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Highlights of the 2023 TCM Film Festival

“You ain’t seen nothing yet,” proclaimed Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer” (1927), and for the 14th annual edition of the TCM Classic Film Festival, organizers borrowed the same tagline for their showcase of movies the way they were meant to be experienced: On the big screen.

With more than 100 screenings and events, including celebrity appearances, panel discussions, book signings, midnight movies and special presentations, the festival unspooled April 13-16 at the historic TCL Chinese Theatre complex, the recently restored Hollywood Legion Theater and the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Along with screenings devoted to the usual categories of “Essentials,” “Discoveries” and special themes, several world-premiere restorations took pride of place, including the opening-night movie “Rio Bravo” (1959), “Penny Serenade” (1941) and “Man’s Castle” (1933). This year’s festival honorees were historian Donald Bogle, recipient of the annual Robert Osborne Award, and Oscar-winning production designer Patrizia von Brandenstein (“Amadeus”) and Oscar-nominated actor-writer-choreographer Russ Tamblyn (“West Side Story” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”).

Plus, there were appearances from Hollywood A-listers such as director Paul Thomas Anderson, Ann-Margret, Diane Baker, Tom Berenger, actor-director George Clooney, director Joe Dante, cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, Angie Dickinson, Richard Dreyfuss, director William Friedkin, Louis Gossett Jr., actor-director Danny Huston, Amy Irving, Shirley Jones, director John Landis, composer-conductor David Newman, Edward James Olmos, director Alexander Payne, director Steven Soderburgh, producer-director George Stevens Jr., and Mr. Hollywood himself, director-producer Steven Spielberg. In addition, TCM hosts Ben Mankiewicz, Alicia Malone, Eddie Muller, Jacqueline Stewart and Dave Karger introduced films and served as emcees throughout.

With 2022 as a transition year, after the COVID-19 pandemic forced the festival online in 2020 and 2021, TCMFF has returned to business as usual, without the health-related restrictions of 2022. “The number of passholders is up,” said Genevieve McGillicuddy, the festival’s executive director. “And it’s a relief not to have to deal with COVID protocols. As with each year, there’s even more excitement.”

This year’s festival also celebrated the centennial of Warner Bros., founded on April 4, 1923, by four immigrant siblings. Since 1996, the Warner media complex has been the corporate parent of the cable network Turner Classic Movies, which presents the annual festival. A year ago, the venerable studio became part of Warner Discovery, and the merger saddled the firm with more than $50 billion in debt. As a consequence, priorities seemingly have changed, despite reassuring comments made by Warner Discovery CEO David Zaslav onstage before “Rio Bravo.”

With the company in economy mode, some festival activities and programming followed suit this year. Among the casualties: the handprint ceremony in the TCL Chinese forecourt, the annotated printed schedule, fewer poolside screenings, full live accompaniment for silent films and certain venues (though the latter might have been primarily a logistical issue).

The diminished offerings recalled a retort from “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (originally produced by MGM Television but now part of the Warner library). It came without ribbons; it came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. In past years, for instance, media attendees received lavish sacks of swag, including bottles of TCM-branded wine, copies of TCM-published books and assorted trinkets; this time, they got a thin canvas tote and a choice of two TCM-produced books. On the plus side, it meant fewer things to stuff into the suitcase for the trip home.

Besides, most attendees took a Cindy Lou Who-type attitude. They were just happy to be there, fewer shiny objects or not. By unofficial count, there seemed to be more festival first-timers than usual (as indicated by festival-debut ribbons on their laminated passes). Many dressed in ’40s attire or as their favorite film characters, with some clutching treasured movie mementos (for instance, vintage Stan and Ollie oversized puppets at a screening of Laurel and Hardy shorts).

Though the festival maintains its reputation as the ultimate classic movie experience, this year the ugly reality of life in America broke through the fourth wall. In a grim “you ain’t seen nothing yet” moment, a shooting Friday night on Hollywood Boulevard near the TCL Chinese Theatre complex prompted a shelter-in-place alert via the festival app. A man was left in critical condition, with a gunshot wound to the head, and two suspects fled into the outdoor mall next to the TCL theaters. But no festivalgoers were involved or harmed, and TCM staff quickly worked to inform attendees and keep them safe.

To put matters in perspective, Ben Mankiewicz’s comments before the closing night, 40th anniversary screening of “The Big Chill” (in a 4K restoration) reminded festivalgoers of the importance of TCM, TCMFF and similar institutions. “This is my favorite week of the year,” Mankiewicz said and then noted that the 14th TCMFF coincided with the 10th anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings. A fan had sought Mankiewicz out the day before and told him about how TCM comforted her during that crisis. Cell service was out, Boston residents were confined to their homes and to cope, “this woman turned on TCM, and it helped to soothe her. We helped her get through that, and that’s a reminder of why we take this job seriously, because we know it matters so much to you.”

And now, some moments worthy of a highlights reel:

Discoveries galore: As usual, festival programmers unearthed several titles from cinema near-obscurity. Saturday brought five, including the pre-Code “The Wiser Sex” (1932), starring Claudette Colbert, Melvyn Douglas and Franchot Tone; the biopic “The Jackie Robinson Story” (1950), with the baseball great playing himself; the Gregory La Cava-directed comedy “Unfinished Business” (1941), with Irene Dunne, Robert Montgomery and Preston Foster, and “The Crimson Canary” (1945), a murder mystery set in the jazz world with Noah Berry Jr., accompanied by real-life jazz icon Coleman Hawkins, folk singer Josh White and guitarist Jimmie Dodd, future host of “The Mickey Mouse Club,” who signed off every episode with the tagline “Why? Because we like you.”

Never released on home video and last broadcast in 1988, “The Crimson Canary” represents the transition from swing to bebop. “The music really makes this film special,” said author and frequent TCM contributor Jeremy Arnold, who introduced the movie (originally titled “Hear That Trumpet Talk”). “The score is 100 percent jazz, unusual for its time. With a jazz combo playing swing and modern jazz, the film is a document of that change.”

Arnold, who will program and host a B-movie lineup for TCM this summer, described “The Crimson Canary,” released by Universal, as a quintessential B. “Studios used the B movie to lure back crowds [after movie attendance dropped in the early ’40s]. They also used Bs to nurture talent.” Steve Brodie, soon to be a film-noir stalwart, had his second role in “The Crimson Canary.” And Barbara Bates, who would land the pivotal role of the scheming Phoebe in “All About Eve” (1950), turns up in an uncredited part. Arnold added with a chuckle: “When Noah Berry Jr. Is top-billed, you know it’s a B-movie.”

Warner Bros. centennial: To mark the 100th anniversary of the studio that introduced the talkies and proved that crime does pay with the gangster genre, festival organizers screened many of WB’s usual suspects, such as “Casablanca” (1942), “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948) and “The Exorcist” (1973), with Chicago-born director William Friedkin in attendance. Missing, though, were other iconic Warner titles such as “The Jazz Singer” (perhaps due to the blackface factor), “42nd Street” (1933), “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938), “White Heat” (1949), “Rebel Without a Cause” (1954), “Giant” (1956) and my personal WB fave, “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane” (1962). A few of these landmark titles had been screened at recent TCMFFs, however.

Props, though, for pairing Bruce Lee’s “Enter the Dragon” (1973), which turned the martial-arts genre into a juggernaut, with a TCMFF guest appearance by Wu-Tang Clan leader RZA, who reported that the film sparked the group’s first album, “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” (1993). Bring da ruckus!

The In-Laws" (1979), with Peter Falk and Alan Arkin, proved to be another unsung WB gem. Co-stars Nancy Dussault and Penny Peyser read a note from Arkin, who couldn’t attend the screening. “Making the movie was an effortless experience from beginning to end. … When people ask if it was as much fun to make the movie [as it is to watch it], it delights me to no end that I can answer unequivocally — yes!”

Dussault also confirmed that from “start to finish, the movie was a delight.” Falk would run his lines while standing outside in some shrubbery, while Arkin would be inside playing the piano. And longtime fans will recall that “The In-Laws" has one of the best interjections of all time: “Serpentine!”

Midnight at the luchadora oasis: A favorite film of Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro, “The Batwoman” (1968), directed by Cuban-born René Cardona, fuses the luchadora (Mexican wrestling) genre with the “Batman” TV-series craze of the mid-’60s. It’s the latest revival from filmmaker, archivist and preservationist Viviana García-Besné, who founded the Permanencia Voluntaria Archivo Cinematográfico, devoted to resurrecting neglected Mexican films. García-Besné’s family produced films from 1919 to 1990.

“Before there were the Warner brothers, there were the Calderóns, immigrant siblings who started in the entertainment business, moved to Los Angeles and segued into film production, distribution and exhibition,” said TCM director and festival programmer Scott McGee while introducing the film for its midnight screening. “At the company’s peak, it owned 36 U.S. movie theaters aimed at Latinos.” “The Batwoman” holds special memories for her since it was shot in part at her childhood home.

“The Batwoman” follows Gloria (Maura Monti), a luchadora by night and crime fighter by day, when she swaps her bat-themed wrestling gear for a bikini and cape. She flies into action after learning of a mad scientist’s plot to use the pineal-gland fluid of murdered wrestlers to create a Franken-fish that resembles the beast in “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.” “Guillermo del Toro stole the monster from me,” said García-Besné, laughing at the similarities between del Toro’s creature in “The Shape of Water” (2017) and the Gill Man in “The Batwoman.”

Recently restored in 4K by the Permanencia Voluntaria archive, the Paseo del Norte Foundation (based in El Paso, Texas), the Cinema Preservation Alliance and the Academy Film Archive, “The Batwoman” will receive a Blu-ray and Ultra-HD release this summer. “Viviana is on a one-woman crusade to restore Mexico’s cinema treasures,” said Charles Horak, a restoration producer on the project. “The real Batwoman of Mexican cinema is right here.”

Birthday “birdie”: Appearing for a 60th-anniversary screening of “Bye Bye Birdie,” the film version of the hit Broadway musical that blasted a certain New Trier grad to stardom, Ann-Margret received a special birthday cake, featuring her “gams” as candles, and an audience serenade of “Happy Birthday,” ahead of her 82nd on April 28. She told the crowd that it didn’t feel as if 60 years had flown by since “Birdie”: “Not at all. I still have the energy that I had then. … Life is filled with excitement every day.”

Ann-Margret also talked about her just-released disc, “Born to Wild,” consisting of her takes on classic rock hits, with assists from music luminaries Pete Townshend, Joe Perry, Rick Wakeman, Cliff Richard, Steve Cropper, Pat Boone and Mickey Gilley. The conversation turned to her milestone movie with the King, “Viva Las Vegas” (1964). “Elvis always went with the flow,” she said of her leading man, “and always had such a great sense of humor.” Presley was ever the gentleman, she recalled, in contrast to “Birdie” co-star Paul Lynde (as her dad in the film), “who was a bit naughty.”

Dialing up the ultimate guilty pleasure: It was “The Ben and Mario Show” as TCM host Ben Mankiewicz and actor-film bluff Mario Cantone traded quips while introducing “BUtterfield 8” (1960), the over-the-top sudser, based on the John O’Hara novel, starring Liz Taylor and Laurence Harvey as unlikely lovers. “I live for this stuff!” declared Cantone. “But Ben has chosen this totally BONKERS motion picture for us tonight.” Added Mankiewicz, “Liz plays a prostitute [Gloria Wandrous] who doesn’t take money. She’s totally outraged when Laurence Harvey [as married lover Wes Liggett] leaves her cash on the nightstand.” Eddie Fisher, Taylor’s real-life husband at the time, Cantone said, “plays the gay best friend role,” once slated for David Janssen, who was ousted at Taylor’s insistence.

Cantone reminded the audience that “BUtterfield 8” made history for bringing Taylor “her sympathy Oscar,” the first of her two best actress Academy Awards, with Liz beating out expected favorites Shirley MacLaine and Deborah Kerr. Taylor, who had almost died after contracting pneumonia, showed up at the Oscars with a visible tracheotomy scar, later accessorized with the gold statuette. Gloria Wandrous would have approved.

Making a special guest appearance at the TCMFF screening was Joan Benedict Steiger, the fourth and last wife of Oscar winner Rod Steiger, and Taylor’s stand-in for “BUtterfield 8.” (As such, Steiger was spared the ordeal of spouting howlers like “Mama, face it; I was the slut of all time!”) The crowd roared its approval when Steiger stood to take a bow, and when Cantone quipped, “I’m such a miserable bastard, and this brings so much joy to my life.” Classic film fans everywhere will drink to that — and to “BUtterfield 8,” which despite everything, still exerts a lurid charm.

Close encounters of the Chicago kind: While standing in line or sitting in the crowd, awaiting the next movie, festival attendees often get the chance to renew acquaintances or make new friends. In one queue, I met Pam Butler of the Facebook group Windy City Film Fanatics & Friends of TCM and later ran into Chuck Pickerill, known to Noir City Chicago attendees; he mans the Noir City merch table at the Music Box, and was making his inaugural trip to TCMFF. And Jeff Sanderson, longtime Chicago movie publicist, who relocated to Los Angeles 20 years ago and now runs the PR film Chasen & Company, heard me talking to friends before a screening and singled me out: “I knew it was you the moment I heard your voice.” 

Meanwhile, a former Chicago totem has found a temporary home in Hollywood: Tony Manero’s white suit from “Saturday Night Fever” (1977), worn by John Travolta and once famously owned by film critic Gene Siskel, was displayed in a Club TCM exhibit featuring memorabilia that will be up for bid during the “Hollywood Classic & Contemporary” auction April 22-23. The estimate is $100,000 to $200,000. Siskel paid $2,000 for the suit when he bought it in 1978. (Still a treasure at any price.)

Why? Because we love you: Longtime TCMFF executive director Genevieve McGillicuddy received a special salute — her own screening. “Every film is here for a reason, but sometimes we want to program something just because,” said TCM’s Scott McGee, while introducing the British film “Genevieve” (1953), about a road race featuring antique autos and starring then newcomers Kay Kendall, John Gregson, Kenneth More and Dinah Sheridan. “Genevieve is the one who sets the standard and tone and does it with unflappable grace and a stiff upper lip,” he said. “This is for her.”

Missing Movies: Director Allison Anders and actor-director Peter Riegert introduced Frank Perry’s little-seen “Play It As It Lays” (1972) as a case study for the recently formed advocacy group Missing Movies. Its mission: “to make the full range of our cinema history available to all.” Despite seemingly endless viewing options nowadays, many films are not available for streaming, DVD release or theatrical screening. 

For instance, “Play It As It Lays,” with Tuesday Weld as a Hollywood actress undergoing professional and personal crises, “is hard to find and not available on DVD or streaming platforms,” Anders said, despite its pedigree (based on a novel by Joan Didion, who co-wrote the script with husband John Gregory Dunne). “Rights issues and luck often determine what gets seen,” Riegert added. With the rise of digital media, “the means of production has been democratized but not the means of distribution.”

Acclaimed films such as Shirley Clarke’s “The Cool World” (1964) and Mary Harron’s “I Shot Andy Warhol” (1996) have fallen into this limbo. Missing Movies “aims to convince studios that certain films are worth saving,” Anders said. “It’s like cultural archeology,” Riegert added. “What can be brought to life again?”

Best in show: Once again, honors for top presentation go to Bruce Goldstein, founder of Rialto Pictures and repertory programming director of New York City’s Film Forum. Introducing the Warner musical “Footlight Parade” (1933), with its all-star cast of James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler, Goldstein proposed that 1933 could be regarded as Hollywood’s best (instead of the usual benchmark of 1939). “It’s the year that talkies took flight and the last year of pre-Code films, which had their naughtiest and bawdiest year to date,” he said. “It’s also the year in which Warners gave [choreographer] Busby Berkeley the keys to its kingdom and allowed him to develop the Warners aesthetic.”

Goldstein produced special highlight reels to run before and after “Footlight Parade”; one outlined all the scenes and dialogue cut by regional censors. In Chicago, the cuts included the insult delivered by Joan Blondell to snooty social climber and pass-around pack Vivian Rich (Claire Dodd): “As long as they've got sidewalks, you’ve got a job.” Throughout, Goldstein delivered his usual snappy commentary: “Is there anything in the Marvel Comics universe that could match ‘By a Waterfall’ [one of the film’s elaborately choreographed Berkeley numbers]?” For this classic film fan, that’s a hard no.

He also declared that Ruby Keeler was “a crummy tap dancer,” who wisely went into retirement after 1941, and that young lead Dick Powell decided to switch to tough guy roles after being outmatched by James Cagney in the singing-and-dancing department. “And if Cagney hadn’t made ‘Footlight Parade,’ there would have been no ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy.’” 

And with that, let’s all repeat: “My mother thanks you. My father thanks you. My sister thanks you. And I thank you.”

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