For more than 28,000 old-movie enthusiasts, the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival began in earnest on April 29. With between four to six presentations taking place at any one time, the discerning attendee learned to schedule his or her time judiciously.
My day began with a 9 a.m. showing of 1943’s “The More the Merrier,” shown to a full house at the Egyptian Theatre. Starring Joel McCrea, Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn (who earned a well-deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actor), director George Stevens created an uproarious screwball comedy about what happens when a patriotic young lady decides to help relieve the crowded conditions of wartime Washington, D.C., by subletting half of her apartment.
Waiting in line I struck up a conversation with Bruce and Claire Burns of Lincoln, Nebraska. Both love the comedies of the 1940s, but neither had seen this film before. Asked what drew them to view it, Bruce said he was always attracted to good storylines and production values. Claire explained that her parents had told her about the restrictions and rationing experienced during the war. Above all, both knew and enjoyed Arthur’s pixilated comedic artistry and Coburn’s dignified hilarity.
Bruce and Claire are baby boomers, as were many others in attendance. It seems a given that we would take pleasure in watching classic films. But in this age of YouTube, Netflix and Hulu, when contemporary films are so much more readily available, I wondered why younger folks came to celebrate old movies. Alex Pearlman, a bearded young man of 34 and a videographer, provided a reason.
“I grew up with old movies,” said Alex with a ready smile. “Not only do they contain elements of solid storytelling, students of film can learn a wealth of detail about framing, composition and camerawork. And, besides that, after more than a century of cinematic art and technical methods, some of which were devised in the most haphazard manner, there’s a wonderful sense of legacy. As a professional, I really appreciate that.”
I followed up “The More the Merrier” with a showing of the long-unseen comedy, “When You’re in Love” (1937), which teamed the pretty blonde operatic diva Grace Moore with Cary Grant in a pleasant frolic, giving Moore a chance to mix classical arias with a show-stopping rendition of Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher.”
The movie was introduced by Jennifer Grant, Cary Grant’s daughter, who explained that her father did the movie as a favor to Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Studios, who was trying to build up Moore’s star. Cary was a rising comedy star himself and it was hoped that his popularity would attract larger audiences.
Next, I went to the presentation of “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928), the silent masterwork of Carl Theodor Dryer, a sensitive Danish director who used black and white celluloid with as much artistry as Da Vinci used tempera. This movie is a prime example of what Bruce and Claire Burns and Alex Pearlman admire in old films: solid storytelling, creative camerawork utilizing unique technical aspects of light and shadow, interwoven with intimate close ups.
This presentation at the Egyptian Theatre was graced by the beauty of a live orchestra and vocalists performing Richard Enhorn’s superb 1994 oratorio, “Voices of Light” composed to accompany this film.
Renée Jeanne Falconetti (also billed as Maria Falconetti) plays Joan as a women of intense, luminous faith. Dryer used the actual trial records for his screenplay and deliberately staged his film in a manner reminiscent of the passion and death of Christ. Joan was martyred in 1431 near the close of the Hundred Years’ War by order of Pierre Cauchon, count-bishop of Beauvais, who non-canonically conducted an inquisitorial trial in the city of Rouen while in the pay of Henry VI, king of England. Some 20 years later, at the request of Joan’s family, the pope authorized an investigation which brought the trial’s irregularities to light.
Although Joan was now vindicated and interest in Joan’s story never waned in France, the Church took no further official action.
Between 1895 and 1905 the very anti-clerical Socialist Party governed France. The Napoleonic concordat was rescinded in 1903 and diplomatic relations between the France and the Holy See worsened to the point of total breakdown. At the close of World War I, during which the French government often used the image of Joan in armor to inspire it citizens, Pope Benedict XV, noting the English-French alliance and that Joan’s cause had received the necessary miracles, suggested that diplomatic relations might be resumed.
Joan of Arc was canonized in solemn splendor in St. Peter’s Basilica on May 16, 1920. Her feast day is celebrated on May 30, the day of her death.
On July 10, 1920, the French government designated May 8 a national holiday celebrating the canonization — and by Nov. 20 resumed diplomatic relations with the Holy See.
Sean M. Wright is an Emmy-nominated television writer and author. He presents workshops and Catholic faith formation courses at parishes throughout the archdiocese.