Saturday, September 22, 2012

Cinéma Inhabituel for September 23-30

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

This is Cinema Inhabituel for the week of September 23-30, the collection of films once forgotten now vindicated and those that still have us scratching our heads. It’s a slow week, so there aren’t many entries.

September 26
10:00 am Crown vs. Stevens (WB, 1936) – Director: Michael Powell. Starring Beatrix Thompson, Patric Knowles, Googie Withers, Mabel Poulton, Morris Harvey, and Glennis Lorimer. 

This is a crime thriller, but it’s directed by Michael Powell and financed through Warner Brothers. If you’re looking for a distinctive mise en scene from Powell, however, forget it. Powell churns this one out as if it were another item on the assembly line. All this aside, it is Powell, and thus for cinephiles, worth a look. The plot concerns Chris Jansen (Knowles), an underpaid clerk who borrowed from a shylock (Harvey) to buy an expensive engagement ring for his girl (Poulton). But she’s run off with someone else, leaving Jansen holding the note. When he goes to the shylock for an extension, he finds the loan shark dead, a bullet in his noggin. He confronts the murderer and to his surprise it’s his wife’s boss (Thompson). She then begins to spin a web to cover her tracks with Jansen as the fall guy. Crown vs. Stevens is a passable thriller, nothing more. But as I mentioned before, Powell was the director and it’s always interesting to see his work from the ‘30s, before he hit his peak.

September 27

8:00 pm – 5:45 am Mack Sennett Festival (Sennett/MGM, 1926-33).

This is the last installment of the Mack Sennett marathons that TCM has been featuring in September. All were, of course, worth your time and trouble, but this night is special because of the mix of stars and films.

While all the films shown this night are wonderful, funny, and engaging, some stand out over others.

The first is Hoboken to Hollywood (1926), with the great Billy Bevan. Bevan and co-star Vernon Dent are in the process of moving their respective families to California and discovering that each is the other’s greatest obstacle. Both Bevan and Dent were stellar comedians who are almost totally forgotten today. In the director’s chair is Del Lord, one of the greats when it came to slapstick comedy. He would later go on to direct many of the Three Stooges shorts (many of which co-starred Dent).

Another worth checking out is Run Girl, Run (1928), starring Daphne Pollard (no relation to Snub) as a woman’s track coach having trouble getting her team ready for the big meet. Of particular note for film buffs is the appearance of Carole Lombard (as Carol Lombard). If you want to catch her in an early appearance, here is your chance.

The viewer will find two W.C. Fields gems in the mix: The Dentist, and The Fatal Glass of Beer (both 1933). They’re early, they both show the development of Fields as a comic actor, and both are hysterically funny, especially The Dentist. Don’t miss them.

Speaking of great comedians, there are also two representative comedies from Laurel and Hardy: the classic Sons of the Desert, and the lesser known, but equally funny, The Music Box (both 1933). Watching them play off one another is a joy in itself, and Sons of the Desert has rightfully been cited as one of the greatest comedies ever made. If you’ve never seen it, by all means, record it. The same goes for the underrated The Music Box. (Even though it won the Oscar for Best Short Subject, it is forgotten today.) In fact, it may well be said to have been their best.

September 28

12:00 am Carry On Cowboy (Anglo-Amalgamated, 1966) Director: Gerald Thomas. Starring Kenneth Williams, Sidney James, Jim Dale, Charles Hawtrey, Angela Douglas, and Jon Pertwee.

Remember all those wonderful “Carry On” films that used to be shown early in the morning on the local channel? They were British, relentlessly stupid, and made on the cheap, but we loved them – because they were oft times hysterically funny. In this installment, the gang pokes fun at the Western genre.

As the films opens we find that the villainous Rumpo Kid (Sidney James) and his gang is terrorizing Stodge City. A new sheriff is a necessity. Enter one Marshal P. Knutt (Dale), a plumber/sanitary engineer sent to fix a mess. The townsfolk mistake his first name, Marshal, for his occupation and he is made the new lawman. To fight The Rumpo Kid he has only a revenge-minded Annie Oakley (Douglas) and his own plumbing expertise to count on against the gang. Look for every convention of the Western to be parodied and laughs are squeezed out of every situation. Overall, 93 minutes well spent.

Also of note is Jon Pertwee as Sheriff Albert Earp. Sci-fi fans know Pertwee well as one of the long list of actors that have portrayed Doctor Who. 

September 30

8:00 pm The Mummy (Universal, 1932) Director: Karl Freund. Starring Boris Karloff, Zita Johann David Manners Edward Van Sloan, and Bramwell Fletcher.

Can it be said that there is such a thing as a lyrical horror film?

In this case, yes. Karl Freund has given us a subtle, yet bizarre on the logic of it, love story for the ages. As Universal was having success with its horror films (enough to rescue it from bankruptcy), the question arose of finding new monsters, new horrors, to satisfy the appetites of the growing audiences.

Studio head Carl Laemmle Jr. noticed that the excitement over the discovery of King Tut’s tomb (and its fabled curse) had not died down, and he reasoned that if a vampire could come back to life, so could a mummy. Screenwriter John Balderston, who scripted both Dracula and Frankenstein, was given the task of bringing the mummy to the screen. (Balderston had an advantage in that, as a foreign correspondent, he had covered the original discovery of King Tut’s tomb.) It was to star Karloff – that was a no-brainer given his box office popularity. The rest of the cast was chosen from the Universal roster except for leading lady Zita Johann, a noted stage actress from Broadway who was married to producer John Houseman at the time. Balderston hit upon the brilliant idea of making the Mummy more in the image of Dracula than the Monster, thus providing Karloff a chance to demonstrate his extraordinary range as an actor.

The Mummy is definitely a must – not only for horror fans – but for any film buff. Look for the scene where the mummy first moves after Fletcher mouths the magic words from the scroll and his reaction. Priceless.

9:30 pm Charlie Chan in Egypt (20th Century Fox, 1935) Director: Louis King.  Starring Warner Oland, Pat Paterson, Thomas Beck, Rita Hayworth, and Stepin Fetchit.

It seems to be “Egypt Night” on TCM and this mystery follows The Mummy. It’s a good programmer with Oland as the fabled detective solving an intricate puzzle of murder during the excavation of an ancient tomb. So why place this on the list of recommended films? Two reasons: Rita Hayworth and Stepin Fetchit.

This is one of Hayworth’s early films, working under her real name of Rita Cansino, and it’s interesting to see her development. Making her fame as a dancer while a young girl, she appeared in seven films under her real name before taking her mother’s maiden name of “Hayworth” and reinventing herself with the help of dieting, electrolysis and auburn hair dye as an emerging star at Columbia.

Stepin Fetchit is an interesting excursion into the racial politics that so dominated the Hollywood of the time. A superbly-talented physical comedian, he was reduced to playing a full-blown stereotype in every Hollywood film that featured him. But appearances are deceiving: Fetchit was no mere “coon.” It can be well argued that his “lazy” persona was actually a way of denying the White man his labor and cooperation that was often exchanged for pitiful wages and contempt – his revenge against a system that constantly demeaned both him and his work. When he did speak, he did so in a lingo that seemed like gibberish, but according to African-Americans who I have seen his films with and who understood what he was saying, his lingo is filled with multiple insults towards his employers/detractors. The Whites in the audience may have thought he was merely mumbling, but the Blacks knew what he was saying. Even his name is a misnomer: some claim the studios gave it to him, but Fetchit said he got it from the name of a racehorse. Of course there is some academic out there who will tell me that Fetchit’s character and treatment were not racist and will high-hat me on a response, but facts are facts and no apologia will change that.

2:15 am Titanic (Deutische Filmvertriebs, 1943) Director: Herbert Selpin and Werner Klingler. Starring Sybille Schmitz, Hans Neilsen, Kirsten Heiberg, and Franz Schafheitlin.

For anyone that has read my “Best Bets” feature in the TiVo Alert, my reason for including this film is clear. To watch an example of the Third Reich’s foray into movies is both fascinating and enlightening, as it gives us a glimpse into the Nazi mindset, such as it was. We are often given the picture of the Third Reich’s film production as exemplified only by The Eternal Jew. But that is an aberration: they could be much, much more subtle than that, as witnessed by their version of Jud Suss, possibly the most anti-Semitic film ever made. While The Eternal Jew is an obvious, in-your-face, and ultimately sickening film, Jud Suss was subtle to the point of almost being civil, showing the Jew as the sneaky aggressor rather than as merely the outsider as in The Eternal Jew. Thus it was more effective in spreading the filth of anti-Semitism than the earlier film, which many audiences walked out on because it was so disgusting.

The Titanic is in the vein of Jud Suss. Instead of going over the top in depicting the British as heartless capitalist pigs, it makes its points quietly and subtly. The only hero is the film is the lone German who tries to save as many passengers as he can, but is ultimately thwarted by the fact that there are not nearly enough lifeboats – part of the British capitalists’ disregard for the people.

The backstory of the film, concerning itself with the politics of filmmaking in the Reich, was recently the subject of a documentary on the History Channel. (What? The History Channel actually devoting a show to history?? Will wonders ever cease? Gee, I hope they don’t cancel any episodes of Pawn Stars, Top Gear, or American Restoration for this.)

Record this film. Watch this film. It’s a window into a time and nation that, thankfully, has passed from the face of the Earth.

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