TCM TiVO ALERT
May 23–May 31
DAVID’S BEST BETS:
THE CRANES ARE FLYING (May 26, 4:30 am): This 1957 Russian film is considered the best of the post-Stalin-era as it brilliantly blends the horrors of war, World War II here, in battle scenes with the terrifying lives of those on the homefront who must survive the Nazi invasion. On the surface, it's a love story between a soldier, Boris (Aleksei Batalov), and Veronika (Tatiana Samoilova). But the two are together on screen only briefly before Boris joins the Red Army. Boris is killed relatively early in the film, but is only considered missing, with his family and Veronika hoping he survived the war. The Communists were still very much in power when this film was released, but thank Nikita Khrushchev for letting this film be distributed worldwide as part of the country's de-Stalinization program. It's an anti-war film - with the final scene being a returning soldier calling for peace - but it’s not anti-soldier. Its ability to show the ramifications and fallout of such a horrific and violent war while never degrading those who chose to fight and die for the survival of their country, as well as how one of the main characters avoids joining the military, is breathtaking. Also, the cinematography, particularly the war scenes, in this groundbreaking piece of cinema is stunning.
LIBELED LADY (May 30, 12:30 pm): First, a few words about the cast. You can't possibly make a bad movie with William Powell, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow (the latter had top billing). Well, I suppose you can, but it would be extremely difficult. The chemistry between all four in this 1936 screwball comedy is among the best you'll find in any movie. While Walter Connolly is fine as Loy's father, the legendary Lionel Barrymore was originally cast in the role. If that had come to pass, this would rival Key Largo as the greatest ensemble-cast film ever made. There are so many wonderful and genuinely funny scenes in this film with these four great comedic actors. Powell and Harlow were married at the time, but it was decided that Powell and Loy, one of cinema's greatest on-screen couples, would fall in love though Harlow got to do a wedding scene with Powell. Harlow died of renal failure the year after this film was released. She was only 26. The plot is wonderful with socialite Loy (who was such a beautiful woman) suing a newspaper for $500,000 for falsely reporting she broke up a marriage. Tracy is the paper's managing editor and Harlow is his fiancée who he won't marry. Tracy hires Powell, a slick newspaperman who is a smooth operator when it comes to women, to seduce Loy and then purposely get caught in a compromising position by Harlow, who would pretend to be his wife. Things don't turn out as planned with Loy and Powell falling in love. It's a great movie with a fantastic cast and a joy to watch.
ED’S BEST BETS:
THE LAST OF MRS. CHEYNEY (May 23, 8:30 am): The great Norma Shearer is at her glamorous best as a chic jewel thief out to take a rich family for all they’ve got, especially a pearl necklace valued at 20,000 pounds. But her plan goes awry along the way as she falls for one of her marks. Shearer is the one to watch in this early talkie. Her charisma, elegance and charm are firmly on display and her acting ability is such that we have no trouble believing that she is who she appears to be. Basil Rathbone provides fine support as a member of the family about to be taken, with his charisma and charm providing a perfect match for Norma. As this is an early talkie, and the bugs of the new technology have not yet been worked out, watch for actors talking into plants and into the floral arrangement on Norma’s shoulder. However, the movie is so good that you’ll soon forget these foibles.
BIRD (May 30, 12:30 am): Clint Eastwood proved that he could direct more than mere action films with this dark biopic about the life and death of jazz great Charlie Parker. And he has the perfect star in Forest Whitaker to realize Parker on the screen. This was Whitaker’s breakout role, as he parlayed his portrayal of the heroin-soaked Parker into a best actor award at Cannes. Also look for Michael Zelinker playing trumpeter Red Rodney. Zelinker’s transformation of the character from a shy, fresh-faced wannabe admirer of Parker to a drug-flushed veteran jazzman is awe inspiring to watch. There were no great up and no great downs in the life of Charlie Parker, who died at the age of 34 from an overdose. That Eastwood managed to make this into compelling drama is a testament to his directorial talent.
WE DISAGREE ON ... BATTLEGROUND (May 26, 8:00 pm)
ED: A. In considering the merits of a film, especially a classic film done in another era, we must take not only its immediacy, but also its historical impact into that consideration. And in that respect Battleground is one of the finest war films made by Hollywood, produced by Dore Schary and directed by the venerable William Wellman. At this point in history, audiences had to be asking themselves whether yet another movie about the war was worth the effort to attend. But this is a different movie from those that preceded it. What makes it stand out from those that preceded it is this: instead of focusing on the action and the morale boosting rah-rah, Battleground places its focus on the human condition. It’s a character study rather than a plain action film. Set in Bastogne during The Battle of the Bulge, it emphasizes the frustration, the loneliness and the battle to survive against the elements and of being encircled by the enemy without the hope of an immediate rescue because of the weather conditions. Screenwriter Robert Pirosh wanted to make a film about his wartime experiences in many actual events, such as the Mexican G.I. (Ricardo Montalban) from Los Angeles who had never seen snow until he hit Europe, and the soldier constantly losing his false teeth. These things really happened and were wonderfully captured in a superior script. The film is also important historically as it’s the first to deviate from the constant action to questioning why those actions were necessary. The performances are first-rate, with Van Johnson, James Whitmore, Montalban, and John Hodiak leading the way. Funny – although it was filmed completely in the studio, its sense of realism concerning the battle is second only to the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers. For a film released in 1949, that says an awful lot.
DAVID: B-. Don't get me wrong, this is a good war film and very authentic. But I don't consider it a classic. It's better than 1945's The Story of G.I. Joe, directed by William A. Wellman, who has the same job in Battleground, released in 1949. Both are World War II films that focus on the insecurities, fear and vulnerability of soldiers rather than the glory of battle. Both films concentrate on humanizing soldiers who are fighting not only the enemy and for their survival, but their internal fear and self-doubt. I should love both as the genre has always fascinated me. Battleground connects with me much more than The Story of G.I. Joe but not enough to give it a grade higher than a B-. Wellman's vision for the film is to show the soldiers as regular guys in anything but a regular environment. At times, it comes across as too much of a tribute to those who fought in World War II. A problem is there are far too many characters in the film. Army companies have a lot of soldiers, but this movie wants to introduce us to nearly every one of them. After a while, it's difficult to keep track of who is who, which detracts from the film. Also, the dialogue isn't strong and the ending is too corny. There is a lot to like about the movie from the strong cast - particularly, Van Johnson and James Whitmore - to the great job of showing tension and fear of the soldiers to the excellent cinematography. Again, it’s a good war film, but not among the very best.
For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here.