The seventh annual TCM Classic Film Festival took place last weekend in Hollywood — three and a half glorious days of over 80 classic movies and presentations. I’ve attended all seven festivals and it is by FAR my favorite movie event of the year — and one that I look forward to all year long with my fellow old movie lovers who start obsessing months before TCM’s announcement of the schedule. The passes for the festival go on sale in the fall, before any of the films for the upcoming event are known, and this year the highest level passes sold out in a record 14 minutes!

benThis was the second year in a row that TCM host and icon Robert Osborne was not at the festival himself because of health problems. While he was greatly missed, TCM stalwarts Ben Mankiewicz, Illeana Douglas, Alec Baldwin, Leonard Maltin, Cari Beauchamp, and others presided over the screenings with enthusiasm and expertise. Over the years we’ve also come to know the members of the TCM staff who put this amazing event on every year: Managing Director Genevieve McGillicuddy, VP of Programming Charlie Tabesh, and TCM General Manager Jennifer Dorian. I’m not usually guilty of this level of sentimentality but between the hosts, the TCM staff, the celebrity guests, and the thousands of fans who descend on Hollywood from all over the world, it really feels like a family of sorts, with all the passion, joy, laughter, tears, and good-natured arguments that any closed-knit group provides.

graumansIt takes a while to recover from the multiple days of nonstop moviegoing and events. The festival takes place at several venues in Hollywood: the historic Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the gorgeous Grauman’s Chinese Theater and its neighboring TCL Chinese Multiplex, Grauman’s Egyptian Theater down the street, and one special screening at the 1960s-era Cinerama Dome. But the sleep deprivation, serious eye strain, and popcorn-based malnutrition are small prices to pay for such a great time!

Because there are several concurrent events in each time slot, choosing what films to attend can be an agonizing process — which is all part of the fun. I ended up seeing 16 films over the festival but I could have easily chosen a completely different slate or two and still left a very happy camper.


Kicking off the festivities on Thursday night was a gala screening of Alan J. Pakula’s remarkable All the Presidents Men at the Chinese, the first non-musical opening night film in the seven years of the festival. In my normal work as a movie journalist, I avoid red carpets like the plague, it’s just not my thing — EXCEPT at the opening night of the TCM Festival — I just can’t pass up this unique crowd. Among the people I was able to chat with on this year’s red carpet were (above, left to right) Darryl Hickman, Ann Robinson, Leonard Maltin, Illeana Douglas, Keith Carradine, and Lee Meriwether. As the top-level passholders then filed into the big opening night film, I skipped over Elia Kazan’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn introduced by former child star Ted Donaldson who played young Neeley Nolan in the film (more on that later) and then made it to Stanley Kramer’s wonderful Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? introduced by Katharine Houghton, the real-life niece of Katherine Hepburn who played Hepburn and Spencer Tracy’s daughter in this film about what happens when she gets engaged to Sidney Poitier in the tumultuous 1960s. Houghton told us that at the time she received death threats for her role in this film. Thank God we live in such different times today…or do we?

For the record, here’s a complete rundown of the 16 films and programs I saw during the festival along with the special guests who talked about the making of the films:


  1. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), directed by Elia Kazan (Guest: Ted Donaldson)
  2. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967), directed by Stanley Kramer (Guest: Katharine Houghton)
  3. The More the Merrier (1943), directed by George Stevens
  4. The Way We Were (1973), directed by Sydney Pollack
  5. The Conversation (1974), directed by Francis Ford Coppola (Guest: Francis Ford Coppola)
  6. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), directed by Frank Capra, hosted by Craig Barron and Ben Burtt
  7. The Manchurian Candidate (1962), directed by John Frankenheimer (Guest: Angela Lansbury)
  8. The 90th Anniversary of Vitaphone Shorts, hosted by Ron Hutchinson
  9. Dead Man Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), directed by Carl Reiner (Guest: Carl Reiner)
  10. Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (1968), directed by Melvin Frank (Guest: Gina Lollobrigida)
  11. The King and I (1956), directed by Walter Lang (Guest: Rita Moreno)
  12. The History of Widescreen Cinema, hosted by Leonard Maltin and Christopher Reyna
  13. M*A*S*H (1972), directed by Robert Altman (Guest: Elliott Gould)
  14. Children of a Lesser God (1986), directed by Randa Haines (Guest: Marlee Matlin)
  15. The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966), directed by Norman Jewison (Guest: Eva Marie Saint)
  16. Network (1976), directed by Stanley Lumet (Guest: Faye Dunaway)

I don’t know if I can properly convey the fun and excitement of this unique event, but here are five things that stood out for me at this year’s festival.


1. Movies are the great unifier. One of the best things about the TCM Classic Film Festival is the people who attend. They come from all walks of life from all over the country and the world to revel in their shared love of movies. While, in our normal lives, we are all fighting on Facebook about the current presidential campaign and what’s going on around the world, all such realities take a breather during the festival. I have met many people at this event over the years that I now consider friends, but I couldn’t even tell you what most of them do for a living. Host Ben Mankiewicz expressed his gratitude to the attendees. “The TCM family, including this very particular, passionate group of fans, have given me a whole different career than I thought I was going to have,” he said at a pre-festival press conference. “This is a network for celebrating movies: conservatives, liberals, progressives, and libertarians all unite in their love of Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne!”

Not that the festival is apolitical — far from it. With films programmed this year such as All the Presidents Men, A Face in the Crowd, The Manchurian Candidate, The Way We Were, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, and One Potato, Two Potato, the festival delved into complex political issues in the best way possible — through art and the power of a good story. While there was thankfully no chatter about Bernie vs. Hillary or the latest debacle involving Donald Trump, we were still thinking about the underlying issues at play thanks to the extraordinary movies we were watching. I do have share one image, however, that a friend told me about: a man wearing a “Make America Great Again” baseball cap emerging from a screening of D. W. Griffith’s 100-year-old Intolerance. You can’t make that stuff up. But it’s great to know that there’s one place where people, regardless of their different backgrounds or beliefs, can get together for a few days of the year and feel like they are part of a real community.


2. It’s the emotions, stupid. Hollywood, take note: You can have all the expensive visual effects in the world, an army of superheroes, and cast of A-list talent that only big money could buy, but the ONLY movies that are going to have lasting appeal for generations to come are ones that depict real, authentic emotions — ones we can relate to and understand, regardless of how different the characters’ lives are to our own.

The theme of this year’s festival was MOVING PICTURES — “the ones that bring us to tears, rouse us to action, inspire us, even project us to a higher plane.” I never pay that much attention to the theme of the festival since I think so many films could fall under those broad banners, but I have to say that my tear ducts got a very good workout this year. The film that moved me to such an extent that I can’t get it out of my head a week later was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the story of a young girl coming of age in a Brooklyn tenement in the early 1900s. Based on the novel by Betty Smith, it was the directorial debut of famed director Elia Kazan, and the first starring role for 12-year-old Peggy Ann Garner who delivers an understated, incredibly moving performance as Francie Nolan. There were two images of Peggy Ann Garner used in the festival promo that was shown before every screening and I was so gobsmacked by this film that each time I saw Garner in those clips it brought tears to my eyes. Ted Donaldson, who played Garner’s young brother Neeley in the film was on hand to talk about Kazan’s style of rehearsing the film as if it were a play. He was in awe of Garner’s work even at his young age, and said that Dorothy McGuire, who played the mother in the film, gave one of the best performances ever put on film. I couldn’t agree more. The entire cast, with Kazan’s help, including James Dunn, Joan Blondell, Lloyd Nolan, Ruth Nelson, and James Gleason, bring a realism to their roles that was unique for 1940s studio films. Donaldson told a wonderful story about working with Blondell who he said exuded warmth and sexuality. He was so taken by the star that one day on the set he went up to her and said, “Miss Blondell, I know I’m only 10 years old, but I’m in love with you and want to marry you some day.” Even telling us this story over 70 years later, you could see how moved he was when he said how grateful he was that the actress didn’t laugh or say how cute he was or condescend to him in any way. She treated his remarks very seriously. At the end of the shoot, Blondell gave young Donaldson a framed picture of herself that was signed, “Love Joan ‘I’ll Wait for you’ Blondell.”

Take a look at this scene, above, of Joan Blondell’s Aunt Cissy coming to visit the Nolans.


3. It’s so important to honor our elders. There are few places in our youth-obsessed culture where people over the age of 70 are as honored, revered, and celebrated as they are each year at the TCM Classic Film Festival. Over the years, it has been a joy to be in the presence of people such as Tony Curtis, Maureen O’Hara, Kirk Douglas, Kim Novak, Norman Lloyd, Juanita Moore, Julie Andrews, Mickey Rooney, Betty Garrett, Esther Williams, Margaret O’Brien, Diane Baker, Millie Perkins, Paula Prentiss, and so many others. The stories they shared with us were priceless and it so warmed my heart to see how these people, some of whom hadn’t worked in decades, were greeted by the adoring crowds. Last year, in addition to the dazzling Sophia Loren, I was moved by interviews with Shirley MacLaine, Dustin Hoffman, Ann-Margret, and William Friedkin, in addition to our off-the-schedule meet-up with former child star Cora Sue Collins who regaled us with stories about her two movies with screen legend Greta Garbo and playing the child of William Powell and Myrna Loy during her successful tenure at MGM in the 1930s.

Dozens of special guests graced us again this year and I wish I could have heard every single one of them but the people on my schedule were a joy to behold. It was a thrill to hear 94-year-old Carl Reiner talking about working with Steve Martin on Dead Man Don’t Wear Plaid and explaining the genesis of his brilliant Dick Van Dyke Show; 84-year-old Rita Moreno giving us priceless tidbits about making The King and I including the time Yul Brynner sent her to a heavily accented German acting coach (she couldn’t understand a single word); 87-year-old Italian goddess Gina Lollobrigida sharing her philosophy of life and her successful post-movie star careers as a photographer and sculptor ; 77-year-old Elliott Gould revealing the delicious anarchy of working on Altman’s groundbreaking M*A*S*H ; 92-year-old Eva Marie Saint laughing as she told stories from the set of The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming; 77-year-old Francis Ford Coppola describing the uphill battle he faced to get his amazing film The Conversation off the ground; 90-year-old Angela Lansbury speaking with honesty and passion about her incredible career before a screening of the utterly brilliant The Manchurian Candidate.; and 75-year-old Faye Dunaway’s take on the prescient nature of the extraordinary Network. All of these talented folks are as vital now as they ever were and I’m grateful for any occasion at which their contributions to our culture can be properly recognized. If this is what being a senior citizen is like, sign me up!

The Manchurian Candidate is one of my favorite films of all time. Here are a few moments of Lansbury’s chilling performance as Laurence Harvey’s conniving mother.


4. Everything old is new again. Think you don’t like old-fashioned silent movies because the acting is wooden and it’s too boring to watch movies without spoken dialogue? Are you under the impression that early sound movies from the late 20s and early 30s seem horribly dated today? Well, think again. I’ve seen utterly stunning silent films at the festival over the years that certainly stand up beautifully against any modern film in terms of riveting plot, great writing, and stellar acting. One of the biggest sensations at this year’s festival was a screening of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 epic The Passion of Joan of Arc. The screening was accompanied by a live orchestra and chorus performing Richard Einhorn’s 1994 oratorio “Voices of Light,” composed especially for the silent classic. I’m sick that I wasn’t able to make it to this presentation at the Egyptian Theater, especially since everyone I know who attended said it was hands-down their favorite event of this or any TCM Festival. This year also treated fans to film archivist Serge Bromberg’s collection of Amazing Film Discoveries including Chaplin’s The Bank from 1915 and the believed-to-be-lost Laurel and Hardy film, The Battle of the Century from 1927. There were also screenings of Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman and a restoration of Chaplin’s wonderful The Kid with Jackie Coogan.

One of my favorite presentations this year was film historian Ron Hutchinson’s salute to the 90th Anniversary of Vitaphone, the newfangled sound technology that Warner Bros. took a gamble on in the mid-1920s. Through The Vitaphone Project, Hutchinson and others have located and painstakingly restored many of the original Vitaphone shorts through which audiences witnessed synchronized speech and songs on the screen for the very first time. Hutchinson showed seven vintage Vitaphone shorts in glorious 35mm to the spellbound crowd, many of which gave us a window into the popular vaudeville acts of the day. In addition to well known performers such as George Burns and Gracie Allen, Molly Picon, and Baby Rose Marie, the shorts also included the long-forgotten but hilariously funny acts of stars such as Conlin & Glass, Georgie Price, Shaw & Lee, and Zelda Stanley. So funny, so entertaining, it was as if we were transported back in time to the best vaudeville theater in New York.

We all remember Rose Marie as the inimitable Sally Rogers on The Dick Van Dyke Show but take a look at her Vitaphone short above from when she was a very young child star, singing with the same gusto and style she’d use on television decades later.


5. Rien…je ne regrette rien. As Edith Piaf famously sang, there’s no point in having regrets. True, I cringe every time I think about missing that Joan of Arc presenation at the festival as well as other films that are among my all-time favorites including David Lean’s Brief Encounter, Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon, Edmund Goulding’s Dark Victory, and Henry King’s The Song of Bernadette, but what can you do, there are only so many hours in the day? There were dozens of other films screened this year that I would have loved to have seen as well including the twice sold-out pre-Code Double Harness, the rarely seen 6 Hours to Live, the roadshow version of the epic King of Kings, Disney’s Bambi with Donnie Dunagan, the voice of Bambi present, Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders including a discussion with Godard’s muse (and former wife) Anna Karina, Cinema Paradiso including a discussion with Salvatore Cascio, the now grown-up little boy from the film, a midnight screening of the meticulously restored 3D Gog from 1954, a unique widescreen presentation at the Cinerama Dome of Holiday in Spain in its original Smell-O-Vision…and SO MANY MORE!

While we form a closed-knit community every year at the festival, that doesn’t mean we don’t have widely different interests and tastes. I know people who never set foot in the “big” screenings at the Chinese, focusing instead on the smaller, more unusual fare at the multiplex. There are people who obsess on individual stars or a specific genre. I know people who don’t go that many screenings but hang out at the Club TCM presentations at the Roosevelt Hotel including this year’s looks at Journalism on the Big Screen featuring  Ben Bradlee, Josh Singer, and Marla Mapes, and a panel on Man’s Best Friend featuring famous dogs of the movies. There’s really something for everyone at the TCM Festival — and also plenty of things for diehard fans to kvetch about such as the preponderance this year of digital screenings versus 35mm, or the fact that the 1930s pre-Code films tend to get screened in the tiny multiplex theaters where many people are turned away while the “newer,” splashier films tend to play the large Chinese or Egyptian. We wouldn’t be a group of passionate film lovers if we didn’t have our own biases and vehemently held opinions.

morethemerrierOne thing I love about the festival is that every year I’m introduced to a few classic films that somehow slipped through the cracks for me. This year, the film that I had never seen that immediately catapulted to my list of all-time favorites was George Stevens’ 1943 film, The More the Merrier, starring Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea, and Charles Coburn. I can’t remember the last time I laughed that hard in a movie theater (“Damn the torpedoes!”) or fell in love with characters so quickly or completely. When I saw The Quiet Man a few years ago at the festival, I thought that there was nothing hotter on celluloid than the scene in the rain between Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne, but I have to say that the scene on the stoop in The More the Merrier between McCrea and Arthur gives that one a real run for its money. Holy hell, I needed a cigarette and a cold shower after watching the sizzling chemistry between those two stars. Our host for this screening, writer and film historian Cari Beauchamp, told us that it was entirely improvised: George Stevens just told his leads to “carry on with each other” for a while. Joel McCrea later admitted that this was his favorite scene from all the films he made during his career. No, duh!

As I start dreaming about the 2017 festival, let’s end with a few moments with Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea.

See you next year in Hollywood!