By Maureen Lee Lenker
As Classic Film Zone Correspondent for Night Owl TV, I just wrapped up a whirlwind weekend at the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival where I saw EIGHTEEN classic films as they were intended to be viewed -- on the big screen. If you follow us on Facebook or Twitter, you were privy to live tweets and video updates from the festival throughout the weekend.
The TCM Film Festival is truly paradise for any classic movie lover. It comes with the bonus of getting to spend four days swathed in the glamour of classic Hollywood; you can take in films at exquisite theaters like the Chinese and Egyptian, and then relax with a cocktail in the historic surroundings of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.
This year marked a truly wonderful festival with staff and volunteers being incredibly friendly, lines superbly organized, and venue assignments arranged to perfection. Panic attacks over getting shut out of screenings were nearly non-existent. In seven years of Festivals that I have attended, this one marked a new high for the TCM event (notwithstanding Robert Osborne's absence)!
All eighteen movies had something unique and exciting to offer (and all were first-time viewings for me), but some stood out more than others (every nitrate print was a sight to behold). Here are our top five films from the 2017 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival:
5. Lured (1947)
We all love Lucille Ball for her comedic antics in I Love Lucy, but she made over 100 films before immortalizing herself on television. Lured is a particular treat, with Ball getting the opportunity to showcase both her beloved comedic skills and her underappreciated dramatic chops. She stars as a dance-hall girl turned Scotland Yard detective when her best friend goes missing as part of a rash of grisly serial murders. Starring opposite renowned character actors George Sanders, Boris Karloff, Charles Coburn, and Cedric Hardwicke, Ball veers from comedy to romance to melodrama to suspense with ease. The film was a delight for its unexpected, twisty plot and the chance to see Ball showcase all the facets of her talent. Introduced by Boris Karloff’s daughter Sara, audiences were able to learn more about the man behind Universal’s most famous monster. According to Sara, her father was actually a gentle and kind man who relished the chance to ham it up as monstrous characters completely antithetical to himself. Karloff gets a wonderful cameo in the film. For classic film lovers, this movie is a bevy of delights and deserves to be better known.
4. Love Crazy (1941)
In their fourteenth onscreen pairing, Myrna Loy and William Powell perfected their chemistry complete with references to Nick and Nora Charles. This screwball comedy finds Powell and Loy as a married couple who pursue divorce after a series of slapstick misunderstandings. Loy was undergoing a real-life divorce while making the film, while Powell was beginning many years of marital bliss. Their respective melancholy and joy in their personal lives lends depth and complexity to their onscreen performances. Powell is on fire with his physical comedy from escaping a stuck elevator to slipping on a rug to being forced to dress in drag to elude capture. Loy provides the perfect foil to him as a sophisticated, quirky woman. It perfects the divorce comedy with you rooting for them to end up (back) together from the word go. If there’s anyone who doubts that classic comedies can still hold up against modern sensibilities, show them this film.
3. The China Syndrome (1979)
After the success of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Michael Douglas knocked it out of the park again with his second producing effort in which he also starred. The China Syndrome struggled to find funding with its whistleblower tale warning against the apocalyptic dangers of nuclear energy. When the disaster at Three Mile Island occurred only twelve days after release of this film, it lent a staggering relevancy and palpable terror to its message. Douglas launched his career as an actor and rejuvenated Jane Fonda’s career with the film, but the real triumph in the picture is Jack Lemmon in a role developed for Jack Nicholson. Lemmon inhabits his everyman persona, while both playing into and subverting his persona as an upstanding, decent man caught-up in comedic scenarios. Here, he finds his values tested and gives a tour de force performance as a company man who chooses his moral compass over economic pressures. Lemmon is a subtle performer who never quite got the credit he deserved as an actor, and he proves a revelation in this movie.
2. Laura (1944)
Prior to the Festival, we made much of the nitrate screenings that were promised and Laura delivered the goods. It won an Oscar for Best Black and White cinematography and this print makes it abundantly clear why. With a print preserved by the Academy, Festival goers had the opportunity to watch the same nitrate print Oscar voters saw in 1944. The clarity and resolution of the picture on nitrate, as well as the depth and shading of the images made you feel as if you were watching it in 3D. The beauty and luminosity of the images made you yearn to reach out and touch the screen. It’s not difficult to understand why Hollywood wasn’t in a particular rush to transition to color photography when you see the range of tones and hues in a nitrate print. The photography is aided by the undeniable beauty and smolder of its two stars, Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews. There were shots of Gene Tierney that were so stunning the audience was actually holding its breath. The plot is a noir classic. It was elevated by the exquisite quality of this silver nitrate print that allowed viewers to experience it just as it was intended for 1940s audiences.
1. Born Yesterday (1950)
There are many of us who turn to classic film because we yearn for simpler times. Nostalgia plays a heavy role in our viewing practices. But there are also many classic films that are startling in their contemporary relevance -- films that show us that the more things change the more they stay the same. Garson Kanin’s meditation on corruption in Washington is one such revelation. It tells the story of a Billie Dawn (Judy Holliday), a “dumb blonde” who finds liberty and empowerment through education and an embrace of intellectualism. Born Yesterday is a film we desperately need right now -- a movie that believes in the ideals of the founding fathers and champions them in the face of greed, corruption, and ignorance. Festival audiences whooped and applauded throughout as we found ourselves faced with current circumstances in a 60-plus year old film. Born Yesterday balances its humor and wit with a heartfelt plea for education, female empowerment, and intellectual pursuits. Its charming and delightful while also being utterly prescient and necessary in an increasingly divided nation.
The Festival offered a slew of spectacular classic films this last weekend -- from the incredible color photography of Black Narcissus on nitrate to the restored uncensored version of Howard Hughes’ Cock of the Air that never saw the light of day. These were our five favorites for their combination of nostalgia, brilliant writing, superb performances, and contemporary relevancy.