With the TCM Film Festival in full swing, I made it my mission to see as many “new to me” films as possible throughout the duration of the event. The third day of the festival continued this trend for me, with me continuing to attend films that I was seeing for the first time. Not only was it a fabulous way to learn more about classic films that had gone overlooked by me, but it was also a terrific way to familiarize myself with the different screening venues–with each of them boasting a lengthy history–but to also enjoy the different points of interest up and down Hollywood Boulevard. It was a great deal of fun to see some familiar classic movie fan faces as I took my walk to the screenings, in addition to perusing the collection at Larry Edmund’s Bookshop, stopping into the local eateries, lightly gauging where I was based upon which Walk of Fame star I passed, and more. I decided to enjoy my early start to the day with a Pre-Code screening.
Double Wedding (1937):
My first screening of the day was Double Wedding, held at the Egyptian Theater. The film was introduced by actress, director, writer, and producer Illeana Douglas. Douglas’s grandfather, Melvyn Douglas, was close to one of the stars in the film–Myrna Loy–who Douglas discussed at length. By the 1940s, Loy was nearing the end of the height of her acting career and was focusing more upon the war effort and contributing to the Red Cross. In the 1950s, she became a co-chair for UNESCO. As for William Powell, Douglas said that her grandfather thought he would always get the parts that Powell turned down. At any rate, she did admit that they had similar mustaches.
Douglas shared that this film was difficult for the cast to complete due to the recent passing of Jean Harlow, who was close with both Powell and Loy and was engaged to Powell. After working on a few more films, Powell would retire to Palm Springs for the remainder of his life and continued to be in contact with Loy. Double Wedding stands as a quick-witted comedy featuring Powell at the height of his career and at the height of his pairings with Loy.
Academy Conversations: Tarzan and His Mate (1934):
Having never seen a Tarzan film, I was especially excited to view Tarzan and His Mate and to enjoy the commentary preceding the film. Introducing the film were sound designer Ben Burtt and visual effects artist Craig Barron. Together, they discussed the powerful visual storytelling techniques that helped the plot come alive. Here, they highlighted various savanna and elephant graveyard shots, showing how a simple image could suddenly be made more impressive or expansive.
Similarly, they also discussed the iconic Tarzan yell. “In the generations before me, this yell was an iconic piece of audio,” said Burtt. “My father, us as children–we all knew this sound. Today, most everyone will identify the Tarzan yell created for the first film.” Burtt also demonstrated other yells that followed the Tarzan yell, including Jane’s yell and their boy’s yell. Over the years there were various books that tried to answer the question of how the Tarzan yell came to be. Possible inspirations include the bleat of a camel, the growl of a dog, hyenas laughing, a pluck of a violin, a violin played backwards, a yodeler, an oboe, a clarinet, a cow not milked for days, a soprano singer, or Weissmuller himself. Each of these possibilities was demonstrated for us to judge.
Burtt played a clip of Groucho Marx interviewing Weissmuller in the mid-1950s and asking him to do the famous yell. Initially Weissmuller said he had not done it in years, so Groucho did his own impression, quickly quipping, “If I can do it, you can do it.” Weissmuller proceeded to do his yell which was a good impression and later used in the RKO iterations of the Tarzan films, which were undoubtedly performed by Weissmuller himself. In future interviews, Weissmuller claimed that when trying to do the iconic yell, he would run out of air; really, it was the sound technicians who accomplished the feat of producing the MGM Tarzan yell.
In looking at the sound patterns, Burtt noted that the Tarzan yell was its own mirror image. Essentially the sound was recorded once all the way through and then played backwards following the first recording. “The sound is a palindrome–essentially, it is the same backwards and forwards,” said Burtt.
“If you take the note and reverse it on itself, it sounds just as strong as it did at the start,” said Burtt. While the human yell is certainly a forceful sound, the Tarzan yell also required another source to produce sound in addition to this. “The answer is the clarinet, which makes sense. It was an era that enjoyed jazz music, so I think they used the clarinet. The answer came from Denny Miller, who played one of the latter-day Tarzans back in 1959 and I spoke to him.” According to Miller, one of the sound technicians utilized a woodwind to help create the yell.
The level of expertise that Barron and Burtt brought to the technical aspects of the production was highly informative and added to my enjoyment of the film. I certainly hope that their discussion will one day appear as a special feature on a commercial release of this film.
All About Nora:
The All About Nora presentation was housed at Club TCM and featured a group of panelists with connections to journalist, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and director, Nora Ephron. While Ephron passed away in 2012, her writing and film output has resonated with a wide range of audiences and continues to be celebrated to this day. The individuals who participated in the panel discussion were Ephron’s son, Jacob Bernstein; produced Lauren Shuler Donner; Ephron’s assistant, J.J. Sacha; and actress, singer, songwriter, and producer, Rita Wilson.
Each of the individuals shared stories about their personal or professional connections to Ephron, including discussions of working behind the scenes during some of her most notable films, including When Harry Met Sally (1989), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), You’ve Got Mail (1998), Julie & Julia (2009), and more. Though many of the individuals on the panel emphasized Ephron’s strong focus on her work and problem-solving skills, they also shared that she was phenomenal in directing them through the process of breathing life into the wide array of characters that appeared in her films. Ephron was also remembered for being very generous and having a positive attitude, despite any stresses that would manifest. Moreover, she loved food and was always happy to recommend excellent restaurants to individuals in her orbit who were looking for a fabulous meal.
After many heartfelt memories were shared, the discussion came to a close with a surprise for the audience–a toast to Ephron with a glass of pink champagne. According to the panelists, pink champagne was served at Ephron’s memorial and was one of her favorite drinks. Fittingly, both Love Affair (1939) and An Affair to Remember (1957) feature the main characters drinking pink champagne, decades before Ephron would reimagine the story once again as Sleepless in Seattle. Just as Ephron celebrated love in her works, she was also remembered at TCMFF with love.
Dinner Detour: Musso & Frank Grill:
Between screenings, I took some time to meet up with friends at the historic Musso & Frank Grill. With it being my first time there, I was dead set on two things: seeing Chaplin’s booth (check!) and trying the Fettuccine Alfredo which Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks brought to the United States (check!).
The Fettuccine Alfredo dish was invented by Chef Alfredo di Lelio in 1914 for his then-pregnant wife who had terrible morning sickness. Not only could she stomach it but it was also so delectable that he added it to his restaurant’s menu in Rome.
While honeymooning in Rome in 1920, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford ate at Alfredo’s cafe. They tried the dish, which was then called pasta al burro, and asked for the recipe, which they brought to Musso & Frank Grill. In gratitude, Pickford and Fairbanks sent Alfredo a gold fork and spoon, engraved with the words “To Alfredo, the King of the Noodles.” The restaurant in Rome remains to this day–as does the cutlery.
Samson and Delilah (1950):
The latest showing I attended on Saturday night was a screening of Samson and Delilah, which also happened to have a fascinating discussion prior to the film. When the newly restored King of Jazz (1930) was touring, I was lucky enough to catch several screenings of it in the Chicagoland area in 2016, first viewing it as part of the Chicago International Film Festival. I was working on my second Master’s degree in library and information studies at the time and had interviewed David Pierce of the Media History Digital Library (MHDL) for both my Master’s coursework and in preparation for my Ph.D. Pierce invited me to attend the King of Jazz screening, which was certainly a gem to see on the big screen and as a beautifully-restored iteration of the film, in addition to Pierce being a delight to meet in person.
Both Pierce and the MHDL are fountains of information, and I was delighted to see him on the lineup of presenters preceding the nitrate film at the Egyptian Theater. Pierce is presently the Assistant Chief of the National Audiovisual Conservation Center at the Library of Congress (LOC) and has also authored several books on film preservation. After Pierce’s presentation, author Alan K. Rode interviewed singer and actress Victoria Mature, daughter of the film’s leading male, Victor Mature.
Pierce gave an overview of the National Audiovisual Conservation Center and the LOC, emphasizing that the LOC began to recognize the increasing importance of films in the 1940s. Starting in 1945, they retained nitrate copies of certain films, with the process continuing until 1951 when nitrate essentially ended. As a result, the collection includes sets of original release nitrate prints, representing the films as they were initially released. They also have nitrate prints from later years through private collectors. These prints are often more worn. The version of Samson and Delilah which we were about to see was a copyright deposit nitrate print.
In addition to the screening of the nitrate print, Pierce shared that the restoration process also takes into account the many factors of how the original film was to be experienced. Though the film was screened on nitrate stock, individuals working on the restoration also familiarize themselves with the output of cinematographers, directors, etc., to ensure that the film is as close to the original as possible. “Tonight is definitely the film that Cecil B. DeMille wanted audiences to see,” said Pierce.
At the time of its release, Paramount ordered 400 prints for the U.S. release and another 170 for the foreign release.
“That doesn’t sound like a lot,” said Pierce. “Most magazines were printed in millions of copies. Newspapers were printed in hundreds of thousands of copies but, for motion pictures, there were very few prints. They got a lot of use, wore out, were junked, and motion picture studios were very careful to make sure that all the copies were accounted for and fully destroyed. But they could not destroy the copyright print, which is why we have it today.”
Another reason why the print is important is because it is an original Technicolor print. “In 1949, technology–the photography of this film had a camera which three separate pieces of film went through, sometimes referred to as the three-strip,” said Pierce. “That give the printing process a lot of control over the choice of colors and the color intensity.” Though the Technicolor process was lauded for these reasons, it had one defect. “It wasn’t that sharp,” said Pierce. “Modern restorations of Kodak stock will be razor-sharp but the film you see today–the colors bleed a bit in the original print, which is why it may look a little bit fuzzy to your eyes. But that’s exactly how it looked in 1949.”
Afterwards, Pierce introduced Rode to offer additional context to the film. The late 1940s were a daunting period for Hollywood, with box offices cratering due to the the onslaught of the antitrust investiture of the Big Five studios’ theater chains and the rise of television. The film industry itself was under assault by the House Un-American Activities Committee which politically divided much of the town.
“Amidst these tectonic shifts, Cecil B. DeMille was coming off the 1947 flop of his colonial epic, Unconquered,” said Rode. “I think C.B. should have listened to Jack Warner, who once said, ‘Never make a film where a guy writes with a feather.’ Nonetheless, DeMille–Hollywood’s greatest showman–sought another hit movie in these uncertain times for the movie industry. After making pictures steeped in Americana for over a decade, DeMille returned home to the Bible and a project he had on the back burner since the 1930s.”
After Rode’s discussion, Victoria Mature, daughter of Victor Mature, joined him on the stage for an interview and continued conversation about the film.
“One of the things they referenced and looked at were the Renaissance paintings–the great masters–and their interpretations of Samson and Delilah,” said Mature. “My dad was a beautiful man and looked like the people in those Renaissance paintings and I think that helped him.”
Though Mature was already considered a well-built heartthrob, DeMille hired a personal trainer to work with him for the film. “My dad took good care of himself and he was big and he was muscular but he wasn’t defined enough for what DeMille wanted for the final scenes,” said Mature. When Mature visited the Academy Film Archive and reviewed items in the Paramount collection, she found weekly receipts for the conditioning of her father.
In addition to discussing the film, Mature also offered some more personal stories about her father and his life. She mentioned his time in military school where he would walk the track and eventually wound up meeting his lifelong friend, Jim Backus, there. In fact, Backus remembered Mature in his memoirs and remained close to him throughout his life. “Jim Backus would actually call the house and speak to me as Mr. Magoo,” said Mature.
To this day, Victor Mature is remembered as a fine actor with a distinguished filmography. While this is certainly worth celebrating, it was wonderful to hear Mature speak so fondly of her father and share her own stories and memories regarding him. It is clear that she continues to enthusiastically honor his legacy to this day, while also continuing her own career as a singer and actress.
After a busy day of exciting and memorable presentations and discussions, Saturday came to a close for me, leading to the final full day of the festival.