The definition of “classic” can be pretty flexible at the TCM Classic Film Festival, but that’s part of what makes the event great: In addition to screening well-known, well-loved movies on the big screen, the annual event in Hollywood puts at least as much effort and attention into showing movies that are neither well-known nor well-loved, although they often end up with ardent admirers after the festival is over. The longest lines at the festival are often for obscure pre-Code movies, and this year festival organizers responded to that demand by moving most of those screenings into larger auditoriums, after pass-holders in previous years were frequently shut out.
That meant that sizeable audiences were able to see movies like Ernst Lubitsch’s risqué 1932 musical comedy One Hour With You and his equally risqué 1926 silent comedy So This Is Paris (both about married couples blithely, breezily cheating on each other with little in the way of moral consequences), 1936 Irene Dunne/Melvyn Douglas romantic comedy Theodora Goes Wild, enjoyably sleazy 1950 film noir The Underworld Story, and my favorite movie from the festival, the delightfully disreputable 1932 Jean Harlow comedy Red-Headed Woman.
Harlow is fantastic as a brazen gold-digger and home-wrecker in the hilarious and shameless Red-Headed Woman. Harlow’s social climber Lil Andrews openly declares her intent to sleep her way to the top, seducing her married boss (a constantly flustered Chester Morris), marrying him and then seducing an even older, richer industrialist. She never even faces a moral reckoning, although the hapless men eventually get wise to her scheme. The movie is weirdly feminist in the way its anti-heroine exploits the patriarchy for her own selfish ends, even if she does so by gleefully confirming every nasty stereotype about women with loose morals.
Women with loose morals were a common thread in many of the movies I saw at this year’s festival, which had a spotlight section devoted to “divorce/remorse” comedies like the classic 1937 screwball comedy The Awful Truth, which world-premiered in a beautiful-looking restoration. Awful Truth co-star Irene Dunne plays a sheltered novelist who liberates herself from her stifling hometown in a big way in Theodora Goes Wild, which starts out as a stereotypical ’30s romantic comedy before subverting the entire setup in the second half, as Dunne turns the tables on the brutish artist played by Melvyn Douglas, giving him a taste of his own insensitivity. The women in the pair of Lubitsch comedies also eagerly go after their objects of affection with little regard for propriety. It’s always refreshing to see how bawdy and raunchy early films could be before the enforcement of the Production Code.
Just how tough the Code could be was the main lesson from one of the festival’s most fascinating restorations. Sometimes the process of restoring and refurbishing a movie is more impressive than the movie itself, and that was the case for the 1931 Howard Hughes-produced sex comedy Cock of the Air, which suffered 12 minutes’ worth of cuts thanks to the early application of the Code. The Academy Film Archive recovered a full visual print of the uncensored version, as well as the full uncensored script, but the sound for the censored segments was lost, so the restoration features a new soundtrack and newly recorded dialogue in those segments. It’s an education in film history to watch the movie with the censored segments clearly identified (although the restoration is often seamless), to see what was deemed acceptable and unacceptable at the time. But there’s not much to the story of a womanizing aviator (Chester Morris again) and a floozy actress (Billie Dove) falling in love during World War I, and the comedy often falls flat, despite its boldness.
Also more impressive as a restoration project than a movie was the 3D refurbishing of 1953 musical Western Those Redheads From Seattle, starring Agnes Moorehead as a widow who travels to the Yukon with her four daughters (one of whom is played by Rhonda Fleming). The 3D Film Archive did amazing work bringing the movie back to life, and it features some lively and colorful production numbers and periodic in-your-face moments to justify the 3D. The movie itself, though, is hokey and sloppily paced, with mediocre performances. It’s certainly no classic, but the care that was taken in bringing it back to life is worthy of one.
There was quite a lot of care taken, by necessity, for the festival’s selection of movies shown on nitrate film stock, the highly volatile material whose flammability is largely responsible for the loss of so many early movies. Thanks to extensive safety measures taken at the Egyptian Theater, the festival was able to show several movies on nitrate, all of them genuine classics. Seeing Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1947 religious drama Black Narcissus on a gorgeous nitrate print was probably the best way to experience it for the first time, with the directors’ impressionistic use of color coming to vivid life onscreen. The way that the festival organizers can bring that level of dedication to presenting Oscar-winning masterpieces and forgotten throwaways alike is what keeps me (and so many other fans of vintage movies) coming back year after year.