TCM Festival 2024: The ‘Coachella of Classic Movies’ rides again in Hollywood

LOS ANGELES — As a film historian/critic, Turner Classic Movies is my favorite TV channel, and I eagerly look forward to its annual film festival featuring screenings, celebrities, panels and parties devoted to vintage films in—where else?—Hollywood. This year, the TCM Classic Film Festival turned 15 years old with the central theme: “Most Wanted: Crime and Justice in Film.” Appropriate, because I’ve been the victim of a cultural crime perpetrated by my cable TV provider, Spectrum/Charter, which since last September has failed to adequately provide me with proper service and unobstructed viewing access to TCM. Every two minutes or so, the image on the screen freezes and there’s no sound, rendering it impossible to simply watch movies without constant disruption. I’ve made innumerable complaints to Spectrum/Charter, and company repairmen have told me the problem afflicts others in my area. Of course, Spectrum/Charter’s bill never fails to arrive on time. Despite my requests, not only has Spectrum/Charter failed to fix this tech problem but has refused to compensate me (to date) for eight months of poor service, making it impossible to watch classic movies on my favorite channel.

So this year I looked forward to the April 18-21 TCM Classic Film Festival more than ever. At least I’d be able to enjoy TCM for four days without interruption, and as usual, I wasn’t disappointed. After picking up my press pass, I squeezed into Club TCM, which converts the Blossom Room at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel—site of the very first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929—where Festival panels and receptions take place. There, Bruce Goldstein, founder and co-president of Rialto Pictures and Founding Repertory Artistic Director of New York’s Film Forum, hosted “So You Think You Know Movies.” As part of this cinematic trivial pursuit game, clips featuring George Chakiris appearances as an uncredited extra in scenes from 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with Marilyn Monroe, 1954’s Brigadoon, etc., were screened. To the audience’s delight, Chakiris, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for portraying Bernardo in 1961’s West Side Story, became the first of many screen notables to make a personal appearance at the star-studded event which celebrated the 30th anniversary of TCM’s going on the air in 1994.

The biggest conundrum at the Festival is deciding which of up to six events being presented concurrently to attend. See 1985’s Clue poolside under the stars at the Roosevelt or cross Hollywood Blvd. to see the 2024 documentary Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger, directed by David Hinton, at the Chinese Multiplex. I opted for the edifying over escapist entertainment, and I am glad I did. The doc’s British co-producers Nick Varley and Matthew Wells introduced this 131-minute nonfiction look at the talents behind often idiosyncratic English pictures, such as Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948).

Intriguingly, Made In England is as much about Martin Scorsese as it was about Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who  (particularly Powell) professionally and personally influenced the Italian-American auteur. The documentary unfolded details about the careers and private lives of the duo who gave the world The Archers film company, and it left me wanting to see more of their work, especially 1946’s A Matter of Life and Death starring David Niven and Kim Hunter. Interestingly, in his commentary Scorsese seems to warn viewers from being obsessively fixated on reel life, as opposed to real life, to focus on one’s lived experience offscreen and on reality with flesh and blood people, not focusing on filmic phantoms and celluloid spirits. Scorsese sounds like he’s advising cinephiles that there’s more to life than going to and making movies. Who knew? (An apropos message for TCM audiences, who applaud like crazy during credit sequences.)

One of the great things about the TCM Classic Film Festival is that it introduces pictures to rank-and-file film fans, or even historians/critics, that we have never heard of before. A case in point is George Cukor’s 1954 It Should Happen to You, revived to celebrate Columbia’s 100th birthday and the movie’s 70th anniversary. TCM host Alicia Malone and SNL alum Julia Sweeney introduced this charming rom-com, the big screen debut of two-time Oscar winner Jack Lemmon. Interestingly, he portrays a documentarian opposite a beguiling, effervescent Judy Holliday.

Her Gladys Glover character is a sort of forerunner of Angelyne, Hollywood’s busty billboard queen. A girdle model from a small town in Upstate New York, Gladys is disappointed that she’s failed to attain fame in Manhattan, and is just another anonymous face lost in the crowd. This movie morality tale, which also co-stars Peter Lawford as a pre-Mad Men Madison Avenue advertising agency hot shot, poses a thought-provoking question, especially for today’s celebrity-obsessed culture. Written by Garson Kanin, this film fable asks what’s more important: Being famous or being in love? Hilarity ensues.

Matthew Wells’s 2023 documentary Frank Capra: Mr. America, about the man who may be Columbia’s most influential director, was also screened to commemorate its centennial. Wells and academic/author/film historian Jeanine Basinger—who received this year’s Robert Osborne Award named after TCM’s late host—introduced the Capra biopic. The nonfiction film followed Capra’s life as a Sicilian immigrant who, Horatio Alger-like, rose from humble circumstances to achieve the American Dream. Capra became one of the Golden Age of Hollywood’s titans, directing a string of hits during the Depression and New Deal era, then a series of Why We Fight documentaries intended to persuade audiences to support the war effort during WWII. With movies like 1936’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, 1939’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and 1941’s Meet John Doe, Capra seemed to extoll the virtues of the little guy in populist pictures lauding democracy, while his Second World War docs embodied anti-fascism. Thanks to his optimistic, upbeat take on Americanism and life in general, he became one of the few directors to inspire an adjective: “Capraesque.” (In a similar vein, “Hitchockian” refers to something suspenseful.)

Much of this is familiar territory, but I wasn’t prepared for the apparently scurrilous role Capra played during the Hollywood Blacklist. If I understood correctly, according to the documentary, when Capra was reproached decades later, as the Red Scare raged, for having creatively collaborated with leftwing screenwriters, Capra claimed that he did not know they were leftists. Although the doc doesn’t specifically mention him, these scribes include Sidney Buchman, who was a dues-paying member of the Communist Party USA, including in all likelihood when he co-wrote Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. (During the Blacklist, Congress finally had the chance to exact revenge upon Buchman for cowriting that paean to democracy.) Onscreen, the great film historian Joseph McBride alleges that Capra made “anti-Semitic” and “racist” comments. American Studies Professor Eric Smoodin goes on to compare Capra to director Elia Kazan, who was widely considered to be “the quintessential informer.”

Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg both squealed on Hollywood progressives to the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early 1950s, which enabled these “friendly witnesses” to continue working (while blacklisted “unfriendly” talents were banned from making movies). To justify their informing, Kazan and Schulberg made a movie that lauded betrayal and snitching. That picture, 1954’s multiple Oscar-winning On the Waterfront, starring Marlon Brando as a “heroic” stool pigeon, was screened April 20 at the TCL Chinese Theatre IMAX. Kazan and Schulberg weren’t “contenders” – they were just informers, “bums” who named names to HUAC.

The “Woodstock of Classic Movies”: Vintage films and stars galore

The TCM Classic Film Festival annually presents primo pictures from yesteryear along with panels and talents linked to those movies at venues in Hollywood. TCM’s 2024 film fête included personal appearances by John Travolta, Steven Spielberg, Mel Brooks, Tim Robbins and even highlighted Jodie Foster “cementing” her place in Tinseltown history with a hand and footprint ceremony in the hallowed courtyard of what previously was Grauman’s Chinese Theater (now TCL Chinese Theatre Max).

On April 20 I was on the horns of an existential dilemma: At 2:30 p.m., the “Reflections of the Thin Blue Line: The Police in Movies” panel was scheduled at Club TCM to analyze the portrayal of police onscreen. Panelists included actor/ director Mario Van Peebles, former NYPD officer/private investigator Herman Weisberg, and Dr. Phillip Atiba Solomon, Professor of African American Studies and Psychology at Yale University, co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity.

However, almost at the same time, Donald Bogle, the world’s top authority on the African-American screen image and author of 1973’s groundbreaking Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks and many other books, was to present 1938’s The Mad Miss Manton, co-starring Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck and Hattie McDaniel at the newly restored Egyptian Theatre. Bogle always imparts fascinating wisdom about how Black characters are represented onscreen, so which event should I attend?

Hearing the esteemed Bogle share his incisive insights into the celluloid stereotypes and misrepresentations of African Americans is always an annual highlight at the Festival, which bestowed its prestigious Robert Osborne Award last year on this author and scholar. So, like a movie Moses, I went way down to Egypt’s land—the Egyptian Theatre, my favorite cinema on Earth—and the mind-boggling Bogle didn’t disappoint.

After being introduced by TCM host Jacqueline Stewart, Director/President of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, Bogle discussed The Mad Miss Manton, explaining that during “the 1930s screwball comedies were a staple genre of Hollywood films,” often featuring “mismatched leads. They did away with conventional storylines and were surprising and always delighted.” Screwball comedies emerged during the Depression and often crossed class lines, depicting a world out of kilter as the capitalist system collapsed. The Mad Miss Manton has one of the best cute meets since Harry met Sally: When the bourgeois Melsa Manton (Barbara Stanwyck) first encounters the proletarian Peter Ames (Henry Fonda), Melsa slaps him across the face—and Peter slaps her right back! This being a screwball comedy, that can mean only one thing [Plot Spoiler Alert]: Melsa and Peter will get hitched!

But Bogle’s primary focus of attention was Hattie McDaniel, who portrayed Melsa’s maid, Hilda. The preeminent film historian told the packed (and mostly Caucasian) audience about the background of the first African American to win an Oscar (for Mammy in the 1939 blockbuster Gone with the Wind). McDaniel was “criticized for roles she did not write. Hattie rips those stereotypes apart. She was born to give orders, not to take them.”

Bogle went on to reveal something quite remarkable: “Hattie had zingers. The Breen Office [a motion picture industry self-censorship body that enforced the protocols of a rigid “Production Code”] objected to dialogue that made Hattie too familiar with whites she worked for. Some of the dialogue was cut.”

Early in The Mad Miss Manton, while Melsa throws a party at her swanky Manhattan pad for her debutante gal pals (think Truman Capote’s “Swans,” only younger), the doorbell rings. After a partygoer informs Hilda of this, she snaps: “I hear it. I ain’t deaf. Sometimes I wish I was.” If this is an example of a McDaniel quip that wasn’t deleted, one can only imagine what Breen’s censors forced to be left on the cutting room floor. Offscreen Hattie was famous for saying, “I may play a maid, but it’s better than being a maid.” Servant roles may have been the only ones available to her in racist, apartheid America, but it doesn’t mean that Hattie and her characters liked it.

The dialogue throughout The Mad Miss Manton is full of topical, lefty references, to “revolution,” “communism,” “class,” the Roosevelt administration’s “W.P.A.,” New Deal jobs project, “class conscious,” and the like. I did some cinematic sleuthing and discovered that one of the three screenwriters credited for Manton was Philip G. Epstein, co-writer of the 1942 anti-fascist classic Casablanca and of Frank Capra’s Popular Front Why We Fight documentaries, including 1943’s Oscar-nommed The Battle of Russia. Epstein, who was part of the star-studded Committee for the First Amendment that opposed the Hollywood Blacklist in 1947, was presumably the main source for the left-leaning jargon—and Hattie’s acid-tongued rejoinders to her white “superiors”—in Manton’s jaunty dialogue. During Hollywood’s much-vaunted Golden Age, when non-stereotypical Black characters appeared onscreen, a leftist scribe and/or director is usually found in the credits.

Speaking of class consciousness and African-American roles, on April 21, the filmfest’s final day, I enjoyed 1976’s The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings at the Chinese Multiplex #1. I hadn’t seen this comedy drama about Negro League era baseball players since it was released, and the experience of seeing it again was heightened by a live appearance by the actor who played the title character. Billy Dee Williams was interviewed by a gushing Ben Mankiewicz before the screening, and the actor known for his suave style and good looks revealed himself to be an idiosyncratic, introspective thinker.

In Bingo Long Williams co-stars with the awesome James Earl Jones and a hilarious Richard Pryor as athletes so tired of their exploitation by owners that they decide to “seize the means of production,” as they put it. The players form their own baseball team and the eponymous Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings organize themselves along socialist lines. It is collectively owned by all of the teammates, including the batboy, with the slogan: “Equal pay for equal play.” Jones’s character quotes and reads a book by W.E.B. Du Bois (who, toward the end of his life, joined the Communist Party USA and relocated to newly independent Ghana). One of the really interesting things about Bingo Long is its class-struggle component: The owners the players battle are Black, so economics is at the core of their oppression and fight for liberation, not race.

Another notable thing is that, unlike most Hollywood movies about revolt that end badly for rebels, with their submission to authority, defeat and even death, Bingo Long’s rebellious athletes are champs, not chumps. In the movie, their collective triumph leads to breaking professional sports’ color barrier. This joyous film was directed by John Badham a year before he helmed Saturday Night Fever.

I ended my cinematic sojourn by returning to the Egyptian for a hysterically funny Buster Keaton double bill, featuring 1921’s The Goat and the centennial presentation of his comedic masterpiece, 1924’s Sherlock Jr. The endlessly inventive film pioneer’s sight gags, slapstick and innovative montages continue to delight and enrapture audiences 100 years later. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra enhanced the experience by accompanying Buster’s silent movies with live music.

I suppose Sherlock Jr., wherein a projectionist dreams he’s an ace detective, closed out the TCM Classic Film Festival because Keaton’s comedy fit in with the fest’s central theme, “Most Wanted: Crime and Justice in Film.” As I explained above, Spectrum/Charter has committed a cultural “crime” against me for spoiling transmission of TCM since September. Spectrum/Charter must face justice! I’ve filed an FCC complaint (#6985583) and am seeking an attorney to sue them. Let’s hope I don’t have to wait until 2025’s Classic Film Festival before I can enjoy TCM again.

For more info on the TCM Festival, see here.

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Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.