A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
The second half of December on TCM has some nice gems that should delight.
STAR OF THE MONTH Fred Astaire has two Wednesday nights left as Star of the Month, and both nights feature some excellent musicals.
December 18 features two outstanding musicals back to back.
First – at 8:00 pm – is Broadway Melody of 1940, one of Fred’s underrated gems. He and George Murphy are a vaudeville dance team at odds because both are in love with the same woman – Eleanor Powell. And let’s face it, who wouldn’t be in love with her? Anyway, Murphy is delightfully adequate, Fred is in top form, and Eleanor is a total delight. (I’m biased here because I’ve been in love with her since I first saw her on the screen at about the age of 10, dancing to “Fascinating Rhythm.” I think it was this that made me love musicals from then onward.) It also boasts a top-notch score by Cole Porter, and Astaire and Powell dancing to “Begin the Beguine” is recognized as one of the classic moments in film. For her part, though, Powell said in interviews that their other number, “Jukebox Dance,” was her favorite from all the films she made. If you take a closer look at their numbers in the film you will surely notice that Powell holds herself back, for despite his prowess on the dance floor, Astaire was no match for Powell, simply because he lacked her athleticism. One of my greatest disappointments in film was that she retired before Gene Kelly began to dominate the musical scene. His style was a better match to hers, and together, they would have provided us with some truly unforgettable moments. In TCM’s article about the film, writer Roger Fristoe notes: “As photographed by Joseph Ruttenberg and Oliver T. Marsh, . . . (it) is one of the most visually arresting of all black-and-white film musicals.” Truer words were never written, as the film grabs your attention right from the beginning and never lets go.
Easter Parade (1948), the other one to catch, follows at 10:00 pm. To say it was a troubled project is an understatement. Judy Garland, who was working herself into the nervous breakdown that would end her career at MGM, became upset while working with Gene Kelly and director-husband Vincente Minnelli on The Pirate. The trio was to follow that up with this film, but Judy became convinced that her husband favored Kelly because they were having a love affair on the set. Though it wasn’t true, Judy’s psychiatrist suggested that Minnelli was at the root of her problems and MGM replaced him on Easter Parade with Charles Walters. Then Kelly broke his ankle supposedly while rehearsing (he admitted years later that he actually broke it while playing touch football off the set). After a frantic search for a replacement, producer Arthur Freed asked Fred Astaire if he would come out of his retirement and take over for Kelly. After speaking directly with Kelly and getting his wholehearted approval, Astaire agreed to come aboard, and his chemistry with the troubled Garland was nothing short of magical, even leading to what would later become one of Judy’s signature pieces, “A Couple of Swells.” Due to the title, this film is usually shown at Easter, but as critic Leonard Maltin observes, it’s “too good to watch just at Eastertime.” Agreed.
December 25, Christmas, gives us a bounty of Astaire with his best partner, Ginger Rogers. Beginning at 8:00 pm is possibly the greatest musical that was ever cranked out in Hollywood: Top Hat (1935), as Fred and Ginger dance to the music of Irving Berlin. At 10:00 pm, viewers can delight in Swing Time (1936), featuring a fine score by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, including the Oscar-winning “The Way You Look Tonight.” At midnight is Shall We Dance? (1938). Fred and Ginger turn a paper-thin plot into an unforgettable musical, thanks to a fabulous score from George and Ira Gershwin, including “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” “They All Laughed,” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” Carefree (1938) (with another wonderful score from Berlin) follows at 2:00 am, and the evening finally ends with 1949’s The Barkleys of Broadway. Originally cast to follow the smash hit Easter Parade with Astaire and Garland once again joining forces, the production ground to a halt when Garland finally broke down and doctors decided she just wasn’t strong enough for a grueling schedule of filming. Producer Freed, remembering a congratulatory telegram Rogers sent him after Easter Parade opened, called her, filled her in on what was going on, and asked her if she would have any problems teaming again with Astaire. She said she’d love to work with Astaire again, and so their last film as a team – and their only one in Technicolor – was shot. It was a great idea that didn’t quite pan out, though. Fred and Ginger disagreed on her costumes; the dance numbers were not as fluid as in the past due to the fact Rogers had not danced in any movie since she and Fred made The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle in 1939 and gained some weight besides; the score was mediocre; and critics panned Rogers’ dramatic reading of the “Marseillaise” as ridiculous. (Truth told, they were right, it was ridiculous.) But as a swan song, it does just fine.
OUT OF THE ORDINARY
Screen Director’s Playhouse –TCM is showing seven episodes of the highly regarded television dramatic series during the morning and afternoon hours of December 16, and one more on December 18. The ones to watch out for in my opinion are “White Corridors,” (December 16, 9:30 am), with the role of Nurse Winrod being played by Patricia Hitchcock, daughter of Alfred, and “Tom and Jerry” (December 18 at 5:00 am, so get your recorders going), with Arthur Q. Bryan as the Judge. Bryan was rarely seen on the silver screen, but is unforgettable to anyone who has watched a Warner Brothers cartoon with Elmer Fudd. He was the voice of Fudd; after he died in 1959, Mel Blanc took over the honors.
December 17: at 9:45 pm, there’s Remember the Night, a wonderfully sentimental film with an outstanding script by Preston Sturges. Assistant DA Fred MacMurray is prosecuting shoplifter Barbara Stanwyck. Rather than see her spend the Christmas holiday in jail awaiting trial, he bails her out and takes her to her childhood home in Indiana. But after seeing that the reception from Stanwyck’s mother (Georgia Caine) is even colder than the wintery temperatures, he takes her instead to his mother’s home, also in Indiana. At MacMurray’s home, Stanwyck is bowled over by the love and warmth given to her, a total stranger, by Fred’s mother (Beulah Bondi in a wonderful performance) and Aunt Emma (Elizabeth Patterson). Of course, Fred and Babs fall in love, but the ending doesn’t go as we are led to assume, which gives us a nice surprise. The script changes made by director Mitchell Leisen annoyed Sturges to the point that he swore in the future he would direct his own work. He also told Stanwyck that she’s fantastic in comedy and that he would write a screwball comedy especially for her. Stanwyck recalled telling him that no one would ever think of writing something along those lines for her, “a murderess, sure.” But Sturges told her to just be patient, and in 1942 he sent her the script for The Lady Eve, which became one of her – and his – best-regarded films.
December 21: Ready for a nice comedy done and done well? How about The Mouse That Roared, from 1958, showing at 4:15 pm? From the best-selling novel by Leonard Wibberley, it’s a great satire about how the impoverished Duchy of Grand Fenwick decides to declare war on the United States so they can lose and collect American foreign aid. Unfortunately, the country’s army, led by the incompetent Field Marshall Tully Bascome (Peter Sellers), and armed with only bows and arrows, invades New York during a holiday, and finding no one around to accept their surrender, manages to kidnap Professor Kokintz (David Kossoff), the inventor of the Q-Bomb, and his daughter Helen (Jean Seberg) along with the prototype of the bomb. The Q-Bomb is believed to be so powerful that were it to explode, it would wipe out all life on Earth. Now Grand Fenwick is the most powerful nation on the planet and other nations come a-courting. Sellers has three roles: Bascome, Grand Duchess Gloriana XII, and Prime Minister Count Mountjoy, and is hilarious in each. Seberg is gorgeous as Helen, with whom Bascome falls in love. Leo McKern is memorable as clueless Minority Leader Benter.
December 26: In a night dedicated to films about fantasy worlds, three stand out. At 8:00 pm is the wonderful Danny Kaye vehicle The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947). Based on the story by humorist James Thurber, Kaye is a milquetoast accountant who dreams of being a glorious hero. Anyone planning to see the Ben Stiller remake, which opens December 27, should catch this one, if only to see how a real comedian works with less than stellar material (no fault of Thurber as his work was gutted by the studio).
The real gem, though, is being aired at two in the morning, Federico Fellini’s 1965 masterpiece, Juliet of the Spirits, starring wife Giulietta Masina as Juliet, a housewife prone to daydreams, and whose interests include séances and spiritualism. When she discovers husband Giorgio (Mario Pisu) in an affair, she finds herself unwilling – and unable – to fully face the reality of it all. It’s only when she meets her free-spirited and sexually-liberated neighbor, Suzy (Sandra Milo), that she begins to open up to other possibilities than those offered by the current state of her marriage. Suzy, who is so liberated that she entertains her boy toys in a treehouse, tells her that marriage is a life sentence for a woman and that she should enjoy herself while she can; her husband is certainly not worth the distress. While Juliet is considering these options hubby leaves for a health resort, undoubtedly with his mistress, and Juliet contemplates suicide. In the end, however, she realizes that indeed there are other options and that she can survive without Giorgio, and the movie’s last scene shows her leaving her dreamlike home and walking alone into the woods; presumably she is now free. Although the ending is nothing short of preposterous, I am of the opinion that this is Fellini’s best film, and his last masterpiece. It’s Fellini’s first film in color and his use of color shows that he has mastered it, rather than the other way around, as so often had happened to other directors moving over from black-and-white. It also benefits from the performance of an actress who I regard as having no equal. I have noted over the years that Fellini’s films made without his wife suffer appreciably by her absence. This, in fact, is the last film they made together until Ginger and Fred in 1986.
Then there’s a film that is overlooked but one I wholeheartedly recommend and one that is certainly worth your time, The Projectionist. Released in 1971, it’s an independent production written and directed by Harry Hurwitz starring Chuck McCann as a movie projectionist who fantasizes about being one of the heroes he sees each day in the movies he shows. It’s also interesting as being the film debut of Rodney Dangerfield as his obnoxious boss who becomes the villain in McCann’s fantasies. As it’s being screened at 4:30 in the morning, I recommended recording it.
December 17: In the morning and afternoon hours TCM is screening seven movies starring Eleanor Parker, who died on December 9 at the age of 91 and begins at 6:00 am with The Very Thought of You, a 1944 wartime romance with Dennis Morgan. At 7:45 am, she stars in the remake of the 1934 Bette Davis drama Of Human Bondage (1946). At 9:45 am, it’s The Woman in White (1948), then at 11:45 am, she stars in the women’s prison howler, Caged (1950). That’s followed at 1:30 by MGM’s swashbuckler Scaramouche (1952), where she plays star Stewart Granger’s love interest. Then it’s MGM’s 1955 drama, Interrupted Melody, the true story of Australian opera singer Marjorie Lawrence and her battle with polio. Finally, it’s the 1960 Vincente Minnelli-directed drama from MGM, Home From the Hill. If you’re an Eleanor Parker fan – and even if you’re not – this is a most fitting tribute for one of Hollywood’s best actresses.
December 30: In between films during this time of year, TCM occasionally shows a roll call of those in Hollywood who passed away during the year. On this day, TCM begins a festival of movies starring some of those who died in 2013.
8:00 pm – It Started With Eve (Deanna Durbin); 9:45 pm – Bikini Beach (Annette Funicello); 11:30 pm – The Cheap Detective (Eileen Brennan); 1:15 am –The Loved One (Jonathan Winters); 3:30 am – Five Easy Pieces (Karen Black); 5:15 am – East of Eden (Julie Harris). Finally, at 7:15 am the next morning, TCM gives us Tea and Sympathy (John Kerr). I’m hoping that fan reaction to this sad festival will grow in future years to an entire week devoted to stars who passed on in that year.
And finally, films for those who like them psychotronic.
December 20: It’s 1975’s paranoid classic, The Stepford Wives, about a recent arrival to a suburban town (Katherine Ross) and her discovery that many of the other wives have been turned into obedient robots to please their husbands. Paula Prentiss co-stars as one of Ross’s few normal friends.
December 21: For those who like their sharks served up nice and scary, there’s Jaws at 5:45 pm, a movie that’s been often imitated but never duplicated – and as for surpassed, forget about it.
At 2:00 am it’s Massacre, Mafia Style, aka The Executioner, aka Like Father, Like Son. This is a truly wretched production about a Sicilian gangster who wants to execute those in the American Mob who exiled his father back to Italy. Written by, directed by, and starring that man about town, Duke Mitchell, this is a three-star production: bad writing, bad direction, and most of all, bad acting. For those who aren’t familiar with Duke Mitchell, he began in show business with partner Sammy Petrillo as an imitation Martin & Lewis act. In fact, they were so good that Jerry Lewis shut them down by threatening a lawsuit. But while they were active they made one film – Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla – a movie so bad it’s a cult classic praised by bad movie aficionados. So we can see that Duke has the necessary chops to helm this stinker.
December 31: Beginning at 9:30 am and lasting until 8:00 pm, it’s an all-day festival of youth oriented musicals, two of which star none other than Elvis himself. Here’s the rundown. 9:30 – Go, Johnny, Go! From 1959, it features performances from Chuck Berry, Jackie Wilson, and Eddie Cochran, among others. 10:45 am – Let’s Rock, a 1958 stinker starring Julius LaRosa as a singer who becomes a rock ‘n’ roll singer with the help of girlfriend Phyliss Newman. Julius LaRosa? A rock singer? Really?? 12:15 pm – It’s Trad, Dad! From England in 1961, it’s about two teens who bring jazz to their backwater little village. 1:45 pm – Rock Around the Clock, a 1956 movie seeking to cash in on the success of Blackboard Jungle, featuring performances by Bill Haley and His Comets and also The Platters. 3:15 pm – Twist Around the Clock. From 1961 and starring Chubby Checker, Dion, and The Marcels, it attempts to cash in on the dance craze fronted by Checker. 4:45 pm – Jailhouse Rock. One of Elvis’ better films as an ex-con whose success as a singer goes to his head. 6:30 pm – Viva Las Vegas, another decent Elvis vehicle. This time he’s a racecar driver who falls for pretty swimming instructor Ann-Margaret. When these films were originally released they appealed to a generation rebelling against their parents. Now they appeal to the parents – and grandparents – themselves.