Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Cinéma Inhabituel for August 1-7

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

August marks TCM’s annual “Summer Under the Stars” festival, with each day dedicated to the films of a different star. While this sounds good, oft times we get the same old stars in the same old films, and thus, not much to choose from at times. So forgive me if the column is light this week, but there’s little that is not out of the usual.

August 1

4:15 pm Beat the Devil (UA, 1954) – Director: John Huston. Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, Robert Morley, & Peter Lorre. B&W, 100 minutes.

Beat the Devil is a sterling example of a film that’s much better than its supposed reputation. It was a box office bomb when released and marked the end of the friendship between Bogart (who produced and sank his own money into the project) and Huston, who Bogart brought on board to direct. Bogart never changed his bad opinion of the film, stating “only phonies like it.” However, this is a hilarious, if peculiar, film; one that could not be made today by Hollywood standards.

The first thing Huston did was to toss the script (by Claud Cockburn from his original novel). Huston then brought in Truman Capote to write the screenplay, which Capote did literally on the run; handing in pages just before the day’s filming was to begin. Huston also allowed supporting stars Morley and Lorre to create dialogue for their characters. Given all this, we would suppose the finished product would rank up there in the annals of bad movies, but it’s a funny comedy with a wonderful cast that includes Bogart, Jones, Morley, Lorre, and Lollobrigida. The film still holds its own today and is worth more than one viewing.

Trivia: While being driven to a location shoot, Bogart was involved in an auto accident that cost him some of his front teeth. As a result, his speech was seriously impaired for the rest of the filming. To rectify matters, Huston brought in a young actor with excellent mimicking skills to dub in Bogart’s voice during post-production. The actor’s name? Peter Sellers.

August 4

8:00 pm Ruggles of Red Gap (Paramount, 1935) – Director: Leo McCarey. Cast: Charles Laughton, Mary Boland, Charlie Ruggles, ZaSu Pitts, Roland Young, & Leila Hyams. B&W, 90 minutes.

This unjustly forgotten comedy gem from Paramount stars Laughton as Ruggles, a gentlemen’s gentleman who is lost by his employer in a Paris poker game to rancher Egbert Floud (Ruggles), who takes him back to the family spread in Red Gap, Washington. The comedy comes from Laughton trying to inculcate a sense of culture in his new employer, who insists on treating Ruggles as an equal. Both Laughton and Ruggles are fine in their performances and are ably assisted by Boland, as Effie Floud, and Pitts as the widowed Mrs. Judson, the family’s cook.

Trivia: Laughton originally wanted Ruth Gordon for the role of Mrs. Judson, but director McCarey, who Laughton personally chose to helm the film, insisted on Pitts, and she turned in one of the finest performances in her career . . . Because of a scene where Laughton recites the Gettysburg Address, Nazi minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels banned the film in Germany.

August 7

9:30 am Above Suspicion (MGM, 1943) – Director: Richard Thorpe. Cast: Joan Crawford, Fred MacMurray, Conrad Veidt, Basil Rathbone, Reginald Owen, & Sara Haden. B&W, 91 minutes.

One of the biggest ironies in Crawford’s career was the fact that she gave consistently excellent performances at MGM during the early ‘40s, when the studio made it known that, due to her falling box office appeal, it was no longer tolerating her temperamental histrionics, and this was to be her last film with MGM.

Though it’s not a great movie, the performances of MacMurray as an Oxford professor and Crawford as his bride who spy for the British in prewar Germany while on their honeymoon make this an entertaining 91 minutes. Add to it the performances of Rathbone, as a naughty Nazi aristocrat who imprisons and tortures Crawford, and Veidt as an Austrian resistance fighter (playing a hero for once), and this is a film well worth the time and trouble.

Trivia: This was the last film for Veidt, who dies shortly after filming wrapped from a heart attack. He was 50 years old. 

8:00 pm Murder, He Says (Paramount, 1945) – Director: George Marshall. Cast: Fred MacMurray, Helen Walker, Marjorie Main, Jean Heather, & Porter Hall. B&W, 94 minutes.

Now here is an example of “Summer Under the Stars” at its best, for this is a good example of an unjustly ignored gem. MacMurray is a pollster sent out by his company to find colleague Smedley, who has suddenly vanished without a trace. During his quest, he runs into Smedley’s killers, the Fleagles, a hillbilly family headed by Main. It’s a wonderful send-up of Gothic horror dark house thrillers and rural dramas set in the South, sort of a Cat and the Canary Meets Tobacco Road. Rarely seen, it’s one to catch, and is actually being screened at a decent hour.

For other Cinema Inhabituel films, click here.

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