It isn’t until Saturday that I watched my first pre-1960s movie. I’m a bad film festival attendee, I know. But it shows the power of the TCM Classic Film Festival that it can take a film you’ve watched several times before and helps you reevaluate it in a way you never thought to before.
My first film of the day was the 1942 Disney feature, Bambi (1942). I’ve watched and reviewed Bambi before; it’s a rather aimless tale about the circle of life and growing up. I ended up seeing this one alone because none of my travel companions wanted to start crying at 9am. Bambi was one of two Disney features screening at the festival and marks the first time I’ve watched a Disney feature in my three years attending TCM film festivals. I haven’t watched Old Yeller (1957) previously and didn’t want to be traumatized in a group, so Bambi was a safer bet.
Bambi had an introduction by William Joyce and Donnie Dunagan, the voice of young Bambi. Another compliment TCM’s way: They know how to get presenters who are storytellers. Dunagan was utterly overwhelmed by the response he got upon sitting down; the standing ovation brought him to tears. He discussed his brief time as a Hollywood child star – he also starred as the son in The Son of Frankenstein (1939) – and how, in spite of Bambi’s horrifying life lessons, he had such fun recording the voices. Because the animators spent time studying the human actors’ facial expressions, be sure to watch Bambi’s face when Faline first gives him a kiss. The animators got that grossed-out expression by reminding Dunagan of drinking castor oil.
Dunagan was incredibly jubilant while talking, and had some fantastic stories to tell, including an emotionally fraught story about being shot during the war, and how a scene in Bambi actually gave Dunagan the courage to stand up and get out of a dangerous situation. He also had an utterly beautiful tale of meeting a young disabled girl who saw herself like the character of Flower. Proof positive that movies influence our lives. Dunagan stayed for the film, sitting behind me actually, and I was fortunate to chat with him briefly (look for an upcoming interview). So, before the film even starts, I’m crying. Watching the actual film was a revelation. Bambi has never looked more beautiful than it did on the big screen. The colors, the watercolor backgrounds, and the characters were lush and eye-popping. I can only imagine how 1940s audiences responded because I was blown away by the studio’s animation expertise. The actual film was still fun, if slight, and a small child in front of me was left inconsolable during that infamous scene we all know. I was glad I got to experience it in a theater setting.
After that I knew I’d be staying in Club TCM the rest of the day. Not because Bambi left me a wreck, but because nothing was going to stop me from snagging a front row seat for the conversation with Elliott Gould. The first panel of the day was “My First Time in Hollywood,” a companion to the book by Cari Beauchamp. Beauchamp and special guests spent an hour reading famous accounts of various silent film stars’ first time in Hollywood, working during the dawn of the film business. Harold Lloyd’s granddaughter, Suzanne, read his accounts, while Nancy Olson Livingstone (star of Sunset Blvd.) read Colleen Moore’s. Saturday Night Live star Laraine Newman, Bruce Goldstein and David Ladd also read from various excerpts.
I haven’t read Beauchamp’s book, but this got me interested. Each voice depicted a completely different concept of Hollywood, whether it was Anita Loos (read by Newman) being underestimated by the men who hired her, or Moore’s complete surprise at being turned into a star so quickly, Hollywood was a magic act. I was fortunate to sit next to Nancy Olson, and I had to restrain myself from asking about William Holden. Olson, more than the others, shows she can still act her socks off, imbuing the words with such gravitas.
Since I wasn’t leaving my seat I stayed for the next presentation with French archivist Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films. Bromberg is definitely a ball of energy when discussing silent cinema. He showed several restored sequences from the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy, including the biggest pie fight ever in Battle of the Century (1927). Since I’m still an amateur in my silent film education this was great to watch as Bromberg described how they assumed most of the footage was lost, and how they eventually restored them for release.
After that it was time for Elliott Gould! Moderated, again, by Alec Baldwin, Gould didn’t give an interview that would leave you jumping out of your seat. Again, I’m not big on Baldwin’s interview style and the flaws came out best here. Him and Gould tended to devolve into talks of the industry, with name-dropping (mostly from Baldwin) and continued pushes towards how Baldwin’s work as an actor was similar or different. This did give a great conversational feel, but it did leave one feeling as if this was A Conversation with Alec Baldwin. Gould discussed working with Robert Altman and his relationship with Barbra Streisand (briefly). It was always going to be hard topping last year’s A Conversation with Shirley MacLaine, and that still remains the victor.
By that point I was done being cooped up in Club TCM. Time to get back to movie watching! As much as I really wanted to watch The Song of Bernadette (1943), I couldn’t pass up a poolside screening of Forbidden Planet (1956). This sci-fi retelling of The Tempest is a hoot with its innuendo littered dialogue, bizarre id monster, and Anne Francis exclusively wearing miniskirts. The travel buddy hadn’t seen it outside of a review and we had a lot of fun riffing (quietly) on it. Comedian Greg Proops introduced the film and was utterly hilarious – and made a few jokes that weren’t kid friendly – before introducing Robby the Robot. This was a fantastic working replica and Robby and Greg had some great banter.
As much as I wanted to attend the midnight screening of Gog (1954) I could barely keep my eyes open. It all ends tomorrow….
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.