Here and Now with the Past; Ramblings on the TCM Classic Film Festival
In 1931, MGM producer Samuel Goldwyn insisted on adapting Elmer Rice’s successful stage play Street Scene for the screen. The dramatic story, centering around a New York City stoop on a hot summer day, unfolds through the various inhabitants that call the stoop home. The stair-encased concrete slab of the stoop serves as a soapbox for the apartment’s tenants, granting audiences the intimate opportunity to hear opposing ideologies, moral standards and personal desires of a dozen or so New Yorker’s who jut in and out of the frame. Goldwyn’s adaptation of the play brought in newcomer Sylvia Sidney and the already established, masterful director King Vidor—two essential components that make Street Scene an absolute powerhouse of a film. The whirlwind of talent on and off the screen allows Street Scene to successfully capture pertinent traits of human behavior while advising against the dangers of the moral superiority that comes with class and racial identity, making it a riveting film like no other of its time and putting it on par with the likes of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (1989) almost 60 years later.
I had the pleasure of seeing this remarkably conscious work of art at the TCM Classic Film Festival this past week. Preserved and presented in nearly pristine 35mm thanks to the UCLA Film and Television Archive, I watched Street Scene with bated breath as tears welled in my eyes. I underwent an incredibly emotional experience during the film’s screening; one wrapped in a love for cinema’s ability to reflect the human experience so perfectly then shrouded in Turner Classic Movie’s desire to bring these films into the forefront of contemporary audiences’ minds. That tear-laden moment throughout Street Scene proved to be just one of many powerful emotions that eclipsed my very first film festival experience.
The TCM Classic Film Festival was my lifelong dream come true. Cinephilism is in my blood, a passion for film so deep that it feels encoded in my DNA. Thanks to a mother who loved old Westerns; a father who cemented my earliest memories of going to the movies; and an older brother who fell in love with the theater and the Golden Age of Hollywood in my youth, I’ve carried the need to obsessively watch and engage with films before I even understood the mechanics of criticism and film reviewing. In fact, I’m pretty positive my earliest ancestor was the tribe’s fire tender who debated the meaning of what was happening in the fluttering licks of fire and the animated glow of its coals. Turner Classic Movies has allowed my ancestral devotion to moving pictures to thrive over the years by making the deep dive into the ocean of cinema history easier to navigate.
That’s why I always knew I’d work for Turner Classic Movies. I was never certain how, when or under what conditions, but I knew even if it meant as a janitor in my 60s that I’d find my way into the TCM building. What I couldn’t have imaged or expected was that I would get to work on the Film Festival with an amazing group of people by helping organize and construct the beautiful programming guide that found its way in the attendees’ hands. The experience of being among the community of classic film enthusiasts that migrated from all over the world for this cinematic mecca in Los Angeles was unreal. I never expected to see such a diverse fan base of warm, friendly people, especially considering how problematic classic films can be. I’m naturally weary of those who long for the nostalgia of life in the past. The phrase “make America great again” churns knots in my stomach at the obvious disregard of what America was for people of color. But the core group of people who came out to celebrate and relive the classy, sophisticated, often left-leaning ideologies of old Hollywood were kind-hearted fans who just wanted to discuss the legendary and unsung talent of yesteryear.
The theme for the 8th annual TCM Classic Film Festival was Make ‘Em Laugh. Nevertheless, my experience with the films I managed to see mustered a different theme: Make Em Reflect. Many, if not everyone, who watch classic films are taught to view them from the lens they were created in because there are problematic issues that we do not stand by today. But what was hardest about having to look back on how people of the 1920s into the 1970s thought and acted was realized that little to nothing has changed in the grand scheme of society. Sure, it’s not acceptable to throw around racially charged words and it’s most definitely frowned upon for men to beat women, but we are all awake to the reality that now more than ever these things are still taking place and oddly enough seem to be coming back in vogue like some twisted alternate universe where the last generation of progress didn’t happen. These films actually feel progressive compared to where we find ourselves today.
No period of cinema highlights this better than the Pre-Code films of the 1930s. These films—made before the infamous Hays Code placed sharp restrictions on what could and couldn’t be discussed, implied or shown on screen— often reflected a radical ideology from their writers, directors and producers. Pre-Code often featured a heavy concentration on sex, violence, illegal activity and liberal leaning philosophies often influenced by source material from the 1920s New York theater scene. Fans of this era in cinema history flock to these films for this very reason. We love their salacious stories and edgy performances that crystallized itself on celluloid strips. In Street Scene, infidelity, racism and class are a major focus. Two other fantastic Pre-Code films screened at the festival centered on strong women who use sex to for their own pleasure and advantage: Jack Conaway and Anita Loos’ Red-Headed Woman (1932) and the Howard Hughes/Tom Buckingham collaboration Cock of the Air (1931) restored in its original sensational glory by the Academy Film Archive.
Jean Harlow stars in Red-Headed Woman as Lil, a fiery and confident woman who gains access into high society by sleeping her way up the social ladder. This disturbingly hilarious film uses its plot to explore the disparity in economic standings and how people tend to define their identities by the illusion of class and glamour—so much so that they are willing to do anything (and anyone) to feel accepted in someone’s “elite group.” Lil is shamed and deemed “unworthy” to gain access into superficial high society after an affair with a married man (Chester Morris). But the attempts to keep her out only fuels her fire to prove that she’s worthy of getting in. Meanwhile, Billie Dove uses sex to get her kicks and the perks that come along with being among the socially privileged diplomatic elite in Cock of the Air.
Thanks to the fine work of Heather Linvielle and the film preservationists at the Academy Archive, a theater at full capacity with eager fans got to watch a dazzling restoration of Cock of the Air. Before its initial release in 1931, the Hays Office had Hughes cut nearly 12 minutes of the film over its risqué material, and honestly it’s not hard to see why. Dove stars as a sexy free-spirited stage actress pressured into voluntary exile from France after a series of sexual liaisons lead to distraction and problems for the military. She heads for Italy where she is entranced by an American soldier (Morris again) whose own sexual exploits is endangering his job and life. The two are ignition for the other’s fire, but Dove refuses to be at the behest of a man and instead enjoys leading the arrogant soldier on in a series of hilarious circumstances while he begs for a chance to bed her. Dove’s promiscuity is admirable: she graces the screen in low-cut dresses, side boob and a sashay that entices any man, or audience member, that lays eyes on her.
These women get to explore their sexuality under varying degrees of social constraints. Dove’s character is European sparing her the judgmental standards of American society. Harlow’s Lil finds it difficult to gain access into high society but reaches a level where she creates her own standards. Meanwhile the working class, unhappily married Anna Maurrant (Estelle Taylor) in Street Scene must battle harsh judgment that denies her happiness outside of a nuclear family and from her own sexuality. Nearly 80 years later, lower class women are still vilified for being humans with a sexual desire. Birth control is challenged, planned parenthood is under attack and women are still having to defend themselves for doing what men have always been free to do: be agents of their own sexual identity. These current topics made watching Harlow and Dove sleep their way to the top exciting and refreshing but Taylor’s dilemma even more heartbreaking.
Other highlights of the festival included seeing the 1926 Ernst Lubitsch film So This is Paris with piano accompaniment by Donald Sosin. This hilariously silly silent film and its performance gave our packed theater the opportunity to relive the past by creating an enchanting environment for watching a silent film on the big screen. Audiences reacted in sync laughing and hooting together at the antics of two married couples that become entangled in an affair. Their antics were made even more humorous by the upbeat, deliberate tempo of Sosin’s accompaniment.
Another musical gem that day was Lady Sings the Blues (1972) in 35mm. Diana Ross emits sparks in her screen debut as the tragic and talented Billie Holiday (whose stage name came from Cock of the Air star Billie Dove), physically capturing the inner turmoil that the late singer expressed in her vocals. There’s an authenticity that is present when watching a film in 35mm that excites movie fans in a visceral way. One guest introing Black Narcissus (1947) mused on this notion by discussing the pleasure of watching a nitrate print—two or which I had the pleasure of seeing at the festival. 35mm makes you feel as close to the past as possible. It’s akin to seeing the strokes of a painting or hearing the cracks and lint pops on a record. It heightens the process of filmmaking; the colors seem more natural and muted. Somehow the image seems more immediate. Ross looked spectacular and performs with hypnotizing grace on screen, as does the beautiful Billy Dee Williams who took my breath away numerous times along with Richard Pryor’s stunning emotional performance.
This immediacy is felt even more when watching a nitrate print, which takes on a new form of life itself. Laura (1944) and Black Narcissus were absolutely invigorating to watch on the big screen though being sleep deprived stopped me enjoying the full experience of both. Laura’s black and white cinematography translates to silver tones in nitrate, like watching a Blu-ray transfer where the images are sharp and clear while the contrast is higher and light radiates in stunning ways. This effect is most evident in Jack Cardiff’s color cinematography in Black Narcissus and its ability to realistically reflect light and simultaneously soak it in. A scene in which a character stands in water is astoundingly beautiful as the sun’s reflection glows with a golden shimmer. Reds are deeply bold and vibrant while skin tones manage to radiate with warmth. Nitrate print allows colors to pop in ways made more effervescent through Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s gorgeously framed long shots and tight close-ups.
The TCM Film Festival felt like returning home to a place that I never knew was missing from my life. It provided a space for the most enthralled classic film fans and newcomers of the era to discuss their favorite actors, directors and pictures with like-minded devotees. Despite working through most of the festival, I managed to see an amazing batch of films and panels including home movies of Hollywood stars from their surviving family members, as well as informative and inspiring conversations from Leonard Maltin and Peter Bogdanovich, who discussed his history with legends like James Cagney, John Ford, Cary Grant and Orson Welles. The TCM Film Festival connected me to knowledgeable and enthusiastic fans while also serving as a place to share information and factoids that has nourished my ever-growing devotion for classic cinema. I am grateful for all the hardworking staff members behind the scenes, including Charles Tabesh, Genevieve McGillicuddy and Mark Wynns, for making this festival so spiritually gratifying and I can’t wait to return to it all next year!