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Roundup: TCM Classic Film Festival 2016

Classic movies tend to linger. Last month, TCM’s seventh annual Classic Film Festival, which I attended for the first time last year and wrote about here, offered a range of marvelous movies.

I covered festival events, discussions and interviews and watched or reviewed films from every decade from the 1920s to the 1990s. Besides my blog, reports and articles appeared elsewhere online. I’m also writing articles for a new, independent film source for future publication. 80fd3868f6692b85f0c9a3cca2d9d1dbThis year, I was finally able to see a 40-year-old past Best Picture Oscar winner at Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 hit Rocky, a film I had never seen in any format. Now, I think every adult should see it. What an inspiring movie.

Besides the new Rocky review, my other TCM festival reviews also include thoughts on the live interviews as applicable. Among the new reviews: thoughts on Stanley Kramer’s brilliant Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) starring Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, John Singleton’s powerful Boyz N The Hood (1991) featuring Cuba Gooding, Jr., Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne, and Vincente Minnelli’s lively, inventive The Band Wagon (1953) starring Fred Astaire.

Happily, I’ve also discovered Frank Borzage’s restored, Rachmaninoff-themed I’ve Always Loved You (1946), Josef von Sternberg’s striking Shanghai Express (1932) with Marlene Dietrich, and I enjoyed seeing Elia Kazan’s insightful A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) with Dorothy Maguire on the big screen for the first time.

John Frankenheimer’s conspiracy-themed The Manchurian Candidate (1962), about an assassination plot to control the United States of America by a global Communist cabal, was an incredible moviegoing experience—also at the Chinese. It was introduced by Angela Lansbury.

In addition to the interesting discourse on journalism in movies and composer Michael Giacchino’s audio-visual presentation on making the musical score for film, I had the pleasure of watching Faye Dunaway, who’d previously introduced an anniversary screening of another still-timely picture, Sidney Lumet’s satire Network, interviewed at the Ricardo Montalban Theatre. Dunaway, a glamorous movie star whom I found intelligent and discriminating about her career, did not disappoint. At that point, I’d already run into the Washington Post‘s Carl Bernstein, who was there for a screening of All the President’s Men, and met fellow movie bloggers and buffs, including TCM curator Charles Tabesh after a press conference. Socially, the best aspect was trading thoughts with moviegoers from across the world.

Classic film fans might also be interested in new Western critiques of Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957) co-starring Barry Sullivan and Barbara Stanwyck and the 1946 version of The Virginian starring Joel McCrea, both screened at the Autry Museum of the American West.

As much as I enjoy seeing new movies, and I do, I must say that I appreciate the classics more on the larger screens and I think they get better with age. I was filled with a similar rush last year with the TCM-screened movies—film noir Too Late for Tears with Lizabeth Scott, George Stevens’ Gunga Din, Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata!, Walt Disney’s So Dear to My Heart and Robert Wise’s adaptation of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music—and, afterwards, the same sense of motion picture withdrawal.

Good movies leave me wanting more.

Movie Review: The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Controlled by Frank Sinatra, directed by John Frankenheimer, adapted by George Axelrod from Richard Condon’s 1959 novel of the same name, shot in black and white and released before President Kennedy‘s 1963 assassination, 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate‘s reputation is probably better than the movie deserves.

Yet as a piece of cinematic paranoia, the assassination-themed picture strangely and certainly applies to its time and continues to be relevant as a kind of warning against a subversive foreign takeover for dictatorship of the United States of America.

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The story begins in North Korea. The year is 1952. Sound and image converge with whirling helicopters and the American motto in Latin, E Pluribus Unum (“out of many, one”) and quickly, clearly, the audience sees that something is terribly wrong with the world in the picture. Indeed, pictures of mass murdering Communists Mao Tse-Tung and Josef Stalin appear with U.S. Army soldiers intermixed with scenes from a ladies’ gardening club. Thus the notion of Americans being brainwashed—”a new American term”, according to one of the Communist perpetrators—sets the movie’s plot, characters and action into play.

The Manchurian Candidate lingers in this unsettling Communist torture chamber, interspersed with the garden club from the soldiers’ warped perspectives, depicting an act that captures the horrifying potential and power of the operation. Besides signalling the diabolical plot to come, this setup allows Frankenheimer to indulge the movie in a particular brand of paranoia that indicts the entire country because, as will become evident, the culprit in this conspiracy theory in action is really the American people.

From Sinatra’s Army Major Marco, who blindly salutes early in the film, the U.S. Army, politicians and the media to a black Army corporal (James Edwards), principled U.S. senator (John McGiver) and the senator’s daughter (Leslie Parrish), everyone is either plagued or near powerless to conjure, question or stop the scheme to turn the nation into a Communist puppet state. In this sense, the movie’s rather bleak, heavy and empty.

Every character is flawed, damaged or out to end America. No one is entirely sympathetic. There are no heroes here.

The person most contaminated by the enemy is also the person most likely to co-opt an unhappy ending, presumed Korean War hero Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey, BUtterfield 8), who was programmed by the Reds to do the dirty deed. Some might claim that Sinatra’s Marco also acts admirably and heroically and he does, to a certain extent, though he, too, is ultimately powerless. Marco is the film’s detective, having vague, nagging nightmares about captivity, doubting the unit’s blind allegiance to the war hero Raymond Shaw and discovering what triggers the secret agent’s sinister acts.

Major Marco has to contend with a love interest (Janet Leigh, Psycho), whom some see as an innocent loner on the train and I see as an apparently unresolved possible Communist agent, or at least a character that could go either way. Any woman so quick to ditch her fiance for Sinatra’s disoriented Army major—and with such practiced recitation of her address and number—is suspect in this movie.

Powerlessness and paranoia are The Manchurian Candidate‘s themes—Americans are both helpless to combat evil and too paranoid to identify what evil must be stopped—and certainly the Korean War, the first of many American post-World War 2 wars to neither be acknowledged as war and declared nor won, is the perfect backdrop for a seamless, insidious spread of totalitarianism in our midst. This spread emanates from recognizably monstrous Soviet, Red Chinese and North Korean agents, such as houseboy Chunjin (Henry Silva) and an evil doctor (Khigh Dhiegh, who went on to play the Communist-friendly Wo Fat villain in Hawaii Five-O), with the doctor pronouncing the movie’s moral theme with glee, calling out what he refers to as the “uniquely American symptoms [unearned] guilt and [irrational] fear”. By now everyone knows that the real source of the Communist threat in America is dim-witted anti-Communist Sen. Johnny Iselin (James Gregory), apparently patterned after Republican Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy, propped up by his nagging wife, Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury), war hero Raymond Shaw’s mother, a role originally intended for Lucille Ball.

Much has been made of Iselin’s resemblance to McCarthy and it’s a legitimate point. But McCarthy’s flaws never included collaborating with the enemy and his basic theory that Communists had infiltrated the highest levels of state and industry was proven true. So, while The Manchurian Candidate delivers on the left’s bogeyman, McCarthy, it also validates the right’s more salient contention that American ignorance, evasion and appeasement of Communists all but opened the door wide open to a Communist plot to take over the country; Sen. Iselin’s character merely projects what’s actually happening on the film’s terms.

In skewed angles, in black and white, with an incestuous psychological underpinning that forecasts the rise of both the shrill, domineering female and the authoritarian who’s a “clown and buffoon”, with decent soldiers and statesmen taken in by the Reds, always one step behind and never acting to defend the republic in time, The Manchurian Candidate spirals to a tense, exciting conclusion.

By the time end credits roll, the good has been breached beyond repair and one medal of honor may yet be earned. All of this sounds more important than it is in the movie’s context strictly due to what tragedies, wars and despair coincided with this October 1962 United Artists release, which screened during the TCM Classic Film Festival 2016 at Grauman’s Chinese Theater (see notes below) with co-star Angela Lansbury. This is because the movie never fully identifies or names, let alone resolves, its cryptic conflict of an American republic gone bad or struck dumb, really dim, through neglect or brainwashing. The cast is excellent, so far as the characters allow, and the creepy feeling pervades.

And, while this may never have been Condon’s or anyone else’s original purpose, the 50 years since The Manchurian Candidate (don’t bother with the awful anti-capitalist remake in 2004) was made only affirm that the worst of this movie’s outcomes is coming true. As one character threatens in the movie’s most prophetic line, eerily happening here and now with the rise to power of Donald Trump: “[It’s easy to] rally a nation of TV viewers into hysteria that will make martial law seem like anarchy.”


At an exclusive, pre-screening Hollywood interview sponsored by Turner Classic Movies for its TCM Classic Film Festival 2016 at Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, the actress who plays Raymond Shaw’s mother, Mrs. Johnny Iselin, Angela Lansbury (Gaslight, Sweeney Todd, Murder, She Wrote, All Fall Down, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Shootdown, Beauty and the Beast, The Picture of Dorian Gray) in The Manchurian Candidate talked about the movie, her life and career.

LansburyTCMFF2016In a conversation with Alec Baldwin for TCM, Ms. Lansbury, who glided out into the sold out theater looking tall, sensible and grand, started by saying that she’d read Richard Condon’s novel, which she described as “very serious” in preparation for the shocking role of the incestuously villainous mother of the Manchurian candidate’s would-be assassin. Declining to take full credit for the Oscar-nominated performance, Angela Lansbury added that she thinks the writer gives the character its essential meaning. Hosts and moderators often fawn over the movie or performance that’s about to be shown and this showing of The Manchurian Candidate was no exception. However, to her credit, 91-year-old Angela Lansbury refused to go along; when Baldwin prompted her for a moment of eternal and overdone praise for the film, she correctly pegged the movie as “a unique piece of work.” Thanks to her chilling performance, it is.

Speaking of her movie career, which included roles in The Harvey Girls with Judy Garland, Frank Capra’s State of the Union with Tracy and Hepburn and Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah, she sounded somewhat embittered when she lamented that “directors all saw me in a different way” and kept casting her as various types of characters in pictures, which grew tiresome, so she stopped making as many movies and went to work on stage in productions such as Sweeney Todd and on television as mystery writer Jessica Fletcher in the CBS hit Murder, She Wrote (1984-1996).

Movie Review: I’ve Always Loved You (1946)

With restoration funded for the UCLA Film and Television Archive by a government grant to the American Film Institute and privately by Republic Pictures and the David and Lucile Packard Program, the 117-minute I’ve Always Loved You recently screened at TCM’s Classic Film Festival. The 1946 picture is filled with romantic notions, scenes and music and it’s as melodramatic as any other mid-Forties romance.

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But something is different about this movie. Based on a Borden Chase (Red River) short story titled “Concerto” about Chase’s pianist wife (and their daughter, the audience learned before the screening, later danced with Fred Astaire), I’ve Always Loved You features two stunning performances of composer Sergei Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto—both played as a duel between a female pianist and her male conductor—by artists entangled in a toxic affair. This rarely seen classic was directed for Republic Pictures, a small studio known for low-budget Westerns, by Oscar-winning director Frank Borzage (The Mortal Storm, A Farewell to Arms, Stage Door Canteen). The $2 million budget bought Technicolor for the first time and Arthur Rubinstein playing the piano.

A fresh-faced young pianist named Myra (Catherine McLeod) falls in love with an alpha male maestro (Philip Dorn) named Leopold Goronoff, who insists that music at its finest is for men to play and women to experience. This does not dissuade Myra either from pursuing her passion for learning music from the master—nor him from tutoring and hiring the young farm woman—or prevent Myra from falling for the handsome but eccentric conductor. Myra knows her talent but utters “yes, master” over and again in order to gain new knowledge and practice, childlike in her confidence that he will see her for the perfect pupil—and devotee—she is. Theirs is a student-teacher storm warning.

This is not completely lost on the strong, wholesome farm hand (William Carter) back home who has a thing for Myra and has no problem expressing himself. Borzage contrasts these two men as counterparts caught between Myra’s escalating unease with her emerging musical skill, her unrequited love for Goronoff and the unrequited affection of the man who runs her father’s idyllic Pennsylvania farm. Maria Ouspenskaya (Dodsworth, Waterloo Bridge, The Mortal Storm) stars as the maestro’s rational, knowing grandmother in one of her last roles before she died.

As Myra, McLeod captures the character’s worship, intensity and confusion, making her most rash or shocking choices more plausible, which is pivotal in a picture this loaded with sweeps, turns and gloriously romantic music. Dorn, too, makes his neurotically masculine master appealing enough to see why women swoon over him. Ouspenskaya, too, as a grandmother tenderly taking to Myra and calling her “Butterball”, and Carter as the simple outdoorsman pining for a woman musician, are convincing. Add the mad, swirling sense of something ominous that seeps into the concerts and I’ve Always Loved You culminates at Carnegie Hall.

Though by the time this picture was released, both The Seventh Veil and Brief Encounter had already used Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto, here performing music is integral to plot and character development and achieve an unusually engaging effect. I’ve Always Loved You manages under Borzage’s direction to be both highly romantic and conflicted without being totally shameless in execution and Rubinstein’s piano playing, however flawed its depiction (so I’m informed by someone who knows about these things), furiously plays into a rewarding final deliverance.

Movie Review: The Band Wagon (1953)

Only in director Vincente Minnelli’s lavish and unique 1953 movie musical The Band Wagon, based on a stage musical and rewritten for the screen, does the audience get Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse dancing to an adaptation of a Mickey Spillane novel within an adaptation choreographed by Michael Kidd, with a cast including Ava Gardner as herself, Julie Newmar in a ballet, pianist and composer Oscar Levant as Nanette Fabray’s husband, James Mitchell of All My Children and Oklahoma! and a character playing the Devil that’s based on Jose Ferrer (Cyrano de Bergerac).

In The Band Wagon, all of this comes in addition to the world’s greatest dancer in motion pictures singing as an actor playing a baby triplet.

The Band Wagon is this blend of zany, colorful and over-the-top depictions of show business. Incidentally, it’s also where the song “That’s Entertainment”—which spawned three grand Hollywood documentaries and became the movie industry’s unofficial theme song, capturing the spirit of Hollywood’s Golden Age—originates. If The Band Wagon sounds rollicking, that’s because it is—and seeing it for the first time, as I recently did, with movie buffs who know all the lines and places to laugh (at TCM’s Classic Film Festival 2016) is somewhat disorienting—but, like the mid-century America the movie inextricably represents, The Band Wagon mixes everything to arrive at an original climax, point and theme.

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With screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green and Mr. Minnelli’s visual and musical flourish and nerve, producer Arthur Freed, who similarly peeked behind the scenes of early Hollywood in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), depicts Broadway’s manic process to excess with everyone traipsing around singing, dancing, saying, proposing and doing ridiculous things in order to coax a fading movie star (enchanting Fred Astaire, as accessible and elegant as ever) and a ballerina (lovely Cyd Charisse in an acting, not merely dancing, role) to put on an opulent and preposterous stage show.

As the backers, visionaries and players get skewered, with an impossible and increasingly dubious show heading for disaster, everyone goes along on The Band Wagon to make the serious point that putting on a show, contrary to claims that the musical is unrealistic and frivolous, is an act of daring. Integration of singin’ and dancin’ with abstractions and themes poses a real risk to talented and sensitive artists and demanding investors.

This is the play as an enterprise. Fortunes, careers, lives, reputations and relationships may be staked on one, massive show in a grand production and it can fail and fail dismally.

So goes The Band Wagon, with neurotic characters Lily and Lester (Fabray and Levant), an easily bruised ballerina (Charisse), intense leading man (Astaire) and diva director whose name even sounds like an aspirant of the theeuh-tuh, Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), who strives to stage a musical show based on Faust.

Like the opening’s blinding, shining silver Santa Fe railcars—the movie poster proclaims: “Get Aboard”—the movie barrels, bends and zips by with power, light and excitement. Fred Astaire’s legendary dance in “A Shine on Your Shoes” with a shoeshine vendor (the delightful and uncredited Leroy Daniels) in a train station sets an energetically nervy yet effortless pace and tone. With songs by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz, including “Dancing in the Dark” and the stirring, all-American “That’s Entertainment”, the company keeps stopping, pausing and starting up the vehicle. Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse give the play-within-a-play its tension, bringing the plot to a low boil in a grinding routine styled on Mickey Spillane’s The Girl Hunters featuring his private detective Mike Hammer, “The Girl Hunt Ballet,” choreographed by Michael Kidd.

It’s a brilliant number.

All keeps running in constant motion and The Band Wagon skips and sputters with musicality, inviting sets, costumes, make up and eye-popping production numbers, from the first song and dance to the last. It’s hard not to notice the widespread influence of this MGM musical on Hollywood and the entertainment industry, from incarnations of Grease to versions of Batman and Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal”. But the deliberately, brilliantly mixed musical The Band Wagon, balanced by the masterful Fred Astaire, who was underappreciated as an actor and singer, carries as its treasured cargo a gradual awakening of an older gentleman who chooses to reshape his whole life with a new act, taking everyone along for the ride.

Springtime Festivals

This spring, two annual festivals caught my attention. The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at University of Southern California (USC) is always interesting for its literary lectures, panels and appearances. I usually learn about new stories, books and publishing deals, trade trends and developments and run into someone I know or want to know and this year was no exception. I learned about everything from new literary journals and adapting Greek plays to new small publishers, printers for self-published books and blogs, resources and programs for writers.

FOBooksUSC2016The Festival of Books panels, in particular, can get pretentious as writers and editors share their thoughts from the ivory tower and some of the comments reinforce that today’s dominant intellectuals are disconnected—some knowingly—from audiences and reality. For instance, a dramatic arts dean at the university, a published author, admitted that he hadn’t read the play he was adapting. He added that he’d read it once decades ago but seemed oddly proud of his not having studied and mastered his topic, as if this was the point of adaptation; to evade the cause of the work. Others rambled and most speakers at the panel discussions talked as if everyone was familiar with every term, work and literary reference, though moderators tried to keep them grounded in communicating with a wide, general audience.

Listening to writers talk about writing makes me think about better habits, tools and techniques and the event offers an opportunity to meet other writers, editors and publishers. For some of my contracted projects, it’s especially helpful to know about new producers in the market at any point in the writing-to-publishing process. So, overall, I’m glad I went.

Turner Classic Movies hosts a classic movie festival in Hollywood every year, which I attended for the first time in 2015 and again this spring (read my roundup of 2015’s event here and a preview of 2016’s festival here). The panels are, perhaps not surprisingly, less pretentious than the book festival’s, though I found myself wanting more of the exchanges than some of the brief interviews and panels delivered, though Faye Dunaway’s interview was extensive and the star of Network, The Towering Inferno and The Thomas Crown Affair was thoughtful and gracious (more on this later).

ClubTCMBWA panel discussion on journalism and movies with writers, editors and a producer, which I wrote about for LA Screenwriter (read my report here), could have lasted another 45 minutes and I would have stayed. TCM’s panel, which was moderated by TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, a TV journalist earlier in his career, included writer/director James Vanderbilt (Truth), Oscar-winning writer Josh Singer (Spotlight), broadcast news producer and author Mary Mapes (portrayed in Truth by Cate Blanchett) and journalist/editor Ben Bradlee, Jr., portrayed by John Slattery in Spotlight—Bradlee was partly responsible for managing the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal, the subject of Spotlight, which won 2015’s Oscar for Best Picture.

This year, I was able to see at least one past Best Picture Oscar winner on the big screen as with last year’s screened classic movies—Too Late for Tears (1949) with Lizabeth Scott, Gunga Din (1939), Malcolm X (1992), Viva Zapata! (1952), So Dear to My Heart (1949) and The Sound of Music (1965)—and this one, Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 hit Rocky, was a film I had never seen in any format. Read the reviews, which include notes on accompanying festival interviews where applicable, either on The New Romanticist or here on the blog as available. So far, besides Rocky, I’ve reviewed Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) with Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, John Singleton’s Boyz N The Hood (1991) with Cuba Gooding, Jr., Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne, Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932) with Marlene Dietrich and Elia Kazan’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) with Dorothy Maguire. I’ve added a review of The Virginian (1946) starring Joel McCrea, which recently screened at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, too, and there are a few more reviews to come (of The Manchurian Candidate (1962), The Band Wagon (1953) and I’ve Always Loved You (1946).

Additionally, I plan to post a roundup of 2016’s TCM Classic Film Festival, themed this time to “Moving Pictures”, including coverage of other lectures, interviews and related news, such as TCM’s new fan club, Backlot, and its new streaming partnership with the Criterion Collection. ‘Like’ my Facebook page for regularly posted mini-reviews of films on TCM’s lineup.

For live instruction, evaluation and discussion of movies, books and media, and studious breakdown of the writing process, feel free to attend my classes if you’re in Los Angeles this summer. Space is limited for updated courses on social media (read more and register here) and Writing Boot Camp (read more and register here) in Burbank. If you want help with a project and you’re unable to attend, let me know (I can probably help by phone, FaceTime or Skype). Otherwise, read the monthly newsletter for tips, tools and thoughts. Look for new reviews, articles and stories to come.