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!