Ranking the TCM Film Festival: Days 1 & 2
It’s difficult to capture the experience of the TCM Film Festival in a blog post, because it’s not just the ability to see beloved favorites and exciting new discoveries on the big screen, it’s not just seeing and hearing wonderful stars of yesteryear talk about their careers and their lives, and it’s not even just learning about the background and the history of Hollywood cinema, even though it is definitely all these things. It’s also standing in line and chatting with the people around you, whether you knew them ahead of time or not – unlike most film festivals where people are there for any number of reasons (they’re journalists doing a job, they’re film distributors looking for product, they’re filmmakers checking out other films, they’re personal friends of filmmakers, or they’re just film fans) and may not share much in common, people at TCM Fest are there really for one reason only: they love classic film. There are variations, as some people are more into discoveries and others are more into celebrities, but by and large, you’re going to find something to talk about with whoever you’re with in line. And the fans are all excited to be there (it’s not really a job, even if they’re there as media), they’re all friendly, and even standing in line for an hour is part of the joy because of the conversations and friends you’re making.
It’s a bonus experience if you’re a TCM fan on Twitter, because the #TCMParty contingent is STRONG at the festival. I never went to a screening where I didn’t have Twitter friends at least nearby even if I didn’t manage to sit with them, and most of the time we traveled in shifting groups of two to ten! If you are planning to come to TCM Fest in the future and you’re on Twitter, I urge you to get involved with the #TCMParty group ahead of time – they’re great fun, and you’ll always have friends in every screening.
Now, on to the films. If you recall the preview post I did, you’ll notice right away that these ranking posts bear almost no resemblance to it – that’s because I personally tend to gravitate toward discoveries and rare films rather than the newer and more available films that tend to appear on streaming or digital rental services. The good news is, you can have any number of incredible festivals depending on what films you choose. Here is mine, with the films I saw Thursday and Friday ranked.
Shanghai Express (1932)
The pairing of Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich is the stuff of legend in Hollywood history, known for style and allure in their seven films together. I’d seen their first, The Blue Angel, and thought it was pretty good, and a later one, The Devil is a Woman, and didn’t get into it at all, but kept hoping that I’d eventually find the right one. Based on what I’d heard (and my general love for movies set on trains), I had a good feeling about Shanghai Express and sure enough, I loved it! Dietrich is Shanghai Lily, a woman known throughout China (at least among English-speaking military and opportunists) for traveling up and down the coast, and back and forth on the Shanghai Express taking advantage of men to her own benefit. This particular train trip brings an old flame back into her life, though. Meanwhile, a civil war in China causes delays and dangers to the travelers. Whereas The Blue Angel was really Emil Jannings‘ show, and The Devil is a Woman seemed pointless and kind of cruel, Shanghai Express sparkles while simultaneously reveling in the inherent sleaze of its setting. It’s both thrilling and funny, seductive and sublime. I’ve mostly mentioned Dietrich, who is superb, but the supporting cast is great, too – Anna May Wong nearly steals the show in a couple of scenes, and Eugene Pallette is an endearingly blustering American.
I ranked it #199 out of 3620 (95%). Globally, it is ranked #3278 by 153 users.
He Ran All the Way (1951)
One thing you learn quickly at TCM Fest is that plans can change at any time, and this screening was the result of a last-minute change of plans – my intended film here was 1933’s Double Harness, with William Powell, but when I got out of Shanghai Express an hour before Double Harness, the queue was already out the door. Turned out to have been one of the most popular screenings of the festival and nearly all of the line I was in got shut out (what we learned: don’t program William Powell Pre-Codes in the tiny theatre). But the bonus was that I was able to head over to the other venue and see John Garfield‘s final film, a noir dripping with desperation. Garfield and a friend hold up a payroll delivery, but he escapes after cops shoot his friend and he shoots a cop. He holes up with Shelley Winters‘ family, holding them hostage while he tries to figure a way out. The film is tense right up until the inevitable ending, and has a few tricks up its sleeve, like an unexpectedly perfect bit where the family’s young son strikes out at Garfield in anger, and Garfield lets him, finally enveloping the sobbing boy in his arms – a strange kinship between this boy afraid and angry for his family and this young man, also trapped and afraid. This was Garfield’s last film because he ran afoul of Senator McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt – and so did director John Berry, and writers Dalton Trumbo and Hugo Butler, all of whom were blacklisted and unable to find work in Hollywood after this. Berry’s son was at the screening and his stories about having to surreptitiously leave Hollywood for Paris when he was about eight to escape FBI investigations were fascinating and kind of chilling.
I ranked it #339 out of 3621 (91%). Globally, it is ranked #14306 by 12 users.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)
For some reason, I always think I don’t care for relatively simple and realistic slice of life stories, but then I see one like this and I realize I really do if they’re done well. A family in turn of the century Brooklyn struggles to make ends meet with the father’s (James Dunn) occasional job as a singing waiter and the mother’s (Dorothy Maguire) constant job scrubbing floors – even the two kids help by selling rags for a few pennies. The father’s a dreamer, always hoping a talent scout will be in the audience and he’ll hit it big in show business, while the mother’s greater practicality has her often exasperated with her husband’s flights of fancy. Their daughter (Peggy Ann Garner), aged about 12, idolizes her father and follows somewhat in his dreaming footsteps. The film could easily choose sides, but it doesn’t, allowing the characters and the situation a bit of complexity. What could’ve been a purely comedic side character, Aunt Sissy (Joan Blondell), ends up having a lot more wisdom than you’d expect when she needs to, and Joan Blondell is just delightful to watch no matter what. But the real star is Peggy Ann Garner, in one of the finest child performances ever, and Dorothy Maguire takes what could’ve been a totally thankless role and makes the mother into someone you care about even when you think she’s wrong.
I ranked it #451 out of 3618 (88%). Globally, it is ranked #5687 by 84 users.
Repeat Performance (1947)
The timeslot this lesser-known noir was in was actually one of the toughest of the festival for me, because Angela Lansbury was introducing The Manchurian Candidate at the same time. Angela Lansbury is incredible, and Candidate is a great movie. But I followed my usual modus operandi and went for the more obscure film, in this case, a forgotten noir from Poverty Row studio Eagle-Lion starring Joan Leslie. I’ve seen plenty of earlier Leslie films from her time at Warner, but I didn’t realize that she (like fellow Warner contract actresses Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland) chafed under her contract to Warners and fought to be free of it – with the result of Jack Warner blackballing her all around town, forcing her to work in Poverty Row. Well, some good things came of it, like this interesting little noir in which Leslie, an actress whose personal life goes horribly wrong, wishes she could have a do-over on the past year of her life and has that wish granted. And yet, it seems that no matter how she tries to fix the things that went wrong, fate has a way of forcing similar outcomes anyway. Leslie is great in her role, but Louis Hayward, suffering from PTSD in real life after returning from WWII, is tremendous and terrifying. Definitely worth looking out for if TCM plays it in the future.
I ranked it #754 out of 3625 (79%). Globally, it is ranked #17987 by 6 users.
Los tallos amargos (1956)
As soon as I saw the words “Argentinian noir” on the program, my mind was made up to try to get into this one. I’m a huge fan of noir in general, and I don’t think I’ve seen any Argentinian films at all, much less classic-era noir ones. New experiences, here I come! Despite not being American (and I’m generally a purist on noir – American films from 1940-1958 or bust), this is as noir as they come, from the good man pulled into a crime unwittingly to the additional crimes he commits trying to get out to the inevitability of his schemes’ abject failure. Lots of twists make it fun, though to be honest, most of the twists are pretty easily guessed just because you think of the worst thing that could happen to this guy, and there you go. That said, sometimes that can be quite narratively satisfying, and it is here. The end of the story felt almost Twilight Zone-ish, if you know what I mean, in terms of delicious dramatic irony. It also has some of the most gorgeously noir cinematography I’ve seen, with extreme angles and chiaroscuro elevating what otherwise seems like a relatively low-budget production. Of course, I have no frame of reference for Argentinian films in the 1950s, so I might be wrong.
I ranked it #904 out of 3619 (75%). Globally, it is unranked, with only 1 user (who is me). I told you I was seeing some obscurities.
Pleasure Cruise (1933)
When the full schedule came out and classic film Twitter erupted with chatter about who was going to see what, Pleasure Cruise came up quite often as a Pre-Code comedy that it seemed like everyone was hoping to see. With some time scheduling before it, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t even make it in (especially after the Double Harness debacle earlier in the day), but the line turned out to be surprisingly small. I don’t know if the few people who had seen it turned a lot of people away from it, or if the other timeslots were just more compelling or what. It DOES have a very odd and potentially offensive third act, but aside from that (and potentially in spite of that, as I wasn’t nearly as offended by it as some of my friends), it’s a quite enjoyable little shipboard comedy. When a rich man (Roland Young) loses his fortune, his fiance (Genevieve Tobin, who ought to be better known) insists they still get married, even though they’ll now have to live on her salary, and he’ll stay at home and keep house. After a couple of years of this, he becomes terribly jealous of the men at her office and she starts to wonder if maybe she hasn’t missed out on something by marrying so young. He jokingly suggests she take a “pleasure cruise” and she takes him up on it – so he pretends to be a ship’s barber and basically tails her. Lots of shenanigans ensue, the most hilarious of which involve a sex-crazy Una O’Connor – if you’ve seen her in Bride of Frankenstein or The Adventures of Robin Hood you’ll know why that’s especially hilarious. It’s a pretty slight affair (pun intended), but a quite funny and somewhat scandalous one.
I ranked it #1071 out of 3623 (70%). Globally, it is unranked, with only 1 user (who is me).
When You’re in Love (1937)
So this is a Cary Grant film that a) I’d never heard of and b) was not in the Flickchart database before I added it. Wow. In fact, Grant’s daughter Jennifer introduced the film, and even SHE said she hadn’t seen it until asked to introduce it for this festival, and she’s made a pretty thorough study of her dad’s films. It’s a shame this one has fallen through the cracks, because it’s pretty delightful, and also notable as the only directorial effort from frequent Frank Capra writer Robert Riskin. Grant plays opposite Grace Moore, an operatic singer that the movies never quite figured out what to do with – she never became a star of the level of Jeanette MacDonald or Deanna Durbin, two other operatic singers who were quite popular in their day, if nearly forgotten now. Moore almost might be more palatable to modern audiences, as her deeper mezzo voice records better, quite frankly. The story is slight, with Moore a singer bogged down in obligations who marries the footloose Grant only to get a visa into the United States (she’s Australian), then finds herself drawn to his carefree ways. The film does suffer from a bit from the classic “JUST TALK TO EACH OTHER” syndrome, as both characters had ambitions they either gave up for the other or refused to and if they’d just talked out their desires they could’ve compromised and saved a lot of trouble, but you know, it all pretty much worked out in the end. And we got a pretty awesome and unexpected version of “Minnie the Moocher” in there, too.
I ranked it #1315 out of 3622 (64%). Globally, it is unranked, with just 1 user (who is me).
6 Hours to Live (1932)
I realize I’ve just discussed three films that I was basically the first person to rank on Flickchart, but this was TRULY one of the most obscure films at the festival, and also one of the strangest. A politician (Warner Baxter) from the fictional country of Sylveria is blocking international trade legislation that would help most other countries but hurt his severely. Since he’s holding things up, he’s being threatened with assassination attempts. Meanwhile, he’s getting embroiled in a love triangle with the girl whose family he’s staying with. Meanwhile, a mad doctor working on resurrection technology comes to visit the family as well (note the year of release, one year after Frankenstein). You may, in fact, be able to see where all this is going, but I can honestly say I have never seen a Pre-Code sci-fi/horror political romance before. And now I have. I’m shocked they didn’t find a way to squeeze the Western in there. I can’t say it was completely successful, but it was very interesting and unique in my experience, and that’s the most important thing.
I ranked it #1574 out of 3624 (57%). Globally, it is unranked, with 2 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. I’ve actually seen all ten of these, so I don’t think I missed out. Though seeing Batman ’66 with a crowd would’ve been pretty awesome.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928; ranked #94 by 1160 users)
The Conversation (1974; ranked #98 by 5059 users)
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946; ranked #110 by 36388 users)
All the President’s Men (1976; ranked #167 by 7544 users)
Brief Encounter (1945; ranked #212 by 872 users)
The Manchurian Candidate (1962; ranked #298 by 6686 users)
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967; ranked #823 by 1451 users)
The Pride of the Yankees (1942; ranked #1013 by 718 users)
Batman: The Movie (1966; ranked #1959 by 5274 users)
The Freshman (1925; ranked #2036 by 247 users)