Ranking the 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival
The title really should say ranking “my” TCM Classic Film Festival, because everyone who goes has a slightly different experience based on the films they choose to see. I generally stay away from the big events, the big guests, and the newer films, and gravitate more towards obscurities, Pre-Codes, and noirs. I only went to six films this year, Friday night and all day Saturday, but still managed to tick all my TCM Fest boxes: I saw a film in every venue, a noir, a Pre-Code, a silent, and a nitrate print. I saw nearly all of the friends I wanted to catch up with, though we didn’t share too much of the same schedules, so I didn’t get to spend as much time hanging out with them as I wanted, but all in all, given my truncated schedule, I consider the fest a major success — especially since all the films I saw ranked in the top half of my chart!
Even with a short schedule of films and less time for socializing than usual, TCM Fest has once again renewed my love of cinema. My life is very full of many things right now, and movies are taking more of a backseat. It’s not uncommon to get through a week or a month and find I’ve seen hardly any movies at all. But a weekend at TCM Fest always reminds me of why I love cinema. Most festivals are ways for independent filmmakers to get their films seen and distributed or for studios to build buzz for upcoming releases. TCM Fest is not like that. It truly is a celebration of cinema itself, of film history, of the people who made and make films, and of the people who love them. It’s a wonderful atmosphere for watching movies, or, dare I say, the best atmosphere for watching movies.
Now let’s talk about the movies themselves. Here’s what I watched this year at TCM Fest:
Blood Money (1933)
Gotta get some Pre-Code action! For reference, “Pre-Code” refers to films made in Hollywood between 1930 and 1934, a period of time marked by films full of sexual innuendo, violence, and crime before the Production Code started being enforced in 1934 and studios abided by its rules of content to avoid regional censorship. Made at the newly-formed 20th Century Fox studios by Darryl F. Zanuck (who had previously produced some of the most iconic Warner Bros Pre-Codes), Blood Money stars George Bancroft as a bail bondsman. Bancroft barely feels like a leading man, but he was actually one of the first on-screen gangsters in Josef von Sternberg‘s Underworld (1927). In her screen debut, Judith Anderson plays his long-suffering sort-of girlfriend (she loves him and he’s a dope, basically) — it was the first and last time she’d play a glamourpuss, but she’s not miscast. She’s great.
Meanwhile, Frances Dee — whose reputation is almost completely wholesome based on roles like the virtuous oldest sister in Little Women and her real-life long-term marriage to Joel McCrea — plays one of the most unwholesome characters I’ve ever seen in a Pre-Code film, who lives for excitement and danger in the form of men who are on the wrong side of the law and might even beat her up a little bit. No, I’m not joking. I won’t spoil her final scene in the film, but just know it was cut by censors in SEVERAL states and countries and made quite a few jaws drop in our 2019 theater. All this makes the film sound very salacious and interesting, and parts of it are, but there are admittedly some pacing issues and dull sections that make the film feel unsure of itself. There’s still plenty of stuff for Pre-Code fans to enjoy here, but it’s unlikely to win over too many new converts.
My ranking: #1534/4087 (62%)
When I saw a Tom Mix double-feature on the schedule, I knew I had to try to fit it in. I’m a big fan of silents and westerns, yet I haven’t seen very many silent westerns at all, and none from Tom Mix, among the most popular stars Hollywood has ever seen in his heydey. Mix was nearly legendary in his own time, with fan magazines telling all kinds of (mostly spurious) tales of his exploits in the Texas Rangers, Northwest Mounted Police, and fighting in wars in Cuba, Africa, and Asia. But he WAS a tremendous horseman, and if you know anything about horses you can tell instantly watching him. (His horse, Tony the Wonder Horse, is pretty amazing too.) He also had a flamboyant sense of style that sets him apart from his peers. His costumes are a bit over the top, but they add to the sense of style and fun in his films.
In this one, a train mogul is plagued by bandits and calls in a detective to come help, but when the detective (Mix, of course) goes to spy on the bandits first and ends up rescuing the mogul’s daughter from them, things get all mixed up and everyone assumes he’s the bandit. A lot of daring chase/action scenes and a lot of comic relief ensue. It all wraps up in under an hour, which is about right for something like this. I ended up just watching the first film of the double feature because I wanted to rush back and see Blood Money… I wouldn’t say I made the wrong decision, but I am pretty excited to see more Mix given how much I enjoyed this one.
My ranking: #1054/4086 (74%)
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
The story follows Louis, a young man who is a distant heir to a dukedom who figures out that if he can just get rid of all the relations in between himself and the title, he’d be set for life. So it’s a black comedy where he proceeds to off his extended family in unique and untraceable ways. The whole thing is told in flashback as he’s awaiting execution, but there are a few twists associated with that, too, so that frame story doesn’t at all spoil the plot.
Dennis Price, who plays Louis, holds the film together overall with imperious unflappability, but the real attraction in the film is Alec Guinness, who plays all nine of the family members in Louis’ way, from a doddering clergyman to an ancient bank magnate to LADY Agatha. He doesn’t get too much screentime as any of them, but he’s utterly delightful throughout. The comedies produced by Ealing Studios in the late 1940s and early 1950s stand among the greatest comedies (not just British comedies) ever made, and this just might be the greatest of them. I didn’t rerank it after watching it, but I probably should.
My ranking: #880/4088 (78%)
Road House (1948)
Now that TCM Fest is doing nitrate screenings at the Egyptian regularly, it’s become a must for me to see at least one of them. This year, this noir film that I haven’t seen was the obvious choice. Not only are the high contrasts of noir great for watching on nitrate, but also, any chance to see a “new” noir film on the big screen is worth it. In the past I’ve kind ambivalent about Ida Lupino as an actress (while hailing her unique accomplishments as a female director, the only one working in Hollywood at the time), but I’m a total convert now. She’s a force to be reckoned with, and her line delivery is so often not what you’d expect but absolutely perfect, granting insight not only into her own character but those around her. It’s rare I give line readings so much importance, but it’s warranted here.
The story starts off like a simple love triangle between her nightclub singer character, the boss of road house where she sings (Richard Widmark), and the manager of the road house (Cornel Wilde). Incidentally, I was expecting this road house to be a dive bar of some kind, but it’s a classy establishment with a nice bar, a huge lounge, and a bowling alley. Anyway. If you’ve seen Richard Widmark in any other movies, you might have an inkling where this goes, but he plays his character very open and almost childlike at first before going absolutely bonkers in the third act. It’s pretty awesome to behold. The script is wonderful, crackling with great one-liners for the whole cast, but especially Lupino and Celeste Holm, and though the direction is mostly serviceable, the bar fight in the middle might be the best-shot bar fight I’ve seen.
As a side note, I struck up a conversation with the person sitting next to me, who I didn’t know before sitting down. We talked for quite a while, I explained nitrate to her because she wasn’t entirely sure what it was, and she mentioned she did voice work for TCM. Turns out she’s the person who does the on-air voiceovers on the channel, like the programming lineups that are playing next, and some of the other interstitials. I’ve always wondered who did the voiceover on that, and now I’ve chatted with her! You never know who you’re going to sit next to at TCM Fest.
My ranking: #496/4084 (88%)
All Through the Night (1942)
Now here was the real surprise of the festival for me. Like, I’m a huge Bogart fan, I’d seen 25 of his movies, how in the world has this never come across my screen before? It’s been ranked by fewer than 100 people, so apparently it’s just generally obscure rather than a particular oversight on my part, but we should FIX THAT. Okay, so it’s 1941 when this is filmed, the US hasn’t entered the war yet, but it’s raging in Europe. Bogart is a well-to-do gangster in New York City, mostly in the sports promotion racket. His downstairs neighbor, a baker who makes his favorite cheesecake, gets mysteriously offed, a girl shows up looking for him then disappears, and Bogart and his crew get pulled into all this only to find a den of Nazis preparing some kind of attack, right under their noses.
What makes it so much fun is that the script is literally a wisecrack a minute, maybe even two a minute, and that script is delivered not just by Bogart, but by William Demarest, Frank McHugh, and other great character actors, PLUS up and comers Phil Silvers and Jackie Gleason, who were tossed in the movie at the last minute because Jack Warner was tired of them sitting around drawing paychecks. This whole thing should not work, but it does. You know that line in Casablanca, “There are certain areas of New York I wouldn’t advise you to try to invade,” that Rick says to Major Strasser (played by Conrad Veidt)? This film, made a year earlier than Casablanca, shows quite clearly what might happen if Nazis tried to invade New York, and guess what — the lead Nazi here is also played by Conrad Veidt. And Peter Lorre‘s skulking around as well. Ah, classic Hollywood. So if you love Casablanca and would like to see a hilarious and thrilling companion piece to it, or I mean, if you just like enjoyable movies, you’ve got to seek out this film.
By the way, there are convincing reasons that this film is underseen, as outlined by the film’s introducer, Michael Schlesinger: it didn’t do great at the box office, for one thing because by the time it was released, the US HAD entered the war and suddenly such a light and breezy take on the Nazi threat didn’t gel as well. One of the reasons for writing the film with Bogart as a gangster fighting Nazis was they didn’t totally know yet how Bogart would play as a non-gangster hero character, since he’d been playing gangster second leads for years. This was intended as a transitional film, with gangsters as heroes. How do you make gangsters heroes? Pit them against someone worse. Who’s worse than gangsters? Yep. The Maltese Falcon had been filmed but not released, but while this one failed at the box office, Falcon soared, so it was that one that cemented Bogart’s hero persona. Over time you’d think this one would have been rediscovered, but Schlesinger puts its continued obscurity down to its director, Vincent Sherman, who is perfectly serviceable but hasn’t gained the status that Huston, Curtiz, Walsh, and other Bogart directors have, so this film gets skipped over in favor of the ones with more prominent directors. I buy all of this and I yet I also think it’s hogwash. See this film. You won’t be sorry. It’s now #5 out of 26 on my Bogart chart.
My ranking: #288/4085 (93%)
Star Wars (1977)
I likely wouldn’t have gone to see Star Wars on my own at TCM Fest. I tend to prioritize smaller, more obscure films I haven’t seen, not giant blockbusters I’ve seen a dozen times, no matter how much I love them (and it is in my Top 50). But my older daughter is six now and old enough to go to TCM Fest screenings, she’s a big Star Wars fan, and we decided it was worth keeping her up past midnight to see this at the Chinese Theatre, where it played to sold-out crowds in 1977. So my husband brought her down in the early evening, we grabbed a snack, and settled in to wait, hoping we’d get in from the standby line (since I didn’t have a pass for her.) We didn’t have any problems getting in, and the experience was pretty magical. She didn’t care as much for the pre-film discussion with Ben Burtt, Dennis Muren, and Richard Edlund, who did the sound design and the miniatures filming unit on the film, but I loved it. I’m sure a lot of huge Star Wars fans already know about all the special effects stuff, but a lot of it was new to me and fun to hear.
Then the movie started, and my goodness — I had never seen it on the big screen before either, and it is just tremendous. I noticed so many new things! Little things, like dents on R2 I’d never seen before, line readings that had escaped my attention, and the overwhelmingness of certain sound queues. The Falcon shook the theater! And Ben Kenobi’s scream to scare off the sand people was terrifying! (My husband told me later they amped up that scream for the special editions, which is what was screened, and that deflated my enthusiasm a LITTLE bit, but not a lot; it was so visceral in the moment.) My daughter stayed awake the whole time, amazingly, and loved the experience, too. This is what it’s all about, folks.
My ranking: #48/4088 (99%)