Sister Celluloid

Where old movies go to live

For Sighing Out Loud, and Other Tales from the TCM Festival

Ah, popcorn for breakfast, Milk Duds for lunch and french fries and Coke for dinner. I must be at a film festival! But these essential food groups balance each other out nicely: I’d bounce off the walls from the sugar if I weren’t so bloated from the salt.

This was my third trip to the TCM Classic Film Festival, and I’ve made friends I can resume conversations with in mid-sentence after eleven and a half months apart. It’s kind of like Same Time, Next Year without the sex.

Here are some highlights from the four-day event:

MARGARET O’BRIEN: She came for Meet Me in St. Louis—and stayed to meet pretty much everybody.

Introducing the film at Grauman’s, O’Brien began by dispelling one of the persistent myths surrounding the famous scene where she sobs into the arms of Judy Garland, who comforts her by singing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

“That rumor, it’s out there everywhere—that to get me to cry, my mother told me my dog was hit by a car or something like that,” she said, rolling her eyes to the rafters. “Well she would never do anything like that. And anyway, what she did do was much more effective.”

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It seems that June Allyson and O’Brien were known around the MGM lot as “the sob sisters” for their ability to cry on cue. But O’Brien was having such fun making the movie that in take after take, the tears just refused to fall: “My mother took me aside and said, ‘Now honey, don’t worry, they can just use glycerin drops if you can’t cry. But you know, June would be able to make real tears.’ And that made me burst out crying!”

She also recalled how Garland, whom she still calls her big sister, refused to sing some of Hugh Martin’s initial lyrics, which included such peppy sentiments as “Have yourself a merry little Christmas/It may be your last/Next year we may all be living in the past…”

“Judy said—and she was right of course—that they were too depressing!” O’Brien laughed. “She told Hugh, ‘I would never say things like that to her when she’s already so upset!’” And with a few minor tweaks, the Yuletide was gay and all their troubles would be miles away…

O’Brien spent much of the weekend popping in and out of Festival venues, chatting cozily with fans in the leather banquettes of the Hollywood Roosevelt lobby and generally flitting about like the sprite she still is. It was thrilling and exhausting just watching her.

Not so fun, though, was seeing people rudely shove all manner of memorabilia into her face for her to sign. She clearly loved connecting with the crowds, but was probably getting dizzy from the Sharpie fumes. In the Roosevelt lobby bar, I saw one woman—who is notoriously pushy—stick the sheet music from Meet Me in St. Louis right under her nose, the way you might force smelling salts on a swooning matron. Yeesh. I mean really?!?

SUNDAY IN NEW YORK: You know all those ‘60s sex farces that make you cringe when you see them now? This isn’t one of them. Sunday in New York is somehow completely of its time and thoroughly modern. It’s got “‘60s” written all over it, from Jane Fonda’s fabulous Orry-Kelly fashions to the streamlined sets to the bouncy, jazzy score by Peter Nero. But Fonda and Rod Taylor are so at ease, so natural, that there’s nothing dated about it at all. In 1963, Fonda was just finding her footing as an actress, so the role of Eileen—a bit baffled and naive, a touch rebellious and a little neurotic around the edges—was a great fit. (And if her decades of drama—on and off the screen—have made you forget how funny she is, this movie is a delightful reminder.) And Taylor, without an ounce of effort, is pretty much the perfect guy: smart, strong, witty, gorgeous and absolutely honorable. (The film’s one false note, for me, was that his sometime girlfriend back home would ever have let him out of her sight.)

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I’d been lobbying TCM to show this film since 2011, so I had my nose pressed up against the multiplex early that morning. Then, before the houselights dimmed, my friends Kay, Kathy and I gave in to the giddiness of our semi-sleepless weekend and had kind of a mini-pajama party—swaying in our seats and beltin’ out the movie’s songs like lounge lizards: “New York on Sundaaaay… big city takin’ a nap…” and “Hellooo… what sweet magic brought you my way…” Somewhere, Mr. Nero’s ears were bleeding.

A woman sitting behind us, who’ll be played by Margaret Dumont in the movie version, clucked, “I hope you’re not going to be doing this during the movie.” I pointed to the still-blank screen and assured her that we were religiously quiet during films. But then in the last scene, when Rod Taylor is gazing up at Jane Fonda and clutching a (very lucky) pillow, I couldn’t help myself. I broke down and sighed. And yes, she shushed me for it.

By the way, if you’re ever looking for the restaurant where Taylor and Fonda discuss the damages after her boutonniere snags on his jacket, it’s now the Rock Center Café—and it looks much as it did 50 years ago. On the other hand, you can ride the Fifth Avenue bus until you’re begging for Dramamine and you won’t end up pinned to someone like Rod Taylor. (Not that there is anyone like him.)

MARY POPPINS: Before the film began, “the Mightiest of the Mighty Wurlitzers” rose from the stage of El Capitan, the wildly ornate movie palace that opened in 1926 as “Hollywood’s First Home of Spoken Drama” and hosted the premiere of Citizen Kane fifteen years later. Organist Rob Richards gently pumped and pedaled through every lovely song in the score, and then the red velvet curtains opened to reveal a vision of long-ago London through a soft blue-green mist…

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I have to admit I quietly sniffled through much of the movie, and from what I heard around me, so did a lot of other alleged grown-ups. Mary Poppins was the first film I ever saw in a theater, and the soundtrack was the first album I ever owned. I played it over and over, morning till night, start to finish. I’m guessing that at some point after its hundredth spin around the ol’ turntable, Mom and Dad discovered that a spoonful of sugar also helps the vodka go down. But it’s still a great score, and a wonderful movie. Especially in El Capitan.

WILLIAM FRIEDKIN’S BOOK SIGNING: As he signed his autobiography, The Friedkin Connection, the director chatted happily with everybody, posed for photos, and set up a few shots himself. (“No, you sit down, here, like you’re signing, and I’ll stand behind you!”) He even slogged through retakes if people were unhappy with the initial results staring back at them from their smartphones. When I got up to the table, I told him I come from a Brooklyn-Irish family of cops and firemen who said “The French Connection” was the most realistic movie they’d ever seen. “That really means a lot to me,” he beamed, and signed my book, “For Janet, from a family of The Finest, with my very best wishes, William Friedkin.” What a lovely man. If you get down to the Hollywood Roosevelt fast enough, you may still be able to catch him, patiently posing for that perfect shot…

But wait, there’s more! Click on the Festivals/Events tab for stories on Eddie Muller’s fabulous interview with Friedkin and the screening of the director’s long-lost classic, Sorcerer; Kim Novak’s epic takedown of the online bullies who attacked her after the Oscars; Maureen O’Hara’s emotional appearance at How Green Was My Valley; and Shirley Jones recounting her Hollywood fairy tale career and dishing about Sinatra at the world premiere of the restoration of Oklahoma!

2 Comments

  1. I greatly enjoyed your post, especially because, except for “On Approval,” I didn’t see any of these films at TCMFF. I sure wish I’d gotten a chance to see Margaret O’Brien (I did get a peek at her back on the red carpet, but that’s about it, LOL). I look forward to your future posts — I love your writing!

  2. Saw Margaret O’Brien at Cinecon over Labor Day weekend (she introduced “Meet Me In St. Louis,” this time at the Egyptian), and both her on-screen and real-life personas were delightful. (I caught a bit of the TCMFF in April, when I was looking for apartments in Los Angeles, but do plan to be a full-fledged attendee next year now that I live in LA.) My wrapup on Cinecon can be seen at http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/722471.html

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