With an endless stream of bad — or, at best, confounding — news monopolizing our every waking hour, it's safe to say we could all use a laugh. In fact, there's quantifiable evidence that's the case: Saturday Night Live's ratings are the best they've been in two decades and late-night TV hosts are seeing their viewership rise by nearly 33 percent. As if on cue, the TCM Classic Film Festival returns to Hollywood for its eighth year with a comedy-themed program.
Since 2010, Turner Classic Movies has taken over Hollywood Boulevard each spring to inject it with a dose of classic Hollywood glamour. Movie palaces like the Chinese and the Egyptian get a taste of their former glory as cinephiles pack the houses to celebrate all things classic film. Stars and filmmakers join audiences to reminisce about their work, and restorations and rarities screen for adoring crowds. Hollywood Boulevard is now the domain of tourists and chain stores, but for four glorious days, movie fanatics can get a taste of its former glory.
TCM Festival planners selected the theme, “Comedy at the Movies,” early last summer, long before the 2016 election sent many reeling in shock and fear. Senior vice president of programming Charles Tabesh notes that the theme wasn’t chosen with any “strategy or thoughtfulness on our part.” He says that instead it was chosen for being “something different and fun”; past themes have ranged from “Music in the Movies” to “Family in the Movies” to “History According to Hollywood.” Still, he says he’s pleased with the happy coincidence. “It’s a welcome relief right now,” he says. “It is a really dark and disturbing time in the country overall, and there’s a lot of tension and a lot of conflict. … It will be nice to have a little break.”
But Tabesh also notes that the greatest aspect of the festival is that it will provide a welcome escape for everyone, regardless of their politics (something that can be lacking in left-leaning, late-night television). “Movies bring people together in a way that is independent of political affiliation. … [People] are just there to commune and get together and enjoy films,” he says. He remarks on the staggering amount of news Americans are watching nowadays, and says that personally, he’s looking forward to escaping that maelstrom for four days of belly laughs.
Tabesh and his team have devised a thorough examination of comedy across subgenre and era — screenings run the gamut from silent slapsticks to 1930s and '40s screwball romantic comedies to more contemporary hits such as Best in Show and The Princess Bride. “Comedy is a broad theme; there’s so many ways you can dive into comedy,” he says. “And at the same time, not every film we play is going to be a comedy. Not everybody is there to see comedy, some people want to see other kinds of films. And there are key anniversaries and people we want to pay tribute to — it was definitely trying to get that right balance.” When planning the festival schedule, which can have as many as five screenings in any given time slot, the TCM team wants to ensure that audiences can have a range of genres, eras and styles from which to choose. For instance, Alex Trebek is hosting screenings of Stalag 17 and The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Michael Douglas will be in attendance for a screening of The China Syndrome.
Still, even with that balance in place, comedy is driving the proceedings. Icons of the genre such as Charlie Chaplin, Carl and Rob Reiner (both of whom will attend for a hand-and-footprint ceremony) and Ginger Rogers will be honored through the programming. Themes include more obvious categories, like Dark Comedy and Movie Spoofs (which will include a 40th-anniversary screening of High Anxiety with Mel Brooks in attendance), while also featuring more unusual subgenres, like “Divorce/Remorse.” Tabesh devised that theme to cover romantic comedies that feature couples seeking a divorce who ultimately end up reconciling, including everything from beloved classics like 1937's The Awful Truth in an 80th-anniversary, world-premiere restoration to lesser-known diversions such as the William Powell-Myrna Loy vehicle Love Crazy (1941) and the Ernst Lubitsch pre-Code confection One Hour With You (1932).
For Tabesh, that category comprises some of the greatest delights of the festival. He says, “Rather than a certain type of comedy that holds up, certain films and filmmakers hold up,” e.g., Lubitsch, Preston Sturges and Leo McCarey. Tabesh adds, “I’m not saying you can’t find good romantic comedies, but it’s much harder, and I think that’s a shame. That has definitely changed with time.”
While today’s multiplexes are dominated by tech-heavy superhero films and juvenile gross-out comedies, the comedies that ruled cinema in the past relied on little more than whip-smart dialogue. “You didn’t have that tool of making flashy special effects, so you had to rely on the writing,” he explains. “The '30s, '40s and '20s were a really rich time for sophisticated, adult, well-written comedies. You have a hard time finding those now.”
For comedians and screenwriters of today, Tabesh recommends they screen some of these classics and lesser-known films of the past. “Movies were more made for adults,” he says. “There was a wit and intelligence to the dialogue that isn’t really central to what they [contemporary comedy writers] do or how they write. A lot of it really goes back to the writing, and that’s what I’m especially drawn to with classic films.” He points to his favorites on the docket, Born Yesterday (1950), Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Awful Truth (1937), as capstones of classic comedy.
The festival website quotes Charlie Chaplin, saying “A day without laughter is a day wasted.” The four jam-packed days of screenings, panels and more provide the perfect opportunity to make up for any days you might have understandably wasted on the daily anxieties in an increasingly frightening world. For once, escapism doesn't sound like a bad thing.
The TCM Classic Film Festival runs through Sunday, April 9. filmfestival.tcm.com.