For 15 years, Turner Classic Movies has made its money squeezing aging movies onto the small screen. Starting 22 April, it is bringing them back to the big screen in the first TCM Classic Film Festival, running until 25 April in some of Hollywood’s most historic cinemas. Charles Tabesh, Senior VP for programming at TCM and Festival programmer, says, “Our main goal is to enhance the TCM brand, and we are trying to do that in two ways: by further establishing ourselves at the authority in classic movies and by creating an environment where TCM and classic movie fans can get together and share in their passion for these films and stars.”
Others see the Festival less parochially. George Stevens, Jr., the founding director of the American Film Institute, says he “takes his hat off to TCM.” With highlights from over 70 years of movies, the Festival celebrates what Stevens calls America’s unique contribution to the world’s artistic heritage. “If you remove the contributions of the U.S. from the corpus of classical music, it’s not a major loss. If you take the U.S. contribution to the cinema away, you severely deplete the body of the cinematic arts.” The Classic Film Festival also celebrates the restoration of that heritage, endangered well into the second half of the 20th century.
The program mixes fan favorites like Casablanca and Some Like it Hot with dramas like Sweet Smell of Success and the rarely seen Joan Crawford vehicle, A Woman’s Face. It includes ‘60s landmarks such as The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy, early talkies and a snappy arc of romantic comedies. While the appeal of a movie released from the box in the corner might be enough for some fans, TCM has cannily recruited a stellar roster of celebrity presenters to boost attendance. They range from the two oldest living Best Actor and Actress Oscar winners, Luise Rainer (for 1937’s The Good Earth) and Ernest Borgnine (introducing Jubal, 1956) to directors like Peter Bogdanovich and historians like Leonard Matlin, who mix a fan’s avidity with critical depth and multiple perspectives on the art of the movie.
In early April, moviegoers in Boston, New York, Chicago, Washington DC, and San Francisco snagged a taste of exactly what this tactic might add when TCM promoted the Festival with a road show of movies set (if not necessarily filmed) in each city. In Washington DC’s oldest cinema, the Avalon, Stevens introduced his father’s multiple-Oscar-nominated comedy, The More The Merrier, with the offhand familiarity and illuminating anecdotes that come from a lifetime steeped in moviemaking. In quick succession, the audience learned that Stevens Senior despised the term “screwball comedy,” and was profoundly influenced by Stan Laurel, from whom he learned that comedy could be complex, both graceful and human. Stevens deployed as sharp a wit off-screen as his scriptwriters did on-screen. In his long-running battle with sound crews who wanted loud, clear sound, he ordered McCrea on the first day of The More The Merrier to remember that, “Unless the sound guy says you’re speaking too low, you’re speaking too loud.”
Stevens Sr. also led a U.S. Army film unit that covered the war from D-Day to the early months of peace in 1946, including the liberation of the concentration camps at Dachau, an odyssey into what his son called, “men at their best and men at their worst,” and an experience that preceded his two Best Director Academy Awards for A Place in the Sun (1951) and Shane (1953). Unlike the movie introductions on TCM, which sound over-scripted and sometimes plain arch, Stevens stressed the intimacy of the collaboration between director, audience, and film, consecrated as the lights go down and the opening credits roll. If the Festival can sustain this level of participation from its guest hosts, some of its screenings may become very special indeed.
The very act of watching a movie more than 60 years old on a big screen seems something of a miracle, and TCM has highlighted in the Classic Film Festival the role of film restoration in its viability as a channel by launching it with a new print of A Star is Born, and including freshly restored prints of Metropolis (plus additional footage) and Jean-Luc Godard’s ambivalent love poem to Hollywood, Breathless. Without the work of the American Film Institute, founded in 1967 with a mandate to preserve America’s film heritage, TCM would have been impossible.
With the gratified bemusement of someone who recalls when classic films were entertainment ephemera rather than art, Stevens Jr. remembered how new reproduction technologies (video and then DVD) powered the preservation movement—even if it is at least partly driven by archive holders’ greed for new profits. Almost overnight, “the person in the dusty office labeled studio archivist became vice-president of corporate expansion.” According to Tabesh, for the Festival TCM is “working to get the very best prints for each film… In many cases, we’re helping to fund a restoration or we’re paying for new prints to be created… It’s extremely important to us that the quality of what you see is the very best.”
The exceptional artistry of the directing in these classic movies, particularly from the ‘40s and ‘50s, is “the very best.” Directors’ abilities to orchestrate action within the frame, rather than the more common technique today of using cutting and camera moves to create drama, depends on the quality of the craft departments, especially in lighting, which the studios fostered and independent directors in the ‘50s and ‘60s inherited.
These luxuriant textures also help to illustrate social tensions in many of these classic films. The More The Merrier, for example, charts how Connie Milligan (Jean Arthur), an independent woman with a passion for order, succumbs to the chaos of both the capital’s wartime housing crisis and the romantic coup de foudre. Visiting housing honcho Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn) persuades her to let him share her tiny apartment, and he then lets half of his room to likable sergeant Joe Carter (Joel McCrea), on his way to a top secret posting in Africa. She’s battered into submission by the two men, especially the surrogate father figure, Dingle. With Joe, the definitely sexual (not romantic) tensions are quite explicit. Late one night, on the steps of the DC row house where Connie’s flat is perched, a seductively lit Joe tries to embrace an even more luminous Arthur, who delicately blocks each incursion without in any way attempting to discourage her ardent suitor. Exemplifying the less is more principle, the scene is both more overt about the nature of heterosexual desire and more erotic than any naked love-making could be.
The movie can’t end in a way that both honors Connie’s independence and intelligence, and cleanly shift her into the role of subservient wife, neatly parceled for her domestic future by Dingle. It was not a new problem in 1943, and it confounded Shakespeare, too. But the somewhat miserable finale—of crying, bemoaning, and mooning—conveys the ambivalence with which working women in wartime faced the return to marriage and family when they had enjoyed their own careers, homes, and even cars for several years. Such movies probe the limits of propriety without snapping them completely, but the threads of respectability at times run very thin indeed. In this sense, the TCM Classic Film Festival not only reminds Americans of the way we were, but also helps us to understand how we got from there to here.