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5 surprises about the Turner Classic Movie Film Festival

With more than 80 films shown during the recent four-day Turner Classic Movie Festival in Hollywood, there are at least double that many things to discuss.

My favorite films and moments were not only all surprising to me, but they even taught me something about myself as a film fan.

I'm not just a drama queen. As a fan of dramatic movies, I was admittedly disappointed when TCM announced the theme of the 2017 fest was comedy. So I was surprised that two favorite festival memories - both with actor Fred Willard - had me laughing so hard my side hurt. Introducing the Danny Kaye comedy "The Court Jester," Willard had the audiences in stitches with his impromptu recitation of the movie's infamous rhyming sequence "The pellet with the poison's in the flagon with the dragon. The vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true."

Later, Willard joined cast mates from "Best in Show" (Bob Balaban, John Michael Higgins and Jim Piddock) to introduce the dog show mockumentary. Their behind-the-scenes insight - especially that nearly the entire film was improvised – gave us new eyes to watch the film. That they took advantage of Balaban's laryngitis (he "answered" questions with a notepad), made it even more comically memorable. Who knew laughing was so much fun?

Actors John Michael Higgins, left, Fred Willard, Bob Balaban and Jim Piddock amused the crowd with memories of making "Best in Show" at the 2017 Turner Classic Movie Festival. (Getty Images for TCM)

But I am forever a sci-fi geek. One of my favorite "movies" was merely a clip from "S.O.S. Tidal Wave" (1939), shown as part of "Republic Preserved."

The energetic presentation by Andrea Kalas of Paramount Pictures Archives included clips from restored Republic movies like "S.O.S.," a film about a corrupt politician and a flood of Biblical proportion ready to engulf New York City. The water disaster scenes were entertaining even if the buildings were clearly miniatures. I was having a blast and so was the entire audience - we broke into a loud, spontaneous applause at the end of the clip.

Blown-away by big-screen Technicolor. My two favorite festival movies were musical comedies, not a genre usually at the top of my list. But "The Court Jester" and "Bye Bye Birdie" also were both in Technicolor and looked stunning.

Danny Kaye, left, and Basil Rathbone star in the colorful musical comedy "The Court Jester."

Adding to the experience was the fact we were watching the world premiere restoration of "The Court Jester" (a film also shot in fabulous VistaVision) and it was remarkable. The colors were breathtakingly vivid and popped off the screen to match the energy of the slapstick comedy.

The cheerful colors of "Bye Bye Birdie" – the bright pinks, yellows and blues of the 1960s wardrobe, plus Ann-Margret's luxurious red hair – were amplified. And that infamous opening and closing of her singing the title song against the deep blue backdrop is still vividly spellbinding 50 years after the film's release.

The best moments of a film festival aren't always the movies - or even on the schedule. Plan your festival schedule all you want, but be prepared for surprises. Just hours before the nitrate screening of "The Man Who Knew Too Much," a text alerted festivalgoers that Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese would introduce the film. Scorsese, whose work with film preservation and restoration is well documented, received a standing ovation. If it wasn't enough to be in the same room with the brilliant Scorsese, hearing him discuss the "glow" of nitrate movies was sublime.

Among the many films Danny Miller, left, and actress Barbara Rush discussed was "It Came From Outer Space." (Photo by Toni Ruberto)

The day before the festival opened, Barbara Rush appeared at a gathering of the Going to the TCMFF Facebook group poolside at the historic Roosevelt Hotel. The 90-year-old actress enchanted us with her frank and humorous Hollywood memories throughout an interview by Danny Miller, who brought a stack of vintage photos of Rush. Rush stayed long after she needed to leave to meet everyone.

Also in attendance was former child star Cora Sue Collins who had previously met the group and had such a good time she wanted to stop by this year and say hi.

The popular Larry Edmonds Bookshop on Hollywood Boulevard hosted a book signing with actress Tippi Hedren. She took so much time speaking with each fan that her handlers asked her to move things along. Hedren did, but still made sure she spoke to everyone. When I told her "Marnie" was my favorite film even though I didn't understand it as a kid, she smiled, softly laughed and said "good," adding that I was too young to understand it.

Let the families share their stories. As we continue to lose Hollywood stars at a sadly accelerating pace, their children and grandchildren have become their voices. Would we ever think that Boris Karloff was "a gentle man who gardened and loved animals" and that he enjoyed "spoofing his own movie-maniac persona"? I doubt it, but that's how Sara Karloff remembered her dad, introducing his 1947 noir film "Lured."

Sara Karloff shared childhood memories about her father at the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival. (Photo by Tracy Snyder.)

At nearly the same time Karloff was introducing "Lured," Kate MacMurray was in another theater for her father, Fred's, comedy "The Egg and I." And though she unfortunately did not do an official presentation, Monika Henreid, daughter of Paul, met fans throughout the festival and answered questions about her dad. The fact that she wasn't asked to speak at the festival's screening of "Casablanca" was a missed opportunity.

My one wish for future TCMFF's is that we hear from more of these family members, like Henreid, who are our link to the past.

What I saw at TCMFF

Here, in alphabetical order, are the movies I watched during the 2017 festival.

"Bye Bye Birdie" (1963). The Technicolor was amazing. Ann-Margret was larger-than-life. I still can't get the song "Got A Lot of Livin' to Do" out of my head.

"Black Narcissus" (1947). It's a treat to see anything from The Archers – Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger – on the big screen. This movie, in particular, is hypnotically beautiful and creepy at the same time. That it was a nitrate print made it one of the must-see movies of the festival so I was in line more than two hours early.

"The Court Jester" (1955). This was so much fun. Shown in Technicolor and VistaVision, it was a joyous experience. I can boast I was at a world premiere restoration and that I finally saw the great Angela Lansbury on the big screen.

Dana Andrews plays a detective who falls in love with the portrait of a dead woman in "Laura."

"Laura" (1944). This noir romance was a double treat. I got to see one of my favorite films on the big screen and in a nitrate print. I never fail to fall in love all over again with this movie (and Dana Andrews) every time I see it.

"Love Crazy" (1934). What a fun film to start off my TCMFF experience. William Powell and Myrna Loy were hilarious in this screwball comedy about a case of mistaken infidelity. It was the 10th of the 14 films they made together.

"Lured" (1947). This noir drama was proof that Lucille Ball was truly one of the most stunningly beautiful actresses in Hollywood.

"The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1934). My first nitrate experience was of this early Alfred Hitchcock film, which he colorfully remade in 1956. It was extra special since the print came from Rochester's George Eastman Museum. (It was donated by Danny Selznick, from the collection of his dad, Hollywood mogul David O. Selznik.)

"Rafter Romance" (1933). I needed to see this comedy about two strangers sharing an apartment for three reasons: It starred a very young Ginger Rogers; it was a pre-Code film; and it was a rare screening of a film that had been locked away for decades. It was lightweight, but I'm glad I saw it.

Jean Harlow goes after her man, played by Chester Morris, in "Red-Headed Woman."

"Red-Headed Woman" (1932). This bawdy pre-Code film starred Jean Harlow in her prime as a woman who would go to extremes time and time and time again to get her man.

"Republic Preserved." This actually was two blocks of clips of films from Republic Pictures – the studio that made a name for itself with cliffhangers and serials. It was educational - and a blast.

"Speedy." My final film of the festival was this silent Harold Lloyd comedy with live musical accompaniment from the Alloy Orchestra, which actually is a trio.


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