Monday, April 22, 2013

Cinéma Inhabituel for April 23-30

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

April 23
10:00 pm The Invisible Man (Universal, 1933) Director: James Whale. Cast: Claude Rains, Gloria Stuart, William Harrigan, Henry Travers, & Una O’Connor. B&W, 71 minutes.

Whale’s classic take on the H.G. Wells novel has lost none of its punch over the years. In fact, it seems to get better and better with each passing year. Whale peppers his tale of a scientist who invents a drug causing invisibility – and then is driven mad by the side effects – with liberal doses of his usual dark humor. The film’s star, Rains in his American cinema debut, is seen only briefly at the end as he dies and the invisibility drug wears off. One major error occurs near the end as the Invisible Man is flushed from a barn. We see his footprints, but the prints are of a man wearing shoes. If he were wearing shoes, then the shoes themselves would have been visible.

Trivia: Before going into the movies, Rains was an instructor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. One of his pupils was Charles Laughton . . . Look for John Carradine as a man phoning in a “sighting” . . . The fellow whose bicycle is stolen by the Invisible Man is Walter Brennan . . . Dwight Frye can be seen as one of the reporters.

April 26

10:45 am Hold Your Man (MGM, 1933) Director: Jean Vigo. Cast: Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Stuart Erwin, Dorothy Burgess, & Muriel Kirkland. B&W, 87 minutes.

Gable and Harlow had great chemistry together, which made a good film such as Red Dust even better and made the rather ordinary Hold Your Man compelling viewing. It was the third of five films for the pair, this time in the story of a con man (Gable) on the run who falls in love with a good-hearted woman (Harlow). She takes the rap for a crime he committed and is sent to the reformatory, but love conquers all in a most unique way, thanks to screenwriter Anita Loos.

Trivia: MGM had taken so much heat for two earlier Harlow films, Red-Headed Woman and Red Dust, that Louis Mayer insisted Harlow should be punished for her actions in this one.

April 27

3:15 pm The Incredible Shrinking Man (Universal, 1957) Director: Jack Arnold. Cast: Grant Williams, Randy Stuart, April Kent, Paul Langton, & William Schallert. B&W, 81 minutes.

During the ‘50s, Arnold directed some of the most memorable and well-done sci-fi movies to emerge from Universal. This is one of his best, based on the thoughtful novel by Richard Matheson. It all begins innocently enough – Scott Carey (Williams) is lounging on his yacht on a lazy summer’s day as his wife, Louise (Stuart) goes below for a few moments. A strange mist slowly comes toward the boat, and before Scott has time to react, he is enveloped in the fog, which covers him with a sparkling powder. Soon afterwards, he and Louise notice that his clothes are suddenly too big to fit. In fact, he is shrinking. The doctors can neither explain nor cure his problem and Scott continues to shrink. Watch for the last, poignant, scene as Scott is shrinking to microscopic size.

Trivia: Matheson’s first credit as screenwriter.

4:45 pm Five Million Years to Earth (Hammer, 1967) Director: Roy Ward Baker. Cast: James Donald, Andrew Keir, Barbara Shelley, Julian Glover, & Duncan Lamont. Color, 97 minutes.

When it came to horror, Hammer Studios traded on blood, sex and gore; but when it came to science fiction, Hammer made some of the most thoughtful and intelligent films in the genre. And this is no exception: the third entry in the popular Quartermass series transcends its basic plot – that of the discovery of a spacecraft from Mars – with philosophical issues of evolution and history, as the investigating scientists find that the Martians not only arrived on Earth centuries ago, but also genetically tinkered with apes in an attempt to breed subservient slaves. And it was from these apes that we developed.

But it wouldn’t be a Hammer film without the necessary chills, and these are abundantly supplied as our intrepid team of scientists Dr. Roney (Donald), Ms. Judd (Shelley), and Professor Quartermass (Keir). Quatermass’s involvement is accidental at first, but as he delves deeper and deeper into the seeming mystery, he winds up at distinct odds with the British Establishment in the form on the Home Office and the Military. It all makes for fascinating viewing and this is definitely one to watch.

Trivia: Five Million Years to Earth is adapted from Nigel Kneale’s Quartermass and the Pit, a six-part miniseries originally broadcast in 1958.

April 28

9:45 pm You Only Live Once (UA, 1937) Director: Fritz Lang. Cast: Sylvia Sidney, Henry Fonda, Barton MacLane, Jean Dixon, & William Gargan. B&W, 86 minutes.

Lang fled the terrors of Nazi Germany and its heavy-handed censorship only to land at MGM for his first American movie, Fury, and discover that the studio used what Lang thought was heavy-handed censorship in imposing a happy ending on the film. Luckily for Lang, his next film was for independent producer Walter Wanger, who took a laissez-faire approach and allowed Lang to have control over the final cut of the film.

As originally planned, this was supposed to be a story based on the exploits of Bonnie and Clyde, but when Lang got done, it morphed into a tale on the nature of justice. Three-time convict Eddie Taylor (Fonda), granted early release due to the intervention of public defender Stephen Whitney (MacLane) and prison chaplain Father Dolan (Gargan), falls in love with and marries Whitney’s assistant, Joan Graham (Sidney). They soon learn that their life together is not going to be a bowl of cherries. Snubbed by society, Eddie finds himself out of work with no hope of future employment and soon begins to associate with other ex-cons. When his hat is found at the scene of a fatal armed robbery, he is captured, convicted, and sentenced to death. But Joan is convinced of his innocence, and when he manages to escape, she joins him in a life on the run.

What makes this film rise from the shallows of melodrama into a thoughtful character study is the way Lang approaches his subject matter. From the first, Lang is questioning exactly how justice is administered in general society, and we see how it is administered in the shabby treatment accorded Eddie and Joan by ordinary citizens once they learn who the pair is. It seems that not only do people go out of their way to add to the couple’s misery, but in some cases seek to profit on it as well.

As with any Lang film, distinctive visual touches can be seen, such as the scene with a newspaper preparing three different front page headlines corresponding to different outcomes of Eddie’s trial; the prison escape scene in a thick pea soup fog; and a striking scene of Joan drinking milk from a can sporting a bullet hole.

Trivia: The film marks the feature debut of Jack Carson.

2:15 am The Seventh Seal (Svensk Filmindustri, 1957) Director: Ingmar Bergman. Cast: Gunnar Bjornstrand, Bengt Ekerot, Nils Poppe, Max von Sydow, Erik Strandmark, & Bibi Andersson. B&W, 96 minutes.

As our David Skolnick pointed out in an earlier essay on the subject, Bergman’s films show a pre-occupation with the existence of God and our place in the universe. Nowhere is this more realized than in this film, hailed by many critics as Bergman’s masterpiece, though I suspect more people are familiar with the famous scene of von Sydow playing chess with Death, parodied many times over, than have actually seen the movie itself.

Von Sydow is Antonius Block, a disillusioned knight returning to Sweden with his squire Jons (Bjornstrand) from almost a decade of fighting in the Crusades only to discover the land being ravaged by the Black Plague. While stopping to rest, Block meets a cloaked figure (Ekerot) that turns out to be the personification of Death. Block manages to delay his inevitable fate, challenging Death to a game of chess with his reprieve being the reward if he should win. As the game goes on, Block tries to learn the answer regarding one’s ultimate destiny, but Death refuses to answer.

The game is paused by Death, who is extremely busy with the Plague. As Block and Jons continue their journey back to the castle, they encounter a trio of traveling entertainers who are finding a declining audience for their services: Jof (Poppe), a juggler; his loving wife Mia (Andersson); and their infant son. It is by this encounter that Block receives some of the answers to the questions Death has refused to answer. It is when Block and Death resume their game that Block discovers the real answers to his fate.

This is a film that will raise many more questions among its viewers than it will answer. But it is the questions themselves and the journey undertaken to resolve them that forms the basis of this classic – and essential – film.

Trivia: The chess pieces used in the film were sold at an auction from the estate of Bergman’s descendant in 2009 for 1m Swedish Krona (about USD $145,000).

April 29

7:15 am Kid Glove Killer (MGM, 1942) Director: Fred Zinnemann. Cast: Van Heflin, Marsha Hunt, Lee Bowman, Samuel S. Hinds, & Eddie Quillan. B&W, 74 minutes.

Zinnemann, who learned his craft working in Weimar Germany, had been directing shorts for MGM since 1937. Finally given a chance to direct a feature film, he turned out this snappy little classic of B-movie making. While it can be classified loosely as a whodunit, it’s really not so much of a whodunit – we know exactly whodunit – but how the police catch the whodunit. Usually, it’s the crusading reporter – on the outs with his editor – who solves the case, but not this time. Instead, the hero is forensic investigator Gordon McKay (Heflin), assisted by Jane Mitchell (Hunt). They are up against crooked politicians and the killer, to whom McKay unknowingly spills the beans. Fans of CSI will love this one. Look – and quickly at that – for appearances by Ava Gardner as a car hop and Robert Blake as a kid in the back seat of his parents’ car as they listen over the radio to crime fighting politician Gerald I. Ladimer (Bowman).

Trivia: Hunt’s career was the stuff of television movies. Starting out as a model, she began working for Paramount and Fox before being signed by MGM in 1939. Blacklisted during the ‘50s, she turned to the stage and television, besides becoming active in several charities. In 1983, she became Honorary Mayor of Sherman Oaks, California.

April 30

12:00 am The Undercover Man (Columbia, 1949) Director: Joseph H. Lewis. Cast: Glenn Ford, Nina Foch, James Whitmore, Barry Kelley, Leo Penn, John F. Hamilton, Anthony Caruso, Rob Osterloh, & Ralph Volkie. B&W, 85 minutes.

This is a nice little B, told in semi-documentary style, from Lewis and his last under his Columbia contract. Loosely based on the Al Capone case, T-Men Frank Warren (Ford) and George Pappas (Whitmore) are gathering evidence against a big-name mobster known only as the Big Fellow (Volkie). During the course of their investigation they receive a tip from informant Manny Zanger (Osterloh) that the Big Man is avoiding $3 million in tax liability. Unfortunately for the T-Men, Zanger is whacked shortly thereafter. Warren then decides to take the fight directly to the Mob, subpoenaing the books of lower-level associates and hauling in their bookkeepers to compare writing.

But Mob lawyer Ed O’Rourke (Kelley) thwarts their plans by getting the accountants sprung almost immediately. Warren and Pappas find themselves back at Square One, but not for long. Embittered local cop Sergeant Shannon (Hamilton), demoted to a desk job when his investigation came too close, tips Warren off to Mob accountant Salvatore Rocco (Caruso). Rocco will cooperate in return for federal protection and any reward money. But before Rocco can have his accounts book delivered to Warren, the Mob whacks him, too. When Warren returns from Rocco’s funeral, he finds his place has been tossed, and the men that did it beat him for the information. 

O’Rourke later tries to make a deal, threatening Warren’s wife Judy (Foch), who has been staying at her parent’s farm during the investigation, in the process. Frank hurries to her side, telling her he intends to quit his job. However, right before he packs it in, Rocco’s daughter and her grandmother visit and give Warren the requisite pep talk he needs to get back in the game. The information contained in Rocco’s book leads Warren to lead accountant Sidney Gordon (Penn). Warren flips him and the Big Fellow and associates are indicted and soon convicted.

Trivia: This was the last film Lewis directed for Columbia. He had earlier signed a seven-year deal, but a dispute with producer Robert Rossen over who would get the final cut of the film led Lewis to walk out of the studio. His next stop: producers Frank and Maurice King, who Lewis knew from their days together at Monogram. His next film: the cult classic Gun Crazy.

1:30 am Babies For Sale (Columbia, 1940) Director: Charles Barton. Cast: Rochelle Hudson, Glenn Ford, Miles Mander, Joseph Stefani, Georgia Caine, Helen Brown. B&W, 65 minutes.

We all have to start somewhere and it was in films such as this quickie programmer for Columbia that Ford paid his dues before stardom found him. This so-serious-it’s-a-hoot-to-watch film finds Ford as rookie reporter Steve Burton. He’s writing an expose for his newspaper on the sale of babies for profit by fake maternity homes, telling readers that of two million babies born in these homes in the previous year some $50 million was raked in on their sale at prices from $50 to $10,000 each. Steve’s expose earns him a bit of celebrity, but it’s not what he had hoped for when he began his series. On the contrary, he finds himself under attack from a conglomeration of do-gooder groups led by Dr. Wallace Rankin (Mander), the head of Mercy Shelter. It seems that while writing his expose, Steve forgot one thing: hard evidence. But rather than write a retraction, Steve quits and is now on a quest to obtain the necessary evidence. This in turn leads him to the murder-suicide of a Mrs. Anderson (Brown) and the baby she adopted from Mercy Shelter. He learns that, because she was unable to return the congenitally unhealthy child to the shelter, she threw herself and the infant in front of a subway train. Following up, Steve visits Mercy when Rankin is absent, but the inmates refuse to speak with him.

Meanwhile, recently widowed and pregnant Ruth Williams (Hudson) enters the joint. When she’s told she will have to give up her baby, the emotional stress is too great and she goes into labor. Afterward, Rankin lies to her that the baby was stillborn, but in reality he’s arranging to sell the kid to the rich Kingsleys for a big score. Ruth manages to escape with the help of her friend and fellow inmate Edith Drake (Jewell) and heads straight for Steve with her tale of woe. Seems the villainous Rankin (Mander) and his Nurse Diesel-esque henchwoman Miss Talbot (Caine) makes the poor pregger ladies work without pay in the maternity ward and threatens to lock them in their rooms if they attempt to leave with their newborns. With the help of kindly Dr. Gaines (Stefani), Steve traces Ruth’s infant through birth records to the Kingsley home, and using a ruse, he and Dr. Gaines manage to get a set of the baby’s footprints, later discovering they match those of Ruth’s “deceased” baby. When he’s confronted with the evidence, Kingsley sells out Rankin, with the cops overhearing his confession. Rankin and Nurse Diesel get theirs and the Kinglseys return the baby to Ruth, who, in a moment of generosity, promises to let the couple come and visit from time to time.

Trivia: Director Barton went on to helm Abbott and Costello’s later comedies from 1946 until their breakup in 1956, after which he moved into television, directing several episodes of Dennis the MenaceThe Real McCoys, and Family Affair, among others. 

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