By Ed Garea
It’s the New Year, and with it some very interesting choices from our favorite movie station. Gorge while we can, for in only 31 days begins the annual 31 Days of Oscar and the same old, same old. Not that we’re really complaining, but as we do love the unusual and rarely seen . . . well . . .
The STAR OF THE MONTH is Joan Crawford, the benefit being TCM will show some of her lesser-known efforts. Early Joan is still the best Joan and there’s Early Joan a-plenty in the next two weeks. Following are my picks for each day devoted to Joanie this period.
January 2: The Crawford tribute begins at 8:00 pm with the proverbial bang with the first film being shown the redoubtable The Unknown (1927). Probably the best of the Tod Browning-Lon Chaney collaborations (as we haven’t yet found London After Midnight, which can turn out to either top this or be a disappointment after all the expectation), it finds Lon as a criminal on the lam hiding in a circus, where he passes himself off as “Alonzo the Armless Wonder,” a marksman without arms who specializes in throwing knives with his toes. It’s all a ruse, as Chaney still has his arms, carefully hiding them beneath his costume before performing. Joan is his assistant – and his love interest. However, their love affair has hit a serious roadblock: Joan cannot stand the feel of a man’s arms around her. As Lon is a mortal casualty of Cupid’s arrow, he’ll go to any lengths to win her heart. I’ll leave it here for those who haven’t yet seen this macabre masterpiece. Those that have seen it know what I’m referring to and are probably still creeped out by the film, no matter how many times they’ve seen it. It’s a silent, but that shouldn’t matter to those interested in watching.
Following at 9:00 pm is the film that put Joan on the superstar map, Our Dancing Daughters (1928). It’s a great case of star-over-material, with Joan as a Jazz Baby who falls for millionaire Johnny Mack Brown and has her heart broken when he marries hard-drinking gold digger Anita Page instead. As Page’s greedy mother is the force that pushed her into the marriage, we know it’s only a matter of time before Anita is killed or kills herself and Johnny and Joan are free to marry. However, for those who want to see the blossoming of a major star, this is the one to catch.
The film proved so popular that two sequels followed and both are being shown: Our Modern Maidens, a silent from 1929, and Our Blushing Brides, a prehistoric sound film from 1930. The rest of the evening is devoted to more of her silents, including Lady of the Night from 1925, a Norma Shearer vehicle that includes Joan in an unbilled part as Norma’s stand in. For that alone the film is worth a view.
January 9: The highlight of the evening is the sumptuous star-studded Grand Hotel from 1932 with Joan in one of her most unforgettable roles: the ambitious Flaemmchen, stenographer to textile magnate General Director Preysing (Wallace Beery), who gives new meaning to the phrase “taking dictation” as she doubles after work as his mistress. The movie is based on the popular novel of the same name by Vicki Baum, who specialized in epic melodramas, and MGM loaded it with their biggest stars to ensure good box office. One would think that being surrounded by such cinematic heavyweights as John and Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, and Greta Garbo (whose romantic liaison with John Barrymore was planned by the studio as the movie’s centerpiece), Joan would get lost in the shuffle. But, amazingly, not only does she hold her own, she comes dangerously close to walking away with the film. For one thing, as the book was aimed at a female readership, so is the film (directed by Edmund Goulding, who, along with George Cukor, was master at helming a “woman‘s film.”). Joan, it so happens, is the only working-class character featured in the film, so she has the advantage of being someone the majority of the audience could identify with over the others. I must have seen this move about 50 times over the years, but I’ll be tuning in again. It’s like catnip.
The rest of the evening should be so good. 1932’s Rain follows, with Joan playing W. Somerset Maugham’s unforgettable South Seas hooker, Sadie Thompson, who is reformed, then raped by missionary Walter Huston. Joan often referred to it as her worst film, but I disagree. She made far worse as her career wound down in the ‘60s, but Rain is her most miscast film. Her career up to then in the Sound Era was playing sympathetic shop girls, working–class women. To see her in the most garish makeup I’ve ever seen on a woman next to The Bride of Frankenstein is a marvel to behold. It actually distracted me from her performance. And why she chose to take on a role perfected first on Broadway by Jeannie Engels and later in films by the ravishing Gloria Swanson remains a mystery. Joan simply didn’t have either the chops, or to be honest, the looks, to pull it off.
1933’s Dancing Lady, MGM’s attempt to copy the enormously popular 42nd Street from Warner Brothers, follows Rain at 11:45 pm. It is a pleasant 90 minutes, but no more. The studio thought that since Joan was a decent hoofer, perhaps she could carry a musical. So they cooked up a plot starring Joan as an ambitious dancer torn between millionaire boyfriend Franchot Tone and stage manager Clark Gable. The film is notable as being the debut of Fred Astaire and the only real laughs are supplied by Ted Healy and His Three Stooges, also making their film debut, and shortly before Healy’s mistreated trio told him to take a hike and signed with Columbia. (Formerly known as The Racketeers, this was the first time they were billed as The Stooges.)
OUT OF THE ORDINARY
January 3: The Friday Night Spotlight is dedicated to the theme of “Science in the Movies.” The pick of the evening is Ron Howard’s fascinating and disturbing A Beautiful Mind (2001), starring Russell Crowe in an excellent turn as the schizophrenic math genius John Nash. Crowe receives excellent support from Ed Harris as the CIA agent who brings Nash in as a code-breaker on a secret project and the underappreciated Jennifer Connelly as Nash’s devoted wife, Alicia. Nominated for eight Oscars, it took home four: Best Actress (Connelly), Best Screenplay adaptation (Akiva Goldsman), Best Director (Howard), and Best Picture.
January 5: The film to see on this day is yet another late-nighter, but one with immense promise for cinephiles. It’s La Pointe Courte (1955), and it has the distinction of being the first directorial effort from the renowned Agnes Varda. I have to be honest – I haven’t seen it. I’ve also heard good and bad about it, so I asked our Parisian correspondent, Christine, about the film, and following is her description:
La Pointe Courte is the first effort from Agnes Varda and may well be her best. It takes its title from the district of La Pointe Coutre, bordering the Mediterranean in Southeastern France and it’s set in a small town in the province. The film consists of two simultaneous themes: one concerns the day-to-day experiences of the local citizens as they go about their business in their fishing community while grappling with the bureaucrats who make up rules that make their businesses difficult. The second thread concerns a Parisian couple, known only as Him and Her, coping with a crisis in their marriage. He was born in the district and harbors a deep love of the area while she was born and raised in Paris with cosmopolitan tastes. Together they stroll through the man’s old neighborhood, trying to work out their differences in meaningful dialogue. La Pointe Courte is a thoughtful, quietly moving film about what Thoreau called the “lives of quiet desperation” that most people live.
January 6: Robert Osbourne, who has interviewed countless actors over his career, is himself the subject in this edition of Private Screenings (8:00 pm). Loaded with photographs from his personal collection, rare shots of his early acting jobs, and his many appearances on TCM, it makes for enjoyable viewing. Osbourne has always placed the movies he shows ahead of his own self-aggrandizement, a quality that, I’m sure, has endeared him to so many fans. Thus, it’s rather heartwarming to see him for once as the focus of the show.
January 12: A wonderful doubleheader that, unfortunately, begins at 2:00 am, so have your recorder ready. First up is Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), a riveting look at two hours in the life of Cleo (Corinne Marchand), a singer who is afraid of receiving medical test results from her doctor, as she strongly believes she is suffering from cancer. Although it doesn’t sound like much, it’s actually a masterful interweaving of a superficial woman and her two-hour journey through the streets and interiors of the city as she meets with friends, lovers and strangers, in turn taking her from her horrible present towards the openness of the future and its ability to offer possibilities of transcendence.
Next is Jean-Luc Godard’s 1962 opus Vivre Sa Vie! (My Life to Live) starring his then wife and then muse, Anna Karina. It’s a fresh take on the old hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold story, with Karina as a woman from the provinces who has abandoned her husband and child to come to Paris for a shot at acting stardom. When this doesn’t quickly pan out, she finds she has spent her savings and takes a job as a sales clerk at a record store. But the meager pay isn’t enough to stop her landlady from evicting her. Broke and desperate she turns to prostitution and takes up with a pimp, who shows her the ropes and provides her with protection. She falls in love with one of her clients, but when she tries to leave her life to be with him, everything goes for naught. There are scenes in the film that remind one of Eddie Murphy’s Saturday Night Live character, Velvet Jones, who wrote the book I Wanna Be a Ho, but overall, it’s one of Karina’s finest performances and was made during a period in Godard’s career when his films attempted to make sense. If one looks closely, one can also see the love-contempt relationship Godard has with Karina, one that would lead to their breakup five years later. At any rate, for those who haven’t yet caught it, this is a film that demands to be seen.
Our first two weeks of the New Year feature many good pickings for the fan of the psychotronic, with some rarities included in the mix.
The evening of January 1 is dedicated to a theme of “Lost Worlds.” Other than Ray Harryhausen’s marvelous The Valley of Gwangi (1969), which shows at Midnight, there’s not much to pick from. Ursula Andress is interesting in Hammer’s remake of She (1965), following at 2:00 am, but that’s about it, I’m afraid.
January 3: As previously mentioned, The Friday Night Spotlight that begins this night also features Countdown (1968) at 2:15 am and Marooned (1969) at 4:15 am, two films about space exploration missions gone horribly wrong. The first, directed by Robert Altman and starring James Caan, is about a mission to the moon, and the second, directed by John Sturges and starring Gregory Peck and Richard Crenna, is about three astronauts trapped in space when their rockets fail.
January 8: It’s the 79th anniversary of Elvis’ birth in 1935 and TCM is running a full slate of Elvis films throughout the day. Of the eight films being shown this day, Live a Little, Love a Little (1968), shown at 7:45 am, is probably the best of the bunch. It’s one of Elvis’s few adult roles. The worst (by far) is Stay Away, Joe (also 1968), described by critic Michael Weldon as an “embarrassing, totally out-of-it comedy.”
This alone should make one want to tune in.
January 10: It’s another installment of “Science in the Movies,” and on the menu this night are some delectable choices. At 8:00 pm, there’s the classic The Bride of Frankenstein, followed at 9:30 by the 1941 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde starring Spencer Tracy. Then at 11:30 pm follows one of my all-time favorites, and one that scared the hell out of me as a kid, no matter how many times I saw it that week on Million Dollar Movie: The Thing from Another World. At 1:15 am, it’s Forbidden Planet, and, finally, the 1972 Soviet sci-fi flick, Solaris, at 3:00 am. It’s a good night to roll out both the popcorn popper and the recorder.
January 12: For those that are hardcore psychotronic fans, tonight is your night. Beginning at 2:00 am, TCM Underground s rolling out three vintage exploitation films, one so rare that I could not find it in either of Michael Weldon’s two volumes. Now that’s rare.
At 2:00 am, it’s that exploitation rarity from 1956, The Flesh Merchant, aka The Wild and the Wicked, aka Dial 5683 for Love. Small town girl Nancy Sheridan travels to L.A. to see her big sister, Paula, who’s working as a model. Nancy, too, wants to get into the modeling biz. Paula tries to talk her out of this career choice but it’s no soap. Nancy goes to the art school where she believes Paula is working and is hired as a nude model for the students. The owner of the school meets with her later and tells her how to make some really big money. Nancy, dumb as a doorknob, readily agrees and is sent to a men’s club where she’s turned into a call girl against her will. The killer moment comes when Nancy discovers big sister is also a ho. And it goes downhill from there until she’s rescued at the end. I used to have a DVD of this film from Alpha video. It was a really lousy print – the word dark does not begin to describe it. I’m therefore looking forward to see if TCM has a better print, for this is not the sort of film The Library of Congress seeks to restore. (By the way, this is the rare exploitation film I could not find in Weldon’s books.)
At 3:00 am, it’s Chained For Life, starring Daisy and Violet Hilton, real-life Siamese twins. One might think this is a mere documentary about the twins and their life, but there’s actually a story here. The twins play Vivian (Violet) and Dorothy (Daisy) Hamilton. Violet is on trial for killing Dorothy’s ex-boyfriend, a magician named Andre Pariseau (Mario Laval). As friends and colleagues of the sisters take the stand to testify, the story unfolds. It’s trashy; it’s unbelievable; it’s totally amazing. And it’s nothing compared to the real story of their lives. Try dean Jensen’s engrossing book, The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton: A Story of Conjoined Twins. It’s available both in paperback and on Kindle from Amazon. Also in the film is former Warner Brothers stock company character actor Allen Jenkins.
Finally, at 4:15 is the 1938 opus, Child Bride. Schoolteacher Miss Carol (Diana Durrell) arrives at a small mountain community, where she learns of the practice of child marriage. Determined to end the practice, she contacts her fiancée, Charles (Frank Martin) to lobby the state legislature to have the practice outlawed. Meanwhile, another plot is also taking place: one of murder and blackmail whereby a man can get to marry the child of his dreams. It’s a masterpiece of sleaze, disguised as an “educational film.” That doesn’t stop the adult female leads from doffing their tops at any rate. So bad you won’t know whether to laugh or knash your teeth.