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A Look Back at the 10th Annual TCM Classic Film Festival

HOLLYWOOD — Double anniversaries: This year’s TCM Classic Film Festival marked two milestones, the 25th anniversary of the classic movie channel, which bowed on April 14, 1994, and the 10th anniversary of its namesake annual event.

In a movie landscape challenged by new platforms, industry consolidation and general entertainment overload, TCM remains a beacon for film buffs. “We’ve stayed true to our mission of showing films the way they’re meant to be seen, uncut and commercial free,” said Jennifer Dorian, TCM general manager. “That mission has not changed over 25 years. And when we started doing this festival, it made sense that it would be the context in which we started to bring people together and then showcase these films once again on these incredible screens in Hollywood.”

Held April 11-14 at the historic TCL Chinese Theatre complex, Egyptian Theatre, Cinerama Dome and the Roosevelt Hotel and the newly renovated Legion Theater of Hollywood Post 43, the classic movie marathon featured more than a hundred films and events, with most programmed to reflect the festival’s main theme “Follow Your Heart: Love at the Movies.” That certainly was the case for the opening-night attraction “When Harry Met Sally …” (1989), with stars Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan and director Rob Reiner appearing at the TCL Chinese IMAX to celebrate the rom-com’s 30th anniversary. Though “Harry” might seem relatively new by TCM standards, “We had no idea back then if it would stand the test of time,” Crystal told the crowd. Reiner added, “You never know. You make a movie, and hopefully it turns out well, and hopefully others like it, too.”

Also in the opening-night audience was Ted Turner, the broadcast industry magnate whose purchase of the MGM film library in 1986 gave rise to TCM. Along with Turner, others receiving special tributes during the festival were casting director Juliet Taylor, producer Fred Roos, filmmaker Nora Ephron and film historian Kevin Brownlow. Fox Studios, founded in 1905, reincarnated as 20th Century Fox in 1935 and swallowed whole by Disney in 2019, also was feted, with screenings of landmark titles such as “Sunrise: A Story of Two Humans” (1927), “The Sound of Music” and perhaps the studio’s biggest all-time blockbuster and game-changer, “Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope: Special Edition” (1977).

Adding star power were appearances by actors and filmmakers Diane Baker, Jacqueline Bisset, Ronee Blakley, John Carpenter, Keith Carradine, Frank Darabont, Dana Delany, Angie Dickinson, Louis Gossett Jr., Bill Hader, Barbara Rush, Kurt Russell and Alex Trebek. Also scheduled to appear but unable to attend were Norman Lear, Shirley MacLaine, Gena Rowlands and Lily Tomlin.

Among the restored titles receiving world premieres were “Do the Right Thing” (1989), “Escape from Alcatraz” (1979), “Holiday” (1938), “The Killers” (1964), “Kind Hearts and Coronets” (1949), “Merrily We Go to Hell” (1932), “Nashville” (1975) and “Winchester ’73” (1950, U.S. premiere showing). 

Though the festival’s tent-pole titles attracted overflow crowds, some of the greatest moments came courtesy of lesser-known films, such as the many pre-Code offerings, rediscoveries and special formats (including nitrate and Cinerama). Here are 10 for the 10th:

"Night World"

Eighty the hard way: Introducing the pre-Code drama “Night World” (1932), Susan Karloff noted that her father Boris “made a lot of films like this”—movies that weren’t prestige projects but were entertaining and well-made nonetheless. A year earlier, Karloff teamed with Mae Clarke for “Frankenstein,” his breakthrough movie, and they reunited for “Night World,” which also features Lew Ayres, George Raft and Hedda Hopper, before she reinvented herself as a professional gossip-monger. “’Frankenstein’ was his 81st film,” Susan Karloff said. ”Nobody saw the first 80.”

Ted Turner on the success of TCM: It comes down to one simple truth: “People like old stuff.” That’s how the founder of Turner Entertainment, which begat Turner Classic Movies, explained the enduring popularity of the acclaimed cable channel. Now that he’s reached his golden years, the onetime Mouth of the South admitted that he has realized “I’m old, so people finally like me.”

The low-budget bang of the Bs: A turn-away crowd flocked to “Open Secret” (1948), a film noir tinged with social activism, and screened as one of the festival’s many “Discoveries.” Eddie Muller, “The Czar of Noir” and host of TCM’s “Noir Alley,” observed: “This is probably the biggest single crowd ever to see this movie, which is as B as B gets. If they spent more than $2,000 on this film, I’d be amazed.” Despite the movie’s modest origins, “Open Secret” bravely takes aim at nativism and prejudice in post-war America. “I’m very happy to present this movie,” Muller said. “It’s as down and dirty as it gets.”

"Santo vs. the Evil Brain"

Lucha libre, viva Mexico! The midnight screening of the cult/camp classic “Santo vs. the Evil Brain” quickly turned into spectacle as two fans in lucha libre garb swarmed the theater, tossing out treats and trinkets, including El Santo masks on sticks. A Mexican folk hero, El Santo was a luchador enmascarado (masked wrestler) and fighter for justice. As portrayed by actor Rodolfo Guzman Huerta, El Santo appeared in more than 50 films, including the first in the series, “Santo Contra el Cerebro del Mal” (1961, “Santo vs. the Evil Brain”). “It’s a miracle that we’re showing this film,” said archivist Viviana Garcia Besne, whose grandfather introduced El Santo to the screen. “The Mexican film industry is not supporting these movies, despite their popularity.” Her father found the original camera negative of “Santo vs. the Evil Brain,” “so with the centennial of El Santo [Guzman Huerta] in 2017, we thought we should restore his movies.” She implored the audience to revel in the film’s over-the-top spirit: “You must react or you’ll fall asleep.”

Remembering the King of the Cowboys: Through the ’20s, Tom Mix rode tall in the saddle and revolutionized the Western by focusing on action and performing his own stunts. A century later, however, he’s all but forgotten. Introducing a double feature of “The Great K&A Train Robbery” (1926) and “Outlaws of Red River” (1927) at the Legion Theatre, TCM senior programming director Scott McGee paid tribute to “the ultimate cowboy star” and mentioned that several of his younger TCM colleagues had never heard of Mix, once nicknamed “The Rent Man” by theater exhibitors. Most of Mix’s nearly 300 films (all but nine were silent) were lost in a 1937 studio fire, so those TCM youngsters could be forgiven for their ignorance.  

Shot on location in Colorado, “The Great K&A Train Robbery” proved that “the real natural wonder was Mix himself,” McGee said. “He was a bona-fide cowboy and horseman of the highest order.” Mix’s penchant for fancy duds emphasized that he was “all about the show and the flash. He knew that clothes do make the man.” MoMa curator Anne Morra added that even though “his clothes weren’t trail-worthy, he always gets the girl,” and pointed out that Mix’s trusty steed, Tony the Wonder Horse, outlived his master, who died in a car accident in 1940, by two years.

"It Happened Here"

Speaking truth to power: Accepting the second annual Robert Osborne Award, which honors individuals crucial in maintaining the legacy and preservation of classic films, historian, author and filmmaker Kevin Brownlow warned the crowd that he was going to go off-script. “Where’s release of ‘Hollywood’?” he said, referring to his influential documentary series about the silent-film era, shown on TV in 1980 but never released in a home-video format due to rights issues.

As part of the Brownlow tribute, TCM screened his own “It Happened Here,” which imagines what might have occurred if Germany had conquered Britain during World War II. At 15, Brownlow began making the docudrama with creative partner Andrew Mollo, and over eight years, the two attracted eventual assistance from directorial lions Tony Richardson and Stanley Kubrick. As “It Happened Here” began to roll at the Egyptian, and introductory credits about the movie’s restoration identified it as a 1965 release, Brownlow from his seat shouted out “1964!”

The patriarchy strikes back: Though she was the first female to receive the Directors Guild Fellowship Award and successfully helmed seven films from 1966 to 1974, writer/director/producer Stephanie Rothman found herself on the outs by the mid-’70s. Speaking before a midnight screening of her “Student Nurses” (1970), Rothman recalled that studio chiefs thought she was “too intellectual”—even though she specialized (by necessity) in exploitation fare. In the early ’80s, one exec finally brought her in for a meeting to discuss a project for a young male director about to make his first studio film. “It sounded just like my own ‘Velvet Vampire’ [1971],” Rothman said. “So I asked them, why not hire me? They didn’t.” The filmmaker and film in question turned out to be Tony Scott and the vampire-themed “The Hunger” (1983).

"The Killers"

Taking dead aim at the truth: Always the straight shooter, actress Angie Dickinson told it like it was in her introductory remarks before “The Killers” (1964), Don Siegel’s crime thriller, loosely based on the Ernest Hemingway short story. Shot in unusually vivid Eastman Color, it follows two hit men (Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager) trying figure out the score of their score. Neither of the male leads—John Cassavetes as the mark and Ronald Reagan as the mastermind—wanted to be in this movie, she recalled. In his last film before he launched his political career, Reagan made “The Killers” “just to get out of his contract.” And Cassavetes—“that is some Greek”—“was pretty quiet,” she said. “The film wasn’t his style but he needed the work,” she added, referring to the actor-director’s preference for his own indie, iconoclastic projects. Dickinson attributes the film’s success to Siegel (“an absolute doll—adorable!”) and Cassavetes (“he was so charismatic, he didn’t have to do anything on the screen”), and not so much to Reagan: “You could tell that he was kinda dying back there.”

As for why she didn’t become a bigger star, Dickinson said, “It didn’t happen. It takes a lot of luck, and I didn’t have the drive. The parts weren’t there. So I did ‘Police Woman’”—her hit ’70s series—“which was a grind and did me in.” At that point, TCM host Ben Mankiewicz reminded her that 100 episodes of “Police Woman” was nothing to sneeze at, and Dickinson quickly corrected him: “Actually, 91.” She laughed and added, “I am such a truth buff.”

The circle of life, Tinsel Town edition: Introducing the silent film “A Woman of Affairs” (1928), starring Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, which was screened with a full orchestra led by Carl Davis conducting his own score, at the historic Egyptian, film scholar Leonard Maltin acknowledged a stroke of serendipity: “We have one of those only in Hollywood moments tonight. Performing on the French horn in the orchestra is the great-great grandson of John Gilbert.”

The enduring legacy of Robert Osborne: Throughout the festival, many luminaries saluted the late figurehead of TCM. “Robert loved this festival,” said Kevin Brownlow. “He lobbied for it for years and basked in its success and its shared community.” Speaking ahead of “Magnificent Obsession” (1954), in which she co-starred opposite Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman, Barbara Rush recalled, “We grew up together in the business. It was Robert who really got TCM going,” she said, reflecting on Osborne’s own magnificent obsession. “He was like a very dear brother to me. Plus, he knew everything, especially about the movies.”

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