I can’t think of a better way to spend a weekend than at the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival. But unlike the previous festivals, which have been occurring in Hollywood annually since 2010, this fest was virtual, with anyone who had access to TCM or HBO Max able to enjoy its offerings. Last year’s festival, set to occur in April, had to be canceled last minute due to the developing COVID-19 pandemic, and while the situation hasn’t improved enough for it to take place in person again, this year TCM was able to go all out, airing everything from premiere restorations to new interviews, film introductions, and retrospectives with actors and filmmakers.
With films airing continuously on the TCM network from May 6 through May 9, and with a wealth of other, different content streaming on HBO Max, there was plenty to watch and it was all easily accessible. I was particularly impressed with a lot of the extras on HBO Max. These included new interviews with Ali MacGraw, Danny Glover, and Martin Short, with a couple samples of their films to accompany them, as well as filmmakers introducing their work (for instance, Martin Scorsese provided an introduction for his movie “Goodfellas,” while Mira Nair discussed her film “The Namesake”). There were some other great extras which I will discuss with their corresponding films below. And even though the festival is over, everything on HBO Max is still there for a limited time for you to catch up.
The festival opened on May 6 with a screening of the musical “West Side Story,” which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, and it was accompanied by a delightful discussion of the movie between stars Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, and Russ Tamblyn. The conversation was frank and warm and the perfect way to start off the weekend. But as great as it was to see “West Side Story” and some other wonderful films again, I personally wanted to prioritize films I hadn’t seen before. Many of these were new restorations making their debut at the festival. I wanted to share some thoughts on each of these programs, so I’m breaking down all of my new-to-me watches below (I’ll also indicate what is currently streaming on HBO Max).
I’m a huge TCM fan but I’ve actually never been to the festival in person; the mid-April setting has never worked well with my work schedule. I’m excited to finally go someday (fingers crossed for 2022!), but thanks to social media, we were all still able to discuss the movies and watch them together online. The theatrical experience is a special one, but I think that watching a program live on TV is too—just the knowledge that other people out there in the world somewhere are experiencing the exact same thing you are at the exact same time. I’ve attended several virtual festival and events during these quarantines times, but few felt as fun or as special as the 2021 TCM Film Fest.
And now, some thoughts on my new-to-me watches of the fest:
“MEAN STREETS” (1973)
“Mean Streets,” an early feature from director Martin Scorsese that I’ve been meaning to get to for a while, was my first new-to-me film of the festival. This film is brimming with chaotic energy from start to finish, thanks to both lively camerawork from Scorsese and a volatile performance from Robert De Niro, whose character is predictably unpredictable. But the main focus is Harvey Keitel’s Charlie, who is torn between his faith and his unsavory work for the mob, and who gets caught up in trouble thanks to the recklessness of his friend Johnny (De Niro). “Mean Streets” feels like a blueprint not just for Scorsese’s filmography, but for the modern crime movie.
“THE WHISTLE AT EATON FALLS” (1951)
“The Whistle at Eaton Falls” is a surprisingly compelling drama of the struggles between union workers and company management when one of them (Brad, played by Lloyd Bridges) gets promoted and finds himself in the position of having to lay off workers to cut costs—and then spends the rest of the film desperately trying to find another way. The film interestingly isn’t super pro-union and doesn’t really take sides, choosing instead to take into account all facets of the issue. This feels like an odd fit for director Robert Siodmak, known primarily for his thrillers and noirs, but his direction elevates the film further, and there is some real suspense as to how this conflict is going to be resolved. There are some really beautiful shots throughout the movie filled with stark shadows that are even more impressive thanks to Flicker Alley’s crisp new restoration. It’s fun also to see Dorothy Gish (younger sister of Lillian) in this movie.
This was one of the more unique offerings from the festival this year: a reading of the script to Ed Wood’s notorious 1959 B movie presented by SF Sketchfest and filmed over Zoom. Adapted by Dana Gould (who also played narrator Criswell), the cast featured numerous great actors and comedians, including Janet Varney, Oscar Nunez, Maria Bamford, Kat Aagesan, Deborah Baker Jr., Bobcat Goldthwait, David Koechner, Laraine Newman, Jonah Ray, Paul F. Tompkins, Baron Vaughn, Gary Anthony Williams, and Bob Odenkirk. Presented in black and white, with music by Eban Schletter and special effects by Mike Carano, this table read was a delight to watch, especially being so familiar with the film it is based on. The cast really gives it their all (let’s be real, their performances are more convincing than those in the actual movie), and the script gently riffs on the proceedings while also presenting them in their entirety. It was hilarious and fun, and TCM followed this with a screening of the movie “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” which is somehow more wild and weird with every subsequent viewing, as I notice more and more of the oddities that make it so endearing. It may be technically bad, but it is far from the worst movie ever made.
“GREASE 2” (1982)
I’m still not entirely sure that this was a movie I watched and not actually a fever dream brought on by too much time in front of the TV. The late hour of the presentation by TCM’s Slumberground team, which concluded around midnight, only contributed to the hallucination. “Grease 2” was made four years after the hit first film, and takes us back to Rydell High. We see some of the same faces from the first “Grease” reprise their roles, Iike Didi Conn as Frenchy, Eddie Deezen as Eugene, Eve Arden as Principal McGee (this was actually her final film), and Sid Caesar as Couch Calhoun. But a lot of these characters, Frenchy in particularly, are prominent in the first half of the film but then just kind of disappear as the narrative turns its focus to the new characters. In a bit of a gender flop on the first film’s conflict, Michelle Pfeiffer plays Stephanie, the tough leader of the Pink Ladies, and Maxwell Caulfield plays Michael, a preppy exchange student from England (and apparently Sandy’s cousin? I don’t know). Michael comes up with a cool alter ego to impress Stephanie, who ends up falling for this mystery biker, not realizing he is actually Michael. “Grease 2” was directed by Patricia Birch, who had a strong background in theater and choreography that she brought to this film, its music numbers in particular. But while “Grease 2” starts off fairly tame, with a reprisal of the song “Alma Mater” on the first day of school, it gets really weird, really fast. Tab Hunter plays a substitute biology teacher who leads the class in a lesson on “Reproduction” (yes, that is the name of the song; yes, the students shout it repeatedly). One of the T-Birds tries to make it with one of the Pink Ladies by faking a nuclear attack and brining her to a fallout shelter (“Let’s Do it For Our Country”). Even Stephanie’s big moment, the song “Cool Rider,” ends oddly, with Pfeiffer just sort of wandering off still singing, while the surrounding students take zero notice. “Grease 2” takes the head-scratching final moment of “Grease,” which sees Danny and Sandy drive off in a flying car, and makes an entire movie out of that weird vibe. But you know, as technically bad and strange as it is, “Grease 2” is enjoyable as heck. It’s now considered a cult classic, and I 100% understand why after watching it.
“I LOVE TROUBLE” (1948)
It ended up being well worth it to wake up stupid early and watch this TCM premiere (a new restoration) live. “I Love Trouble,” directed by S. Sylvan Simon, is a delightfully twisty noir that contains all the tropes of the genre but makes them feel fresh. Maybe that’s because the film also has a wacky sense of humor that at times gives it quite a different tone from the typical noir. The cast, led by detective Franchot Tone, is great, and I especially loved seeing forever fave Glenda Farrell in a supporting role as Tone’s wisecracking secretary. Even the restored print is rather dark and occasionally murky but that didn’t impact my comprehension or enjoyment; in fact, I think it added a certain amount of charm to the film.
“THE MELIES MYSTERY” (2021), streaming on HBO Max
This new documentary on HBO Max, which runs just about an hour long, felt rather slight to me in some aspects, but in general it’s an entertaining and informative look at ground-breaking director George Méliès’ life and career. Méliès dedicated his life to developing special effects to create never-before-seen movie magic, but he burned all of his film negatives in 1923 in a moment of despair. The second part of the film examines how some of Méliès’ recovered films (to date, 270 out of 520) have been restored. “The Méliès Mystery” is directed by Eric Lange and narrated by Leonard Maltin, and is accompanied on HBO Max by five of Méliès’ films, including his famous “A Trip to the Moon.”
“NICHOLS AND MAY: TAKE TWO” (1996)
This is the festival entry that sent me down a YouTube rabbit hole. While I was familiar with Mike Nichols’ work as a filmmaker and Elaine May’s work as an actor, writer, and director, I was shockingly not familiar with the twos’ work together as part of the comedy duo Nichols and May in the 1950s through the early 1960s. Precious little footage of their routines are around today (they did the bulk of their shows live, in clubs, where they weren’t filmed), but a skit shown in this documentary about a son calling his mother had me stitches (you can watch it on YouTube here). “Nichols and May: Take Two” originally aired on PBS in 1996 as part of the American Masters series, and has been difficult to find since then. The film includes interviews with contemporaries of Nichols and May as well as comedians like Robin Williams and Steve Martin, but the biggest flaw is that we don’t get to hear from Nichols and May themselves. As a result, we don’t get the best sense of them as people and their relationship, but the doc is overall a good overview, especially for people like me. The best parts, however, are the ones where we get to watch the pair perform together; it’s then that we really get a sense of how funny and special a thing they had.
“THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME” (1947)
“They Won’t Believe Me,” a film noir directed by Irving Pichel, was possibly my favorite new-to-me watch of the fest. The film opens with a man, Larry (Robert Young), taking the stand to tell his story in a trial in which he stands accused of murder. The film then flashes back; Larry wanted to run away with Janice (Janet Greer), but was still married to wife Greta (Rita Johnson), who tempts him to stay with a lucrative new job for him in Los Angeles. It’s while working his new job at a brokerage that he is seduced by Verna (Susan Hayward), and then tries to run away with her. The twists and turns of Larry’s relationships with these women culminate in death and a wild (albeit rather ridiculous) finale. Larry is jerk; this is an undisputed fact from start to finish. What I love about this film is that it gives its female characters so much agency; they all have their reasons for wanting to be with Larry, and none of them are inherently bad. The performances are great across the board; I was particularly riveted by beautiful young Hayward’s saucy performance. This was the premiere of a new restoration that added 15 previously cut minutes back into the film. While this was my first time watching this and so I can’t compare the two versions, I can say with confidence that “They Won’t Believe Me” is fantastic as it stands, and is criminally underrated.
“CHAIN LIGHTNING” (1950)/”JET JOCKEYS IN LOVE: THE MAKING OF CHAIN LIGHTNING”, streaming on HBO Max
Humphrey Bogart is one of my favorite actors of all time. In fact, it was his 1948 film “Key Largo” that largely got me into TCM and the classic film scene in the first place. So I was shocked to find that part of TCM’s HBO Max lineup for the fest included a late-career Bogie movie that I had never even heard of. Maybe that’s partly because that same year Bogie appeared in what is now considered one of his best and most famous films, the noir “In a Lonely Place.” “Chain Lightning,” which was directed by Stuart Heisler and was one of Bogie’s last films for Warner Brothers, certainly doesn’t hold a candle to that movie, but it’s interesting. Bogart plays Matt Brennan, a former Air Force pilot who is hired as a test pilot for a high speed jet fighter designed by someone from his wartime past (Carl Troxell, played by Richard Worf), while reuniting with an old flame (Jo, played by Eleanor Parker). The characters and their personal dramas are formulaic, but Bogart brings a lot of gravitas to the proceedings, proving once again that he was the best at letting his character’s emotions shine through his gruff exterior. The sound and visual effects are otherwise the most notable aspect of the film, and they are the subject of a new 20 minute documentary accompanying the film on HBO Max, “Jet Jockey’s in Love: The Making of Chain Lightning.” This delightful doc is hosted by award-winning sound and visual effects artists Ben Burtt and Craig Barron, who have a wonderful banter as they discuss the film while appearing to fly a plane similar to the one in the movie.
“HER MAN” (1930)
I love pre-code movies- it’s my favorite Hollywood era – so I jumped at the chance to watch this new restoration of director Tay Garnett’s “Her Man.” I was riveted by the film’s opening, which felt quite different from other similar films of the time. There’s no music over the title and opening credits, which are etched into the sand, only the soothing sound of the waves crashing on the shore. One of the first scenes is an impressive lengthy tracking shot following Marjorie Rambeau’s Annie through the streets of Havana and into a bar crowded with drunks and prostitutes. One of the latter is Frankie (Helen Twelvetrees), who’s actually a “nice girl” trapped under the thumb of her knife-wielding pimp Johnnie (Ricardo Cortez). When she falls for sailor Dan (Phillip Holmes), he represents a possible way out of this life for Frankie. As stunning as Garnett makes this take on the Frankie and Johnny story look, from the long tracking shots to the violent, energetic brawls, “Her Man” suffers from an uneven tone. There’s a lot of drinking, a lot of violence, and a lot of watching Dan’s never-sober pals (James Gleason and Harry Sweet) get into a lot of comic antics that distract from the main narrative. It’s a bit slow at times too, but when it’s good it’s good, especially thanks to a winning performance from Twelvetrees.
“SO THIS IS PARIS” (1926), streaming on HBO Max
“So This Is Paris” was director Ernst Lubitsch’s second to last silent film, and while the so-called “Lubitsch touch” usually refers at least in part to the witty dialogue and spoken exchanges found in his sound movies, it’s still incredibly evident here. The plot concerns two different couples, bored with their respective spouses, who all embark on affairs with each other. The film is a hoot almost from the start, when bored Suzanne (Patsy Ruth Miller), who spends her time reading romances about exotic heroes, spies a shirtless sheik in a neighboring window, and demands that her doctor husband, Paul (Monte Blue), investigate. The neighbors, played by Lilyan Tashman and Andre Beranger, are dancers, as it turns out. The shenanigans escalate to comedic heights, but perhaps the best part of the film is when we see Suzanne listening to music from a ball on the radio, before the film transitions to that same ball. Even though this is a silent movie, you can really hear the party, as attendees dance the Charleston and otherwise have a wild time. “So This Is Paris” is exactly the sort of frothy comedy you’d expect from Lubitsch; it’s a delight from start to finish. This new restoration also included a new score by Ben Model that I thought really suited the film well. Be sure to also look for Myrna Loy in a small role playing a maid.
“PRINCESS TAM TAM” (1935)
What a treat it was to see the one and only Josephine Baker in one of her few film appearances. This was the world television premiere of a new restoration; Baker made the film while she was living and working in France, where she found much more success (and less racism) than she did in the United States. Directed by Edmond T. Greville, this Pygmalion-esque story sees Baker playing Alwina, a Tunisian girl who is noticed by a French author, Max (Albert Prejean), who is struggling to find inspiration for his next novel. He decides to create a character around Alwina, and brings her back to Paris with him, where he presents her to society as Princess Tam Tam from Africa. Baker is infinitely gorgeous and charming, but also relatable, as she gets into some fish out of water antics when whisked from her poor existence to high society. Like “Pygmalion” and “My Fair Lady,” there are some problematic elements to the way Alwina is used by the other characters, Max in particular, but she ends up okay in the end. Baker gets to sing and dance two numbers in the film, the latter coming on the heels of an elaborate Busby Berkeley-like routine.
MORE RECOMMENDATIONS (all currently streaming on HBO Max):
“THE MORTAL STORM” (1940)