Before attending the 2012 TCM Classic Film Festival, the question in the back of my mind was, "With all the classic repertory theaters in Los Angeles, and all the chances to see classic films in 35mm or even 70mm on the big screen, what can TCM offer that the other screening series can't?"
The answer, I soon discovered, is that TCM offers a real festival experience. Attending only two sessions, I spent over 12 hours going from screening to screening, watching movies, studying the schedule closely and making hard decisions about what to see, all without a single break. And though I never found time to eat, at the day's end I emerged with the pleasant, gorged feeling experienced after any satisfying film festival.
The most incredible event was the program titled "A Trip to the Moon and Other Trips through Time, Color and Space." I was attracted to the screening by the opportunity to see the restored version of A Trip to the Moon, Georges Méliès' 1902 science fiction fantasy, and as amazing this was, I enjoyed the rest of the festivities even more.
The screening was hosted and curated by Serge Bromberg, a French film historian and preservationist. In the early days of film, there were no features, so people who paid to go to the theater were instead treated to a series of shorts. Bromberg, through this series and others he has curated, recreates the experience of early filmgoers for a 21st century audience.
The screening started with A Trip Down Market Street. This 1906 film is composed of one seven-minute take from a camera mounted on the front of a San Francisco trolley, and watching it was like visiting another world. While there were a lot of horses, carriages and pedestrians, there weren't many cars. Apparently, there also weren't many traffic rules, because the few automobiles on the road were swerving frantically between the much-slower horses and carriages, while pedestrians waited for gaps in traffic and children hitched rides on the back of horse-drawn buggies.
A Trip Down Market Street was followed by another film, made in the same area a few days later after the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 had struck. The mighty stone buildings of the earlier movie were reduced to rubble, and the bustling street scene was replaced by a few sparse refugees with nowhere to go.
These two snapshots of early 20th century life really put me in the mood for the movies that followed, many of which involved early experiments with color. Of course there was no color film back then, so the film stock had to be painted by hand, frame by frame. This was an expensive and time-consuming process, and not many color films survive from the era. But these hand-painted films have a really unique look. My favorite was an interpretive dance piece about a bug collector who is out with his net collecting insects, played by women in bug suits.
I also enjoyed a rare Buster Keaton short, an early experiment in stop motion called The Acrobatic Bug, and a weird little film where a bunch of white people were dressed up as Japanese acrobats and performed impossible stunts through simple camera tricks.
Of course, the highlight of the screening was the restored A Trip to the Moon. Beforehand, Bromberg talked the audience through the 10 years it took to restore the film, from the discovery of a color print that was so damaged that the reel was like a brick, through the three years it took to separate the film with chemicals, to the years it took to scan the little film fragments and put them back together with a computer. The result is a film that is even more fantastic in its original color.
Bromberg introduced each short with humor, informational tidbits and a contagious passion for the medium of film. I go to a lot of screenings, and it is rare now for me to attend one that really makes me look at film in a new light, and allows me to leave the theater feeling I have learned something new. If Bromberg ever comes back to L.A. for another screening, I will be there.
Another highlight of the festival was Call Her Savage, a newly restored Pre-Code melodrama staring Clara Bow. I have long been a fan of Pre-Code films, and TCM has been doing a great job restoring them and making them available to a wider audience.
For those who don't know what Pre-Code means, in 1934 the Motion Picture Production Code went into effect. Also known as the Hays Code, this set of guidelines heavily censored not only the content ( i.e., sexuality, language and violence) of Hollywood films, but the subtext as well. Heroes had to be good. Criminals couldn't be portrayed sympathetically. Sexuality had to be portrayed a certain way. Movies had to be edifying, which is just another word for boring.
The Code, however, was originally written in 1930, which gave filmmakers a four-year gap before it was enforced. Consequently, there was a sense of urgency among filmmakers during this period to produce films with all the content that would soon be banned. The result was four years of films in which mores were dispensed with and taboos were broken.
Call Her Savage contains just about everything you could ask for from a Pre-Code film: infidelity, incest, miscegenation, homosexuality and even pedophilia. It also features an amazing, sexually charged performance by its star, Clara Bow. Bow was an early feminist icon and sex symbol. I had never seen one of her films, but while watching this one, it became clear right away that her reputation is more than deserved.
Like many Pre-Code melodramas, the plot of Call Her Savage is all over the place, but this just adds to its charm. Though it takes place over more than half a century, the majority of the film deals with Bow, in different situations, trying unsuccessfully to understand, come to terms with and control her rage. These situations include, but are not limited to, having her horse spooked by a rattle snake (she attacks the snake), being gossiped about in society columns (she storms out of her room nearly nude in a fit of rage) and marrying a homosexual (she takes his money).
Bow gives a great feminist performance, but there is also historical significance because the 1932 Call Her Savage features the first portrayal of a gay bar in film history. If you are already a fan of Pre-Code films, you will love it. If you have never heard of Pre-Code before, this is a great place to start.
The silent version of The Thief of Bagdad, presented in a new digital restoration with a live orchestral accompaniment, was the perfect end to my day.
One of the most lavish silent spectacles ever produced, 1924's The Thief of Bagdad features giant sets, huge monsters, magic rope, a flying carpet, and sends Douglas Fairbanks on a journey that finds him beneath the sea and in a palace on the moon. At more than two-and-a-half hours, this magical film never seems long.
I also enjoyed Bela Lugosi in Dracula, the classic Pre-Code comedy Trouble in Paradise and Peter Sellers' classic work in The Pink Panther. Trouble in Paradise is another film that has everything you could want from a Pre-Code film, and The Pink Panther looks great on the big screen. I have a new appreciation for the film's art design, and laughed at parts of Sellers' performance that I had never noticed before.
So that's it. My one complaint about the festival is that the seating was kind of messed up. I made the mistake of trying to bring a friend to Dracula on Saturday night and, though we arrived 45 minutes early and he was willing to pay the $20 they wanted for an individual ticket, he still couldn't get in. This would have been excusable had the showing been sold out, but there were still empty seats. In fact, the seat right next to me remained empty throughout the entire screening.
But film festivals are notorious for such issues. If you love the grandeur of classic Hollywood, don't let this minor complaint stop you from attending next year. The TCM Classic Film Fest might not be perfect, but it's pretty close.