There are multiple ways to approach the TCM Classic Film Festival, all of them highly rewarding, and the annual event in Hollywood (now in its seventh year) has attracted such a growing audience that attendees might end up never even crossing paths, depending on their individual tastes. As the name indicates, the festival is the perfect place to see well-known, widely acknowledged classics on the big screen, often in new restorations and with live appearances from the people who worked on them. This year, the festival opened with a gala 40th-anniversary showing of All the President’s Men, featuring a discussion between the film’s subject Carl Bernstein and Spotlight filmmakers Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer. Other renowned classics shown at this year’s event included Bambi, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, It’s a Wonderful Life, Rocky, Network and The Big Sleep.
But for many attendees (myself included), the festival isn’t about the comfort food of longtime favorites; it’s about discovering movies that almost no one else has seen, in many cases painstakingly restored by institutions like the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Noir Foundation. The fairly small Theater 4 inside the TCL Chinese Theatres multiplex became a hub for the festival’s more adventurous cinephiles, who stood in long lines to catch movies like the pre-Code comedies Double Harness and Pleasure Cruise, the Walter Huston drama A House Divided and Ida Lupino’s directorial debut Never Fear. I ended up shut out of two movies I tried to see in that limited space (Pleasure Cruise and the world-premiere restoration of the 1932 sci-fi film 6 Hours to Live), but I did catch both 1931’s A House Divided and the 1934 mystery Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back.
A House Divided features a powerhouse performance from Huston as a volatile widower who sends for a mail-order bride (Helen Chandler) only to see her fall in love with his sensitive son (Kent Douglass). The early sound film from legendary director William Wyler closes with a bravura climax set off the coast of Washington state, featuring all of the period’s cutting-edge special effects. It’s a genuinely suspenseful sequence of a rescue at sea, an appropriately bleak ending for the dark drama.
Film archivist Michael Schlesinger noted in his introduction to Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back that this was only the second time in the past 80 years that the movie had been shown publicly in Los Angeles, thanks to complicated rights issues, and it’s hard to pass up a chance to see a movie under those circumstances. The film itself is not as compelling as its exhibition, but it still features an entertaining performance from Ronald Colman as the title character, an arrogant, wealthy detective who was played by numerous actors in more than 20 films over the course of nearly 50 years. Colman gives Drummond some playful wit, but the character is so annoyingly competent and arrogant that he’s tough to root for, and the central mystery is dopey and forgettable.
Another way to approach the festival is to immerse yourself in its unique showcases, which this year included a Smell-O-Vision presentation of the 1966 thriller Holiday in Spain (aka Scent of Mystery); a screening of Carl Theodor Dryer’s 1928 silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc accompanied by a live orchestra and chorus; Harold Lloyd’s silent comedy The Freshman mixed with live music from DJ Thomas Golubic; and a 90th-anniversary program dedicated to Vitaphone short films.
I was enthralled by the presentation from sound designer Ben Burtt and visual effects artist Craig Barron, both Oscar winners, on the process of creating the special effects for the 1953 sci-fi epic The War of the Worlds. They went step-by-step through the elaborate efforts required to put together even a single shot in the movie produced by George Pal, even demonstrating some of the practical effects live. The presentation helped in appreciating the movie, especially when it was dragged down by the stilted lead performances. There are some admirably bleak sequences of humanity’s despair in the face of an unstoppable enemy, although they’re balanced out by plenty of hokey character interactions. The effects work looks a bit cheesy now, but much of it is surprisingly still effective.
I also appreciated the technical achievements more than the movie’s content in the gorgeous 3D restoration of another ’50s sci-fi movie, the goofy and stiff Gog. The 3D Film Archive did a fantastic job restoring the movie to its original visual glory, which was seen by only a handful of audiences in 1954. The movie itself is a bit of a snooze, with nonstop techno-babble and exposition. The setting, a secret underground base developing a space station, has more buttons and dials than one could possibly imagine, and the robots that eventually go haywire have some hilariously useless flailing limbs. The humans are much less entertaining.
As much as I appreciated the festival’s one-of-a-kind opportunities, in the end the movies I enjoyed most were two that are much more familiar. Watching John Huston’s 1972 drama Fat City was a revelation, both for the way the veteran director adapted so effectively to the freewheeling style of the 1970s and for how star Stacy Keach, mostly known as a solid if one-note character actor, commands the screen in a lead role as a washed-up small-time boxer. Fat City is a bleak, honest, funny and startlingly naturalistic portrayal of working-class life that just happens to include some boxing.
I closed the festival with Elia Kazan’s 1945 drama A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a warm and affecting portrait of a poor Brooklyn family in the early 20th century. It’s sentimental without being maudlin, and features great performances from Oscar winner James Dunn and child actress Peggy Ann Garner. Exploring the forgotten corners of film history can be thrilling, but sometimes the best thing is simply to see a justly beloved film for the first time.