Friday, March 15, 2013

Cinéma Inhabituel for March 15-22

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

This week we have literally a full house, with quite a few movies, not all of them something to write home about, being presented for your viewing – and recording – pleasure.

March 15

10:00 am Front Page Woman (WB, 1935) Director: Michael Curtiz.  Cast: Bette Davis, George Brent, Roscoe Karns, and Winifred Shaw. B&W, 82 minutes.

This is a thoroughly entertaining B with the young Davis standing in where we usually expect to find Joan Blondell or Glenda Farrell, and Brent where we expect Warren William, Jimmy Cagney or Pat O’Brien. Davis was in her ingénue days, and this movie offers her good exposure in a starring role. She’s a “sob sister” trying to prove she’s every bit as good an investigative reporter as the man she loves, who just happens to be Brent – and who just happens to work for her paper’s rival. For his part, Brent believes that a woman’s place is in the kitchen.

Her big break comes when she’s dispatched to cover a fire. It turns out that the fire is only a cover for the murder of big shot Marvin Q. Stone (Huntley Gordon). Whodunit? Both Brent and Davis spend the rest of the film trying to outscoop and flim-flam each other. When it looks as if Brent has won, Davis turns the tables at the end. It’s directed by Curtiz and comes in at a breezy 82 minutes. While comedies were not Davis’s forte, having Brent around to help makes any actress look good.

10:00 pm Europa ’51 (Ife Releasing, 1952) Director: Roberto Rossellini. Cast: Ingrid Bergman, Alexander Knox, Ettore Giannini, Giuletta Masina, and Tersa Pellati. B&W, 113 minutes.

Rossellini could milk the most out of any story and make it compelling viewing without resorting to camera tricks or other subterfuge. Bergman gives a wonderful performance as an ambassador’s wife. She’s quite used to living a life of luxury until her young son commits suicide over her perceived lack of attention to him. Bergman, grief stricken (and guilt stricken as well), tries to make amends by devoting her life to those she sees as less fortunate. Things go somewhat smoothly until she helps a delinquent young man escape from the police. Fed up, her husband (Knox) has her committed as mentally unbalanced and sent to a sanitarium for life. Look for the fabulous Masina as a destitute woman with six children whom Bergman befriends.


3:15 am The Awful Dr. Orloff (Sigma III, 1964) Director: Jesus Franco.  Cast: Howard Vernon, Conrado San Martin, Diana Lorys, Perla Cristal, and Ricardo Valle. B&W, 90 minutes.

He’s awful, all right. Back in those halcyon days B.C. (Before Cable) when broadcast stations used to actually show movies, this little psychotronic “gem” was always slotted in the wee hours of the morning. It is nice to see that things haven’t really changed. Vernon is Dr. Orloff, the usual straight-off-the-shelf demented surgeon with a disfigured daughter. Naturally he kidnaps beautiful women for the necessary skin grafts. So what else is new? This: he has a brother, Marius (Valle) a blind robot with a face straight out of Hanna-Barbera. It seems that the Doc caught his brother with the Doc’s wife, so Doc killed him and brought him back to life as a handy slave. This is the hit that started it all for cult director Franco, and actually spawned four sequels, each one worse (if that is possible) than its predecessor. Tune in yourself and see why it has the reputation it’s earned over the years.

March 16

9:00 am The Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (Allied Artists, 1957) Director: Nathan Hertz. Cast: Allison Hayes, William Hudson, Yvette Vickers, Roy Gordon, and George Douglas. B&W, 65 minutes.

Yes, it’s as silly as the title sounds. This legendary classic stars the beautiful Hayes as socialite Nancy Archer who’s recently taken to the bottle in despair over cheating husband Harry (Hudson). One day she drives to town to catch him at his favorite watering hole. She runs into a giant bald alien (who’s also transparent, for some reason)! He turns her into a giant, also! Doctors chain her down and inject her with giant syringes, but it’s no use. She breaks out and heads straight for Harry, who’s in his favorite bar smooching and conniving with his squeeze, Honey Parker (Vickers). Nancy grabs Old Cheating Harry in her humongous paper-mache hand and crushes him right before the cops dispatch her. Trivia: Vickers was Playboy’s Miss July 1959. Watch for the scene where Harry and the sheriff confront the alien. As they run for cover, he lifts their car, inspects it, and throws it to the ground, only the car that hits the ground is a completely different model and style. They don’t make ‘em any better than this.

12:00 pm Torchy Blaine in Chinatown (WB, 1938) Director: William Beaudine. Cast: Glenda Farrell, Barton MacLane, Tom Kennedy, Henry O’Neill, and Patric Knowles. B&W, 59 minutes.

If you’ve never caught any of the movies in this popular ‘30s series, you’re missing out on an entertaining time. Farrell is reporter Torchy Blaine and MacLane is her policeman boyfriend, Lieutenant Steve McBride. The plot of all the films in the series is basically the same: a crime has gone down. Steve wants Torchy to keep her nose out of it, but she can’t and ends up solving it anyway as Steve comes in at the end to save her cookies from the fire. Kennedy is Gahagan, McBride’s dim-witted aide who’s assigned to keep Torchy out of trouble, but always fails. In this episode, a remake of 1930’s Murder Will Out, Torchy and Steve get mixed up with jade smugglers. It’s not the best of the series, but the chemistry between Farrell and MacLane is top-notch. Directed by “One-Shot Beaudine. Trivia you should know: Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, who created Superman, were big fans of this series and based their reporter, Lois Lane, on Torchy.

March 17

2:00 am The Two of Us (Cinema V, 1968) Director: Claude Berri. Cast: Michel Simon, Luce Fabiole, Alain Cohen, Roger Carel, and Paul Preboist. B&W, 86 minutes.

Simon and Fabiole star as Pepe and Mèmè in this straightforward and touching film as an elderly couple in Occupied France who take in an eight year-old Jewish boy (Cohen) to hide him from the Nazis. The kid is a handful, but his indulgent parents ship him off to the countryside and the care of the Catholic Simon and Fabiole. There is one caveat: the youth cannot admit he is Jewish, lest he attract attention to himself and, also because Pepe is a confirmed anti-Semite. The beauty of the film lies in the relationship between young Claude and Pepe, who becomes a kind of surrogate grandfather to the boy and who becomes transformed by the love he has for young Claude. 

Director Berri reaches into his own past in realizing the movie. He, too, was a Jewish child sheltered in the French countryside to hide from the Nazis. Trivia: Director Berri received the critical funding necessary to complete the film only after his previous work, Le Poulet (1965), won the Academy Award for Best Short Subject.


3:45 am Tomorrow the World (UA, 1944) Director: Leslie Fenton. Cast: Frederic March, Betty Field, Agnes Moorehead, Joan Carroll, and Skip Homeier. B&W, 86 minutes.

This is a surprisingly excellent film given the plot: American widower Mike Frame (March) has adopted the orphaned son of his late sister, who lived in Nazi Germany. Everyone is so excited – they just can’t wait until he arrives. And that a surprise he turns out be! It seems that young Emil (Homeier) has been raised in the Hitler youth and the little bugger is quite the monster. And worse is to come, for Mike’s fiancée, Leona Richards (Field) is Jewish! Oy, Gevalt! 

Yet, in spite of this, the film is a tightly-constructed drama, and while we know what’s coming, the intelligent plot and acting more than make up for our having seen this plot somewhere before. Director Fenton is to be credited for making the little monster’s transformation into a human being believable. Trivia: Before taking up directing, Fenton was best known as a supporting actor. His most famous role was in Cagney’s The Public Enemy, playing gang boss Nails Nathan.

5:15 am Nazty Nuisance (Hal Roach, 1943) Director: Glenn Tyron. Cast: Bobby Watson, Emory Parnell, Ian Keith, Frank Faylen, King Kong Kashey, and Ed Lewis. B&W, 43 minutes.

This film is so brief it could almost qualify as a short. Watson, who was famous in the World War II years for impersonating Hitler on stage and screen, is Der Fuehrer once more. Adolf is on his way by submarine, along with his Axis stooges Mussolini and Japan’s Suki Yaki, to a tropical country to negotiate a military treaty with High Chief Paj Mab (Keith). But unbeknownst to him, an American P.T. crew is already there and they have plans of their own. It’s an exercise in slapstick, but this film was presumed lost and rarely shown on the tube. Kashey and Strangler Lewis are the High Chief’s palace guards.

March 18

11:00 am Smarty (WB, 1934) Director: Robert Florey. Cast: Joan Blondell, Warren William, Edward Everett Horton, Frank McHugh, and Claire Dodd. B&W, 64 minutes.

Not all Pre-Code comedies are funny, especially those directed by Florey. Blondell is a wife whose teasing of husband William finally pushes him over the edge. He slugs her and they end up in divorce court, where she meets, and later weds, their good friend, and her divorce lawyer, played by Horton, to everyone’s mutual dissatisfaction. No, this one is for fans of Joanie. You’ll never see her looking better than in this film, as she was photographed by then-husband, cinematographer George Barnes.

March 19

8:45 am Stranger on the Third Floor (RKO, 1940) Director: Boris Ingster. Cast: Peter Lorre, John McGuire, Margaret Tallichet, Charles Waldron, and Elisha Cook, Jr. B&W, 67 minutes.

Question: Is this a film noir, or isn’t it? Critics and historians are divided, so see it yourself and make up your own mind. Reporter McGuire discovers a murder and his subsequent testimony convicts ex-con Cook. Feeling guilty, McGuire then begins to investigate on his own and finds himself the prime suspect when a second murder, that of his nosy neighbor, takes place. Then, in one of the most surrealistic and imaginative sequences in a film (especially considering its budget), McGuire dreams that he is convicted of murdering his neighbor. He tells girlfriend Tallichet about the dream and the strange, shadowy man he saw lurking nearby during the time of the murder. She believed in Cook’s innocence and also believes in McGuire’s innocence. It’s up to her to track down the murder, and she finds him in the person of Lorre, who appears in the film for only a few minutes. Do catch this film: its stylized sets (almost the entire film is shot on one street set. Looking at other scenes we can see they’re nothing more than the product of clever lighting.), bizarre camera angles and lighting are evocative of the German Expressionist films of the ‘20s to which this film owes an obvious debt. But more than that – tune in and see how much can be made from so little. Trivia: Tallichet, who played Jane, has some famous family connections – she is the niece-in-law of Universal founder Carl Laemmle, cousin-in-law of Carl Laemmele, Jr., and quit acting in 1941 to raise a family with husband William Wyler, to whom she was married from October 23, 1938, until his death on July 27, 1981. It’s quite a record by Hollywood standards.


March 21

2:15 am The Boy With Green Hair (RKO, 1948) Director: Joseph Losey. Cast: Pat O’Brien, Robert Ryan, Barbara Hale, Dean Stockwell, and Samuel S. Hinds. Color, 82 minutes.

Losey made his feature-film debut with this gentle and thoughtful tale of war orphan Stockwell, who awakens one day to discover that his hair has turned green. He becomes the object of ridicule in his small town, with the townsfolk calling for his head to be shaved. He runs away, but has a dream that other war orphans are urging him to return to town and stand up for those that are different and how tiny differences can lead to armed conflict. Howard Hughes purchased RKO while this film was underway and tried his best to sabotage its pacifist message. But Losey outsmarted Hughes by shooting the film in such a way that there wasn’t a real possibility of change. Only a few lines could be inserted in different scenes to soften the message.

5:00 am Le quai des brumes – Port of Shadows (Action/Gitanes, 1938) Director: Marcel Carne. Cast: Michele Morgan, Jean Gabin, Michel Simon, Pierre Brasseur, and Edouard Delmont. B&W, 91 minutes.

Director Carne’s fatalistic tale stars Jean (Gabin), a deserter who arrives in Le Havre one evening seeking a ship to leave the country. He manages to get a change of clothes, a little cache of money, and a passport. He also discovers a town laden with gangsters, murderers, morally stricken men and women – and the feeling that humanity as a whole is doomed, extremely prescient on the eve of war.

Soon after his arrival, Jean is ensconced in a remote cabin at the edge of the sea. This sanctuary is run by Panama (Delmont). Here Jean meets a suicidal painter, a sympathetic dipso who has found Jean his hideout, and a young girl named Nelly (Morgan), who visits Jean’s cabin when trying to avoid her overbearing and malevolent godfather Zabel (Simon), which is often.

Becoming involved with Nelly, Jean seals his fate. She describes herself in terms of “damaged goods,” and tells Jean about Lucien (Brasseur), a neurotic gangster who wants to totally possess her. Realizing the extent of the threat posed by Lucien, Jean stands up to the gangster and, in the process, kills him. Jean learns of a ship leaving for Venezuela, but before he and Nelly can secure passage, fate intervenes in the form of an extremely grim finale.

This film is famous for its stark pessimism, treating points such as suicide, sex and murder with an unusual frankness not seen in the French cinema. When the Nazis occupied France in 1940, Goebbels screened the film and promptly banned it for what he described as its extreme decadence and subversion. That it survived the War Years at all is a testament not to pessimism, but to the optimism that endangered itself for the sake of art.

March 21

2:15 am The Flowers of St. Francis (Cineriz, 1950) Director: Roberto Rossellini. Cast: Aldo Fabrizi, Peparuolo, Severino Pisacane, Roberto Sorrentino, and Gianfranco Bellini (narrator). B&W, 75 minutes.

TCM is featuring the films of Rossellini this month – a nice diversion from the mostly tiresome output of Star-of-the-Month Greer Garson. This film is Rossellini’s paean to St. Francis and dramatizes about a dozen vignettes about the saint and his followers, starting with their return in the rain to Rivotorio from Rome, where the Pope blessed their Rule and ending with their dispersal to preach. If Rossellini proved anything, it’s that one can make a film both serious and entertaining without becoming hokey in the process. Must viewing for anyone interested in both the church and the spiritual. 

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