The TCM Classic Cruise: All Aboard to the Fabulous Movie Past
A while back, my grandfather was taking my mother on a cruise, and trying to persuade me to come along. “You just sit back and rock, as the boat goes back and forth and back and forth,” he said, swaying and nodding his head from side to side. “It sounds great, Pop,” I blurted unconvincingly, “but please, you have to stop now!” I was getting seasick just watching him. I got queasy again at the Bon Voyage party.
Then there was the Jetfoil my husband Tim and I took from Bar Harbor to Nova Scotia. I was fine… until I wasn’t. At one point during a festive screening of The Little Mermaid on the upper deck, I suddenly felt… unwell. I barreled across the boat in frantic search of a bathroom, making it just in time. After watching in horror as everything I’d eaten since the fifth grade made a glorious comeback, I pulled myself together and swanned back to the land of the living, trying to seem calm and collected—maybe even elegant if I could pull it off! (Think Miss Davis in Now Voyager or Miss Dunne in Love Affair.) But as I settled into a lounge chair, channeling Mary Astor in Dodsworth, a deckhand leaned over and gently patted my hand. “We’re almost there,” he whispered reassuringly. Mortified, I asked if he’d seen me flying across the deck. “No,” he said, “but I see you now. And you’re green.”
When I got home, I told my doctor, who had armed me with industrial-strength drugs and dermal patches. “Those things work for guys in the Navy going across the North Sea!” she said, shocked at their spectacular failure. “There’s only one other thing I can prescribe: Stay off boats.” Which I did. For years.
Then came the TCM Classic Cruise. And I even stayed off that for years. But this time, I gave it a whirl. Along with the drugs and patches, I added ginger drops to my bag, a Seaband on one wrist, and an electronic thing on the other that’s supposed to interrupt the nausea signal to your brain by zapping the median nerve with a little Z-Z-Z every few seconds. I put it on the second-highest setting; any more voltage and I was pretty sure I’d electrocute myself.
Now it was time to settle in for five days of movies.
The schedule aboard the Disney Magic was slightly less hectic than the one you’ll find at the TCM Classic Film Festival, though there were still plenty of choices to make among 14 special presentations and 64 films, ranging from Eddie Muller-hosted noirs like The Asphalt Jungle, The Hitch-Hiker and Rififi, to screwballs such as The Lady Eve and It Happened One Night, to musicals like On the Town and Shall We Dance, to standards including Laura and Dodsworth. And like the Festival, there were no bad options.
Most of the documentaries and special events were found in the lounge; my favorite was “The First 25 Years of the Academy Awards,” complete with backstage tales and fabulous film clips, hosted by Randy Habercamp, managing director of Preservation and Foundation Programs at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Why doesn’t every classroom have cozy tables and a bar off to the side?
The rest of the films, including those with special guests Cicely Tyson, Mitzi Gaynor and Diane Ladd, aired in one of two cavernous but comfy theatres, or on the upper deck, poolside. Where I spent much of the trip.
With, among others, Fred and Ginger…
…and my movie husband Rod Taylor. (This is the scene in Sunday in New York where, imagining that the pillow was me, I got shushed for sighing at the TCM Film Festival by a woman who clearly had no pulse. Hey, laydee, I was the one who pestered them into putting the film on the program in the first place!)
The atmosphere on the cruise was less hardcore than at a regular film festival, so there was a lot more freedom to duck in or out of theatres mid-film (which is great if you’re the one doing the ducking but not so much if you’re the one being climbed over). And up at poolside, all bets were pretty much off in terms of talking; during Topper, I had to move from a prime viewing spot when a Martha Raye sound-alike and her bevy of boisterous buddies tucked into the table directly behind me.
And once, things got a bit too casual: a woman in the deckchair next to mine whipped out a can of highly stinky aerosol spritzer and proceeded to spray her entire torso, underarms and all. When I looked up from my book, startled and half-gagging, she snapped, “It’s deodorant! Don’t you wear deodorant?” I said, um, yeah, but I don’t put it on in public. “We’re not in public!” she informed me. “We’re on a boat!”
Ah but then there was… the food. Oh my God the food. Everywhere, all the time. Buffets round the clock. Dessert stations. A pizza, burger and hot dog stand. Unlimited popcorn at screenings. And a soft-serve machine with old-fashioned cones. You know you’re on a cruise when your roommate jumps up in the middle of breakfast and says, “You want some ice cream? Cause I’m gonna go get some!”
Oh and the four-course dinners every night, with the same fabulous staff taking care of us. Our headwaiter Walter took his duties so seriously that one day when I was up at poolside—nowhere near dinnertime and six decks above the dining room—I turned to find him behind me, offering a Coke. And then a little while later appearing at my table, seemingly out of nowhere, with another one. I was almost relieved when the movie ended and I was heading out, as 12 years of Catholic school would have made me feel too guilty to be served another soda.
I had no problem eating, well, everything, since after a shaky first night, I did okay with the whole boat thing. But a touch of claustrophobia kicked in after a couple of days.
Me, calling Tim: “I’m having a great time, there’s just one thing though. Sometimes I have kind of a closed-in feeling. I can’t explain it… it’s like I’m trapped on a boat.”
Tim: “Yeah, ummm…”
Luckily we were just about pulling into Bermuda by then. I felt a twinge of guilt about swilling a mango daiquiri beachside on a random Thursday, when everyone back home was working. It lasted about as long as it took me to bite the maraschino cherry off the stem.
“Some people just stay on the boat the whole time and keep watching movies,” a veteran cruise-goer told me. Which seemed silly. Until the second day we were dockside, when I did the same thing for a slate of Halloween films. Val Lewton (Cat People), Buster Keaton (The Haunted House), Boris Karloff (The Mummy) and Lon Chaney Jr. (House of Frankenstein) were whispering my name.
As if on cue, day turned to dark and stormy night during The Haunted House, but nothing could budge me from my Buster.
And just in time for sweet dreams, House of Frankenstein—also featuring Dracula and the Wolfman—wrapped up at around midnight, when we all unbundled from our deck blankets and trundled off to bed. (Or to the bar on Deck 3.)
In fact all the late-night poolside showings were a bit nippy, which deterred… no one. Not with fleece and cocktails and hot chocolate handy. Though on the final night, when they showed Sullivan’s Travels, I had swathed myself in blankets so thoroughly I didn’t even budge for a drink…
…warming up only when Joel pours his heart out to Jimmy Conlin. Oh and whips his shirt off.
Cold as it was that night, I was reluctant to shed my blankets and head down to my warm stateroom, knowing this was the last film of the trip.
Before dawn the next morning, as we pulled into port, I strolled around the still-damp upper deck, where so many movies had gone by so quickly in the days before. Strains of Gershwin wafted through the air as I gazed out on the city I love—a little disappointed, though, to be back so soon. Almost a week had flown by in under a minute.
I popped into the coffee shop where Colin had made my coconut lattes all week. Where were they off to next, I asked? The Caribbean. And here I was heading into drizzly Manhattan. He skipped the usual Disney characters that had topped the foam in my drinks all week—which I always felt guilty about smooshing into oblivion on the first sip—and gave me a little going-away present.
Thank you Colin, thank you Walter and the crew, and thank you TCM, for this Sullivan girl’s lovely travels.
- Posted in: Festivals/Events ♦ TCM
- Tagged: bar harbor, bermuda, buster keaton, classic film, cruises, dana andrews, edmond o'brien, frank lovejoy, fred astaire, gene tierney, Ginger Rogers, ida lupino, laura, mitzi gaynor, niche cruises, nova scotia, old movies, rod taylor, shall we dance, sunday in new york, tcm, tcm classic cruise, tcm film festival, the general, the haunted house, the hitch-hiker