It doesn’t even really seem real, but just about a week from now, if you tune in to Turner Classic Movies (TCM), you’ll see me chatting with Ben Mankiewicz about the Bob Hope Christmas classic, The Lemon Drop Kid. I’m one of four TCM fans introducing favorite films on the afternoon/evening of Saturday, November 29. I am lucky enough to know the other three, Aurora Bugallo, Joel Williams, and Miguel Rodriguez, who are all friends I met first online via the live tweet I co-founded and organize, TCM Party, and then offline at the TCM Film Festival.
The intros were all recorded in August via Skype, which I think is a cool use of technology. Mine took place at Cinema Detroit, the indie theater I co-own with my husband, Tim. While my programming there is mostly contemporary and decidedly indie, we have shown classics like The Lady from Shanghai, A Hard Day’s Night, and a whole mess of noir for Noir Detroit (during CD’s first full month, November 2013). I definitely think my experiences bringing people and movies together online influenced us to try to do the same offline with Cinema Detroit.
So here is the schedule for Fan Favorites on Saturday, November 29 (all times Eastern):
12:30 p.m. Meet Me in St. Louis – Aurora
2:30 p.m. The Lemon Drop Kid – Me
4:15 p.m. The Thing From Another World – Miguel
6:00 p.m. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – Joel
In case anyone is curious why the The Lemon Drop Kid…TCM producer Courtney O’Brien asked me to submit a list of 10 mostly family-oriented, somewhat holiday-related, classic movies that I would want to introduce. As it is extremely difficult to limit oneself to 10 films, I actually sent more than 10. This was the list I sent, there’s no particular order:
Christmas in Connecticut
It Happened on 5th Avenue
The Lemon Drop Kid
Remember the Night
The Rains Came
The Lady Vanishes
The 39 Steps
Angel and the Badman
There is nothing on here I don’t really love, but I’m glad they went with Lemon Drop Kid. It has a special place in my heart, because Christmas is a tough time for me. My mother passed away a few days after Thanksgiving in 2002 and during the holiday season, I often need a laugh, which this film provides. It does have some sentimental moments, but it’s mostly Hope one-liners, sight gags, and Runyon-esque characters and situations. Damon Runyon wrote the story it’s based on…think Guys and Dolls, Little Miss Marker…like that.
I cannot say enough good things about the people at TCM, who made the whole process easy for me, a total novice. Noralil, Courtney, Mardy and Ben…thanks for your patience and understanding.
So I hope you will tune in on Saturday afternoon, November 29, and check it out. And in the meantime…what would be on your list of 10?
Anybody who has either read this blog for a while or attended a TCM Party knows that I have been watching old movies since I was a young child.
During the summer when my mom was working, I would be at my grandparents’ house, watching the local afternoon movie showcase, Bill Kennedy At The Movies, hosted by the titular raconteur/retired actor. For those who grew up outside of the metro Detroit area and/or were born after 1986 or so, picture a slightly-unkempt, more rambling, hammier Dean Martin. At least that’s how it seemed at the time.
Slinging both fascinating anecdotes — particularly about the films in which he’d had a role — and barbs that mostly went over my head, Kennedy owned those hours after noon and before the 6 o’clock news. He showed pretty much anything old. The Best Years of Our Lives is one that I particularly remember. I can remember just bawling during it, without even really knowing why.
In those days, respectable Italian girls lived with their parents or their husbands, certainly not by themselves or with other girls. Not in my mother’s family. Thus if I was allowed to stay for the evening, I got to see my mother’s oldest sister, Mary Rose Romano, when she arrived home from work. Born the same day as Elizabeth Taylor, February 27, 1932, Aunt Mary seemed just as glamorous and self-possessed. Unlike my parents, she worked in a bank downtown, and wore suits to the office; also scarves, cute shoes, and amazing jewelry. (Also unlike my parents, she liked to take me shopping for clothes.) Though (I now know) she was probably really tired, we’d always talk about whatever I’d watched, because she knew all about Old Hollywood — the movies, how they were made, the actors and actresses. No one has had more of an influence on my film taste than Aunt Mary.
I believe her favorite movie was Gone With The Wind. Back in the day, before cable, really the only way to see it in one piece was on network TV in the evening. Even broken up with ads, it was powerful stuff. She told me all about the burning of Atlanta being filmed first, Clark Gable’s dentures, the long process of casting Scarlett, and how Leslie Howard was a spy and died in The War. This was the first time I was conscious of a film being a purposeful creation, the result of a collaborative effort by many people. Since then, I’ve learned more about the time period portrayed in the film, and I have a fair amount of ambivalence about it, but to this day, if I’m home, I can’t pass it up.
Fast forward 20 years or so. My mother died of cancer in 2002, and afterwards my husband and I began to visit my aunt (now in her 70s) and my grandmother (in her late 80s) every Sunday. The routine almost never varied: lunch at around noon, then movies on TCM until 4 or 5 p.m., accompanied by their inevitable dialogue, which I affectionately call “Who’s Dead?”
— “Jesus, everyone in this movie is dead.”
— “Yeah, there’s so-and-so. He’s dead.”
— “There’s so-and-so. She’s been dead forever.”
I think it may be an Italian thing.
These Sunday afternoons were when I realized how much I had absorbed from her as a kid. She loved the classics and had great respect for both their craft and their magic, but at the same time, she could be irreverent. In other words, she would have fit right in at a TCM Party. Among these random recollections, imagine the quotes from Mary are tweets and you’ll get the picture (may contain spoilers):
Psycho: “That sound [the stabbing in the shower] is somebody knifing a melon. Nobody could believe Janet Leigh got killed off. It just didn’t happen. That Hitchcock was a weirdo.”
Now, Voyager: We watched this together so many times that it’s almost painful to watch now. My aunt looked a bit like Miss Davis, and had her crisp enunciation, and I always got the impression from her comments that she could relate to Charlotte Vale, but I can’t know for sure.
Any Joan Crawford movie: “Watch out…she packs a wallop.”
Any appearance by Adolphe Menjou or Ray Milland: “He’s such a sleaze.”
Jeremiah Johnson: Robert Redford was a fave of ours, particularly in The Sting and this downer of a 1970s beard-tastic Western. When the widow freaks out on Jeremiah and forces him to take her son along with him, I remember asking, “What is she going to do? How is she going to get food out there by herself?” Mary shrugged. “She’ll go over to craft services, they’ll find her something.”
Victor/Victoria: “Has this guy [James Garner as King Marchand] ever really looked at Julie Andrews?”
On The Waterfront: This is the last film we ever watched together, a couple of weeks before Tim and I saw it at the TCM Film Festival with an introduction by Eva Marie Saint. I so wish my aunt could have gone with us. To Terry Malloy [Marlon Brando]: “She’s not interested in you, you dumb lug.” To Edie Doyle [Saint]: “He’s no good. Go back to school and study.”
The Pink Panther: [Gales of laughter] “What an idiot. He’s so stupid. He’s so silly.”
Sunset Blvd.: Norma Desmond: “They had to have the ears of the whole world too. So they opened their big mouths and out came talk. Talk! TALK!” Aunt Mary: “Thank God. Who wants to read a movie?”
Two Mules for Sister Sarah: “She’s a pretty lousy nun.”
My Aunt Mary passed away on September 27, 2013. Our family and everyone who knew her will remember her unqualified generosity, her style, and her sense of humor, but I also have her love of the movies, and because of that, she is still with me.
TCM’s host Ben Mankiewicz also did a media call on the Wednesday before TCMFF actually started.
As before, some highlights:
Lawrence Carter-Long, TCM’s co-host for The Projected Image, their series on portrayals of disability on film, will be back. Mankiewicz said, “I learned more from Lawrence Carter-Long than anyone else in 10 years with TCM….He is a resource we’ve used since and will continue to use.”
Mankiewicz loved that TCMFF included Airplane! as part of this year’s travel theme “when it looks like the whole thing was shot for $4.95. ‘See LAX…the inside of an airplane.’ Nonetheless, that’s a travel movie.”
Film Noir Foundation’s Eddie Muller is coming up on TCM Friday nights with a series of around 20 films noir. Mankiewicz likes neo-noirs, particularly three involving John Dahl — The Last Seduction, Kill Me Again, and Red Rock West. “I’d love to make a case for us to show those, those are great films. You can clearly see Dahl had a keen appreciation of ’40s and ’50s film noir.”
TCM is featuring more films from the ’70s and ’80s, but not because there’s some kind of age requirement. “We have a very open mind as to what makes a classic movie. It’s not about years removed from a movie…the movies have to have some emotional connection for people. Because we learned that two-thirds of our audience is under 49 years old, we realized very quickly that most people have not seen most of our movies when they came out, or anytime even close to when they came out. So how did these movies become important to them? It’s probably through family connections, they watched with their parents or grandparents, or, what happens to me sometimes, because we shoot so far ahead, I don’t know what we’re showing, and like you guys, I’ll stumble on to a movie on a Saturday afternoon. As we get better perspective on movies, which does come with time, and as more of those titles become available, I suppose that you might see more ’70s and ’80s movies on TCM, but I always say that with a caveat: nothing is going to stop us from showing the movies we already show….In that sense, our programming won’t change. We always, always want to find something that will be relevant and emotional for our audience. There were a lot of great filmmakers in the ’70s, I think more so than the ’80s, if i could sort of flippantly dismiss an entire decade, which, by the way, was important to me. It’s what I grew up with, what are you gonna do? I can’t change when I grew up. So, i think you’ll see more ’70s and ’80s movies, but not to the extent that we’ll change what we already show.”
He has some choice in which movies he hosts on TCM, but not as much as you might think. “Charlie (Tabesh, TCM’s programmer) knows what I like, but in the end, I’m an employee.”
Re: a 16-year-old girl’s crush on Farley Granger: “It’s not gonna work out for her.”
Mankiewicz believes the Production Code was the result of Fatty Arbuckle’s three trials.
I also got to interview Mankiewicz for some of the shortest-seeming 15 minutes in my life ever. He isn’t the first interviewee from whom I’ve cadged refreshments, but he is nicest.
What’s your process for hosting on TCM? Anywhere from one day to three or four weeks before, they start sending me scripts. And I go through every one of them, and put them in my voice, add stories, take stories out. Same process for Robert. Some of them, when movies start coming back, I realize that what they sent is essentially what I wrote three years earlier, cos I’ll be like, i wrote this and then I’ll change it again, because I’m like, oh that sucked. That’s the basic process. The research department in Atlanta keeps track so that we don’t repeat the same stories. It takes a while to go through 200 scripts. We shoot them all basically in a row in a week. And by the way, it’s super-easy to get confused. I don’t pretend to not have to look stuff up.
[At this point, I’d forgotten the questions I’d prepared. I also remembered something Robert Osborne had said earlier in the day; he studies up on people he’s going to interview because once a reporter looks at his/her notes, it’s no longer a conversation. Yikes. I decided to wing it.] Quentin Tarantino has a litmus test for potential girlfriends. He shows them Rio Bravo to see what their reaction is. Not that you would have something like that now, but did you ever have a film like that, and if so, what was it?
Good question. No, not off the top of my head, is there a film that did that. But I would know whether I connected with people based on what they liked, no question. Obviously from the time I was getting serious about girls, if a girl thought Fletch was stupid, obviously I’m not gonna go out with her. But that was at a time when I had no appreciation of classic movies. I mean, now, no question, I love Rio Bravo, that makes Tarantino so cool. I gotta find a cool answer to that. To me, like somebody who wouldn’t appreciate A Face in the Crowd, or wouldn’t be blown away by that, I couldn’t possibly have a serious friendship with them. That movie just gets me every time. It was so prescient, 53 years ahead of time. And also, if you’re not moved by Casablanca, if you make fun of Casablanca — whatever, we’re not sleeping together. Well, we might sleep together. But I’m not gonna call you.
You said you weren’t always into classic movies…what were some of the first ones that pushed you in that direction? My mom showed me North by Northwest. It’s funny how memory plays tricks on you, because I remember saying to Mom that I didn’t want to watch it because it’s black and white. She gets me to watch it, and it’s not black and white….And I remember thinking, this is really cool, and that guy is cool. Like all of a sudden. And it’s not like I didn’t know who Cary Grant was. But I associated him with something that I knew instinctively I was going to not like. When I went to college, I was always looking to do things as easily as possible. I took a film course at Tufts pass-fail, thinking this is going to be the easiest thing in the world. I was such an idiot. I wrote a paper, that counted for more than half the grade, on Santa Fe Trail. And I started doing the research. These guys weren’t in the Army together at the same time, this is all a wildly nonsensical re-imagination of how history worked. But they’re going after John Brown. The movie is made in 1940, and clearly, John Brown is a Hitler-ian figure in the movie, and I wrote about the historical context, and how, ironically, they’d screwed up history. And I loved writing the paper. It was so good. I got an A+. I remember thinking, I don’t think the professor thinks anyone wrote a better paper in this class. And of course, my thought wasn’t, I should pay more attention to film. My thought was, I can’t believe I took this class pass-fail. I cannot believe that I’ve just given away an A. So it was developing then. And then I went out to LA after I graduated, just to see family out here, and I went to a couple of parties, and I was introduced as Ben Mankiewicz, and people would say, “From the Hollywood Mankiewiczes?” And I’d say, yeah, and they’d be like, Hollywood royalty. Happened twice. And I was like are they thinking of someone else? It just started to come together how much my family mattered to a very small group of people, but it mattered a lot to that group.
Which actors/actresses working in Hollywood today would have done well in the Old Hollywood system, and vice versa? [This is a recurring question of mine.] I think a lot of the big stars then would have done well today. There’s no question, Clark Gable would have been a star, Cary Grant. Those are easy ones. Bogie. John Wayne. From now, George Clooney could work in any era. Robert Downey Jr., any era. If you own the screen now, the way those guys do…not only are they enormously talented, not only can they play a variety of roles, but they have that screen charisma. Clooney was my first thought, but I’m not sure that Downey isn’t a better answer. I don’t even really like the Sherlock Holmes movies, but he’s got a thing. Johnny Depp owns the screen. They are too charming not to succeed. The talent and looks that Ryan Gosling has, of course he’d succeed. Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Lawrence, no question. Chastain even looks like it. I don’t think there’s any doubt there. Penelope Cruz is another one. I don’t know how the language issue would have worked then. Maybe she’d have made Spanish-language movies, but she would have been a big star. Matt Damon would have been a star, and he’s not even that good-looking. Not in the same league as those other guys. For him, he just sort of exudes charm. He makes it work in so many different roles. I think there are many others. I don’t think things are even remotely lost in Hollywood right now. There are a lot of reasons now why Hollywood is totally f*cked up but that said, there’s still great stars, there’s great producers, and there’s great movies. But frequently the ones that get the most attention and marketing are embarrassments. But there’s still great movies being made.
On the day before the Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival [TCMFF] officially started, the bloggers (and probably some traditional media too) gathered in the Blossom Room of the Roosevelt Hotel, aka Club TCM. I barely kept it together when Robert Osborne strolled in. I confess I’m a little in awe of him.
[Osborne, on the other hand, is unflappable. On Sunday, confronted with boos and hisses at Grauman’s (he was talking about new owner TCL’s imminent IMAX conversion), he responded, “Don’t throw anything. Well, if you do, throw a Porsche.” As Porsche was a sponsor at the Festival, Osborne got to drive one all weekend and had just told us he really enjoyed it. Maybe you had to be there.]
Many others have covered this media call so I will relay what I thought was most interesting:
He didn’t know when he took the hosting job with TCM that he would be helping people to heal from illness or get through unemployment, or running a film course. I and many others can attest that he does both. Osborne wasn’t very enthused about the TCM Cruise in the beginning but “it’s so much fun now.” The people on the cruises sort themselves out by favorite star: “You go into a room, ‘OK now the Bogart people are going to be here at 5 o’clock, the Cagneys are going to be in Studio B at 4:30, the Stanwyck people…’ ”
On the studio system & the Production Code: “For a long time, the studio system got so smacked down, and even people who were around at the time and had complained about it realize now that it was a great system…it worked very well. I also think that some of the best movies were great because there was a censorship thing….I don’t think the screen’s been improved by the fact that you can do or say anything you want onscreen that you want to say, because it’s now I think in the hands of people that don’t have any taste, and don’t know where the line should be….The  Postman Always Rings Twice is much sexier than the one that was made [in 1981]. They’re doing it right on the kitchen table, and it’s not nearly so interesting. There were certainly bad things about the studio system and bad things about censorship, but there were good things that came out of it. I don’t think there’s anything like wit on film anymore. You see movies from the ’30s and ’40s, like Woman of the Year or Libeled Lady — they didn’t hammer you over the head with the comedy, there were no bodily fluid jokes like we have today. Having a cap on some of that stuff so that people had to sneak around it made it a little more clever.” He’s philosophical about the Grauman’s conversion, possibly because he’s co-owner of the only movie theatre in Port Townsend, Washington State. They recently upgraded to digital projection. “[Digital] is going to put a lot of small-town theatres out of business. So I’m for anything that’s going to restore theatres or make them more relevant. It’s very sad, because people love to go to the movies, and it’s going to be cut out for a lot of people….we did raise the money in Port Townsend, but only because of the kind of town it is.” Cher was super-professional during her filming for April’s Friday Night Spotlights. Osborne quipped, “No diva at all. It was a little disappointing actually.” They are both Tauruses, though Cher is on the cusp. I’m just saying.
He was looking forward toFunny Girl, The Razor’s Edge, Cluny Brown, and Desert Song at TCMFF; and particularly to talking to Ann Blyth: “You can’t believe she’s in her 80s, and she’s so nice. I want to talk to her about how, when she was so effective as a mean daughter [Vida in Mildred Pierce], that you hated so much, why that never affected her career, and why she was never cast in a part like that again. She was able to not be typecast and that amazes me.” The “bosses at TCM” were surprised that younger people get into the channel [!!!] but Osborne wasn’t because they stop him on the street. He believes they will pass their love for classic movies on to their children, as so often their families did for them, and “hopefully it will go on forever, and hopefully you will all go on forever.” The feeling is mutual, Mr. Osborne.