Turner Classic Movies has revealed four high-profile films and the first announced guest for the upcoming TCM Classic Film Festival, set for April 10-13, 2014.
Eighty-year-old composer/producer Quincy Jones will be honored at the fifth annual classic film conclave in Hollywood with an on-stage interview and a screening of his first work as a film composer: Sidney Lumet’s THE PAWNBROKER (1964), which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2014.
In addition, TCMFF will present “world premiere restorations” of three much-loved films: Orson Welles’ TOUCH OF EVIL (1958), which was famously reconstructed to match the director’s original vision in 1998; William Wyler’s heartbreaking post-War drama THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946); and Billy’s Wilder’s iconic film noir DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944). These are in addition to already-announced screenings of THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) “reimagined” in IMAX 3-D, the newly restored GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), and Harold Lloyd’s WHY WORRY (1923), which will be presented with Carl Davis conducting the live world premiere performance of his new original score.
Although the event is more than five months away, passes are selling faster than Louise Beavers’ hotcakes. In an unprecedented scenario, the $699 Essential Pass sold out five hours after going on sale to the public on November 14. Top tier Spotlight passes ($1,599) sold out a week later, which means that access to the opening night red carpet screening at the TCL Chinese Theater is no longer available to anyone, including members of the press (media credentials don’t include that screening). And, unlike in past years, TCM has not even announced the opening night film yet.
This is likely attributable, in part, to the reduction in seating capacity at the renovated TCL Chinese Theatre, which now seats 230 fewer people than it did previously.
The Classic Pass, the only remaining pass that allows for access to all events – excluding the opening night gala – remains available, but the pace of ticket sales suggests that this event, which also honors TCM’s 20th anniversary, will sell out far faster than it has in past years. So, if you’re planning to wait until the Christmas credit cards have been paid off, you may want to re-think that plan. Or buy your kids fewer presents.
While I think it’s great that TCM is honoring Quincy Jones after a 60-year career, classic film fans care most about the movies, and TCM has not disappointed in that regard with today’s announcement. And without a doubt, the biggest news for me is the new restoration of TOUCH OF EVIL.
Based on the novel of the same name by Whit Masterson, Orson Welles’ cynical noir is a film with a notoriously rocky history. In 1957, Welles turned in a rough cut of what was supposed to be his comeback film as a Hollywood director and left the country to begin work on his next project. Universal supposedly approached him to make revisions, but that never happened, so the film was subsequently re-edited by the studio and producer Albert Zugsmith, with additional footage shot by director Harry Keller. Welles screened the bastardized version and wrote an infamous 58-page memo to Edward Muhl, Universal’s head of production, with instructions on how to fix it. Most of this feedback was ignored, and the truncated, 93-minute cut was eventually dumped in theatres on the second half of a double bill in 1958.
In 1976 Universal released a newly discovered 108-minute preview cut that included more of Welles’ missing scenes (and more of Keller’s, as well). Finally, in 1998, producer Rick Schmidlin and editor Walter Murch undertook a full reconstruction of the film, using Welles’ memo as a guideline. (Welles had died in 1985.) That is the version that was re-released in theaters, on DVD in 2000, and remains in circulation today, at a running time of 111 minutes.
Sadly, this new restoration does not include any material that was missing from the 1998 cut, but it will preserve and improve that reconstruction with a new digital scan “painstakingly restored” from the original negative, using techniques not available to restorationists 15 years ago. Either way, I think Welles would take perverse pleasure in knowing that, 56 years later, people are still trying to get TOUCH OF EVIL back to they way he originally wanted it.
UPDATE 1/29/14 - Universal will release all three versions of TOUCH OF EVIL on Blu-ray on April 15, two days after the TCMFF concludes. You can pre-order here.
What’s of particular interest to me when you’re talking about restorations is who pays for them. Of the seven films announced so far for TCMFF, the rights to only one of them – TOUCH OF EVIL – appear to be still controlled by the studio that originally produced and/or distributed the film. It goes without saying that the Universal of today bears little resemblance to the entity that butchered Welles’ masterpiece, but thanks to the selling and re-selling of Hollywood studios and their libraries, the studio of origination is often no longer funding the digital clean-up of a film. WHY WORRY was produced by Hal Roach Studios and distributed by Pathe, but is now controlled by the family-run Harold Lloyd Trust. THE WIZARD OF OZ and GONE WITH THE WIND were both distributed by MGM (OZ was produced in-house and WIND by Selznick International), but are now controlled by Warner Bros., following Time Warner’s acquisition of previous rights holder (and TCM parent company) Turner Broadcasting in 1996. And the same is the case with the three other TCMFF titles announced today.
DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) will screen in a 70th anniversary restoration from the original negative “in collaboration with Universal Studios.” Originally produced and distributed by Paramount, the rights to DOUBLE INDEMNITY reside in the corporate domain of NBCUniversal, itself owned by Comcast, the world’s largest media and communications company. As many classic film fans know, Paramount sold their pre-1949 film library to MCA in 1957 for $50 million, in one of the great bonehead moves in motion picture history. In 1962, MCA acquired Universal, then MCA/Universal was in turn sold to Matsushita Electric (later known as Panasonic) in 1990, then to Seagrams in 1995, then to Vivendi in 2000, then to NBC parent General Electric in 2004, and finally Comcast bought half of NBCUniversal in 2011 and the rest in 2013. And that 1957 deal for the Paramount back catalogue continues to pay off for the current corporate stewards, more than half a century later. Cha-ching!
Based on the 1943 novel by James M. Cain, with a script by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, DOUBLE INDEMNITY tells the twisted tale of insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and the conniving vixen (Barbara Stanwyck) who seduces him and convinces him to murder her husband. Edward G. Robinson gives one of his best, most idiosyncratic performances as a suspicious insurance investigator. The film was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director for Wilder, Best Actress for Stanwyck, Best Screenplay for the tumultuous team of Wilder and Chandler, Best Cinematography for John F. Seitz, Best Music for Miklós Rózsa, and Best Sound.
William Wyler’s THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946) will also be presented in a new restoration from the original negative. The ahead-of-its-time look at war-related stress and injury stars Fredric March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, and real-life veteran Harold Russell and was awarded with seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director (Wyler), Best Actor (March) and Best Supporting Actor (Russell).
Originally produced by The Samuel Goldwyn Company and released by RKO Radio Pictures, the film is now under the control of Warner Bros, which licensed the North American distribution rights to 70 titles in the Samuel Goldwyn Films library from the Samuel Goldwyn, Jr. Family Trust in 2012.
THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES was released on Blu-ray by Warner Home Video on November 5 along with another Goldwyn title, Henry Koster’s THE BISHOP’S WIFE (1947). Other films licensed from Goldwyn are offered through the Warner Archive manufacture-on-demand DVD service, including WHOOPEE! (1930) and KID MILLIONS (1934) with Eddie Cantor and a new four-film set called DANNY KAYE: THE GOLDWYN YEARS . Goldwyn’s THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY (1947), also starring Kaye, is due to be released on DVD on Tuesday, December 10 as a traditional pressed disc from Warner Home Video.
The only one of today’s announced films that is not restored is THE PAWNBROKER, but it has the same sort of circuitous ownership history. Based on the 1961 novel of the same name by Edward Lewis Wallant, THE PAWNBROKER was the first major American film to depict the Holocaust from the perspective of a survivor. In an Oscar nominated performance, Rod Steiger stars as East Harlem pawnshop owner Sol Nazerman, a survivor of the camps who watched his two children die and his wife raped by Nazi soldiers. Geraldine Fitzgerald co-stars as a sympathetic social worker.
In addition to its powerful story, THE PAWNBROKER is perhaps best remembered today for landing a defining body blow to the censorship guidelines of the Motion Picture Production Code, which had been in place for three decades. After the MPAA refused to approve the film due to nudity, producer Ely Landau released it through A.I.P. and Allied Artists without Code approval. Minor edits were subsequently made and, in a highly controversial decision, the MPAA finally approved the release, making it the first American movie with nudity to receive Code approval.
TCM says THE PAWBROKER will be “presented in collaboration with Paramount Pictures,” though Paramount neither produced nor released it. The film was independently produced by the Landau/Unger Company, a partnership between Ely Landau and Oliver A. Unger. Landau and Unger had formed TV distributor National Telefilm Associates (NTA) a decade earlier, after acquiring U.M.& M. T.V. Corp. and Republic Pictures. In 1983 NTA, which controlled the rights to the library of the now-defunct Republic Pictures, renamed itself Republic. The new “Republic Pictures” released THE PAWNBROKER on VHS in 1989. In 1994, Republic was acquired by Aaron Spelling’s Spelling Entertainment, which, itself, had been acquired by Blockbuster. Blockbuster then merged with Viacom, which had became the owner of Paramount in 1993. That explains how a controversial little indie film shot mostly on the streets of New York got to be controlled by the fourth largest media company in the world.
UPDATE 1/11/14 – Lou Lumenick, classic film historian and critic for the New York Post, has confirmed that THE PAWNBROKER will be restored. The restored version will also be available on Blu-ray from Olive Films on April 15.
One final note: while TCM likely will not participate financially in the restoration of these films, they do, on occasion, contribute to the preservation of so-called “orphan films” of historical import. An orphan film may have no current rights holder, because the copyright has lapsed and the film is in the public domain. In other cases, a current owner may see no financial incentive in preserving, restoring, or otherwise making a film available to the public.
Two recent examples of TCM’s support of a film in this category include John Francis Dillon’s CALL HER SAVAGE (1932) with Clara Bow and Rowland V. Lee’s I AM SUZANNE! (1933) with Lilian Harvey. Both were originally produced and distributed by the Fox Film Corporation, the pre-cursor to Twentieth Century Fox, and were preserved by the Museum of Modern Art. The restored/preserved CALL HER SAVAGE debuted at the TCM Film Fest in 2012 and I AM SUZANNE! premiered at the 2013 event. Both were subsequently screened as part of MoMA’s annual To Save and Project film preservation festival.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this little trip through the history of corporate media ownership. I’ll be glad to chat more about it in person when I see you at the TCM Film Fest.
For more of my coverage of the TCM Film Festival, click here.
This piece was updated on 12/6/13 with additional information on orphan films and TCM-funded restorations, and a poster from CALL HER SAVAGE was added. It was also corrected on 12/5/13 with a reference to Selznick International Pictures as production entity for GONE WITH THE WIND added.