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Karie (site owner) Written by Karie (site owner)
May. 3, 2011 | 11:43 PM

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TCM Film Festival Wrap Up 2011

I had been eagerly looking forward to the TCM Film Festival for months much like a little kid would look forward to say a visit from Santa Clause.  Here is my diary of the film festival experience:

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Thursday, April 28th
“The People Behind TCM” panel in Club TCM in the Roosevelt
First off these people seem to be living the dream.  I can’t imagine a better way to make a living than to work for TCM.  All of the panelists really seemed to love their jobs and take pride in doing them.  The panel discussed the various challenges in putting on the festival, getting the guests and programming the films.  Charlie Tabesh (Head of Programming) emphasized that they didn’t want to show films ONLY from the Warner Bros archive (which is owned by Turner) but that they wanted to keep showing films from other studios as well.  Tom Brown (Head of Original Programming) also mentioned that he was working on some new documentaries including one about multi-generational families who have worked in Hollywood.  While there were many details that they couldn’t divulge, the panelists indicated that many new and exciting things were in store for TCM fans in the near future.

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Discussion about Jack Pashkovsky Exhibit in Club TCM in the Roosevelt
I have admired the work of numerous famed photographers from Hollywood history including George Hurrell, Clarence Sinclair Bull, etc. I had never heard of Jack Pashkovsky.  Apparently I was not alone in this.  Filmmaker Barry Avrich was at the Motion Picture Country Home a few years back making a documentary about the organization when he happened to walk by Mr. Pashkovsky’s room.  His head turned when he realized it was filled with beautiful candid portraits of stars that he had never seen before.  He asked about them and Mr. Pashkovsky declined saying that his work was not important.  Fortunately Barry Avrich respectfully disagreed and made several return visits to learn more about him.  It turns out there was a treasure trove of 400 never before seen photos collecting dust under his bed.

Pashkovsky had no particular interest in film stars per say, only in photography.  Since he lived in Hollywood, photographing the stars made sense.  Arvish explained, “If he had been in the Amazon, he would have happily photographed the wildlife.”  The stars were simply available and willing subjects.  Some of the photos were framed and mounted all around Club TCM.  They are candid and have a spontaneous quality about them that is devoid of studio tampering.  In an image where the stars were carefully controlled, one picture shows a relaxed Cary Grant smiling on the street with his tie crooked and sticking out.  Averich got Mr. Pashkovsky to give him the rights for the photos in order to do a book, but died very shortly thereafter.  Unfortunately the book hasn’t materialized, but the photos are being archived by the Toronto International Film Festival.  There are plans for a display in the future.

Barry Avrich also made a documentary called Glitter Palace about the Motion Picture Home, but alas it has only aired in Canada and has not yet been available in America.  It was an interesting Q&A and a joy to discover the work of a new artist who had long gone unrecognized.

I was thrilled to see that the theatre was a packed house!  Groucho’s grandson Andy Marx was on hand to share his memories about “Grandpa Groucho”.  The interview was conducted by Robert Bader who discussed the fact that Zeppo was missing in action, having recently left the comedy team to become an agent.  This marked the first time they had worked as a trio since 1912.  They discussed how A NIGHT AT THE OPERA was the first Marx Bros. film at MGM and they had just departed Paramount after a very successful run.  Andy Marx also emphasized that the Marx Bros. had not been fired from the studio and that DUCK SOUP (their last film there) had been a success.  He said that there was some “re-structuring” in the front office which led to a delay in the renewal of the Marx Bros. contract which is what sent them to MGM.  The legendary Irving Thalberg supervised their films.  Andy Marx said that “Grandpa Groucho” thought of Thalberg as a god like figure and had the highest admiration for him.  Legend has it that Thalberg wanted them to settle for less money without Zeppo to which Groucho counted that they were twice as good without him and should get twice as much!  Andy Marx first saw A NIGHT AT THE OPERA on television as a kid.  He recalled bringing in a tape recorder to record their dialogue so he could act out the scenes.  (Yes kids there was a time even before VCRs were invented!)  He said that around the mid or late 1960s Groucho started to dislike any reference to his career and simply didn’t want to live in the past.  His attitude changed when the Marx Brothers were re-discovered by new audiences and became popular once again.  He said his grandpa’s love of comedy returned and he even began singing his old songs and performing routines for him.  They also mentioned that Groucho Marx did not like his director Sam Wood who was a known conservative.  There is the oft-told story of Wood disparaging one of Groucho’s line readings, saying, “You can’t make an actor out of clay,” to which Groucho famously replied, “And you can’t make a director out of Wood!” Andy Marx was very fortunate to have gotten to know “Grandpa Groucho” and to have shared in such a fantastic Hollywood legacy.

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Friday, April 29th
I had to work all day Friday, but managed to make it to Hollywood for an evening film.  While it seems everyone else picked the Kirk Douglas Tribute and screening of SPARTACUS, I decided on seeing THE MERRY WIDOW.  It was thrilling to see this in the Egyptian, since it was built in 1922 originally as a silent era movie palace.  Historian and preservationist Kevin Brownlow was on hand to discuss the film and its turbulent production.  The great director Erich Von Stroheim was well known for being as talented as he was tyrannical.  He drove the cast to distraction and fought with Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg and Mae Murray.  He fought with star John Gilbert as well before they became friends.  Mr. Brownlow said that Von Stroheim had the film taken away from him and cut by the studio.  Von Stroheim was furious and claimed to hate the ending—even though it was the ending that he had written and shot himself.

In the film Mae Murray (known as “the girl with the bee stung lips”) plays an Irish-American dancer in the fictional town of Monte Blanco.  Both beautiful and lively, she is pursued by numerous wealthy and royal suitors who seem intent on forcing her into bed. There are ominous undertones and several racy (for the time) touches such as nude, blindfolded musicians playing during their romantic dinner.  Curiously, there are numerous close ups of shoes.  In the editing room Thalberg questioned this and Von Stroheim admitted to a foot fetish.  Thalberg retorted, “No you have a FOOTAGE fetish” in reference to Von Stroheim’s tendency to shoot ten times more than was needed. The film was romantic, moving and beautiful.  Seeing silents on the big screen with a live orchestra is the best possible way to see them.  The impact is so powerful.  John Gilbert and Mae Murray radiate passion in every frame of the film.  The ten-piece orchestral accompaniment led by the Dutch composer Maud Nelissen.  The music was magnificent and they also beautifully incorporated The Merry Widow waltz into the score.  The audience gave the film and their performance a standing ovation.  I only felt sad that there weren’t more people there to see it. 

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Saturday, April 30th
I have long been a fan of Clara Bow and sadly until now HOOP-LA hasn’t been an easy film to see.  I did see it several years ago at the UCLA Film and TV Archive, but it wasn’t in very good shape and the original credits were missing.  I was thrilled to hear that this is no longer the case.  Bow biographer, historian and preservationist David Stenn has been working with MOMA in New York to bring the film back to audiences.  The print was beautiful and an entirely different experience from my previous viewing.  Before the film, Stenn spoke about how this was Clara Bow’s final film.  She had experienced the highest and lowest possible levels in Hollywood and no longer had the heart for it.  She wanted to retire and had one foot out the door during the making of this film.  That said her total emotional commitment to the part remained evident on the screen.  In the film Clara Bow plays a side show dancer who agrees to seduce the manager’s son in exchange for money.  The plan backfires when she falls in love with him.  Bow is so powerful and moving in this film.  I kept that there should have been more!  The last shot of the film features Bow standing on stage while the carnival barker introduces her.  Her face and eyes run the gamut of emotions from heartbreak to happiness in those moments.  It was a fitting final shot for the woman who was a master of silent screen acting and who knew all to well how to break hearts without saying a word.

Kevin Brownlow introduced this film and gave it plenty of context.  Born in 1938, he was a little boy in England during WWII, which is the time and place the film is set.  WENT THE DAY WELL is about a village of polite English citizens who are host to a band of soldiers only to find out that they are secretly Germans who plan to kill them. I must confess that when I first started watching this film, I wasn’t certain I would like it.  It seemed a bit dull, crisp and overly mannered.  Fortunately it didn’t stay that way.  The pace and intrigue of the film picked up so fast that I felt blindsided.  There is one violent attack scene that was entirely unexpected and took the whole audience by surprise.  The screening was sold out and the audience really seemed to respond to this film.  People were clapping, cheering and really involved in the story.  That sort of collective energy and excitement is what makes going to the movies so special.  You simply can’t get that experience in a living room at home.

For much of the festival, I have been very torn about what movies to select.  At the TCM Film Festival there are always 4 or 5 amazing events happening all at the same time.  I wish I could clone myself and attend all of them!!  I was very close to selecting NIAGRA and seeing Marilyn Monroe on the big screen during this time slot.  Then a friend told me that the music for THE CAMERAMAN was being provided by the Vince Giordano and the Nighthawk Orchestra from NY and that it couldn’t be missed!  My friend was right.  The music was fantastic and made me want to jump up and do the Charleston right there in the theatre.  Buster Keaton was one of the greatest comedians of the silent era—-or any era for that matter.  This film isn’t shown nearly as often as THE GENERAL but it should be.  It is fast, funny and endlessly entertaining.  Keaton stars as an aspiring newsreel photographer who is out to win a job and the girl he loves.  His co-star is a small monkey who threatens to steal the show.  The film was introduced by Leonard Maltin.  He said that THE CAMERAMAN was Buster Keaton’s second to last silent film and one of the last on which he had full creative control.  Soon afterward the powers that be at MGM took that freedom away from him causing him to fall apart both professionally and personally.  Maltin encouraged the audience to enjoy the film and to think of it as one of Buster’s last great hurrahs on screen.  For my money, the Nighthawk Orchestra and Buster Keaton are a match made in heaven.  I hear that they play at a nightclub every week in New York City and broadcast over the internet.  I will certainly be sitting by my radio here on the West coast tuning in.

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Sunday, April 30th
Bright Boulevards and Broken Dreams
For this panel, historian Donald Bogle gave a slide show and lecture about African Americans throughout film history.  This topic is very interesting to me and judging by the crowd at Club TCM, there are many other film fans who find it fascinating as well.  Bogle discussed the obstacles, difficulties and dearth of opportunities faced by these bold pioneers in the industry.  He also talked about them on a personal level and gave some insights into their lives off screen.  There were many things he discussed that I had never known before.  For example the first African American actress in Hollywood was named Madame Sul-Te-Wan and she was actually friends with D.W. Griffith and appeared in THE BIRTH OF A NATION.  This was pretty shocking news to me.  I will have to do some searching and read more about her.  He talked about the lives and careers of Hattie McDaniel, Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge and many more.  Bogle’s style is very eloquent and entertaining.  I’m glad that TCM has asked him to the festival again this year.  Shedding light on these films and performers is an important piece of understanding film history. 

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I first saw the Nicholas Bros. on screen in college when I saw STORMY WEATHER.  I was dazzled at their artistry.  It was thrilling to see TCM honor their achievements and have an entire event dedicated to their careers.  Bruce Goldstein (head of the Film Forum in NY) hosted the event.  He had met the Nicholas Bros. and even made a documentary about them.  He was joined by filmmaker and screenwriter Robert Townsend, who also paid them tribute.  He said that due to growing up in a gang infested area of Los Angeles, he was forced to stay inside the house after school and he often sought refuge in the movies.  As a young African American boy, it was a revelation to him to see the Nicholas Bros. on screen.  He became an immediate fan of their work and even cast Harold Nicholas in The Five Heartbeats, which he directed in 1991.  Mr. Goldstein showed clips and interviews of the Nicholas Bros. and shared his personal insights along the way.  At the beginning he asked the audience to avoid thinking about what the Nicholas Bros. could have done in another place and time, but rather to focus on what they had achieved instead.  While I see his point, it was obvious that they deserved more.  They should have had their own TV show and movies based completely around them instead of being just a stand alone dance number in films.  Harold Nicholas even discussed this point in some of the documentary footage.  The audience responded with rapt enthusiasm and their every dance clip with met with cheers and wild applause.  They seriously must have had rubber and springs in their bodies, as their talent was simply otherworldly.  I can’t even begin to imagine how they pulled off these feats….in particular there one in STORMY WEATHER where they jump down the stairs landing in a full split—-multiple times!  Their sister was in the audience as well as their grandchildren and great grandchildren.  I got to take a picture with them and found them very nice and gracious.  The little grandson of Fayard Nicholas looked so much like him!  He had big lively eyes and told me that he was a dancer too.  His great granddaughter was equally cute.  I’m sure it will be a matter of time before they will light up marquees taking their family tradition well into the 21st Century.

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For the closing night film, I opted to see FANTASIA on the big screen at the Chinese.  I hadn’t seen it since I was a little kid, so it was a great re-discovery.  The color, music and artistry are all mind blowing.  Robert Osbourne introduced the evening and was given thunderous applause from all of the TCM fans.  He announced that there will be a third TCM film festival and an upcoming TCM cruise as well.  I feel like the most spoiled film fan alive.  When I went around the festival, I got to talk to tons of different movie fans of all ages from all over the country.  Many of them said that TCM was the only way they had of seeing older films and that they didn’t have places like the American Cinematheque, New Beverly, Cinefamily, UCLA, etc.  I also heard many people say that none of their friends liked older movies, so they were really excited to meet and befriend others at the festival who shared their passion. That shared experience and sense of community is what really makes the TCM film festival a beautiful thing.  We all got to revel in our love for Hollywood’s Golden Age and discover that we weren’t alone—that there are many of us taking out places as “those wonderful people out there in the dark.”

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