November 25, 2016 by smumcounty
I just got back from taking the TCM Classic Cruise with my wife and daughter (hereafter referred to as Mrs. Smum County and Smum County, Jr.) and I have to say I don’t think I’ve taken a more relaxing and pleasurable vacation in my life. I have Mrs. Smum County to thank for the idea. I’d heard about the TCM cruise now for years but never really considered it; it was my wife who was really excited to go. Granted, I didn’t take much convincing. (A Caribbean cruise and I get to watch classic films all day? Count me in!) But I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did.
The concept is pretty simple really. It’s a normal cruise that hits the usual ports but instead of spending all your time in the casino or poolside you spend your days watching classic films on the big screen. To spice things up they invite special guests to accompany you on the cruise, either stars from classic films who are still around, or experts in classic films, or Dick Cavett, because, who doesn’t like Dick Cavett, am I right? For this cruise, our classic film stars were Kim Novak, Leslie Caron, Michael York, Jerry Lewis, and Diane Baker. Not too shabby, I must say.
The films selected for the cruise are based on the special guests. Obviously, for the stars they select a couple of their big films. For Kim Novak, they had “Vertigo” (1958) and “Bell, Book, and Candle” (1959). For Michael York, there was “The Three Musketeers” (1973) and “Cabaret” (1972). For Leslie Caron, they selected “An American In Paris” (1951) and “Gigi” (1958). For the experts, they selected films that fit within their area of expertise. For Eddie Muller, “the world’s foremost authority on film noir”, they screened “The Set-Up” (1949) and “Chinatown” (1974). By the way, seeing “Chinatown” on the big screen was a real treat. This was the first time seeing this classic for Smum County, Jr. and I was pleased to see that she loved it. (The kid’s got good taste.)
Pairing the films with the special guests allows them to have an interested party introduce the films when they are screened. This was a real pleasure for me. When the stars introduced one of their films, they were always interviewed by one of the TCM hosts that were on board, Ben Mankiewicz or Tiffany Vasquez, and they invariably commented on the making of the film and gave insights into the other stars. Dick Cavett introduced the Marx Brothers film “Horse Feathers” (1932) and took the opportunity to talk about Groucho who he knew personally. One of the best introductions I saw, however, was presented by one of the film experts, Bruce Goldstein. Bruce, the repertory film programming director at New York’s Film Forum, introduced the classic Pre-Code film “Employees’ Entrance”, starring Warren William. He’s obviously a big fan of the film and I have to imagine he chose the film himself to include in the slate of films for the cruise. He’s a really engaging speaker and went on at length about Warren William’s career as the King of Pre-Code, which included film clips of a number of Warren William films from the era. Bruce explained how Warren William was able to make a career in the early 30’s playing almost nothing but cads. The 30’s are my favorite decade for classic films, so this was right up my alley.
They obviously made an effort to include films from almost every decade of classic film. Since the films were based on the special guests, this is where the inclusion of many film experts helped out. God knows William Powell and Myrna Loy are no longer around to represent the 30’s and 40’s. More’s the pity. The silent era was even represented, thanks to special guest Suzanne Lloyd, granddaughter of Harold Lloyd and trustee of Lloyd’s film library. Harold Lloyd is my favorite of the three big silent screen comedians (Chaplin and Keaton being the other two, of course) so it was nice to see she was included in the cruise.
There were three venues for viewing films on the ship: the large Walt Disney Theatre (this was a Disney ship), the somewhat smaller Buena Vista Theatre, and there was also a screen poolside so you could watch a film while taking a dip. The Buena Vista showed films pretty much continually. The Walt Disney showed films when they weren’t hosting hour long, in depth interviews with one of the special guests. The poolside screen alternated films with live music and generally showed more light hearted family friendly films. Given all these screens, for those days during which we were at sea, there was a roster of fifteen or more films to choose from, so you could almost always find multiple films per day you were interested in seeing. There was one day when Smum County, Jr. and I saw five films. That is a personal record! Now a word of advice for seeing that many films in a single day: when you’re sitting in a darkened theater and being gently rocked by the motion of the ship, at some point your eyes will start to close. It’s inevitable. This is where coffee is your friend. I’ve never been a coffee drinker; I just don’t like the taste. But for this string of films I made sure to stay caffeinated throughout the day, and it really worked. Who knew caffeine could keep you from getting sleepy? Ok, granted, everyone knew, but now I know too! And the coffee on board is always available and free, a real must for a floating film festival like this.
That’s essentially what this was: a film festival held on a cruise ship, specifically the TCM Film Festival on a ship. The beauty of this is it eliminates many of the pains of attending the film festival. You don’t have to worry about booking a hotel room; you’re living right above the theaters. You don’t have to worry about crowds and lining up for a film. The cruise ship limits the number of viewers to any one film so we never had a problem getting into a viewing or finding a good seat.
The family and I pretty much just concentrated on seeing films but there was also a lot more to do on board including wine tasting, chocolate tasting, martini tasting, many tastings. There were also movie trivia games including one hosted by Alex Trebek (did I not mention Alex Trebek was on board?) and the legally required cruise bingo. A couple of the bingo games were hosted by Ben Mankiewicz which gave us a chance to say hello to Ben and a chance for Smum County, Jr. to get her picture taken with him. I think maybe Jr. has a little crush on Ben.
Jazz age band The Hot Sardines were also on board to entertain. If you’re a fan of jazz age music, as I am, you couldn’t ask for a better band, and they include a tap dancer (yes, a tap dancer) who helped the drummer keep the rhythm and soloed tap routines every few songs. The centerpiece of the non-film entertainment was the Beaux Arts Ball, an American in Paris themed party, which included a production number with two dozen dancers. Apparently, the dancers rehearsed the production number for four weeks and then performed it once, once! But they were able to perform it in front of Leslie Caron so that had to be a thrill for the dancers.
So, like I said at the top of this piece, this was a great vacation and I would recommend it to any classic movie fan if this weren’t the last Classic Cruise that TCM plans to run! Yes, TCM is discontinuing the cruise, even though every TCM cruise has sold out. TCM says “As TCM continues to grow and evolve, we will look to explore new business opportunities in markets across the country that will allow us to connect and engage with our fans in new and different ways.” That’s not really a reason for stopping the cruises but Mrs. Smum County figures that the cruise takes a lot of resources and isn’t something that most fans can take advantage of. Besides the price, there’s a limit to just how many people you can fit on a single cruise ship. So TCM is hoping to expand its brand in more inclusive ways. I’m all for that. Can I suggest a TCM Film Festival on the east coast? Dare I say, an NYC TCM Film Festival? Damn. Should have mentioned that to Ben when I had him cornered.