In a youth obsessed industry, the Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival, which runs through Sunday in Hollywood, is an oasis of cinematic treasures in the midst of a business that doesn’t always value its storied past. Once again the brain trust behind this unique orgy of movie magic from another time has created a whirlwind of non-stop cinema of every possible stripe.
Where else will you see 94 year old Carl Reiner get a Chinese Theatre hand and footprint ceremony along with son Rob Reiner (who just turned 70 last month)? Where else will you see the 5oth anniversary of the Oscar winning In The Heat Of The Night celebrated with its producer, director and stars – all in their 90s and all sharp as a tack, recalling every moment of its making? Where else will you see a packed house of eager film fans who have flown in from all over the country, paying up to $2,100 for a pass, cheering and applauding the 3D restoration of a largely forgotten and minor 1953 musical called Those Redheads From Seattle with its original co-stars, the one hit wonder Bell Sisters taking selfies in the crowd? (Fun as it is to see now, you can tell why Paramount felt they needed the gimmick of 3D glasses for this one). And where else in this digital age will these same film freaks line up to see the long abandoned – and combustible – nitrate film screening of a black and white movie from the ’40s as if they were going to a Star Wars opening?
As usual the powers that be, including programming director Charles Tabesh and Festival director Genevieve McGillicuddy, are pulling out all the stops for this 8th edition of the live and in person version of their popular cable network, which trumpets all things to do with old movies – except don’t call them old. Thursday night’s opener, the aforementioned In The Heat Of The Night simply never looked as good as it did projected on the massive TCL Chinese screen than it did this time. And it certainly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to actually see it with so many of its key creative forces there to watch it including star Sidney Poitier, who just turned 90, and seemed to be having a great time viewing the entire film again as he sat right in front of me with his family, and its 95 year Oscar winning producer Walter Mirisch right there too.
Poitier didn’t go on stage to participate in the pre-screening Q&A moderated by TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz, but Mirisch did and had total recall of just how the landmark film about race relations came about in the midst of turbulent times for this country, every bit as pertinent today as it was then. A couple of other 90 year olds, director Norman Jewison and co-star Lee Grant (who is also getting a tribute here this weekend) joined them, recalling great stories about the making of the film which was set in the deep South but actually shot in Illinois – Poitier understandably did not want to shoot it in the South at that time. They all received standing ovations, but none so massive as the one accorded the legendary Poitier.
Co-star Scott Wilson was also there to see it again, as were the writers of the memorable theme song, 91 year old Alan Bergman and his 88 year old wife Marilyn. Quincy Jones, the 84 year old composer of that song and the film’s score, appeared on the red carpet before having to rush off to another current film premiere he was involved with.
At this festival, age is just a number, not an attitude, and the extraordinary work these artists have accomplished over the course of their lives is celebrated in pristine condition even as most of them are still active in the business. It’s heartening. The Graduate and Bonnie And Clyde, two of the films Heat beat at the Oscars a half century ago, are also part of the program here.
Film fans who live in LA or NY often get to see many of these classics at venues like Arclight, American Cinematheque and Quentin Tarantino’s New Beverly Cinema, but it is rare for these die hard movie lovers who crowd this fest from around the U.S and even the world to have the same chance. That’s why the excitement is always palpable around this event, and the reverence for the films themselves is unmatched. You can usually hear a pin drop in these screenings and never see the light of a cell phone while the movie is playing.
Last night I returned to the fest and saw a stunning restoration with a nearly full, rapt audience of the 1957 Best Picture winner from David Lean, The Bridge On The River Kwai, again on that giant Chinese IMAX screen (the smaller Chinese 6 theatres, Cinerama Dome and Egyptian are also being used). It just couldn’t have looked this fresh and vital on the day it opened. If taking Mighty Morphin Power Rangers or Kong: Skull Island off these screens just for these four days is the price Hollywood has to pay for this annual event then it is well worth it to remind people of the greatness and variety that came before the word “sequel” was even known.
Ninety-year-old Mel Brooks was there last night introducing the 40th anniversary of his 1977 Hitchcock takeoff High Anxiety, and the relatively young (at 72) Michael Douglas is sitting down today for a career conversation to air next year on TCM, when no doubt he will be talking about his 100 year old dad Kirk, who is still vital and has appeared at this festival many times in the past.
Want to see the original Cinerama film This Is Cinerama IN Cinerama? You can do that here. Want to see Bob Newhart talk about one of his rare dramatic roles in 1962’s rarely seen Hell Is For Heroes ? You can do that here. Oddly the theme of this year’s fest is Comedy, but for Newhart they are saluting a World War II flick. The comedy theme is just a hook because this fest is programmed to include every variation of movie from silents to heavy drama to more recent gems like Christopher Guest’s 2000 modern comic classic Best In Show, with members of the cast reunited later today.
The times they are a changin’ for the movie business, with streaming services like Netflix the most recent threat to the moviegoing theatrical experience, but TCM’s gem of a fest is a reminder that while it may all evolve, it will never be quite as good, or classic, as a lot of the movies on display here in the best possible presentation. By the way the times they are also a changin’ for Turner Classic Movies with the death just a month ago of its 84 year old star and host of the past 23 years, Robert Osborne. Thursday TCM Fest presented a panel honoring his life, and a special reel was shown opening night as well when it was announced this festival would be dedicated to his memory. He is already missed but his spirit is everywhere at the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival.