Vidor and Ulmer at TCM Fest

Photographer: Mark Hill
Photographer: Mark Hill

The TCM Classic Film Festival wrapped Sunday, and as always, it was a whirlwind of celebrity appearances, new prints, flocks of out-of-town tourists, and general TCM geekdom.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t help feeling this year’s program emphasized the tried-and-true and was less exploratory than previous editions. One might have hoped TCM’s recent Peabody Award for its elaborate presentation of Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film would have inspired it to cast a wider net.  But even the “Discoveries” section included films such as Eraserhead, Godzilla, Freaks, The Muppet Movie, and other standards of repertory or the DVD market.

Still, a lot of great films played at the festival, and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone (especially, say, tourists from towns lacking revival screens) the opportunity to see such masterpieces as The Best Years of Our Lives, City Lights, How Green Was My Valley, The Innocents, Johnny Guitar, Make Way for Tomorrow, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Nutty Professor or Tokyo Story projected on the big screen.

For me, the highlights were seeing two features by King Vidor – The Stranger’s Return (1933) and Stella Dallas (1937) – and the newly restored Her Sister’s Secret (1946), a rare melodrama directed by Edgar G. Ulmer.

I’m still catching up with titles from Vidor’s long and diverse career, but Raymond Durgnat and Scott Simmon, in their groundbreaking 1988 book on the filmmaker, place The Stranger’s Return as part of Vidor’s “back to the land” trilogy (including Our Daily Bread and The Wedding Night) and describe Stella Dallas as a key melodrama that “lines up among the ‘pure’ weepies,” setting the stage for the “wild sexual struggles of Vidor’s postwar melodramas” such as The Fountainhead, Beyond the Forest and Ruby Gentry.

strangersreturn

The Stranger’s Return is a gentle ensemble drama about an eccentric farmer (Lionel Barrymore) who welcomes his sophisticated, east coast granddaughter (Miriam Hopkins) to the family farm; she gets to know the community, kindles a half-hearted romance, and instigates the jealousy of her relatives.  Most of the film takes place in the homes, cars, and porches of the small community, and the breezy drama culminates in a lightly comic ruse. Vidor’s relaxed visual style matches the airy drift of the characters, save for a standout scene in which the camera pans quickly back-and-forth in a seasick expression of Hopkins’ frantic attempts to feed a horde of hungry harvesters.  (On a completely trivial note, it’s fun hearing the characters champion the work of stage actor Fritz Leiber, the father of the fine science fiction author of the same name.)

stelladallas

Film historian Jeremy Arnold (a TCM writer whose commentary for Sony’s DVD of Budd Boetticher’s Ride Lonesome I’ve enjoyed) introduced Stella Dallas. Beginning, justifiably, by praising Barbara Stanwyck’s career diversity and performance in the title role, he went on to talk about the “sacrificial mother” theme beloved by Depression-era Hollywood, and said the film-within-the-film playing at a theater Stella visits is actually Henry King’s 1925 film version of the same material. Coincidentally, this film also ends on a ruse, this time involving Stella’s attempt to alienate her grown daughter to persuade her to leave home. While the famous, bittersweet ending reminded Durgnat and Simmon of Les Misèrables, I couldn’t help invoking Late Spring.

hersisterssecret

Finally, Ulmer’s Her Sister’s Secret is a compelling and unusual melodrama produced at Poverty Row studio PRC. Nancy Coleman stars as a young single mother who secretly gives up her child to her married but childless sister; things don’t go as planned, of course, and when the true father turns up, the characters are embroiled in turmoil.  Shot by the noted German cinematographer Franz Planer, the film has an elegance that belies its meager budget, but what really impresses is the humanist goodwill of every character in the film – there’s not a baddie to be found in the bunch, just wounded characters trying to act honestly and graciously in trying circumstances. It’s a guileless and gripping film.

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