Telluride Film Festival: Make Way For Yesteryear

The Telluride Film Festival, which wrapped up its 36th edition Monday evening beneath the staggering landscape of Colorado's San Juan Mountains, is generally regarded by the mainstream press--on those rare occasions it is regarded at all--as a pre-Toronto, North American launching pad for high-profile foreign and American independent films (like this year's The Road, A Prophet and Up in the Air) soon to take their respective lanes in the end-of-year, awards-season derby. But what regular attendees know--and treasure--about the annual Labor Day weekend event is that the real jewels in Telluride's crown are those movies bearing the oldest copyright dates.

From its inception, under the leadership of former Pacific Film Archive director Tom Luddy, Janus Films partner Bill Pence and George Eastman House head James Card, Telluride has placed an emphasis on film history and film preservation exceeded only by those handful of festivals around the world devoted exclusively to classic films. But Telluride is, in its way, all the more remarkable for presenting its silent, restored and rarely-screened gems (which routinely account for more than one-quarter of the festival selection) right alongside its world and North American premieres, from equal billing in the program to equally long lines of ticket holders queuing up to see them.

Telluride Film Festival: Make Way For Yesteryear

In that respect, Leo McCarey's under-seen masterpiece Make Way For Tomorrow

might be the ultimate Telluride movie, given that its theme is the

danger of throwing out the old to make room for the new. Released in

1937, McCarey's film considers the plight of an elderly couple

(brilliantly played by Victor Moore and Buelah Bondi, both only

middle-aged at the time) who, in the opening scene, announce to their

four grown children that they've fallen behind on the mortgage and will soon

have to surrender their home to the bank. An elaborate ballet of buck

passing ensues, as each child in turn laments his or her inability to

help out--until, with great reluctance, the eldest son George (Thomas

Mitchell) agrees to let Ma come to live with him temporarily,

while daughter Cora (Elisabeth Risdon) consents to let Pa sleep on her

sofa. From there, McCarey (working from a beautifully observed script

by Viña Delmar), documents the increasing humiliations suffered by both

parents, as Pa's physical condition deteriorates and Ma finds herself

on the receiving end of daughter-in-law Faye Bainter's short-tempered

invective. In due time, a nursing home (for Ma) and deportation to a

fifth child living on the West Coast (for Pa) loom on the horizon and,

in their final hours together, the old couple treat themselves to a

day-long second honeymoon in Manhattan--a heartbreaking sequence that I

would rank among the greatest sustained set-pieces in the history of

American movies.

A remarkably unsentimental, tough-minded film on a subject rarely taken up by American pictures, Make Way For Tomorrow

doesn't lack for a reputation. Orson Welles famously (and accurately)

told Peter Bogdanovich that only a stone could remain unmoved by it,

while McCarey himself deemed it the greatest of his films--when he won

the 1937 directing Oscar for his screwball comedy classic The Awful Truth

(also scripted by Delmar), he noted in his acceptance speech that the

Academy had given him the award for the wrong movie. Still, in the

ensuing 70 years, Make Way For Tomorrow has been unreasonably difficult to see, never commercially released on home video in the U.S. and only recently issued on DVD in France. (If rumors are to be believed, a Criterion Collection edition may finally be in the works.)

So,

it comes as no surprise that this year's Telluride screening--one of

several selections chosen by the festival's guest director, Sideways and Election

auteur Alexander Payne--isn't the first time McCarey's film has shown

here, though that didn't stop a sold-out crowd from packing the Masons

Hall cinema early on Sunday morning to see it in a pristine 35mm print

from the Universal Pictures vault, resulting in so many turn-aways that

an additional screening had to be scheduled immediately. (Put that in your iPhone and tweet it.) Several years ago, documentarian Errol Morris, who has called Make Way For Tomorrow

"the most depressing movie ever made," also presented the film in

Telluride. But with all due respect to Morris, it should be said that Make Way For Tomorrow

is leavened with much good humor and the wonderful parade of eccentric

faces and vernacular dialogue so common to Hollywood films of the

'30s--which, in some ways, makes the film's underlying tragedy that

much more devastating. Like Lubitsch in The Shop Around the Corner,

McCarey is a master at shifting moods on a dime, committed to showing

us humanity at its noblest and pettiest. And so he uses the selfishness

of the children in the film not to turn them into grotesque villains,

but rather to hold a mirror to the audience. What, indeed, would we

would do in similar circumstances: Honor thy mother and father or send

them packing?

Elsewhere in the everything-old-is-new-again

department, Telluride welcomed a visit from French film historian and

preservationist Serge Bromberg, who began fervently collecting films at

age nine, and today, four decades later, might best be described as an

Indiana Jones of the moving image, raiding flea markets, antique shops,

dusty attics and beyond in search of lost or unknown cinema. One such

discovery occurred recently when Bromberg found himself stuck in an

elevator with a woman who turned out to be the widow of Henri-Georges

Clouzot (Le Corbeau, Les Diaboliques), the "French Hitchcock" whose most ambitious film project, a 1964 marital jealousy thriller called L'Enfer,

shut down in the middle of shooting and was never completed. Clouzot's

widow explained to Bromberg that she had in her possession nearly 200

cans of original camera negative from the shoot, plus additional

footage of camera tests in which Clouzot and his collaborators

experimented with the dazzling trick shots and special photographic

effects intended to be used in the finished film.

Telluride Film Festival: Make Way For Yesteryear

From that

imposing celluloid monolith, Bromberg and co-director Ruxandra Medrea

have chiseled a fascinating two-hour documentary, Henri-George Clouzot's Inferno, which uses the rediscovered L'Enfer

footage plus new scenes shot in a studio with Clouzot's script as a

guide (and actors Vincent Lindon and Bérénice Bejo filling in for the

late Romy Schneider and Serge Reggiani) to offer a hypothetical

reconstruction of a film that was never made, and a plausible

explanation of where it all went wrong.

In addition to Inferno,

Bromberg was on hand in Telluride to receive the festival's Special

Medallion and also to present his well-traveled stage show, Retour de

Flamme (Saved From the Flames), in which he showcases some of his

recent treasure-hunting finds, many of which are now also available on

DVD in France from Bromberg's own Lobster Films, and, in the U.S., on the Flicker Alley label. Among the celluloid wonders on tap at this particular edition: Artheme Swallows His Clarinet,

a fragment of a 1912 slapstick short made by the Eclipse production

company, a mere dozen of whose more than 2000 productions still

survive; Le Papillon Fantastique, a hand-colored print of a previously unknown 1909 film by French cinema pioneer George Méliès; Gregor and His Gregorians

(1929), the earliest known musical sound film made in France

(discovered by Bromberg in the rubble of a demolished film lab), which

offers an early glimpse of a then newly unemployed silent film pianist

trying his hand at the violin, Stéphane Grappelli; and another musical

short, Jazz Hot (1938), featuring a significantly more advanced Grappelli and the only known film footage of guitar great Django Reinhardt.

Just

seeing these films is a rare enough treat, but Bromberg is more than a

mere presenter; he's a vaudevillian showman in his own right, bounding

enthusiastically about the stage, lighting a strip of nitrate film

ablaze, providing his own piano accompaniment and, for an encore,

channeling the spirit of animation forefather Winsor McCay while

presenting McCay's 1914 Gertie the Dinosaur short, playing the

role of dinosaur tamer to McCay's onscreen creation much the way McKay

himself did during his own popular live shows. The day before

Bromberg's tour de force (which, like Make Way For Tomorrow,

necessitated a repeat engagement by popular demand), Austrian director

Michael Haneke, in Telluride to screen his Cannes-winning The White Ribbon,

lamented to me in an on-stage interview that today's television-bred

moviegoing audience lacks the capacity to marvel at motion pictures in

the way he and others of his generation did as children. But for two

enchanted hours, Bromberg makes that very wonderment palpable again,

taking us back to a time when it was possible to feel rapt by the very

flickering of the light against the darkened screen. "I can't think of

anywhere else in the world I'd rather be right now," an awestruck

Alexander Payne said mid-way through Bromberg's program. I couldn't

have said it any better myself.


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