I spent Saturday night with The Great Race. No, it was not a meeting of the local Klu Klux Klan. It was simply another attempt (successful) to spend a cinematic evening without venturing to the local multiplex.
Having spent the previous weekend seeing a piece of crap at a Yonkers movie theater which had more people talking in the audience than on the screen, I was craving a renaissance. Frankly, in retrospect, I don’t know how people in New York can handle it. There’s really no movie palaces there anymore. Most of the theaters are 15-plexes and the same Seth Rogan film is playing in a third of them. Nowhere in the tri-state area is anyplace where you can embrace and fondle motion picture history.
No, to do that, you need to move to LA. Every weekend, you can find someplace that is playing something old. And something good. To an audience that is largely respectful and not in the middle of a iPhone conversation with their cousin. And that is what I found in my first Academy screening at the Mary Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study in Hollywood.
If that sounds a little academic, some of it was. The MPAAA has taken over a Hollywood building and installed a state-of-the-art movie theater in it. And it’s all devoted to educating about the moviemaking process. If you are serious about film, they are serious about you. The walls there are adorned with wonderfully restored classic movie posters. There is a floor-to-ceiling Oscar that was probably used on a previous award night at the Kodak Theater. I tapped my hand on it. Yep, plastic.
I’m still not quite sure what prompted the screening of “The Great Race.” Before the sold-out show, there were some very humorous comments from some film historian who explained in very simplistic terms the evolution of color photography from Technicolor to Panavision. I now understand so much about this topic that I could change my middle name to Eastman. This dude was followed by the wife of director John Landis who is also a costume designer. As a matter of fact, Landis was there several rows away from me and I realized that I’ve already seen him at several screenings in the past year. I probably have gone to the movies with him in the past 12 months more than some of my longtime friends. Mrs. Landis yakked it up about how colors are important to a film and how costume design is more important to a movie than sound. This point was hammered home about 20 minutes later when the soundtrack went off during the movie. Yet, we could still tell what was going on and people were still laughing.
”The Great Race,” which supposedly was a box office flop when first released in 1965, has improved with age. It’s essentially a live action Road Runner cartoon and, if you accept that notion going in, it’s a success. The movie, as presented on Saturday night, never looked or sounded better. The stars, which include Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Peter Falk, and Natalie Wood, never were funnier. Around me were industry folks with, more importantly, their children. The kids were laughing along in amazement and Will Ferrell was nowhere to be found up on that screen. Not only was “The Great Race” entertaining, but, on this one evening, it was heartening. A reminder that you could still see a good movie on a Saturday night in 2009. Albeit a good movie that is 44 years old.
Oddly enough, the movie geek in me wound up focusing on two of the supporting players. Vivian Vance has several quick scenes as the wife of the newspaper publisher and it dawned on me that, except for game shows and a one shot guest appearance on “Rhoda,” I have never seen her perform without Lucille Ball. And I wondered how a perfectly capable actress never parlayed more of a career without the redhead.
I then mused on another member of the cast. Dorothy Provine plays a Texas saloon girl in one segment and I recalled her being some hot tamale back when I was a kid. You couldn’t flip a dial or see a movie without her popping up somewhere. But, when I looked her up on the internet, I discovered that she had retired from acting right after “The Great Race.” Why? How did she decide to go from movie hero to citizen zero in a heartbeat? More than the discussion on Technicolor and magenta gowns, I wanted answers to these questions.
But, this is Hollywood and I probably will get those puzzles solved eventually. In some screening of a classic movie. In a great venue. Miles and miles and miles away from some crummy, rundown multiplex on Central Avenue in Yonkers, New York.
Dinner last night: Evelyn's Favorite Pasta at The Cheesecake Factory.