping her pair of poodles, she looks like a terrified hostage trying to blink out a message to the cops. But the book itself is much more chipper, opening in her East Side penthouse:
“My home and my office are combined on a high floor of a Manhattan apartment house that has a cheerful California feeling about it, even in the winter. I get the first rays of the morning sun rising over the East River and, smog permitting, the last lovely colors of the sunset somewhere behind the Hudson. There are two small terraces where I try to keep some shrubbery going, and which my toy poodles adore, and I keep the rooms filled with plants and flowers. Even my dresses swarm with flowers. I have a bird’s eye view of the world here, and a bird’s sense of freedom. I have the same sense of excitement about the next adventure that I had when I was sixteen. And I’m sure I’ll never lose it.”
“All my nostalgia is for tomorrow—not for any yesterdays,” she tells us—and maybe she protests a little too much. But she’s trying, dammit—and Joan is all about the striving: “With a little organization, a woman can excel as a wife, a homemaker, mother, career woman and gracious hostess, be lovely to look at and be with—and still have time left over to be a good friend to a lot of people!”
For the love of God, ladies, don’t try this at home. Joan was pretty much the most organized woman on the face of the earth—a deeply unsettling childhood can send you hurtling in that direction—and even she bombed at some of these things.
Joan herself once admitted the book was a bit much. “I’m a God-damned image, not a person, and the poor girl who worked on it had to write about the image,” she confessed. “It must have been terrible for her. She would have been better off with Lassie.” (Am I the only one who just pictured Joan rescuing little Timmy from a well? And she would have done it in pearls and pumps, I tell ya!)
But not everything in the book is over the top, and, like your doting, slightly dotty aunt from Scarsdale who gives you aspic forks as a wedding gift, Joan always means well. Here’s a sampling of her advice: the good, the bad, and the—let’s face it—just plain odd.
“I’ve persuaded myself that I hate things that are bad for me—fattening foods, late nights and loud, aggressive people head the list.” This is kinda genius. I’m off to shoot daggers at the brownies in the kitchen. (Though I bought them at a church bake sale, so I may have to go to confession later.)
“I never got over the idea that being on time was important.” Oh yeah, baby! “I am always on the set early,” she says. “When they ask me why I say, ‘I’m afraid you’ll start without me! Or replace me!'” She’s quick to say she’s joking, but I’ll bet she never entirely got over that feeling.
“Conquering fears, whatever they may be, opens life up.” Joan, for instance, was terrified of public speaking, flying, and horses, but made peace with them by learning more about them and facing down her anxieties. Granted, not all of us could vanquish our fear of horses by buying a fleet of polo ponies, but you get the idea.
“Before I go to bed at night, I make a little schedule for the next day.” She says her secretaries had to keep retyping her three-month calendar as she packed more and more into it. (Remember “retyping”?) Her New York assistant, Betty Barker, joined her staff in 1938, after working for Howard Hughes, and had plenty of options if she wanted to bolt. So much for Joan being impossible to work with.
“In marriage, be a giver, not a taker.” Some may scoff at taking marriage advice from someone who made four trips down the aisle. But they’re just the people you should listen to: “People talk about what they want out of marriage. They should think about what you have to put into it. It’s worth every bit of love and protection and unselfishness you can muster up. And believe me, you can muster up much more than you thought you could before you were married.”
“No experience has ever made me bitter—or ever will.” That’s a bit hard to believe—she’s Joan Crawford, not Joan of Arc—but I think she means she didn’t stay bitter. After all, she kept up lifelong friendships with two of her ex-husbands, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Franchot Tone, even caring for Tone in her own home during the last months of his life. “When one lives with bitterness, it shows in the face, and it’s pathetic,” she says. “The softness goes out of the eyes. The body is stooped. Bitterness and self-pity are deadly poisons that can’t be hidden. They seem to exude from the pores.”
I think we can all relate to this, though perhaps on a humbler scale than La Crawford. In my case, there’s a clique of movie bloggers I call The Mean Girls (though one’s a guy) who are downright nasty to me; sadly, a few live nearby and I run into them once in a while. They’re all very chatty face to face, but what they say behind my back could curdle your custard. (Does that stuff ever not get back to people?) But since starting this site, I’ve met, in person and online, so many kindred spirits, they offset the mean ones a hundredfold. I’ll give Joan the last word: “You can’t be a giver if you’re bitter.”
Even in her infamous feud with Bette Davis, it always felt like most of the real rancor was coming from the other side of the fence. Joan seemed like the underdog, outgunned by Bette’s acid-laced attacks, which must have brought back horrid memories of childhood bullies:
“I worked my way through two private schools washing dishes, cooking for the entire establishment, making beds, waiting on tables—and trying to get some studying done in between. In the second school I was the only helper in a fourteen-room house accommodating thirty students and, in true Dickensian fashion, I was thrown down the stairs and beaten with a broom handle… that school didn’t teach me much out of books, but it certainly taught me to be self-sufficient, and I’ve never regretted it.” How many of us could glean a positive life lesson—or even pretend to—from being beaten and thrown down stairs? (And yes, those nightmarish years fueled an obsession with cleanliness and order, but that’s been dissected to bits all over the place.)
“I abhor dropper-inners.” Yes. Do not be one of these creatures! (Though nowadays it’s rare enough to get a real phone call, let alone a visitor.) Poor Joan recounts the time when not one but three dropper-inners descended on her New York flat, when she was wearing just “a simple cotton shift and very little makeup.” But our girl sprung into action: “I had to abandon everything, quickly run into my dressing room, get into a lovely dress I had bought in Canada, put on lipstick and tidy my hair.” (I know just how she feels: a while back, I was reading in bed in a teeshirt and skivvies when suddenly—horrors!—there was a knock at the door. I had to put on pants. I still shudder at the memory.)
Always pack in daylight. “In artificial light when I’m in a hurry it’s too easy to grab the wrong accessories and find myself in Kansas City or San Juan with a hot pink dress and a shocking pink hat—and that’s a catastrophe. Catastrophe. Oh my God.
For Joan, though, just getting her headgear out the door sounded like a job for the Navy SEALs: “My hats are stuffed with tissue, encased in plastic bags, and packed into large black drums that hold perhaps a dozen—drums about three feet high and almost too wide to get through the door of my apartment or into a car. But we always manage. And there is just no other way to transport lovely hats.” She once traveled to London with 37 suitcases. To film Trog.
And here’s a tip from Sister Celluloid: it’s also best to put on your makeup in natural light. In our house and maybe yours, there’s lots of “soft” lighting, which can make you look a helluva lot better than you really do—leading to something of a shock when you’re out from under its glow. (“But damn, I looked so good in the bathroom!”)
Joan’s five rules of thumb for choosing clothes. 1) Find your own style and have the courage to stick to it. 2) Choose your clothes for your way of life. 3) Make your wardrobe as versatile as an actress. It should be able to play many roles. 4) Find your happiest colors—the ones that make you feel good. 5) Care for your clothes like the good friends they are.
“A dress of the wrong shade will bring out sallowness, highlight blemishes, and add years to a woman’s face. It will make her look hard.” Preach it, Aunt Joan! I once fell in love with a gorgeous dress in a kind of mustardy yellow, and wore it to lunch with a friend—who said, before I even sat down, “Are you okay? You look ill.” And he kept at it all through the meal. (“Really? You’re sure you’re fine?”) When I got home, I took a better look in the mirror than I had before I left the house. It was the dress. I’m pale as milk—so much so that the muddy yellow in the dress reflected on my face. I looked like I’d been on a bender since 1962. Luckily, an olive-toned friend looked great in it.
“Once girls get themselves married, they forget romance—and that’s when the flirting should really begin. If you want to keep your husband, that is. A lot of other women are flirting with him and flattering him—you can depend on that.” Okay whoa. This reminds me of that noxious little ditty from the ’60s, Wives and Lovers. When Jack Jones starts crooning, “Hey, little girl, comb your hair, fix your makeup…” I want to scream, “Hey, little man, feck off!”
Of course everyone should keep kindling the romantic fires and making that extra effort after marriage. But Joan’s advice is a bit one-sided… and the idea that the minute you let your lipstick fade, your husband is going to hop into bed with some cutie from the office is downright creepy. And it’s disappointingly dated, coming from a woman who always seemed so far ahead of the curve.
“Don’t buy a dress until you can afford all the right accessories and have a hat made to match.” Okay so most of us will go around wearing barrels for the rest of our lives.
“Pants are probably here to stay. But they shouldn’t stay long on anyone but the most lithe and slim-hipped.” The next sound you’d hear would be most of my clothes hitting the charity bins.
“A busy woman can’t spend whole days in front of mirrors, but she ought to have them all over the house (which improves the décor too) and make a point of glancing at herself every time she passes one.” Oh dear God no. Including to the décor part. It would be like living in a giant ladies’ room.
Her “dangerous” foods. “Here are a few items no dieter should ever have in the house: peas, lima beans, avocados, olives, dried beans, corn, butter, most cheese, fatty meats, sugar, chocolate, potatoes, rice, bread, pasta, and creamed soups. The list could go on for another page or two, but any intelligent woman knows the dangerous foods.”
Butter, cheese, meats, sugar—check. But this is the first time I’ve ever heard anyone demonize the sainted avocado. And peas, beans and olives? What did they ever do to hurt anyone?
Meanwhile, her chapter on entertaining contains enough bacon, meatballs, fried chicken, sausage, salami, steak, butter and mayo to choke a horse. I guess the best way to stay slim is to fob off all that stuff on your unsuspecting guests.
“Bedrooms should be very feminine.” Joan says “men feel much more masculine walking from a brown or green dressing room into a lovely feminine bedroom.” I polled my husband and a few male friends on this one. The consensus? Five said no, with any number of ribald expletives thrown in for good measure, and one spewed coffee out of his nose. And none could recall having a dressing room—brown, green or otherwise.
“A turquoise necklace with amethyst earrings is a crime.” Not a fashion misstep, mind you. A crime. I love this woman. (And let me confess that I have a necklace with both amethyst and turquoise stones in it. But please don’t turn me in—my dear old Ma depends on me!)
“Sit on hard chairs—soft ones spread the hips.” I’m pretty sure this is an old wives’ tale. Old wives who were really cranky and crying out for cushions.
Use every free second to exercise. Joan was always in wicked-good shape, so it’s hard to quibble with her on this one. But she goes on for pages and pages about working exercise into pretty much every minute of your life. Clench your buttocks in the grocery line! Firm your calves while you brush your teeth! Do odd, scary facial exercises that creep out your taxi driver! If your muscles are relaxed for a single second, you’re living your life all wrong.
I mean, please. Not all of us can slink into leotards at lunchtime and work out with our poodles, as she did during the stinker Torch Song.
But then, not all of us can be Joan Crawford. Rereading this somewhat frantic book, I can’t say I’d want to be. But I’d love to have been her friend—and I’ll bet she’d have been a damn good one back.
MoMA Presents “Leo McCarey: Seriously Funny,” Covering the Undersung Director from the Silents Onward
“I only know I like my characters to walk in clouds, I like a little bit of the fairy tale. As long as I’m there behind the camera lens, I’ll let somebody else photograph the ugliness of the world.”
If you’re anywhere near New York this month, prepare to walk in the clouds. On July 15, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) launches “Leo McCarey: Seriously Funny,” a retrospective that runs from his roots at Hal Roach Studios to near the end of his storied career.
“My entry drug to movies was Laurel and Hardy, so I always responded to McCarey’s work,” said MoMA assistant curator Dave Kehr, who pulled the series together with film historian Steve Massa. “His heart, the wonderful slowness of gag development, and the sense of what a complete worldview the man had—starting out with a couple, then widening to community, then country, then world, then God.”
The son of a fight promoter, McCarey took a few turns in the ring himself before settling down to study the law. But after making it all the way through USC law school, he came to his senses. Unable to resist the call of the industry bubbling up all around him in Los Angeles, he signed on as Tod Browning’s assistant in 1919, and joined Roach as a gagman a few years later—after keeping him in stitches during an early-morning game of handball.
McCarey eventually rose to head of production, promoting a distinctly humanist, story-driven style of comedy. Even his most outrageous movies have a certain logic to them—it’s like a game of Mouse Trap, where the boot innocently tips the ball… setting everything else into crazy motion. McCarey’s vision meshed nicely with actors like Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy—whom he paired for the first time—as well as then-cameraman George Stevens, who fought so hard against mindless slapstick that Roach eventually fired him.
“I have a theory—the ineluctability of incidents,” McCarey once explained. “If something happens, some other thing inevitably flows from it. Like night and day follow each other, events are linked together, and I always develop my story in this way, in a series of incidents, of events which succeed each other and provoke each other. I never really have intrigue.”
With the dawn of sound, McCarey moved into features, turning out classics like Duck Soup and Ruggles of Red Gap. But true to his roots in the silents—where scenes were mostly roughed out and then filled in on the fly—his films retained a certain seat-of-the-pants quality. If his characters often seem to be making things up as they go along, perhaps it’s because the director—who often doubled as the writer—did just that.
“I think probably seventy-five per cent of each day’s shooting was made up on the set by Leo,” Bing Crosby recalled of Going My Way. A sometime songwriter, McCarey would dream up scenes and bits of business as he noodled away on the piano. While it occasionally drove the crew crazy, it gave his films a lively spontaneity often missing from more formulaic fare.
“There was a lot of improvisation, and trust, between McCarey and his actors,” said Kehr. Even studio executives took his freewheeling style on faith, as seen in this extraordinary inter-office memo from RKO’s Milton Howe in 1948. It’s hard to imagine a studio giving a director this kind of leeway today:
In 1937, McCarey’s string of hits was broken in dramatic fashion with what is now considered one of his finest films, Make Way For Tomorrow, the story of an elderly couple (Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore) who lose their home during the Great Depression.
And here’s a spoiler alert/public service: the relentlessly depressing film ends with none of the five no-good-bastard children rescuing their parents—forcing them to spend their final years apart. It’s a great film, but best viewed with a fistful of Zoloft. (TCM once aired it on Christmas Eve. No really. “Gee, Dad, thanks for the tie! And hey, Aunt Sue, that was some great pumpkin pie! Now let’s all hang ourselves!”)
“Make Way for Tomorrow got him fired from Paramount,” noted Kehr. “He went long, and the marketing department had no idea how to sell this incredibly sad movie.
“Every great artist has that moment where they have to contemplate, ‘What if everything I believe is wrong?” he added. “For McCarey it was, ‘What if there is no protection in family and community, and what if God isn’t there?'”
After his ouster, McCarey bounced back with a vengeance, winning an Oscar for his first outing with Columbia, the screwball classic The Awful Truth. But when he accepted the award, he still had Make Way for Tomorrow on his mind—saying he’d won for the wrong movie.
“He pretty much invented the situation comedy with The Awful Truth,” said Kehr. And he semi-invented Cary Grant—who fine-tuned the comic persona that would serve him for the rest of his career by mimicking some of the director’s expressions and even his speech patterns.
And despite his deep Catholic faith, McCarey never shied away from good old-fashioned lust. “Attraction is the initial driver and then it deepens from there, but sex is still always important,” noted Kehr. Take the final scene of The Awful Truth: sure, after talking things over, Jerry (Grant) and Lucy (Irene Dunne) could get a good night’s sleep and rekindle their romance at a later date, when all the legal issues have resolved themselves—but why not fling open that stubborn door, banish the pesky cat and do it right now?
McCarey followed up with another of the most grown-up romances ever set to film: the pitch-perfect Love Affair, which both Dunne and Charles Boyer called the highlight of their Hollywood careers.
During the 1940s, McCarey’s two best films brought his faith front and center. In Going My Way, the charismatic young Father O’Malley (Crosby) Toora-Loora-Looras his way into the good graces of the older, more traditional Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald) and into the hearts of pretty much everyone: 1944’s highest-grossing film snagged seven Oscars, including Best Actor, Best Director and Best Picture—and McCarey’s share of the profits gave him the highest reported income in the country that year. Crosby reprised his role for The Bells of St. Mary’s, where he matched wills with the gentle, luminous Ingrid Bergman as Sister Mary Benedict. (And if you don’t cry at the end, please don’t even speak to me.)
The MoMA series kicks off with a bang—or maybe a smoosh: an evening of silents accompanied by Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks. Topping the bill is Laurel and Hardy’s The Battle of the Century—once thought to be lost but for a few fragments, but discovered last year almost in its entirety and lovingly restored by Serge Bromberg. Directed by Clyde Bruckman and supervised by McCarey—with Stevens behind the camera—the two-reeler features the mother of all pie fights, with more than 3,000 creamy confections flung before the soggy credits roll.
Pie fights had already become a slapstick cliché—Buster Keaton forbade them in his films—but The Battle of the Century was something epic. This was pie nihilism. (Pie-hilism?) And typical of Laurel and Hardy, as well as McCarey and Stevens, it was somehow rooted in realism.
“It wasn’t just that we threw hundreds of pies,” Laurel once recalled. “That wouldn’t have been very funny… We went at it, strange as it may sound, psychologically. We made every one of the pies count. A well-dressed man strolling casually down the avenue, struck squarely in the face by a large pastry, would not proceed at once to gnash his teeth, wave his arms in the air and leap up and down. His first reaction… would be of numb disbelief, then embarrassment and a quick survey of the damage done to his person. Then indignation and a desire for revenge would possess him. If he saw another pie at hand, still unspoiled, he would grab it up and let it fly.”
Feature films include favorites such as Duck Soup, Ruggles of Red Gap and The Awful Truth, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Going My Way, Love Affair and that rarest of all birds, its successful remake, An Affair to Remember. But MoMA also tosses in a few off-speed pitches, such as Let’s Go Native, with fashion designer Jeanette MacDonald and cab driver Jack Oakie stranded on a tropical isle with the entire cast of a Broadway musical (oh, that old chestnut), and Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys, McCarey’s penultimate film, where Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward find their quiet suburban lives upended by the arrival of an army missile base. And in a gorgeous restoration from the UCLA Film & Television Archive, the director returns to his boxing roots and teams with fellow Roach graduate Lloyd for The Milky Way.
Also airing is the Library of Congress’s new scan of the rarely seen 130-minute cut of Good Sam, which differs quite a bit from the 112-minute version in wider circulation. But Gary Cooper’s saintliness and wife Ann Sheridan’s exasperation are still pushed to their limits as every freeloader in town takes advantage of his kindness and generosity—giving the film a bit of a subversive “no good deed unpunished” edge.
“Good Sam is another great portrait of marriage,” said Kehr. “With the brother and the kids and the house falling apart, they’re trying to get one night together. The unmistakable desire they have for each other, it’s not very 1948.”
But it’s very McCarey. Other directors may serve up more self-important film school fodder, but his unpretentious, deeply personal movies are the ones you live with. Is there anyone who’s seen The Awful Truth or The Bells of St. Mary’s just once?
“He had an amazing ability to communicate emotion, which is what other artists like Renoir admired about him,” Kehr said. “But it seems as if everything he represents has vanished from contemporary film.” For 17 glorious days this month, MoMA’s bringing it all back.
“I love when people laugh, I love when they cry, I like a story to say something, and I hope the audience feels happier leaving the theatre than when it came in,”McCarey once said. “It’s larceny to remind people of how lousy things are and call it entertainment.”
(For the complete series schedule click here.)
There’s a reason they call it the Silver Screen.
In the early days, reels of nitrate film contained actual silver. Most of these precious spools were melted down by studios for their metal content or neglected until they turned to dust, liquefied or burned in warehouse fires.
But not all are lost—and earlier this month, the passionate film-preservation team at the George Eastman Museum painstakingly culled prints from archives around the world for the second Nitrate Picture Show in Rochester, New York.
Sneaking away for a brief weekend, I rode past the sprawling old mansions on East Avenue, slid into my seat at the Dryden Theater, and slipped into silvery heaven. Suddenly I was no longer covering classic movies—I was actually back there, when they were new.
This year’s offerings included Otto Preminger’s Laura, Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, John Boulting’s Brighton Rock, George Sidney’s Annie Get Your Gun, the Library of Congress’s print of Powell-Pressburger’s Tales of Hoffmann, Martin Scorsese’s personal copy of David Lean’s Blithe Spirit…
…and Jean Negulesco’s noir classic, Road House. Because waking up to Richard Widmark at 10:00 on Sunday morning is my idea of church. Even if he is vaguely homicidal. In this typically stunning nitrate print, when he was lurking in the background as Ida Lupino purred her smoky vocals, he actually was in the background, so multi-layered and deep were the images.
The final film of the weekend—the Blind Date with Nitrate, not revealed until it appeared onscreen—was Edwin Carewe’s 1928 version of Ramona , starring Dolores del Rio as the put-upon heroine and Warner Baxter as the head of a Native American sheep shearing team. (I kept waiting for him to say, “You’re going to go out there a lowly sheep shearer, but you’ve got to come back a star!”) Del Rio was at her most luminous, and the print reflected the kind of yeoman’s effort the Eastman staff puts into tracking down films: it was a German copy of an American movie unearthed from a Russian archive, where it had resided since Soviet film scholar Georgii Avenarius brought it home as a “trophy” after World War II.
Before I headed home, projectionist Ben Tucker gave me a tour of the booth, which is clearly his second home. The closed-head projectors—which keep the film safely tucked inside—were installed when the theatre opened in 1951; valves and shutters protect the highly flammable nitrate reels from the hot beams of light that could ignite them if they stop rolling for even a second. “If the film so much as slows down, I have to flip a dowel to cut off the heat source,” Tucker said, shuddering at the prospect.
That love of film and the deep desire to protect it ran through the whole weekend like a gentle but constantly humming current. This may be the most civilized film festival I’ve ever attended—but not in a raised-pinky sort of way. There was no pushing, no shoving, no “look at me” types, no rushing around. It was like wandering into a big old house on a hill after a long journey, and discovering hundreds of people from all over the world who are of like mind and heart. You may never have been here before, but you’re home.
And no one is trying to sell you anything—though the museum does have a gift shop full of film fare at much-too-tempting prices. (When I teased her about the store being dangerous, the checkout woman said, “I know! I think the only reason they keep me on staff is because I buy so much!”)
The one troubling aspect of the whole festival? There’s no “Annual” in its name. It’s like falling in love on a first date and then agonizing over whether he’s going to call you again.
But mercifully, they’ve already announced that the third Nitrate Picture Show will be held next year on May 5th through 7th.
See you there.
Back in the spring of 2001, the Walter Reade Theatre had a retrospective of Richard Widmark films, with a special—to put it mildly—appearance by the man himself, who was then 86.
I had loved Richard Widmark since I was a kid, when I saw him in Don’t Bother to Knock. He seemed like a bit of a heel at first, but there was something about him—something that told me a very fragile, deeply disturbed Marilyn Monroe would be safe with him. (She was—on and off the screen.) I hadn’t yet seen him push Mildred Dunnock down a flight of stairs in her wheelchair—which, he once recalled, was the first scene he ever shot on film after making the move from Broadway to Hollywood. (“I said to Henry Hathaway, ‘You want me to do what?'”) But by then I already adored him. (Poor Tommy Udo, I thought—so misunderstood!)
So off I went to the theatre, clutching my then-fiancé (now long-suffering husband) Tim with one hand and my fan letter with the other. It went on for about four pages but mostly said “I LOVE YOUUUUUUUUUUU!” (It was all very sophisticated, I tells ya.)
We got there nice and early and sat right on the aisle; I figured when he passed by on his way to the stage, I could give the letter to him or whoever was with him. In my excitement, it took a while for it to dawn on me that—duh—there’s an aisle on either side of the theatre, and he could just as easily go up the other one.
So I scrambled to the lobby to give the letter to somebody, anybody. But then—wham bang sigh faint—there he was. Fans were sort of swarming him. One galoot ran up, stood next to him, handed his friend a camera for a picture, and then scampered away, without saying a word. Like he was posing next to Stonehenge instead of an actual human being. Others were kind of chewing his ear off and monopolizing him, but he was very gracious about it, nodding, smiling, not getting a word in, not seeming to mind. He was clearly used to it, God help him. Most of them looked kind of like this (and yes, some actual berets were present):
One especially gaseous fan (I’m sure he’d prefer cinephile) asked a question that seemed designed to cram everything he knew about film into one five-minute ramble, which boiled down to, “Why didn’t you ever direct?” After seeming a little startled that the guy had actually stopped talking, Widmark smiled, trained his clear-eyed gaze on him, and answered in eight words: “I didn’t want to get up that early.”
Sensing he was just about ready to bolt, I started to panic. My usual instinct in these situations is to flee, ceding the floor to the pushy, squeaky wheels. But not this time. I had to give him that letter. So I sort of wriggled into the crowd, and suddenly there he was, right in front of me, beaming a lovely smile, his blue-gray eyes sparkling. I handed him the letter and said something like, “Mr. Widmark, I knew you’d be very busy with everyone wanting to see you, so I just wrote a few things down, to say how much you mean to me.” Only I think it sounded more like, “Aaaaauuuughoooouuuhhaaaaahuuuuuhooooh.”
And he stepped forward out of the horde and hugged me hard and said, “That’s wonderful!” A warm wave of current swept through me, short-circuiting my limbs and making me so wobbly I was sort of weaving. Hoping I could make a semi-graceful exit that wouldn’t leave me in a heap on the sticky lobby floor, I said thank you or I love you or something and staggered back to my seat, cursing my knees for lack of support.
Tim took one look at me and said dryly, “I guess you found him.”
About a week later, I opened my mailbox to find a lovely cream-colored letter, in gorgeous, exuberant handwriting, postmarked Roxbury, Connecticut, where I knew he lived. I leaned against the wall in the lobby, held my breath, and opened it. It was from him. I slid down the wall and sat on the floor, and my neighbors, coming home from work, were like, “Uh, are you okay? Should we call someone?” I was fine. Beyond fine. In the letter, he thanked me for my very kind (underlined) words. And I thought, no, not kind. Just true. And not nearly enough words to describe how wonderful he was.
While writing this tonight, I looked up the dates for that film festival; the night we saw Richard Widmark was the first Saturday of the series. It was May 19. Exactly 15 years ago today.
It seems this man will never stop giving me chills.
P.S.: I have stayed hugged.
This article is part of the Classic Movie Ice Cream Social, hosted by the fabulous Fritzi at Movies Silently, where we were asked to share happy movie memories! For the rest of the articles, just click here!
A double dose of classic noir has just hit the DVD shelves.
Two lost gems, Too Late for Tears and Woman on the Run, have been restored to their dark and gorgeous glory by the UCLA Film & Television Archive. The DVD sets—which include standard and Blu-ray discs as well as tons of special features—mark the first of what I hope are many collaborations between the Film Noir Foundation (FNF) and Flicker Alley.
Byron Haskin’s Too Late for Tears opens with a startling sight: an almost timid Lizabeth Scott.
When first we meet Alan and Jane Palmer (Arthur Kennedy and Scott), they’re on their way to a party, but she’s begging him to turn the car around—fearing she’ll be the brunt of condescending comments from the hostess, “looking down her nose at me like a big, ugly house up there looks down its nose on Hollywood.”
When Alan finally relents and pulls over, a driver heading in the other direction mistakes him for a blackmailer he was due to meet, and tosses a bag of hot money into the back seat of their car. Alan is troubled, but Jane is practically vibrating with excitement—grabbing the wheel and going from zero to moll in 1.5 seconds, screeching and careening down the highway like Bonnie Parker’s blonder sister. When a cop stops them for speeding, she’s already going for the gun in the glove box until she realizes he’s not a threat. (And God help anyone who is.)
But if she’s a little fast, hubby’s a little slow. She wants to keep the cash, he wants to turn it over to the cops.
“What is it, Jane? I just don’t understand you,” he understates wildly. “I’ve tried to give you everything… everything I could.”
“You’ve given me a dozen down payments and installments for the rest of our lives,” she spits back.
But he still tries to pull her over to the side of the angels: “The only thing worth having is peace of mind, and money can’t buy that.” Hey buddy, have you actually met your wife?
The next day, while Alan’s at work, the actual blackmailer, Danny Fuller, drops by in the person of—who else?—Dan Duryea. He sizes her up as a schemer right away, but knows he needs her help to get the money. What he doesn’t know is how far she’ll go to keep it.
Danny threatens Jane (“I hope for your sake, beautiful, you’re not trying to soft-soap me—I wouldn’t take kindly to it”) and even roughs her up a little, but it’s clear she’s calling the shots—and not just because she’s got the cash. She’s also got the stomach for just about anything, and he hasn’t. (You know you’re wicked when Dan Duryea is the voice of morality.)
Danny’s shocked at just how venal Jane is—and just how much he wants her. (“Don’t ever change, tiger. I don’t think I’d like you with a heart.”) When she drags him down into her moral sewer, his self-loathing and self-awareness meet somewhere in the middle. And it’s actually pretty heartbreaking. (“This gave him more room to create a character with a little sympathy… he was conflicted inside,” Duryea’s son Richard says in one of the terrific bonus features on the DVD.)
Even Jane is a bit taken aback by the dirty deeds she has to pull off—Why do people keep making me kill them?—but she gets over it in a hurry.
When Alan disappears, though, she has some explaining to do. Hot, or maybe lukewarm, on her trail are Alan’s doting sister Kathy (Kristine Miller)—a would-be mother-in-law who lives across the hall—and Don Blake (Don Defore), who claims to be Alan’s old war buddy. When these human speed bumps sidled onto the screen during the film’s original run, I’m guessing they caused a stampede to the concession stands, much as when Alan Jones started warbling arias in A Night at the Opera.
Soon we discover that Don may or may not be all he seemzzzzzzz… Oops sorry, I’m back now. Kathy and Don are just about the worst argument ever for staying on the straight and narrow. Crime may not pay, but at least it keeps you awake. And when they bundle into their little love scene, it’s just… sad. Especially after we’ve seen Dan Duryea pretty much swallow the lower half of Lizabeth Scott’s face. (That thudding sound you hear is a woozy Breen Office censor hitting the floor.)
I won’t give anything else away; you really should see this beautiful new print for yourself, even—or maybe especially—if you’ve seen the muddy mess currently out there in the public domain. Bonus materials include a terrific commentary track by FNF film historian Alan Rode (who also wrote a brilliant bio of noir icon Charles McGraw); a mini-doc with insights from Rode, Richard Duryea, FNF founder Eddie Muller, Julie Kirgo and Kim Morgan; a fascinating feature about the film’s restoration; and a souvenir booklet with poster art, rare photographs, lobby cards and a sharp essay by film historian Brian Light.
Woman on the Run was even more in need of rescue than Too Late for Tears, and was actually thought to be lost—twice.
When Muller first fell in love with the film, the only copies he could find were scratchy VHS tapes. But finally a colleague, Gwen Deglise at American Cinemateque, unearthed an agreement between Fidelity Pictures, the producer, and Universal, the distributor, which required Universal to maintain a copy—and after a bit of digging, the studio found it. When Muller screened the print at the Castro Theatre in 2003, the original tape was still on the reels—it had never been shown before.
Fast-forward five years, when a studio welder left his torch unattended, starting a blaze that wiped out a heartbreakingly large swath of the Universal lot—where the only copy of Woman on the Run was stored. (It seems fitting to form a torch-wielding mob to get this guy… Who’s with me, kids?!?) So… how on earth do we have a pristine print today? In an act of noble piracy, Muller had made a copy of the film, unable to bear the thought that there was only one in existence—one that would soon be out of his hands.
I first saw the restored print—which got a funding boost from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Charitable Trust—at the Los Angeles Noir City festival last spring, before I’d ever even heard of the movie. (That’s the great thing about Muller and company: you always learn something new. You feel like kind of an idiot around them, but in a good way.) I instantly fell in love and couldn’t wait for it to come out on DVD. Now the wait is over—for noir fans and for Ann Sheridan, who poured her heart, soul and money into the film and wound up with little to show for it.
Sheridan co-produced Woman on the Run not long after buying out her contract from Warner Bros., where they strapped her into a series of ever-tighter sweaters and dubbed her the Oomph Girl—a nickname she detested. (“‘Oomph’ is what a fat man says when he leans over to tie his shoelace in a phone booth.”) She stars as Eleanor Johnson, a bitter, jaded wife whose husband Frank (Ross Elliott) goes on the lam after witnessing a gangland slaying. This turns out to be the best thing that ever happened to their miserable marriage.
When an inspector (Robert Keith) arrives at the murder scene, he asks Frank if he’s married. “In a way,” he mutters half-heartedly. And that’s actually more enthusiastic than his wife is when the cops show up at their dingy flat, where the only sign of domesticity is a cupboard full of Ken-L Ration. (Like a lot of depressives, they may have given up on their marriage, their lives and themselves, but dammit, they take care of their dog.)
When Frank calls, Eleanor warns him that the police are tapping the line, so he hangs up and hits the road. But she soon learns from the cops—everyone seems to know more about her husband than she does—that he needs heart medicine he may not be able to survive without.
As Eleanor scours San Francisco in search of Frank, she discovers facets of his life she’d never known about: He went to the mat with his boss to save a friend’s job. He inspired a massive crush in a young secretary. He lived like Gaugin in Tahiti and Hemingway in Mexico. And he still loves his wife. That last bit of news comes as a something of a welcome shock to Eleanor. When the inspector tells her that a letter Frank wrote “sounds like a man in love,” she’s knocked a bit backwards with relief—almost allowing herself to feel hopeful. Then she leans in for a closer listen, as if she needs to hear it again.
Helping her on her quest to find her husband is noir regular Dennis O’Keefe as an obnoxious-but-charming reporter eager to snag an exclusive (and maybe Eleanor in the bargain). Sheridan has a crackly chemistry with him and with Keith, who seems to have been born craggy.
The whip-smart, cynically romantic script was written by Alan Campbell with an assist from director Norman Foster, who soaked up everything he could about mood, light and shadow from his mentor, Orson Welles. (Foster’s Journey Into Fear, featuring Welles, was so effective that Welles had to reassure skeptics he didn’t direct it himself.)
Campbell knew a thing or two about brittle, wearily witty women, having recently divorced Dorothy Parker. (They remarried after this film; movie as couples therapy?) And Foster endured a rather… complicated marriage to Claudette Colbert (she lived with her mother, he lived alone).
Anyone else notice more than a passing resemblance between Foster and the guy he chose to play the husband?
Woman on the Run is lovingly shot all over San Francisco, which almost becomes another character in the film. And this isn’t Hitchcock’s glistening city by the bay: it’s docks and dives and dime stores, with the occasional edifying bit of architecture thrown in for good measure. (City Hall doubles as an art gallery.) The film climaxes with a harrowing chase through a spooky seaside amusement park (its one faithless locale; logistics dictated that they shoot in Santa Monica).
Even The New York Times‘ Bosley Crowther liked the film, kinda: “Since it never pretends to be more than it is, Woman on the Run… is melodrama of solid if not spectacular proportions. Working on what obviously was a modest budget, its independent producers may not have achieved a superior chase in this yarn about the search by the police and the fugitive’s wife for a missing witness to a gangland killing. But as a combination of sincere characterizations, plausible dialogue, suspense and the added documentary attribute of a scenic tour through San Francisco, Woman on the Run may be set several notches above the usual cops-and-corpses contributions from the Coast … will not win prizes but does make crime enjoyable.”
As usual with Crowther’s work, you’re tempted to write “he sniffed” at the end. As best I can figure, there used to be some kind of annual prize for Most Condescending Review, and he was determined to snag it every year running. Trust me, you’ll like Woman on the Run, in this great new print, much more than he did.
Bonus features include audio commentary by Muller (whose love for the film comes through in every syllable) as well as his essay about its rediscovery and rescue; a mini-doc about the restoration; another about the film, with the same folks who are on Too Late for Tears; a virtual tour of its San Francisco haunts; a short film about the Noir City festival; and a souvenir booklet that includes lobby cards, rare stills, and a not quite accurate but still fabulous map of movie locales, which was sent to distributors.
If you love movies—whether or not you’re a hard-core noir fan—snap up these two beautiful, thoughtfully presented DVD sets as fast as your fingers can carry you to Flicker Alley.
Friday the 13th just got lucky.
That’s when the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) kicks off its fabulous series, “Universal Pictures: Restorations and Rediscoveries, 1928-1937,” which runs from May 13 through June 15.
With several gorgeous prints newly struck by the studio, “this seemed a good opportunity to look at the Carl Laemmle Jr. years—which are greatly undervalued—and show how really audacious they were,” said MOMA’s adjunct film curator Dave Kehr, who pulled the program together. “He was very conscious of trying to create art, of doing something unique. He bought truly daring properties and was willing to take the kind of chances a lot of other studios weren’t.”
Derisively known as Junior—the running joke was “The son also rises”—Leammle was widely written off as merely the beneficiary of his father’s notorious nepotism. (Ogden Nash dryly observed, “Uncle Carl Laemmle/Has a very large faemmle.”)
But Junior had a vision—and a plan to see it through. “He cut the number of movies Universal produced by 40% and started focusing on pretty spectacular films he thought would enhance the image of the studio,” Kehr noted.
“In a way, he was reacting against Irving Thalberg, who’d once worked for his father and went on to create almost a production line at MGM, with a strict formula and brand,” he added. “So, for example, where Thalberg fired Erich von Stroheim and drastically cut Greed to ribbons, Junior hired avant garde directors who were considered even crazier, like Paul Fejos—who, before he made the classic Lonesome, had only made one obscure feature, in Budapest.”
Other European émigrés who found a home at Universal—as well as the freedom to spread their wings and hone their own styles—included William Wyler, a distant Laemmle cousin himself, whose A House Divided and The Good Fairy are featured in the series, and John Stahl, whose Only Yesterday—the first film adaptation of Letter from an Unknown Woman—will be shown, along with the popular Back Street and the sophisticated soaper Seed. James Whale has five films in the program, including the lush and mesmerizing The Kiss Before the Mirror and the restoration of a longer version of The Road Back—which Charles Rodgers, who replaced Junior, slashed in an effort to appease the Third Reich and retain the German film market. (Much more on the new print in a future article.)
American directors were also free to let their film flags fly—including John Ford, whose Air Mail will be screened in the series; the wildly energetic Tay Garnett, on tap with Okay, America; and the darkly brilliant Edward L. Cahn, who’ll weigh in with three films, among them his newly rediscovered masterwork, Laughter in Hell.
So much energy crackled through Junior’s brief reign—such a sense of wonder and adventure, of discovering everything movies could do and say and be—that his story deserved a fairy-tale Hollywood ending. But it got a depressingly real one: in 1936, when cost overruns on Whale’s Showboat forced Universal into the grubby hands of its creditors, the Laemmles were drummed out of the studio Carl Sr. had founded in 1912.
With this sensational series, MOMA has added an uplifting coda to the story. It’s hard to pick highlights from a program that reads like one long highlight reel, but here goes:
- The series opens with a dazzling new two-color Technicolor print of John Murray Anderson’s King of Jazz, the first time the full-length version will be seen in over 75 years. (And to give you some idea of Junior’s breadth of taste and style, he produced this film the same year he made All Quiet on the Western Front.) Ironically, the big production number is Rhapsody in Blue—and blue was the one hue Technicolor couldn’t capture. “They played around with it a lot and finally got a sort of gray-green—but if you squint, it looks blue,” laughed Kehr. “But more importantly, the production values are absolutely spectacular.”
- A major new restoration of Fejos’s Broadway, featuring the long-lost Technicolor finale. The film’s million-dollar budget shows up in every shot, as the world’s largest camera crane wends its way through the uber-Deco sets. This is another visual feast from start to finish—and don’t be surprised if your surroundings seem unbearably drab when you get home.
- I love James Whale with the fire of a thousand suns, so I’ll be there for all five of his films—The Road Back and Showboat, of course, as well as Remember Last Night?, The Kiss Before the Mirror and By Candlelight. Among them, they offer a good sampling of his strengths: long, languid tracking shots that loom in for a more intimate view, effortless sophistication, a deep humanity, and an unabashed but grown-up romanticism. The former set designer was also stylistically adventurous; when he decks out a drawing room, you want to move in. That’s especially true in the dark and sumptuous The Kiss Before the Mirror, which opens with a long, winding shot of Walter Pidgeon’s flat as he prepares for a tryst with Gloria Stuart. Walter’s never been my idea of a dream date, but I’d have an affair with him just for that apartment. The other two lesser-known titles—Remember Last Night? with a baby-faced Robert Young and By Candlelight, starring Paul Lukas as a somewhat oily leading man—are luscious confections deserving of more attention.
- Three dark, edgy dramas from Cahn: A brand-new print of Law and Order, a gangster film disguised as a western starring Walter Huston and co-written by his son John; Afraid to Talk, perhaps the most cynical crime drama of the era, where pretty much the whole town’s on the take including the district attorney; and Laughter in Hell, which opens with Pat O’Brien killing his wife and her lover and careens downhill from there. “It’s very much along the lines of La Bete Humaine,” said Kehr. “They cut the last reel because it was too much. It was so grim it pretty much ended Cahn’s career. He wound up directing the Little Rascals.”
- A House Divided. Wyler, who started at Universal as a messenger in 1923, was already a potent creative force just eight years later. Part Ibsen and part Freud with a heavy dose of Oedipus thrown in for good measure, the film stars Walter Huston as a brutal fisherman, Kent Douglass as his (what else?) sensitive son, and the fragile and luminous Helen Chandler as Huston’s mail-order bride (whom he sends for roughly 15 minutes after losing his wife). If you know Wyler mostly from his later, lusher work, this stark drama might surprise you. “Wyler was a better director before he met Sam Goldwyn,” mused Kehr. Well, certainly a grittier one: the film starts out bleak and literally descends from there, following Huston’s character to the floor when he’s laid low with a grievous injury.
- The Good Fairy. Wyler directed the studio’s biggest non-horror star, Margaret Sullavan, in Preston Sturges’s adaptation of Ferenc Molnár’s bonbon about a woman who invents a husband to protect herself from her predatory millionaire (Frank Morgan)—only to meet a struggling barrister with the same name (Herbert Marshall). This is Marshall at the height of his champagne sparkle, before he was relegated to stuffier roles. But in real life, Wyler got the girl, marrying Sullavan during the shoot.
- There’s Always Tomorrow. Later remade with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, this early version stars Frank Morgan as a middle-aged, neglected executive and Binnie Barnes as a former employee who’s always been in love with him. “By the early thirties, Morgan was already starting to age out of leading man roles, but he had that brief period…” said Kehr, his voice drifting off. “And he’s just incredible in this.”
- The Last Warning. German director Paul Leni helped set the style for Universal’s classic horror films, with works like The Cat and the Canary and The Man Who Laughs. His final effort, a lavish murder mystery set backstage at a Broadway play, has been digitally restored and will feature a live piano score.
- Seed was the first of what I call Stahl’s “reluctant adultery trilogy”—sure, these people are stepping out on their spouses, but they feel really, really bad about it. No Pre-Code casually-falling-into-bed romps for these folks. In Seed, the guilt-racked husband (John Boles) strays with the subtly spectacular Genevieve Tobin, and really, who can blame him? (Well, his daughter, a gaspingly young Bette Davis, for starters.) Stahl followed up with Back Street and Only Yesterday, which are also in this series. Both are terrific films, but require a high tolerance for women who drive you insane with their self-sacrifice. Honestly, you’ll want to reach through the screen and shake them, early and often.
- Little Man, What Now? Frank Borzage’s only film for Universal stars Margaret Sullavan and Douglass Montgomery (formerly Kent Douglass) as a secretly married couple struggling through the poverty of post-war Germany. The backdrop of rising militarism, though only hinted at, makes this one of the earliest American films to even allude to the Nazis. Borzage and Sullavan would later reteam at MGM for three much more highly polished affairs: Three Comrades, The Shining Hour and The Mortal Storm. But this earthier film, with the director’s classic love-over-adversity theme at its heart, shows them both at their best.
- Two early Lew Ayres films. Before he got all wholesome and earnest on us, Ayres had a bit of an edge, which is very much on display in Garnett’s breakneck-paced Okay, America, loosely based on the life and times of Walter Winchell, and Monta Bell’s Up for Murder, about a naïve young reporter who becomes entangled with his publisher’s jaded mistress (Genevieve Tobin). Both are steeped in the kind of gaudily corrupt urban stew that was something of an obsession for Junior.
Here’s the link to the entire series. If you make it there, look for me. I’ll be the woman with the wrinkled dress and mussy hair—from sleeping behind the bar at the pub across the street between films, just to make sure I don’t miss anything.
All photos courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art; all rights reserved.
Ah, spring! When movie lovers’ thoughts turn to the TCM Classic Film Festival…
For the past two years, I’ve covered this fabulous fest for Sister Celluloid, and the lovely folks at TCM were kind enough to invite me again. But then, life had other plans. My Mom, who’s 86 and was already frail, recently had a bad fall, and I need to be close by in upstate New York.
Still, that won’t stop me from meddling in your life from a distance, trying to make sure you have the best trip possible. So hang onto your passes, kids, here we go…
What should I pack?
The festival is on the late side this time around—April 28 to May 1—so it’ll be pretty mild, at times even hot, out in L.A. But the nights can still get chilly, at least by California standards (mid to high 50s), so bring along a jacket, sportscoat, sweater or, as my Mom might say, “a nice wrap.” The theatres can be cold too—especially The Egyptian, where I’m pretty sure they run a side business hanging meat.
Bring comfortable shoes for hot-footing from one venue to the next and standing in line. If you’re gettin’ all dressy and sneakers simply won’t do, brands like Merrell, Ecco, Börn and Clarks have fabulous shoes you can actually walk in. But trust me, by Day Three or so, you’ll be craving comfort over couture. I’ve found it best to bring simple separates and set them off with fancy-shmancy (costume) jewelry and accessories, like great ties or scarves. It’s easier on you and your luggage, and you’ll still shine. (But then you’ll do that anyway.)
And toss in an umbrella. You know the rule: As long as you bring one, it won’t rain. But if you don’t, it will. And everyone will blame you. On the flip side, pack sunscreen and sunglasses for queuing up outside. Palm trees may sway beautifully but they don’t provide a lot of shade, so when it comes to sun protection, it’s BYOB—bring your own block. (This from a woman who once got sunburned in her own living room because the window was open and the screen wasn’t in.) And pack a tube of sports cream, in case your legs and feet get sore—but not the mentholated kind unless you want to be remembered as the festivalgoer who smelled like a giant breath mint.
And when you’re standing in line, don’t just stand. Walk a little, even from side to side, or just pick up your feet as if you’re marching. (You’re among friends; no one will think you’re weird.) Because standing still and then sitting down for hours at a time is a surefire recipe for pesky fluid build-up, which is not only unhealthy but let’s face it—cankles are not a good look for anyone. And when you get back to your room at night, sleep with your legs propped up on pillows.
This may sound obvious, but remember to pack anything you normally bring to the movies. A nearsighted friend, who only needs her glasses for films, plays and such, once left home without them and had to ask her sister to overnight them to her hotel. Which she’s never heard the end of. Lozenges or hard candies are also a must: the air in L.A. is so dry you half-expect Peter O’Toole to come riding up on a camel, and to paraphrase Miss Adelaide, a person could develop a cough. The first year I was out there, I rasped my way from opening night to the farewell party; I like to think I sounded like Dietrich, but I suspect the effect was more Andy Devine.
Bring a light totebag to carry during the day, and fill it only with necessities. A bag that feels fine at nine in the morning could weigh you down like Jacob Marley’s chains by nightfall. (If you’re an Essential or Spotlight passholder, you’ll get a totebag as part of your swag.)
Leave a little room in your suitcase for whatever you may buy. And if you pick up, oh, say, so many movie books that you can’t fit them in your luggage—or you just don’t want to shlep home even more stuff than you left with—there’s a Fed Ex at 1440 Vine Street, off Hollywood Boulevard, and another in the Hollywood and Highland Center, at 1755 North Highland Avenue. There’s also a post office a bit farther away, at 1615 Wilcox Avenue, though when I went there one year, I literally had to wake up a guy to get packing tape.
And speaking of souvenirs, this year, the Festival gift shop will be in Sweet!, a candy store on the second level of Hollywood/Highland, rather than in the lobby of the Roosevelt.
Where and what can I eat?
My first year at the Festival, I relied on theatre concession stands for my meals and ended up so full of salt I could have passed for Lot’s Wife. Don’t do this! Just because you can eat popcorn at nine in the morning doesn’t mean you should. And, again not to nag, but steer clear of caffeine and sugar in the evening, or you’ll be too wired to sleep, which you’ll need to do after your movie marathon.
During the Festival, you’ll mostly be eating on the run or in theatres, which means you’ll need portable, quiet food. (In 2014, during Noir Czar Eddie Muller’s fabulous interview with director William Friedkin in Club TCM, the woman next to me crunched on a seemingly bottomless bag of tortilla chips, which sounded like a hydraulic drill in the otherwise pin-drop-quiet room.)
Sadly, the Fresh ‘N’ Easy supermarket, which was almost directly across from the Hollywood Roosevelt, has closed. But the same little mall, at 7021 Hollywood Boulevard, has a CVS drugstore where you can stock up on things like bottled water, string cheese, nuts, yogurt, bananas, napkins, plastic spoons and forks, etc. If you opt for sandwich wraps, get the ones without the drippy dressing, which will find its way to your shirt even in the dark. And remember to check your bag at night for any stray perishables you need to stash in the fridge. (Another lesson I learned the hard way. Thanks, yogurt-turned-science project!)
If you have a few minutes between events, the Coffee Bean and Leaf and Baja Fresh on Hollywood Boulevard offer pretty good salads and sandwiches. For a real sit-down, there are a few spots on the main drag: Miceli’s, which features a giant mural of Ol’ Blue Eyes in ironic black and white; The Pig ‘N Whistle, where classic stars dropped by for drinks after premieres at the Egyptian and Judy Garland had her 16th birthday party; the kinda dive-y Frolic Room, where you need to see Al Hirschfeld’s classic-movie mural sprawled across the wall; The Snow White Cafe, lined with scenes from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs painted by early Disney animators; and, of course, the legendary Musso and Frank Grill, where the waiters—some of whom, like Walter and Louie, have been there since Frank and Ava dropped in—are happy to spin tales of Old Hollywood if the kitchen’s not too busy. The Hollywood and Highland Center also has a slew of restaurants (choose carefully to protect your wallet, and definitely avoid the pizza), and there’s a casual diner, 25 Degrees, tucked inside the Roosevelt.
Miceli’s has a special place in my heart for this edict, enshrined in a plaque near the entrance:
So many choices on the schedule! How do I decide?
First of all, there are no bad choices. Honestly, you could let darts decide for you and you’d still have a great time. And the decisions you’re agonizing over now? Once the Festival’s over, you probably won’t even remember what you passed up, only what you chose.
But here are a few suggestions. First, circle your Must-Do’s—experiences you will never, ever get to have again. For me, especially as more and more films become available on streaming and other media, this means seeing the people who made them.
Once your Must-Do’s are set, go back and make the rest of your choices. If you’re torn between two events, close your eyes and picture yourself at each one. Which makes your heart race faster? Is one a unique opportunity? Is someone you love speaking at more than one event? That can really help winnow down your choices. And if two films are tugging at you and one’s at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (or TCL, its official but fake name, which I’ll never use), go for that one. The screen is four stories high, and even the bathrooms are fabulous.
If this helps, in addition to the regular screenings, I always pick at least one event from each of these categories:
The Legendary Guests: I’ve sometimes opted for movies I could take or leave just because I had to see the people introducing them—as when, just months before winning her Honorary Oscar, the legendary Maureen O’Hara was at the Festival in 2014 for How Green Was My Valley, which—and I know this is heresy—I sometimes call How Long Is This Movie. (And yes, I’m now ducking the shoes being thrown at me.)
Unfortunately, Burt Reynolds—who was scheduled to chat with Muller about The Longest Yard and be the focus of the Live from the TCM Classic Film Festival segment at the Montalban Theatre—has cancelled, which isn’t an enormous surprise. Even back in 2013, when stole the show while appearing with the cast and director of Deliverance, he seemed incredibly frail. Sending lots of love and good thoughts his way, and hoping he gets stronger soon.
Another modern legend, Faye Dunaway, will be sitting down for a talk at the Montalban, to be televised next year. Still, it’s well worth going to that event in person: the set-ups and break times are fun to see up close. One year during a between-scenes touch-up, Eva Marie Saint solicited a compact from the crowd, and my friend Karen—who runs the Movie Star Makeover site and is never without one—was thrilled to oblige…
… which brings us to our next great storyteller: Saint was the subject of the Live from… interview in 2014, and I wish she were still talking. She was warm, funny, and altogether fabulous, revealing, among other things, that she once wanted to be a teacher… an ambition she kind of got to fulfill by sprinkling advice to the audience all afternoon (never give up on your dreams, use your fears, walk a lot…). This was after wowing us with her high school cheerleading moves on opening night. This year, she’ll be on hand for The Russians Are Coming. And who knows? If Carl Reiner has a minute or two free…
…he may stop by too. Illeana Douglas, no slouch as a storyteller herself, will interview Reiner for Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, and if you’ve read any of his books, including the latest, I Just Remembered, you know how well he spins a tale. Between the two of them, this could be the funniest segment of the Festival.
Angela Lansbury, who once brilliantly introduced The Manchurian Candidate at a TCM screening in New York, will be there for the film in Hollywood this year. When she was on hand for Gaslight in 2011, she recalled how one day she was toiling as a teenage shopgirl in Bullock’s department store, and the next day she was on a soundstage with George Cukor, Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. Go see her. Not only is she a great storyteller—she’s everything you hope and dream Angela Lansbury will be, and more.
The Special Events: Every year at The Egyptian, TCM screens a silent film with a live orchestra. Fittingly, for Voices of Light: The Passion of Joan of Arc they’ve added a full choir. Line up extra-early for this one, kids. It promises to be spectacular.
From the sublime to the unmissably ridiculous, Holiday in Spain will air at the Cinerama Dome in fabulous Smell-O-Vision! And if you’ve already spent an evening with Joan of Arc, you needn’t feel guilty about spending Sunday morning with Peter Lorre and Elizabeth Taylor in the one and only movie presented in this format—as aromas waft through the theatre to underscore certain key plot points. “First they moved, then they talked, now they smell!” trumpeted the ads when the film came out in 1960. Originally called Scent of Mystery, this is producer/showman Mike Todd (then Taylor’s husband) at his finest.
The book signings are also especially fabulous this year. Douglas, a one-woman special event, will be signing her touching, hilarious, can’t-put-down memoir I Blame Dennis Hopper, where you can hear her singular voice in every syllable. Photographer and author Mark Alan Vieira, the passionate keeper of George Hurrell’s flame, will be signing his latest luscious volume, Into The Dark: The Hidden World of Film Noir, 1941-1950. And film historian and perennial Festival favorite Cari Beauchamp will be autographing My First Time in Hollywood, where you tag along with forty movie legends as they take their first tentative steps in Tinseltown. She’ll also be talking on this topic at Club TCM, with lots of great visuals, as usual.
The Real Oldies: Ron Hutchinson, co-founder of The Vitaphone Project, will screen 11 vintage Vitaphone shorts featuring such stars as George Burns and Gracie Allen, Molly Picon, Baby Rose Marie (please let Carl Reiner show up for this!) and… get ready to hiss… Will Hays, though in this case he’s just explaining the Vitaphone process, not scolding everyone to keep their clothes on already.
And famed French film preservationist Serge Bromberg will showcase some of his greatest finds, including a collection of slapstick shorts—such as Buster Keaton’s The Blacksmith, Charles Chaplin’s The Bank and the uncut version of the legendary pie fight in Laurel and Hardy’s The Battle of the Century. Really, after that, it’s a wonder any comedian ever dared pick up a pie again.
In fact, if you ever see Ron or Serge presenting a program anywhere, run, don’t walk.
The Pre-Codes: Three of this year’s Pre-Codes are being introduced by the sons of their directors: Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express by his son Nicholas, John Cromwell’s Double Harness by his actor son James, and William Wyler’s A House Divided by his son David. All are well worth seeing, though be warned that the Wyler film, which has been called Pre-Code noir, is a bit grim—and not in a fabulous noir way, but in a realistic Wyler way.
A fourth, Pleasure Cruise—starring one of my movie husbands, Roland Young, and the luminous and criminally undersung Genevieve Tobin—features a bedtime stateroom scene that may be one of the Pre-Code-iest things you’ll ever see.
How should I time everything?
When plotting your schedule, don’t plan on coming in on the middle of a film or Club TCM event, which is a no-no, as it should be. And don’t count on cutting things razor-close, scurrying from one venue to the next. In most cases, unless you have a Spotlight Pass, you’ll need to be in line at least a half-hour or so ahead of time.
The wait can be shorter at the cavernous Grauman’s, but longer at the Ricardo Montalban Theatre. Of the multiplexes, Chinese Theatre 1 is the largest at 477 seats, followed by Chinese Theatre 6 at 250 and Chinese Theatre 4 at 177. So keep that in mind when you’re figuring your odds of getting in.
On the upside, those to-be-announced (TBA) spots on the Sunday schedule will generally be filled by films where the largest crowds were turned away. And there’s usually at least one Pre-Code in there, as they often shoehorn them into small theatres on the first go-round, leaving lots of people stranded in the lobby. (The TBAs are also why all your Sunday plans may be knocked into a cocked hat once the screenings are announced.)
If you have time before the Festival, walk along Hollywood Boulevard from the Roosevelt to Vine Street (as you’re facing the main hotel entrance, that’s to your left). You’ll pass Grauman’s, the Chinese Theatre multiplex and The Egyptian and end up on the same street as the Montalban, which will be to your right on Vine. This will give you a rough idea of how long it takes to get from one venue to another, though it will take a bit longer when the streets are even more crowded.
Will I be able to mingle with the stars?
In a word, no. TCM is fiercely but politely protective of its special guests, and rightly so. But some stars come out and play after they’ve wrapped up their official duties. One year, Margaret O’Brien, who’s roughly 95 pounds of pure energy, happily nestled into one cocoon of adoring fans after another, laughing off the occasional indignity; one night at the Roosevelt bar, I saw a notoriously pushy regular—who shows up every year, like some especially aggressive strain of malaria—shove a copy of Meet Me in St. Louis sheet music in her face for an autograph, the way a bounty hunter might serve a subpoena. Ugh. (Yes, Virginia, there are a number of fans like this, but don’t let them get you down…)
I’ve also run into the incredibly gracious Kim Novak in the ladies’ lounge at Grauman’s and a gregarious William Friedkin at Starbucks. And at the 2013 Vanity Fair party, Norman Lloyd, then a mere slip of a boy at 98, beamed and clasped my hand with great force when he found out I was from Brooklyn. “Brooklyn! We used to take the train to Ebbets Field! We were Dodger fans of course, and hated the Giants,” he hissed, shades of Saboteur slipping to the surface. “And their manager, John McGraw, was nicknamed Mugsy, which he loathed. So after the game, we’d gather round the visiting team’s exit, wait for him come out and shout ‘Mugsy! Mugsy!’”
As he rattled off memories as if they’d happened that very afternoon, I felt sort of an ominous cloud surging up behind me. It was a mob, growing ever more impatient, waiting to talk to him. Not wanting to be a hog—i.e. one of those fans—I reluctantly bid him goodnight, and he cried, “You’re not getting away without a picture!” (The room was dark and the photo’s blurry… but sigh.)
So I guess what I should say is, you never know.
TCM host and Ben Mankiewicz is unfailingly friendly and will chat whenever he has a minute. But sadly, Robert Osborne’s health is keeping him home for the second year in a row. If you’ve ever seen how he throws himself into at the Festival—running around from group breakfasts in the morning to screenings well into the night—you understand why he needs a well-earned rest. And he was always so accommodating that his assistant had to drag him away to get him to his next event on time.
Any classic-film tours I can round out my visit with?
The TCM Movie Locations Tour is two hours of Wayback Machine fun, gliding you past vintage movie palaces, Charles Chaplin’s old studios and the Paramount gates, stopping at Union Station and the Bradbury Building, and hitting lots of old-Hollywood points in between. And The L.A. Conservancy offers terrific docent-led and self-guided tours all over the city, including the theatre district, the fabulously deco Biltmore Hotel and Harold Lloyd’s movie locations.
On her touching and informative tours of Hollywood Forever, Karie Bible guides you gently around the final resting places of luminaries like Rudolph Valentino, Cecil B. DeMille, Tyrone Power, Marion Davies, John Huston and Douglas Fairbanks, among many others. During Festival week, her tours fill up quickly, so act now. And Philip Mershon hoofs all over Hollywood to give you a fascinating glimpse into its early years.
As for the studios, I loved the Warner Brothers Tour when TCM organized one just for festivalgoers, but as far as I know, they’re not doing that this year. Usually, the tour has a lot more modern content, so before you book, you might want to call Warner’s and see if you can get a guide who’s a classic-movie buff.
The six-hour Paramount Studios VIP Tour is pricey but so worth it. After passing under the famous arch, you’ll spend much of the day in classic movie heaven, peeking into Billy Wilder’s old writer’s room, touring the film archives and talking with the preservationists, and ogling fabulous props, costumes and accessories, including Claudette Colbert’s baubles from Cleopatra, Ginger Rogers’ glorious gowns, and the original cameras from Wings.
Whew! Okay, I’ll stop talking now… but I hope all this has been helpful! Just one more thing—and this is important—remember to mingle! Pull your head out of your phone and chat with people on line or wherever you see other passholders. As my husband once told a friend as I was heading to the airport, “She’ll be with her own people!” There’ll never be a more kindred crowd to share your oddball crushes (Alan Mowbray, anyone?) and obsessions with, so let your film flag fly!
Have fun, my dears! And if you get a chance, raise a glass eastward toward upstate New York. I’ll be thinking of you!
Welcome to another edition of TINTYPE TUESDAY!
Ah, April—when our hearts and minds turn to baseball! Which of course brings us to Tallulah Bankhead.
Oh yes, people! We all know Tallulah was a colorful character (to put it mildly, which she never would) and one-woman pithy-quote machine. (“I’m as pure as the driven slush.”) And also a brilliant actress, which, sadly, her offstage antics often obscured. But did you know about her other favorite pastime—the one she pursued passionately, with all her clothes on and even a modest little woolen hat?
And she wasn’t just a casual fan, like the celebs you see nowadays who show up for playoff games to get some national exposure. (“Oh, look who’s in the stands, Buck! It’s Suzi Silicone, from the new Fox series Stripper Cops!”) Nope—our Tallu followed baseball, and her beloved Giants, religiously.
She agonized when they were losing…
…and whooped it up when they won!
Oh, and not for nothing, but see the letters on her cap? She was a fan way back when they were the real Giants, playing their home games at the Polo Grounds in Harlem.
Of her favorite player, she once said, “There have been only two geniuses in the world. Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare. But, dahling, I think you’d better put Shakespeare first.” Oh sure. But guess which one she wrote an article for Look magazine about?
“Even when he strikes out, he can put on a show,” she wrote, sounding every inch the smitten fan. “In the terms of my trade, Willie lifts the mortgage five minutes before the curtain falls. He rescues the heroine from the railroad tracks just as she’s about to be sliced up by the midnight express. He routs the villain when all seems lost.”
Years later, she happily hollered out his name, “Willieee! Willieeee!” when introducing him on The Merv Griffin Show:
Tallulah once even slipped into a Giants uniform herself—but with bedazzled letters and a jauntily tilted cap, of course.
So this spring, as you settle in on the sofa to root for your favorite team, raise a glass—or even a fabulous pump—to Miss Bankhead. Or do it her way, with a shoe in one hand and a goblet in the other. Cheers, Tallu!
TINTYPE TUESDAY is a regular feature on Sister Celluloid, with fabulous classic movie pix (and usually some backstory!) to help you make it to Hump Day! For previous editions, just click here—and why not bookmark the page, to make sure you never miss a week?