Ranking the TCM Film Festival: Days 3 & 4
After spending the first two days of TCM Fest seeing all new-to-me films and a lot of obscurities, I took it a little easier on myself for the second half of the fest. Only three features a day (instead of the six I watched on Friday!) plus a shorts program, and only two new-to-me films. I ended up with a total of 14 features (10 new-to-me) and 7 shorts at the festival. Not too shabby for a relatively relaxed schedule.
And that was my festival! As you can tell from my preview post, and from the Top Tens I didn’t see, there are many different festivals you could have at TCM Fest. Heck, you could probably have a festival filled with just celebrity conversations and special panels at Club TCM and see no movies at all. If you decide to come next year, hit me up on Twitter (@faithx5) and let me know what TCM festival YOU’RE planning on.
The 90th Anniversary of Vitaphone (1928-1929)
I’m putting this program of Vitaphone shorts at the top of my ranked list not because each individual film ranked that high (my individual ranking of each of the seven shorts shown is below), nor is the average very high, but because this is the kind of experience you can’t get anywhere else. Oh, you can get Vitaphone shorts on DVD now and watch them at home (and I may very well do so!), but learning a bit about the background of Vitaphone, seeing examples of the technology, and hearing about the work of the Vitaphone Project to find and catalogue Vitaphone records and match them up with their restored films, not to mention seeing these shorts screened for an audience for the first time in nearly 90 years is a unique and wonderful experience. (The process was first implemented in 1926, hence the 90 years – the shorts shown all happened to be from 1928 and 1929.)
For a quick background, Vitaphone was the first synchronized sound process that actually worked – hundreds of attempts at adding sound to movies had been going on since the dawn of film itself, but while Vitaphone still used separate phonograph records (rather than recording the sound on the edge of the film the way it would soon be done), it made the essential step of using a single motor to drive both the film projector and the phonograph, thus keeping the two in sync at all times. For the most part, early Vitaphone films were simply recordings of popular vaudeville acts of the time – it was much cheaper for a theatre to rent a short film of a vaudeville act than to book the act itself live. It wasn’t long before vaudeville would die out entirely, and these Vitaphone shorts are an invaluable record of what vaudeville entertainment was like in the early decades of the 20th century. These shorts ranged from still well-known entertainers like George Burns and Gracie Allen (Lambchops) to now-forgotten acts like Molly Picon, Shaw and Lee, and Conlin and Glass. I found most of these more hilarious than I expected, and the audience was right there with me, which helped a lot. A few of these are available on YouTube, but it’s definitely not the same experience as watching them in pristine restorations on a big screen with an audience laughing along with you. These films may only get middling rankings on my chart, but as a whole, this was likely my favorite hour and a half of the entire festival, and I could’ve watched all Vitaphone shorts all day if they’d have let me.
I’m not giving the Flickchart rankings, because I added all these to the database, and I’m the only one to rank them so far. I’ll link the YouTubes on the ones available and you can join me.
Lambchops (Burns/Allen) – #1354 out of 3631 (63%) – YouTube
The Beau Brummels (Shaw/Lee) – #1557 out of 3630 (57%)
Sharps and Flats (Conlin/Glass) – #1808 out of 3633 (50%) – YouTube (excerpt)
Molly Picon (Celebrated Character Comedienne) – #2730 out of 3634 (25%)
Baby Rose Marie the Child Wonder (same Rose Marie who’s in The Dick Van Dyke Show) – #2731 out of 3628 (25%) – YouTube
Little Miss Everybody (Zelda Santley – celebrity impersonator) – #2735 out of 3635 (25%)
Don’t Get Nervous (Georgie Price) – #2915 out of 3632 (20%)
Band of Outsiders (1964)
The big draw here wasn’t the film, but seeing Anna Karina appear before it. Usually, I don’t choose what to see based on the celebrities (Friday night I chose a forgotten noir over Angela Lansbury, after all), but I’m kind of obsessed with Anna Karina. A shot of her from this film has been my blog header for a probably a decade, my daughter is named after her…yeah. I wasn’t going to miss this. I even skipped an entire time slot of films to make sure I got a good spot in line (#6, with two of my friends who are also Karina die-hards). We sat in the front row to see her, something I never do, but let me tell you, sitting five feet from Anna Karina and hearing her tell stories about meeting Jean-Luc Godard (and totally blowing him off when he wanted her to undress for a role in Breathless) was an incredible experience. She’s incredible. And she had Ben Mankiewicz, who interviews celebrities FOR A LIVING, at a loss for words more than once with her charm. Anyway, I did stay for the film because I love it, but it was also 10:30pm and I let myself doze, since I have seen it a half dozen times and at least twice in a theatre. I hear it’s being rereleased shortly in theatres (the restored print was lovely), so definitely check it out if you can. It’s probably Godard’s most accessible film if you’ve been wary of him.
It’s my #4 out of 3635 (100%). I didn’t bother to rerank it. Globally, it’s ranked #396 by 614 users.
The Band Wagon (1953)
This was up against Cinema Paradiso and Network as the final film of the festival – I waffled between this and Cinema Paradiso, which I also love, but I’m very happy I decided on this gorgeous gem of a movie musical, possibly the best Hollywood movie musical ever made that isn’t named Singin’ in the Rain. It basically does for Broadway what Singin’ did for Hollywood, a sharp but loving satire on producing a Broadway show. When a playwriting/songwriting couple and their friend, a movie actor on the decline (played by an aging Fred Astaire), plan a musical comedy comeback, they place it in the hands of the latest wunderkind Broadway director – who promptly decides it’s a modern take on the Faust story and turns the whole thing into a doom and gloom descent into hell. The film itself is hilarious, and with Cyd Charisse on hand, the dancing is simply superb – there are moments in the “Dancing in the Dark” number that are so sublime it makes my heart hurt. Even so, the best part of the whole movie is the extended jazz ballet parody of hardboiled detective fiction, called “The Girl Hunt Ballet.” This movie is perfect, and it was the perfect way to end the festival. It jumped up a little bit when I reranked it, which could just be the festival high. But I also haven’t seen it for several years and it was just as good or better than I remembered, so it may legitimately deserve its new spot in my Top 100.
I reranked it #76 out of 3627 (98%). I previously had it ranked at #134 (96%). Globally, it’s ranked #1613 by 337 users.
This was initially a choice based purely on timing, as the pair of early ’30s films in this timeslot (the other was A House Divided, see below) made for a double feature in place of seeing only a single film, and more movies = good. I’d seen the first Bulldog Drummond film a long time ago and remembered really enjoying it, so I’d hoped this would be a fun diversion if nothing more. When it was introduced as “the best film you’ve never seen,” I perked up – and was not disappointed at all. Apparently it’s almost impossible to screen due to rights issues (Criterion holds the rights to the character, but Fox, I think, still holds the original elements, and there’s a third company in there somewhere, too) and it’s not on DVD either, which is a crying shame, because this is an uproariously funny and exciting near-parody of the adventure/mystery genre. Think The Thin Man, but less sophisticated, even funnier, and with a ridiculous tongue-in-cheek plot that basically involves the same people getting kidnapped, locked up, escaping, and re-kidnapped over and over by an increasingly exasperated Warner Oland, while Drummond, an investigator played dashingly by Ronald Colman, tries to rescue everyone and also find out what Oland is up to when he can’t convince Scotland Yard anything is even going on. It sounds confusing and convoluted, but it is really just delightful and hilarious. I want to see it again right now and it’s kind of painful that there’s no easy/legal way to do so. Go bug Criterion right now to put this out on DVD, because they could do it if they really put their minds to it.
I ranked it #300 out of 3626 (92%). Globally, it’s ranked #16947 by 4 users
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
This was a last-minute change in my schedule, to a film that I had initially written off as something I had no intention of seeing at all. I’d seen it years ago and didn’t care for it (as you can see by my previous ranking at 26% on my chart). But the prospect of settling in for a western, a favorite genre, in gorgeous restored Technicolor (after a weekend of mostly B&W), with a friend who considers this one of her favorite movies convinced me to give the film another shot. And folks, this is why you rewatch films you didn’t like, especially when given an opportunity to see things on the big screen under near-perfect conditions. I loved it this time around, and can only figure my 14-year-old self had no idea how to process a story about a cavalry officer nearing retirement, and my 35-year-old self is at least somewhat capable of understanding the pathos involved in that particular life transition. John Ford uses every square inch of Monument Valley here, with John Wayne leading a cavalry unit on a scouting mission with various hostile Native American tribes converging on them. It has its exciting moments, but the joy is in the interactions between Wayne and the other men (and women) on the trip, including a wonderful Ben Johnson. I’ll admit it, in a festival whose theme is “moving pictures,” this is the only one that made me cry.
I reranked it #344 out of 3627 (91%). I previously had it ranked at #2696 (26%). Globally, it’s ranked #1318 by 500 users.
A House Divided (1931)
I missed the screening of this William Wyler Pre-Code on Saturday, and heard so many good things about it I was really glad it was one of the films repeated on Sunday. It’s a strange little film with Walter Huston and Douglass Montgomery as a father and son who couldn’t be more different – Huston is the epitome of a man’s man, strong and violent, virulent and dismissive of his son’s more sensitive nature, a contrast thrown in sharp relief immediately in the film, which opens with Huston’s wife’s funeral. His son only wants to get away, and Huston promises he can leave as soon as he (Huston) gets married again. But when Huston’s mail order bride arrives, Montgomery quickly falls for her as well, and she’s terrified by Huston’s violent nature, as well she should be. The film is almost Expressionist in its evocation of extreme character traits and gothic terror, with Huston a bigger than life villain who’s every bit as terrifying after he suffers a debilitating accident as he was before it. The finale in a massive storm at sea is a marvel of special effects for 1931, and highly effective. I think the film might go up in my rankings on rewatch; on a single watch, I was too busy processing what I was seeing to let myself go to it completely.
I ranked it #1360 out of 3627 (63%). Globally, it’s ranked #14409 by 7 users.
The War of the Worlds (1953)
This was another screening I didn’t plan to see (not a huge fan of the film), but the timing worked out perfectly and I figured, what the heck, maybe a rewatch on this one would improve it in my estimation. And it did, a little. But the main thing that made this an excellent use of my time was the discussion beforehand with Academy Award winning sound editor Ben Burtt and special effects technician Craig Barron, who discussed a little about the making of the film and then went into detail about the effects. Interestingly, people didn’t keep good records of how they made effects in those days, so Barron and Burtt had to deep dive into the Academy archives and find production stills and test footage to see what they might’ve done, and even do their own tests on some things to reverse engineer how they might’ve done some things. And any presentation that has a giant spring set up on stage to show how they got a specific sound for the flying saucers has my interest for sure. It was a really informative and fascinating discussion that certainly did help me appreciate the film more when we watched it. Also, there are certain scenes in the film that I admit work beautifully, especially the scene when the Martian eyes are searching for our hero couple in the abandoned house. Very effective. Also, the ultimate resolution of the film felt a little less deus ex machina to me this time, and a little more foreshadowed (probably because I’d seen it before and was looking for clues). That said, there are huge chunks of the film that are basically just the Martian war machines destroying everything in sight, and I don’t like destructo-porn from 1953 any more than I like it in 2015.
I reranked it #1757 out of 3625 (52%). I previously had it ranked at #2218. Globally, it’s ranked #1269 by 1749 users.
Top Ten Globally Ranked Films I Didn’t See
Just so you can see what all I missed out on by seeking out all these unknown films. Some of them came close to making my schedule, but I have seen all ten, and I’m happy with my choices.
Network (1976; ranked #89 by 6550 users)
Rocky (1976; ranked #97 by 65879 users)
The Big Sleep (1946; ranked #105 by 4024 users)
Ace in the Hole (1951; ranked #132 by 941 users)
The Kid (1921; ranked #181 by 1243 users)
The Long Goodbye (1973; ranked #204 by 1210 users)
Cinema Paradiso (1989; ranked #413 by 5039 users)
Forbidden Planet (1956; ranked #485 by 2401 users)
M*A*S*H (1970; ranked #510 by 7330 users)
A Face in the Crowd (1957; ranked #562 by 357 users)