A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
7:45 am Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (UA, 1933) – Director: Lewis Milestone. Cast: Al Jolson, Madge Evans, Frank Morgan, Harry Langdon, Chester Conklin, & Edgar Connor. B&W, 82 minutes.
After starring in Big Boy for Warner Bros. in 1930, Jolson took a three-year hiatus from the screen. When he did return it was in one of the most offbeat films of a time noted for offbeat cinema. Jolson hated it afterward, calling it his worst film, but many critics and historians beg to differ, for they see it as one of his best.
Hallelujah, I’m a Bum, based on a story by Ben Hecht, is about a hobo named “Bumper.” His fellow hobos recognize Bumper as “the mayor of the hobos.” One of his many friends is John Hastings (Morgan), the real mayor of New York City. When Bumper rescues the amnesiac Angel (Evans), he falls in love with her – to the point of getting a real job, only to discover that in reality she is June Marcher, Mayor Hastings’ girlfriend.
The film premiered to bad reviews (save for The New York Times, which praised it) and sparse crowds. United Artists’ studio head Joseph Schneck had signed Jolson to a three-picture contract, but opted to pay him off instead of making two more films, figuring it was cheaper in the long run. Jolson’s biographer, Herbert Goldman, called the film “the biggest nail in his (Jolson’s) professional coffin,” and noted further that, “Hollywood producers no longer considered him a star of the first magnitude.”
Trivia: When the movie was reissued in the 1940s to take advantage of the resurgence of interest in Jolson, it was cut and re-titled Heart of New York . . . The role of June Marcher was originally offered to Ruby Keeler, but she decided she didn’t want to make her screen debut opposite husband Jolson and opted for 42nd Street instead, with Evans taking the role of June. While Jolson bombed, Keeler was a big hit. The effect on Jolson’s ego was so dramatic that many historians saw it as the first step in the breakup of their marriage . . . When the film was released in England, the title was changed from Bum to Tramp, since “bum” was English slang for the human rear end.
1:00 am Joan of Paris (RKO, 1942) – Director: Robert Stevenson. Cast: Michele Morgan, Paul Henreid, Thomas Mitchell, Laird Cregar, May Robson, & Alan Ladd. B&W, 91 minutes.
This is an excellent and often overlooked film starring Morgan and Henreid in their American debuts. It’s a tense item about Resistance members helping downed pilots in Occupied Paris escape back to England. Though Henreid and Morgan shine as a downed flyer and a French waitress who admires Joan of Arc and gives her life to rescue the men, portly Cregar, as a Gestapo agent tailing Henreid, and Ladd, as another downed flyer, steal the picture. The film’s most notable and moving scene features Ladd’s death in a sewer as priest Mitchell recites The Lord’s Prayer.
Henreid attracted much notice in this film, but hit pay dirt in his next, as Bette Davis’ lover in Now Voyager, later that year. Crager and Ladd went on to score big in their next outing, This Gun for Hire. Only Morgan had a so-so Hollywood career. Originally considered for the female lead in Casablanca, Morgan’s only notable American film was 1944’s Passage to Marseille, with Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains, and Peter Lorre. She returned to France after the war and regained her status as one of that country’s top actresses.
Trivia: TCM critic Frank Miller notes that Morgan’s role as the sultry ingénue on Marcel Crane’s Port of Shadows led Paul Henreid to believe he was going to be starring with one hot toddy. But upon meeting her he was surprised to find her a clean-cut, wholesome young woman, comparable to an American Bobby Soxer . . . In the “Be Careful What You Wish For” department, Crager was making a fine living as a heavy-set villain in a number of follow-up films, when he decided he wanted to be a leading man. So he went on a crash diet so severe it landed him in the hospital for an operation for a severe stomach disorder, and days later led to his death from a heart attack at the tender age of 31.
6:00 am Unholy Partners (MGM, 1941) – Director: Mervyn LeRoy. Cast: Edward G. Robinson, Edward Arnold, Laraine Day, Marsha Hunt, & William T. Orr. B&W, 94 minutes.
A Robinson movie is always most welcome among us cinephiles, for no matter what the movie, he always rewards us with a fine performance. One of his best performances comes in this little known gem from MGM in 1941. Robinson is newspaperman Bruce Corey, who returns from World War I with a head full of new ideas that he can only put into play by starting his own newspaper (sporting more than a coincidental resemblance to the New York Daily Mirror). But he needs financing. Enter gangster Merrill Lambert (Arnold). The gambling kingpin (based on Arnold Rothstein) becomes a silent partner in Robinson’s venture, The New York Mercury, but as time passes, Lambert wants more of a voice in Corey’s paper. The result is a highly entertaining drama as Robinson and Arnold battle in a tug-of-war over the newspaper. A fine cast including Day as Robinson’s Girl Friday, and Hunt as Lambert’s love interest provides strong support.
12:00 am The Rules of the Game (Janus, 1939) – Director: Jean Renoir. Cast: Nora Gregor, Jean Renoir, Marcel Dalio, Roland Toutain, Mila Parely, Odette Talazac, & Pierre Magnier. B&W 110 min.
Made on the eve of war, this is Renoir’s biting satire of the French middle class, their foibles, rituals, and most of all, their class distinctions. An assorted cast of characters – the rich and their servants – meet at a French chateau for a little fun and games, and no one escaped the rapier of Renoir’s satire as romantic intrigues, both upstairs and downstairs, play out. A heavy hand at the helm could have sunk this movie before it gets going, but Renoir keeps a light and skillful touch at all times. His fluid camerawork and adept staging still keeps this film seeming fresh after all this time.
Despite claims by film historians that it’s one of the best films ever made, it almost didn’t see the light of day. First, the French government, calling it bad for morale, and delayed its release for a little over a month. Then, upon the German Occupation, the Nazis also banned it destroying quite a few prints of it. As if that wasn’t enough, the original negatives were destroyed during an Allied bombing and it was later thought to be a lost film. In 1956, Renoir’s friends helped him track down many missing bits and pieces of the movie. The film was entirely reconstituted, with Renoir claiming that only one minor scene (Lisette talking about affairs among the maid staff) was missing.
Trivia: One theater patron was so incensed after watching the film that he tried to burn down the theater by lighting a newspaper in the aisle. Several other theaters also received threats.
3:15 am The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (AIP, 1962) – Director: Joseph Green. Cast: Jason Evers, Virginia Leith, Leslie Daniels, Adele Lamont, & Eddie Carmel. B&W, 82 minutes.
Bad Movie Alert: This wonderfully absurd low-budget movie, filmed in and around Tarrytown, N.Y., in 1958, but not released until 1962, has since become a popular cult classic. It also forms the basis of one of Mystery Science Theater 3000’s most beloved episodes. The plot is simple: Dr. Bill Courtner (Evers) is a brilliant surgeon, but one who breaks rules. He and fiancée, Jan Compton (Leith), are headed to the summer home when the doc’s dizzy driving results in an accident. With his fiancé’s life on the line, he decapitates her and carries her head to the lab at his summer home, where he places it in a developing pan and feed it with his life-giving fluid. His plan is to find a body for the head, but Jan’s not in line with that. Further, she finds she can telepathically communicate with the thing in the closet, one of the doc’s failed experiments. From here on in, watch for yourselves.
Trivia: Jan has since become immortalized in a fashion by MST 3000 as “Jan in the Pan,” played on screen by writer Mary Jo Pehl. Jan is also featured on t-shirts from the show’s parent company, Best Brains . . . Leith was a former model signed by Fox in the early ‘50s. She acquitted herself well in films such as Violent Saturday and A Kiss Before Dying. But Fox released her in 1956. She worked television and killed her chances at a future film contract with her appearance in The Brain, but she did gain everlasting cult status.
8:00 pm Mon Oncle (Gaumont, 1958) – Director: Jacques Tati. Cast: Jacques Tati, Jean-Pierre Zola, Adrienne Servantie, Alain Becourt, Lucien Fregis, & Betty Schneider. Color, 117 minutes.
If I had to name one film that I thought was Tati’s masterpiece, this would be the one. It’s a wonderful satire on modernization for its own sake with Tati’s Mr. Hulot pitted against his technologically savvy and technologically enraptured sister and brother-in-law, who live in a modern house complete with automated kitchen and surrounded by an imposing fence. Hulot, on the other hand, lives in an old section of Paris, with no fences and a lively, friendly neighborhood. It’s the inevitable clash between the old and the new, and we find ourselves planted firmly on the side of Hulot.
Trivia: Pierre Etaix, who later starred in a series of comedies in the ‘60s, served as assistant director . . . Zola can also be seen as Octave in The Train.
2:00 am A Nous La Liberte (Films Sonores Tobis, 1931) – Director: Rene Clair. Cast: Henri Marchand, Raymond Cordy, Rolla France, Paul Olliver, & Jacques Shelly. B&W, 97 minutes.
A wonderful film, probably director Clair’s masterpiece, about two ex-convicts, one of whom, Louis (Cordy), escaped and made his fortune by working his way up from salesman to owner of his phonograph manufacturing factory. When cellmate and friend Emile is finally released from prison, he comes to work for Louis at a low-level position. As time passes, however, Louis comes to realize that he has merely substituted one form of imprisonment for another, and so, along with Emile, he gives it all up for the open life of the road. This film is what one would call A Real Essential and as such is a Must See.
Trivia: When Charles Chaplin released Modern Times in 1936, Clair’s production company, Tobis, sued Chaplin for plagiarism, though without the compliance of Clair himself. Chaplin settled years later for an undisclosed amount.
3:45 am Le Million (Films Sonores Tobis, 1931) – Director: Rene Clair. Cast: Annabella, Rene Lefevre, Jean-Louis Allibert, Paul Olliver, & Constantin Sioresco. B&W, 81 minutes.
This is another wonderful comedy from Clair, who was at the height of his powers in Pre-War France. Michel, a Parisian artist, is beset with creditors. When he realizes he holds the winning ticket in the Dutch lottery, he goes to retrieve it from the pocket of his jacket. Unfortunately, his fiancée has given the jacket to a stranger in need. Now it’s a race to find that jacket and the ticket before the stranger does.
6:00 am Hollywood Hotel (WB, 1937) – Director: Busby Berkeley. Cast: Dick Powell, Rosemary Lane, Lola Lane, Hugh Herbert, Ted Healy, Glenda Farrell, Johnnie Davis, Frances Langford, Alan Mowbray, & Benny Goodman and His Orchestra. B&W, 109 minutes.
Though this is not one of Berkeley’s better efforts, cinephiles will want to tune in for the music, especially to see Davis and Langford sing “Hooray for Hollywood.” It’s a number not to miss. The rest of the film is concerned with the efforts of small town boy Powell, who has won a Hollywood talent contest, but finds stardom elusive.
Trivia: Look for Carole Landis playing a coat check girl in the Orchid Room nightclub scene . . . From the “Pathetic But Sadly True” department, the scene with the Benny Goodman Quartet – with two white musicians (Goodman on clarinet and Gene Krupa on drums) and two Black musicians (Terry Wilson on piano and Lionel Hampton on vibes) – performing “I’ve Got a Heartful of Music,” was the first time a racially-integrated band was seen on film.
6:45 pm Hi De Ho (All-American News, Inc./State Rights, 1947) – Director: Josh Binney. Cast: Cab Calloway, Ida James, Jeni Le Gon, William Campbell, Virginia Girvin, & George Wiltshire. B&W, 77 minutes.
It’s always a treat for jazz fans to see the great Cab Calloway in action, even if it is in this muddled mess of a film. Band leader Cab is caught between two women: his girlfriend Minnie (Le Gon) and his manager Nettie (James). Nettie secures Cab a gig at The Brass Hat Club, but without his knowledge, Minnie arranges for Cab to work at a nearby establishment run by gangsters led by Boss Mason. Cab refuses, so Mason sends his boys to persuade Cab to see things his way.
The acting in this film can mercifully be described as awful. The climax of the plot, which sees Cab in a shootout with Boss Mason’s men, is so incompetent as to invoke laughter. The good news is that this all resolves itself rather early and we get to enjoy some first-rate music from Cab and his band, plus a number of specialty acts, including Dusty Fletcher doing his famous “Open the Door, Richard” routine (if TCM is showing the complete print).
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