Friday, September 7, 2012

Cinéma Inhabituel for September 8-14

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea 

This is Cinema Inhabituel for the week of September 8 -14. Included are some one would expect to see here and some will have readers scratching their heads as to why. So, let’s take a look at the week:

September 8 

9:00 am Thunderbird 6 (U.A., 1968) – Director: David Lane. Starring the voices of Sylvia Anderson, David Graham, Geoffrey Keen, Christine Finn, Matt Zimmerman, and Peter Dyneley.

It’s the inevitable sequel – with a plot so bad it killed the series. Brains (the voice of David Graham) the technical wizard behind International Rescue, is having a crisis of sorts: family patriarch and I.R. honcho Jeff Tracy (Dyneley) wants Brains to design a new rescue craft (joining the five now in existence) and to be called Thunderbird 6 (We got a title!)  Meanwhile … the new gravity-defying airliner invented by Brains, Skyship One, is hijacked on its maiden voyage. A gun battle between the hijackers and the passengers damages the ship’s gravitational compensators, and the ship teeters uneasily atop a tower overlooking a missile base. It’s the Tracy family to the rescue, aided by Brains himself in an antique biplane.

It’s a terrible film; bad enough to kill off the series, doing terrible box office. For you serious film buffs, Peter Dyneley is perhaps best known for his lead role as the reporter in the lurid head-scratching sci-fi cult classic The Manster. (More on that in a later column.) 

September 9

6:00 am Idiot’s Delight (MGM, 1939) – Director: Clarence Brown. Starring Clark Gable, Norma Shearer, Edward Arnold, Charles Coburn, Joseph Schildkraut, and Burgess Meredith.

Why, one may well ask, is this included? What’s so unusual about this? Simply the fact that Clark Gable sings and dances (a bit) in this flaccid attempt at comedy, that’s all. Gable plays a hoofer trapped along with his troupe of blondes at a hotel in the Swiss Alps while awaiting the fate of Europe. Shearer is a faux Russian countess who bears a strong resemblance to a woman Gable knew 20 years earlier. 

Producer Hunt Stromberg had screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood bowdlerize his original play, eliminating any mention of Germany, and Edward Arnold’s villainous munitions-making character is played down. Instead of the arms makers being the ones responsible for war, now it is the countries themselves. So, instead of the antiwar play Sherwood ran on Broadway in 1936, we now have a comic romance with Gable and Shearer. (Protect those foreign markets.) 
Gable and Shearer try their best and have a few sparkling moments between them, but the film never lives up to their promise. Still, it’s the only chance you’ll get to see Gable sing and dance. How does he do? Tune in and find out.

8:00 am The Canterville Ghost (MGM, 1944) – Director: Jules Dassin. Starring Charles Laughton, Margaret O’Brien, Robert Young, William Gargan, and Reginald Owen.

Whenever Laughton steps out of straight drama or comedy to the fantastic or the tragic, we tend to notice. But when he does this while teaming with director Jules Dassin, we are compelled to watch.
The film has its base in a short story by Oscar Wilde about a cowardly ghost forced to haunt the family estate until someone in the family became a hero. Leave it to MGM to turn the film into a flag-waving morale flick and plug little Margaret O’Brien, their top earning child star, into the co-lead as the owner of the castle.

Laughton plays Wilde’s cowardly ghost – only in his case the family castle has become a bivouac for a group of GI’s led by Robert Young, whose career was on the fade, and had gone from a starring actor to a supporting actor at the studio. As he had recently signed a contract with MGM for $100,000 per film, Laughton now became the elephant in the room and threw his considerable weight around the set. The prime example was his disagreement over who should direct. The studio originally chose Norman Z. MacLeod, a director noted not only for comedy, but for his light touch, which the producer Arthur Field wanted in the movie. 

But after a week of filming, Laughton came to the conclusion that MacLeod didn’t have what it took to direct him. Laughton liked a tight rein from the chair while MacLeod preferred to let his actors run loose. He had success with this approach in directing the Marx Brothers (whom one could never rein in at any rate) and W.C. Fields (who was always said to be the real director of his movies). Rumors had Laughton talking with Groucho Marx about the director, and supposedly after their conversations, decided that MacLeod wasn’t the right man for the job. So the word went out to the studio that MacLeod had to go. Fortunately, MGM had a replacement Laughton could live with in the person of the young Jules Dassin. Dassin had served as an assistant director under Hitchcock and Garson Kanin. He knew Laughton from working with him for Kanin on They Knew What They Wanted at RKO (1940). This was Dassin’s first A-production and, with Laughton and O’Brien in tow, he made the most of it.

September 10 

11:00 am Cow Country (Monogram, 1953) – Director: Lesley Selander. Starring Edmund O’Brien, Helen Westcott, Bob Lowry, Barton MacLane, and Peggy Castle. 
Almost any film from this studio qualifies for this column. Monogram films are rarely shown today, and the film devotee must often wait for DVD releases in order to see these forgotten films from Hollywood’s Poverty Row.

Lesley Selander was one of the best B-directors in the business. Noted for his Westerns, he ground out 107 of them over a 32-year career. When the B-Western died at the box office he moved over to television, where his economy and speed was appreciated. He wrapped up his career in the late 60s making a series of films for producer A. C. Lyles that became known as “geezer Westerns” in that they were made on the cheap and were headlined by such aging stars as John Ireland, Pat O’Brien, Lon Chaney, Jr., and Bruce Cabot, all of whose careers saw better days.

The plot is rather mundane, as with most B-Westerns. But – and this is a big But – we get to see an early performance by Edmond O’Brien, who worked for anyone in almost any kind of film until he hit it big when he was nominated for an Oscar for the role of Oscar Muldoon in The Barefoot Contessa (1954). O’Brien is a wandering ranch hand who comes to the rescue of several ranch owners fighting the evil Bob Lowry and his gang in 1880’s Texas.

It’s a great performance by O’Brien in an otherwise inconsequential western. But cinephiles that disparage Monogram should note that Jean-Luc Godard dedicated his 1960 masterpiece Breathless, to Monogram Studios. Higher praise than that you can’t get. 

September 12 

3:15 pm  Killer Shark (Monogram, 1950) – Director: Oscar Boetticher. Starring Roddy McDowell, Laurette Luez, Roland Winters, Douglas Fowley, and Nacho Galindo. 

Yeah, it’s Monogram again. Why? Well, for the reasons I stated above, and one other fact: look at who the director is. None other than Oscar “Budd” Boetticher, who made The Bullfighter and the Lady the next year, and who made those wonderful Westerns with Randolph Scott in the late 50s.

Roddy McDowell stars (and co-produces) in this cheapo take on Captains Courageous as a college student who meets up with his father (Roland Winters) after a long absence and helps out on Dad’s dilapidated shark fishing boat. They hunt sharks for their livers, which they can and sell to God Knows Who. Trouble ensues when McDowell’s carelessness leads to a shark attack that leaves Dad temporarily incapacitated. McDowell now has to redeem himself and hires a new crew. Unfortunately, he hooks up with bad guy Bracado (Douglas Fowley), who is really a smuggler. It all works out at the end as McDowell catches on and brings the bad guys to tow.

This is not just a bad movie; it’s a great bad movie. One has to love the sets supposed to pass for Mexico, the poorly-integrated stock footage of the sharks, and the anemic fight scene at the end. I don’t ever remember reading or seeing Boetticher discussing this picture, but it’s fun to see him working with practically nothing in the way of a screenplay and actors, most notably the horrible Nacho Galindo, who I suppose is the comic relief in the film. McDowell, a former hot child star, saw his star falling and tried to set a new course with this film. Winters is best known for portraying Charlie Chan in a series of films for Monogram. Also look for Laurette Luez as the eye candy and whose exotic looks (born in Honolulu) are supposed to convince us we’re in Mexico. Luez is best known for the camp classic Prehistoric Women.

September 13

11:00 pm Fatty and Mabel Adrift (Keystone, 1916) – Director: Roscoe “Fatty”Arbuckle. Starring Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Al “Fuzzy” St. John, and Jimmy Bryant. 

TCM is highlighting the films of producer Mack Sennett this month. Although all his films are worth seeing, this on in particular was chosen because of its stars, Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand. Arbuckle’s career was wrecked by a manslaughter charges arising from a wild party he threw in San Francisco. Even though he was found not guilty, the newspapers vilified him to such an extent that he was done in Hollywood. Thereafter he directed under the pseudonym “William Goodrich.” He did manage to return to the screen under his own name in 1932 in a series of shorts for Warner Brothers, who signed him to a feature film contract. But his vindication was short-lived as he died in his sleep from a heart attack in 1934.

Besides being a gifted comedienne and one of the real screen beauties, Normand was the original Hollywood party girl. Her addiction to cocaine led to several bad judgments that resulted in a series of scandals that ruined both her career and her health.  She died from TB at the young age of 34 in 1930.

September 14

3:30 am The Wasp Woman (Filmgroup, 1959) – Director: Roger Corman. Starring Susan Cabot, Fred Eisley, Barboura Morris, Michael Mark, and Frank Gerstle. 

It’s more low budget fun from director Roger Corman. Janice Starlin (Susan Cabot) is a cosmetics tycoon obsessed with youth, as her aging is placing a crimp on the company’s profits. Enter mad scientist Dr. Eric Zinthorp (Michael Mark), recently fired from the Honey Fresh Bee Farm for his personal experiments. He convinces Starling of the rejuvenating properties of products made from wasp enzymes. Starlin uses herself as a guinea pig and when the small doses fail to achieve the desired results, she sneaks into the lab and gives herself a megadose – with the result that she turns into a killer with a human body and a wasp’s head. (!) 

Watch the film for the awkward editing, especially in the dialogue scenes and the incredibly cheesy special effects, especially the wasp’s head that Cabot has to wear. When she kills a victim she slashes at the throat, leaving a bloody scene. To achieve this, Cabot took a mouthful of chocolate syrup and when striking out, spit it on the “victim’s” neck to simulate blood. Don’t laugh: Hitchcock used the same technique during the shower scene in Psycho. Chocolate syrup makes an effective substitute and photographs well in black and white. Also look for the scene where Zinthorp throws a bottle of “acid” at Starlin. Someone filled the breakaway bottle with so much water that it didn’t break upon impact, but hit Cabot square in the gob. Her reaction is real. Don’t question the logic. There is none. Just sit back and enjoy the campy goings-on.

Recent articles by critics try to make Corman into some sort of feminist hero for this movie. All I can say is just wake me when some critic writes an article about the existential angst of the Three Stooges in having to become gentlemen in their short Hoi Polloi

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