How To Have a Successful Classic Movie Festival

 

 

Our one-day Classic Film festival has ended and three of us enjoyed five movies in less than 12 hours!

It was TCM Backlot that inspired me to entertain with a classic movie festival, and I thank them with all of my heart.

You need to know that just above my friends here on the couch hangs a gift from TCM Backlot – a print of the old MGM studios with the TCM logo. Here it is:

It was a mini vacation for all of us movie lovers and I recommend it wholeheartedly.  All my films were either purchased at the TCM Shop or recorded from a TCM showing.

Our first film was All About Eve, a curiously relevant story of a young actress’s drive to succeed and replace her idol on the stage and screen. Eve (Anne Baxter), becomes the antagonist in her climb to stardom, taking advantage of the generosity of her supposed idol, stage actress Margo Channing, played by a marvelous Bette Davis.

Eve hides her ambition behind a sweet smile and deferential manner, while ingratiating herself with the people close to Margo, including her husband, played by Bette Davis’s real life husband, Gary Merrill.

While all this is going on, it’s Margo Channing’s skeptical dresser, played by the fantastic Thelma Ritter, who takes our role as the audience, watching what’s going on with jaundiced eyes and states outright that no one could be as sweet and innocent as Eve portends.

Two thirds of the movie later, as the realization of Eve’s manipulations dawns on the players, we see that they are already caught in the web of Eve’s cunning and that their lives and relationships are at a standstill.

The denouement comes at the finale, as Eve discovers that she has made a pact with the devil, one Addison DeWitt, a theatre critic played by the cunning George Sanders, who has done his homework and uncovered the truth about the real Eve.

Justice never felt so good.

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Next up was The Lodger, a silent 1927 film, one of the first directed by Alfred Hitchcock and filmed in Hitch’s England, well before he came to America. Since we’ve seen or heard about Hitch’s more famous movies as his career advanced, you can see the talents of this storytelling genius emerging in this film.

The thick fog of London’s nights becomes one of the characters as the suspense builds, and we strain to figure out who was murdering blond women on the lonely streets. Neon signs blink on and off like silent screams and we’re made to wait as the scene slowly unfolds, introducing a very secretive man seeking a room in a boarding house, the lodger.

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After The Lodger and getting our racing heartrates back to normal, I introduced my friends to one of Barbara Stanwyck’s early films, Ball of Fire (1941), where she plays a New York showgirl full of piss and vinegar and brimming with sex appeal.

Ms. Stanwyck, who was a petite woman just over 5 feet tall, nevertheless casts a giant shadow across the astonished faces of 7 secluded and proper professors residing in a large New York townhouse. She asks if she could stay there on the pretense of hiding from an abusive boyfriend. Actually, she’s hiding from the district attorney who’s investigating said boyfriend (Dana Andrews).

Ms. Stanwyck’s character, appropriately named Sugarpuss O’Shea for her nightclub act, is like a naughty Snow White to 7 clueless dwarves – these elderly professors dedicated to creating a new encyclopedia.

One of the professors, played by Gary Cooper, is a grammarian researching American slang expressions. His exposure to Sugarpuss opens a treasure trove of slang that nearly overwhelms him. We laughed ourselves silly as a surprised Cooper learns what yum yum kisses are and his fellow “dwarves” learn the conga dance.

This screwball comedy features a healthy supporting cast of S.Z. Sagall, Oscar Homolka, Henry Travers, Richard Haydn, Dana Andrews and Dan Duryea.

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It was time to shift gears once again, as we settled in for the beautiful and perfect Laura from 1944, with Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb and Vincent Price, directed by Otto Preminger. We are told in the opening scene that Laura was murdered in cold blood in her apartment.

Dana Andrews plays Detective Mark McPherson, and spends a lot of hours in Laura’s apartment, trying to understand Laura, her associates, and her playboy fiancé (Vincent Price). He’s mesmerized by the full length painting of Laura over the fireplace and even has dreams about her.

Throughout the film the very recognizable “Laura theme” undulates and seems to tease McPherson into thinking Laura still lives. She’s beautiful and as pure a soul as Clifton Webb, a newspaper columnist,  describes her in his narration of the story.

The tight script reveals the traits and flaws of each character as we try and determine who might have murdered Laura. There was plenty of motivation for some of them. The ending does not disappoint.

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Next up was The More The Merrier from 1941 starring Jean Arthur, Charles Coburn and Joel McCrea.

A delightful screwball comedy set in Washington, D.C. (my hometown) during World War II, the film could have been set during any turbulent time in any place where there was lack of housing. My mother relayed to me how the severe housing shortage in the nation’s capital was due to the military buildup of the war, bringing thousands of military and government personnel to the city. Mom had reached working age and was eager to join the ranks of the “government girls,” herself and work in support of the war effort within the burgeoning bureaucracy.

The film is the story of one of these government girls, Connie Milligan, exquisitely brought to life by Jean Arthur, who advertised a room for rent in her apartment. Naturally she expected applications from newly arrived women looking for a place to live, but when an amiable and harmless Mr. Dingle, (Charles Coburn) shows up in his rumpled suit and quiet manner, she relents.

But when Connie presents Mr. Dingle (Coburn) with a minute-to-minute schedule for sharing the morning chores as well as the kitchen and bathroom, that’s when things get crazy. The two of them briskly wend their way through the routine, passing each other between the kitchen, the morning stoop for the paper, and the shower. Soon Mr. Dingle gets locked out of the apartment while retrieving the newspaper, and ends up losing his trousers in the confusion.

But that isn’t all, that same day  another man approaches the apartment and Mr. Dingle rents half of his half of the apartment to this stranger, a virile Joel McCrea.  But Mr. Dingle doesn’t tell Connie of McCrea’s existence nor does he tell McCrea about Connie. The madcap happenings of the frantic morning routine, misunderstandings between fiancés, coworkers, and the three roommates started giggles that couldn’t be stopped.

And that wrapped up our mini classic movie festival with fantastic films, delectable food, and the comforts of home!

If you have ideas from your own movie festival — suggestions of films, food and other comforts, please share them in the comments!

 

 

My First TCM Classic Movie Weekend!

It’s finally here… an event I’ve wanted to host for the longest time – A Classic Movie weekend with my friends!

We have popcorn, veggies, crudites, drinks – pillows, blankets, all ready to go! We’ll be watching films from noon Saturday to 3pm Sunday! That’s a lot of movies and fun!

I’m hosting this is because so many of my friends, who love movies, haven’t seen many classic movies that started it all. True artists began creating magnificent scenes that bring tears, laughter and fear to their audiences.  They’ll be seeing some of the silent dramas and comedies, film noir, (of course, Eddie Mueller!), screwball comedies, and many movies that added phrases to our lexicon – “I vant to be alone…”

I can honestly say that TCM Classic Movies introduced me to the movies we’ll be viewing this weekend: Metropolis, The Lodger, Gilda, Grand Hotel, Scarlet Street, Ball of Fire, All About Eve, Notorious, The General, Rain.

We have enough food to last us 48 hours without leaving the house, and of course plenty of adult beverages!

As Ben Mankiewicz likes to say, classic movies were a unique way to bring stories to audiences, real characters to figure out what makes them tick, and ways to tell those stories without the crutch of blowing up buildings and car chases taking up half the movie!

Stay tuned for more updates!

 

The Letter: Exposure In The Tropics

Many fans have written about The Letter, the 1940 film masterpiece directed by William Wyler starring Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson and Gale Sondergaard. Most extol the talents of the actors in their respective relationships with each other on the screen, but they fail to mention two other characters, the tropical moon and Max Steiner’s haunting musical score.

In the infamous opening scene, it is dusk on a rubber plantation in Singapore. You can see and hear the drip, drip, drip of white sap from the tapped rubber trees into waiting containers; native workers are relaxing in hammocks in their open-air quarters as music plays; and everything is bathed by a stark white light as the full moon rises above the palm trees. It creates sharp shadows and gives everything an eerie appearance. The main house, its windows illuminated with the soft golden light of oil lamps, has as its overcoat the same stark moonlight. The stage is set.

A single gunshot rips through the darkness. A shadowed man staggers out of the doorway, and as he grabs at the stair railing, Bette Davis, as Leslie, strides with purpose after him, pumping five more bullets into the body of the man, now a heap at the foot of the porch steps.

Her pistol empty, Leslie notices the moon emerging behind the wispy clouds, exposing her crime for all to see. Like a puppeteer, the moon makes the music score rise, creating gooseflesh and dread as it crescendos. The pair have a symbiotic and paralyzing effect on Leslie as she realizes her world has been changed forever.

Before we viewers know the full story behind the killing, Leslie appears distraught as she sends her servants to retrieve her husband from a far part of the plantation as well as the authorities. When later she relates to them what happened, her husband Robert (Herbert Marshall), their friend Howard Joyce, (James Stephenson), and the police official sympathize with her story of how the dead man, Geoff Hammond, their plantation foreman, tried to sexually assault her and that she shot him in self-defense.

Title: LETTER, THE (1940) BETTE DAVIS, Dir: WYLER, WILLIAM Credit: [ WARNER BROS / THE KOBAL COLLECTION ]
Robert especially, declares his love and admiration for her bravery amid the sheer terror she must have felt. He begs Howard, his best friend, to represent Leslie as her defense attorney. Howard agrees, but you can see some concern on his face, especially when Leslie dismisses questions about how the Hammond’s behavior that night was so unlike his character. The first seeds of doubt are planted.

After her account of events, Leslie is told she must turn herself in to the authorities in Singapore, where she will be charged with manslaughter and jailed pending her trial. She repairs to the bedroom to pack a bag. That’s where the moonlight invades, its cold light coming through the slatted shutters, painting the bedroom floor with the bars of a prison cell. Leslie gazes up at the moon with pleading eyes as if to say she was justified in what she did.

While Leslie is in jail awaiting trial, she keeps herself occupied with her “lacing,” a skill that requires extreme concentration and patience. Delicate white lace emerges from her busy fingers as if nothing has changed in her life to throw off her rhythm. In fact, she tells visitors she really doesn’t mind the incarceration because it gives her uninterrupted time to pursue her craft. We notice also that she is extended every courtesy by the prison matrons. Her husband is a well-known in the rubber industry, and after all, Leslie was forced to defend herself against sexual assault by Hammond, who had recently married a Eurasian woman — taboo in British society.

Leslie’s composure is interrupted when Howard is informed by his law clerk about a letter allegedly written by Leslie requesting that Hammond come to the house the same evening he was killed. The letter was being offered for a price by a representative for Mrs. Hammond, the widow, with the assurance that the prosecution would not get hold of it. Howard reads a copy of the letter, and extremely concerned, confronts Leslie. At first, she denies writing it, but as the music score rises and fills the room like a guilty conscience, she comes clean, with the explanation that it was only to ask Hammond’s assistance in securing a birthday present for her husband Robert.
By then, Howard and the viewers realize that all this time Leslie had been weaving a story as full of holes as the lace bedspread she is sewing.

Bette Davis and Gale Sondergaard in The Letter (1940)

 

Leslie begs Howard to risk his career by procuring this damning evidence, so she won’t hang, and to keep its contents from Robert. She offers their entire savings to do so, again without her husband’s knowledge. At that point, Howard becomes just as caged as Leslie by his loyalty to Robert and his guilty conscience.

Leslie, released to Howard’s custody, accompanies him to Chinatown to purchase the letter from Mrs. Hammond. The Eurasian woman appears in heavy mask-like makeup, dressed in Asian silk, and adorned with numerous necklaces and bangles. She drills her small steely eyes into Leslie’s wide ones, daring her to pick up the letter that she has disdainfully dropped on the floor. There is no escape for Leslie. The cold moonlight outside is guarding her escape, and, the music swells throughout the room, paralyzing her. Although she is swathed in white lace, Leslie knows that everyone in the room, including Howard, believes her guilty of cold-blooded murder.

Although Howard can barely get through his closing statement in Leslie’s defense at the trial, the jury declares Leslie not guilty. Robert and their friends, delighted and full of congratulations, plan a homecoming party for Leslie. Then Robert announces his plans to start a new venture far away from Singapore where he and Leslie can start a whole new life. He explains his intention to use their savings as a down payment on this new venture. Both Leslie and Howard try to talk him out of it, because they know that the savings are gone.
But it’s no use, Robert is adamant and asks why they are so against his idea. Then he learns about the savings, and purchase of the letter, and demands to see the letter. That’s when it all falls apart…

Leslie reveals the true message behind the letter and why she killed Geoff Hammond, her longtime lover who had broken off their affair to marry a Eurasian. Robert is crushed, but he decides to forgive her.

In the final scene the homecoming party is underway, but after a few minutes, Leslie can no longer face her friends, her husband, or herself. She retreats to the bedroom, dark except for the moonlight slicing though the slatted shutters. The shadows cross her face and Leslie feels her entrapment. Drawn outside by the moonlight, she leaves the bedroom through the garden door into the gardens, fearful of the shadows that threaten to engulf her. And with the music score rising like a tidal wave, Leslie pays the ultimate price for killing Geoff Hammond.

Like a judge and jury, the tropical moon and music score close the final curtain on a life gone wrong.