TCMFF Saturday in Black & White
Guest writer Amanda Glenn shares some of her viewing experiences from the 2013 TCMFF. After Starting off with just one film opening night and only a couple of films on Friday, the veteran fest attendee squeezed as much as she could out of Saturday, with a trio of black & white classics.
First up Saturday morning, TCMFF, 2013 - Captains Courageous. This young coming-of-age story is an MGM production from 1937 staring Spencer Tracy, Freddie Bartholomew, Lionel Barrymore, Mickey Rooney and Melvin Douglas. The film’s all-star cast is enough to catapult it to the heights of a revered classic. This is after all Spencer Tracy in his first Oscar winning performance, and before he worked with Hepburn! But the bigger names in the movie when it came out were Bartholomew (Little Lord Fauntleroy, David Copperfield), Barrymore (It’s a Wonderful Life) and, of course, Rooney (the Andy Hardy series) who had a relatively minor yet essential role. A sharp eye might also spot one or two other fabled names from old Hollywood royalty, such as John Carradine (Stagecoach) and Charley Grapewin (Grapes of Wrath). With out a doubt, this is one impressive cast with an unparalleled pedigree.
The story is a good read on a well-used theme; a spoiled brat gets a well-earned life lesson. But this is the epitome of them all. Produced with such authenticity, it really doesn’t matter that the film is not in color. You probably wouldn’t even have noticed if I hadn’t said anything because the illusion is so well depicted that one could practically see the varying colors of the ocean, as well as smell the salt air. And the acting is simply supreme. Everyone is at his best here. Though notorious for the occasional chewing of the scenery, neither Barrymore nor Rooney over act, not even for a second. In fact they both give rather subdued performances, and for that I have the greatest respect for director, Victor Fleming. After all, he had a sound stage full of super strong personalities from which he culled finely tuned and fully developed characters and wove a magnificent story. No wonder he’s the only director to have two films listed in the top 10 of the American Film Institute's 1998 list of the 100 greatest American films; Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.
Although Captains Courageous was produced more than 70 years ago, its impact has lost nothing due to age. That early Saturday morning the audience was quiet and completely absorbed by the story unfolding in front of them. There had been a gasp or a sigh when something bad or sad happened, but they quieted quickly so as not to miss out on a minute of the story. Upon the close of the final scene they came to their feet as one with thunderous applause and I think I heard a whistle or two. When’s the last time you experienced that with the latest blockbuster release?
Immediately following Captains, the same theater played one of Hitchcock’s most beloved early successes, The Lady Vanishes. A much mimicked story this version is a delight. Set during the unsettled years just before WWII, the lady in question is an elderly Dame May Whitty (Gaslight, Mrs. Miniver) who vanishes from a train traveling through an unspecified foreign country. British beauty Margaret Lockwood (Night Train to Munich) plays a spoiled, and reluctantly betrothed young woman who reports the lady missing, and is then very nearly convinced she is suffering from delusions caused by a sever blow to the head. Theater heartthrob Michael Redgrave (such a handsome man, best remembered for being the father of Vanessa and Lynn) is the bookish but dashing hero to the rescue of both ladies. The rest of the cast of characters includes a crafty and manipulative villain, a money grubbing collaborator, a woman who will do almost (but not quite) anything for money, and the right hearted, bumbling but with you when it counts English cricket lovers. There was much to laugh about, and plenty of suspenseful moments for which to hold your breath. Most importantly we, the audience were delightfully entertained, which is the very thing we go to the movies for.
Directly on the heels of this light piece of escapism I saw the drama, The Big Parade. It’s not just in black and white, it’s a silent film as well. The John Gilbert vehicle is a complicated story. It’s a love story, as well as a war story. WWI, that is. And an anti war story to boot. The battle scenes are impressively horrific, creating a masterful illusion of thundering chaos. In fact, the film is a magnificent example of how “loud” a silent battle can seem (it’s a toss up for me if the film will turn youth off of war or entice the thrill seekers. Did they? Do they?). There is a bit of sweet comedy, and a tender, gentle love story to contrast with the terror of war. It is one of those films I might never have chosen to see if it had not been a Festival selection, but I am very glad to have experienced it. The restoration was simply gorgeous. I am also a little awed when I remember that the film was made long before Green Screen and that every soldier and every one of those vehicles was real as far as the eye could see. You won’t see production value like that ever again.
I ended up seeing two more films that day (it’s a good thing I only do this once a year). There was an afternoon musical followed by an evening with Fred and Ginger. All together it was a very full day of great film screenings. But there’s just something about seeing the first three films that made the day so idyllic for a classic movie fan. Maybe because it felt so much like the days when theaters played a batch of different films all day long rather than just the same one over and over again. There weren’t any cartoons, news reels, or shorts accompanying any of the screenings, but the feeling was just the same. I was safe, happy, and comfortable as I whiled away the day at the Chinese Theatre, never having to spoil the illusion by stepping across the threshold into the light of day. It was kind of like being at an amusement park - one that only shows old movies, and is open only once a year. How I look forward to next year!