Sunday mornings in Hollywood are a quiet time most weeks, but when the TCM Film Festival is in town, the pace gets quicker on the last day and it starts early.
Cock of the Air (1931)
This was a Howard Hughes production and it was pre-code so it is definitely a little racy for the time. Although mild by today’s standards, this film must have had tongues wagging with it’s story of a flirtatious aviator and a French Opera singer. The fact that the Opera singer is given a medal for moving away from Paris, where she is a distraction to too many officers, let’s you know that this is not a chaste figure making a sacrifice for her country.
The dialogue is full of innuendo and then there are the stars costumes. They leave little of her decolletage to the imagination. The Hayes office forced 12 minutes of cuts in the film and it was thought that they were gone for good but a decade ago, the Motion Picture Academy discovered an uncensored print that lacked a soundtrack. Using the existing material and a copy of the script, four actors dub in the lines from the scenes that were previously cut. In the screening we saw, the sections that had been cut were identifiable by an icon on the screen that came and went as the story played out.
It was a fascinating experience to see the restored film in excellent shape, but even more so with the “lost” material reinserted and the censors cuts clearly indicated.
The film has a contentious romance at it’s heart but there is also a lot of humor built into the story. There is not really much in the way of battle action but there are a few flying scenes and the bedroom farce sections will keep you in stitches.
It’s completely normal to think of Lucille Ball as a television star. That is where she ultimately made her biggest mark, but she also starred in over 70 features and she was sometimes thought of as the Queen of the Bs of her era. This film is a noir inspired melodrama featuring a serial killer, dance hall girls, the personal columns and George Sanders. It is directed by 50s favorite Douglas Sirk, but features the glorious black and white of the late 40s noir films rather than the technicolor of “Magnificent Obsession” or “All that Heaven Allows”.
Lucy is an American actress, stranded in London trying to make ends meet as a hostess in a dancehall. Her friend disappears and Scotland yard uses her to try and bait a serial killer who has been sending poetry inspired by a disturbed bard. It is interesting to see that the procedural of using a profile of a killer has been around a lot longer than “The Silence of the Lambs”. Working as a police undercover agent, Ball encounters suspects and falls in love with the stylish and snobby George Sanders. Sanders turns out to be a suspect as well. complicating the romance. The use of the personal ads and the cop falling for a suspect reminds me of the Al Pacino movie, “Sea of Love”.
For a film that ultimately relies on suspense, there is a lot of humor and fluff. Balancing a romance with a serial killer story is awkward. Boris Karloff is another suspect, and at first he is played as a bit of a comic character but it does turn dark pretty quickly. I know that I have seen Cedric Hardwicke in movies before, but it is only days later that I realized he played the Pharo in “The Ten Commandments”, I should have made that connection sooner. Charles Couburn as the head of Scotland Yard’s team investigating the murders, makes no attempt to do an English accent, he gets by on his general charm and old man wisdom. Alan Napier was in “The Court Jester” yesterday and interestingly enough is Detective Gordon in this movie. I say interesting because that’s one step away from a part that he did not have in his most famous role. He was Alfred in the 1960s Batman, and there he just answered the”bat phone” when Commissioner Gordon called.
Boris Karloff’s daughter Sara was in attendee and she told a few stories about her father who was featured in this film.
Postcards From the Edge (1990)
Just as Robert Osborne’s death hung over the Festival which was dedicated to him, the double whammy of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds was also heavy on many film lovers minds. There were two films being screened to honor the Mother/Daughter tandem that we lost in December. “Singin’ in the Rain” was in the big house at Grauman’s but we had been to a screening in January so chose instead to see the Roman à clef “Postcards from the Edge”, screenplay by Carrie Fisher. Although Fisher denied that it was based on her relationship with her own mother, the parallels are to obvious to ignore.
Meryl Streep first sang on screen not in “Mama Mia” or “Into the Woods” or “Ricki and the Flash”, but rather in this film, where she plays the drug abusing actress daughter of a famous old time Hollywood singer Actress, played by Shirley MacLaine. There are a lot of Hollywood inside jokes, including a running story line concern the casual mating behaviors of people in the film business. The movie is littered with a variety of well known actors in brief parts including Rob Reiner, Gene Hackman, Richard Dreyfess, Dennis Quaid, and in one last minor role before she broke out into stardom later in this year Annette Bening.
I can’t say that there is a strong narrative but I can say that the two leads were great in their parts. You can see under the brash enthusiasm of MacLaine’s character to her more vulnerable parts. As usual, Streep is excellent and she is called on to do several district moods. She plays it straight when acting in a not very good film, she is angry as the casual lover betrayed by her own casualness, and she is frightened by the stupidity of her own choices when it comes to drug use. I thought her best moments were with Director Hackman as he tries to be honest with her and rescue her career at the same time.
This was the second Mike Nichols film we saw at the festival. It is not a work as assured and ground breaking as “The Graduate” but it was typical of the kinds of comedic dramas he would specialize in most of his later career.
What’s Up Doc? (1972)
We left the screening of “Postcards” before the guests, Todd Fisher and Richard Dreyfess came out, because scheduling was tight and we wanted to get in to see this second Peter Bogdanovich film. Amanda had seen the bleak but moving “Last Picture Show” the day before, and this was an opportunity to cut loose and see what else he can do. From one year to the next it is hard to imagine a bigger shift in tone that this revival of the screwball comedy, featuring Barbara Streisand and Ryan O’Neal.
Streisand has the role that in the 1930s would have been played by Katherine Hepburn or in the 1940s by Barbara Stanwyk. She is a slightly nutty misfit with a huge pool of knowledge on the tip of her tongue because she has been thrown out of so many colleges and so many majors. She latches onto O’Neal as a cute professor of Musicology with an interesting theory of music and rocks. His fiance introduces us to Madeline Kahn, in her first film role where she steals the whole picture. Kahn is the dowdy and dominating woman that runs the life of the absent minded O’Neal and Streisand is jsut the ticket to relieve him of that burden.
Throw in four identical suitcases with stolen jewellery, secret government information, rock specimens and clothes and underwear and you are all set for the kind of slapstick and mistaken identity that made those films of an earlier era so fun. There is literally a gag with people going in and out of hotel room doors that looks like it could have been cribbed from a Marx Brothers film. Like most of those older films, this movie has scene stealing character actors and wild shifts in momentum. The last section of the movie features an astounding chase through the streets of San Francisco, on foot, bike and in cars. “Bullit” looks simple by comparison.
Bogdanovich appeared before the film to talk about the actors and the process of getting the movie made. He seemed to have clearly understood that if he wanted to have the ability to wok in different genres, he need to get to direct this film. This was also a film written in part by Buck Henry, who had been the guest the night before for “The Graduate”.
We finished the festival with a silent film from Harold Lloyd. Along with Keaton and Chaplin, Lloyd is one of the cornerstones of not just silent films but comedy films specifically. This version of the film is apparently widely available but this screening had something extra special to recommend it. It was to be accompanied by a live orchestra playing original music for the film.
The Alloy Orchestra is really a four piece ensemble and they follow the action closely throughout the film. Sprinkled in the score are familiar motifs relating to baseball and carnivals, which are both featured in the story. A feckless young man with great confidence, goes from job to job, trying to impress the parents of the girl he is in love with. His failure as a soda jerk or cab driver is incidental to the wild moments he encounters on the streets of New York and Coney Island.
The film narrative is slight but there are dozens of visual gags and the actors do a nice job playing sweethearts who are unaffected by the upheaval that surrounds them. In the end, the young man saves the day for his future father-in-law, but he ruins a suit and Babe Ruth’s day along the way. Suzanne Lloyd, Harold’s Granddaughter and keeper of his legacy was present to reminisce with film historian and critic Leonard Maltin.
If you want to see what NYC looked like nearly a century ago, this movie will give you an extensive tour and make you long for the days when Coney Island served cotton candy in paper sacks.