“You need to show more re-releases. You need to show the great old movies in your theatres,” director Christopher Nolan told exhibitors at their CinemaCon convention a couple of weeks ago, but sadly no one in that crowd applauded the sentiment. I thought of that as I attended last night’s kickoff of TCM’s 5th Annual Classic Film Festival, a nirvana for movie lovers. At least this is still a place you can see “great old movies” in theatres and in pristine condition. And people from around the U.S., and even the world travel to Hollywood for the opportunity. For that Nolan should at least be thankful.
This edition got underway Thursday night with the World Premiere of a stunning TODD AO restoration of the 1955 musical Oklahoma. Star Shirley Jones joined TCM host Robert Osborne (a “rock star” to the TCM crowd that comes from everywhere for this four-day smorgasboard of movies) for a pre-screening Q&A at the newly renovated TCL Chinese Theatre IMAX. It was the first film for the Oscar-winning star who just turned 80 last week. It’s probably safe to say the movie didn’t even look this good when it originally premiered almost 60 years ago thanks to 20th Century Fox’s 8-month effort (led by restorer Schawn Belston) to bring it back to life in the same 30 frame per second TODD AO format in which it was made. Fox is releasing this film and several other Rodgers And Hammerstein musicals in a Blu-ray box set later this Spring. The TODD AO process was sort of an answer to the 3D craze of the 50’s and in this incarnation it actually feels at times like you are watching some scenes (like a runaway horse sequence) in 3D without glasses. Compared to many screen transfers of Broadway musicals this one, directed by Fred Zinnemann, may not be in the first tier even though it did win a couple of Oscars for its Sound and Music Scoring (it was also nominated for the exemplary Robert Surtees cinematography and film editing), but given the tender loving care of this restoration it’s definitely worth seeing on the big screen again – or for the first time.
That’s actually become sort of the signature of this unique festival , which unlike most fests, doesn’t offer new films or cater to filmmakers as much as it gives classic, and some not-so-classic, films a new lease of life on screen by premiering as many restorations as they can find. And if you haven’t seen them, they are new films, particularly the way TCM presents them at this fest, which this year also coincides with the 20th anniversary of the cable channel Ted Turner started when he smartly bought the MGM film library. TCM has exploited that library as not just a tv channel, but what they call a whole lifestyle brand with this festival, cruises, bus tours, a line of books and DVD packages and other enterprises. Many of the screenings at the TCM Fest will be hosted by Osborne, TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz and film critic and historian Leonard Maltin among many others, including celebrities like Alec Baldwin and Alex Trebek. As usual several stars and filmmakers will also be appearing with a list that includes 93-year-old Maureen O’Hara with the restored 1941 Best Picture winner How Green Was My Valley; Kim Novak at a screening of 1958’s Bell Book And Candle; Mel Brooks presenting Blazing Saddles; Quincy Jones with a 50th anniversary screening of The Pawnbroker; Richard Dreyfuss getting a tribute and showings of The Goodbye Girl and Mr. Holland’s Opus and on and on. Alan Arkin, Margaret O’Brien (in a just added tribute to Mickey Rooney with a Sunday morning screening of National Velvet), director William Friedkin presenting the U.S. premiere of his Sorcerer restoration that was first seen at the Venice Film Festival in the Fall, and many others are also on board including Jerry Lewis who will do a Q&A preceding screening of The Nutty Professor as well as getting a hand and footprint ceremony in the Chinese forecourt. The festival’s Managing Director Genevieve McGillicuddy told me they started this tradition four years ago with Peter O’Toole and since then Kim Novak and Jane Fonda have also gotten the hands-in-cement treatment. “The first one we did with O’Toole was a treasured memory. We couldn’t believe he hadn’t done that. It really does surprise me who hasn’t done that,” she said adding that TCM is determined to right some of those wrongs and they have a list of potential honorees for years to come. There is also an art exhibit across the street at the fest headquarters at the Hollywood Roosevelt with specially commissioned works from Novak, Tony Bennett, Joel Grey, Jane Seymour and others that represent the spirit of classic films she said.
But I think it is really the chance to see these movies get renewed life with restorations, new prints and archival discoveries that give this festival a distinction others don’t have. TCM’s program director Charles Tabesh is the guy who puts it together. “We try to go wherever we can to find the best prints possible,” he said, adding that they get tremendous cooperation from the motion picture Academy, UCLA archive, BFI, George Eastman House and the Library Of Congress. He said because TCM uses Boston Light and Sound, the best projection and technical team in the business, archivists and studios are comfortable. And he says now that the TCM Fest has been in business for a few years studios are actually coming to them. “They are coming to us more often now with restorations. We always had a good relationship with the studios because of the channel… but it’s working both ways now. The hardest thing is squeezing in all the movies that we want to,” he said.
This year, in addition to Oklahoma, How Green Was My Valley and Sorcerer, TCM is presenting World Premiere restorations of the Beatles first film, A Hard Day’s Night celebrating its 50th anniversary, Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, Stormy Weather and the 1954 Japanese original version of Godzilla which is going to be released theatrically by Rialto Pictures starting next week in New York tying in with the new Warner Bros/Legendary Godzilla which opens May 16 (that new film’s director Gareth Edwards will present the original at TCM). And there’s more. There will be recent restorations of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights and Hitchcock’s The Lodger (featuring a live orchestra as will Harold Lloyd’s Why Worry with composer Carl Davis conducting his new score for the silent).
McGillicuddy says the “family” theme for this year is not only about the movies, it’s about the audience for this fest as well. “We’ve been so proud since day one that our goal had always been to create a mecca for classic film lovers, for people to come together. The passion of the fans is their energy of this festival. There’s a certain shorthand. You know you can show up and talk about Franklin Pangborn and everyone around you is going to know who he is. I remember being at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and hearing people debate the merits of Wallace Beery films. You aren’t going to hear this anywhere else,” she said.