Between May 6th and 9th, I was among the many fans of Turner Classic Movies who spent their weekend glued to their television to participate in the 2021 TCM Classic Film Festival. For the second year in a row, the festival was a virtual experience, taking place on the channel, on HBO Max, and on Zoom for some virtual Club TCM events.
When I go to the TCM Film Festival in person, I usually watch a mix of old favorite movies and things I’ve never seen before. But with the virtual format this year, I ended up leaning very heavily toward things I had never seen before. Usually, it’s the experience factor that draws me to the old favorites during an in-person festival, whether it’s being able to see a movie in a specific theater or because of a special guest introducing it. Since that wasn’t as much of a factor this time around (any special intros I wanted to see could be watched separately from the movie), I decided to check out as many movies as I could that I had never seen before.
This approach worked out remarkably well. During the festival, I watched 16 feature-length movies that were new to me and I didn’t outright dislike any of them. Of course, I liked some more than others, but I came out of this being introduced to a lot of great movies. As far as movies go, my favorite discoveries this year (in no particular order) included:
- Dogfight (1991)
- They Won’t Believe Me (1947)
- Stranger Than Paradise (1984)
- Diner (1982)
- The Getaway (1972)
They really did a great job of including movies that don’t quite get the attention they deserve and I’m really glad I took the time to give them a shot. In the end, the list of movies I watched ran the gamut from Georges Melies to River Phoenix. There were also several other features that I felt added a lot to the whole experience.
Plan 9 From Outer Space Table Read & Movie
When the schedule for this year’s festival was first announced, I was immediately excited to see that we’d be getting some midnight movie style content this year. First up was a table read of the script for Plan 9 From Outer Space, which was originally produced by Dana Gould for SF Sketchfest with performers such as Bob Odenkirk, Paul F. Tompkins, Laraine Newman, Jonah Ray, and Oscar Nunez, just to name a few, bringing the script to life. I knew this was going to be a lot of fun to watch, but it far exceeded my expectations. Every performer involved brought their A game and it was an absolute riot. Laraine Newman’s deadpan narration was perfection. And being able to watch the movie version of Plan 9 immediately afterward made the whole thing even better. Definitely my favorite experience of the festival.
West Side Story Cast Reunion
This year’s opening night movie was West Side Story, starting with a conversation between Ben Mankiewicz, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, and Russ Tamblyn. I’ve watched a lot of these interviews at the festival over the years and this was one of the best. The camaraderie between the actors is still so strong and the conversation was fascinating. They took time to talk about Yvonne Othon, who is the actress who says, “I know you do!” during the America number. This was an ad-libbed line which has made such an impression that it not only stayed in the movie, it’s worked its way into theatrical productions over the years. Rita Moreno told an adorable story about Olivia de Havilland fawning over George Chakiris at the Oscars. Rita’s remarks about the movie were particularly interesting since she made it clear that the movie means the world to her, but that doesn’t stop her from criticizing it for where it falls short in terms of race.
Jet Jockeys in Love: The Making of Chain Lightning
Jet Jockeys in Love: The Making of Chain Lightning was another one of the things I was most excited to see in the lineup. This presentation by Craig Barron and Ben Burtt focused on the special effects in 1950’s Chain Lightning and was every bit as fun and informative as the presentations they do at the in-person festival each year. The movie Chain Lightning didn’t end up being one of my favorite Humphrey Bogart movies, but the presentation was top notch.
Conversations with actors are always one of the biggest draws at the festival and this year, we had excellent, brand new interviews with Ali MacGraw, Danny Glover, and Martin Short as part of the Tributes section on HBO Max. All of these were actors I was somewhat familiar with, but didn’t really know a whole lot about their lives and careers. Each of these interviews ended up making me want to see more of each actor’s work and learn more about them in general. Of the three, I was probably least familiar with Ali MacGraw, but I watched her interview after seeing The Getaway and ended up being so charmed by her that I later watched Love Story, even though it hadn’t really been on my radar going into the festival.
New film restorations are another very consistent programming feature at the TCM Film Festival, but it seemed like this year had an exceptionally good group of restorations. A big highlight for me was They Won’t Believe Me, which featured 15 minutes of footage that had been cut from its initial release. I had never seen They Won’t Believe Me before, so I’m glad that I was able to see it for the first time as producer Joan Harrison wanted it to be seen. Picture quality was excellent as well.
Other restorations this year included Doctor X, The Whistle at Eaton Falls, Her Man, So This is Paris, and Princess Tam Tam, all of which looked spectacular. Annie Get Your Gun was another restoration, which I didn’t catch when it aired, but I’ve heard wonderful things about that restoration.
The Melies Mystery
As a silent film fan, of course I was delighted to see that HBO Max included a collection related to George Melies. The Melies shorts were great, but the real star was the new documentary The Melies Mystery. This documentary explains how original camera negatives of several of his films were found in the United States despite the fact that Melies himself had personally destroyed his original negatives. If you have any interest at all in silent film or film preservation, this documentary is a must-see. I’m always fascinated by stories about how lost films are re-located and this story has some very unexpected twists. I liked this documentary so much that I watched it twice.
During the 2020 festival, the movies shown on Turner Classic Movies were often supplemented with things like interviews from previous festivals. This year, they did the same, but it wasn’t necessarily limited to material from past festivals. Both on TCM and HBO Max, viewers could see extras ranging from brand new introductions to mini-documentaries that added to the festival vibe.
On Turner Classic Movies, Diner, Mean Streets, Fame, and The Goodbye Girl respectively had introductions/interviews with Barry Levinson, Martin Scorsese, Debbie Allen, and Richard Dreyfuss. There was also a mini-documentary about director Michael Curtiz’s work in horror films that was shown along with Doctor X and let me come in featured a documentary about the work of Bill Morrison. On HBO Max, there were things like a conversation between Alicia Malone and Danny Huston about The Maltese Falcon, a fun featurette by Bruce Goldstein about famous filming locations in New York City, and movie introductions by people like Lisa Rinna and Michael Douglas, all of which were recorded specifically for the festival. HBO Max also had lots of other extras from the TCM archive and DVD/Blu-ray releases.
Overall, I really enjoyed this year’s virtual version of the festival. Last year, they had limited time to switch to a virtual format, but the extra preparation that went into this year’s fest showed and I felt like it more effectively captured the essence of the festival. I dearly miss being able to do the festival in person and being able to spend time with my friends there, but this was an example of how good a virtual film festival can potentially be. And, as always, I’ve been spending the past few days after the festival trying to catch up on some of the things I didn’t have time to see. Whether the festival is virtual or in person, I will never have time to truly do it all.