By Ed Garea
The latter half of the month promises some enticing tidbits as well as one of the all-time bad movies starring none other than January’s TCM Star-of-the-Month Joan Crawford. So let’s get right down to it.
STAR-OF-THE-MONTH JOAN CRAWFORD
As Joan’s box office appeal begins to fade in the late ‘30s due to poor script choices and starring vehicles (by MGM), and being one of the stars named as “box office poison” by the movie exhibitors in the late ‘30s, Joan takes her lumps, but then the quality of films offered her improves and her star rises again, peaking with an unexpected Oscar win while at Warner Brothers.
January 16: Two gems are mixed in amongst the otherwise mediocre offerings for the night. First up at 8:00 pm is the celebrated bitch fest from 1939, The Women. Based on the Clare Booth Luce play and boasting a razor sharp screenplay by Anita Loos, it’s one for the ages. Norma Shearer may be the star (her last great star turn), but it’s Joan who almost walks away with the picture as the grabby low-class trollop Crystal Allen. I say “almost” because the one who really steals this movie is Rosalind Russell as Sylvia Fowler. It’s always worth watching, especially for Crawford and Russell.
The other gem this night is A Woman’s Face, which is screening at 12:30 am. This 1941 remake of the 1938 Swedish film starring Ingrid Bergman, stars Joan as Anna Holm, a blackmailer who despises everyone she meets. Part of her bitterness can be seen in her face, scarred since childhood, when her drunken father set fire to the house. Melvin Douglas is the plastic surgeon who removes the scar, leaving Joan with a dilemma: should she embrace the new life she can have with Douglas or will she return to her dark past? Besides Douglas, also in the cast is Conrad Veidt, in yet another great turn as (what else?) the heel – Joan’s partner-in-crime who’s not willing to see Joan choose a new life. Though not as good as the original – face it, Bergman’s a much better actress – director George Cukor makes this one of Joan’s best efforts.
January 17: Because of the large number of Crawford films at the network, there is a spillover to the next morning and afternoon. Showing this day are two real gems and a near gem. The two gems run back-to-back beginning at 9:15 am. First up is the great 1940 psychotronic classic, Strange Cargo. How Louis B. Mayer ever let this one slip through the MGM net is one of filmdom’s great mysteries, but we should be grateful he did. Get this cast: Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Ian Hunter, Peter Lorre, Paul Lukas, and Albert Dekker. But it doesn’t stop there. Also in the cast are J. Edward Bromberg, Eduardo Cianelli, Frederic Worlock, and Bernard Nedell. Strange Cargo is an allegorical tale of escapees from Devil’s Island accompanied by a Christ-like figure (Hunter) who becomes the source of their redemption. It was considered controversial on its release and I can honestly say that it hasn’t lost any of its edge over the years. For those who haven’t yet seen this classic, all I can say is “By all means, watch it.”
The other gem of the day follows at 11:15 pm, and it’s also from 1940. Susan and God stars Crawford as a self-absorbed socialite who gets religion and alienates friends and family when she aggressively proselytizes her newfound faith by publicly exposing their sins. Again, George Cukor is in the director’s chair. Anita Loos penned the screenplay. Joan receives able support from Frederic March, Ruth Hussey, John Carroll, Rita Hayworth, Nigel Bruce, Bruce Cabot, and Rose Hobart.
The near gem this day airs at 3:30 pm. Above Suspicion (1943), is an entertaining and thrilling espionage caper with Fred MacMurray and Joan Crawford spending their European honeymoon on the eve of World War 2 by taking on a spy mission to gather information about a new Nazi weapon. Basil Rathbone is wonderful as the Nazi heel who captures and tortures Joan. Conrad Veidt – in his final movie – is, off all things an Austrian resistance fighter. Crawford later dismissed this film as “undiluted hokum.” Yes, but it is great hokum.
January 23: This is a great night for Crawford fans, for it celebrates her move – and career resurrection – to Warner Brothers. We begin at 8:00 pm with her unforgettable Oscar-winning performance in 1945’s Mildred Pierce. Next, at 10:00 comes Humoresque (1946) with John Garfield as a musical prodigy from the slums whose career as a classical violinist is sidetracked by his passion for wealthy neurotic Joan. The roll continues with the most entertaining film of the night, Flamingo Road (1949). Joan is a stranded carnival dancer who settles in town and ends up taking on the town’s corrupt political boss (Sydney Greenstreet).
At 2:00 am, it’s another great Crawford vehicle, The Damned Don’t Cry (1950). Joan plays a housewife who only stays in her marriage to Richard Egan because of their 7-year old son. When he’s killed riding the bike she impulsively bought him and which hubby Egan ordered her to take back, Joan flies the coop and rises from a cigar-store clerk to clothes model (and part-time call girl) and eventually to mob moll. Vincent Sherman ably directed this great mix of overwrought drama and high camp, which is said to be based on the true story of famed mob moll Virginia Hill. A nice little shift of character by Sherman prior to filming prevented it from slipping into the arena of low camp. The film was to originally begin with Crawford’s character as a teenager. Can we honestly see Crawford at this time in her career playing a teenager? (Too bad, that’s one role I would like to have seen.) Sherman edited it so as to begin the movie with Joan already established as a young mother.
And, finally, at the wee hour of 3:45 am, it’s Possessed (the 1947 version, not the 1931 one). Joan is quite good in this one, playing a mentally disturbed woman whose passion for onetime lover Van Heflin leads to tragedy. Crawford’s subtle, fine-tuned performance as the disturbed Louise would lead to an Oscar nomination. Truth be told, she should have gotten the statue that year. Unless one works the night shift or is a vampire, the best thing to do is record this later viewing.
January 24: Ah, it’s Joan in the ‘50s, with plenty of suds and overwrought acting. The best of the day is shown first, with Harriet Craig screening at 7:15 am. This is a good one with Joan as a perfectionist housewife whose need for total control ultimately destroys her family. Wendell Corey is excellent as Joan’s suffering husband Walter.
Goodbye, My Fancy (1951) at 9:00 am gives us Joan as a Congresswoman returning to her alma mater where she reignites her affair with old flame Robert Young. Janice Rule, in her first official film, plays Young’s daughter. The backstage story is that Rule, fresh off Broadway and a magnet for the press on the set, made the middle-aged Joan so jealous that Joan made Janice’s life hell while filming, constantly berating the youngster for not hitting her marks or flubbing a line by telling her that she hopes Janice makes the best of this movie because she won’t be making many more at this rate. I just wish some of that vindictiveness had bled over into this movie.
At 11:00 am is one of Joan’s unintentionally funnier outings: This Woman is Dangerous (1952). Yes, she is dangerous, but only when she acts in this limp attempt at emotional drama with Joan as a top gangster who is losing her vision and requires a tricky eye operation from hunky Dennis Morgan. Then, at 12:45 pm, is Torch Song (1953) where Joan is a tempestuous musical star who falls and falls hard for a blind pianist. Joan is wonderfully cheesy in this role, trying to turn back the clock with flaming red hair and torpedo bra. Unfortunately she comes across more like the Gorgon than as a ravishing redhead. Watch especially for the scene where Joan plays in blackface. Embarrassing, especially by the ‘50s, when this sort of nonsense was supposed to have disappeared.
January 30: See the Psychotronia section.
OUT OF THE ORDINARY
January 18: One of the great-underrated films, A Face in the Crowd, is playing in the afternoon at 2:00 pm. I had championed this film back in the late ‘60s through the ‘80s for its theme of a megalomaniacal television star whose creator must destroy him before he gets the chance to destroy us. TCM has done a wonderful job in recent years of promoting this film as the gem it truly is, but some out there have not yet taken the time to view it. Directed by the great Elia Kazan, it’s Andy Griffith’s first movie, and he deserved the Oscar for his performance. Incredibly, he wasn’t even nominated. Patricia Neal co-stars as the woman who created the media monster in Griffith’s character, Lonesome Rhodes, and who must ultimately pull the plug on him, even though she’s still in love with the heel. Also in the cast is Walter Matthau, Tony Franciosa, Lee Remick, and director Marshall Neilan as the lackluster senator Rhodes is pushing for the presidency.
January 20: Looking for a different baseball picture? Then try 1950’s The Jackie Robinson Story, airing at 7:30 am, and starring Jackie himself playing, naturally, Jackie Robinson. It’s a great time capsule-like look back at the man who broke the color barrier in baseball filmed shortly after his feat. As such it gives us a unique perspective into the event and all the controversy that surrounded it. Co-starring is the beautiful Ruby Dee as Jackie’s wife, Rachel.
January 22: For those who like baloney with their World War 2 morale films TCM offers The North Star at 12:30 am. Directed by Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front), this 1943 outing is downright laughable in its portrayal of Ukrainian peasants attacked in the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1941, depicted as a happy, jolly lot, whose singing aboard their wagon is so rudely interrupted by the invading Nazis. Although it’s has some decent battle scenes, it’s rather slow and dull until things begins to pick up when naughty Nazi Erich Von Stroheim arrives at the village and matches wits with village leader Walter Huston. Besides these two, the movie also boasts a young Anne Baxter, Dana Andrews, Walter Brennan, Ann Harding, Farley Granger, Dean Jagger (wonder how the Red baiting Jagger explained this one later on), and, incredibly, Jane Withers as a happy villager.
January 24: Among the offerings in the Friday “Science in the Movies” night (at 1:45 am, no less) is one of the brightest satires ever put to film: The Man in the White Suit. From Ealing in 1951, it stars Alec Guniness as obsessed inventor Sidney Stratton, who creates a fabric that will never get dirty or wear out. Hailed as a miracle fabric at first by the textile mills, it becomes obvious that this new fabric could well put them out of business, and so they have to suppress it. Guinness is totally charming as the eccentric scientist and is ably assisted by Cecil Parker as textile magnate Alan Birnley, Joan Greenwood as Alan’s daughter Daphney, Michael Gough as Alan’s competitor and Daphney’s neglectful boyfriend, Vida Hope as the shop steward representing Sidney, and Ernest Thesiger as Sir John Kierlaw, the Mr. Big of the textile industry.
January 26: Speaking of deft satires, a “must see” is being aired at the late hour of 2:00 am. Closely Watched Trains, from Czechoslovak director Jiri Menzel, is a wonderful blend of the influence of the French New Wave with a sardonic coming-of-age story set during the German invasion of Czechoslovakia. The film is centered on the story of Milo, a young man who lands a job with the railroad at the moment when the Germans occupy his hometown. His only goal at first is to find a way to end his virginity, but as time passes and events unfold he is drawn into the Czech resistance. Exquisitely photographed and directed, it manages to be funny, sad, and most of all, touching.
January 16: The Beginning or the End from 1947, starring Brian Donlevy, Robert Walker, Tom Drake, Audrey Totter, Hume Cronyn, and Hurd Hatfield, is a thoughtful and engrossing account of the Manhattan Project, which gave us the atom bomb. Made two years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the film originally raised questions about the use of atomic weapons, but after the Pentagon and the White House finished with it, the film spun around 180 degrees to tell us how beneficial atomic weapons are. Harry Truman even got the original actor portraying him in the movie fired. It’s showing at 2:15 am.
Following along at 4:15 am is one of the greatly underrated sci-fi movies, These Are the Damned. From Hammer Studios in 1962, the film is sort of Brighton Rock meets the Apocalypse. It all takes place on the British seashore, at Weymouth. Visiting American tourist Simon Wells (Macdonald Carey) is lured by young hottie Joan (Shirley Anne Field) into an alley where Joan’s brother King (Oliver Reed) and his Teddy Boys mug and rob him. But Joan is tiring of her brother and flees with Simon aboard his boat, with King and the Teddys in hot pursuit. They stray inside the perimeter of a secret military base run by stuffy bureaucrat Bernard (Alexander Knox). A fissure in the rock leads Simon and Joan to an underground bunker, where nine young children reside. Their skin is cold to the touch, and in time we learn that they have been engineered by Bernard to be radioactive. If we grownups start a thermonuclear war, these children will inherit the Earth. Directed by ex-pat Joseph Losey (forced from this country by the HUAC hearings in the early ‘50s), it’s well made, with Bernard’s mistress Freya (Viveca Lindfors) supplying the opposition view in debates with Bernard about the ethics of his project. Also watch the opening moments for the song “Black Leather Rock,” a really great tune written for the movie by James Bernard and Evan Jones. Guaranteed you’ll be humming this after the movie ends.
January 18: Tallulah Bankhead followed the path of older actresses such as Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland and in 1965 starred in a Gothic horror of her own: Die! Die! My Darling! Airing at 11:30 pm, Bankhead is a religious fanatic who imprisons her late son’s sinful fiancée (Stephanie Powers). It’s run-of-the-mill at best, interesting for those who want to see just whatever became of Bankhead in her later years.
At 2:00 am TCM is showing Skidoo, a film from director Otto Preminger. Critic Michael Weldon said it best in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, so I’ll simply quote him here: “Most of the bad directors featured in this book work for small independent companies with impossibly low budgets and are unknown to the general public. Not so Otto Preminger, a famous, respected hack who was turning out incredibly bad films until very recently.”
Jackie Gleason is a retired gangster recruited to pull one more hit, this time on Mickey Rooney, who is ratting out the mob. To make the hit Gleason has to get back into Alcatraz. He takes LSD and changes into a person all for love and peace. We’ll leave it at that, save to say than it’s a must for those who never experienced the silliness of ‘60s popular culture or who have and just don’t remember.
January 19: Why are the best films always on at the worst hours? A perfect example is I Married a Witch, Rene Clair’s delightful 1942 comedy. Veronica Lake is a witch condemned with her wizard father, Cecil Kellaway in colonial Massachusetts and burned at the stake. Cut to the present day as lightning hits a tree and releases their spirits. Now Lake plots revenge on the ancestor of the man who presided over their trial: gubernatorial candidate Frederic March, but instead she falls in love with him. It’s a witty comedy from the director of such classics as Le Million (1931), A Nous la Liberte (1931), The Ghost Goes West (1935), and It Happened Tomorrow (1944).
January 20: Sometimes I ask myself why a movie that seemingly has everything going for it fails. This is the case with the disappointing The Angel Levine, which will be seen at 3:00 am. Angel wannabe Harry Belafonte comes to Earth to help impoverished tailor Zero Mostel. Based on a book by Bernard Malamud and directed by Jan Kadar (Lies My Father Told Me), it doesn’t have the usual saccharine ending. On the contrary, it’s an interesting, thoughtful film that should have done respectable business at the box office. At any rate, it’s worth a look for those who haven’t yet seen it.
January 25: It’s a psychotronic night as TCM rolls out some past classics. We begin with Jaws (1975) at 8:00 pm; Alien (1979) at 10:15 pm; and Rollerball (1977) at 12:15 am. Then at 2:30 am, it’s a doubleheader of weird family movies, starting with The Baby, a 1973 opus that finds both Anjanette Comer and Ruth Roman scraping the bottom of the barrel for a paycheck. Comer is social worker Ann Gentry, investigating the demented Mrs. Wadsworth (Roman) and her equally demented daughters Germaine (Marianna Hill) and Alba (Suzanne Zenor). But Mrs. Wadsworth also has a baby son, named simply Baby (David Manzy). A further look finds that Baby is a 20-something year old, who wears diapers, lives in a crib, and cannot walk or talk apart from a few really badly dubbed baby gurgles. It’s the sort of film where when you think it just can’t get any stranger, it does. And yet, you can’t look away. Finally TCM runs Spider Baby at 4:30 am. It’s the ultimate in cheapie deranged family movies, starring Lon Chaney, Jr. as the caretaker for a family of murderous weirdos. When greedy relatives come looking for the family riches, they get more than they can imagine – in a low budget way, of course.
January 30: Beginning at 8:15 am and running until 4:15 pm it’s a Philo Vance mini-marathon. The films run as follows: The Bishop Murder Case (1930, 8:15 am), with Basil Rathbone as the sleuth investigating a series of murders inspired by Mother Goose rhymes. The Kennel Murder Case (1933, 9:45 am) stars William Powell as Vance and is the best movie in the group. The Dragon Murder Case (1934, 11:00 am) finds Warren William as the sleuth as he investigates a murder near a mysterious “dragon pool.” The Casino Murder Case (1935, 12:15 pm) has Paul Lukas in the Vance role as he investigates a series of murders at the mansion of an aging dowager (Alison Skipworth). The Garden Murder Case (1936, 1:45 pm), starring Edmund Lowe as Vance as he looks into the possible reason for a series of mysterious suicides. Finally, there’s Calling Philo Vance (1939, 3:00 pm), an attempt to reboot the series. Going with the times, Vance tangles with foreign agents when he investigates the murder of an aircraft manufacturer.
It’s also the last night for the Joan Crawford Star-of-the-Month festival, and her films from the ‘60s are trotted out. Psychotronic fans can tune in at 8:00 pm to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? We all know the plot by now: Joan and Bette Davis are former movie stars living in a decaying mansion where Joan is at the mercy of nutty sister Bette. Still, it manages to keep its charm.
At 2:00 am, it’s the infamous Trog from 1970. At various times in interviews Joan has referred to Rain and This Woman is Dangerous as her worst films, but Trog has them beaten by the proverbial country mile. In her last film, Joan is an anthropologist who leads an expedition to retrieve a living missing link, affectionately called “Trog” after his discovery in a cave in a remote village. As this is a low-budget affair, an actor with a monkey head and hair around his waist and on his chest plays the troglodyte. It’s great watching Joan trying to take all this seriously, and stick around for the ending where a crowd gathers around the cave to watch the proceedings while drinking Pepsi. Joan doesn’t miss a trick.
At 3:45 am, it’s Joan in a supporting role in 1967’s The Karate Killers. Starring Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, it’s a movie edited from TV episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Those who love old television shows should find this one interesting.
January 31: The last day of the month begins on a low note and ends on a high one for psychotronic fans. First up at 7:30 am is Joan Crawford in Herman Cohen’s 1967 stinker, Berserk! Joan is the owner of a circus that’s been going through a series of murders. We learn at the end that Joan’s loopy daughter (Judy Geeson) is the murderer. The great thing about the film is that as old as Joan is, her vanity will not allow her not to have a stud-muffin available, and so in this film Ty Hardin essays the role.
In the last installment of Friday night’s “Science in the Movies,” we are treated to a delightful twin bill based on the works of H.G. Wells. First up at 8:00 is First Men in the Moon from 1964 starring Edward Judd as a scientist who travels to the Moon, were he meets the ant-like Selenites (animated by Ray Harryhausen), who live beneath the surface. Following at 10:00 pm is George Pal’s adaptation of The Time Machine (1960), starring Rod Taylor as the scientist who builds a time machine and travels into the future to see how mankind has split into two races, the Eloi and the Morlocks. It’s a fondly remembered classic by those of us who saw it as children and one that still has the power to enchant and entertain the young.