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Festival Report: TCM Classic Film Festival 2019

At two different screenings I attended at this year’s 10th annual TCM Classic Film Festival, the person introducing the film stopped to note that their explanation probably wasn’t necessary for the kind of hardcore film nerds that attend TCMFF. That may be true, but one of the best things about the festival is that its programming matches the hardcore nerdiness of the attendees, who stand in line for hours to watch film scholar Bruce Goldstein (a true TCMFF superstar) deliver his annual presentation about pre-Code movies before a screening of the 1933 pre-Code obscurity Blood Money.

Blood Money was one of several pre-Code discoveries I saw at TCMFF this year, and even as the festival has increased the size of the auditoriums that show those pre-Code picks, they’re still routinely sold out. In past years, I’ve been amazed at some of the discoveries that TCMFF programs in the pre-Code section, and while there weren’t any true revelations among this year’s pre-Code selections, I did enjoy Blood Money (about a crooked bail bondsman who gets tangled up with a bank robber and a reckless heiress), 1932’s Night World (about the goings-on at a seedy nightclub over the course of a single night) and 1932’s Merrily We Go to Hell (about the romance between an alcoholic writer and, yes, a reckless heiress).

All three embody the naughtiness and debauchery that exemplify the looser pre-Code standards, and all feature lively performances from actors who revel in playing unsavory characters. In Blood Money, the typically wholesome Frances Dee plays a kinky, sexually ravenous rich girl who gets off on danger and violence, and her unhinged performance drives the somewhat scattered movie, consistently eclipsing star George Bancroft as corrupt bond officer Bill Bailey. Night World features a rare chatty, upbeat performance from Boris Karloff as gangster and nightclub owner Happy MacDonald, although the episodic movie mostly focuses on an earnest chorus girl played by Karloff’s Frankenstein co-star Mae Clarke. She’s a little dull, but there are a couple of Busby Berkeley musical numbers that perk things up. And Fredric March and Sylvia Sidney make for an electric pairing in the wonderfully titled Merrily We Go to Hell, which is a lot of fun when it focuses on their whirlwind romance, before turning a bit stiff and melodramatic in its morality-asserting final act.

There was also a lot of gleeful nastiness in my favorite films of the festival: Although it’s often overshadowed by Robert Siodmak’s 1946 version starring Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner, Don Siegel’s 1964 take on Ernest Hemingway’s short story The Killers is an admirably brutal and efficient crime story, with darkly comic performances from Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager as a pair of hitmen tracking down the gang behind a million-dollar robbery. John Cassavetes brings some sensitivity to the role of racecar driver Johnny North, who’s lured into a life of crime by Angie Dickinson’s femme fatale, and Ronald Reagan, in his final film role, succeeds despite his own reservations as the off-kilter villain. It all leads to a violent, nihilistic ending that goes perfectly with Siegel’s hard-boiled take on the material.

I especially appreciated the murky moral ambiguities of the 1948 film noir Road House, starring Ida Lupino as a big city singer who takes a job at a small-town roadside stop and finds herself at the center of a power struggle between the sleazy owner (Richard Widmark) and his upstanding manager (Cornel Wilde). Lupino is fantastic as the world-weary singer with the smoky voice (showcased in several musical performances), and the story builds to a tense and gloriously delirious final showdown. Road House was one of several movies shown on 35mm nitrate at TCMFF, and the movie positively glowed onscreen in the volatile (but luminous) film stock.

Presenting movies on nitrate is just one of the unique moviegoing experiences at TCMFF. I saw one other movie on nitrate (1947’s The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, starring Cary Grant and Shirley Temple), a vintage silent movie with full orchestral accompaniment (the somewhat overwrought 1928 melodrama A Woman of Affairs, starring Greta Garbo and John Gilbert) and a detailed special-effects presentation from effects legends Ben Burtt and Craig Barron before a screening of 1934’s Tarzan and His Mate. TCMFF presented a double feature of silent Westerns starring Tom Mix, who in his day was as big a box-office draw as all the Avengers combined. Many of Mix’s films are lost, but The Great K&A Train Robbery (which was accompanied by live music from pianist Ben Model) is a solid representation of his work, including some impressive stunts and a rudimentary plot about a masked cowboy capturing railroad bandits.

Not everything at TCMFF is an actual classic, and the festival’s midnight screenings offer a great opportunity to showcase disreputable curiosities. Even the producer’s granddaughter, Viviana Garcia Besne, who led the movie’s restoration, said that Santo vs. the Evil Brain wasn’t a movie worthy of the audience’s respect, but in a way she meant it as a compliment. The first of more than 50 movies to star masked Mexican wrestler Santo, Evil Brain is a cheapo B-movie cobbled together from filler shots of cars driving, random dance numbers and a handful of desultory action sequences. Besne encouraged the audience to jeer and laugh, and the result was a true midnight movie experience (complete with a couple of eager fans in Santo costumes). TCMFF is the perfect place to preserve and appreciate film history, whether that’s artistic masterpieces or weird micro-budget fiascoes starring professional wrestlers.

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