TCMFF 2016: Field of Dreams

tcmff-2016-bigger-logo-350x200Being a sports fan, I’m a pretty big sucker for a good sports film. Fitting in with this year’s festival theme of “Moving Pictures,” there were several films programmed as part of an “inspirational sports movies” theme. Movies about sports are great because most competitions have a clear distinction between winner and loser, and nothing is inspirational than seeing the little guy or the underdog come in first.

Saturday morning was a tough-choice block for me in that there was a special Vitaphone presentation over at the Egyptian, which was very popular, but it was programmed opposite one of my favorite films, Field of Dreams (dir. Phil Alden Robinson). Out of the sports I personally follow on a regular basis, baseball is right up there with horseracing, and I usually watch Field of Dreams at least once a year. So the chance to see it on the big screen with an audience was too much to resist.Field_of_Dreams_poster

The film is based on a novel by W.P. Kinsella called Shoeless Joe, which was published in 1982. The movie version, released in 1989, stars Kevin Costner as Ray Kinsella, a Berkeley educated ex-hippie-turned-farmer living in Iowa with his wife Annie (Amy Madigan) and their young daughter, Karin (Gaby Hoffman). Ray details his childhood growing up with his single father, John (Dwier Brown), a difficult relationship held together by a mutual love of baseball. While working out in the cornfields, Ray hears a mysterious voice that announces, “If you build it, he will come,” while showing him the vision of a baseball diamond laid out in the corn. With Annie’s blessing, Ray plows under a section of his crop to build the playing field, all the while regaling Karin with the history of the 1919 Black Sox and their start player, Shoeless Joe Jackson.

With the entire town thinking he’s lost his mind, and facing a financial crisis due to the lack of crop production from the loss of acreage taken up by the field, Ray starts to fall into debt on the farm. After months of nothing, Karin notices a lone figure walking around the field one night. Ray recognized the man as a young Shoeless Joe, and the two exchange batting practice. Shoeless Joe marvels at the field, and asks if he can bring others with him when he returns.

The rest of the film serves as a kind of mythical journey as Ray is prompted by the voice to cross the country and seek out reclusive writer Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) and later a little-known player named Archibald “Moonlight” Graham (Burt Lancaster), who only played in one major league game before retiring to serve as a family doctor in small-town Minnesota. Both have unfinished business to accomplish at the baseball diamond in Ray’s cornfield, and in turn, Ray and his family are able to work through their struggles and lost dreams.

41f032285292d3b477e5cb9c3360aabeI’m at heart a helpless romantic, and probably a bit of an old soul (at least this is what people tell me all the time with my tastes in everything from movies, sports and music). There is something very romantic about the game of baseball, and perhaps that’s why it seems to translate so well on film. Any fan of the game knows the feeling: you walk through those turnstiles at the stadium and are immediately hit with the smell of hot dogs, popcorn, and fresh cut grass, the sound of the ball hitting that sweet spot of the bat- and you understand that these elements of the game have stayed the same since the beginning. It it is this fundamental feeling that Field of Dreams captures, for the game can be played in grand old stadiums like Fenway Park, or a field carved into the crops of an Iowa farm. Although the film celebrates baseball, it also speaks to the bonds of family, and especially those of father and son, and father and daughter. Ray is driven to take a leap of faith because he fears he will turn out like his father, and in the end, it’s this gamble that allows him to build a future with his family while finally reconnecting with the man he had bitterly severed ties with before.

Although the audience for this screening was fairly light, I noticed many fathers who had brought their children with them to see the film. And like I do every time I see this movie, I had tears streaming down my face continuously for about the last half an hour. There are several very moving sequences and performances to me in this film. One concerns Burt Lancaster, perfectly cast as the elderly Moonlight Graham. Graham has lived a fulfilling life as a small town doctor, happily married to wife Alicia, whom he talks about fondly. As someone who during the peak of his acting career I associate with an almost relentlessly intense presence onscreen, it is somewhat fitting to see Lancaster in his final film role as the kindly Graham, appearing and departing into the mist.  I get chills when James Earl Jones’ Terence Mann recites the now famous speech to Ray about how the “people will come” to see baseball played at their field, that “this field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.”

field-of-dreamsLastly, the ending of the film gets everyone, but I won’t spoil it here in case some have yet to see it. I’ll say I wasn’t the only one crying in the theater at 9am on a Saturday morning. TCMFF presented Field of Dreams at the TCL Chinese IMAX Theater in a wonderful-looking DCP presentation. I grew up in Iowa for a few years before moving to Colorado, and I distinctly remember my 6-year-old self vowing to never live there again because there was nothing but corn for miles and it smelled like pigs. I mention this because John Lindley’s beautiful cinematography is a direct rebuttal to my narrow childhood opinions of Iowa, and paints the Kinsella farm as the perfect place for this fantasy to play out, bringing out the simple beauty of its heartland setting. If baseball is “America’s game,” then where better to set this story than the expansive sweep of green cornfields and painted sunsets of the Midwest?

Although this was a “newer” film by many classic film fan’s standards, I was very appreciative of the chance to see this on the big screen, and like many other screenings throughout the festival, it was wonderful to see families sharing classic film experiences with children probably seeing those films for the first time. I think Field of Dreams also captures the essence that I love from so many of the classical Hollywood films in that it’s not afraid to craft a good story, even if it’s totally fantastical. It is a film that on paper sounds like it shouldn’t work, but somehow does, and offers its audience a really magical experience that celebrates family, dreams and the American pastime.

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TCMFF 2016: Day 1 Recap

tcmff-2016-bigger-logo-350x200I think one of the really great things about the TCMFF is that they do offer a little bit of everything for everyone. A good portion of the festival attendees travel from all over the world to Hollywood to be able to enjoy classic films with likeminded folks. Sometimes they come from places with large repertory cinema scenes, and sometimes not. For local Los Angeles residents, who maybe have a chance to see many classic film screenings year-round, the festival still offers first-looks at new restorations and rarely screened films. Everyone defines their idea of “classic” differently, and TCMFF has been able to cater to that as well, offering programming that covers everything from studio-era films up through the early 1990s. Special guests, presentations, and old favorites round out the experience, and that’s not even touching on what an amazing social event that TCMFF has become over the years. That is to say in short, the festival is a truly unique experience that keeps getting better and better each year.

I was (and to an extent still am) the kind of TCMFF-goer who wanted to watch all the “classical Hollywood” films. For me, that was usually pre-1960, and my own festival schedule in years previous has been seeing favorites for the first time on the big screen, or rarely seen pre-Codes and other gems that are so often the most popular movies at the festival. But this year, something strange happened. I only watched two films that were made before 1960.

My first day of movie-watching this year really started on Friday, but my festival experience started on Wednesday with the arrival of friends from out of town. As many others have mentioned, TCMFF has become an annual reunion of sorts, with many of us circling this weekend on the calendar as a chance to reconnect with good friends. I ran into Jessica from Comet Over Hollywood and Angela from The Hollywood Revue on our way over to the Roosevelt Hotel to pick up our press credentials. From there, we joined several other bloggers and friends out at the Roosevelt Pool where the early festival meet-and-greet was wrapping up. There I met up with Jill from The Retro Set and Danny from Pre-Code.com. I wrapped up the evening having a fun dinner at the favorite Italian restaurant Micheli’s (seriously, it has a cocktail piano player and singing waiters and waitresses, and unlike a lot of Los Angeles food that is overpriced and not all that good, Micheli’s is a gem) with Casey of Noir Girl, Millie from Classic Forever, Raquel from Out of the Past and her husband Carlos, artist extraordinaire Kate Gabrielle, KC of A Classic Movie Blog, and the lovely Laura of Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings and her husband Doug.

After missing Thursday night and Friday morning’s films due to class obligations, I decided to make 6 Hours to Live (William Dieterle, 1932) my first screening of TCMFF. I was torn between that and Brian’s Song, mainly because I’m a big sports fan and have never seen that film (but I have played “If the Hands of Time” on piano sometime long ago), but the plot description of 6 Hours to Live made it too enticing to pass up.

The film stars Warner Baxter, who plays Captain Paul Onslow, a delegate from the fictional country of Sylvaria (strangely, the rest of the countries mentioned in the film are real). He arrives at a trade conference in Geneva, the lone representative holding out on a new trade agreement which he believes will benefit the other countries but disadvantage Sylvaria. Because he’s the only dissenting voice, Paul has had several threats on his life. This worries Valerie (Miriam Jordan), the daughter of Baron Emil von Sturm (Halliwell Hobbes), Paul’s host while he is in Geneva. Valerie also has a romantic interest in Paul, much to the dismay of her childhood friend and would-be-suitor, Karl (John Boles). These threats escalate to the point where Valerie and Paul are shot at in their car as they return from the meeting hall.

Also rooming in at the Baron’s is Professor Otto Bauer (George F. Marion) and his assistant, Blucher (Dewey Robinson). The professor has brought his newest invention with him, a machine which allows him to bring dead rabbits back to life for a six hour period. Before a evening dinner, Valerie asks Paul to give up being a delegate and marry her. Paul hesitates because of his love for his home country, but eventually decides that Valerie means enough for him to give up his political career. As he is readying for dinner, an unknown assassin sneaks into Paul’s room and strangles him. Using the same machine that revived the rabbit, the professor is able to bring Paul back to life. Knowing he only has six hours to live and figure out who killed him, Paul takes to the city at night to flush out his murderer.

While this all sounds interesting on paper, I found the movie quite slow until the actual part where Paul expired and it turned into a murder mystery of sorts. Although I will say that formally, Dieterle has crafted a visually interesting film and somehow managed to keep what could be very different genre elements from making the film seem disjointed. I did think the mixture of what I guess could be called early sci-fi with the romance and mystery elements made for an interesting second half, but the beginning with the discussion of the trade agreement and Paul’s romantic dilemma seemed rather anti-climatic. Perhaps it’s because Warner Baxter plays very even to me, sometimes to the point of just being bland. But after he was a “dead man,” I found his weariness to work to his advantage as someone who knew they only had a finite amount of time back on earth. Dieterle ultimately gets a bit preachy about men playing God with bringing people back to life, but there are some really moving moments where Paul is able to philosophize on death having already experienced it.

After 6 Hours to Live I ran out of the theater to get into line for The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, 1962). I was able to get in line, but by this time it was all the way around the back of the Hollywood and Highland complex and snaking around out to the street. My queue card was in the upper 500s, and apparently people were turned away for what was a 920 seat theater.

Angela Lansbury takes in the standing ovation at the Chinese Theater IMAX

Angela Lansbury takes in the standing ovation at the Chinese Theater IMAX

It was no wonder it was such a popular event. Angela Lansbury was in attendance and came out to thunderous applause and a standing ovation. She was interviewed by Alec Baldwin, talking about her amazing career in film, television and theater. On the appeal of acting on the stage, Lansbury said that when “the curtain goes up, you’re mine, and I’m yours.” Clearly, the audience in the TCL Chinese Theater IMAX felt that relationship exactly as they listened closely to every word.

In particular about this film, Lansbury mentioned she had been chosen for the role of Mrs. Iselin after working with director John Frankenheimer previously on All Fall Down (1962). In that film, she also plays a creepy mother figure to Warren Beatty. But she said it’s fun to play the villain, especially one so well-crafted as Mrs. Iselin. Lansbury mentioned that while getting off to a fast start in Hollywood with her first role in Gaslight (George Cukor, 1944), she found herself being frustrated with the lack of freedom and interesting roles being offered to her in film, so she moved on to the stage. But she cited The Manchurian Candidate as one of the last great films she was able to be in, especially seeing the finished result on the big screen. Lansbury even quoted the pivotal “Why don’t you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?” line, much to the audience’s delight. This was my first viewing of the film, so I have to admit that reference went totally over my head.

While the interview itself would’ve been enough of a treat on its own, the film completely blew me away.  I have seen the 2004 remake starring Denzel Washington and Liev Schreiber, but I barely remember anything about the plot or the details. I remember being pretty shocked after seeing All Fall Down, and this Frankenheimer definitely left me in a similar state. It’s a taught thriller, but the performances by Lansbury, Laurence Harvey as her son, war hero Raymond Shaw, and Frank Sinatra as Shaw’s former commander, Ben Marco, turn this larger political thriller into an interpersonal cat-and-mouse game as well. Let’s just say that the ending, which wrapped up around 12:20 at night, definitely had me wide awake and thinking before bed for quite a while.

Tune in next time for me sobbing through a baseball movie at 9am, meeting an Academy Award winning composer, and absolutely loving Robert Altman’s take on Philip Marlowe.

 

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Young Man with a Horn (Curtiz, 1950)

I recently went to Noir City Hollywood’s “Jazz Noir” double feature night, and remembered that I hadn’t linked over to a guest post I did for The Retro Set last year for their Jazz Week celebration. So here’s my Bix-slanted review of Michael Curtiz’s Young Man with a Horn: http://theretroset.com/jazz-week-the-bittersweet-beauty-of-young-man-with-a-horn-1950/

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Sundays with the Broncos

Growing up in Colorado, we used to always joke that the best time to go grocery shopping, or get anything done, was during the Broncos game. With the news that Los Angeles will soon see the return of the Rams and perhaps the San Diego Chargers as well, it’s been somewhat difficult for me to imagine LA as a booming football town. To be fair, I wasn’t here during the LA Rams’ heyday. But even though this town has a lot to offer in the way of sports: two basketball teams, one recently very good team in the Clippers and one former dynasty in the Lakers; two baseball teams, the beloved Dodgers and their freeway rival Angels; and two hockey teams in the recent Stanley Cup champion Kings and the Anaheim Ducks, I’ve never seen the city collectively shut down to watch a sporting event the way I remember Sundays in Broncos Country.

Colorado isn’t lacking for sports either, although the disparity in quality is quite evident. The Nuggets have been mostly mediocre with blips of good in between. The Rockies have also done their share of basement dwelling while delighting their long-suffering fans with great runs in 2007 and 2008 before the annual star player dispersal returned. Then there is the Avalanche, who probably captured the state’s attention out of all of these with two Stanley Cups in 1996 and 2001. Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic for many years were household names, but again nothing could compare to the frenzy that surrounds the blue and orange. Denver sports fans know that any excitement around the Rockies in the first part of the year is usually replaced by their return to earth by the All Star break, but by then the countdown to football season has begun.

I was brought up in an NFL crazy family, but I wasn’t raised a Broncos fan. Instead, I was given the non-negotiable option to join the ranks of the Miami Dolphins fans, and I can tell you, it’s been a mostly miserable existence. I was aware of two facts right off the bat: the 1972 Dolphins were the perfect team, and secondly, Dan Marino was the greatest quarterback to not win a Super Bowl ring. While I loved Marino, I couldn’t help also being smitten with the man who was taken number 1 in the same draft class. See, John Elway also carried around that distinction of being a great quarterback with no championship rings. He had taken them to the Super Bowl thrice before and lost, and was settling into the back half of his career when the Broncos finally returned to the promised land in 1997. They beat the Packers that year, and returned the following year to win another championship, this time over the Falcons. It was Elway and Terrell Davis, Shannon Sharpe and Mike Shanahan. Mile High football at its best. Elway retired at the top of his game, now a legend.

As when Marino retired, the Broncos faced the situation of filling huge shoes. Quarterback after quarterback came through Denver with the impossible standard to live up to. Finally, Peyton Manning, a living legend in his own right, came to Denver to play out the rest of his career. I didn’t get to watch that Super Bowl two years ago, when the Broncos’ powerful offense was negated by Seattle’s completely overpowering gameplan. But now they’re back for another chance.

This team is different. Who would have thought Peyton Manning, once the gamechanger, the next evolution of quarterbacks, would be asked to just be safe with the ball? But time has caught up suddenly with Manning, as it often does in sports. However, this Broncos team isn’t built on its offensive prowess. It’s a stifling and relentless defense that is the calling card of this team, and as the saying goes, “defense wins championships.” It’s also not Manning’s strong arm any more that anchors this team’s offense, but his ability to call a game that still makes him one of the best.

So I’ll be rooting for my hometown team in two weeks on that Sunday that America views as a national holiday. LA will be more quiet, just because it’s the most watched game of the year. But that will just remind me of Sundays at home during football season, when all are united in orange for a few hours. And maybe, PFM will get to go out the same way Number 7 did all those years ago.

 

 

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M*A*S*H at Malibu Creek State Park

 

Just about an hour north from Los Angeles on the 101 freeway is Malibu Creek State Park near Calabasas, California. Covering over 8,000 acres of rolling hills and treelined streams, the park also contains 2,000 acres of what was once owned by 20th Century Fox as a movie ranch. Like nearby Paramount Ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreational Area, the Hollywood studios often owned property outside of the city which could be used for locations spanning just about every setting imaginable.

20th Century Fox bought the property in 1946 after having filmed How Green Was My Valley in the area a few years earlier. The Ranch was purchased by the State of California in 1974, and was opened to the public in 1976. Another familiar classic, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, was also shot here, and the “dream house” remains in use as a administrative building.

But perhaps most famously, Century Ranch doubled as 1950s Korea in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970). The television version, which began in 1972, allowed Fox to continue to use the outdoor sets they had constructed for the film. The hugely popular program shot exteriors here throughout the 11 season run of the show while the rest was filmed on a soundstage replica of the set back at Fox Studios.

As was written into the storyline of the show’s finale, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,” the outdoor set was burned in a brush fire in 1982 during the production of the finale. There’s still a few burnt and rusted vehicles out at the site which are leftovers from the fire. After the series wrapped up, the site had returned to its original wild state. In 2007, the park worked on restoring the clearing where the set once was, and it remains a popular hiking destination within the park.

The hike from the main parking lot is almost 5 miles roundtrip on an out-and-back type trail. The route starts on Crags Road, one of the main pathways through the entire park. This wide service road runs alongside Malibu Creek and is covered well with trees from both sides. From there the road climbs out of this valley and over the only really steep part of the hike, which is a gradual hill up and over into the next little valley area. Once on the other side, the trail turns left into more of a single-track trail through some wooded areas. Emerging out of the trees, a restored Army ambulance on the right marks the entrance to the M*A*S*H site.

Standing in the valley it’s easy to see and match up the same familiar rock formations around the 4077th. The park has set up several informational signs which highlight these locations, and staked into the grassy ground are rope outlines of where the buildings like the Hospital and The Swamp once stood. Near where the hill to the helicopter landing pad once was the park has set up several picnic tables under a shade structure. A replica signpost completes the atmosphere.

These photos were taken on two separate trips, one in February of this year, and one in May. The February trip was perfect, with the hills in all their green splendor. By May, especially with the drought, much of the foliage was already dry.

Malibu Creek State Park offers so many opportunities for hiking, most of them being fairly flat trails. The hike to the M*A*S*H site is one of the most scenic routes I’ve come across out here, and the end destination is a fun location to look around, especially if you’re a fan of the show. The park is open from dawn until dusk and all day parking is $12 per car.

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TCM Classic Film Festival: Making the Hard Choices

TCMCFF_2015-Key-Art_SpartacusThis year marks the 6th time TCM has hosted their Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, California. It’s a packed four day experience filled with chances to see a favorite classic on the big screen for the first time, new restorations, and films not easily available for viewing. In addition, the TCMFF has become a kind of annual reunion for classic film fans from around the world to catch up and enjoy a shared passion. The theme this year is “history according to Hollywood,” with many of the films tackling historical events, film history, or how Hollywood has attempted to convey historical narratives. I’m privileged this year to have the opportunity again to cover the festival as a member of the press.

As in previous years, the release of the festival schedule immediately causes one to start brainstorming and prioritizing what screenings are can’t miss and making hard choices in some time slots. Also, trying to figure out when one will eat and sleep (no, really), is a challenge.

So here are my preliminary choices. One thing I’ve learned over the last two years is to be flexible. Sometimes a friend will talk you into a movie you hadn’t even been planning to see. Other times you show up too late to a screening, don’t get in, but get to sit right in front of Quincy Jones while watching The Italian Job (your hastily picked second choice). Sometimes I change my mind just because something sounds more appealing in the moment than it did when I put my schedule together in the first place. But I think what I’ve taken away is that there really are no bad choices, and each event and festival as a whole will be a uniquely individual experience for each person.

Some tips:

1. The venues are all pretty much within one block of each other, with the Ricardo Montalbán Theater being the one exception. For events at the Montalbán, which is on Vine St. near Sunset Blvd, it’s about a 20-25 minute walk give or take how fast you walk. There is a Metro subway line that runs from the Hollywood and Highland complex (where the Chinese Theaters and multiplex is located) to Vine and Hollywood. A one-way fare is $1.75, so it’s a cheap and fast option for those who don’t want to walk.

2. The food issue. I have found it is best to pack snacks, a sandwich or basically any kind of food with you to eat while in line. Because you’ll spend a lot of time in line. What looks like a decent sized gap between movies is really standing-in-line time. Add to that fact that besides a Baja Fresh (fast casual Mexican food) and McDonald’s, there really isn’t much “fast” food around the theater venues, most are “sit-down” type places. The TCMFF organizers have come up with a nice queue system where they begin giving out numbered queue cards when you start lining up for a film screening. Usually you can leave once you have a queue card and then jump back in your place in line once you come back. Luckily, I’ve noticed all the fans are very respectful of this system and each other, so that can give you some time to run and grab a quick coffee or something, but overall I think it’s best to bring your own food.

3. The weather. The festival is about a month earlier this year, but it’s Southern California, so it’s already hitting 90 here. It can still get a little cool (50s) at night, and if it is hot outside the AC inside the theaters might be cranking, so layers are a good idea.

As I said last year, my MO for the festival is usually to see as many new-to-me films as possible. Sometimes I do end up seeing some favorites again, as it’s a blast to see those films on the big screen with a packed house. Here are my preliminary picks for this year’s festival:

THURSDAY:

-Too Late for Tears- I’ve missed this one at UCLA’s Festival of Preservation just a week or so ago, so looking forward to catching it here.

-The Sea Hawk– I’ve never seen this one. Plus, Errol Flynn.

FRIDAY:

-Block one is tough, since there are two films in The Smiling Lieutenant and Inherit the Wind that I haven’t seen. But I think I’m going to go with seeing Peter Fonda and Keith Carradine introduce My Darling Clementine, which is possibly my favorite telling of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral tale.

-Block two is also tough. Everyone keeps telling me I’d love The Purple Rose of Cairo, and I love Alan Ladd, so The Proud Rebel is also intriguing. But I think my love for Anthony Mann might win out with Reign of Terror.

Young Mr. Lincoln. I haven’t seen this one yet either, so a big-screen first time viewing sounds wonderful.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. Never have seen this one either, and am always trying to expand my silent film knowledge. Plus, Carl Davis conducts a new score for this film. Seeing Why Worry? last year with Maestro Davis conducting was a real highlight, and I look forward to these live musical accompaniment events.

-This slot is a toss-up. The War Game sounds really interesting. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would give me a chance to see another Bond film (I’m slowly getting around to watching them) and the opportunity to see Bond in person. The Bank Dick also sounds interesting, as I haven’t seen a W.C. Fields film yet, and am kind of curious about it’s Lompoc, Calif. setting.

BED: I have tried the last two years to go to midnight screenings, and always fall asleep during them. So I give up.

SATURDAY:

Why Be Good? Starting off the day with another silent film.

42nd Street. Dick Powell. New Restoration. Musical. (But there’s a rare Disney feature in this slot as well. Hoping that might be a Sunday re-screen).

Air Mail. This is turning into the John Ford festival for me. But I’m interested in the comparison to Only Angels Have Wings.

Christmas In July. This is actually one of my favorite Dick Powell films, and an interesting transition piece from his musical crooner days to his hardboiled detective roles.

History of the World, Part 1. I am also slowly making my way through Mel Brooks’ films.

Imitation of Life. Another new-to-me film.

SUNDAY:

Sunday is always interesting because there are a whole block of repeat screenings of popular films that aren’t announced until late Saturday, so that often changes Sunday’s plans.

Calamity Jane or Nightmare Alley. A noir or a musical, probably will be a last minute decision.

Desk Set. I think this is the only Hepburn/Tracy pairing I haven’t seen yet.

-The Children’s Hour. Keeping with my seeing-new-to-me films agenda, although seeing The Philadelphia Story on the big screen with a bunch of people is really appealing.

The Grim Game or Kiss Me Kate. The first is a premier of a rare Houdini silent, the second is a 3D showing of a musical I haven’t seen yet. Tough choice.

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Looking forward to another great festival! Please follow me on twitter @angelnumber25 for festival updates during the TCMFF. See you all in Hollywood!

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Pete Kelly’s Blues (Webb, 1955)

zh3wLpCJack Webb, the versatile actor, director, producer and founder of his own Mark VII Productions which oversaw the many famous programs and franchises that Webb created was also apparently a jazz fan. Having grown up with a love for musicians like Bix Beiderbecke and traditional jazz, Webb created a short-lived summer replacement radio series called Pete Kelly’s Blues in 1951, which followed the exploits of the title character, a cornet player in a 1920s jazz combo in Kansas City. In 1955, after having made his directorial debut on the 1953 feature film version of Dragnet, Webb pulled out another one of his radio series as his next film project.

Webb plays Pete Kelly, a cornet player and the leader of his Big 7 combo. They have a regular gig at a local speakeasy but are being hounded by local gangster Fran McCarg (Edmond O’Brien), who is forcing bands to come under his management and fork over a large percentage of their earnings. Kelly and the band are reluctant to give up their hard earned money, but understand they need the protection. The one vocal opposer of the proposition is Kelly’s young drummer, Joey Firestone (Martin Milner), who intercepts McCarg’s call to Kelly while the band is at a party and refuses the offer. As the band heads home, they are tailed and run off the road by McCarg’s men in an act of intimidation. The following night, Firestone gets into it with some of McCarg’s men. Kelly tries to diffuse the situation with the mob boss, but after the band’s set that night, Firestone is shot in the streets while trying to run home.

In the wake of these events, Kelly and the band decide to accept McCarg’s offer for protection in exchange for the high residual payment. Kelly also loses longtime clarinet player Al (Lee Marvin), who sets off for new playing opportunities with a larger outfit. Kelly also finds complications with Ivy (Janet Leigh), a wealthy party girl who keeps pursuing him. Also hounding him is the Detective George Tennel (a startlingly serious Andy Devine), who is working to take down McCarg. Into all of this, McCarg throws his alcoholic moll, Rose (Peggy Lee), a washed up singer.

Eventually, Ivy and Kelly are engaged, and Rose drinks too much to celebrate. Finding herself singing to an inattentive crowd, an inebriated Rose falls apart on the bandstand, causing McCarg to beat her for her failings. Kelly realizes it’s time to get out of the deal with McCarg, and attempts to buy his way out. When that fails, he is given information that McCarg’s right hand man Bettenhauser is willing to sell out his boss. Frustrated with Kelly’s reluctance to set a wedding date and his preoccupation with everything else, Ivy breaks off the engagement.

Armed with Bettenhauser’s information that evidence stored at the Evergreen Ballroom is enough to bring down McCarg, Kelly heads over to break into the office to retrieve the cancelled checks and invoices. While breaking into the safe, Kelly is startled by organ music playing in the main ballroom, and finds a drunken Ivy there asking him for one last dance. Kelly relents once he realizes it’s the only way to get rid of her, but they soon find themselves surrounded by McCarg’s men. A shootout ensues, with Kelly killing a double-crossing Bettenhauser and causing one of McCarg’s men to kill the gangster. I must note here that apparently although Pete Kelly makes his living playing music, he must keep up his sharpshooting skills. The film ends where it began: with Kelly’s Big 7 playing on the bandstand, Al back in the clarinet chair and Kelly and Ivy reunited.

I watch a decent amount of the 1960s iteration of Dragnet when I have a few spare minutes to cram in an episode, and through that I have become a fan of Jack Webb, even if I find his deadpan delivery somewhat odd and comforting at the same time. I’d argue that Webb’s famous police procedural, which began in radio, almost does not need to be processed visually and carried much of its radio predecessor’s traits. From the bland interiors to the often parodied rapid shot-reverse-shot closeups on the characters, Dragnet definitely does not boast flashy visuals (supposedly a holdover from the first version of the show where to cut costs, actors often read lines off teleprompters to keep a low shooting ratio). In fact, with so much of the plot being narrated by Webb’s Joe Friday, one could probably close their eyes and get all of the narrative information through the spoken dialogue. This thankfully is not the case with Pete Kelly’s Blues, which shows Webb working with his widescreen canvas to a much more satisfying degree than his television programming.

Of course the music is a highlight. Peggy Lee, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, is wonderful as Rose, and has several spotlight vocal numbers. Also in the cast is Ella Fitzgerald, who plays Maggie Jackson, a singer and informant who works at another club where local band members hang out to discuss issues away from the ears of McCarg’s men. She also has two spotlight numbers, one being the title song. With both Fitzgerald and Lee, vocal numbers are allowed to play out with little editing, and it’s wonderful to just watch. The 1920s combo numbers were dubbed by many of the same members who played on the radio show version, which often featured at least two musical numbers within an 30 minute running time. There is a somewhat humorous (at least to me) time warp going on between the combo numbers, which are played in the 1920s style, and the vocal arrangements, which lean much more towards what would stylistically be appropriate in later years of the 30s and 40s. There are little tidbits for jazz fans located throughout the film. I was definitely geeking out when Kelly and Al are speaking about Jean Goldkette’s band when Al is about to leave, and Kelly asks who is in the cornet chair. Al responds that it must be Bix. So Webb’s own passion for jazz definitely shows in this film.

Again, while I am most familiar with Webb’s radio and television work, I was somewhat pleasantly surprised by Pete Kelly’s Blues. While not necessarily a great film, Webb demonstrates a good sense of direction, visual space and performance that is much deeper than what is seen on Dragnet. While his own acting is probably the weakest link in the film next to the performances from the rest of the stellar cast, honestly Pete Kelly himself is the lead character in title only, and really the film’s strength lies in the people around him.

Warner Archive has released Pete Kelly’s Blues on a wonderful new Blu Ray edition. The film looks beautiful, with rich colors and natural film grain still present. The edition includes two shorts, the film trailer and a neat menu option highlighting the musical numbers within the film for easy navigation. The movie is definitely worth checking out as an example of a well-crafted musical hybrid film.  Webb’s fake cornet playing isn’t too bad either.

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