Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Cinéma Inhabituel for May 15-22

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

May 16

12:30 pm Queen Bee (Columbia, 1955) Director: Ranald MacDougall. Cast: Joan Crawford, Barry Sullivan, Betsy Palmer, John Ireland, Lucy Marlow, & Fay Wray. B&W, 94 minutes.

For the serious film buff, Crawford’s domestic dramas of the ‘50s are required viewing, and this is one of her best. In this entry she’s Eva, a Southern socialite who married into the family from the outside, and rules the nest with more than a tinge of resentment. Palmer is excellent as Eva’s hated sister-in-law, Carol, for whom the feeling is more than mutual, and Sullivan provides a pleasant surprise playing against type as Eva’s henpecked husband. Eva’s just plain rotten and Joan pulls out all the stops. Her daughter, Christina, said in her tell-all, Mommie Dearest, that the role best fit her mother’s real personality, leading some to wonder if Joan was acting or simply playing herself. The real fun, though, is in Joan’s performance, which is so serious it makes the film click with audiences as both a character study and a classic of camp.

Trivia: Fay Wray was just returning to work after the death of her husband, screenwriter Robert Riskin. In her memoirs, Wray would note Crawford’s kindliness to her on the set and marvel at Joan’s compulsive cleanliness.

May 17

8:30 am The Thirteenth Chair (MGM, 1937) Director: George B. Seitz. Cast: Dame May Whitty, Madge Evans, Lewis Stone, Henry Daniell, Elissa Landi, and Holmes Herbert. B&W, 68 minutes.

This tale, based on a play by Bayard Veiller, of a medium and a Scotland Yard Inspector competing to see who can solve the murder of a blackmailer has been made twice before. The first was in 1919 with Creighton Hale and is now presumed lost. MGM then made a sound version in 1929 directed by Tod Browning with Margaret Wycherly as the medium and Bela Lugosi as the Scotland Yard Inspector. (Bela’s first talkie.) The problem with this version is that it was made just as sound was coming in, and it was a very static, very stagy film. (As a matter of fact, Browning always had problems adjusting to sound. Even his films in the late ‘30s seemed like they were made a decade before.)

In this version, Whitty is the medium, Mme. Rosalie LaGrange, and Stone is Inspector Marney. There are solid performances from everyone involved and Seitz does an admirable job of keeping the mystery in play. The film is often categorized as the horror genre because of the séance scene and a scene involving a dead man, but it’s much more along the lines of the “Old Dark House” mystery genre than a horror film. Also keep an eye out for an early notable performance by Daniell. No, for once he’s not the villain; in fact he’s dispatched rather early on, but no one plays the stiff British aristocratic types like Daniell.

Trivia: Holmes Herbert played the role of Sir Roscoe Crosby in both this version and the 1929 version.

2:00 am Our Man in Havana (Columbia, 1960) Director: Carol Reed. Cast: Alec Guinness, Maureen O’Hara, Burl Ives, Ernie Kovacs, Noel Coward, Ralph Richardson, & Jo Morrow. B&W, 111 minutes.

Graham Greene was, without a doubt, one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century. Almost every one of them has been brought to the screen, and each time with satisfying results, for Greene wrote the sort of story that could translate well to the screen with only a modicum of reworking.

Our Man in Havana is no different. Jim Wormold (Guinness) is an expatriate Englishman living in pre-revolutionary Havana with his teenage daughter Milly (Morrow). Milly’s hobby is shopping and her father has trouble financing that hobby. He owns a vacuum-cleaner shop in Havana, but isn’t very successful. Enter Hawthorne (Coward) from the British Secret Service. He’s recruiting a network of agents in Havana and approaches Wormold, who, needing the money, eagerly accepts. His only problem, however, is that he doesn’t know where to begin. When his friend, Dr. Hasselbacher (Ives) offhandedly mentions that no one knows the best secrets, Wormhold takes it to heart and manufactures a list of agents, providing fictional tales to go along with them for his superiors in London. Wormhold soon gains a reputation as the best agent in the Western Hemisphere, but everything begins to unravel when the local police decode his cables and begin rounding up his “network.” Soon afterward he learns that he is the target of a group out to kill him.

Greene based his novel on his experiences in Portugal during the war, when he noticed German spies with no stories to tell who made up fantastic tales to keep the money flowing. He first set his novel in pre-war Estonia about an Englishman who does the same thing to satisfy his greedy wife. But the idea of an Englishman betraying his country on the eve of World War II wouldn’t bring much sympathy, so Greene changed the setting to Cuba and the plot point from wife to daughter.

In the deft hands of director Reed, Greene’s novel is precisely realized as a masterpiece of satire. Reed overcame the usual meddling of Columbia, who wanted to fill the screen with American stars, the new Cuban government, who let Reed know that if he was to shoot in Havana, he had to make it clear that the corrupt officials were from the Batista regime, and the British Secret Service themselves, who suggested various plot changes. Despite all the roadblocks, Reed’s vision of the film came through loud, clear, and funny.

Trivia: To play Milly, Wormold’s spendthrift daughter, Columbia originally wanted Jean Seberg. But she was unavailable, shooting an independent film in France, so Columbia assigned the part to contract player Jo Morrow. And the film Seberg was shooting? Breathless, with director Jean-Luc Godard.

May 19

2:30 am Below the Belt (Atlantic Releasing, 1980) Director: Robert Fowler. Cast: Regina Baff, John C. Becher, Mildred Burke, James Gammon, & Dolph Sweet. Color, 91 minutes.

While we’ve seen films about the sport of professional wrestling, films about women’s wrestling have been few. Before this independent effort, which took six years to find a distributor to reach the screen, there was exactly one film about women’s wrestling, a low-grade George Weiss produced effort called Racket Girls, aka Pin-Down Girl (1951), starring an actress called Peaches Page who tried to pass herself off as an actual wrestler, and film clips with Clara Mortenson mixing it up with long-time rival Rita Martinez.

This is a simple story about a waitress (Baff) at a sports arena who impresses a wrestling promoter (Becher) when she subdues a rowdy co-worker. From there she enters the business, is trained by none other than the great Burke, and we get a glimpse into the life of a woman wrestler on and off the road. For what it is, it's not bad and viewers will have fun spotting the number of character actors in the cast.

Trivia: Several women wrestlers, headed by Jane O'Brien, are in the film. 

May 20

2:30 am Late Autumn (Shockiku Eiga, 1960) Director: Yasuhiro Ozu. Cast: Setsuko Hara, Yoko Tsukasa, Mariko Okada, Kenji Sata, & Chishu Ryu. Color, 128 minutes.

As mentioned before, Ozu was as master of the understated drama. His subjects are not unlike the ones we interact with every day, and their trials and tribulations easily recognizable as essential components of the human condition.

Ozu was most comfortable with the shomingeki or “home drama” genre, and this film is a subtle reworking of his earlier Late Spring (1949). Again we find a dutiful daughter reluctant to marry because it would entail leaving her widowed parent she cared and sacrificed for over the years. However, in Late Autumn, the parent is daughter Ayako’s widowed mother, Akiko (Hara). And, again, as in the earlier film, the widowed parent contemplates marriage only to encourage the daughter to leave the family nest.

Family sacrifice, either by a parent or a child, is a recurring theme in Ozu’s shomingeki and he always manages to keep the story fresh by reworking or emphasizing different elements each time. Here, his leading lady, Hara, whose subtle facial expressions made her perhaps his most popular and enduring star, gives him sterling support. Hara gets more out of a simple glance and smile than other actors manage with an entire soliloquy.

Late Autumn was widely criticized upon its release as heavily retrograde with nothing new to say about the modern age into which Japan was heading. However, upon closer examination of this deeply touching (for me) film, we can see Ozu playing on the tensions between the traditions form and way of Japanese family life versus the emerging Western attitudes coming from abroad. It makes for most satisfying viewing and can be enjoyed numerous times without hitting bottom.

May 21

1:45 am Carry On Spying (Anglo-Amalgamated, 1964) Director: Gerald Thomas. Cast: Kenneth Williams, Barbara Windsor, Bernard Cribbins, Charles Hawtrey, Eric Pohlmann, Victor Maddern, Judith Furse, and Jim Dale. B&W, 87 minutes.

To the nocturnal fans of late-night movies during the ‘60s and ‘70s, the Carry On series was a popular and pleasurable diversion. While not exactly knockdown hilarious, they were nevertheless warmly amusing with a group of British comics that became familiar to us fans of the series as we watched each effort: Sidney James, Kenneth Williams, Kenneth Connor, Charles Hawtrey, and Hattie Jacques. The plot, a spoof of the popular James Bond series, is familiar, but yet funnier than many of the other larger-budgeted parodies of the genre. A top-secret chemical formula has been pilfered by STENCH (Society for the Extinction of Non-Conforming Humans). Agent Simkins (Williams) and his trainees are sent to retrieve it, equipped with gadgets galore and disguises so the good guys can win the day against the forces of  The Fat Man (Polhlmann), Milchmann (Maddern), and Dr. Crow (Furse).

Trivia: Many of the scenes in Vienna are a parody/homage to Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), so fans of that film should keep a close eye out.

May 22

11:00 pm Le Jour Se Leve (Day to Book - Les Films Vog, 1939) Director: Marcel Carne. Cast: Jean Gabin, Jules Berry, Arletty, Mady Berry, & Rene Genin. B&W, 93 minutes.

This is yet another masterpiece from Carne illustrating the tentacles of fate. Francois (Gabin) has shot and killed a man. He is holed up in his apartment, under siege from the police. During the course of the night he has time to reflect on how he – seen by everyone around him as a decent man – stooped to murder. Carne smartly uses a series of flashbacks to illustrate the events that led to the confrontation. Francois, a sandblaster by trade, has fallen in love with Francoise (Laurent), a young flower seller whom he intends to marry. But he soon discovers she is thoroughly enchanted with Valentin (Berry), a thoroughly nasty dog trainer at the local music hall. Francois gets the low down on Valentin from his assistant Clara (Arletty), with whom Francois has had a fling, and resolves to protect her. Valentin, however, seems determined to push Francois to his limits while keeping Francoise for himself. Events build upon events, and Francois loses it, murdering Valentin and leading to his current dilemma.

The genius of this film, and of Carne’s direction, is its use of fate as the centerpiece for working-class life. He creates a thoroughly moody atmosphere with a combination of lighting and dreamlike sets, which give off a sense of the unreal – of great use with flashbacks that the basic situation of a man who has never murdered before; never taken that step from which he can’t turn back. Add background music to emphasize the points and a visual tapestry is woven that draws the viewer into its pattern.

As with many classics of this period, the film met with mixed reviews, with some critics pointing to its “faulty psychology,” as ruining the ending. However, the story was powerful enough to spur a remake in the late ‘40s – The Long Night. The RKO movie, starring Henry Fonda and directed by Anatole Litvak, followed Carne’s film faithfully. RKO, as many other American studios tried to do when filming a remake, sought to have all the original negatives destroyed. France, after suffering this exact same treatment at the hands of occupying Nazis, was not about to let Americans do the same exact thing to its cultural heritage. Besides, Fonda is clearly no match for Gabin – while Gabin gets mad, Fonda whines.

Trivia: To ensure greater authenticity, Carne dictated that the bullets police fired in Francois’s apartment be real.

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