TCM Classic Film Festival Review: Day One Includes ‘Day for Night’ and ‘Goodbye Mr. Chips’

2019 TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL: No matter which way you slice it, there’s still something magical about Hollywood. Yes, you might see a low-rent Batman taking pictures with tourists atop Bette Davis’ Star on the walk of fame. The sign for the Chinese Theater may nearly be eclipsed by the neighboring sign for the Hard Rock Cafe. The Dolby Theater, home to the Oscars, does in fact sit at the end of a mall like stretch as if it were a Sears or Macy’s (fine, we’ll at least call it a Nordstrom). Still, a certain amount of old school movie magic fills the streets of Hollywood, harkening back to the days where the studio system was alive and well.
This makes it the perfect spot for the Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival. The festival runs from Thursday, April 11th through Sunday, April 14th in Hollywood. Whether it be poolside at the Roosevelt Hotel (site of the first Oscars) or at the Chinese or Egyptian Theater (still pre-Netflix), TCM has amassed a wonderful collection of classics for their festival. From here on out, we are covering what we can of the festival, brushing up on some (possibly embarrassing) blind spots of cinema and hopefully discovering some lost classics of yesteryear.
See below for the films checked out on Friday, April 12th, our first day at the festival.

FILM: “Day for Night”
YEAR: 1973
DIRECTOR: François Truffaut
WRITER: François Truffaut, Suzanne Schiffman, Jean-Louis Richard
STARRING: Jacqueline Bisset, Valentina Cortese, Dani, Alexandra Stewart, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Jean Champion, Jean-Pierre Léaud, François Truffaut

It’s fitting that I began my first TCM adventure with François Truffaut’s “Day for Night.” There’s something magical about watching such a great film about filmmaking from within the Chinese Theater (or at least the Chinese multiplex). Having star Jacqueline Bisset in attendance (and dishing on directors like George Cukor and John Huston no less) only helped enhance the experience.
The showbiz tale finds Truffaut casting himself as Ferrand, the director of “Meet Pamela,” a tragedy about a woman who falls for her fiancee’s Father. The fictional production experiences many small setbacks, as the familial nature of the cast and crew gets in the way of productivity.

As Julie, the film’s ingenue, Jacqueline Bisset comes into her own as a leading lady. Her beauty only further accentuates the poise and professionalism her Julie comes to set with following a past breakdown. With her new (and much older) husband in tow, she feels like the even keel that keeps the troubled production grounded. On the opposite end of the spectrum, her co-star Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Léaud) leads with his petulance. His on set doomed romance with a script coordinator threatens to derail the entire filmmaking promise. As Julie and Alphonse’s plots become more entangled, the two develop a fire and ice chemistry that works well. She keeps her head down as his temper tantrums wreak havoc.

The film makes tremendous use of the ensemble. Like any film, it’s a sum of more people than just the stars and director. Valentina Cortese was the sole cast member to earn an Oscar nomination for the film. Her work as Séverine, a veteran actress who loves the craft and community but isn’t always able to put in the work. Perhaps one of the most hilarious scenes in the film involves her relying on cue cards for lines and repeatedly flubbing her final moment of the shot. As Cortese plays to the rafters, her on-screen husband, Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Aumont), settles into a more easy-going charm. There’s a degree of impenetrability to his character’s happiness that draws you in closer, even as he keeps his distance. It’s an interesting, affecting performance that packs more of a punch later on than one expects.

That’s not to forget the members of the crew, who each have their standout moments. From the propmaster to the line producer’s wife who hilariously distrusts Hollywood people, all departments get representation. Rather than make his love letter to film an ode to his director character, Truffaut highlights how many people and jobs it takes to make a film. There’s a love and understanding for every role in the filmmaking process. All of these wonderful performances dot every inch of the frame, composed exquisitely by cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn.

With every frame of the film, Francois Truffaut confirms he loves filmmaking. It tortures his characters. It drives both the cast and the crew mad. There are so many insane low points where one wonders if it’s all worth it. Yet, as we see with the director’s dreams, we’re all chasing the movie magic we loved when we were young. Somehow, in taking us behind the curtain of how movie magic is made, Truffaut gives us even more magic. Sometimes the process is just as interesting as the product.

“Day for Night” played at the TCM Film Festival on Friday, April 12th. It is available to stream on Microsoft.

GRADE: (★)

FILM: “Goodbye Mr. Chips”
YEAR: 1939
WRITERR. C. Sherriff, Claudine West, Eric Maschwitz; based on the novel “Goodbye Mr. Chips” by James Hilton
STARRINGRobert Donat, Greer Garson, Terry Kilburn, Paul Henried

Here we are with our second May-December romance of the festival. This one, however, isn’t just in a film within the film. That’s not to say that there aren’t many films within “Goodbye Mr. Chips,” which spans sixty three years. Sam Wood’s classic feel good movie about the life of a well-loved teacher touches upon many topics and genres. However, it does so in such a way that makes the film seem like a collection of disparate pieces. The plot points and connective thread of the story are as thin and unkempt as Mr. Chips’ mustache in his later years.

Robert Donat plays Mr. Chips through his entire sixty three year career at Brookfield School, a prestigious boarding school founded in 1492. The film introduces him at the end of his career, a dottering old man who refuses to be late to the day of welcome to the new students. From here, we flash back to the beginning of the his career at Brookfield in 1870. The previously rye, taciturn rule-maker struggles in the beginning to control his class of young students. Only through the help of headmaster Wetherby (Lyn Harding) does Mr. Chips find his way to commanding respect from his students.
This remains the only part of the movie where Donat acts his age. He won the Oscar formidable competition, including Clark Gable (“Gone with the Wind”) and Jimmy Stewart (“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”). His path to Oscar glory comes more for degree of perceived difficulty, as he ages up for the role. However, his old age acting devolves mostly into over the top mannerisms. Where Donat excels most is in the charming section of Mr. Chips’ middle age.
Coincidentally, this strongest section of the film introduces one of the most dynamic characters to the narrative. On a trip to Austria with Brookfield’s latest German teacher (Paul Henried), Mr. Chips encounters a woman on his hike up a mountain. He becomes acquainted with Kathy (Greer Garson), a whip-smart suffragette. Garson makes a debut worthy of the career she would soon have. From the first shot, she radiates spunk and warmth in equal measures. Even though it’s her first performance, it’s clear the camera loves her. If only the rest of the movie gave her as much to do as it does in her first scene. Still, her chemistry with Donat really works. She brings out the best in his performance.
Once we get back to school, the movie loses control in its narrative. Once it abandons Garson in the narrative, all we’re left with is Donat growing out his mustache over the years to look sad. The narrative lurches forward as the movie tries to stuff issue after issue. We get extended segments in the war where characters are introduced only to be killed one smash cut later. The narrative continues to lurch forward inelegantly and without structure. We don’t know what more our characters need to learn from or grow. Instead, the third act becomes the same scene repeated over and over. It doesn’t help that young actor Terry Kilburn plays four generations of the pupils from the Colley family that Mr. Chips teaches. Everything starts to feel redundant.
Still, the basic heart behind “Goodbye Mr. Chips” really resonates. We need teachers who care about their students and care about the institution of learning. The movie does a great job at selling us on Mr. Chips’ dedication to Brookfield. However, it would’ve been wiser to show us more on what makes Mr. Chips want to teach in the first place, rather than redundant war scenes. One scene finds the school’s headmaster trying to push Mr. Chips into retirement because he doesn’t want to update his curriculum. More conflicts like these could’ve fleshed out the last section of the film and our title character as well.

“Goodbye Mr. Chips” played at the TCM Film Festival on Friday, April 12th. It is available to stream on iTunes, Vudu, Amazon Prime, Google Play and YouTube.

GRADE: (★★½)

What other movies should we catch at the TCM Film Festival? Let us know in the comments below.