Mansfield 66/67 (2017)

Mansfield 66/67

In Hollywood, blonde bombshells don’t always have the longest lifespans. Many of the most popular blonde actresses of all time have died young under tragic circumstances, from Jean Harlow to Marilyn Monroe and, of course, Jayne Mansfield. On June 29, 1967, Jayne was killed in a car accident at the age of 34 while she was on her way to an appearance in New Orleans. While this might seem like a pretty straightforward cause of death, there are long-standing rumors that she had actually died as the result of a curse by Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan.

Jayne Mansfield catapulted to stardom in the 1950s thanks to her figure, her Marilyn Monroe-esque image, and her unrelenting love of publicity stunts. But as American culture shifted into the 1960s, the whole image and style of glamour embodied by Mansfield began to fall out of favor. However, her desire for attention hadn’t even begun to be satisfied and she started actively trying to keep up with the changing times by doing things like hanging out on the Sunset Strip and any place else where she would be photographed. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Anton LaVey was just as hungry for publicity as Jayne and was eager to bring more celebrity followers into the Church of Satan. When Jayne decided to crash the 1966 San Francisco Film Festival, she ended up meeting Anton LaVey and it was the beginning of a match made in publicity stunt hell.

Jayne Mansfield with Anton LaVey

Jayne Mansfield with Anton LaVey

Over the course of their relationship, Jayne and Anton were repeatedly photographed together, both in Jayne’s infamous Pink Palace home and in Anton’s Black House in San Francisco. Of course, this got people talking. Was Jayne Mansfield really a practicing Satanist? Were Jayne Mansfield and Anton LaVey having an affair? The big rumor is that Sam Brody, Jayne’s boyfriend/lawyer at the time, got on the bad side of Anton and he put a curse on Brody, warning him that he would die in a car crash. Supposedly, Anton told Jayne to stay away from Sam, but she didn’t listen. Brody was indeed killed in that car accident along with Jayne and in the time leading up to that fatal accident, he had been involved in multiple other car accidents.

The 2017 documentary Mansfield 66/67 explores the rumors surrounding Jayne Mansfield’s association with the Church of Satan and the role it may or may not have had in her untimely death. Since so much of what we know about the life of Jayne Mansfield comes from media coverage, it can be difficult to know what exactly is real and what just sounds good. Mansfield 66/67 never pretends to have any definitive answers. It describes itself as being “A true story based on rumor and hearsay,” which is a completely accurate description of it. But even if it doesn’t draw any conclusions, that doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining.

Mansfield 66/67 takes a very campy and playful approach to the subject, complete with dance numbers, animation, and a theme song performed by Donna Loren. It features interviews with a mix of cultural commentators and celebrities, including John Waters, Mamie Van Doren, Tippi Hedren, Mary Woronov, and Hollywood Babylon author Kenneth Anger. Everyone has their own theories about who Jayne really was, what happened between her and Anton LaVey, and how active she was in the Church of Satan. I watched the documentary a few times because it was so fun and the whole legend of this story is just so wild. We’ll never know the full truth, but who needs the truth when the legend is this fascinating?

If you’d like to see it for yourself, Mansfield 66/67 is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and digital download.

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Raiders of the Lost Films: Madame Sans-Gene (1925)

Madame Sans Gene Poster 1925

“Madame was the greatest star of them all.” While this line from 1950’s Sunset Boulevard is a reference to the character of Norma Desmond, it certainly also applies to the actress playing Norma Desmond: Gloria Swanson.  Gloria wasn’t the first movie star to become an international celebrity, but she was unquestionably one of the biggest stars of the silent film era. Between Sunset Boulevard and her career working in silent films, she is forever tied to the public’s image of silent film stars. Out of all the box office hits she made during her career, none of them reflects how big of a star she was at the height of her fame like 1925’s Madame Sans-Gêne.

By 1925, Gloria had reached a tipping point in her career. Her work in Cecil B. DeMille costume dramas had made her a megastar years earlier, but as her costumes got more elaborate and her hairstyles got more complicated, she eventually got tired of her clothes horse image and decided to move on from DeMille to focus more on more character-driven projects. Breaking a successful formula is always a gamble, but it paid off for her in spades and movies like Zaza and Manhandled made her an even bigger star. But the weight of being such a big star was starting to become too much.

While she was working on 1924’s Her Love Story, she was also busy plotting her next career move. Her first choice was to star in Paramount’s adaptation of Peter Pan and was livid that it hadn’t already been offered to her. She was on the verge of heading to London so she could personally speak to J.M. Barrie and make her case for playing Peter Pan when she heard about a play by the name of Madame Sans-Gêne, which a friend thought she might be interested in getting the film rights to.

Madame Sans-Gêne was first described to Gloria as being about, “A washerwoman who is elevated to nobility by Napoleon.” Hardly an exciting summary, but it really is the most succinct way to put it. Gloria wasn’t impressed, but she trusted her friend’s judgement and asked him to read the play aloud to her. Despite the underwhelming  summary, she loved the play and thought it was well-written and funny. As she and her friend discussed the project further, they agreed that such a beloved French story needed a French director and to be filmed on location in the same places Napoleon had actually lived.

With Peter Pan and Madame Sans-Gêne in mind, Gloria made arrangements to visit London and Paris so she could put her ideas into motion. Shortly after arriving in London, Gloria’s pursuit of Peter Pan came to an end when J.M. Barrie announced Betty Bronson was to play Peter Pan. Disappointed but not deterred, Gloria simply put all of her focus on Madame Sans-Gêne and headed on to Paris, where she was set to meet with film critic Andre Davin and Adolphe Osso, head of the European division of Paramount. Davin was very enthusiastic and supportive of her ideas for Madame Sans-Gêne, being particularly optimistic about her chances of being able to film on location. Osso, on the other hand, was considerably less confident.  He thought an American would never be able to get the rights to such a distinctly French story and even if she did get that far, she would never be able to film on location, noting that Germany’s UFA studio had tried to get permission to film on those very same historic locations several times before without success.

Gloria Swanson Madame Sans-Gene 1925

Once Davin wrote a glowing article about Gloria’s plans for Madame Sans-Gêne, Osso was proven wrong — quite overwhelmingly — and Paramount quickly agreed to let Gloria have anything she wanted to make this movie happen. She got the French director she wanted, Leonce Perret, and permission to film on the locations she had her heart set on, including Fontainebleu and La Malmaison. To add some icing to the cake, she hired Henri de la Falaise, Marquis de la Coudraye to act as something of a chauffeur/translator/personal assistant. Although he had a title, Henri did not have much money but he had enough influence and connections to help the production continue running smoothly. Before long, he would also become Gloria’s third husband.

By the time Madame Sans-Gêne was set to premiere in the United States, there was enough drama surrounding it to merit its own movie. Shortly before she arrived in the States, she started suffering complications from an abortion she didn’t want to have and only did so because of the morality clause in her contract with Paramount. As she lay gravely ill in a Paris hospital, the media was hard at work keeping fans up to date about her condition.  On top of it all, Paramount executives were putting pressure on her to recover quickly so she could travel to the United States and promote the movie. Even once she arrived in the States, she was still completely exhausted and just wanted to rest, but she carried on. Adding to the drama was the fact that she was no longer just Hollywood royalty, she had a real title. Her recent marriage had officially made her the Marquise de la Falaise de la Coudraye and her fans couldn’t wait to see her and her new husband.

Madame Sans-Gêne had its first gala premiere at the Trivoli Theater in New York City on April 17, 1925. Thousands of fans lined the streets, causing traffic problems. Those who spent $5 ($73.30 adjusted for inflation) for tickets to the big event had to be escorted into the theater by the police because of the huge crowds. Gloria and Henri invited the Grand Duke and Duchess of Russia to attend as their guests, but the police were so focused on protecting Gloria and Henri that the Grand Duke and Duchess were effectively left to fend for themselves and ended up entering the theater with torn and mussed clothing. The theater itself was decked out in French and American flags. The New York Times described the movie as being a secondary affair, as about half the theater was more interested in seeing Gloria in person. However, the New York premiere was a mere warm-up for the one that would come in Hollywood.

From New York, Gloria and her husband boarded a train for Chicago before heading on to Los Angeles, making stops along the way to greet adoring fans. Once she finally made her way to Los Angeles, the city pretty much shut down for her. Hollywood has certainly seen its share of major film-related events over the years, but the premiere of Madame Sans-Gêne and Gloria’s arrival for it makes the Oscars seem like a quiet, understated affair.

Two years had passed since Gloria was last in the state of California and a veritable who’s who of the film industry was waiting to greet her at the train station. Naturally, lots of big names from her home studio of Paramount were there to welcome her back, including Cecil B. DeMille and Rudolph Valentino. Since United Artists had been trying to convince her to join them, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith were all there. Bebe Daniels, Mack Sennett, Charley Chase, and Frank Borzage were just a few more of the familiar faces in the crowd that day. And, just for good measure, the Mayor of Los Angeles and two brass  bands were also there. Hedda Hopper wrote that schools had been closed for the day. Edith Head recalled Paramount Studios being shut down so their employees could be part of it all. And, of course, there were more traffic jams as thousands more fans waited in the streets to see her.

Madame Sans Gene Napoleon movie 1925

Madame Sans-Gêne premiered in Los Angeles on April 24th at Grauman’s Million Dollar Theater and it was a night that Swanson would go on to call the most unforgettable night of her life. In several interviews, including her interview for Kevin Brownlow’s Hollywood documentary series, she recalled the incredible feeling of walking into the theater, having a spotlight directed onto her, and hearing the orchestra start playing “Home Sweet Home.” Colleen Moore was at the premiere and later said of that moment, “There was Gloria in a shimmering white gown coming down the aisle on the arm of her handsome, titled husband. They looked like the king and queen of some mythical Balklan kingdom.” Adela Rogers St. John said of the event, “I saw men standing on their seats, waving their arms, other women tearing off their orchids and flinging them into the aisle for Gloria Swanson to walk on —  and I saw Mack Sennett frankly wiping the tears from his proud face.”

Once she made her way to her seat, she was right between Cecil B. DeMille and Mack Sennett. But once the movie began, the night was over for her. To avoid the crowd, she was ushered out the theater’s back exit. As she headed home with her entourage, Gloria was remarkably quiet. When asked what was wrong, she said, “I’m only twenty-six. What’s left? How can I top it?” On top of that, she was dealing with a lot of guilt over the abortion she’d had and was truly feeling like studio heads only saw her as a way to make money for themselves.

While the night was certainly unforgettable for Gloria, the movie itself was less noteworthy to critics. Critics generally had good notes about Gloria’s performance and the authentic French locations didn’t go unappreciated, but reviews were pretty mixed. In The New York Times, Mordaunt Hall wrote, “Aside from Miss Swanson’s performance and possibly that of the roles of Napoleon and La Rousette, the characterization that is obtainable on the stage is lacking on the screen. Somehow the players are pleasant but rather flat.” There were also criticisms of the story, which Gloria attributed to cuts Paramount made to the film. She didn’t care for those cuts, either, and an uncut version of the movie was released in France.

Despite the mixed reviews, Madame Sans-Gêne was a box office success. At the Trivoli Theater alone, it brought in $41,000 ($601,744.13 adjusted for inflation) in its first week, breaking the previous house record set by Blood and Sand with Rudolph Valentino. It played around the country to great success in a road show format, where attendees received a commemorative program and coin with Gloria’s face on it.

After Madame Sans-Gêne, Gloria still had four movies left on her contract at Paramount and it was time for her to seriously start thinking about the future again. United Artists eventually won out in convincing her to leave Paramount behind and become an independent artist for them. Not only did she like the prospect of having full creative control over her projects, she’d had enough of Paramount meddling in her personal life, and she didn’t want to risk becoming replaceable at Paramount. However, being an independent filmmaker proved to be more challenging than Gloria anticipated.

The United Artists era of Gloria Swanson’s career yielded some triumphs, but also some considerable setbacks. 1928’s Sadie Thompson and 1929’s The Trespasser were hits at the box office and her performances in both films earned Academy Award nominations. However, The Trespasser would be her last box office success until Sunset Boulevard was released over twenty years later. Her first film for United Artists, 1927’s The Love of Sunya, was a box office disappointment and in between Sadie Thompson and The Trespasser, she made the infamously disastrous Queen Kelly, which was never finished and went unseen for decades. As the 1930s progressed, her film appearances became less frequent. By the decade’s end, she had moved away from Hollywood and was focusing her attention on a company she’d created for the purpose of helping scientists and inventors escape from Nazi-occupied Europe.

Over the years, all known prints of Madame Sans-Gêne, both in its French and American versions, disappeared. The earliest reference I could find to Madame Sans-Gêne being a lost film was in a 1970 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show. In her autobiography Swanson on Swanson, Gloria had this to say about her lost films:

“…Many of my early pictures have been shown at film festivals around the world. Each time this happens, the same sad questions are always asked: Does anyone know of a print anywhere of Beyond the Rocks, the film Rudy Valentino made with me in 1921? Can anyone locate a print of Madame Sans-Gêne? Does anyone have a complete copy, including the last reel, of Sadie Thompson?

I would love to see them again and know they’re not lost forever. That, after all, was supposed to be the great virtue of pictures — that they would last forever.”

Swanson on Swanson was published in 1980 and, sadly, many of these same questions can still be asked today. A print of Beyond the Rocks was found in 2003, but the final reel of Sadie Thompson is still lost and the only glimpse we have of Madame Sans-Gêne is its trailer. Perhaps someday, Gloria will be proven right and the world will be able to see Madame Sans-Gêne once again. While many of her films still exist, the loss of Madame Sans-Gêne leaves a large hole in the filmography of one of the silent era’s greatest stars.

Defined by Divorce: Norma Shearer, The Divorcee, and The Women

Norma Shearer

By the late 1920s, Norma Shearer was one of MGM’s top actresses; consistently starring in films that were popular with the critics and successful at the box office. After facing setbacks in the early days of her career, she had become a bona fide star, proving show business dignitaries like D.W. Griffith and Florenz Ziegfeld wrong when they said she would never succeed as an actress. When she married producer Irving Thalberg in 1927, the two became one of Hollywood’s biggest power couples. But Norma Shearer always had a vision for life and her career and she knew it was time for a change.

Now that she was on top, she wasn’t about to let her image grow stale. She’d survived the transition from silents to talkies, but she needed to do more to keep audiences interested. Shearer was eager to shake up her image by playing a new kind of modern woman; not quite the personification of youth as flappers were, but a more sophisticated, independent adult woman who broke with traditional values and mores. Irving Thalberg, on the other hand, had a different path in mind for his wife’s career. The theater world had stars like Ethel Barrymore and Lynn Fontanne and Thalberg wanted Norma Shearer to have that kind of grand stature and respectability and he didn’t think those types of roles would bring her to that level. However, Shearer wasn’t the type to just give into her husband’s ideas when it came to her career.

Norma Shearer Chester Morris The Divorcee

When MGM bought the rights to the bestselling novel Ex-Wife by Ursula Parrot, Shearer knew it was just the project she was looking for. The title was changed to The Divorcee for the film version and Shearer made it her mission to land the part of Jerry, a woman who divorces her husband when she discovers his double standards regarding fidelity. Shearer later said that Jerry was, “Very strong, almost ruthless…she was perfect for me.”

Thalberg wasn’t so sure. He didn’t think Shearer was glamorous or sensual enough for the part. Undeterred, Shearer made an appointment with a then-unknown photographer by the name of George Hurrell to have some boudoir style photos taken. Shearer walked into Hurrell’s studio completely focused on proving to Thalberg that she could handle the role of Jerry. When Thalberg saw the photos from the session, he was impressed and the role was hers.

Taking on The Divorcee was a big gamble, but it paid off in spades. When it was released in 1930, it became an immediate success. Audiences loved Shearer in this kind of role and when the Academy Award nominations were announced, Shearer landed two Best Actress nominations — one for The Divorcee, the other for Their Own Desire. It was The Divorcee that would make Shearer an Oscar winner, elevating her to a whole new level of stardom. Her marriage to Thalberg may have made her the First Lady of MGM, but her Oscar win cemented her status as Queen of the Lot.

Norma Shearer Oscar

Throughout the pre-code era, Shearer would go on to play many other independent women who challenged societal conventions. In Let Us Be Gay, she played another woman who left her cheating husband and became a notorious woman of affairs. Her character in Strangers May Kiss wasn’t interested in marriage. 1931’s A Free Soul gave Shearer the chance to play the free-spirited daughter of a lawyer who becomes infatuated with a gangster played by Clark Gable. These sorts of films were provocative, but didn’t push audiences too far. Her characters took a walk on the wild side, but in the end, realized that lifestyle wasn’t right for them.

When the pre-code era came to an end in 1934, Shearer once again had to change gears and she moved into the “noble woman/prestige picture” era of her career, starring in lavish, big budget pictures featuring other top-tier talent. She’d become a grand dame of Hollywood like Thalberg had wanted her be, but she reached that level on her own terms and the next few films of her career would also be on her terms. Thalberg made it possible for her to star in Romeo and Juliet and Marie Antoinette when she expressed an interest in doing so. But after Thalberg passed away in 1936, maintaining that level of autonomy over her career became more difficult.

While 1939’s The Women has gone one to become one of the most celebrated comedies of the 1930s, when viewed in the context of Shearer’s career and of her role as MGM’s Queen of the Lot, it actually reflects her waning power at the studio. The Women is far from being a bad movie; it’s the last truly great movie of Shearer’s career. But was Mary Haines one of the most fulfilling roles Shearer played in her career? No.

The Women 1939 Shearer Goddard

By the time The Women went into production, Norma Shearer was entering an uncertain stage in her career. Romeo and Juliet was the last movie of hers Thalberg oversaw before his death and he had put the wheels in motion for her to do Marie Antoinette before he passed away. The movies she made in 1939, Idiot’s Delight and The Women, were the first ones she’d made in a long time without Thalberg on her side. Even though she was a force to be reckoned with, so was Irving Thalberg and now that he was gone, Shearer simply didn’t have as much power as she used to.

Despite the fact that The Women is one of Shearer’s most enduring movies, it’s not a movie she was ever interested in making. While she described Jerry in The Divorcee as strong and almost ruthless, she thought Mary Haines was a boring character and initially turned it down. But after Louis B. Mayer found out about her short-lived affair with Mickey Rooney, Shearer had been taken down a notch and reluctantly agreed to do The Women to help keep the peace with Mayer.

If you’re familiar with Shearer’s pre-code era films, it’s easy to understand why she found Mary Haines so dull. In both The Women and The Divorcee, Shearer plays happily married, well-to-do women who discover their husbands are cheating on them. In the end, both women choose to reconcile with their husbands. But because of the production code, Jerry and Mary aren’t able to react to that news in the same way. When Jerry tells her husband about her own affair, she is outraged by her husband’s hypocrisy, divorces him, and sets out to carry on as many affairs as she wants to. Mary, on the other hand, is literally railroaded into a divorce she doesn’t want.

The Women is based on a successful stage play so it wasn’t intended to be a remake of The Divorcee, but it’s the closest anyone was going to get to doing one in the production code era. Here, Shearer was being asked to play a role that had quite a bit in common with one of her greatest career triumphs, but that was totally devoid the material that made Jerry such an interesting character. Mary Haines may have had two years to grow claws — Jungle Red — but she’s a completely declawed version Jerry. By lobbying to play Jerry in The Divorcee, Shearer was taking control of her career. By feeling obligated to play Mary Haines in The Women, she was beginning to lose control.

On the surface, The Women hardly seems like the sort of movie any movie star should feel disappointed to have been a part of. It features a cavalcade of some of the best female talent MGM had to offer, the great George Cukor directed it, it had a first-rate script, and Adrian created an astonishing wardrobe for the film’s characters. This was a major production; a far cry from the low-budget films some of Shearer’s contemporaries would later make when they were nearing the ends of their careers. But that doesn’t mean Shearer didn’t suffer several indignities during its production.

The Women 1939 Shearer Crawford Russell

Another reason Shearer wasn’t interested in being in The Women is because she knew there was a good chance she could be upstaged and those fears weren’t exactly without merit. During that era, stars of Shearer’s magnitude would pride themselves in being able to command top billing in credits and on theater marquees, posters, and other promotional materials. They were considered to be “above the title” and that kind of prestige was reflected in their contracts. But one of the downsides to being in a movie that features so many other talented actresses is that those other actresses aren’t going to be content with being left out of the billing. Joan Crawford was a major star in her own right and fought to get her name up there alongside Shearer’s, so Shearer ended up being forced to share billing with her professional rival. As production continued and it became clear that Rosalind Russell was stealing a lot of scenes, she also fought to get her name up there and Shearer eventually had a third actress to share top billing with, although Rosalind Russell’s name takes up less space on the posters than Shearer’s and Crawford’s.

Having to share the screen with Joan Crawford also wasn’t a particularly enjoyable experience for Norma, either. Crawford had long felt that Shearer was given preferential treatment and first pick of all the best roles because of her marriage to Thalberg. The rivalry between the two was played up during the production to generate buzz in the gossip columns. While Shearer filmed her close-ups for the big dressing room confrontation scene, Crawford was sitting off camera, knitting as she read her lines back to Shearer; a move that would have been extremely unprofessional and disrespectful to do to any actor, let alone one of Norma’s stature. Eventually, Shearer got so fed up with Crawford’s antics that she asked Cukor to read the lines to her instead of Crawford.

The Women Shearer Russell Fontaine

Although The Women is an immensely quotable film, unfortunately for Shearer, most of the film’s most memorable lines went to other actresses. In many cases, Shearer’s lines set up jokes, witty remarks, and biting comebacks for Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, or Paulette Goddard to deliver. So even though Shearer gets top billing, it ultimately feels like her character is a springboard that gives other actresses a chance to shine.

Even though The Women performed respectably well at the box office, it wasn’t enough for MGM to recoup the costs of production, continuing a trend of Shearer’s movies losing money. Romeo and Juliet was her first 1930s film to lose money and the extravagant production costs of Marie Antoinette made it another loss for MGM. Idiot’s Delight also lost money, making it one of the few movies Clark Gable made at MGM which lost money. 1940’s Escape was Norma’s last film to turn a profit; her final two films, We Were Dancing and Her Cardboard Lover, both also failed to break even.

After openly declaring that she wasn’t interested in playing Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind and turning down roles in Mrs. Miniver and Now, Voyager, Shearer retired from film in 1942. During the 1980s and 1990s, Shearer’s legacy was effectively rescued by home video. Thanks to home video, many of the films she made during the pre-code era became readily available to the general public for the first time in decades, giving people the chance to see her career in a new light. In the time between her retirement and the advent of home video, Shearer became most closely associated with the “noble woman/prestige picture” stage of her career. The Women, Marie Antoinette, and Romeo and Juliet were the movies of hers that would most commonly be shown on television or at revival screenings, not The Divorcee or A Free Soul, leaving many people with a very incomplete picture of her career. Even though she won an Academy Award for her work in The Divorcee, many were under the impression that Mary Haines was a more typical Norma Shearer role than Jerry.

The fact that The Women went on to be regarded as a genuine classic, one of the highlights of Hollywood’s golden year, did nothing to help soften Shearer’s opinion of the role over time. When author Gavin Lambert was interviewing Shearer for his biography on her, she told him that of all the movies she made with director George Cukor, the only one she ever cared to see again was Romeo and Juliet.

In the end, the career of Norma Shearer was largely defined by divorce. Playing a divorcee in one film was the first bookend of her era as a Hollywood megastar while playing a divorcee in another signaled the end of her reign as MGM’s Queen of the Lot.

TCMFF 2018, Day 4: Settling Down

After a few days of running on all cylinders during TCMFF, by the time Sunday comes around, I’m always ready to slow things down a little bit. This was definitely a very leisurely day for me; I only ended up going to 3 different events.

On Sunday mornings, not only do you have the first block of movies to choose from, there’s always something cool going on over at Larry Edmunds Bookshop. In the past, Larry Edmunds has hosted book signings with people like Shirley Jones and Tippi Hedren on Sunday mornings and I’ve always wanted to one of their events, but I’ve never been able to get over there. So when they announced that this year’s special Sunday guest would be with Marsha Hunt, I knew I couldn’t miss it.

Marsha Hunt Eddie Muller

Getting to spend a morning with Marsha Hunt was nothing less than an honor. She’s such a remarkable woman and to be able to hear her talk about her life and career was a real treat. It’s not every day that you have the opportunity to hear about Hollywood blacklisting who experienced it firsthand. It was particularly amazing to have the chance to see her in the bookstore because it was a setting that made the event feel so personal. Marsha was joined by two people who know her very well, Eddie Muller and Roger C. Memos, director of the documentary Marsha Hunt’s Sweet Adversity. I’ve been hearing great things about this documentary for a while now, so I was very excited that we were able to see a few clips from it during the event. I definitely hope to be able to see the whole thing in the future.

Since Marsha had turned 100 a few months before the festival, we also had the opportunity to have some cake with her and sing happy birthday. The cake was absolutely delicious, making an already incredible event even better.

Astaire Silk Stockings

After my trip to Larry Edmunds, I had a little bit of a break before catching my next movie: Silk Stockings. A musical with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse is the sort of lighthearted entertainment I typically like on a Sunday afternoon. I wouldn’t say Silk Stockings is one of my all-time favorite musicals, but it’s still the sort of movie I like to revisit every once in a while just because I have such a big soft spot for splashy technicolor musicals and because I love Fred and Cyd so much. It’s definitely a fun movie to see in a theater. The print we saw was a new digital print, which looked absolutely fantastic.

1937 A Star is Born

For my last movie of the festival, I finally got to catch one of the nitrate print screenings at the Egyptian. It had been a very long time since I’d seen the 1937 version of A Star is Born and it was great to finally see it again. It was much funnier than I had remembered it being and the nitrate print was absolutely stunning. Even though I’ve seen plenty of movies that feature famous locations in Hollywood, it was very cool to be able to see shots like the forecourt of the Chinese Theater while sitting down the street from the Chinese Theater. William Wellman Jr. was on hand to discuss the movie before the screening, talking about things like the real-life people and events that inspired the film and how his father fought to make the film.

And with that, my fifth trip to the TCM Film Festival came to an end. As always, I had an amazing time and I came home with a lot of great memories. I’m already looking forward to next year’s festival!

TCMFF 2018, Day 3: Playing it By Ear

TCMFF is always full of hard choices, but in any given time slot, there’s usually at least one event that I’m least interested in, which helps narrow it down. That was not the case for me with today’s first block. Not only were all of the movies playing in the first time slot all excellent, there were some other cool events going on like a meet-up for fans of musicals and an event at the ASC clubhouse, so there was literally nothing I simply wasn’t interested in. I figured I would just play it by ear and see how I felt when I got up that day, but when I got up, my decision wasn’t any easier. I managed to narrow it down to the panel discussion at the ASC clubhouse and Kiss Me Deadly at the TCL multiplex, but I still didn’t know which way to go. Since they started at different times, I decided to just start getting ready for the day and depending on when I finished getting ready, that would decide it for me. The winner: Kiss Me Deadly.

Kiss Me Deadly

I had only seen Kiss Me Deadly once before, but that was several years ago and I didn’t remember it very well, so it was like getting to see it for the first time all over again. It may not have been the most lighthearted way to start the day, but I’m so glad I went because it was awesome. Getting to experience that ending in a theater was really intense. If you’re a fan of the movie and ever have the chance to see it in a theater, go see it because getting to hear the sound at the very end of the movie over a really good sound system is definitely something you won’t forget.

When You Read This Letter

After Kiss Me Deadly, I went to check out Jean-Pierre Melville’s When You Read This Letter. I only recently started discovering Melville’s work, so this was one I really didn’t want to miss. It’s a movie that can be extremely frustrating; filled with ambiguity and characters who behave in questionable ways. But it has a lot of beautiful shots and moments that are quite startling. There were quite a few moments that drew gasps from the audience. Without getting into any spoilers, the ending completely floored me, yet I was satisfied with it. I definitely need to see some more of Mellville’s films.

Sunset Boulevard Gloria Swanson William Holden

Next up was a trip to the Chinese Theater for Sunset Boulevard introduced by Nancy Olson. Sunset is one of my all-time favorite movies and I’d been waiting for about 10 years to have a chance to see it on the big screen, so this was an opportunity I was not about to pass up. Although I must say, never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d ever be waiting to see Sunset Boulevard while surrounded by a bunch of ‘NSYNC fans. The line for Sunset ran up through the Hollywood Highland shopping center, where there was also a long line for a pop-up shop with ‘NSYNC merchandise. Only on Hollywood Boulevard would there be a point in time when a bunch of Gloria Swanson/Bill Holden/Billy Wilder fans and ‘NSYNC fans would ever be in the same place at the same time.

Seeing Sunset Boulevard in a theater was everything I had hoped it would be. Gloria Swanson was just made for the big screen. There were several shots that were so much more impactful to see in a theatrical setting and the Franz Waxman score sounded absolutely amazing on the Chinese Theater’s sound system. Even though I’d seen the movie many, many times before, this was like getting to see it for the first time all over again. And Nancy’s discussion with Michael Feinstein before the movie was terrific. She talked a bit about her career before she was cast in Sunset and what it was like working with the great Billy Wilder. One interesting story she told was about how the clothes she wears in the movie were her own personal wardrobe. Billy hadn’t been satisfied with the costume designs Edith Head had been coming up with for her character, so he eventually told Nancy to just wear what she normally wears to the studio.

Show People Marion Davies William Haines Charlie Chaplin

The next time slot was another one I was very torn on. I always love Hollywood Home Movies, but this year, it was up against a screening of Marion Davies’ Show People over at the Egyptian, introduced by my friend Lara from Backlots. It ended up being another case where I made an extremely last minute decision and Show People won. I thought it would be nice to follow up Sunset Boulevard with a more lighthearted Hollywood tale. Plus, Show People is one of those movies that absolutely begs to be seen with an appreciative crowd. There’s nothing quite like getting to see a silent comedy in a theater full of people laughing along, plus it had been a long time since I’d last seen it so the jokes felt very fresh to me. Even though the movie got interrupted by a false fire alarm, going to this screening was nothing less than pure joy.

Paul Muni Ann Dvorak Scarface

After Show People, I decided to go in a completely different direction (stylistically speaking) by seeing 1932’s Scarface, which was introduced by John Carpenter. As tempting as the screening of The Big Lebowski was, Scarface won this block for me since I figured I’d have fewer chances to see that movie in a theater. This is another movie I hadn’t seen in a pretty long time and I was really glad to revisit it. The performances by Paul Muni and Ann Dvorak are both electrifying to see on TV at home, just imagine how great it was to see them on a nice big screen.

Night of the Living Dead

Every year, I look forward to the festival’s two midnight movies, but I just didn’t have the energy for The World’s Greatest Sinner the day before. But that’s okay, because tonight’s screening of Night of the Living Dead was the one I was most excited for. You know it’s going to be a good screening when you’re having a blast and the movie hadn’t even started yet. There are a few attendees who often bring fun favors to hand out at the midnight screenings and this time, they had zombie cookies (both in black and white and colorized) and cardboard masks.

Originally, director Edgar Wright had been scheduled to introduce Night of the Living Dead, but unfortunately, he had some issues with his visa and wasn’t able to make it. However, he did arrange for Simon Pegg to to fill in for him, which was really awesome. It was a movie that clearly meant a lot to him, so his intro was great. Getting to see the brand new, crystal-clear restoration of Night of the Living Dead in a theater was a real treat. I’d recently picked up the Criterion blu-ray of that movie so I knew how good the restoration was, but getting to see it in a theater with so many people having fun and with Simon Pegg’s introduction, this was easily one of my all-time favorite TCMFF screenings. Completely and totally worth staying up late for.

TCMFF 2018, Day 2: Memorable Events

Grand Prix 1966

For the first full day of TCMFF 2018, I started things off by doing two things I’d always wanted to do at the festival: go to an event at the Cinerama Dome and go to an event Eva Marie Saint would be at. Going to the screening of Grand Prix meant skipping one of my favorite movies — Witness for the Prosecution — but it was totally worth it because I’ll probably never be able to have that experience of seeing it in an original Cinerama Dome ever again.

I wouldn’t say it was my favorite movie of the festival, but it was one of my favorite experiences. Grand Prix was meant to be seen in Cinerama theaters and it made full use of every single inch of that massive screen. I absolutely could have ordered the DVD off Amazon when I got home or waited for TCM to show it, but it just wouldn’t have been the same. Plus, there wouldn’t have been the drama of seeing it in its original roadshow format, complete with overture and exit music. I really appreciated the effort they put into recreating the experience of seeing Grand Prix at the Cinerama Dome in 1966. They even handed out reproductions of the original program, similar to the ones you get when seeing a live theater show.

During the after-movie discussion with Eva Marie Saint, she stated that this wasn’t one of her favorites of the movies she made, but she was able to tell us stories about things like what it was like to work with legendary hairdresser Sydney Guilaroff. She also discussed what it was like to work with Brando on On the Waterfront.

Harold Lloyd Safety Last

After Grand Prix, I had originally been planning to head back to the TCL Multiplex to catch How to Marry a Millionaire. But when the discussion with Eva Marie Saint ran a little bit long, I didn’t have enough time to get over there. But I was just a few minutes away from the Linwood Dunn theater, where they were doing a special presentation of Harold Lloyd’s 3D photography, presented by Harold’s granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd, which I was extremely interested in anyway.

Whenever I talk to people who are attending TCMFF for the first time and they ask if I have any advice, one thing I’ll say is to just relax and go with it. And this is a good example of why I say that because even though the Harold Lloyd event wasn’t what I set out planning to go to that day, it ended up being one of my favorite events of the festival. This was a truly unique event that was so much more than just 3D photography, which was absolutely spectacular. He was a master at playing with depth. Lots of familiar faces were among his photography subjects, including Dick Powell, Arlene Dahl, Ronald Reagan, Jayne Mansfield, and Marilyn Monroe. Lloyd’s 3D photographs of Marilyn Monroe are actually the only time she is known to have been photographed in 3D. One photo that got a huge reaction from the crowd was one of Glenn Ford standing on the ledge of a cliff.

One of the biggest highlights of the event was getting to see some of Harold’s home movies. It’s always interesting to see the home movies of Hollywood legends because you can really learn a lot from them. The main thing I learned by seeing Harold’s home movies is that he very genuinely loved film technology. They showed a series of clips that spanned several decades and some of them were remarkably innovative in regards to the technology involved. There was footage of him with his family in the 1920s which was shot on 35mm, there was footage from the late 1920s/early 1930s which was in color, and most remarkably, there was footage from the 1930s which actually had sound.

They also screened a couple of his short films on a hand-cranked projector from 1909 and accompanied by one of the few remaining original fotoplayers from the silent film era. There was also a sequence from Safety Last! which had gone through an experimental 3D conversion. I normally have strong opinions against converting films to 3D when the filmmaker is no longer around to approve of it. But I believe that if any of the big silent film stars would be OK with having one of their movies converted to 3D, at least just as an experiment, it would have been Harold Lloyd. I was impressed by how good it looked.

Carole Lombard Gary Cooper I Take This Woman

After the Harold Lloyd event, I had a little bit of a break before checking out I Take This Woman starring Carole Lombard and Gary Cooper. I won’t cut corners on this one — it wasn’t a particularly great movie. The cast did the best they could with what they had to work with, but it just wasn’t the greatest script. However, I’m very happy that I at least had a chance to see it for myself. I’m a fan of both Lombard and Cooper so this is the sort of movie that I could picture myself reading about on IMDB and really wishing I could see it. Now I’ve seen it and I’m a little bit closer to seeing as many Carole Lombard movies as possible.

Jayne Mansfield Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter

For my last movie of the day, I couldn’t resist the chance to see Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter on the big screen. There were a lot of great things going on during that time slot, but I always get such a big laugh out of Rock Hunter and I knew getting to see it on the big screen with a crowd was going to be a lot of fun — and I was not disappointed. There really isn’t anything quite like seeing a great comedy with an appreciative crowd. It had been a while since I’d last seen it, so all the jokes felt really fresh to me. It was a delightful way to end the day.

TCMFF 2018 Hits the Ground Running

TCMFF 2018

2018 marked my fifth year attending the TCM Classic Film Festival and over the years, I’ve sort of fallen into a routine. I fly into town on Wednesday morning, a day before the official festival activities really get started, and use that extra time to get settled, catch up with my friends, and try to adjust to the time zone difference. Aside from the travel aspect of it, it’s typically a pretty quiet day for me. This year, I feel like I got into town and got into full festival mode right off the bat.

Once I got into Hollywood, I dropped my things off at the hotel and headed over to the Roosevelt to pick up my media credentials and get a badly needed lunch at 25 Degrees. Before I knew it, I’d made four new friends at lunch (shout out to the first-timers from DC!), said hi to Ben Mankiewicz, and saw Eddie Muller as I was getting ready to leave 25 Degrees. If you’ve never been to the festival, I feel like this really sums up the general atmosphere of being there. When you’re at an event like this, you have something in common with everyone so it’s really easy to get into conversations with people you’ve never met before. And randomly running into TCM’s on-air hosts in places like Starbucks and other restaurants in the area is absolutely something that happens.

Cora Sue Collins Andrew Yang TCMFF 2018

Later in the day, I stopped by an event by the Hollywood Roosevelt’s pool hosted by the Going to the TCM Classic Film Festival Facebook group.  I wasn’t there for the whole event, but what I did catch was absolutely remarkable. When I got there, Barbara Rush and Cora Sue Collins were telling stories about their careers and boy, did they ever have stories to tell. Between the two of them, I got to listen to them talk about people like Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Lucille Ball, William Powell, Hedda Hopper, and Loretta Young. For example, Rush talked about how Crawford gave her advice on dealing with her publicity photos while Crawford was a good friend of Collins’s mother. After the discussion with Cora Sue and Barbara, there was an appearance by Andrew Yang, the great-grandson of Mary Astor, who had brought Mary’s Oscar with him.

Martin Scorsese Eva Marie Saint and Cicely Tyson TCMFF 2018 Red Capret

Martin Scorsese, Eva Marie Saint, and Cicely Tyson on the Red Carpet

The festival got into full swing the following day and I started things off by watching the red carpet arrivals for the 50th anniversary screening of The Producers. I’m a big fan of doing this because it gives me a chance to see a lot of the guests I don’t get to see otherwise during the festival, plus a few others who are just there for the big opening night screening. This year had a really fun group of special guests. Of course, Mel Brooks was there and it’s always a treat to see him in person. Since Martin Scorsese was being awarded the first Robert Osborne Award, he was also there — very briefly, but as a big Scorsese fan, still enough to be very exciting for me. Eva Marie Saint, Cicely Tyson, Mario and Melvin van Peebles, Norman Lloyd, Ruta Lee, Diane Baker, Rosanna Arquette, and Paul Sorvino all also made appearances. Paul Sorvino even gave us an impromptu opera performance! Since Dennis Miller was introducing a couple of movies during the festival, he made an appearance on the red carpet and seemed to be having the time of his life — he even came into the bleacher section and started shaking hands with people.

Toshiro Mifune Throne of Blood

I decided to skip the first block of movies in favor of getting some dinner before checking out Throne of Blood. Even though I love foreign films, I feel like I don’t often get around to seeing them at the festival so I was really happy to be able to make my first movie this year a foreign one. It wasn’t my first time seeing the movie, but getting to see it on the big screen was a real pleasure. There was a lot in the sound that I hadn’t fully appreciated by watching it at home. And I loved being able to see it with a crowd of people audibly gasping during the legendary arrow scene. All in all, it was an excellent way to start things off.