Ranking the 2017 TCM Film Festival
Another TCM Classic Film Fest is behind us, and as usual, I had a great time enjoying all these great films and spending time with other classic film fans. As regular attenders are wont to say, there are no strangers at TCM Fest, and that was proven true over and over again last weekend. I did meet up with several friends from past festivals, but I also struck up conversations with folks in line around me constantly, and that simply doesn’t happen the same way at other fests. It’s easy enough to watch most (not all!) of the TCM Fest programming from home, but the atmosphere and excitement of being there can’t be replicated.
I mostly didn’t see the big-name, special guest-heavy films that filled the big Chinese theatre, though if you wanted to see Michael Douglas, Carl and Rob Reiner, Peter Bogdanovich, and Sidney Poitier, you certainly could’ve, and you would’ve had a wonderful time. Instead, here’s what I saw:
1. Black Narcissus (1947)
I’ve seen Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s masterpiece of hot-under-the-collar nuns twice before, including once at an earlier TCM Film Festival, but this screening was none the less revelatory and resulted in a 300-spot jump. The story is an odd one that doesn’t necessarily speak to me too much personally, but is rendered with such beauty and stylistic flair that I’m entranced by it every time anyway. Deborah Kerr leads a group of hand-picked nuns to a remote mountaintop location in the Himalayas that used to be a harem – whether there’s some remaining psychosexual energy in the place or what, it quickly becomes impossible for them to stay there. Kerr is haunted by dreams of her life before she took orders, others find themselves unable to cope with the loneliness, and one, Sister Ruth, is defiant in the face of authority and maybe worse. But this isn’t either of your preconceptions of “nuns gone wild” – it’s neither exploitative nor pious, but artfully transgressive, with gauzy pastel photography (by the amazing Jack Cardiff) giving way to lurid reds as Sister Ruth goes off the edge. One fellow TCMFF-goer tweeted “the best part of Black Narcissus is when it turns into a Hammer horror film in the last act” and they are not wrong about the look of the film.
Here’s what bowled me over this time: we watched a nitrate print, beautifully preserved by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Nitrate was the original film stock, in use up until 1952, when it was replaced by the much safer (less flammable) acetate film stock. It’s only been rarely screened since then, because it requires very special handling for the sake of safety. The Egyptian Theatre, where we were, had to undergo extensive renovation to its projection booth just to screen this nitrate series for TCM Fest (and will be showing more in the future, now that they’ve done it).
So, why go to all this trouble? Nitrate has real silver in it, and especially in scenes with high contrast lighting or highlights or water, it shines. Literally. Now, when I was reading about nitrate before seeing it for myself, I was expecting something very obviously brighter or shimmery, and it’s not quite that. It’s a subtle difference from acetate 35mm film, but it’s real. It’s difficult to describe, and I couldn’t put my finger on it until about halfway through, which suddenly I realized that the people in the film looked somehow 3D. They didn’t look like flat images on a flat screen, but like living people with depth and physical presence. It’s like finally seeing the real thing when you’ve become accustomed to a facsimile. I don’t imagine nitrate screenings will be very common throughout the country, but if you get a chance to see one at the Egyptian or elsewhere (there’s also a Nitrate Film Festival at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, NY), don’t pass it up. Especially if it’s for a film as good and gorgeous as Black Narcissus. After this rewatch, I ranked Black Narcissus at #241, or 94% on my chart. It’s globally ranked #269 with 779 rankers.
2. Laura (1944)
Laura is another old favorite of mine that screened on nitrate – it actually screened the night before Black Narcissus, and I didn’t one hundred percent get the beauty of the nitrate on this one. There were a few scenes where it stood out (rain on the tops of cars in one scene definitely had that shimmery look I was expecting when I went in), and it did look great and everything, but I didn’t have that aha moment with it. I don’t know if I just needed time to acclimate to it, or if the Laura print was just a little more beat up, or if the B&W was just an extra level of stylization that kept me from feeling the naturalistic realism that I felt with Black Narcissus.
But this is all really by the by, because Laura is still a fantastic movie, a noir that manages to be both very romantic and anti-romantic at the same time, is chock full of well-defined supporting characters, and has one of the most witty and sardonic scripts of all time. I reranked it after this rewatch, and it stayed within 20 spots of where it was, suggesting my existing love for it was well-justified. After this rewatch, I ranked Laura at #244, or 94% on my chart. It’s globally ranked #162 with 1866 rankers.
3. Speedy (1928)
The first first-time watch on my list, this was pretty much my one must-see of the whole festival when the program was released. Even then, after Black Narcissus, I very nearly bailed on it to see one more nitrate film, but I decided to stick with the original plan, and I’m glad I did (I also wish I had the power to clone myself). I’m becoming a bigger Harold Lloyd fan every film I see, and this one is definitely another great one. Harold’s girlfriend’s father has an small independent horse-drawn trolley line in a corner of New York City, but the big corporate line wants to buy him out – he can only legally hold out as long as he runs his train once every 24 hours. The corporate bigwigs hire gangsters to try to keep that from happening, and it results in several fights and chases, including a breakneck race through the center of NYC. Lloyd was just about as much of an action star as he was a comedian, and that comes through strongly here. I ranked it #330, or 91% on my chart. It’s globally ranked #3236 with 129 rankers.
4. The Palm Beach Story (1942)
This has been an underrated Preston Sturges favorite of mine for quite a while, and it was great fun to see it with a packed audience at Grauman’s Chinese (sorry, TCL, I refuse to stop calling it Grauman’s). Claudette Colbert is simply magnificent as the woman who loves her husband (Joel McCrea) but leaves him to find a millionaire instead – so she can get enough money to fund McCrea’s airport prototype. It’s pretty wacky and probably requires some 1940s glasses to not find it totally regressive in many ways, but it moves so fast it’s hard not to get caught up in the hilarity. And my favorite part – the scenes we see under the opening credits of Claudette Colbert both running to the church to get married and tied up in the closet aren’t explained until literally the last five seconds of the film, in a twist ending that I promise no one saw coming. Did I mention Colbert’s wardrobe is to die for? Mary Astor is also a treasure in one of her very few comedic roles – she didn’t feel comfortable with it at all, but that doesn’t show on screen at all. This is the kind of role that Myrna Loy would’ve played in the early 1930s (think Love Me Tonight), and it’s great. I didn’t rerank this one, because it feels right at #450, or 88% on my chart. Globally ranked #1156 with 348 rankers.
5. Theodora Goes Wild (1936)
I almost avoided this one because I saw it years ago and didn’t like it much. Because it worked out best on the schedule, I decided to go ahead and treat it as an opportunity to re-evaluate, and I’m so glad I did! This was by far the biggest mover on my chart, from around #3100 right into my Top 1000. This was Irene Dunne’s first comedy role after doing mostly weepies in the early 1930s, and she absolutely kills it. She’s Theodora Lynn in a small, gossipy Connecticut town named after her family, so the news that she’s the author behind a scandalous bestseller would be quite a shock to her two conservative maiden aunts and the rest of the town. The rest of the movie involves Melvyn Douglas (suave and goofy at the same time), her book’s jacket illustrator, trying to bring her out of her shell – and when he succeeds, he only gets himself in more trouble. It can get a little shrill at times, but oh, it’s funny and Dunne is a revelation. I reranked it at #758, or 80% on my chart. It’s globally ranked #8678 with 38 rankers.
6. The Underworld Story (1950)
Anytime an unseen noir shows up on the schedule it’s a priority, and this one I hadn’t even heard of! It was quite a gem, too, with noir stalwart Dan Duryea playing an unscrupulous but not really villainous newspaper man whose hardball stories get him kicked off his paper and into the world of local smalltown news. When a major publisher’s daughter is murdered in his area, he seizes the opportunity to milk the story for all its worth. There’s also some racial tension involved (unfortunately, in 1950 it was still common to cast white actresses as black characters, and that’s a major sticking point with this movie) and some convoluted plotting involving a gangster that I’m still not sure I totally understand. That doesn’t take anything away from the enjoyment of the film, though, which is ready for rediscovery. I ranked it #851, or 78% on my chart. It’s globally ranked #21631 with 8 rankers.
7. One Hour With You (1932)
This was another rewatch for me technically speaking, but I literally remembered nothing about it at all, so it may as well have been new-to-me. Like Theodora Goes Wild, I remembered not caring for it too much, but in the many years since then I’ve gained a lot more appreciation for Ernst Lubitsch and I hoped I’d get more out of it this time. And it did move up in my rankings, but only a few hundred spots. It’s fascinating to compare this 1932 Lubitsch musical starring Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier with Love Me Tonight, the 1932 Rouben Mamoulian musical starring Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier…Lubitsch is by far the more well-respected director, but there’s little question that Love Me Tonight is the far superior film of these two. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Lubitsch took over from George Cukor during the production, which may have added to some of the disjunction.
One Hour With You is often engaging, but suffers from quite a bit of early talkie awkwardness, something Mamoulian managed to avoid almost completely. On the other hand, Chevalier is perhaps more charming here than in most of his other early ’30s films (the height of his popularity) – his “oh that Mitzi” is hilarious and endearing even when the topic is his potential unfaithfulness to his wife. Also I can’t for the life of me keep Charles Ruggles and Roland Young straight, especially when they’re in the same film playing similar roles. I reranked it at #1274, or 67% on my chart. It’s globally ranked #4586 with 119 rankers.
8. This is Cinerama (1952)
It was a real treat to see This is Cinerama, the first film in the short-lived ultra-wide-screen process, in the Cinerama dome, one of the few places in the world where Cinerama can be projected as intended. This is the kind of experience where it doesn’t really matter how good the film is or not, because you won’t get the experience anywhere else. The film is basically a travelogue/demo of Cinerama, which starts in full-frame with Lowell Thomas explaining the history of film (great overview, too, especially considering that people in 1952 likely wouldn’t have been able to see things like The Great Train Robbery) and how it all leads up to Cinerama, which he’s sure will be the next evolution in cinematic technology. Turns out it wasn’t, and they only made about 13 films in the format, which required a special oversized camera and three projectors to play it back.
This first one, however, was the biggest box office hit of 1952, showing us spectacle from all over the world, from ballet and opera to folk dances and rollercoasters, finishing with an extended sequence in Cypress Gardens, FL (water skiing tricks!) and then a flyover across most of the United States. It gets a little sickeningly patriotic at the end if that bothers you, but I mean, our country does have some pretty great scenery, whatever else you can say about it. Even if Cinerama didn’t become the norm, this type of photography has become a staple not only of IMAX films but also any movie or TV show set in a visually stunning place. Very glad I made time for this one. I ranked it #1296, or 67% on my chart. It’s globally ranked #18682 with 4 rankers.
9. The Great Nickelodeon Show
Speaking of experiences you can’t get anywhere else…this special program is a recreation of what you might have seen at a nickelodeon theatre in the early days of cinema. Nickelodeons came into existence in about 1903, as films were morphing from 1-3 minute novelties into longer narratives (around 10 minutes) – but they were still part of a longer program that included vaudeville routines, magic acts, and live musical performances.
This recreation created and directed by professor Russell Merritt mixes all those things together with an extra dash of showmanship. He also has the advantage of being able to mix eras on the films he chooses to include, and the films spanned 1903 (Melies’ The Kingdom of the Fairies) to 1913 (Lois Weber’s astounding Suspense), with novelty songs and a hilarious magic/comedy act in between. It’s pitched to please modern audiences, so I’d take its actual authenticity to historic nickelodeon programs with a grain of salt, but it was a wonderfully enjoyable program that did capture the flavor of the time with a lot of great detail – like the original lobby cards and advertisements shown before the show started. There were five films included in total, all of them enjoyable, though films from this era tend to hit in the bottom 1/3 of my chart.
10. Zardoz (1974)
I did not know what I was getting into with this one, other than it was supposed to be one of those “so bad it’s good” kind of movies, and what more do you want from a midnight movie at a festival? I still hold that the intro given by Millie, one of TCM’s programmers (she remains my favorite intro-er at the festival, because she’s hilarious), wherein she tried to explain what we were about to see was better than the actual film.
That said, I enjoyed the film, too – it’s actually a really good thing it starts with a giant floating head telling a bunch of guys riding around in thong diapers that “the gun is good, the penis is evil” because that kind of lets you know what kind of film you’re in for so you can recalibrate your expectations. Sean Connery is one of the outlanders who worships the head, but he starts to see through it and jumps in, taking him to the vortex where immortal humans live and exercise control over the outside world. It actually does make narrative sense in a weird way, but it takes some pretty bizarre (and sometimes uncomfortably rapey) methods to get there.
I’m actually a pretty big fan of John Boorman’s Excalibur, and even though this is way more WTF than that, it does have a similar feel to it, in terms of its dreamy, earthy mood. This is the most difficult kind of film to rank, and I have no idea where it’ll end up over time, but I ranked it at #2124, or 45% on my chart. It’s globally ranked at #6096 by 517 users.