All Together Now: Dispatches from the 13th TCM Classic Film Festival

Most movies are a window you gaze through for two or so voyeuristic hours. Others are a door you walk through. Jewel Robbery, a 1932 pre-Code comedy, is like falling into a glass of champagne. The black and white photography by Robert Kurrle shimmers, and the gowns—there are many—Kay Francis wears sparkle. Francis plays an Austrian baroness who’s grown bored with her lovers (also many) until she meets the world’s most charming jewel thief, played by the incomparable William Powell.

You could say that getting lost in Jewel Robbery is akin to living nostalgically. But considering the movie is celebrating its 90th anniversary, only those pushing their centenary, and with a really sharp memory, could call it nostalgic. For the rest of us, including the legions of movie lovers, many decked to the nines, at the 13th annual TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, California, last month, stepping inside the theater to see Jewel Robbery was a chance to leave the real world behind. I get enough reality from my life, more than one pre-screening introduction started. For my movies, I want a little escape.

Ditto for those who saw Jewel Robbery on its initial run 90 years ago. Released during the height of the Great Depression—unemployment was at 23% in ’32—the lavish opulence of Jewel Robbery did not engender an “eat the rich” response from the unemployed and unhoused in the audience, but a chance at fantasy: A bit of cotton candy in the middle of a dust storm.

And there was plenty of candy to go around at this year’s fest—the first in-person TCMFF since COVID sank its spiky teeth into all things communal. From Burt Lancaster in floppy hair and green tights swashbuckling and tumbling his way through The Flame and the Arrow (1950) to Doris Day singing and fighting for a seven-and-a-half-cent raise in The Pajama Game (1957)—when was the last time you watched a musical about labor unions?

The Pajama Game (Courtesy Warner Bros.)

Then there was the hard stuff: I, the Jury (1953), a low-budget noir featuring crime novelist Mickey Spillane’s snub-nosed private eye, Mike Hammer (Biff Elliot). Practically forgotten for 70 years, I, the Jury is far from a masterpiece, but is one of the few black and white noirs filmed in 3D, lensed by the master of light and shadow, John Alton. And thanks to advancements in 3D projection, the restoration of I, the Jury probably looks sharper today than in ’53.

Restoration premieres are always plentiful at TCMFF, but this year’s lineup featured an amazing array of the work being done to preserve and restore our cinematic heritage. From a new 4K HDR and audio restoration of the sweeping western epic Giant (1956) to the photochemical restoration of the comical heist film Toptaki (1964). But one of the best discoveries at this year’s festival was also a restoration in progress: 1966’s A Man Called Adam, an under-seen, socially conscious drama about an alcoholic and self-destructive jazz trumpeter played with queasy uncertainty by Sammy Davis Jr. The musical interludes are great—no surprise there—but so is Jack Priestley’s stark cinematography in this unrelenting insiders’ look at the music industry, ruled by marginalization and racism both on stage and off. And if that wasn’t enough, Louis Armstrong plays the premonition of Johnson’s future, should he be so lucky, while his love interest (Cicely Tyson) reflects the coming civil rights movement.

A Man Called Adam is great. They’re all great, each in their own way. Jewel Robbery is for leaving your troubles at the door, while A Man Called Adam reminds you that those troubles are here to stay. Thank god we have the movies. Life would be so much less tolerable without them. 

A Man Called Adam (Courtesy Embassy Pictures)

The above article first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 29, No. 34, “All together now.”