Thursday, January 31, 2013

Cinéma Inhabituel for Feb. 1-7

A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

Thus begins TCM’s annual salute entitled “31 Days of Oscar.”  There is little to recommend for the week of February 1-7 except for the final two days, when we have a seeming bounty of most interesting films.

February 2

7:00 pm Warner Bros. 90th Anniversary: Tales from the Lot (2013)

The overall quality of TCM’s documentaries is high, so even though I haven’t seen it, I don’t expect a dog. It’s an abbreviated history of the studio featuring interviews with executives and stars.

February 6

8:00 pm All Quiet on the Western Front (Universal, 1930) - Director: Lewis Milestone. Cast: Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim, John Wray, Ben Alexander, Arnold Lucy, and Beryl Mercer. B&W 145 minutes.

The years between the wars saw a number of anti-war films produced. What Price Glory from Fox and The Big Parade from MGM viewed World War I not as a heroic mission, but rather as a tragedy that should have been avoided.

This film, adapted from the novel by Erich Maria Remarque, follows a group of young German students, talked into enlisting by the frenetic pro-war speeches of their teacher. The story is entirely told from their viewpoint and follows their growing disillusionment as they witness the death, mutilation, and insanity all around them. Any preconceptions they had about “the enemy,” Germany’s mission, and the “rights and wrongs” of the conflict disappear to be replaced by anger and confusion. Watch for the scene where Paul (Ayers) mortally wounds a French soldier and then cries bitterly as he tries to save his own life while trapped in a shell crater with a corpse. Also of note is the scene where a bitter Paul returns to his old school and confronts his jingoistic teacher, who is busy indoctrinating the next class of potential recruits. The film retains its edge until the very end, never letting up or wavering in its stark look at the tragedy of war and the effect it has on those fighting in it.

Look especially for Ben Alexander, later famous as Officer Frank Smith, Joe Friday’s partner on the original Dragnet, as Kemmerich.

Needless to say, the Nazis were not thrilled with this film. At screenings in Germany they disrupted the film by tossing stink or smoke bombs into the theater. When they took power in 1933, this was among the first films banned by Goebbels.

10:30 pm Imitation of Life (Universal, 1934) - Director: John M. Stahl. Cast: Claudette Colbert, Warren William, Louise Beavers, Rochelle Hudson, Ned Sparks, and Fredi Washington. B&W 116 minutes.

By today’s standards, Imitation of Life is simply dismissed by as an example of the racism that so dominated Hollywood before the Civil Rights Movement. But this is more than just a simple story. Based on the Fannie Hurst novel, Claudette Colbert stars as a newly widowed mother who teams with her maid, played by Beavers, to open a waffle house. They hit it rich later on the strength of the waffle recipe that came from Beavers.

But wealth does not buy happiness, at least not in a Fannie Hurst soaper. It comes with a price, and in this case the price is the trouble both have with their daughters. Colbert’s daughter, feeling neglected by her mother, rebels and at one point tries to seduce her mother’s fiancée (William). Beavers’s daughter (Washington) is a light-skinned African-American who passes for white. She is deeply ashamed by the fact her mother has very dark skin and completely disassociates herself not only from her mother, but also from the black community. 

Even though critics – both liberal and conservative – attacked the film upon its release, on closer examination, several points stand out. For one thing, Stahl’s 1934 version is much more progressive than the 1959 remake directed by Douglas Sirk. For instance, Colbert and Beavers are single mothers making progress in an industry traditionally run by men. Even more important is the sub-plot addressing Washington’s discomfort with her mother – a point ignored by other films of the era. In fact, the light skinned versus dark skinned division among African-Americans would later pop up as a musical number in director Spike Lee’s 1988 musical, School Daze. The daughter (Washington) was also a break with the traditional casting mindset of the time. Hollywood usually cast white actresses in these roles. Think of Jeanne Crain in Pinky, Helen Morgan in the 1936 and later Ava Gardner in the 1951 versions of Showboat, and Susan Kohner in the 1959 remake of Imitation of Life.

No, it’s not a groundbreaking departure by any means: Beavers is still solidly subservient though Colbert’s character treats her as an equal. But it is at least a departure from the sort of beyond demeaning roles usually assigned to black actors. Watch this for the performance of Louise Beavers. That she wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar is the real crime.

12:30 am The Bride of Frankenstein (Universal, 1935) - Director: James Whale. Cast: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Ernest Thesiger, Valerie Hobson, Una O’Connor, E.E. Clive, Elsa Lanchester, O.P. Heggie, Gavin Gordon, Douglas Walton, and Dwight Frye. B&W 80 minutes.

By 1935, Whale was tired of horror. He made his mark on Hollywood with Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, and The Invisible Man, all of which helped Universal stave off bankruptcy. Whale wanted to expand his repertoire (in the next year he would direct the musical Showboat), but the Laemmles wanted another horror film, a sequel to the immensely popular Frankenstein. Whale held out for as long as he could, but finally caved in. Why? Due to his track record of profitable film after profitable film, Whale was given the title of producer/director. He also had an ace up his sleeve: he would make this the most outrageous horror film yet with a large injection of black comedy.

The result, The Bride of Frankenstein, was not only the rare specimen that surpassed the original, but it also went down as one of the greatest films ever made. It certainly was the best horror film ever made. The Bride begins with Mary Shelley (Lanchester) telling her latest story to her husband Percy (Walton) and their friend Lord Byron (Gordon). As the story unfolds we learn that the Monster survived the fire and Dr. Pretorius (Thesiger) appears with a most unusual pitch to Henry Frankenstein (Clive), who is recuperating from his meeting with his monster.  Meanwhile, the Monster meets with a blind hermit (Heggie) who teaches him to speak, a scene marvelously sent up in Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein. He also makes the acquaintance of Pretorius, who entices him with a plan to create a mate for him. Henry, who wants nothing to do with Pretorius’s idea, is blackmailed when Pretorius has the monster kidnap Henry’s bride, Elizabeth (Hobson, who was only 17 when the movie was shot). The result is that The Monster gets his bride (Lanchester as a strange doppelganger), but things go spectacularly bad.

Look for Whale’s fun with religion, including a bizarre crucifixion scene with The Monster and the sub-text of The Monster’s meeting with the hermit. A trivia note: Valerie Hobson was married in real life to British Secretary of State for War John Profumo, notorious for his affair with prostitute Christine Keeler in a scandal that led to the eventual downfall of the Harold Macmillan government.

February 7

11:30 am My Life as a Dog (Skouras Pictures, 1987) - Director: Lasse Hallstrom. Cast: Anton Glanzelius, Anki Liden, Manfred Serner, Tomas Von Bromssen, and Melinda Kinnaman. Color 101 minutes. 

One of the best films about the chaos of childhood and its effect, My Life as a Dog concerns the adventures of a 12-year old boy sent to a rural village in Sweden full of fellow eccentrics while his mother convalesces. Young Ingemar (Glanzelius) is a sweet child full of energy and a creative sense of mischief that frequently goes out of control. The pleasures and pains of Ingemar’s life are beautifully balanced: the joys of everyday, the confusion of being a child in an adult world, and looking ahead to each new day. It’s funny and touching without becoming mauldlin. Look for the scene where he accompanies a buxom blonde as a chaperone while she poses nude for a sculptor. Director Hallstrom began his career directing music videos, most notably for ABBA, and his first feature film was ABBA: The Movie (1977).

1:30 pm Riso Amaro (Bitter Rice) (Lux Films, 1949) - Director: Giuseppe DeSantis. Cast: Silvana Magnano, Doris Dowling, Vittorio Gassman, and Raf Vallone. B&W 108 minutes.

Walter (Gassman) and Francesca (Dowling) are petty criminals fleeing the police in Northern Italy. The two decide to split up and Francesca joins a group of women rice field workers, where she waits for Walter. Here she meets the voluptuous Silvana (Magnano) and the soon-to-be-discharged soldier Marco (Vallone). When Walter shows up, he soon devises a plan to steal the harvested rice, even though this would bring further hardship on the already impoverished workers.

Shot on location, the film is firmly within the boundaries of the prevailing Neo-Realist movement of the time. DeSantis manages to keep what could well become an overly complicated plot in check with some excellent camerawork and sharp editing. While it quite doesn’t reach the heights of The Bicycle Thieves or German Year Zero, it still manages to deliver solid drama supplanted by solid performances from its cast, particularly Dowling.

5:30 pm I Compagni (The Organizer) (Lux Films, 1964) - Director: Mario Monicelli. Starring: Marcello Mastroianni, Renato Salvatori, Annie Girardot, Gabriella Giorgelli, Vittorio Sanipoli, Folco Lulli, Elvira Tonelli, and Bernard Blier. B&W 130 minutes.

This is a gritty, well-directed story about exploited textile workers in turn of the century Italy and their fight for better working conditions. Pautasso (Lulli), Martinelli (Blier), and Caesarina (Tonelli) are the leaders of the workers. Professor Sinigaglia (Mastroianni), presumably sent by the Socialists to help the workers organize their strike, joins them and planning of the movement begins. 

Management is unrelenting in their stance: the only concession they will consider is the lifting of the suspension of Pautasso (Lulli), one of the early leaders. As the strike drags on, strikebreakers are called in, violence breaks out and Sinigaglia goes into hiding. However, when foreman Baudet (Sanipoli) convinces Martinetti that a return to work would be seen as a sign of strength, Sinigaglia comes out of hiding to rally the workers. They march to the mill where the militia fires on them, killing a 15-year old striker. The professor is arrested and the workers return to their jobs. Even though nothing has been decided, the workers’ strength is felt for the first time.

For other Cinema Inhabituel films, click here.

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