Four Days. Classic Films.

Sunday marked the end of TCM’s Classic Film Festival, a four-day event spread out over a handful of movie palaces in Hollywood that premiered with a digital screening of the restored Judy Garland version of A Star Is Born (1954), and closed with Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959).

Being about classic films, the festival was, in some ways, a test as to whether a brand name (TCM) could be used to not only showcase (mostly) film print screenings at premium prices in theatres, but help publicize the latest film restoration by studios prior to home video releases.

Star is a high-profile work headlined by one of cinema’s major icons (Garland), whereas Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951) is an oddball work by a little-known director, originally distributed on DVD by indie label KINO.

In the past, restoration of classics such as Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927), Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), Anthony Mann’s El Cid (1961), David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi noir Blade Runner (twice), Luchino Visconti’s Il Gattopardo / The Leopard (1963) toured the world as regal, limited run engagements in major cities. And on the big screen.

Less glossy reconstructions and restorations – Erich Von Stroheim’s silent classic Greed (1924), or Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon (1937) – more or less slid straight to cable TV and video, respectively, if indeed they were given film festival or limited runs in select cities.

Flip to 2010, and as the major chains continue to devote screen time to blockbusters and 3D escapism, it seems likely that, unless there’s a local film society in your home town, you may not see the latest crop of restorations – even the high profile gems – on the big screen.

The Varsity Cinemas in Toronto did a series of ‘test’ screenings this past winter in which a handful of classics were digitally screened from reportedly Blu-ray discs, but it’s not the same as catching film prints of Jaws (1975) at the now-dead Uptown Backstage with a packed house, Alien (the original 1979 theatrical version) at the now-dead Uptown 1, Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood (1971) and Black Sunday (1960), as well as The Brood (1979) and Phantom of the Paradise (1974) at the Bloor Cinema.

The Ontario Cinemathque has themed director retrospectives, but catching a bit of vintage sleaze, gore, or seventies disaster flicks seems dicey, since the product within those genres doesn’t quite measure up to a month-long tribute to Godard, Sirk, Bergman, Kurosawa, or Ozu.

What was screened at TCMCFF was decidedly mainstream and non-chi-chi, and the selection was aimed at the average classic film fan who also spends a fair time watching TCM for a daily/weekly classic film fix. That’s not a bad thing, because the program featured a balance of foreign, silent, cult, previously lost, and AFI-listed films.

Basically something for everyone, including standard classics as Casablanca (1943), Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), and North by Northwest (1959), not to mention Godard’s Breathless (1960), Preminger’s Carmen Jones (1954), Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950), and the epic Good Earth (1937), a pseudo-Asian drama with white folks hidden under politically incorrect makeup.

Some of the screenings included guest appearances (check out the TCMCFF website for blog and show details) and some related lectures, but by early accounts, the event was a success (see Variety’s just-in report), and a validation of vintage Hollywood fare.

Here’s a question: Can something like TCM’s festival happen in Toronto, outside of the TIFF umbrella?

Are there enough fans willing to bypass a DVD rental just to catch classics on the big screen?

Is it worth a theatre’s gamble to rent a print of Joseph Mankiewicz’ Cleopatra (1963) – all four hours of it – for a one-time screening?

TCM’s festival include Cleopatra on the big screen, not to mention the 1930 widescreen Grandeur version of The Big Trail (which is simply stunning), Elia Kazan’s Wild River (a neglected drama with exceptional colour lighting), 2001: A Space Odyssey (which never came to Toronto during the film’s touted anniversary / restoration run prior to the DVD and Blu-ray launch), a cleaned up North by Northwest, a print of the 1945 blazing Technicolor noir thriller Leave Her to Heaven, the newly restored The Red Shoes (1948), and the recently restored Metropolis (1927).

Those are the film’s I’d have caught, since some are likely once-only screenings.

Studios have a tendency to reissue classics in theatres to publicize the looming home video release, but there are looming issues: unless it’s Casablanca, widescreen and stereo sound trumps an old 1.33:1 black & white film. Why? Because grain is visible in HD, the image is square, and some Luddites do not like black & white when they’ve spent a few thousand dollars on a HD home theatre system designed to bring out the crisply rendered audio and video nuances of a movie.

As studios slowly shift their classic film catalogues away from DVDs towards their own cable channels and digital download venues, they should realize some of the films screened at TCM’s festival could and should be used to publicize film libraries currently emerging as digital broadcasts and downloads.

By making these films available – as prints, or as HD theatrical masters – it keeps the Hollywood catalogue alive, much in the way the Cinematheques around the world reprogram Godard, Sirk, Bergman, Kurosawa, or Ozu. Those films remain draws because the themed screenings keep those films within the consciousness of film fans.

If HD masters were created for broadcast, then they should also be available for rental. Blade Runner, as screened at the Mount Pleasant Theatre in November of 2007, looked and sounded grand in HD, and I can imagine how great The Big Trail, Leave Her to Heaven, Argento’s 1970 debut Bird with a Crystal Plumage (Storaro shot that one, you know), or Rollercoaster (1977) would look in that theatre.

As reported at, The German city of Schauburg will hold a Sensurround film festival, June 5-6, this summer. Battlestar Galactica (1978), Rollercoaster (1977), and Midway (1976) will be digital projections, whereas Earthquake (1974) will be from a 70mm print. The German audio will be accompanied by English subtitles, and the 40 Hz audio will blast from vintage Sensurround gear.

This is happening not in Hollywood, not in New York, and certainly not in Toronto. And people will trek across borders because it’s a unique event, which begs the question again: Can something like TCM’s festival – be it classic, horror, cult, widescreen, or blasted Sensurround – happen in Toronto?

Four days. Rarely screened classics. In Toronto.


Mark R. Hasan, Editor


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