Turner Classic Movies Film Festival: Part Two (2021)

The second part of highlights from this year’s TCM (virtual) Film Festival, this time focusing on ‘Classics Curated By TCM’ available to stream via HBO MAX.

It’s worth noting that I have no idea how long these will be available to stream. If I had to guess, I’d say they’ll be available until May 11th.

Full ‘Classics Curated By TCM’ HBO MAX lineup: https://filmfestival.tcm.com/on-hbomax/films-a-z/

BALL OF FIRE (1941): A lesser known Howard Hawks screwball classic, featuring Gary Cooper as a stodgy professor and Barbara Stanwyck as a nightclub singer in trouble with both the police and the mob. It’s classic TCM fare in that it airs rather regularly and I find it endless re-watchable. (If you don’t have HBO MAX, it’s also available via kanopy.)

THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION (1981): Directed by Penelope Spheeris (BLACK SHEEP, WAYNE’S WORLD) not only is THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION a great music doc about the Los Angeles punk scene of the late 70s/early 80s — including Black Flag, X, and Fear — but also a brilliant doc in general, one which resulted in two more iterations that are also worth your time.

HARLAN COUNTY USA (1976): Director Barbara Kopple’s in-depth look at striking Kentucky coal minors. It’s a classic, an important piece of American history. (I’ll note that it does run regularly on TCM and Criterion’s streaming service.)

THE MELIES MYSTERY (2020): A doc detailing the restoration of over half of silent film auteur Georges Méliès. I haven’t seen it, but can’t help but imagine any self-respecting film nerd wouldn’t want to watch it.

THE NAKED CITY (1948): Previously recommended! (Also, it’s easily available on any non-TCM fest day.)

SCARECROW (1973): This Jerry Schatzberg film is completely new to me — I’ve only see THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK — but it features Gene Hackman and Al Pacino as two misfits trekking across the U.S., so I doubt it’ll completely waste my time.

SO THIS IS PARIS (1926): Lubitch directed more than several handfuls of silent films before helming talkies such as NINOTCHKA and DESIGN FOR LIVING. While I’ve never seen it — I’m largely unfamiliar with Lubitch’s silent work — it’s a new restoration, heavily features folks dancing the Charleston, and Myrna Loy makes an appearance.

THE THIN MAN (1934): Previously recommended! (That said, if you’re pressed for time, it’s easy enough to watch any old day.)

TO SLEEP WITH ANGER (1990): Charles Burnett (whose first film is the the fantastic KILLER OF SHEEP) weaves this tale of an old acquaintance (Danny Glover) who pops back up in a family’s life and slyly disrupts them. It’s a remarkably surreal but grounded film, chock full of great little scenes, performances, and intriguing tracking work.

I hope some of you can catch these while you can, and that the next TCM Fest has both virtual and physical screenings!


(YouTube/DVD) THEODORA GOES WILD is a screwball comedy that not only features winsome repartee between leads Irene Dunne and Melvyn Douglas, but is also about liberating men and women from cultural shackles.

Dunne is Theodora Lynn, a Sunday school teacher by day, but racy, explicit romance author by night. No one but her publisher knows about her writerly habits, at least until Michael Grant (Douglas) the progressive cover artist of her book, discovers her secret and finds himself hellbent to convince her to come clean and live an open life, one where she be proud of her achievements and can actually spend her well-earned novel money. Consequently, he shows up in Theodora’s small town and weasels his way into her life posing as a gardener, and antics ensue.

It’s a tightly scripted, rollickingly good time from director Richard Boleslawski, based on a story from Mary McCarthy (who certainly pitched it as a story she wanted to see on screen). Yes, there’s some dated content, but it has aged remarkably well.


(VOD/Every other week on TCM) THE THIN MAN is based on the Dashiell Hammett detective novel of the same name but, while the pre-code film adaptation retains the same narrative bones as the book, it backgrounds the murder mystery in favor of the boozy, flirty interplay between spouses Nick & Nora Charles, resulting in one of most winsome on-screen couples.

Like the book, Nora (Myrna Loy) is a rich socialite, and Nick (William Powell) is a man who gave up his detective badge to marry her, and they have a dog in lieu of children. They spend their copious recreational time running around night clubs, garnering hanger-ons and hangovers, making each other laugh with witty banter and, in general, having one good time after another, at least until Nick gets roped into investigating a murder. What makes them such a great on-screen couple is that, yes, Nick is the investigator, but Nora is often the instigator, has just as much insight and deductive powers as Nick, she takes no shit, and Nick is always willing to indulge her. They both push-and-pull each other with an endless amount of quips and gazes, and love each other for doing so.

While it’s always worth watching Loy & Powell together, what really makes the film resonate is the sparkling script penned by married couple Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who had an amazing tandem career both as playwrights (they won a Pulitzer for their stageplay of THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK) and screenwriters (they also worked on FATHER OF THE BRIDE, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, and SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS). They were not shy about admitting that they poured much of their relationship into the screenplay, and it shows, as they feel like a real forever-love couple — doting, a bit combative, occasionally prickly, always respectful — but never in a cloying way. It’s a delightful watch, a film I never tire of.

  • If you’re interested in reading more about Goodrich & Hackett, I suggest the combined biography of the two in THE REAL NICK AND NORA by David L. Goodrich.


(DVD) I love adaptations. Give me an adaptation of a work I’ve previously seen or read, and I’ll always glean something interesting from it. Consequently, I was curious about Billy Wilder’s THE FRONT PAGE, which has its roots in the 1928 stage play of the same name about a Chicago newspaper writer trying to escape the business and get married and the boss who tries to thwart him, all under the umbrella of a hanging. THE FRONT PAGE became a reasonably successful film in 1931, but then Howard Hawks and Charles Lederer gender-swapped newspaper writer Hildy Johnson, threw away half of the script and let the cast riff, and created the classic screwball rom-com HIS GIRL FRIDAY.

Wilder’s FRONT PAGE is a glossier, overtly bluer, more expansive Cinemascope version of the original 1931 film — as you can immediately tell from the gorgeously crafted title sequence https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jwuo9NjflGs — and that is not a compliment. The tightly-wound anarchic feeling of both the original FRONT PAGE and HIS GIRL FRIDAY is what made them feel vibrant, and that’s missing from this production due to its over-produced adherence to the initial film.

While there are a few grander comedic moments and set-pieces, Wilder’s version often feels hum-drum and sluggish, completely antithetical to what one should expect from a FRONT PAGE adaptation. However, it includes one notable bit of interplay between boss Walter Matheu and writer/Wilder regular Jack Lemmon: Lemmon says ‘Cigarette me!’ and Matthau obliges by popping a cigarette into his own mouth and lighting it for his favored employee. He then slips it into Lemmon’s mouth, all while Susan Sarandon — Lemmon’s fiancée — watches. It’s is a cute Hays Code callback back to when swapping cigarettes was shorthand for fucking, but it doesn’t resonate nearly as much as Wilder thinks it does.

While I wish Wilder had extended himself further, he’s never wasted my time. Sure, it’s the lesser of the three major versions, but it has its moments and worth a watch if you’re into scrutinizing the machinations of adaptations.

THE FRONT PAGE’s (1931) opening scene:


THE FRONT PAGE (1974) trailer:


(VOD) Feels like Neil Simon’s THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, but slightly more insufferable. As a screwball comedy it ultimately works, partially due to some damn fine quips, but mostly due to Goldie Hawn’s ebullience. Chase’s smugness is extraordinarily suffocating at first, but that gets worn away roughly halfway through the film. Not a great movie — allegedly Simon doesn’t even remember writing the screenplay — but it’s a breezy fun time.