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.
6:15 am Beast From Haunted Cave (Filmgroup, 1959) – Director: Monte Hellman. Cast: Michael Forest, Shelia Carol, Frank Wolff, Wally Campo, Chris Robinson, & Richard Sinatra. B&W, 65 minutes.
This quickie horror film from producer Gene Corman is actually a remake of brother Roger’s 1957 crime drama Naked Paradise with the horror elements thrown in. A gang of thieves, led by Wolff, comes to Deadwood, South Dakota, with the intention of stealing a few gold bars. They enlist the help of local ski instructor Forest, planning to use him as a guide to get out of the territory after the heist. But after the heist, a blizzard forces them to take sanctuary in Forest’s cabin while a big spider-like creature (Robinson, covered in cobwebs) they disturbed earlier wants them as food. As Corman quickies go, this one’s not that bad. Corman later recycled this further for Creature From the Haunted Sea (1961), Up From the Depths (1979), and Demon of Paradise (1987). The score for Beast From the Haunted Cave was also recycled from earlier Corman efforts.
Trivia: Richard Sinatra was the nephew of Frank Sinatra.
7:30 am The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (WB, 1957) – Director: Paul Landres. Cast: Paul Christian, Paula Raymond, Cecil Kellaway, Kenneth Tobey, Donald Woods, & Lee Van Cleef. B&W, 80 minutes.
This film about a dinosaur – called a rhedosaurus – disturbed from his suspended animation slumber in the Arctic and eventually finding his way to New York City – is loosely based of Ray Bradbury’s short story, “The Foghorn.” It also marks the first solo effort of Ray Harryhausen in the special effects department. And what a great job Harryhausen does in animating this stop-motion creature. It makes for a quick and totally enjoyable 80 minutes as the creature makes his way from the North Pole to New York City’s Financial District, coming ashore at what is now the South Street Seaport (back then the Fulton Fish Market). Look for a young Van Cleef at the climax as the sharpshooter who injects the lethal radioactive isotope into the creature.
Trivia: Film buffs may recognize Alvin Greenman, the first soldier to see the creature on radar. Greenman had earlier been seen as Alfred, the Macy’s janitor from Miracle on 34th Street . . . the dinosaur skeleton in the museum is the one that was constructed for RKO’s Bringing Up Baby in 1938.
4:15 am The Vampire (Gramercy/UA, 1957) – Director: Paul Landres. Cast: John Beal, Colleen Gray, Kenneth Tobey, Dabbs Greer, & Herb Vigran. B&W, 75 minutes.
Beal is a small town physician who accidentally ingests experimental pills made from the blood of vampire bats and is transformed into a blood-sucking creature. The usual nonsense made a little more palatable by the presence of seasoned veterans Tobey, Gray, and Greer.
8:00 pm Busses Roar (WB, 1942) – Director: D. Ross Lederman. Cast: Richard Travis, Julie Bishop, Charles Drake, Eleanor Parker, & Elisabeth Fraser. B&W, 61 minutes.
Parker is TCM’s “Star of the Month,” and it’s rather neat of them to include this, her first film, among the ones being screened. It’s a fast-paced little thriller about two Axis saboteurs and their American accomplice who plant a bomb in a bus scheduled to pass by a huge California oil field. Bishop discovers it hidden in her luggage, and with the help of Marine Sergeant Travis, tries to defuse it.
11:00 pm Between Two Worlds (WB, 1944) – Director: Edward A. Blatt. Cast: John Garfield, Paul Henried, Sydney Greenstreet, Eleanor Parker, & Edmund Gwenn. B&W, 112 minutes.
Warner Brothers recycled their 1930 drama Outward Bound and gave it a World War II twist in this allegorical drama. Several people killed in an air raid over London awake to find themselves aboard a strange ship bound for the afterlife and traversing the gulf between heaven and hell. Despite giving the surprise away in the first minutes, the film settles down, reminding me of Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, about a ship populated by characters of different social and financial strata and their efforts to come together. Watch it for the excellent performances of the Warner Bros. stock ensemble. It’s Parker’s first starring role.
1:00 am Mission to Moscow (WB, 1943) – Director: Michael Curtiz. Cast: Walter Huston, Ann Harding, Oscar Homolka, George Tobias, Gene Lockhart, & Eleanor Parker. B&W, 123 minutes.
With the Russians as our allies in World War II, FDR lobbied the studios for movies showing our former enemies as a loyal freedom-loving democratic country. And Warner Bros. answered the call big time with this piece of pure bologna, based on the book by former ambassador Joseph E. Davies about his experience in the Soviet Union. Watching it today, the film comes off more like broad comedy than as an insight into our allies. Little did Jack Warner know when making it that it would be one of the centerpieces of the HUAC hearings, where the boobs in Washington thought the thing was on the level. Screenwriter Howard Koch was actually placed on the blacklist over the whole sorry matter. It’s a must for fans of bad movies.
3:15 am Crime By Night (WB, 1944) – Director: William Clemens. Cast: Jane Wyman, Jerome Cowan, Faye Emerson, Charles Lang, & Eleanor Parker. B&W, 72 minutes.
This little gem of a movie is a must for lovers of mystery films, lovers of ‘40’s films, and film lovers in general. Cowan is in great form as private detective Sam Campbell, who takes on an assignment to get the goods on an ex-wife in a child custody case and stumbles into the murder of her father. Wyman adds to the enjoyment as Cowan’s secretary, who manages quite a lot of ditsy humor without coming off as dumb. Parker is on hand as the shady daughter of the victim, and supporting actor Cy Kendall is great as the befuddled sheriff. Given the wonderful chemistry between Cowan and Wyman it’s a shame they didn’t continue this as a series.
Trivia: The movie was released 18 months after it was filmed for reasons unknown.
2:15 am The Mask of Dimitrios (WB, 1944) – Director: Jean Negulesco. Cast: Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Zachary Scott, Faye Emerson, & Victor Francen. B&W, 95 minutes.
Set in 1938 Istabul, Lorre stars in this adaptation of Eric Ambler’s novel A Coffin for Dimitrios as Dutch mystery writer Cornelius Leyden. Leyden is collecting research on the life of elusive international rat and smuggler Dimitros Markopoulas (Scott), whose body washed up recently on a beach. In his travels he runs across former lovers and colleagues, including one Mr. Peters (Greenstreet), who not only ingratiates himself with the author, but also offers him a nice reward to complete his investigation. As always, however, beware of Greenstreet bearing gifts. It all makes for a most enjoyable mystery with Lorre proving himself worthy of a lead role and further cementing his stature as one of Hollywood’s finest acting talents.
Trivia: Shortly after the film wrapped, Emerson, who played Irana, married Elliot Roosevelt, the son of the President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The union lasted for six years and produced two children. Her next husband was bandleader Skitch Henderson.
12:30 am It Came From Beneath the Sea (Columbia, 1955) – Director: Robert Gordon. Cast: Kenneth Tobey, Faith Domergue, Donald Curtis, Ian Keith, & Dean Maddox, Jr. B&W, 79 minutes.
This movie is a well-known standard to sci-fi fans and memorable to movie lovers in general for the fascinating bit of trivia that the monster octopus has only six tentacles. There’s a very good reason for that outside of mere costs: The film was made for Clover Productions and distributed by Columbia. The executive producer and owner of Clover was none other than Sam Katzman, a man who could squeeze a nickel so hard that the Indian jumps on the buffalo. In the 30s and 40s, Sam made some of the cheapest and wretched productions on the face of Hollywood. He was responsible for Lugosi’s quickie horror films at Monogram and the plague of East Side Kids movies from the same studio. Legend has it that on those movies, Sam was so cheap that he let the boys simply ad-lib rather than spend the money on an extra screenwriter.
But despite Sam’s frugality, this is a nice watchable sci-fi movie, mainly because animator Ray Harryhausen kept the creature either under water or at the surface’s edge to hide its obvious deficiencies. Director Gordon brought the film in at an astounding $150,000 - $26,000 of which went for the animation. To save money, Gordon shot the submarine scenes on a real submarine using a hand-held camera. When Katzman canceled beach location shooting, Gordon simply had sand brought onto a sound stage and used rear projection to simulate the location. (The sand was so soft that lead Tobey had to dig himself out between scenes, as he was shrinking beneath co-star Domergue.) Two extensive scenes between the lead characters – one an extended love scene – were literally ripped from the script by Katzman to save money.
In a genre where the monster is usually the most interesting character, It Came From Beneath the Sea boasts several excellent performances from its stars. Tobey, a Howard Hawks discovery, and Domergue, a Howard Hughes discovery, do their utmost best to come across as serious in a script that would have doomed lesser acting talents. Curtis gives strong support as Faith’s first love interest and fellow marine biologist, and Keith is noteworthy in a small role as Admiral Burns.
4:00 am The Cyclops (Allied Artists, 1957) – Director: Bert I. Gordon. Cast: James Craig, Gloria Talbott, Lon Chaney, Jr., Tom Drake, & Duncan Parkin. B&W, 66 minutes.
For sheer lunacy and unintended laughs, there’s nothing like a Gordon psychotronic extravaganza. Having struck drive-in gold with The Amazing Colossal Man, Bert tries to make fiscal lightning strike twice with this opus about a young woman (Talbott) searching for her missing fiancé in the jungles of Mexico. When she finally finds him she wishes she hadn’t for he has somehow mutated via that ol’ debbil radiation into a hideous gigantic one-eyed monster. Watch it for the poorly-drawn characters, the inanity of the plot, and the great hilarious dialogue. Bert wrote the screenplay himself and proved to the world he was no Ben Hecht. Michael Weldon summarized it best in his authoritative The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film: The 50-foot monster is Beret Gordon’s dumbest/weirdest special effect . . . A trash classic!”
11:15 am Stranger on the Third Floor (RKO, 1940) – Director: Boris Ingster. Cast: Peter Lorre, John McGuire, Margaret Tallichet, Charles Waldron, & 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 murderer, 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.
8:00 pm The Maltese Falcon (WB, 1931) – Director: Roy Del Ruth. Cast: Ricardo Cortez, Bebe Daniels, Dudley Digges, Una Merkel, Thelma Todd, Otto Matieson & Elisha Cook, Jr. B&W, 80 minutes.
Here it is – the first version of the now famous noir classic. This film totally astounded me the first time I saw it years ago on a triple bill featuring all three versions. Dashiell Hammett wrote the screenplay himself, aided by Maude Fulton and Brown Holmes. The plot of the novel was perfect for a Pre-code film, with its cast of lowlife characters pursuing a jewel-encrusted statue of a falcon. One of those chasing the statue is Joel Cairo, described in the novel as “queer,” and portrayed no differently in the film, though the homosexual angle is downplayed. Another, Kapsar Gutman, refers to his assistant, Wilmer, as a gunsel. “Gunsel” is 30s prison slang for a hired gun and a homosexual. The only character of the novel cut for the screen is that of Gutman’s daughter, who Spade discovers near the end and who suffers hideous scars from a sadomasochistic relationship with Wilmer and, the novel implies, her father.
One difference between the ‘31 and ‘41 versions is the character of Sam Spade. As played by Cortez in this version, he’s an inveterate womanizer. (Bogart shows some of the same instincts in the ‘41 version, but these are downplayed by the censorship of the times.) The babe quotient is also higher in the ‘31 version, with the gorgeous Daniels as Ruth Wonderly and Todd as Iva Archer. Also look for Digges as Gutman (though he was too thin to be called “the fat man.”) and the tragic Dwight Frye makes for a good Wilmer.
9:30 pm City Streets (Paramount, 1931) – Director: Rouben Mamoulian. Cast: Gary Cooper, Sylvia Sidney, Paul Lukas, Wynne Gibson, William Boyd, & Guy Kibbee. B&W, 83 minutes.
Director Mamoulian takes Dashiell Hammett’s only original story for the screen and turns it into an almost lyrical love story about two lovers overwhelmed by fate and circumstance. Cooper makes an excellent impression as a carnival worker – a western marksman known as “the Kid” – who joins the bootlegging racket of his lover Nan’s (Sidney) stepfather, Pop Cooley (Kibbee), who’s in cahoots with big league gangster Maskal (Lukas). Maskal takes an instant shine to Nan and tries to make her his lover. When the Kid steps in and asserts his claim, Maskal later sends his men to kill him. Will Nan and the Kid escape Maskal’s tentacles? I can only advise you to watch – you will not be disappointed.
Trivia: Clara Bow was originally cast in the role of Nan, but suffered a nervous breakdown prior to filming. Mamoulian recommended Sidney for the part in her stead.
4:30 am Satan Met a Lady (WB, 1936) – Director: William Dieterle. Cast: Bette Davis, Warren William, Alison Skipworth, Arthur Treacher, Marie Wilson, & Winifred Shaw. B&W, 75 minutes.
Warner Bros., for some strange reason unbeknownst to the world, decided not only to recycle The Maltese Falcon, but also to overhaul it into something totally unrecognizable, thus creating one of the greatest curiosities of film history. It was also one of the final straws that broke the back of Davis and caused her to flee to England to escape.
In this version Sam Spade has now become private eye Ted Shane (Williams). The falcon has been changed into the “fabled” Horn of Roland, a trumpet stuffed full of jewels and is being sought by Davis, playing the Bebe Daniels-Mary Astor role. The character of Kasper Gutman has undergone a sex change and is now Madame Barrabas (Skipworth). Joel Cairo has morphed into English jewel thief Anthony Travers (Treacher). Shane accepts money from each of them to find the horn, and when he finally gets his hands on it he discovers that, instead of jewels, it’s filled with sand. The rest we’ll leave up to you to watch. It’s a definite Must See on the curiosity factor alone.
Trivia: Marie Wilson plays Shane’s secretary, Miss Murgatroyd.
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