“So it’s a film festival, but for old films? Why?”
When I told folks how excited I was to finally go to the 5th annual TCM Film Festival this year in Hollywood, I got this question a few times. This isn’t just about the old adage “see a film on the big screen, like it was meant to be seen.” This is about celebrating the old and new: old films for new audiences, new restorations for old classics, old audiences sharing the new experience, and at the center of it all, Turner Classic Movies, which turns 20 this year, thereby becoming something of an old classic itself.
Last night, TCM rolled out the red carpet and opened TCMFF with a brand new restoration of OKLAHOMA!(1955) starring Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae. Diana and I were able to nab (literally) front row seats to the screening at the TCL Chinese Theater, and this may count as the first I’ve been glad to sit front and center. The reason for the hooplah surrounding OKLAHOMA! has to do with its history: When Twentieth Century Fox brought the Rogers & Hammerstein musical to the screen in 1955, they shot it twice: once in Todd AO 65mm widescreen, and once in a lesser 35mm widescreen. This is a fact that has mostly been relegated to behind-the-scenes trivia, and the difference between the two versions has been negligible in home theater viewings. I’ve seen one or the other a few times on TV (including TCM) over the years, so I thought I knew what to expect. And then the film started, the camera pushed through the corn as high as an elephant’s eye, and I realized how very important it is that we save moments like this.
Twentieth Century Fox provided a beautiful 4K restoration of the 65mm version, complete with a restored 6 track stereo score, to play on the Chinese Theater’s huge IMAX screen. Speaking as someone who usually isn’t usually an OKLAHOMA!-lover, I fell in love. When Shirley Jones said Gordon MacRae was her favorite singer, surely she didn't imagine him on such a grand scale. The sheer power of it won me over. Personally, I'm usually a South Pacific kind of gal, but I've been whistling since I left the theater and I would feel like a bad cliche if not for the fact that my fellow Metro passengers nearly broke out into "Oh What A Beautiful Mornin" with me. If you can get cranky Angelenos on a rundown train to sing at 1AM, then you've clearly made an impression.
Film restoration is a tricky balance between preserving the original filmgoing experience while also using to best advantage modern digital tools. Turner Classic Movies has arguably been one of the most important commercial advocates for restoration, providing studios with large audiences via the small screen for 20 years. How grateful we can be to TCM that for a weekend in Hollywood they’re bringing back the oldschool via new methods.