Pete Hammond

In Hollywood they say ‘everything old is new again’ and that has never been more true this week than with a massive celebration of classic films and stars. There is tonight’s AFI Night At The Movies with 13 classic titles (including Best Picture winners like In The Heat Of The Night  and Terms Of Endearment) taking up every screen at Hollywood’s Arclight Theatre complete with in-person introductions from their original stars (Shirley MacLaine, Cher, Sidney Poitier, Sally Field and Harrison Ford among them). There is a year-long centennial celebration of the great Danny Kaye and a reminder of his talent at year’s end with the Fox remake of a Kaye classic, The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty. And starting Thursday with the World Premiere restoration of Funny Girl, the 4th Annual TCM Classic Film Festival kicks off its four day run in Hollywood.

Even as competing fests this week at Tribeca and in San Francisco try to steal the spotlight for new films from a new generation, The Turner Classic Movies fest has become a big deal focusing on the past. And not only for the network, but as a signature event where studios can show off new digital restorations of classic films with the same hoopla that might have accompanied their original premieres. Though its stars Barbra Streisand and Omar Sharif won’t be attending the Funny Girl restoration’s premiere at the Chinese Theatre tomorrow night (Sharif is in Europe; Streisand is sending a statement to be read by TCM host Robert Osborne) many vintage stars including festival honorees like Eva Marie Saint, Ann Blyth, Max Von Sydow and numerous others are expected to walk the red carpet. Competing for attention across the street at the Hollywood Roosevelt Pool will be TCM’s pristine digital presentation of 1958′s South Pacific with stars Mitzi Gaynor and France Nuyen on hand. TCM’s longtime talent exec, Darcy Hettrich has the herculean task of turning out all the great stars of Hollywood’s past  that keep these fans buzzing.

For TCM Fest Programming Director Charles Tabesh (whose day job is as SVP programming for the network) the restorations have become an important part of the festival’s brand. “There is just something very special about it. You are seeing these movies restored  for the first time in these beautiful movie palaces. I think a lot of people look forward to that and I think we have a very good relationship with the studios. We are a place  where they want to premiere some of these restorations which is great. I think it works well for both of us”, he told me when we spoke earlier this week.

Among the restored premieres in addition to Funny Girl are a 50th anniversary digital makeover of The Great Escape (1963), Buster Keaton’s silent masterpiece The General (1926), Giant (1956), On The Waterfront (1954), The Big Parade (1925) and Terrence Malick‘s underrated Badlands (1973). Beyond the restorations the trick is for Tabesh, Managing Director Genevieve McGillicuddy  and their staff to  try and get the best 35MM prints available for films that haven’t yet met the digital age, and often they discover further proof of the sad state of film these days. “It’s a definite problem. It’s also an issue in that we have to have certain theaters equipped for digital and certain theaters equipped for 35MM, so where a film plays  in the festival  is often a function of what format we can get the film in, not just how popular I think it might be”, he says adding that often they have to go to private archivists to find a decent print when the studios don’t have one.

This year’s theme is Cinematic Journeys which Tabesh says has several sub-categories such as Lovers On The Run (1967′s Bonnie And Clyde is showing), Riding The Rails (1952′s The Narrow Margin), The River As A Road (Marilyn Monroe in River Of No Return) or even Journeys Of Self Discovery (1968′s The Swimmer  in which mentally ill Burt Lancaster travels from pool to pool) to name a few examples.  Honorees in addition to Von Sydow (The Seventh Seal), and Blyth (Mildred Pierce) are documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter, Salesman) and Jane Fonda who will be on hand for a special screening of On Golden Pond as well as getting her hand and footprints in the Chinese Theatre’s forecourt right next to her father’s. The packed schedule, which comprises single showings of over 80 films (with five or six usually overlapping at all times), the tributes and special programs are available on the TCM Film Festival website. On Sunday the fest will also show the World Premiere of a documentary on the late Richard D. Zanuck, Don’t Say No Until I Finish Talking with his widow Lili Fini Zanuck participating in a Q&A with filmmaker Laurent Bouzereau.

Tabesh says the fest has become as much a convention as a place to show classic movies and upwards of 25,000 fans come in from around the country and the world (70% of attendees are from out of California and 85% outside of LA). “This is something we had been hoping for from the beginning and I’m glad it has worked out that way”, he says. The El Capitan, Egyptian and Cinerama Dome are venues but  home base is the World Famous Grauman’s Chinese Theatre which has now officially been renamed the TCL Chinese after a Chinese company won naming rights for a reported $5 million. For purists, and perhaps a good majority of the classic film fanatics who will be filling the place in the next few days, changing the name is kind of sacrilegious but money talks for the new owners. “Given our excellent relationship with the theatre and our desire to have an ongoing relationship with them we are absolutely calling it the TCL Chinese,” said Tabesh although he admitted he might slip in conversation sometimes and still refer to it as Grauman’s.

Although no Danny Kaye films are on the schedule (many played the Chinese when it was Grauman’s), the star who would have turned 100 this year (he died in 1987 at age 74)  was the subject of a day- long TCM movie marathon on  his actual January 18th birthday and now is  the subject of a year-long tribute. It actually started in October with an announcement on the Today Show and has continued with celebrations at the Paley Center which has saluted his TV work, and by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in December with a two-night “Oscars Outdoors” screening of White Christmas. In March the Library Of Congress dedicated  the Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine Kaye  website and archives and debuted an exhibit that will also come to Disney Hall at the end of the year. The humanitarian and former Unicef ambassador (with two Oscar statuettes for his work) is getting his own sandwich next week at NY’s Carnegie Deli and more significantly will also be getting renewed attention in December when 20th Century Fox  opens its major Oscar contender, The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, a contemporary remake of the 1947 film that memorably starred Kaye in one of his true classics. Fox seems to be distancing itself from comparisons to its Ben Stiller version (he directs and stars). And at last week’s half-hour CinemaCon presentation touting the movie, Fox never referred to it as a remake and didn’t mention Kaye’s name once even though the film shares the same premise. Like we said, in Hollywood everything old is new again – even if you don’t want to admit it.

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