April 21, 2012

2012 TCM Film Fest Round-Up Part 1

If this year and last are any indication, the Turner Classic Movie Film Festival is swiftly becoming the cinema-going event in the country. People from all across the United States trek out to Hollywood, CA to stand in long lines (in the rain this year), fight other cinephiles for seats in tiny theaters for a glimpse at 1928 Joan Crawford (can you blame them?), battle sleep deprivation Sunday afternoon to soak up the last few screenings and risk alcohol poisoning to chalk up the courage to talk to Leonard Maltin at the after party. (Okay, maybe that last one was just me.)

But now that our livers have had time to detox, what's left is the glorious memories, the embarrassing photos and the business cards from the eager, film-hungry fellow fans we met at the 2012 TCM Film Fest.

It was another spectacular year, somewhat marred by some scheduling conflicts (I'll get into that later), but overall, I had a blast. Well, beyond a blast, really. (What's beyond a blast?)

The festival kicked off on Thursday just as I had planned, with a screening of the silent Our Dancing Daughters, followed by the terrific noir Criss Cross. Even though the films were great, the best part of Thursday is meeting up with old friends and catching up, gabbing, squeeing, etc. about all the films we'd seen in the intervening year since the 2011 TCMFF.

Friday was probably my favorite day of the festival. Things started out early with a screening of Wings with Mr. Paramount himself, 94-year old A.C. Lyles. The incredible Mr. Lyles started out as a errand boy for Adolph Zukor (!) in the '30s and worked himself up through the company, ultimately becoming a producer for some of their most famous films. Mr. Lyles still works at Paramount; he has never had a job. Wings, the first best picture winner, is a silent film from 1927 and when you're watching a silent film from 1927 about WWI, you don't generally expect anyone to stand up and start speaking about their first-hand experience watching the film. But A.C. Lyles just isn't anyone. Lyles was just a boy when he saw Wings in theaters and was so taken with the film (it is spectacular) that he wrote a letter to Zukor asking to work with him. No response. He sent more letters. No response. Not a man (er, boy) to be kept waiting, Lyles wrote another letter. This time he made his intentions very clear. He wrote that he would be taking the train from Jacksonville, Florida to Hollywood, California and arriving at Paramount Studios for a job. He arrived. The secretaries didn't know what to do with this kid. He didn't have money for a return ticket. Ah, what the hell, Zukor said, hire him! Which is how A.C. Lyles became Mr. Paramount.

If you've ever seen Wings, you know how emotionally devastating it is--and this was only the first picture of the day! Needless to say, my friends and I were pretty wiped out. But like the good film festival soldiers we are, we forged onward. 

Here's where things got kind of wonky. I had my heart set on seeing the ultra-rare film noir Raw Deal with star Marsha Hunt in person. But we were so enamored of Mr. Lyles that we stayed for the entire Q&A after the film and then rushed over to the Chinese for Raw Deal. Well, nuts to that. Raw Deal was already more than 100 people over-capacity and there was more than an hour till the screening. A lot of people were upset. We commiserated in line and decided to get out ducks in a row. Just like that, a voluptuously-proportioned light appeared and ye, we were saved. Yes, Mae West to the rescue! We were just in time to catch the crackling delight I'm No Angel, starring the baroness of zaftifgness, Ms. West.

Our spirits considerably lifted (see, there are no disappointments at TCMFF!), we trekked over to another '30s comedy, Nothing Sacred, starring the divine, flawless, etc. Carole Lombard. I swear when I tell you I laughed till it hurts. Featuring a perfect script from the masterful Ben Hecht and pitch-perfect direction from the brilliant William Wellman, I do believe Nothing Sacred to be a screwball comedy without equal. It is perfectly absurd in only the way that genre can manufacture absurdity. Truly divine.

After dinner, we fulfilled our daily requirement of film noir with the Dick Powell-starring Cry Danger.  With a cigarette dangling perilously from his lips the entire, film, Powell commands the screen with the lackadaisical masculinity of a self-effacing Bogart. The film itself is a surprisingly delightful B-picture, chock full of fast and furious dialogue that tiptoes around self-parody without going over the edge. Most of the film takes place in a Bunker Hill trailer park, lending the film a sort of charming, shabby cheapness. Cheap suits, cheap talk, cheap lives...the entire aura of the picture is one of off-the-cuff sardonic wit cut with the bitterness of regret. Cry Danger is a truly underrated picture and one worth seeking out.

By this time, I was totally exhausted. I had wanted to catch Young Frankenstein at the Egyptian with Mel Brooks introducing, but I just couldn't make it past midnight, so I decided to check out Chinatown at Grauman's Chinese with Robert Towne and Robert Evans presenting. The magnitude of Grauman's Chinese cannot be underestimated. It is a giant, giant theater and a towering, enormous screen. There really is nothing like seeing a classic picture spread across that tableau. I've Chinatown countless times, but seeing it at TCMFF was like seeing it for the first time. Towne and Evans provided rambling commentary about the good old days during the Paramount revival of the '70s and some insights into the making of the picture. Towne's script remains a masterclass of the detective narrative. I can't imagine a time in the future when film student won't study it (I sure did).

With the day coming to the end, we all headed back to the hotel, exhausted and happy. In part two, Saturday, Sunday and the infamous after party.

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