Bright Lights Film Journal

Movie Love: The First TCM Classic Film Festival

“Standing in line ahead of someone was enough to start such a friendship.”

Film Studies has long suffered from a chip on the shoulder, and those of us who practice Film Studies have often either felt the need to justify what we do or literally been challenged by others to justify it. Psychoanalytic theory, feminist theory, auteur theory, narrative theory — all ways in which we try to explain the value and effects of movies in our lives. But there are times when the love of analyzing movies can get in the way of loving the movies.

At the first TCM Classic Film Festival, held in Hollywood in April 2010, I was among several thousand people gathered to worship Hollywood movies. It was unpretentious and exciting, and reminded me of a passage in Pauline Kael’s introductory notes to Movie Love: “An avidity for more is built into the love of movies. Something else is built in: you have to be open to the idea of getting drunk on movies . . .” (xii). The festival organizers, the TCM hosts introducing the screenings (which included not only Robert Osbourne and Ben Mankiewicz, but also Alec Baldwin, Tim Roth, and Curtis Hanson among others), and the honored guests all embraced fandom as a legitimate — maybe the only legitimate — response to movies: sincere, personal, and emotional.

Among some festivalgoers there was a desire to prove the seriousness of the event — perhaps to themselves as much as to anyone else. The number of people with press passes “covering” the festival for their own websites or blogs was almost comical. There were certainly pontificators, announcing dramatically that “Metropolis is the most over-rated film of all time” to fans lined up to see what was booked against Metropolis. But while some of the attendees were dogmatic, the festival programmers were not. They admitted that not everyone admires Metropolis, and offered us Some Like It Hot and In a Lonely Place as alternatives. Those planning the festival knew that not only was it good sense to provide options (which worked out beautifully as far as I could tell, since I wasn’t turned away from anything because of a full house); they also recognized that movie love is a personal thing. For some people, Metropolis is a lovable movie. As Norman Lloyd so aptly quoted director Jean Renoir during a Q-and-A session: “Everyone has his reasons.”

Far more prevalent than the pontificators were the sharers. In the same author’s note to Movie Love, Kael points out, “Being able to talk about movies with someone — to share the giddy high excitement you feel — is enough for a friendship” (xii). Standing in line ahead of someone was enough to start such a friendship. It was touching to see people saving a place in line while their significant other went to the bathroom, and touching to talk to those who said their boyfriend had bought them the festival pass but wasn’t interested in old movies himself. Those individuals asked others in line to save their place while they went to the bathroom, and I didn’t see anyone question that liberal interpretation of queue etiquette. The geek factor was obvious to everyone, but despite the fact that the press coverage frequently mentioned fans dressed in tuxedos and retro Hollywood fashions, there wasn’t much showing off at all. Instead, there were passionate discussions about Imitation of Life (1959) and Sunset Boulevard (screened at 9 a.m.!), and huddled conversations over the festival program as people planned their screenings for the day. In its coverage, Vanity Fair called the Festival “Comic-Con for the Martini Set,” but festivalgoers were more likely to be found at Johnny Rockets grabbing a hamburger between movies than at the Vanity Fair opening night party held at the Kress nightclub. No one I overheard was talking about whether to wear their “vintage formalwear” (Keegan). Conversations were more likely to be along the lines of “My favorite” . . . “I love . . .” and “I remember the first time I saw it . . .” And Tim Roth’s inspired introduction to a strange British film called No Orchids for Miss Blandish also focused on love. The movie, he said, represents the love the British had for Hollywood; UK filmmakers adored American crime movies so much, they tried to make one, and they couldn’t: Miss Blandish is the convoluted and fascinating result.

There was also a rather exhilarating protective instinct at the festival. After Friday morning’s screening of Sweet Smell of Success, Tony Curtis was conveyed to the stage in a wheelchair and enthusiastically tried to answer questions but couldn’t focus. That was the talk of the festival — very sad, but it wasn’t the festival’s fault, everyone agreed. Again and again, in the lobbies at Grauman’s Chinese, in the courtyard of the Egyptian Theatre, in “Club TCM” at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the refrain was, “His people should not have permitted it; they should have let the festival planners know.” That protective instinct was evident in other instances as well; according to reports and blogs about the Luise Rainer appearance at The Good Earth screening (I was watching Saboteur in the presence of Norman Lloyd), since she had lost or broken her hearing aid, her onstage interview with TCM host Robert Osbourne was on the verge of crash-and-burn, when members of the audience suggested that he write down his questions and hand them to her so that she could answer. That was apparently a huge success.

In short, it didn’t matter that Jean-Paul Belmondo (appearing at a screening of Breathless) doesn’t speak English, and it didn’t matter that Esther Williams waved to the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel crowd from a wheelchair at poolside. What mattered was that the fans had an opportunity to applaud them as a way of recognizing these stars’ importance in their lives and thanking them for their appearances in film. This is one of the most amazing things about the movies, and something I believe is almost magical: In the world of The Adventures of Robin Hood, Olivia DeHavilland and Errol Flynn are always young and beautiful, and they make impossible characters such as Marion and Robin come to life. The movie worlds never grow old, never change, and we give ourselves up to them again and again. They may not all be comforting and joyous worlds, of course. Take, for example, the beautiful, complete, and dangerous world of Sweet Smell of Success: steely, glittering surfaces; light reflected by rain-soaked streets and taxi cab windows; the characters in their armor — Sidney Falco in his slick suit, J. J. Hunsecker in his metal-rimmed glasses, and Suzy Hunsecker huddled in her fur coat in scene after scene, cringing from the world and her brother’s desire to control her. And the film world has its own life in sound too — the jazzed-up soundtrack, the language that no one in the real world ever spoke: “I’d hate to take a bite out of you; you’re a cookie full of arsenic.”

The TCM Festival viewers relished that experience of being invited into another world, giving up the control we have with the VCR, the DVR, Tivo. Without exception the announcement that inspired the most applause before each movie was, “Please refrain from texting during the screening.” Who would want to text? We were in Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, one of those palaces that prepares you for something wonderful, even impossible, to take place. Surrounded by strangers, we didn’t speak and barely moved. Sometimes the tension was palpable, as when Gene Tierney, playing Ellen Harland in Leave Her to Heaven, stared from behind her sunglasses as her young, disabled brother-in-law drowned a few feet from the rowboat she sat in. And the audience literally gasped as Hitchcock’s saboteur fell over the railing on the torch of the Statue of Liberty. I romantically like to think — but maybe it is true — that people used to feel that way at the movies, when over half the United States population went to the pictures every week. You see the photos of people lined up to see a Judy Garland film or a Cecil B. DeMille epic, and you read about capacity crowds at palaces seating 3,000 people or more.

I thought more than once of the contrast between the TCM Festival and academic conferences. I looked for people I know from my 25 years in Film Studies and didn’t see one. I looked for film scholars whose works I’ve read and assigned for my classes; the only one I saw was Donald Bogle, who gave brilliant introductions to a series of controversial cartoons withdrawn from circulation in the 1960s by Warner Bros. due to their racist content. True, there were so many people there that I could have missed the academics, but I’m not sure many attended. I’ve found the same thing at other non-academic film-related events, such as the annual conclaves organized by the Theatre Historical Society. The THS conclaves I’ve been to — Chicago in 2003 and San Jose/San Francisco in 2008 — have been profoundly moving experiences. During the San Jose event, the group visited 25 theatres in four days, including the working nickelodeon at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum. The conclave participants are generally not professional historians or scholars, but I’ve learned more from them than I have in many a classroom, and their sheer joy in exploring and discussing movies, music, architecture, theatre organs — a whole range of topics — is contagious. They love this stuff — and the TCM Festival had the same emotional resonance.

Pauline Kael again, from that same short but heartfelt introduction: “Our emotions rise to meet the force coming from the screen, and they go on rising throughout our moviegoing lives. When this happens in a popular art form — when it’s an art experience that we discover for ourselves — it is sometimes disparaged as fannishness. But there’s something there that goes deeper than connoisseurship or taste. It’s a fusion of art and love” (xii). We academics may make a living understanding the classical Hollywood cinema, but understanding it is nothing like experiencing it.

Works Cited

Kael, Pauline. “Author’s Note.” Movie Love: Complete Reviews 1988-1991. New York: Plume/Penguin Books, 1991. xi-xii.

Keegan, Rebecca. “TCM Classic Film Festival: Comic-Con for the Martini Set.” Vanity Fair online, 27 April 2010. Web 16 August 2010.