Day 2 of the TCM Classic Film Festival was my biggest day of pure movie watching madness, although I ended up not having to make a choice on the death match in the 9am block that I’d been concerned about—The Thin Man, East of Eden, Stagecoach, and On Approval—as I’d lost my phone somewhere between Fifth Avenue Girl and the Chinese Theatre lobby the previous night, and had been up ’til about 2:30am trying to sort it out. The sacrifices I make for movies!
But, that meant I was able to stroll up right on time for a ticket to Grey Gardens, which is one of those classics I’d heard enough about that I was sure I’d love it. Albert Maysles introduced the film to a very curious audience, some of whom had never seen or even heard of it, and some who seemed to already be devotees. When asked about whether he had passed any judgement on the eccentric mother-and-daughter pair of Big and Little Edie Beales, Maysles said that he and his brother wanted to give the viewer the freedom to come to their own conclusions. It’s a vibrant, evocative portrayal of the two women, fleshing them out as characters while doling out information selectively—despite there not being an overarching plot to the film, there is an advancement to the fullness of their characterization. It’s a lovely, fascinating film that really forces the viewer to consider their own role, in part because the Maysles brothers are often incorporated into the narrative. It’s intoxicating, intrusive, and iconic… a perfect selection to watch with a TCM crowd.
Next I headed to Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death, introduced by the late Powell’s wife (and legend in her own right), Thelma Schoonmaker. A Matter of Life and Death is a British fantasy film about, obviously, life and death. David Niven plays a wartime pilot whose plane is going down in the opening scene. He spends what he believes to be his last moments on Earth talking to a gentle, American servicewoman (Kim Hunter). However, the Ethereal Being that is supposed to bring him to the other side can’t find him in the thick English fog, so Niven wakes up very much alive, and very much determined to fall in love with Hunter. When the Being returns to collect him the next day, Niven refuses to accompany him, citing the changed circumstances. And so, Niven must present his case to a heavenly jury, who will decide whether he should be allowed to stay on the mortal coil, or if he must shuffle off it.
It’s a heady, inventive, odd little picture, full of clever twists and ideas, sometimes killing off characters without the fanfare another picture might require, so that they can occupy the opposite realm for plot purposes. The aforementioned Being is depicted a kind of 18th century French dandy, while the judge, jury, and members of the celestial choir embody depictions of cultures from across history. It’s a bit like those classic scenes of the backlot, as the costumes range from Greek togas to American servicemen to cowboys and scholars. Despite the colorful characters, these afterlife scenes are actually filmed in black and white, and are fairly straightforward in the sense that, more or less, the movie is a courtroom drama—just built upon philosophical and moral arguments, rather than physical evidence. It’s clearly a a high-concept film, to the point that I’m having trouble explaining the basic plot in two paragraphs, but it’s a wholly unique experience. Author J. K. Rowling has named this as her favorite film, and so did Michael Powell himself, so it’s in good company.
I’ll also note, for my own memory, that I ran into Mallory Ellis at this screening, who is one of the co-founders of one of my favorite non-film-related sites: The Toast! TCMFF is clearly a who’s who of many of my favorite people. Mallory has added some fun content to the humor site (not normally geared towards classic film fans), including “Pre-Code Movies Worth Watching” and “The Best 1930s Stock Characters.”
After the movie there was a rare, significant break between screenings, partly because my next selection was Why Worry?, the Harold Lloyd silent film, which was being presented with live orchestra—and thus required a bit of extra set up time. I took the opportunity to have dinner at the historic Miceli’s, an establishment with roots back to 1949, making it Hollywood’s oldest Italian restaurant—a fact they proudly proclaim in neon above the door. There’s definitely an old school atmosphere to the place, with dark carved wood booths (originally from the nearby Pig ‘N’ Whistle… note the give-away engravings of, logically, a pig with a whistle) and low lighting. It felt very appropriate as a location amidst the Hollywood history of the day, and the real food was a very, VERY welcome break from the selection of mall food available over on the Hollywood and Highland side. This place was a favorite of Sinatra’s, a fact you can’t help but learn as you pass by the enormous mural of his face as you head in.
Back at the Egyptian courtyard, the crowd was already gathering for Lloyd, and, conveniently, his grinning face was one of the stock images used for banners around the festival, so his visage was there looking down upon those of us in line. Inside, the orchestra was tuning up as the audience found their seats. The orchestration was done by Carl Davis, who had also composed this brand new score for the 1923 silent film, and has been heard on recent releases of Ben-Hur, The Phantom of the Opera, Safety Last, and City Lights.
Why Worry? is a fun tale of a wealthy hypochondriac who takes to a small South American island for the benefit of his health. However, the island is actually in the midst of a political revolution, and instead of the relaxing vacation he had envisioned, Lloyd ends up having to defend himself against both rebel and loyalist armies. Accompanying him in this mission are his faithful nurse (Jobyna Ralston—Lloyd’s new leading lady, after he married Mildred Davis) and a giant called Colosso (John Aasen), and together they successfully outwit the town’s military forces. Much of the humor is derived from well-played misunderstandings, building to crescendos of hilarity. Lloyd plays “clueless” so very, very well. He is one of those actors I haven’t seen much of, but always suspected I’d love, so I’m definitely committed to making up for some lost time with the rest of his oeuvre now.
Next up, also in the Egyptian, was The Italian Job with composer Quincy Jones in person. Ben Mankiewicz hosted a conversation with the legend before the film, getting him to share stories from his decades of creative involvement with music and movie’s top stars. He also frankly described his issues with racism throughout his career, including one anecdote in which he was hired for a job partly because, the executives later admitted, they hadn’t realized he was black. Overall though, it was a very fun discussion, and complemented perfectly with the swingin’ fun of The Italian Job, with Michael Caine in top form as the leader of the crew of merry misfits. The exhilarating Mini Cooper chase at the film’s climax is a completely classic and well-known movie moment, but I also loved the opening scene (part scenery for the credits, part tense build up), as well as the final scene and specifically, the final shot. It’s a hilarious example of the kind of irreverent but immensely entertaining filmmaking throughout—sometimes violent, sometimes serious, but always, most of all, FUN.