After two years away, the TCM Classic Film Festival returned with a vengeance for its 13th annual edition dubbed “Back to the Big Screen.”
Held April 21-24 at the historic TCL Chinese Theatre complex, the recently restored Hollywood Legion Theater, the Roosevelt Hotel and El Capitan, the classic movie marathon featured nearly a hundred films and events, with most programmed to reflect this year’s themes of “Class Reunions,” “Second Time Around,” “Back from Battle” and “Reunited in Time,” along with the usual showcases devoted to “Essentials,” “Discoveries” and star tributes. This year’s honorees were actors Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie and Lily Tomlin; historian Leonard Maltin (winner of the annual Robert Osborne Award), and animator Floyd Norman.
With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing the cancellation of in-person fests since 2020, the joy of reuniting with fellow classic film fans was tangible. As film historian Alan K. Rode observed in his introduction to the often-overlooked Western “The Gunfighter” (1950): “This [the TCM Classic Film Festival] isn’t just an event, this isn’t just a festival—it’s life.”
Marquee events included world-premiere restorations of “Giant” (1956), “A Star Is Born” (1937) and “Topkapi” (1964), and “Spartacus” (1960) in a world premiere 70mm print, “Spy Smasher Strikes Back” (1942), billed as a “world-premiere reimagining,” and “I the Jury” (1953) in 3D. Other main attractions were the cast reunions of “Cooley High” (1975), “Diner” (1982) and “A League of Their Own” (1992). Plus, there were appearances from Hollywood A-listers such as Kevin Bacon, Diane Baker, Warren Beatty, Richard Benjamin, director-producer Tony Bill, cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, Jane Fonda, Pam Grier, Tess Harper, Margaret O’Brien, John Sayles, director Michael Schultz, Jane Seymour, producer-director George Stevens Jr., and Steven Spielberg.
On the red carpet for the festival’s opening night, the 40th anniversary screening of “E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982) at the TCL Chinese IMAX, the otherworldly director revealed a little-known twist: actor Harrison Ford sealed the deal for “E.T.” Spielberg wanted Melissa Mathison, on a roll after her debut effort, “The Black Stallion” (1979), and then dating Ford, to write “E.T.” since Spielberg himself was tied up with other commitments. “I had worked out most of the story, and I needed a writer to write it with me, or write it just based on the story,” Spielberg told Indiewire. “I told her my ‘E.T.’ idea. And she said, ‘I’m not interested in writing anymore. It’s too hard.’ She turned me down.” Then Spielberg asked Ford to intervene. The next day, Mathison told Spielberg, “ ‘OK, you got Harrison so excited about this. What Is it that I missed?’” The rest was history.
Former “E.T.” child stars Drew Barrymore (Gertie) and Henry Thomas (Elliott), previously scheduled to appear at the opening-night event, canceled at the last minute. In the audience were other “E.T.” castmates and crew, such as Dee Wallace (Elliott and Gertie’s mom), former child actors Robert MacNaughton and J.C. Martel and sound designer Ben Burtt (who won an Oscar for his sound-effects editing on “E.T.”).
Other moments that earned spots on the festival’s clip reel:
Adventures in pre-Code paradise: Kicking off the festival’s bounty of films produced before the 1934 enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code, historian-filmmaker Cari Beauchamp called “Jewel Robbery” (1932), with Kay Francis (as a trophy wife) and William Powell (as a debonair thief and seducer), a “personal fave, a movie about a woman torn between two passions—men and jewels.” It ranks right up there, she said, with Ernst Lubitsch films for its risqué dialogue,” citing lines such as “At dawn we shall have a secret behind us” and “I fly about all day pursuing food, jewels, excitement. … In the morning, a cocktail. In the afternoon, a man.”
Like many pre-Code films, “Jewel Robbery” takes a feminist stance. “Women are never punished,” said Beauchamp, author of Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood, “or forced to apologize for their behavior.”
Other pre-Codes featured at this year’s festival were “Baby Face” (1933), “Cocktail Hour” (1933), “Counsellor at Law” (1933), “Three on a Match” (1932) and “Evenings for Sale” (1932), with a title that says it all. Leonard Maltin, whose movie knowledge is second to none, introduced “Evenings for Sale” and admitted that he “never knew of it until six months ago, when I saw it on YouTube.” He then lobbied TCM staff to schedule the movie, which stars Herbert Marshall as an impoverished Viennese count turned gigolo, for the festival. “It’s a minor film, but very enjoyable.”
Its rediscovery reminds Maltin that “sometimes a movie is not really lost but is just not looked for. I hope this screening revives interest in this title.”
A Dynamic Duo: “The Batman” and Eddie Bracken: Michael Uslan, comic-book savant and executive producer of the “Dark Knight” trilogy and “The Batman,” the box-office champ of 2022 thus far, proudly claims another role—as the No. 1 fan of Eddie Bracken, the onetime child star, Broadway musical actor and Preston Sturges muse. Bracken first starred for Sturges in “The Miracle of Morgan Creek” (1944), and Sturges enjoyed working with the actor so much, he brought him back as the lead in his next film, “Hail the Conquering Hero” (1944). Remembering him as “great and underrated” as he introduced “Conquering Hero,” Uslan said, “Eddie Bracken was the nicest guy in the world.”
Uslan met Bracken through his work on the New Jersey Film Commission (for which he currently serves as chairman). “Back in the day, our chairperson was Celeste Holm, Academy Award-winning actress and human being extraordinaire. Eddie Bracken was also living in New Jersey and was a friend of Celeste’s,” said Uslan, whose memoir The Boy Who Loved Batman has been adapted for Broadway. “She brought him into several events that we were staging or participating in, and over time, I had the fortunate opportunity to get to know him.”
For an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gala at the Thomas Alva Edison Laboratory, a national historic site in West Orange, N.J., to celebrate the movie industry’s 100th anniversary, Uslan assembled a troupe of acclaimed actors and directed them in five short remakes. Celeste Holm and her husband, actor Wesley Addy, appeared in a remake of “The Kiss.” Ruth Warwick, June Lockhart, Dan Lauria and Ron McClarty played scenes from “The Great Train Robbery.” Bracken re-created “The Sneeze,“ the first copyrighted movie, “which arguably gave birth to the entire motion-picture industry,” Uslan said. “We took the original five-second film and turned it into a one-minute, hysterical sneeze. I not only had a wonderful time making that with Eddie, but then also celebrating at the black-tie event with him. He was truly one of the nicest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know.”
A “Group” hug for Robert Osborne: “The whole visit here [to the festival] has been very emotional,” said actor-educator Diane Baker (“Marnie”), introducing “The Group” (1966). The film adaptation of Mary McCarthy’s then-salacious best seller, it tackles then-taboo topics such as abortion, contraception, infidelity, lesbianism, open marriage and domestic violence. “The last time here I was with Robert Osborne,” referring to TCM’s founding host and her longtime friend.
Addressing a sold-out audience, Baker immediately tackled the $64,000 question: Why was Sidney Lumet, known for gritty, hard-hitting films such as “12 Angry Men” (1957), “The Fugitive Kind” (1960) and “The Pawnbroker” (1964), chosen to direct “The Group” (1966), a melodrama set in the 1930s about eight Vassar grads, featuring an ensemble cast of mostly unknowns (including Candice Bergen in her film debut). According to Baker, “The film’s producers wanted a director like Sidney Lumet to raise it above pulp. The actresses were perfectly cast. Lumet got Oscar-worthy performances from them.”
(However, in a set-visit feature that she wrote up for the New Yorker, critic Pauline Kael claimed Lumet was “the director producers settled for when they couldn’t get the one they wanted — everybody's second choice.” Meow.)
To close, Baker announced that she has funded a post-graduate program at UCLA in Osborne’s memory. “Robert loved film stars and not-so-big stars,” she said. Regardless of star stature, “in the end, it’s about real, hard work and passion. You can’t quit or give up. In memory of Robert, please enjoy ‘The Group.’ ”
From night until Day: Who knew that Eddie Muller, “The Czar of Noir,” TCM prime-time host, mastermind of TCM’s “Noir Alley” and all-around denizen of the dark, worshipped at the altar of Doris Day? “I really lobbied for this gig, I’m a huge Doris Day fan,” said Muller, who also moderated a panel discussion as part of the festival’s centennial salute to the Hollywood icon.
For years, “The Pajama Game” (1957), based on the Broadway hit with music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, was mired in rights purgatory. Muller told TCM chiefs that when they finally could feature “The Pajama Game” at the festival, he had to introduce it — unless Bonnie Raitt, daughter of the film’s male lead John, became available.
Co-directed by Stanley Donen and Broadway legend George Abbott, the film follows the workers of an Iowa factory on the verge of a strike. “In the words of Jean-Luc Godard, ‘This is the first left-wing Hollywood operetta,’ ” Muller quipped. In a loving, ’50s-era aside to Double D, Muller added, “Towering above it all is Doris Day, the best body in the business. A body that will not quit.”
Casting a “Giant” shadow, six decades later: At the TCL Chinese IMAX, Steven Spielberg introduced the world premiere 4K restoration of “Giant” (1956), funded by the Film Foundation (founded in 1990 by Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and Spielberg) and Warner Bros. The sprawling saga of a Texas family buffeted by societal and economic change, the film won an Oscar for director George Stevens and received nine other nods, including best actor nominations for Rock Hudson and James Dean.
“It’s incredibly relevant 66 years later,” said Spielberg, who recalled how he used to watch “Giant” on 35mm early in his career and has seen it more than 50 times over the decades. Spielberg read a message from Scorsese, who sent his regrets that he couldn’t attend the 4K premiere. “I saw and experienced ‘Giant’ at age 13 at New York City’s Roxy Theater,” Scorsese wrote. “I became obsessed with the film ever since. It has enriched and restored me.”
George Stevens Jr., the director’s son, a filmmaker himself and founder of the American Film Institute, recalled attending the movie’s world premiere in this very theater, then known as Grauman’s Chinese, with his father: “How touched he would be to see it now.” Over the years, Stevens has helped to burnish his father’s legacy by participating in four restorations of “Giant” to date.
Though the production ran “80 days more than Jack Warner wanted,” Stevens kept reminding his son that “we should spend as many man hours needed to make it as good as it could be.”
As a production assistant on “Giant,” Stevens Jr. felt a kinship with Dean, who was just a year older. “I think he would have become a director,” said Stevens, whose memoir My Place in the Sun, will be published in May. “A light went out when Jimmy died.”
Class reunions, part 1, “Cooley High”: The director and stars of the made-in-Chicago, coming-of-age comedy, often cited as a milestone in Black-produced cinema, reunited for a special screening at the historic Hollywood Legion Theatre. Director Michael Schultz and actors Glynn Turman, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Garrett Morris, Cynthia Davis and Steven Williams appeared for a pre-screening talk, moderated by TCM host Jacqueline Stewart.
Since the film’s 1975 release, Black filmmakers John Singleton, Spike Lee and Robert Townsend all have cited “Cooley High” as an inspiration to their own careers. “This film is so influential,” Schultz said. “Without ‘Cooley High,’ there would be no ‘Boyz N the Hood,’ ” referring to Singleton’s 1991 debut, for which he became the first Black filmmaker to earn a best director Oscar nomination.
Both Hilton-Jacobs and Morris, who respectively broke out with “Welcome Back, Kotter” and “Saturday Night Live” shortly after making “Cooley High,” admitted that they didn’t realize the film’s significance at the time. Now Hilton-Jacobs looks back at “Cooley High,” filmed in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green neighborhood, as “a glorious experience” — one embraced by subsequent generations as “a coming-of-age story that everyone can relate to.”
Remembering “A Man Called Adam”: This year’s festival offered a more diverse selection of titles than it had in previous years. Standing as evidence: “A Man Called Adam” (1966), along with “The Slender Thread” (1965), starring Sidney Poitier and introduced by Chicago’s own Sergio Mims; the all-Black comedy “Cooley High” (1975); the blaxploitation thriller “Coffy” (1973), with Pam Grier in attendance, and the Latino-themed “Popi” (1969). Released by Embassy Pictures, “A Man Called Adam” stars Sammy Davis Jr. as a self-destructive jazz musician (modeled on Miles Davis), beset by professional and personal turmoil, mostly resulting from racism.
Historian Donald Bogle, host of the screening, discussed the film’s significant pedigree. It was produced by Ike Jones, the first Black graduate of UCLA’s film school and the first Black producer to head up a major studio release. Davis took on the project, originally intended for Nat King Cole, after he died in 1965. Deciding that the film needed young talent, Davis, then starring on Broadway in “Golden Boy,” recruited castmates Lola Falana, Ja’net DuBois and Johnny Brown. He was also crucial in casting Cicely Tyson, then 40, for her first major film role. With its naturalistic portrayals, “A Man Called Adam” set the path, Bogle said, for subsequent films such as “Lady Sings the Blues” (1972), “Round Midnight” (1986) and “Bird” (1988) in “a new kind of depiction of African Americans in the arts.”
The rules don’t apply: Appearing after “Heaven Can Wait” (1978) at the TCL Chinese IMAX, the publicity-shy Warren Beatty proved to be his usual inscrutable self, despite the presence of friend and TCM host Ben Mankiewicz as his inquisitor. Though charming and affable, Beatty didn’t reveal much more than what could have been gleaned from the film’s imdb.com page — that he took on the lead after Muhammad Ali had to pass on the project, that Cary Grant was his first choice as the angel Mr. Jordan (played by James Mason) and that he stepped in as director (with Buck Henry) because others turned him down.
Asked about whether he would be making a special phone call the next day (April 24), Beatty feigned ignorance. “Because it’s her birthday,” said Mankiewicz, about Beatty’s equally famous sister, Shirley MacLaine. “Well, yeah, but I call her on other days.”
On whether he would write his memoirs, “I’m not going to go into that,” he said. “I’m hoping to conceal my narcissism.” And about why he selected Julie Christie, a former amour, as the female lead in “Heaven Can Wait,” he said, “Julie has always been an inspiration as an actress and a person.”
Though Beatty has acted in 23 films, he has directed only five. “I’ve made it a point to indulge in this thing called life,” he said, referring to his four children with fellow Oscar nominee Annette Bening. “Family became more meaningful to me than directing.” Full of praise for his better half, Hollywood’s onetime leading real-life Lothario admitted: “It has been 31 years now. I’ve been very lucky.”
Class reunions, part 2: “Diner”: When they made “Diner” (1982), Barry Levinson’s directorial debut about Baltimore friends on the cusp of adulthood in 1959, Kevin Bacon, Tim Daly, Steve Guttenberg, Paul Reiser, Mickey Rourke and Daniel Stern were relative newcomers. “ ‘Diner was unique because we were all in the same boat, just starting out, and the movie was really special,” said Reiser, who “got the job by accident,” when he accompanied a friend to an audition. “It was my first anything.”
Also making his film debut, Daly recalled “Diner” as “being a combination of abject joy and terror.” He reminded Reiser that the first and last lines in the movie are voiced by his character, Modell. “And all that shit in the middle was really unnecessary,” Daly added, cracking up his reunited castmates. Levinson also wrote the script, giving each character “really great dialogue, except for Reiser, who had no fucking lines,” Bacon said. “He had to make them up.”
Reiser agreed and recalled that a friend, after looking over the script, told him: “I hate to break it to you, but you’re not in this movie.”
One of his favorite lines in “Diner,” Guttenberg said, is “there’s nothing like history with old friends. That’s so true,” not only in the film, but in “life in general.” He lamented the absence of Ellen Barkin, Daniel Stern and Mickey Rourke at the TCMFF reunion. “I hope it’s not another 40 years before we’re all together again.”
Climbing the stairway to “7th Heaven”: The festival closed with a special screening of the silent “7th Heaven” (1927), accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and hosted by Eddie Muller, who revealed yet another facet of his kaleidoscopic film persona: He’s a silent movie buff and singled out “7th Heaven,” about a Parisian street sweeper (Charles Farrell) who rescues a suicidal waif (Janet Gaynor), as one of his favorites.
“This is a landmark for several reasons,” Muller said. “It was a triumph for the Fox Film Corp., which put that studio on the map. It was directed by Frank Borzage, the greatest romanticist in cinema history, the man with the biggest heart, and ‘7th Heaven’ put him on the map. And it stars Janet Gaynor, the first best actress Oscar winner [awarded for three films, this one, “Street Angel” and “Sunrise: A Story of Two Humans”].”
Muller also cited the chemistry between Gaynor and Charles Ferrell, as they move from polite wariness to genuine passion: “It’s electric.” They would go on to make 11 films together, including “Street Angel” in the same year.
For the screening, the Colorado-based Mont Alto Orchestra performed its own original score (complete with a musician supplying Foley sounds) for “7th Heaven.” “It’s such an incredible experience to watch a silent film with live accompaniment,” Muller said. “Silent films are pure cinema. They’re one of the greatest experiences you can have as a cinephile. And this has been magic. I’m so happy that this is how we’re lowering the curtain on the TCM Classic Film Festival 2022.”