For the longest time, I was under the impression that the TCM Classic Film Festival was an exclusive event. While, yes, there are passes, I had no idea that tickets to individual screenings were made available to the general public. With this year’s theme being “History According to Hollywood,” I took a peek at the list of films that would be playing at the festival, and knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Although there were so many I wanted to watch, I made it my mission to see the film that was at the very top of my list.
Friday, March 27th: Steamboat Bill, Jr.
The day had finally come, and I was filled to the brim with anticipation. I had no classes on Fridays, so my entire day was free and without worry. I was joined by some company, and together, we walked up and down Hollywood Boulevard for the entire afternoon. At one point, we decided to stop by a small bookshop, where I bought a biography on Harold Lloyd. My friend ended up buying a small poster of Buster Keaton’s portrait, to which we were graced with its presence during dinner.
Once it was nearing 5:30, we immediately headed over to the Egyptian Theatre to nab a good spot in the standby line. While there, I had the pleasant surprise of meeting a fellow Buster fan, and we ended up chatting for a bit. Over the next two hours, the queue grew longer with every look back, and everyone seemed to be watching intently as pass holders slowly filed inside the theater. It was now nearing showtime, and we weren’t moving at all. Eventually, we were told that it seemed highly unlikely that the theater was going to let any more people in, especially from our line. This was not really something I wanted to hear, as we were now just two people away from the front! I looked at my watch for the umpteenth time, and had nearly given up all hope, seeing that it was already fifteen minutes past showtime. However, a very strange thing occurred: somehow my friend and I made it in. We were apparently the last two people to be admitted inside the packed theater, and I was feeling a mixture of emotions—mostly shock. Everything happened in a blur.
As we were quickly led to two available seats in the second row, I noticed (much to my relief) that the movie had not yet begun. We had just come in towards the end of an introduction, and it wasn’t long before the first notes of the orchestra played and the film commenced. I craned my neck up at the imposing screen and its flickering pictures, feeling intimately distanced. It was almost dreamlike to be watching the world premiere restoration of Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) at the renowned Egyptian Theatre, which—might I add—was built in 1922. Honestly, I think it was probably the closest one could get to time-traveling.
My eyes were immediately drawn with wonder to Buster’s first appearance onscreen, which was naturally followed by the sounds of applause and cheering. The restored film was so clean and shiny. The moving images were vivid, striking—the characters almost corporeal. Some of the most iconic scenes in cinematic history were moving right before me in such a grandiose scale.
Carl Davis was also in attendance, conducting the orchestra with his new original composition for the film. As a musician, a cinephile, and even an onlooker, I was blown away. The score included a leitmotif, various examples of mickey-mousing, and more of an emphasis on phrasing the drama. It sounded like the accompaniment one would have heard back then (or so I think), which made the listening and movie-watching experience feel a bit more authentic.
There are a great number of things about this silent gem that make me admire it very much, but what could I possibly say that hasn’t already been universally and thoroughly covered? The experience of watching a film is very personal, regardless of sharing it with hundreds of other viewers in the same setting, yet I wish I could be more satisfied with properly expressing this sentiment into words. I suppose I shouldn’t worry too much about finding them right away, and besides, it seems I’m too preoccupied with daydreaming about next year’s festival.