Transmissions from TCMFF: Day Four and Final Thoughts

How could it be the last day of TCMFF already? At the same time, it felt both like I’d been there forever but had just gotten started. The routine of the festival had gotten quite natural and comfortable. I could get used to a life of one real meal at strange times of day and lots of movies with friends. But alas, that’s not how the real world works.

When the day started, I wasn’t yet sad that things would be ending. And that’s because day was going to a good day. The movie I’d most been looking forward to was closing out the festival: 7th Heaven with an orchestra. A silent film with an orchestra! While I’d seen silent movies with live music before, it had never been something to this level. My most anticipated event waited at the end of the final day.

In fact, it would be my only actual movie of the final day. There were a lot of things to consider with the TCMFF schedule, and I wanted to have a wide variety of experiences: poolside, favorite movies, first time watches, the conversations with actors. The conversation with Bruce Dern hammered home just how important these appearances from the stars are. It’s such a rare and awe inspiring feeling to be in the same room as them and hear their stories. And with that in mind, I couldn’t pass up the conversations taking place on Sunday. These were events that would never come by again.

The first of those events was a conversation with Margaret O’Brien. As luck would have it, several friends were already in the lobby of the Roosevelt. A great time was had even before our featured guest came out.

Margaret O’Brien was every bit as lovely as you would expect, with so many nice words to say about people and great stories. To hear her talk about the stars she got to work with a very young age was nothing short of remarkable. There was talk of Lionel Barrymore making her paper dolls. A young Margaret attended a birthday party at Pickfair, the home of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. She decided to try out the bidet, and flooded the famous Hollywood estate.

Even the only bad story she had was a cute one. When talking about Wallace Beery, she said that the reason he was such a good actor is that acted like he liked her on screen. For such a small, quiet person, Marget O’Brien commanded the room and had everyone’s attention.

From there, I just walked one room over for my next interview: Piper Laurie (Floyd Norman was seated right by us, not that I’m bragging). This conversation was yet another different one. Piper Laurie had a deep introspective look to her career. There were some parts she didn’t like as much, and she was open to saying so. I didn’t know that early on in her career she asked to let out of her contract, which was such a fascinating story both for the personal reasons and the mechanics that such a move caused. She was so humble as well and honest, admitting that she didn’t attend the Oscars the first time she was nominated because she was too embarrassed. She was even embarrassed hearing her name on TV.

Up next was another unique experience, the Alicia Malone book signing. This was the first and only of these events I ended up attending, as some of the others conflicted with the schedule. This signing was a huge event for a certain someone who is a big fan of Alicia and had the honor of being Twitter friends with her (not all of us can be so lucky). Even on my end, with less stakes involved, it was a a bit of an experience to be nervous about. I’ve never really gone to signings or talked to famous people I admire before. What do you say? Is it possible to just freeze and horribly embarrass yourself?

Of course none of that happened. Alicia is such a welcoming and kind person, and in the time I saw her we just talked. I had my chance to tell her how much I love TCM Imports and it somehow ended with me gushing about how great the Margaret O’Brien interview was. This resulted in a picture where it even looks like Alicia is interested in what I was saying, so that’s a victory.

I got my one square meal of the day, and then it was time to line up for another only at the festival type of event. A murderer’s row of comedians (including Laraine Newman and Jonah Ray, the two names that made me squeal the most) were doing a table read of I Married a Monster from Outer Space. This concept first debuted in the virtual festival, and the live read of Plan 9 from Outer Space was so good that I had to get to this one. This would be something special.

Unfortunately, it started very late. I knew I had no choice but to leave pretty early to get into 7th Heaven. Who knew how many freaks like me needed to see a silent movie with an orchestra, but I wasn’t taking any chances. What I did see of the table read was fantastic, though. Just like in the previous year’s version, Dana Gould’s narration brought so much comedy to the affair. There’s something about drily pointing the worst moments of a bad script that just works. Everyone was on the top of their game. And being an insane person, I’d previously seen the movie they were reading. That prior experience just made it extra fun. See, watching copious amounts of dreadful movies has the occasional benefit.

An early exit guaranteed me a spot for the main event: 7th Heaven! With an orchestra! And sound effects, which I didn’t even know would happen.

I’ll get the negatives of the screening out of the way first: I have no idea why people laughed at very serious moments in the film. And I’m not saying I would like to you banned from future events for doing so. But I wouldn’t protest it.

Anyway! This was such a perfect final event for me at the festival. It was also a silent film I hadn’t seen before. I came into it totally blind, just knowing that it was a good one. For once, I got to experience a silent film for the first time in the perfect setting. The orchestra was as good as expected, and things like cannon sound effects added a lot to the experience. And of course the film was magical, just a world of emotions put onto the screen. This movie epitomized the reunion theme of this year’s festival, and it moved me plenty. Such a beautiful film to end the festival on.

Now things were really winding down. All that was left was the closing night party. It’s at this point that anyone who knows me will be shocked to know that I went to a party. I’m not even sure of the last time I went to a party. And the last time I enjoyed myself at a party and didn’t just feel horribly awkward may have been two presidents ago.

But here I was, at a party. And I actually enjoyed myself.

This was another moment where it set in just how at home I was at this festival. I was comfortable at this party because I was among my own people, and among my friends. Although I had never met any of them in person until now, they were all honest to goodness friends and we already knew each other well. So there I was, just mingling with people who already got me and who I’d already gotten to spend time with over the course of the weekend. It felt natural and right, and so much fun.

And in another shock, I actually approached and talked to some of the TCM luminaries at the event. This boldness immediately paid off with a moment I will think about (and brag about) forever. Dave Karger saw me and said I was “the guy with the funny tweets.” He even knew I met Alica Malone earlier in the day. He could be reading this right now (Hi Dave). James Brown once said he was high on life. I’m high on a TCM host saying I’m funny.

As the night wore on, I also got to meet Eddie Muller and saw Floyd Norman for about the 75th time that weekend. Mario Cantone was also there, and as if I was suddenly a different person, I found myself telling him how much his holiday appearances on Gilbert Gottfried’s podcasts had meant to me. It was a surprisingly emotional moment and it seemed like he appreciated it. A quick recovery was made by bringing up how funny post-stroke Bette Davis was the night before at Polyester. I didn’t get a picture with Mario, but I did have a moment that meant a lot to me. That’s even better.

The night continued to go on, much later than I would ever be an event like this. I continued to talk to friends and got to meet a couple people who had still eluded me prior to this event. Slowly, the party thinned and we eventually wandered back to our rooms, tired but happy.

~ ~

There’s so much more that could be said about TCMFF, which is amazing considering I’ve already written an absurd amount of words about the event. But all that I really need to say is something to everyone I met that weekend:

Thank you.

My mom asked me if I thought these would be long lasting friendships, and truth is that they already were long before I met anyone. And now they’re even stronger. I can’t thank you all enough for being so kind and welcoming to me. It means so much to have met people who were excited to see me. Because of all of you, I had the most active weekend of my life and loved every minute of it. I did more than I ever expected. And for that, I thank you. I didn’t get to say goodbye to most of you, but that’s okay. There will be another one. We’ve been through some things together, with trunks of memories still to come.

-from Shane, with love

Transmissions from TCMFF: Day Three

Saturday looked to be my most packed day on the schedule, and the latest night too. Let’s just say that a midnight movie screening was an ambitious idea for someone who is rarely out after dark. With that in mind, I was happy to take the early morning screening for this day off. There were plenty of other things going on that day, after all.

So like any normal not at all insane person, I spent that free time in the morning going for a walk. Look, I was not about to break my near 700 day move streak on my Apple Watch while on vacation (I’ve since passed 700 days, thank you very much). While out, I got word that people were already lining up for Three on a Match, so I quickly headed back to get in line.

While in line for my first precode of the day, I made my first narrow escape of the TCM interview cameras. The one thing I don’t need is to have TCM on and be surprised by own interview appearing on TV. The line was long, but were numbers 94 and 95, surely good enough for even the tiny theater 4. How many spotlight pass holders could there possibly be? Right as we were at the front of the line, it stopped. Only ten more people would get in, the employee said. Huzzah! We were only four back, so there would be no problem. Then the ten more people turned into zero more people. My first TCMFF shutout happened. In lieu of flowers, please send me sympathy blu-rays.

The bad part about this was that all of the other movies except one had started already. All that was left to do was rush over to see the intro to Annie, so with festival dad Jeff along for the ride, that is what we did.

The intro turned out to be wonderful, the interview with Alicia Malone and Aileen Quinn being very fun. It also gave me a chance to actually be in the TCL Chinese Theater, which was quite the experience. But we still didn’t stay for the movie.

In the downtime, it was time for a pilgrimage to the bookstore I’d heard so much about, Larry Edmunds. To the shock of everyone who knows me, I didn’t buy a single book during the trip. But it was still a great treat, and I enjoyed browsing the shelves. I consider it lucky that none of their lobby cards interested me, as I would have been prepared to walk away with far too many.

The earlier shutout meant we were very early for Baby Face at the Hollywood Legion, the theater I would stay at most of the day. Bruce Goldstein gave an excellent presentation prior to the film, a very nice slide show and audio/video clip combination that gave a lot of context. The film itself was, of course, spectacular and was shown in its uncut form. Afterwards, a short reel played to show the differences between the uncut and the cut version, which made the experience all the more fascinating. And that is when I discovered, to my great disappointment, that the cut version added a shot at Pittsburgh to the ending of the film. This presentation was one of the best of the festival.

The line for the next film, Counsellor at Law, was already long by the time I got out of the previous movie. And so I got right back in line. I couldn’t miss the chance for a John Barrymore film I’d never seen before, along with Leonard Maltin getting the Robert Osborne Award.

Warren Beatty gave a nice introduction to Leonard Maltin. Leonard Maltin gave a speech that I’m sure resonated with everyone in the room. It certainly hit me where I live. He talked about how old movie stars like Carole Lombard are not dead to him. They’re just as alive and present when those old movies are on. And he also talked about how he was feeling down one day, and putting on a classic film made him feel better. Nothing could be more relatable.

And then he stuck around to introduce Counsellor at Law, a film he personally chose. To hear him gush about a movie was a real treat, and he somehow got me even more excited about the film. He called it one of John Barrymore’s greatest performances, and he was right. One important note that stuck with me too: most of the other special guests left right after their introduction. Not Leonard Maltin. After the film ended, I saw him leave the theater. He stayed for the whole movie, like the true fan he is. Seeing this top flight Barrymore film was a real treat.

I stayed at the Hollywood Legion for one more film, enticed by Diner being a first time watch with the cast present. Kevin Bacon, Tim Daly, Steve Guttenberg and Paul Reiser drew a big crowd, which led to one of the few things that annoyed me about the festival. The massive theater was filling up, and suddenly everyone was trying to find extra seats for their group. “Is that seat taken?” “Are those two taken?” I don’t know! Worst of all, some guy specifically asked me to save two seats . . . and then he was there by himself and needed one seat. That’s the last time I play usher. It all culminated with an elderly woman with a cane being unable to find a seat because no one would move over. Finally we moved over for her, and she promptly fell asleep.

And then after all this hassle, a big chunk of the audience left after the introduction.

Anyway, the Diner discussion had its own separate flavor from the rest of the events I was at. This felt like a bunch of friends reuniting and chatting, thrilled to be with each other. It was fitting given the tone of Diner itself. This was quite the pleasant surprise, walking into a movie I knew nothing about and falling for it. It was just a very nice time capsule and buddy movie, a world you can get lost in.

The day after that still wasn’t over. Baby’s first midnight screening was here. A combination of factors made it hard to resist: Polyester in Odorama with Mario Cantone and Mink Stole. I’ve come to love Mario Cantone through his holiday appearances on Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast, and getting to see him so soon after his shocking passing would mean a lot. And I also knew it would be fun.

The interactions between Mario Cantone and Mink Stole were enough to wake me up this late in the evening. Really, Mario accomplished that before Mink Stole was even introduced. It was a chaotic and funny discussion, just as I had hoped. Mario Cantone even through in some of his impressions for no real reason. Was there any connection to this movie and his post-stroke Bette Davis impression? Hell no. And I didn’t care one bit. I was just glad to see it.

And Polyester, a first time watch for me, was so much fun. John Waters even made a surprise video appearance before it started. It’s such a brilliant crafted fun movie, perfectly suited for a crazy ride when you’re just a little sleep deprived. Yes, the Odorama isn’t quite a science that works all the time. Some of the scents didn’t quite come through. But others did work, and it was just a fun communal experience. I could hear the groans around me when a particularly unpleasant scent came up. Would we really scratch that one and smell it? Of course we would.

Strangely, I was a little proud of myself for powering through such a busy day. I saw a lot of things and stayed out far later than I usually would. Even someone like me can be compelled to do things like that when there’s memorable movies and people around.

Transmissions from TCMFF: Day Two, Or Bruce Dern Day

The first full day of TCMFF was upon me. And based on how I handled the start of the day, you would think I had just fallen off the turnip truck. I was rolling out of my room nary an hour before Dinner at Eight was set to begin at 9am, somehow exiting at the same time roommate/partner in crime Robyn was leaving for a much later screening. But I am nothing if not a fast walker, so I was determined to get the Hollywood Legion Theater for my first festival serving of John Barrymore. It had to happen. I had the bright orange Barrymore shirt on, after all.

(Side note: if you want to make sure your friends can find you at an event, a brightly colored shirt is a great idea. My Barrymore shirt could be seen from space, and I got noticed no less than four different times because of it.)

Dinner at Eight took place at the venue I’d spend the most time at during TCMFF, the Hollywood Legion Theater. It’s a fabulous large theater, made even cooler by the vintage bar in the basement. As a plus of the HBO sponsorship of the building, endless amounts of free popcorn and HBO Max branded cookies are provided. It’s a great deal for those days when meal times for in short supply, provided you remember that the HBO Max icing can turn your lips purple.

This was such a fun movie to see in theaters, with Marie Dressler and Billie Burke being hugely over with the crowd that was present. And only at TCMFF will aspic become a crowd pleaser. It’s such a shame that it fell down on the floor.

With the first movie of the day done, I took some time off for a proper meal and a pilgrimage to a most important spot in Hollywood: the Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd Alley. To spend some time in a location where several classic comedies were filmed was quite special. I especially appreciated that the area gets the proper recognition it deserves now, thanks to a plaque and street sign. Unlike when Buster Keaton was in this spot, I exited on foot. My stunt work isn’t as good.

Up next was the Bruce Dern portion of the day. Although Club TCM had plenty of people in it for the interview, there were seats open up front. It felt kind of like when no one wants to sit in the front of the room in class. Perhaps they were intimidated by Bruce Dern. Perhaps they were right to be. And that’s how Keisha, Robyn and I ended up in a prime spot in the second row, the back of our heads in every shot of the interview like an MST3K segment.

Bruce Dern came out just the way you hoped he would: like he just rolled out of bed. He had on his best IHOP hat to complete the look. If I knew he had such an affinity for the place, I would have staked out the nearest IHOP for him while eating copious amounts of pancakes. The interview did get off to scary start, as Dern leaned back and immediately tipped over in his chair. Luckily, he the stage backdrop held him up and he never actually landed. They just tipped him back into place and he acted like nothing happened. A different chair was even offered to him and he refused, citing his want to have the armrests on the original chair. And then it was on.

What happened next was technically an interview. Ben Makiewicz was there and he had a couple different notebooks of things to ask Bruce. And occasionally he did ask a question. But this was a show Bruce Dern was in charge of. As we went onto his first tangent, he stopped to say “I don’t mean to take over your interview.” He then proceeded to do just that, telling an endless tale of stories that didn’t really connect to much of what Ben had just asked him.

And I loved every second of it.

Bruce Dern is a fascinating man, and he controlled the room for every second he was on stage. At times his comments were scattershot–I’m not exactly sure how it came up that he thought George Hamilton was too handsome to be a movie star. But the man knows how to tell a story, and has an excellent memory to go along with the tales he weaves. We heard about it all: starting out working with Elia Kazan (who he only called Mr. Kazan throughout the hour), his early days where he was not allowed to speak while he acted, how Hitchcock created a shot in Family Plot, lunches with Quentin Tarantino, and most notably, the time he grabbed the phone out of the hands of casting director Lynn Stalmaster and grabbed him by the lapel.

We also learned so much about his philosophy on acting and the crafting of a Dernsie. He doesn’t like to rehearse because he wants to take the actors and director by surprise on a first take. And he advocates for taking chances on the first take, because the director always has something the actor doesn’t: take two.

Most surprising of all was his specific recall of lines of dialogue from his films. At various points, he was no longer Bruce Dern. He became the character with all the intensity. And look, I can’t say he actually ever looked at me while he said the lines. But it felt like he was. I felt that intensity as if he was looking right at me and into me. They were powerful moments, and the whole interview was powerful. Outside of meeting friends, this was the first moment of the festival that felt truly transcendent. We all experienced a special moment that we would never forget. I could have listened to Bruce Dern talk all day.

And that’s exactly what I did.

Bruce Dern next appeared to introduce Nebraska, an event I knew I had to be at long before I knew how great Dern would be. It’s a movie that touched me deeply the very first time I saw it, and seeing him introduce it made it even more special. Jacqueline Stewart had the task of trying to wrangle Bruce this time, and she asked good questions that he only sort of answered. While he didn’t offer much new information about the film he was introducing, he still offered a fresh slate of great stories. He told the crowd that he recently finished second in an over age 80 race. He didn’t say as much, but it’s probably safe to bet he’s annoyed that he didn’t finish first.

As Bruce Dern exited the stage, he shouted one more thing. The microphone was off, but the powerful voice came through clearly: “We make these movies for you,” he said. And that’s how Bruce Dern almost made me cry even before the movie that makes me cry started.

Nebraska was even better than I remembered, with each member of the ensemble cast being pitch perfect. We made an early exit to ensure that we could fit in the final film of the day and to save ourselves from crying in public.

The Gay Divorcee was final film of the night, it what would be my only successful attempt at getting into the notably minuscule theater 4. It’s a good thing that Astaire and Rogers were dazzling me, as that’s the only thing that could keep me awake with how I was dragging after a long day. Seeing them on the big screen was such a treat. And it’s not every day you hear Eric Blore and Edward Everett Horton get applause.

The first full day of TCMFF was very long, and I was very ready for sleep after all that had gone down. But every moment of it was so worth it. The combination of friends, movies and a fellow in an IHOP made it one that would never be forgotten.

Transmissions from TCMFF: Day One

I arrived for my maiden voyage at TCMFF on Wednesday night, ready for a full day of pre-festival activities before the real events started. Wednesday brought a little of the Hollywood experience, as I got a taste of Musso and Frank’s at a late dinner. Please spare a thought for the poor waiter who could not hide his disappointment when he found out that the two people walking in were splitting an entree *and* not drinking anything. His annoyance every time he looked at our table was palpable. Our table was so bare of any alcohol or empty plates that two other waiters approached us, assuming we hadn’t been served. We were fine, just two non-drinkers who were not particularly hungry at 10pm on Wednesday. On east coast time, no less.

Thursday began in earnest with a trip to the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. Even with a tight schedule on the docket, this was an essential excursion to make outside of the festival itself. And my friend Robyn and I were immediately rewarded by running into Twitter pal and fabulous TCM writer Hannah. This would be the first of countless times I would run into someone from online, and each time it was delightful and wonderful experience. It never got old.

Like all good museums, I was immediately sucked in by the Academy Museum and the time flew by. It is truly a remarkable museum for any movie fan, full of movie props and dedicated sections to things like animation. The history here is immense.

Spoiler alert.
Yes, it is incredibly dorky that I took a picture of where Jacqueline Stewart sits during Silent Sunday Nights. Just be glad I didn’t take a picture sitting there.
Numerous Oscars are displayed. Seen here is the highly questionable Mary Pickford award for Coquette.

The museum also deserves a lot of credit for their critical and introspective displays about the more problematic parts of movie history. Punches aren’t pulled here. The information regarding the history of blackface and other racist portrayals in film history is thorough and shocking. There is also great information regarding the continued disparity for jobs for women in the industry. This is a museum that gives the proper critical information needed to understand these darker aspects.

From there, it was time for the first actual TCM event: the Meet TCM panel. Nothing quite struck fear in my heart like some of the more . . . passionate . . . members of the TCM fanbase asking questions to TCM executives and producers. Mercifully, the questions were not bad at all. Hanging around before and after the event gave me the chance to meet even more people.

I saved myself the embarrassment of failing at the trivia event and made an outfit change for the #TCMParty group photo and the opening night reception. Finally, there was a club event I actually fit in well with.

Eddie Muller was the first host to make an appearance at the poolside reception, looking about as comfortable as I am to be out in bright sunlight. It was a very fun event overall, getting to meet more people I’ve known from online and taking in the atmosphere of being with like minded individuals. This was also where I first experienced the funny thing of people liking each other’s tweets while sitting next to each other. Surely the Germans have a word for such a sensation.

As the night wore on, the strange reality began to set in that people actually were excited to see me. I’m still struggling to understand this concept, but I’m rolling with it by now. Certainly it was much easier to understand that my dog Scotty had a fanbase. He’s much cuter than I am anyway.

The opening reception and constant supply of free food wound down, which meant it was time for the first movie of the festival–and the first choice to make. Jewel Robbery seemed like a no brainer, but I had gotten convinced to check out the experience a poolside screening of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It seemed like a good idea to experience that part of the festival experience, as the other poolside screenings definitely didn’t fit into my schedule. (And based on the footage I saw later, it’s a good thing I missed the Blue Hawaii screening and can’t be blackmailed with embarrassing videos.)

Seeing part of Fast Times with a fun group of people was enjoyable, but leaving early for my first real full film of the festival: Hail the Conquering Hero. A favorite Preston Sturges film of mine, I was very excited to see such a classic comedy with an appreciative audience. And getting to experience the audience for the first time was pretty special. I’ve been lucky enough to see some old movies in theaters, but it’s never been anything like this. They applauded when actors appeared on screen! They laughed at all the jokes! This was my kind of crowd.

I hung around the lobby area a little afterwards, as the other movies hadn’t yet let out. There were plenty more people to meet and talk to in the time that followed, which only hammered home how great this environment was. And in a major surprise, one of my B Movie Maniacs Twitter comrades (Priscilla) had made a last minute arrival to the festival and we got to see each other for the first of many times over the weekend. Once again I was shocked and taken aback that people were excited to see me.

The first day wrapped up in that time in the theater that followed. I had gotten my first taste of the TCM Film Festival, and I already knew this was the place to be. I was among my people. And up next was a full day of this.

Show People and Setsuko Hara: My Top Ten Film Discoveries of 2021

Well, at least 2021 was slightly better than 2020, right? Right?!

With 2020 being, you know, I was like everybody else in watching a lot more movies at home than ever. There was nothing else to do, what with the deadly pandemic and all. At least in 2021 I’ll be out more and will see fewer movies, I thought.

That was partially true, at least. As the pandemic reaches its latest sequel, I did get to get out on occasion and see some movies in theaters again. This included many highlights: private screenings of The General and Creepshow, the silent version of Hitchcock’s Blackmail with live music, and finally seeing Halloween on the big screen.

And I watched a whole lot of movies at home too. There were so many good choices for this list, and many didn’t make the cut. What’s most surprising about the list is that half of them come from the year 1928. The big discovery of this year is that the end of the silent period, 1927-1929, is one of the greatest in movie history. I have a 2022 goal of writing about that. But for now, enjoy those films and others below.

These are my top ten first time watches of 2021, presented in chronological order.

The Big Parade (1925)

All I really knew going into The Big Parade was that it was a war epic. In reality, it’s so much more than that. What drew me in most of all was the romance between John Gilbert and Renee Adoree. It’s one of the more pure romances you’ll ever see. They don’t even speak the same language, but fall in love just from spending time together–and from sharing gum. When they finally get separated, I was practically yelling “find him!” at the TV.

The war scenes are so well done. King Vidor, who will appear again later on in this list, creates incredible drama and heartbreak as we see battle breaks out and men dropping left and right. It all leads to the heartbreaking reality of what war does to a man. And as for the ending, prepare to cry a lot. A lot.

The Kid Brother (1927)

Although not one of the more famous films from the peak of Harold Lloyd, it’s right up there with his best work. This reminds me of The General in one specific way. Although both are nominally comedies, there’s more going on in substance and genre. In the case of this one, Harold Lloyd gives us a western as well, along with more romance than usual. Jobyna Ralston plays the romantic lead, and has a lot of sweet moments with Lloyd. Their chemistry adds a lot to the movie.

With all those differences, it all leads to a classic Harold Lloyd finale: big action packed climax with many twists and turns. This is Harold Lloyd at his best.

Shooting Stars (1928)

If you love silent movies, this is a must watch. It’s all about the behind the scenes making of a silent film. We see all kinds of backstage stuff, including how silent comedies and westerns are made. The shots of movie sets are fantastic. If that was all this movie had, it would be worth it.

Luckily, the plot is also great. It’s a simple love triangle plot, but it gets the job done. Some crime and suspense elements add to a gripping finale. This film is quite the experience.

Show People (1928)

Speaking of movies about silent films, this is another one that fits the bill. Show People is a love letter to silent movies from start to finish, full of behind the scenes shots. It’s also got lots of fun cameos and jokes about real movies. This includes Marion Davies the character meeting Marion Davies the actor.

Her whole storyline is so much fun, working her way up the ranks of acting in Hollywood. Marion Davies is always a delight in a comedy, and this is no exception. So much fun.

Underground (1928)

Underground got me right from the opening shot: the camera dramatically pulling up to an underground stop. The first ten minutes of the movie are just a slice of life on the London underground, and it’s fantastic. From there, we get a simple plot of two friends fighting over the same woman. It’s told in a way that’s anything but typical. There’s all kinds of unique POV shots, shots from the ground, and even shots from a mirror. It all leads to a Hitchcock/Third Man style ending. This movie never lets up.

The Man Who Laughs (1928)

During my October horror movie viewing, I like to create interesting double features for myself. I paired this one with Mr. Sardonicus for the (I think) clever theme of “you should smile more.” What took me by surprise is how The Man Who Laughs is hardly a horror film at all. It’s more of a tragedy. The fate of Conrad Veidt is horrible, and you feel for him the entire way. It also makes his relationship with Mary Philbin so pure and sweet. The performances are wonderful, and the smile makeup effect will stick with you.

The Crowd (1928)

The Crowd is just as modern as ever and is one of the finest films at capturing what ordinary life is like. All the normal moments are presented: childhood dreams and trauma, falling in love, the struggles of marriage and making a living, the randomness of good events and horrible tragedies. Although it’s told in stark images, everything that happens ins relatable: a fight breaks out over something small, a happy moment occurs in the middle of lingering financial strife. And most notably, the film portrays the rising and falling nature life can take–how one never knows when things will turn in our favor or go down in flames.

It also portrays the realities of life for the average American honestly and without flinching. It pulls no punches about how unfair life can be when trying to make ends meet. At one point, James Murray is told that the world just doesn’t stop because of his problems. And when it’s said, it doesn’t feel like a malicious statement of melodrama. It just feels real. And so does the whole film. This is as real as it gets.

Why Be Good? (1929)

This year was my introduction to Colleen Moore, and boy do I love her. Her personality shines through the entire film and makes it so much fun. She plays a flapper who likes to go out and have fun. Some movies might have portrayed this in a negative light, but not here. She’s just a normal person who wants to work and enjoy herself after. And she doesn’t want to be supported by a rich guy either.

It’s a surprisingly feminist film. Her mother always understands and supports her, and you want to stand up and cheer when Moore finally says “You men! You insist on a girl being just what you want–and then you bawl her for being it.”

Late Spring (1949)

Late Spring wins the award for the film that most wrecked me this year. In fact, I may never recover from it. I have never related more to a character than the one played by Setsuko Hara. She says at one point “I’m happy just as I am,” and that about sums up the struggle of the movie. It’s an ordinary struggle in some ways, being about wanting to be yourself. But it’s not ordinary in other ways.

This is one of the few characters that embraces being happy and single. As someone who has been single and enjoyed it for much of my life, it was a powerful message. She is happy just as she is, but finds that society doesn’t want her to be that way. If you’ve ever been asked when you’re going to get married or when you’re going to have a kid, this character’s situation will touch you deeply.

Tokyo Story (1953)

The second Setsuko Hara film on this list is also an emotional gut punch. This one is about families growing older and changing, and it’s also immensely relatable. Much of the story centers around older parents being somewhat ignored by their children, but it doesn’t feel like it’s being done in a fictionally exaggerated way. It feels like the way real families can change and drift apart. No one means to do it. It just . . . happens. That’s what makes it heartbreaking. If you’ve seen your parents gets get older or die, this one will sting quite a bit.

National Silent Movie Day: What to Watch on TCM

September 29th is National Silent Movie Day, which should pretty much be a national holiday for someone like me. The movement for this national day of silent flickers was actually created by someone in the same city as me, and I can forever curse him for thinking of it before I did. It’s picked up around the country. This includes TCM, who will be airing all silent films or related documentaries on the 29th.

What should you watch from their lineup? Well, basically everything. It’s an incredible crash course into the world of silent film, featuring movies from a variety of countries and genres, many featuring some of the most important stars and directors of the era. But let’s say you’re not quite a freak who wants to see the majority of the films on TV this day. If you’re looking for more of a silent meal than a buffet, here’s three films in the lineup you should go out of your way to see:

Flesh and the Devil (1926) – 6:15am ET

If you don’t know about the romantic chemistry between John Gilbert and Greta Garbo . . . brace yourself. This is where it all started for the two of them, both on screen and off. The very real fireworks in the film turned into an equally real relationship between the two, which the press and public loved. This first film was such a hit that their second film was titled Love, specifically so it could be advertised as “Garbo and Gilbert in Love.”

Apart from just the great film romance, this is also an good opportunity to see John Gilbert in his prime. His name has far too often been associated with the false myth that his voice ruined his career when sound came in. These unfounded stories overshadow a fantastic film career, filled with amazing and layered performances. If you like him here, there’s a lot more where that came from.

Within Our Gates (1920) – 12:30pm ET

As far as a rare film with historical significance, this may be the most important film in the lineup. Within Our Gates is one of the first films by pioneering director Oscar Micheaux, and is believed to be the oldest surviving film by an African-American director.

Seen as a response to The Birth of a Nation, this film portrays the much more real world of white supremacy and the horrific racism and violence committed against black people in the early part of the century. It can be a hard film to watch with its gritty and realistic portrayal of these events, but that’s part of what makes it sound important and gripping. It’s a film that needed to be made, especially given some of the whitewashed material that was already out there. Michaeux’s often non-linear approach adds to the experience of the film as well.

Sherlock Jr. (1924) – 1:15am ET

One of my favorite things to watch is a silent comedy. They’re a unique brand of smart and fun humor, and every major star brings their own special kind of character and story to their films. Nothing quite brightens the mood like the fast-paced insanity of a silent comedy. Buster Keaton was one of the masters, and this is one of his masterworks.

Sherlock Jr. features some of the most impressive effects you’ll ever see, both visually amazing and wildly funny. The scene where Keaton steps into a movie screen has been an influence on other works, although never better than here. And once he’s even, a rapid fire stream of insane stunts and gags continues. On top of that, the romance plot in the story is adorable. This is as good as silent comedy gets.

HOLLYWOOD: The Documentary That Captured Silent Films in a Bottle

“It was a different day. I really wish I could explain . . . I wish I could really give what’s in here [points to heart] out to you, the greatness of the old days. They made good films too. With a boxed lunch, a two dollar bill and a roll of film. That’s what it was. But it was great.”

Those words by stuntman Harvey Parry close one episode of Kevin Brownlow’s and David Gill’s documentary series Hollywood. And that’s what all 13 episodes are about. The cast and crew of silent films tell their stories, trying to convey just how much different and how nice that part of American film history was. And that’s precisely why it is such essential viewing.

Hollywood was made at just the right time. Many of the cast and crew of the silent film era were still alive. That means the series is incredibly star studded: Gloria Swanson, Lillian Gish, Louise Brooks, Jackie Coogan, Colleen Moore, Mary Astor and dozens of others appear in interviews. Some of the most compelling interviews come from the crew: directors, cinematographers, stuntmen and even theater organists. Having all this information come directly from is invaluable. Want to know about how one of the big scenes in The Big Parade was filmed? King Vidor is there to tell you how he shot it. Why did Gloria Swanson leave Mack Sennett? She provides the answer herself.

The episodes cover a wide range of topics and themes. Several are about genres. Westerns, war films and comedies all get their own episodes. Others are about specific stars. Clara Bow, John Gilbert, Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino each get half an episode. And others still touch on scandals, directors and technical aspects of filmmaking.

What follows in all those topics is as educational as it is entertaining. In the stuntmen episode (“Hazard of the Game”), several diagrams are presented to show how crazy stunts were done. A catapult scene in The Beloved Rogue, it shows, was accomplished by someone jumping down a vertically place skyline. When shot from the side, it looks like they are sailing over the buildings.

Another episode reveals that some of the crowd members in the chariot scene of Ben Hur were miniatures of people in tiny stands. With the perspective in the film, you’d never notice the difference.

The series takes time to focus on more people than just the biggest names. Cinematographer Karl Brown is a frequent guest, talking about things such as working for DW Griffith and how he used to play music in his head when cranking the camera. In the episode on directors, a section is spent on forgotten directors–people like John Collins, who died in the 1918 pandemic. Harvey Parry is one of the best guests in the whole thing, spending a great deal of time telling stories.

Aside from the technical aspects, the anecdotes are spectacular. Marion Mack talks about swearing a up a storm when sprayed with water during filming of The General. Leatrice Joy tells moving stories about her ex-husband John Gilbert. They attended the premiere of The Big Parade together, although they were already divorced. Gilbert gave her a signed photo that said “to my beloved wife, after whom god patterned the angels.” She almost cries. The episode ends with her saying “I never solved him. I wish I had. John Gilbert was mercury. You touched him and he vanished.”

Those moments are part of why Hollywood is a treasure to be cherished. There are countless great film books out there. But this is a living, breathing work that captured the essence of silent film from the people who lived it–captured in a bottle before it was too late. Every one of the people in the documentary is gone now. Kevin Brownlow and David Gill captured their memories and stories while they were still here.

Hollywood is essential viewing for anyone who loves classic films. We may not be able to really feel what the old days were like, but this is as close as we’ll ever get.

The Life, Times and Crimes of the Alien Ruler from Plan 9

What makes Plan 9 from Outer Space so interesting? Part of is all of the things wrong with the writing, directing and acting. It’s not every day you hear what is clearly the bad first draft of a script, after all. Another part of it is the cast, the strangest group of misfits ever assembled into an ill gotten film idea. There’s Bela Lugosi, shown in footage that wasn’t even meant for this movie specifically. Then there’s the chiropractor who stood in for him, looking as much like him as I do. We also have a phony psychic, a local TV vampire, a pro wrestler who couldn’t speak English and a drag star socialite descendant of a vice president.

Wait, what was that last one? Let’s take a look at the last person mentioned, the most remarkable background story to any actor in this strange movie.

John “Bunny” Breckinridge stands out in Plan 9 from Outer Space right away. For one, he’s practically the only person in the film who displays any sort of personality. In a movie filled with actors who may as well be embalmed, Breckinridge’s eccentric performance gets your attention. He switches between not caring (like when he reads off cue cards) and adding dramatic flourishes, often in over the top or flamboyant fashion. It needs to be seen to be believed, because no one has quite ever acted like this.

And it turns out that this bizarre performance may be the least interesting thing about him.

Breckinridge’s family comes from pretty well known stock: his one great-grandfather was the 14th Vice President, John C. Breckinridge. He later became a senator and was expelled after he joined the confederacy, ultimately becoming the Confederate Secretary of War. His other great grandfather was Lloyd Trevis, one of the first presidents of Wells Fargo.

Born in Paris, Bunny Breckinridge married into French royalty in 1927. The couple had one child before divorcing in 1929. After this brief marriage, he lived the rest of his life openly gay. Throughout the late 1920s and 30s, he began performing in Paris reviews, often as a popular drag star and sometimes doing Shakespeare. According to his biography (of which there are two volumes), it was around this time he started becoming known as a prominent and impeccably dressed socialite in society columns.

Breckinridge inherited part of a San Francisco hotel and moved to the United States by the end of the 1930s. From all accounts, it seems he became famous just for being famous–attending parties and continuing to be a socialite. He appeared in the society columns of several notable names, and was referred to by the San Francisco Chronicle as “the perfumed, bejeweled, Honey Bunny Boo.”

In his biography, he makes sure to note all the famous Hollywood people he associated with, many of these stories of questionable veracity. According to Bunny, George Cukor wanted him to replace Leslie Howard in an upcoming film and offered him a screen test. He claims that Cukor told him he was too good for the part, and suggested that Cukor was trying to hit on him. Breckinridge maintained that he was better looking than Howard. And as for the claim that he was too good for the role, it should be noted that Ed Wood is the only person who ever put him in a film.

Here are a few other tall tales Bunny Breckinridge told his biographer:

  • Queen Elizabeth stopped to visit in him in the United States. They drank tea and ate scones for hours.
  • He knew several presidents.
  • Betty Ford told him that she couldn’t introduce her sons to him because they would fall in love.

Citation needed, to say the least.

These obvious falsehoods aside, he did become more famous for various stories throughout the 1950s. In 1954, Breckinridge gained some press for announcing his plans to complete transition surgery and then marry his male secretary. Legal issues prevented his trip. A court case began, which ruled he was required to pay his mother support–apparently the result of a promise once made to her. Breckinridge abandoned surgery attempts after a car accident. This part of his life led to his name being the inspiration for Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge.

His involvement in Plan 9 from Outer Space come from his living arrangements at the time. He was living regular Ed Wood actor Paul Marco and David Demering. Demering would be cast as the horrifically wooden co-pilot, and Ed Wood capitalized on stumbling on someone with stage experience by casting Breckinridge as the alien ruler.

And then there were his 50s legal troubles. First came a dropped charge of vagrancy, which was likely the common occurrence of arresting someone for being gay. Much worse was the 1959 arrest and conviction on ten counts of sex perversion. His obituary charitably says that he took “to Las Vegas two young boys who had been left in his care.” Well, that’s one way to put it. He served in a year in a sanitarium before being released.

Though he lived through part of the 1990s, there’s not a lot of details about his later life. He seems to have continued to perform in theater and let his home be used for any hippies who needed a place to stay. Despite his assertion that he was better looking than Leslie Howard, he never appeared in another movie.

His obituary did at least get one part right about Bunny: “an eccentric and troubled San Francisco millionaire who entertained grandly.”

Gloria Swanson: Comedian

Gloria Swanson, a remarkable star of both the silent and sound era, achieved a special kind of film immortality: a timeless role that everyone knows. Even if you couldn’t pick her out of a lineup, you’ve probably seen her say “I’m ready for my close up.” You might even know her saying “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” It’s this performance in Sunset Boulevard that elevated her into a level of pop culture known beyond the classic film world.

Of course, those who know classic films know that her career is much more than that. A top actor of the era, Swanson was nominated for Academy Awards in the first two years of the awards: Sadie Thompson (1928) and The Trespasser (1929). Her career as top dramatic actress is long and impressive. And if you dig a little deepr into her films, you’ll out something else too.

Gloria Swanson was really funny.

Over the past year, I’ve seen more of Gloria Swanson’s comedic work have been blown away. At the height of her career, Swanson sprinkled in some romantic comedy work that shows she could do any kind of comedy needed. From broad slapstick, to subtle facial expressions, to all sorts of hijinks, it was all in Gloria Swanon’s skill set. There’s a glimpse of her skills in Sunset Boulevard itself, when she performs an imitation of Charlie Chaplin. She actually performed this same imitation in one of her silent films, although the copy of the film I saw was missing this scene.

It should be no surprise that Gloria Swanson had comedic chops. Her whole career actually started in comedy. Before working in dramas in the late 1910s, Swanson did comedy work for both Essanay and Keystone. After just a few films at Essanay, she settled in to starring in a series of two reelers with Bobby Vernon at Keystone. The most famous and widely available one of these is Teddy at the Throttle (1917), a parody of the stage trope of a damsel in distress and tied to the railroad tracks (which isn’t a thing that ever actually happened in serious silent films). The title character Teddy was a famous leading dog of the era, and Swanson shared the screen with him on other occasions as well.

By 1918, Swanson was already in features and mixing in serious and comedic work. Her films with Cecil B. DeMille were a wide mix, and gave her comedic roles. She followed with a series of films directed by Sam Wood, typically dramas. Her next frequent collaborator brought her back into comedy, and those are the films I really fell in love with: the ones directed by Allan Dwan.

Swanson and Dwan made eight films in all, an eclectic mix of comedies and dramas. My favorite of these is Stage Struck (1926), a delightful romantic comedy where Swanson is all kinds of charming. The film opens (and closes) with a gorgeous Technicolor scene, showing an actress in all of her splendor . . .

But it’s just a fantasy, as her character just works in a restaurant and dreams of the actress life.

She does it all throughout this. In the opening scenes as a waitress, her antics cause an entire crowd to watch her from the window. There’s a great gag where she balances a series of plates on her back. As the film goes on, she works in a wide variety of different comedy: there’s a solid slapstick boxing match, and she spends a lot of time making dramatic faces in an attempt to learn how to act. This is just a sweet and funny film, and the Technicolor is an excellent added bonus.

Manhandled is another Swanson and Dwan collaboration that let’s Swanson’s comedic skills shine through. It opens with her taking a disastrous subway ride, packed like sardines and getting bumped around with the huge crowd. Anyone who has ever been on public transportation can relate to her plight. She spends a lot of the film in various disguises, which is plenty of fun as well.

Even some of their less comedic films have bits of comedy. Zaza contains a bit of melodrama, Swanson’s character is so over the top that it leads to some amusing moments. There’s a chaotic fight scene between her and Mary Thurman, and there’s something amusing about her totally bonkers outfits.

If you only know Gloria Swanson from Sunset Boulevard or her dramas, try out some of her comedic work. Much of it is readily available, and you can’t go wrong with the Kino releases of Stage Struck and Manhandled. As you’ll find out, she was ready for her closeup no matter what kind of film she was in.

Mobsters, Thieves and Actresses: My Top Ten Film Discoveries of 2020

It’s no secret that 2020 wasn’t the greatest of years. With nothing else to do, I ended up watching a lot more movies than ever before. In fact, if you look at my Letterboxd profile you can pinpoint the exact moment I stopped having a life in 2020.

And in a year where everything was awful, I’m grateful all the movies I got to watch this year. The distraction was certainly needed. Attending the TCM Film Festival didn’t happen, but the virtual event made for a fun time. TCM’s Summer Under the Stars gave me several days with tons of movies to watch. I got to share movies with people from a distance, and blu-ray sales were a godsend.

With all that said, it made the arbitrary task of picking my favorite first time watches of the year even harder. I leaned a little more into comedies this year, and who could blame me for that? Without further ado, here’s the list of my favorite first time watches of 2020, presented in chronological order. Here’s hoping at some point this year we get out of the house and do something else.

Our Hospitality (1923)

Naturally, I love just about everything Buster Keaton did. Maybe not How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, but that wasn’t really his fault. What I didn’t expect about Our Hospitality were the non-comedic parts as well. It opens with a completely straight scene setting up the drama of a family feud. There’s also moments of genuine suspense in it later on as well: Keaton gets in a situation where he may be killed the moment he leaves the house. On top of all that, it’s just plain funny and features an amazing high wire finale.

Stage Struck (1925)

I’m always blown away by how good of a comedian Gloria Swanson was. This is another prime example of her comedy chops. Here she gets some time with slapstick and also big broad comedy. Her character attempts to become an actress, giving her a chance to ham it up as she does line readings. On top of that, it’s a gorgeous film. It opens and closes with luscious early Technicolor, and boy do I love me some two-strip Technicolor. But then again, who doesn’t?

Arsene Lupin (1932)

What a delightful film in so many ways. John and Lionel Barrymore going at is worth the price of admission alone. John Barrymore was born to play cunning, charming criminals and he is just oozing charisma in this role. Lionel is lots of fun as the cop who is never quite ready to catch him. And then there’s some wild precode action to boot. John Barrymore and Karen Morley are hot enough to start a fire. I’m used to seeing precode action, but the level of risqué here even took me by surprise. Not that I’m complaining.

His Girl Friday (1940)

This is the winner of the “how did I not see this until now?” award. At least I’ve seen it now, so please don’t take away my classic film fan card. Everyone here is a joy, especially Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. It’s a whirlwind of fast-paced, clever dialogue that you can’t get enough of. And it’s a good thing, because the sharp dialogue never runs out.

Strawberry Blonde (1941)

Talk about a perfect cast: James Cagney, Olivia de Havilland, Rita Hayworth, Jack Carson, Alan Hale, Una O’Connor. Everyone is pitch perfect, from de Havilland being so much fun, Cagney all fired up, and Carson being totally sleazy. I had seen a later adaptation of this that fell totally flat. This one, though is magic from beginning to end.

The Secret Fury (1950)

This is ten pounds of crazy in a five pound bag. If you haven’t seen The Secret Fury, I don’t dare give any details away. For this one, you want to go in totally blind and face all the surprises. The setup: Claudette Colbert is about to get married when someone announces that she’s already married. She has no memory of it, but everyone says it’s true. From there, the crazy never lets up.

Room for One More (1952)

This is the sweetest, sappiest thing I’ve seen in a long time. It is so cheesy, wholesome and sentimental. And I loved every minute of it. 2020 was a year I became overly emotional at sentimental films, and this is definitely one of them. A touching, lovely story of raising a family and dealing the challenges of fostering children. Everyone is just so lovable and sweet. If this doesn’t put a smile on your face, nothing will.

What’s Up, Doc? (1972)

This was such a fun surprise. What’s Up, Doc? is everything I love about a screwball comedy, transported right into the 1970s. Great performances all around, and it’s got all the wacky hijinks and miscommunication you could want. It’s even got a big chase climax that feels like it comes out of a silent comedy. One of the best comedies I’ve seen in a long time.

The Irishman (2019)

What is a modern film doing on this list?! Amazingly, I do watch some occasionally. And if there was ever a year where there was time to watch a three hour movie, it was this one. This was a totally immersive film experience, sucking me in to tale as it gets told over the period of decades. It struck me as a mature gangster film, touching on old age the way these type of films usually don’t. And across the board, so many fantastic performances.

Parasite (2019)

It’s a miracle! Another modern film made the list. Parasite took me on a wild and crazy ride that almost defies genre. It’s funny, suspenseful and even has a couple creepy moments in there too. This is another movie where I’m grateful I went in totally blind: the less you know about the direction this story goes in, the better. Everyone gave this the praise it deserved long ago, and winning Best Picture was probably the last good thing to happen in 2020.