Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Cinéma Inhabituel for Jan. 1-7

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea
Well, it’s back to normal for the folks at TCM, so there should be some delectable nuggets out there waiting to be exposed for the gems they are. And it’s my job in this column to do so, so here we go again for the week of January 1-7.

January 2

11:15 pm Taxi! (WB, 1932) - Director: Roy Del Ruth. Starring: Jimmy Cagney, Loretta Young, George E. Stone, David Landau, and Guy Kibbee. 70 minutes.

Loretta Young is TCM’s Star of the Month for January, so it’s natural they would screen this rarely seen gem. And it is a real gem of a movie. Jimmy Cagney is an independent cabbie fighting a syndicate trying to establish a taxi monopoly. Young co-stars as Sue, his girlfriend and (later) wife. Guy Kibbee plays Young’s father, who owns the taxi company that employs Cagney as a driver.

Of course, all work and no play would make Jimmy a very dull boy, so we are treated to a dance contest pitting Cagney and Young against an unbilled George Raft (reportedly recommended for the part because he and Cagney worked together in New York) and his equally unbilled partner, Audrey Ferris. David Landau plays the villain who not only wins the dance contest, but also kills Jimmy’s brother. Yeah, it’s dated, but filmed in that rat-a-tat-tat Warner’s style of the period. And yes, those are real machine gun bullets fired at Our Hero Jimmy. Reportedly, when one came too close for comfort, Cagney had the practice banned in future films. Also watch for Cagney’s opening bit in Yiddish. Yes, Yiddish – Cagney was fluent, having grown up in Manhattan’s mainly German Yorkville neighborhood.

1:45 am The Squall (WB/First National, 1929) - Director: Alexander Korda. Starring: Myrna Loy, Loretta Young, Richard Tucker, ZaSu Pitts, Alice Joyce, and Harry Cording. 105 minutes.

This early sound effort is notable only for the performance of Myrna Loy as the ultimate Gypsy home-wrecker. Named Nubi (as in “nubile,” I guess), she is taken in by the happy Lajos family on the pretext that she is a Christian.(!) After first seducing servant Peter and wrecking his marriage, she moves on to son Paul, and finally to family patriarch Josef Lajos (Richard Tucker) himself. Look for future Universal supporting actor (most notably in the Sherlock Holmes series) Harry Cording as servant Peter and ZaSu Pitts as his wife, Lena.

January 5

10:45 am Secret Service of the Air (WB, 1939) - Director: Noel Smith. Starring: Ronald Reagan, John Litel, Ila Rhodes, and Eddie Foy, Jr. 60 minutes.

Ronald Reagan’s movies, and especially his B-efforts, are always fun to watch, and this entry is no different. Reagan is Secret Service agent Brass Bancroft, and his mission in this film is to break up a ring smuggling in illegal aliens from Mexico. It’s a full of the usual action sequences and Reagan acquits himself quite nicely. In fact, it spawned three sequels: Code of the Secret Service (1939), Smashing the Money Ring (1939), and Murder in the Air (1940).

12:00 pm Fly Away Baby (WB, 1937) - Director: Frank McDonald. Starring: Glenda Farrell, Barton MacLane, Gordon Oliver, and Tom Kennedy. 60 minutes.

Ronald Reagan wasn’t the only actor with a B-series. Glenda Farrell and Barton MacLane also headlined a series built around Glenda’s character of reporter Torchy Blaine. With that name, one would be expecting a stripper. MacLane plays her policeman boyfriend, Steve McBride, and the chemistry between the two is a highlight of the films. This is the second entry in the series, and concerns a search for a jewel thief/murderer, during the course of which Torchy and Steve take to the skies in a promotional race-around-the world flight.

Farrell and MacLane made seven of the nine films in the series. In the other two, Lola Lane paired with Paul Kelly as McBride, and then-newcomer Jane Wyman starred with Allen Jenkins in the final film of the series. For B-movie aficionados this is a great series, and even for those just starting out, they are most entertaining because of the Farrell-MacLane chemistry.

January 6
2:00 am The Life of Oharu (Shintoho, 1952) - Director: Kenji Mizoguchi. Starring: Kinuyo Tanaka, Tsukie Matsuura, and Ichiro Sugai. 148 minutes.

A tragic, heart-rending tale of a woman (Tanaka) born into the upper-class, a daughter of a samurai, and a lady-in-waiting at the Imperial Court in Kyoto who falls dramatically when her love affair with a lower-class page is discovered. She and her family are exiled and the page is beheaded. 

But this is only the beginning of her travails. She is eventually forced into prostitution to pay her father’s debts, and after a brief period of happiness married to a textile merchant (who paid off the father’s debt), she is forced into the life of a beggar when he is murdered. It’s a powerful glimpse of 17th Century Japanese society and how it destroyed the lives of ordinary people. Mizoguchi manages to balance the story without becoming shrill or preaching, and his manipulation of the viewer’s emotions is masterful. While many have said that this is not as good as his Ugetsu (1953), it nevertheless delivers a powerful punch to the heart. 

January 7

8:00 pm Juliet of the Spirits (Rizzoli, 1965) - Director: Federico Fellini. Starring: Giulietta Masina, Sandra Milo, Mario Pisu, Sylva Koscina, and Caterina Boratto. 148 minutes.

For this and the next film listed he have to thank Guest Programmer Bill Paxton. It’s Fellini’s first color film and it is a gem. For those out there that think I love every Fellini outing, that is not the case. Believe me, Fellini, like every other director, has made his share of stinkers. I just don’t recommend them.

Giulietta (the Italian rendering of Juliet, by the way) Masina stars as a 40-year-old housewife who is fascinated with séances and spiritualism. Her spare time is spent daydreaming and suspecting her husband (Pisu) of cheating. Her dreams start to become reality when she meets Suzy (Milo), her sexually-liberated neighbor.

Told from the point of view of the wife, it is dependent on a strong performance from the female lead. And Fellini is fortunate in that Masina was available to fill the role, and why not? She was Mrs. Fellini, and most of his strong female leading roles were written with her in mind. Masina is able not only to act with her spoken lines, but also with every movement of her body and face – and without mugging for the camera. Here she brilliantly conveys a mixture of a mature woman with a naïve child, making her character multi-dimensional in the process. Without her performance, the film would flop badly. Needless to say, it’s worth a peek. To see Masina is to fall in love with her and viewers will experience that very emotion.

10:30 pm The Spirit of the Beehive (Janus, 1973) - Director: Victor Erice. Starring: Juan Margallo, Teresa Gimpera, Ana Torrent, and Isabel Telleria. 97 minutes.

The plot of this marvelous film is simple: in circa 1940 rural Castille, a traveling roadshow screens James Whale’s 1931 classic, Frankenstein. Two young sisters, Isabel and Ana, decide to look for the Monster. Their father is a beekeeper, spending more time with his bees than with his family, and her mother is equally alienated, writing to an apparently fictitious lover now living abroad. Isabel tells Ana that the Monster is a spirit who can be evoked by calling out to him. But when Ana returns alone to a barn where she and Isabel frequently play, she meets a stranger who she believes to be the Monster.

A few critics have called this film a commentary on the regime of Spanish dictator Franco, but forget that nonsense. The film is a richly layered look into the world of a child’s imagination and how it can overcome even the poorest of family life and surroundings. What will enrapture viewers is the performance of Ana Torrent as Ana. She gives the film its impetus and keeps it going long after we think that it will finally run out of gas. She is an absolute joy to watch as she reacts to each happening, filing it in the index of her imagination. Far from seeing the creature as a monster, she sees it as someone who could be a friend, and we see it in her interaction with the stranger.

Again, this is a film not to be missed.

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