I didn’t get to see much as I wanted to see at this year’s Turner Classic Movies Film Festival, but caught some great panels with such legendary stars as Angie Dickinson, Kurt Russell, and Keith Carradine. And a great Q&A with Boris Karloff’s daughter, Sara Karloff.
Here are the highlights!
NIGHT WORLD (1932)
This pre-code film was a fantastic way to kick off the fest. Boris Karloff stars as a gangster named Happy and the entire film takes place in one evening at his club. There’s a lot going on: He’s sure his wife is cheating on him and he’s got rival mobsters gunning for him.
Chorus girl Ruth (Public Enemy star Mae Clarke), has issues of her own: She’s trying to dodge the attentions of tough guy Ed (George Raft), while falling for hopeless alcoholic Michael Rand (Lew Ayres). And there’s a surprisingly well-rounded role for black actor Clarence Muse (whose films include 1979’s The Black Stallion) as the philosophical doorman who’s trying to get off work in time to visit his wife in the hospital.
Trysts, shoot-outs and a few Busby Berkeley musical numbers ensue.
It was made the year after Karloff’s star-making turn as the monster in Frankenstein, but he’d actually made dozens of movies before that. Before becoming a horror icon, he was known as a menacing character in mob movies The Criminal Code and Scarface for director Howard Hawks.
His daughter, Sara Karloff, introduced the film with a short Q&A:
“[Father] had just scored a huge hit the year before and criminal code. That was Howard Hawks. And then he was cast in Frankenstein which really gave his career to start after being in the business 20 years,” she said.
She related that he got his start in acting by heading to Canada and telling them he was a well-known British actor. By the end of his first performance, she said, “It was abundantly clear he had never set foot on a stage before. He convinced the director of the repertory theater group that he was an experienced actor but indeed he only seen the place that it said he been in. But at least he still had a job. He spent about 10 years doing repertory theater in British Columbia. He was a quick study, and he certainly learned his craft. It was a wonderful way to learn his profession. He painted sets, built sets. Drove trucks, dug ditches — whatever it took to sustain himself while he learned his craft. And did what he was passionate about, which was to become an actor.
As for becoming typecast later in late, she said he considered it a privilege. “He never minded being typecast. He felt he was really one of the fortunate people in the world. He said, ‘Isn’t it everybody’s dream regardless of what role we are in to just have a niche? Whether you’re a plumber or an actor or a builder to establish something you need to your own talents.’”
She’s the founder of Karloff enterprises and says they’re working on restoring some of her father’s silent work.
She added, “I’d really like people to be aware of his work he did with the Screen Actors Guild. He’s one of the founding members of SAG. His card number was number nine. He thought it was so important to give back to his profession. And to provide a vehicle for up-and-coming artist to have a voice. And a way for them to express their needs and their concerns and their complaints. He spent so many years as an up-and-coming actor, as an extra, or a bit part player, suffering at the hands of some pretty uncomfortable conditions. He lost 25 pounds during the making of Frankenstein.”
She explained that forming a union was a big risk and that “those 12 founding members were putting their careers on the line. My mother told me that couples would get close to each other on the dance floor and whisper, ‘Meeting Tuesday night at so-and-so’s house.’ But he was passionate about that. And giving back to his profession. I know that’s something he was very quietly proud about he was a lovely human being. He left a lovely legacy both personally and professionally. I’m very grateful for both.”
Last year, Lily Tomlin and Ronee Blakley both participated in a wonderfully dish Q&A about the making of the landmark Robert Altman ensemble film. This year, Tomlin couldn’t make it, but Blakley was back with a panel that included Jeff Goldblum, Keith Carradine, and screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury.
Since this Q&A was before the film (last year’s was afterward), Blakley caused a stir when she blurted out happens to her character at the end of the film. After some murmuring in the audience (many of whom had clearly never seen the film before), TCM host Dave Karger, who was moderating, commented, “The movie came out 44 years ago. We’re going to allow it!”
Via TCM News
The best moments from the more than 20-minute discussion:
When Joan Tewkesbury was in Nashville doing research for the film, she said the city felt like a circle: “You’d see the same people at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Knowing the way Bob worked, it was a perfect circle for him to cross-connect all these characters.” Her script “started with 18 characters and expanded to 24 and you, the audience, became the 25th.”
It was Goldblum’s third film and his second with Altman (after California Suite). He doesn’t have any lines in the film, but plays a memorable oddball known only as “Tricycle Man” because of the unusual chopper he rides. Goldblum’s character practices sleight-of-hand magic tricks throughout the movie, something he had to learn for the film. Altman (who had a famously loose approach to directing), wasn’t sure which trick he should use in which scene and just told him “Every day when you come to work, bring the bag. Bring all the tricks.”
When describing what each actor brought to the film, Tewkesbury borrowed that line, saying that each one brought their own “bag of tricks.” She said that Blakley (a singer/songwriter who wrote many of the songs in the film) brought in a knowledge of the music industry. “And Keith’s songs were the real inspiration for a lot of the things that happened in the film.”
Keith Carradine won a Best Original Song Oscar for “I’m Easy.” He admits being astonished that he won over such heady competition as Diana Ross. However, the record never achieved gold record status: “ABC did not think it was a hit single, so they didn’t release it. David Geffen saw the film and signed me to Asylum and we cut the song again. So there were two versions of the song. When it won the Oscar, ABC said, ‘Wait a second!’ And they put their own version of the record out and so there were two singles being sold at the same time. So as a result, it sold enough copies that if it was one record, it would have gotten me a gold record. So I think I have two bronzes.” (Karger chimed in: “You also have an Oscar, so I’m not going to feel that bad.”
Initially Altman wanted to just use Blakley’s music in the film: She would later be cast as fragile country star Barbara Jean, which earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. She was very nervous about her first meeting with Altman. “I thought, I don’t usually sing at 10 a.m. Maybe I should take a little tequila.” She brought a half-pint and started playing for Altman. “And then someone wanted to have some tequila and then Bob thought, well, it would be a good idea to send out for some beer. And then other people started stopping by, like Gary Busey,” so it became a party.
Carradine hated the womanizing character he was playing. Originally, he was going to play Bill, the less famous member of the musical trio and Gary Busey was going to play breakout star Tom. But Busey opted out of the film to do a TV pilot called “Texas Wheelers.” (Busey would go on to be nominated for Best Actor for his portrayal of Buddy Holly in 1978’s The Buddy Holly Story.)
Carradine recalled, “I was delighted, but once I started playing that role, I was profoundly uncomfortable, for a number of reasons. The biggest of which was that I was still young enough and immature enough as an actor to be uncomfortable playing somebody that I didn’t like. About halfway through, I went up to Bob. I was really, really having a tough time. I pulled him aside and told him, ‘I don’t feel good. I don’t feel I know what I’m doing…’ He looked at me and said, ‘You’re fine,’ and he walked away. That was Bob’s direction. I wish I could take credit for this, but I can’t. The result is what you see in the film is an actor who doesn’t like the guy he’s playing, but what the audience gets is a guy who doesn’t like himself. Genius. And that’s Bob.”
ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981)
The hottest ticket in town was the Q&A with director John Carpenter and Kurt Russell, who were met with a hero’s welcome by the enthusiastic crowd.
Russell told moderator Dave Karger that – no surprise – Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino are both huge fans of the film. “One night [while making Grindhouse], we went out to dinner and it was great to listen to them speak about what that movie meant to them when they were young. John Carpenter was one of the greatest influences on them, I’m sure they would say. They wanted to know, ‘How’d he do this?’ and ‘How’d he do that?’
Carpenter’s inspiration for Snake Plissken:
Carpenter: “When I wrote the script, I had Clint Eastwood in mind, quite frankly. Because he’s a rough-and-tumble guy. And Kurt did a great imitation of it.”
Russell added: “I couldn’t hear a voice, and then John told me that [The Good, the Bad and the Ugly star] Lee Van Cleef was going to play Houk, I said, ‘Oh, I know what I’m doing.’”
It was Russell’s idea for Snake to wear an eyepatch:
Russell: “I had an image of Snake in my mind and I told John, ‘Oh, I’d love to wear an eyepatch.’ And he said, ‘Oh, I’d like that.’ And the studio wasn’t happy about that. They said, ‘It’s going to cover half his face!’ But John said, ‘ think it’s a great idea.’”
Carpenter: “I loved it. One of my favorite performances in any movie ever was Kirk Douglas in The Vikings and he wore an eyepatch. And it was fabulous.”
The snake tattoo, and its placement, was also Russell’s idea:
Russell: The eyepatch and the tattoo, they had to go together. He was an enigmatic person. I thought the tattoo was kind of cheesy [when it was put on his arm at first]. I just thought it was more mysterious by putting it on the chest and having the tail go down his past. It was suggestive and that’s what it was meant to be.” [Huge applause from the audience]
Russell barely survived his epic ring match:
Carpenter: “The guy was a wrestler and he was huge and a really nice guy. But some of the instructions for the scene didn’t really get through to him. They had baseball bats and Kurt has a trash can lid and this guy whaled … Kurt was fighting for his life.”
Russell: “He had killed his best friend in the ring. And I was aware of this. He knocked my stuntman out, the day they rehearsed. He had an apple on his head. So they told me, “Sorry, Kurt, you’re going to have to do this, man.”
Carpenter: “Everybody tried talking to him: ‘Pull your punches.” Then WHAM WHAM WHAM. It was unbelievable.”
Russell: “At the end of it, where I get to kill him, he got every sensitive about that. I told him, just keep your head still and we’ll be fine. So I got to get my few minutes of happiness there.”
Will there ever be a third Escape film?
Russell: “What would we call it? Escape from the Geriatric Ward?”
Carpenter: “One thing I’ve learned in this business, you never say never. So we’ll see.”
THE KILLERS (1964)
Don Siegel (who’d go on to make Dirty Harry and Escape From Alcatraz) directed this made-for-TV remake of the 1946 noir. It starred Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes, Lee Marvin and – in his last acting role before entering politics – Ronald Reagan.
Reagan plays a bad guy who viciously slaps Dickinson in one scene. The actress did a Q&A before the film with TCM host Ben Mankiewicz and related that the future President had a hard time with that. “Reagan was interesting as a heavy. But you can see, he’s kind of dying back there,” she laughed.
She added, “I attribute a lot of what’s good about The Killers to Siegel. And the story itself. And Cassavetes is so watchable. It’s pretty rugged. But that was Don. Don Siegel was very good at all that stuff.”
Despite having had a smash with the 1959 film Rio Bravo opposite John Wayne, she said she struggled to find good film roles throughout the ’60s and ’70s.
“Just one [hit movie] doesn’t do it for anybody,” she said. “You need a follow up and a lot of luck. And I don’t think I had that much drive, to tell you the truth. That’s why I took “Police Woman.” It was a hell of a grind and it really did me in,” she said of the show, which ran from 1974-1978. But, as Mankiewicz noted, she inspired thousands of women to join the police in real life, which is something she never anticipated.
In the remake, Dickinson is as alluring a femme fatale as Ava Gardner was in the 40s version. But there are a number of changes: Cassavetes is a race car driver, not a boxer like Burt Lancaster. And the hitmen (Lee Marvin and Clu Gulagar) who bump off Cassavetes are the ones who end up investigating why he didn’t run when they showed up to kill him.