Buster Keaton

TCMFF 2015, Day 2: Early Technicolor, Dustin Hoffman, and BOOM!

Today involved making a lot of my hardest decisions of the entire festival. In a way, it was actually kind of nice to get those done and out of the way, but still, the decisions were tough. When it all came down to it, I ended up spending the majority of my day hanging out at the Egyptian theater, getting out of one movie and getting right back in line for the next one. The line-up there that day was just incredible.

David Pierce Dawn of Technicolor TCMFF 2015

David Pierce at the Dawn of Technicolor presentation. Photo courtesy TCM/Tyler Golden

The day started with a presentation called “The Dawn of Technicolor” given by James Layton and David Pierce, authors of the new book “The Dawn of Technicolor.” Although their book isn’t specifically focused on early musicals, this presentation was mostly focused on early Technicolor musical numbers as well as information about the early Technicolor process and some of the problems that came along with it. Now, I’ve always had an odd fondness for the look of early two-strip Technicolor, so I was relieved to find out that I am not alone in that. The Egyptian seats about 600, making it the third largest venue at the festival (behind the Chinese theater and the El Capitan) and it was a pretty full house. It was pretty exciting to see so many people who were willing to get up early to go see examples of early Technicolor; it made me feel a little less alone in my nerdiness.

Most of the clips featured in the presentation were extremely rare; the only one I had seen before was “The Lockstep” musical number from the scrapped revue The March of Time, which was featured in That’s Entertainment! Part 3. The clips they showed ranged from entertaining to downright baffling. The “Tip-Toe Through the Tulips” number from the mostly lost Gold Diggers of Broadway gave us all an idea of why that movie was such a rousing success in 1929. A color version of the “Meet My Sister” number from 1929’s The Show of Shows was really fun to watch and featured appearances from Loretta Young, Dolores Costello, and Ann Sothern in her second film. We were treated to a restored version of 1930’s The Sultan’s Jester, a 10-minute short produced by Warner Brothers which features a lot of bad jokes and some pretty wild acrobatics. If you ever have the chance to see Layton and Pierce give this presentation, I very highly recommend checking it out.

Dustin Hoffman Lenny

One of the hottest events of the entire festival was Friday’s screening of 1974’s Lenny with Dustin Hoffman in attendance. I had been really interested in the Christopher Plummer handprint ceremony at the Chinese theater, which was immediately before Lenny started, but ultimately, I decided to skip it to get in line for Lenny since Dustin Hoffman is one of my all-time favorite actors and the star of some of my favorite movies. This proved to be a good call because I don’t think I would have been able to get in if it weren’t for the fact that I was able to get out of the Technicolor presentation and immediately get in line for Lenny; a lot of people were shut out of this one.

Prior to the festival, I had never seen Lenny and didn’t know anything at all about the real Lenny Bruce, so I can’t talk about how accurate the movie is at depicting Lenny’s life, but Hoffman was amazing. I’m not sure why I haven’t heard this movie discussed more, but it’s definitely time for more people to rediscover it. Hoffman’s performance was a real tour de force and he had a terrific co-star in Valerie Perrine as Honey, the wife of Lenny Bruce.

Following the film, there was a discussion between Dustin Hoffman and Alec Baldwin about what it was like making the film and about his career in general. Hoffman was an absolute delight to listen to; he was funny, honest, candid, even showed a very heartfelt moment of vulnerability when talking about his late friend Robin Williams.  This was an interview I could have listened to all day; I so adore Hoffman as an actor, it was the opportunity of a lifetime to be able to hear him talk about how he researched the role of Lenny Bruce and what it was like to work with Bob Fosse. He and Fosse didn’t always see eye-to-eye on his performance, but Hoffman admitted that ultimately, Fosse was always right and joked that he’ll admit to a lot of things 40 years later. (If you’d like to see a clip of the interview, someone has uploaded a clip onto YouTube, but I will warn you that this clip is the most R-rated bit of the interview. But you do get to see both Hoffman and Baldwin doing their best Buddy Hackett impressions.)

Ann-Margaret at the TCM Film Festival

Ann-Margaret at the TCM Film Festival. Photo courtesy TCM/Tyler Golden

Following the screening of Lenny, I went outside and got right back in line for The Cincinnati Kid, which would be introduced by Ann-Margaret. Gambling movies aren’t always my thing, but with a cast like Steve McQueen, Edward G. Robinson, Joan Blondell, Karl Malden, and of course, Ann-Margaret, it was hard for me to resist. But the movie held my interest the whole time and had lots of suspense. It also gave Joan Blondell a lot of opportunities to be the ultra-sassy type of character I always love watching her play in her early 1930s films. And being able to see Ann-Margaret in person was a treat. She talked about things like making her film debut along with Bette Davis in Pocketful of Miracles and how wonderful Bette was to her, her love of motorcycles, and working with Steve McQueen, who she recalled saying, “Eh, let them worry, it’s their job,” when the studio asked him to stop riding his motorcycle to work.

Steamboat Bill Jr

After The Cincinnati Kid, it was time for me to get in line for Buster Keaton’s classic Steamboat Bill, Jr. with live music conducted by the great Carl Davis. Steamboat Bill, Jr. wasn’t a new movie to me, but it’s always incredible to see one of the great silent film comedies with a big audience, especially when the music is being conducted by one of the top composers of silent film scores. It’s truly an experience unlike anything else.

The Bank Dick WC Fields

I finally got a break from the Egyptian Theater after Steamboat Bill, Jr. when I went over to the TCL multiplex to see 1940’s The Bank Dick, introduced by Allen Fields and Ronald J. Fields, two of W.C. Fields’ grandchildren. Being able to see his grandsons was a real trip because one of them looked and sounded so much like W.C. Fields. In all honesty, my memory is a little hazy of this screening since I dozed off at a couple of points, but what I do remember of the movie, I immensely enjoyed.

Elizabeth Taylor Boom

I was willing to stay up til midnight to find out the context of how and why this hat was worn.

Oddly enough, one of the biggest highlights of the entire festival was the midnight screening of Boom!, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s film adaptation of Tennessee William’s “The Milk Truck Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.” Boom! is best remembered for being the only movie Taylor and Burton made together that lost money. And the movie does completely miss the mark in every conventional way, but that’s what made it so much fun to see in a theater. Boom! is the kind of movie that is best watched late at night after you’ve had a few drinks. John Waters has called the movie “so bad, it’s the other side of camp,” and everything else he has said about the movie is completely dead on. To give you an idea of what Boom! has to offer, I’ll quote the awesome Anne Marie of The Film Experience:

I know a lot of other people at the festival read John Waters’ comments about the movie and were totally sold on the movie by them. And judging by how many times I heard people around the festival doing their best imitations of Elizabeth Taylor shrieking, “WHAAAAAT!” I think it’s safe to say Boom! was a success. John Waters was right — it’s really best seen with an appreciative audience and this audience was, indeed, appreciative.

On that note, I will leave you with the trailer for Boom!

The Pink Panther, Silent Films, and Me

Pink Panther Title Card

Like so very many people, I spent a good amount of my childhood watching cartoons.  I remember being fond of Bugs Bunny and Woody Woodpecker, but my favorite was definitely the Pink Panther.  Oh, did I ever love the Pink Panther!  In my book, he was the funniest of the cartoon characters I watched and I loved that aura of coolness he had.  And perhaps I’ve always had a soft spot for the stylish animation and Henry Mancini music.

But as I got a bit older and the cartoons were being shown on television less frequently, I ended up taking a break from my old friend the Pink Panther.  I didn’t re-discover the Pink Panther until just a few years ago when I bought a DVD collection of Pink Panther cartoons.  When I started watching them, my first reaction was, “Oh, it’s wonderful to be seeing these again!” My second reaction was, “Wow, no wonder I grew up to be a big silent film fan!”

Even though I’d been a silent film fan for years by that point, it had never occurred to me that all those Pink Panther cartoons I watched as a kid may have helped lay the foundation for me to appreciate silent film comedians like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd.  But in hindsight, it makes perfect sense.  Although the Pink Panther speaks in a couple of cartoons and some cartoons feature narration, most Pink Panther cartoons are short silent films very similar to the short films Chaplin and Keaton made early in their careers.

Several Pink Panther cartoons like The Pink Phink and Pink Pajamas feature scenarios I can easily imagine Chaplin or Keaton having a lot of fun with.  We Give Pink Stamps in particular is Chaplin-esque to the extent that I would love to know what, if any, thoughts Chaplin had about it.  One setting Chaplin saw a lot of comedy potential in was department stores, which he put to great use in 1916’s The Floorwalker and 1936’s Modern Times.  Not only is We Give Pink Stamps done in the same spirit as those Chaplin films, it also has some jokes that I’m sure Chaplin would have loved to do himself if only they weren’t impossible for a human being to do, even with special effect trickery available at the time.

A popular topic amongst classic movie fans is which movies do you show to somebody to get them interested classic movies.  Silent movies are always tricky because so many people are married to the idea that silent movies are the most dull, creaky, strange, and antiquated movies you can possibly watch.  But if you’re looking to turn someone on to silent films, particularly children, why not start with some Pink Panther cartoons?  Their stylish mid-century look really disguises the fact that they are basically silent films and might be a good way to lead in to some Chaplin, Keaton, or Lloyd.

Congratulations to True Classics on four years of blogging!

Congratulations to True Classics on four years of blogging!

1928-1929: Oscar’s Most Awkward Year

Mary Pickford Oscar

Mary Pickford with her Oscar.

As popular as the Academy Awards are, they can be a very controversial topic amongst movie lovers.  I think virtually every cinephile has their own list of movies that they think got robbed at the Oscars.  Some may even have their favorite and least favorite Academy Award years.  But one thing I think we can all agree on is that the nominees for the second Academy Award ceremony (covering 1928-1929) definitely weren’t the strongest group of movies ever nominated.

It’s not so much that 1928-1929 was a completely terrible year for movies, but the film industry had been turned completely upside down that year.  During the first Academy Award ceremony, The Jazz Singer was given an honorary award for revolutionizing the film industry.  By the following year, the impact of The Jazz Singer was undeniable.  The movies eligible for the 1928-1929 Oscars were part of the first wave of movies to come out in the wake of The Jazz Singer and the nominees that year are a better reflection of how in flux the industry was at the time than what the best movies really were.

Even though studios were scrambling to hop on the talkie bandwagon, the production of silent films didn’t come to an immediate halt.  Some truly excellent silent films were produced that year, but you’d never know it by looking at the list of nominees.  However, if some of those silent films had been nominated, that year would probably now be looked back upon more favorably.


Movies That Could Have Been: The March of Time (1930)

Recently, I had the pleasure of revisiting the That’s Entertainment! trilogy.  As much as I love the first That’s Entertainment!, I love how much rare footage is featured in part three.  One of the movies discussed in part three is an abandoned project from 1930 called The March of Time.  The March of Time was intended to be a follow-up to The Hollywood Revue of 1929 and was set to be shot in two-color Technicolor and feature stars like Bing Crosby, Joan Crawford, Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante, Ramon Novarro, and Marie Dressler.  Only unlike The Hollywood Revue of 1929, The March of Time seemed to have more of a central concept — the past, present, and future of entertainment.  A number of musical scenes were shot for the film, but then the project was scrapped and never completed.

I’m sure that if The March of Time had been completed, it’d be thought of as a historical curiosity today, but I kind of wish that it had been completed.  As awkward and creaky as they are, I sort of love early musical efforts.  They’re just so earnest that I can’t help but find them endearing.  Especially in cases like this where lots of top stars of the era were put together in one movie just because it’s interesting to see all those stars together.  I’d also be quite interested in seeing what they thought the future of entertainment would be.

Even though The March of Time was abandoned, some of the filmed scenes eventually ended up being included in other things.  You can find some of these scenes on YouTube, but I want to specifically highlight one scene called The Lock Step featuring The Dodge Twins:

What I want to know is if this number was supposed to be representing the present or the future of entertainment.  Because if this was supposed to be the future, then they were surprisingly accurate in predicting Elvis’ Jailhouse Rock number.

The ‘High Sign’ (1921)

For me, the best part of Buster Keaton being TCM’s Star of the Month has been finally getting to see more of Buster’s short films.  I’d already seen most of his features, but I hadn’t seen many of the shorter ones, so getting to see so many of them all at once was really a treat.  I thought I’d just say a few things about The ‘High Sign,’ one of my favorites that I was introduced to this month.  In The ‘High Sign,’ Buster plays a sharpshooter who gets hired as a bodyguard for a man whose life has been threatened and then is hired as a hit man to kill the same guy he’d been hired to protect.

This was the first independent two-reeler that Buster made, but he wasn’t particularly happy with it and held off releasing it until after One Week had been released.  I don’t really get why Buster wasn’t happy with it because I thought it was brilliant.  It’s only 21 minutes long, but it’s chock full of fantastic jokes.  First there was that great entrance of him falling off the train.  But there are also the great moments where he struggles with the newspaper,  where he steals the cop’s gun and replaces it with a banana, or when the cop is chasing him and to get away, he turns his jacket around and tries to disguise himself as a priest.  And that’s not even getting into the incredible sequence where Buster chases the gang through a house full of trap doors.  That scene was truly a marvel of timing and staging, it needs to be seen to be believed.  It’s just amazing.  Buster got more laughs from me in 21 minutes than most modern comedies got from me in two hours.

Carly from The Kitty Packard Pictorial has been hosting Project Keaton all this month. To take a look back at some of the other Buster Keaton related things that have been posted this month, be sure to check the Project Keaton Tumblr page.

What’s on TCM: October 2011

This month’s schedule is one that I’m definitely a big fan of.  Being the big silent film fan that I am, obviously I am very excited for Buster Keaton being the star of the month!  Every Sunday night will be all Buster Keaton, all night long.  Not only that, since it’s October, it goes without saying that there will be plenty of classic horror movies to get you into the Halloween spirit. Monday nights are classic horror nights starting at 8:00 PM, with plenty more to come on October 29th , 30th, and 31st.  TCM will also be commemorating the 100th birthday of director Nicholas Ray by playing a night of his movies every Tuesday night this month.


The Real Hollywood Tough Guys (And Ladies)

In the 100+ year history of film, a lot of actors have wound up with tough guy images.  Mention tough guys to classic film fans, you’re probably going to hear a lot of James Cagney, Bogart, and Edward G. Robinson.  If you were to talk to someone more into modern movies, you’d probably get Jean-Claude Van Damme, Bruce Willis, and Vin Diesel.  Personally, I’d be hard pressed to call any of them the toughest actors of all time.  To me, I think the most unsung tough people in film history have got to be silent film actors.  Seriously, you  had to be pretty tough and fearless if you were going to make some of the most beloved movies from the silent era.  I’m pretty sure if anyone went up to Bruce Willis and told him to do some of the things that a lot of silent film actors had to do, he would say, “You have got to be kidding me.”  Now, let’s take a moment to appreciate what all these fine actors had to endure.

Harold Lloyd lost his thumb and forefinger when a prop bomb he was holding accidentally exploded.

Dolores Costello liked to refer to 1928’s Noah’s Ark as “Mud, Blood, and Flood.”  In the documentary series “Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film,” she recalled going to her dressing room on set one day and finding a very bandaged extra leaning outside of her door.  When she asked if she could help, he explained that an ambulance would come back for him since he was in better shape than most of the other extras.  A couple of extras were killed while filming the flood scene.

While filming the finale of Greed in Death Valley, director Erich von Stroheim insisted on actually filming in Death Valley.  In August.  Jean Hersholt had to be hospitalized after he lost 27 pounds from being in such extreme heat.

Lillian Gish’s hands really took a beating on sets.  While filming The Wind in the Mojave Desert, Lillian burnt one of her hands when she touched a doorknob in the 120 degree heat.  Earlier, when she was filming the famous ice floe scene in Way Down East, her right hand was permanently damaged from being left in the icy water for so long.

While making 1919’s Male and Female, Thomas Meighan carries a leopard that had recently killed a man in the zoo it was in.  Basically, Cecil B. DeMille said, “Hey, don’t put that leopard to sleep!  Let’s give it to Thomas Meighan instead!”  There is another famous scene in that movie of Gloria Swanson with real, live lions, which she insisted on doing herself.

And last, but certainly not least, there’s Buster Keaton.  I don’t think anyone loved doing stunt work more than Buster.  He insisted on doing his own stunts in all of his greatest silent movies.  Famously, he broke his neck while filming the water tank scene in Sherlock, Jr. but didn’t even know it until a long time after the fact.  The most famous scene of his entire career is probably from Steamboat Bill, Jr., where he stands in front of a house and the entire front side of the house falls down around him, but he happens to be standing where a window is.  That stunt involved a lot of precision because if his position was off by just a couple of inches, he would have been killed.  When Buster was signed to MGM, one of the things that upset him most was that MGM wouldn’t let him do his own dangerous stunts anymore.  And this is why I consider Buster Keaton to be the toughest guy to ever get in front of a movie camera.