I have spent the last four days in the El Paso, Texas partaking in the 7th annual Plaza Classic Film Festival. Having attended last year, I was prepared sit in the dark 1929 movie house and be immersed into the world of black and white, and Technicolor. However, I was surprised to see many modern classics added to the lineup all starting with an American film from 1989, Field of Dreams. El Paso’s new baseball stadium provided the perfect setting for the baseball fantasy-drama starring Kevin Costner. So then I began to wonder, why the newer films? The festival had usually given preference to films that would have played during the Plaza Theatre’s days as a movie house. President and CEO of the El Paso Community Foundation, Eric Pearson, explained the idea of opening the theater to films that are the new modern classics which meant taking a new look at the definition of classic films. So I started to do the same. However, looking deeper into some of the films added in as modern classics, there are connections to be made to the classic film world besides their critical acclaim or in some instances cult followings. Take for instance, Field of Dreams which features classic movie actor and Academy Award winner Burt Lancaster in his next to last big screen performance. It would be a few days later within the walls of the Spanish Colonial Revival style theater movie goers would see why Lancaster was an award-winning actor in the film that won him the Oscar for Best Actor, Elmer Gantry.
However on that day, Lancaster’s film presence would be upstaged by stage presence of the lovely Shirley Jones. Jones would too win an Academy Award for playing the prostitute Lulu Baines in the Lancaster production of Elmer Gantry. In an onstage interview prior to the film, Jones would tell the audience about Lancaster’s risky decision to cast her in the role that would transition her from the big screen musicals she was known for to an award-winning dramatic actress. However, it was those musicals and being placed under personal contract to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein as a complete novice of stage and screen that would lead the way to making her a recognizable face on the big screen. It had only been the night before when audiences had been treated to Jones’ first foray into the movies in the big screen Rodgers and Hammerstein production of Oklahoma which also included more candid stories from Jones and a little kiss-and-tell.
Seeing a sweet Shirley Jones later play a spicy vixen (which by the way she who refers to herself as spicy versus the overly sweet Shirley Temple whom she was named after), only shows part of the variety of the Plaza Classic Film Festival. As a film fan what better way to spend a Saturday than going from having a laugh and shedding a small tear while watching Shirley Temple and Charlie Chaplin, and then moving to fire and brimstone with Elmer Gantry. Watching The Wizard of Oz while the Rocky Horror Picture Show plays outside and in a nearby venue local indie filmmakers are having a screening of their own original work. Enjoying the late evening offerings with the Plaza Art House and Plaza After Dark with modern classics such as Fargo (which dare I say…I had never seen), and Werner Herzog’s 1979 tribute film Nosferatu the Vampyre (a clearly intentional nod to the 1922 German expressionist film).