At the sixth annual TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, the big closing-night world premiere was a silent movie from 1919 that almost no one had seen in 80 years, and the in-demand sell-outs were obscure 1940s film noirs and a pre-Code battle-of-the-sexes comedy. That’s the delightful alternate world of this festival, which has grown into one of the most exuberant celebrations of film culture around.
That big finale was the restoration of The Grim Game, the first feature film starring Harry Houdini, and it was a spectacular event, if not exactly a spectacular film. Restored from the only remaining copy, owned by a Houdini collector, and accompanied by the live performance of a brand-new score, The Grim Game looked and sounded great. It’s a worthwhile historical curiosity, especially for the way it showcases Houdini’s skills as an escape artist, but it’s also bogged down by a convoluted murder-mystery plot. Although the movie really only needs to function as a loose framework to bridge Houdini’s stunts, the belabored plot twists take up a surprising amount of time. The stunts (including trademark Houdini escapes from a jail cell and a straitjacket, plus an actual plane crash) are quite impressive, but the movie surrounding them is not.
The Grim Game was just one of the unique events offered at the festival, which always strives to replicate the communal movie-going experiences of the past. This year those experiences also included live musical accompaniment for Buster Keaton’s silent classic Steamboat Bill, Jr. and a screening of 1953 musical Kiss Me Kate in its original 3D. But the most elaborate re-creation of cinematic history was a program titled “Return of the Dream Machine,” featuring silent shorts from 1902 to 1913 shown on an authentic 1909 hand-cranked projector. Sitting in the balcony one row behind the projector, I watched as projectionist Joe Rinaudo brought the movies to life just by moving his arm, illuminating landmark early films like Georges Méliès’ “A Trip to the Moon” and Edwin S. Porter’s “The Great Train Robbery.” Host Randy Haberkamp of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences invited the audience to imagine the awe of viewers who were experiencing these movies for the first time, when the basics of cinema that we take for granted were first being established.
The TCM Festival is great at re-instilling that awe in its attendees, whether through one-of-a-kind showings like The Grim Game and “Return of the Dream Machine” or just by presenting vintage obscurities that are ripe for rediscovery. My favorite films of the festival were two very different noir films from the 1940s, both of which played to sold-out houses and great word of mouth. Newly restored by the Film Noir Foundation, the delightfully nasty Too Late for Tears stars Lizabeth Scott as a housewife who turns murderous when she gets her hands on a sack full of dirty money. Scott is fantastic as the rare femme fatale who’s also the lead, and her unrepentant embrace of pure evil is refreshing. The movie never apologizes for having an irredeemable protagonist, and she gets all the best lines as she descends further into villainy. The plot drags a bit toward the end, but mostly it strikes an effective balance between campy fun and genuine suspense.
Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation made a case for Anthony Mann’s French Revolution drama Reign of Terror as a different kind of noir, and the shadowy images and morally compromised characters proved him right. Reign of Terror is entertainingly lurid, with gorgeously expressionistic cinematography and lighting. It’s fun to watch the characters engage in selfish, devious behavior, but the movie also manages to make a point about how even supposedly high-minded political movements boil down to personal gain, and that human greed is never lurking far below more altruistic motives. The historical facts may not be particularly accurate, but the theme is spot-on.
Like those two noirs, the 1931 comedy Don’t Bet on Women, newly restored by the Museum of Modern Art, turned out to be a hot ticket. It’s an extremely slight but entertaining farce, in which a playboy bets a rich lawyer that he can seduce the lawyer’s wife within 48 hours. The main male characters each have their own highly sexist views on women, and the movie doesn’t exactly prove them wrong, although it does at least give the women some of the juiciest dialogue. It’s worth checking out for the barrage of double entendres and the effective performances from actresses Jeanette MacDonald and Una Merkel.
Although the festival tends to favor movies made before 1960, the definition of “classic” is flexible enough to include later time periods (the most recent movie at this year’s festival was 1998’s Out of Sight), and one of the most welcome discoveries at this year’s festival was the 1984 comedy Nothing Lasts Forever, a sort of cult-movie holy grail that’s never been commercially released. Written and directed by Saturday Night Live writer Tom Schiller, it’s a bizarre pastiche of 1940s melodramas, 1960s science-fiction and 1980s political satire, starring Zach Galligan as an aspiring artist who travels to the moon and discovers a secret underground world of omnipotent hobos. Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd have supporting roles, and both have championed the movie, which still doesn’t have any kind of release planned. It’s a weird little orphan of a movie, and that’s what makes it perfect for the TCM Festival, which treats those weird little orphans with as much care, dedication and attention as the most renowned cinematic classics.