By Ed Garea
STAR OF THE MONTH
As we wrote in the last column, because of the theme for the month, there is no special star to be highlighted.
OUT OF THE ORDINARY
Despite the fact that it threatens to be more of the same old, same old, there are actually some movies on tap that are rarely seen, and these are the ones we will feature.
February 17: Straight off his Oscar nomination for playing Minnesota Fats in Robert Rossen’s The Hustler in 1961, and lauded for his innovative television work, Jackie Gleason was absolutely full of himself. He was no longer a comedian-actor. No, he was now a Serious Artist. And as we all know, when actors begin to get that idea in their otherwise empty skulls, the next stop is Trouble with a Capital “T.” And nothing befits a Serious Artist like a Prestige Project, for that will show the public what a great artist he truly is.
The ideal of the Serious Artist for most comics is Charlie Chaplin. His mix of slapstick with sloppy sentimentality has solidified over the years to represent a sort of grand artistry; one that every comic with grandiose plans seeks to capture. The gold at the end of this rainbow, of course, is the Oscar, affirmation of one’s greatness from his peers. Gleason had such a project in mind: Gigot, the tale of a janitor who lives alone in a basement in Montemarte and who is taunted by neighbors because he is mute. Then one night he finds a “fallen” woman and her daughter and brings them back to his place, where he cares for them – with the predictable results. The woman comes to scorn and badger him, but the little girl comes to love him. He gets into trouble for stealing money so they could be well fed and clothed. As critic Bosely Crowther noted in his review for The New York Times (9-28-1962): “ . . . Mr. Gleason fairly opens the faucets that are connected to the mammoth reservoir of his own simple sentimentality and lets the syrup gush.”
Gleason wanted none other than Paddy Chayefsky to write the screenplay. He declined. Gleason wanted none other than Orson Welles to direct. 20th Century Fox, his production company, put the kibosh on that one. So in the end Gleason ended up with John Patrick, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hasty Heart and Teahouse of the August Moon, whose screen credits included Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), High Society (1956), and Les Girls (1957). Instead of Welles, Gene Kelly, another actor with an overblown opinion of the importance of his work, signed on as director and the film was shot in France. The cinematographer was Jean Bourgoin, who previously filmed Mon Oncle (1958) for Jacques Tati and Black Orpheus (1959) for Marcel Camus. The film flopped at the box office. Kelly and Gleason blamed Fox for the way it was cut, which was not the way they would have wanted it. Watch and judge for yourself. Also look for Jacques Marin as the practical joker and Albert Remy as Alphonse, one of the neighbors.
February 18: Such a lousy hour for such a grand picture, but Jacques Demy’s musical, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, is set to air at 8:00 am. It’s a lovely film about Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve), a woman of 16 whose mother, Madame Emery (Anne Vernon), operates an umbrella shop in Cherbourg. She is in love with Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), a 21-year old auto mechanic who lives with his sickly Aunt Elise (Mireille Perrey) and her companion, young Madeleine (Ellen Farner). When Guy is called up for two years of military duty and sent to Algeria, they plan to marry when he returns. To bind their love to each other before he leaves, they make love. But after several months, Genevieve has received only one letter and she discovers she’s pregnant to boot. Enter wealthy diamond merchant Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), who falls in love with Genevieve and proposes, declaring his willingness to raise Guy’s child as his own. Though Genevieve is shocked at first, as time passes with no communications from Guy, she becomes convinced that he has forgotten her, and she marries Cassard.
When Guy returns and discovers that Genevieve has married, he is crushed and returns to his old job. When Aunt Elise dies and Madeleine prepares to leave, Guy and Madeleine realize they love each other. They marry and Guy buys a gas station with an inheritance Aunt Elise has left him. Three years later, Guy and Madeleine are a happy family with a young son. It is Christmas Eve and Guy is alone at the gas station when an emotional reunion is about to take place: Genevieve drives into the station. The word “awkward” does not begin to describe this heart-wrenching scene, as both characters muse about their present lives and what could have been if only they kept in touch.
The story of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is told entirely in song (their voices are dubbed), which gives it almost a poetic feeling in spots. Combined with the bright colors that predominate, this gives the film an almost otherworldly feeling. (Filmed in the town of Cherbourg, the citizens allowed Demy to paint their homes in bright colors.) Demy’s film comes across as almost a sort of anti-musical – instead of loud, rousing song and dance numbers popping up throughout the film, Umbrellas is restrained, muted, almost underplayed as it were, emphasizing not love itself, but the complicated river of feelings and tribulations that run underneath the euphoria. This feeling carried the movie all the way to becoming the Grand Prize winner at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival.
February 20: Another film shown at the milkman’s hour, but certainly worth recording, is the 1929 version of The Letter, from Paramount, with Jeanne Eagles in the role Bette Davis later made famous, that of planter’s wife Leslie Crosbie, who shoots and kills cad Geoff Hammond (Herbert Marshall) in a jealous rage after he tells her he’s dumping her for the half-Chinese Li-Ti (Lady Tsen Mei). Leslie pleads self-defense, claiming Hammond was going to rape her. She’s swaying the jury her way, until Li-Ti contacts Leslie’s lawyer about a letter that thoroughly incriminates her.
The Letter is a fascinating film to catch for several reasons: its production values were far and above those of its time; being filmed before the Code was adopted, it is truer to the play’s theme about racism; and last, but not least, Eagles is an interesting actor to watch plying her craft. One can only wonder what she might have accomplished had not her life been cut short by a lethal mixture of alcohol, chloral hydrate, and heroin. For those reasons, this is a film to catch.
February 24: Spy films during the ‘60s came in two forms: the popular half-spoofs of the James Bond series and its many imitators, and the serious, twisted intellectual studies of those who work in the fields of espionage and counter-espionage. Of this latter category, Martin Ritt’s The Spy that Came in From the Cold (1:15 am), an excellent adaptation of John LeCarre’s thriller of the same name, is not only one of the best spy dramas of the period, but one of the best ever filmed. LeCarre’s reputation comes from his unsentimental look at the business of espionage: Human-all-too-human characters trapped in distinctly unglamorous surroundings working towards an ideal they’ve long ago forgotten and undertaking assignments that can best be described as ethically ambiguous. LeCarre’s world is not that of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, where suave beautiful people meet other suave, beautiful people over drinks amid super villains, but rather of burned-out workers often at the end of their tether toiling in seedy surroundings for little or no gain. Richard Burton is impressive as Alec Leamas, an operative in British Intelligence who is given a final assignment before he retires and who slowly comes to discover the assignment is part of an elaborate double-cross instigated by his superiors. Claire Bloom and Peter Van Eyck provide sterling support and convince us theatergoers of their total believability in their roles.
As the month winds down, the choice of psychotronic movies follows suit. Still, there are some gems to be mined.
February 17: The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (5:30 am) is on at a really crappy time, but is worth recording and watching for those interested in fantasy films and the Puppetoons of George Pal. Laurence Harvey and Karl Boehm (star of Michael Powell’s brilliant, but ill-fated, Peeping Tom) are the brothers, while Claire Bloom, Walter Slezak, Barbara Eden, and Oscar Homolka provide them the solid support. George Pal realized the project was too big for him to handle alone and wisely brought in Henry Levin to direct the biographical parts while he concentrated on the fantasy sequences. And those sequences are simply beautiful to watch, with the Puppetoons and an animated dragon. The reenactments of their stories include “The Dancing Princess,” “The Cobbler and the Elves,” and “The Singing Bone.” Do catch this if you haven’t seen it before.
February 18: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (5:30 pm), a lushly produced musical fantasy based on a novel by Ian Fleming, was a commercial flop when released. However, over the years it has become a beloved family film as those who loved it when they were kids have shown it to their children. Dick Van Dyke stars as Caractacus Potts, an inventor who spins a tale for his children about a remarkable flying car. Look for Gert Frobe (Goldfinger) as Baron Bomburst, Desmond Llewelyn (most famous as “Q” in the Bond films), and Benny Hill in a small role as a toymaker.
February 19: Begin the day at 8:15 am with Stanley Kramer’s overwrought atomic apocalyptic drama On the Beach and stick around at 8:00 pm for the classic ghost comedy, Topper. Then, if you’re still awake, tune in at 2:00 am for Frank Capra’s decidedly psychotronic love story, Lost Horizon. Shangri-La never looked so good, especially in that haunting finale, and dig Sam Jaffe as the High Lama. The story behind the film is just as interesting. The normally fiscally responsible Frank Capra, said to absolutely ga-ga after reading James Hilton’s novel, went Erich Von Stroheim and asked Columbia boss Harry Cohn for $2 million. Capra constructed 65 sets, while the studio’s property men created over 700 props to be used in the depiction of daily life in Tibet. (The Lamasery set was reputedly the largest built in Hollywood during the sound era until that time.)
Then, to garner even more realism, Capra rented space at the Los Angeles Ice and Cold Storage Warehouse for the plane interior shots and the snow shots. While the extreme cold added authenticity, it played havoc with the equipment, especially the film stock. Soon Capra exceeded the $2 million budget, running near $3 million. His habit of shooting multiple takes used up over a million feet of film. Rumors of the film’s budget spiraling out of control included a plea from Cohn to the film’s employees not to cash their paychecks right away because there wasn’t enough money in the bank to cover them. In the end, Capra had a six-hour film, which he cut for audience previews to 3½ hours. After a disastrous first screening, Capra cut two more reels of film, containing the introduction where star Ronald Colman is on a cruise and is prompted by fellow passengers to the story of Shangri-La. Still, the film ran for more than three hours. It was at this point that Cohn took the film away from Capra and had it cut to his specifications. Later it was cut even further to 118 minutes for theater re-issue and television. The film was restored to 132 minutes, though some of the footage still remains missing and was replaced with stills with the original soundtrack.
And now, if you’re still awake, John Ford’s epic 1937 disaster film, The Hurricane, follows at 4:15 am. This is why recorders were invented. This is the film where Dorothy Lamour made the sarong into a must-have by women all over the country, though practically none of them could wear it the way she did. The real star of the film, however, is the hurricane that threatens life on the island paradise where Lamour, husband Jon Hall and their child have made their home.
February 21: Gaslight (1:00 am) is the psychotronic pick. Ingrid Bergman gives a stellar performance as the young wife who is being slowly driven insane by her jewel thief husband, Charles Boyer. It also makes the film debut of 17-year old Angela Lansbury as the maid. It’s actually a remake of the 1940 English production of the same name, directed by Thorold Dickinson and starring Anton Walbrook in the Boyer role and Diana Wynyard as the young bride. MGM tried without success to buy all existing prints and negative of the original to consign to the flames, but some prints survived, although this version was not screened for over two decades and when it finally was, it was retitled Angel Street.
February 22: The Snake Pit (1:30 am) is our pick this day. Olivia de Havilland is a bride who displays erratic behavior following a bout with depression and is committed by husband Mack Stevens to an institution. Told mainly from the perspective of the patient, this is an engrossing film about a mentally ill woman and the psychiatrist (Leo Genn in a terrific performance) who attempts to get to the bottom of her illness despite the conditions at the asylum, including an insensitive nursing staff, overcrowding, psychiatrists more interested in procedure rather than the patient, and facilities that resemble zoos or prisons. But most of all, watch de Havilland – she gives the performance of a lifetime, making this a picture that can be seen more than once, despite its discomforting subject matter.
February 24: Mighty Joe Young (4:15 pm): Although this film falls well short of the bar established by King Kong, it still finishes ahead of Son of Kong in the animated gorilla department. It boasts marvelous stop-motion special effects (by Willis O’Brien and a young Ray Harryhausen), but the story is wanting, and Terry Moore is certainly no Fay Wray in the acting department in this story of a girl and her gorilla. Gorilla my dreams? Why Robert Armstrong’s character is named Max O’Hara instead of Carl Denham is a slight to all us who loved him in both King Kong and Son of Kong. At least this film has a happier ending. As a kid, I and other wrestling fans all watched the famous tug-of-war scene to notice how many wrestlers were in it.
February 25: Although Green Dolphin Street (12:15 am) is decidedly not a psychotronic film, film buffs will want to tune in anyway for the uncredited role of Lila Leeds as a Maori girl in this romantic epic set in 19th century New Zealand. Leeds, as we film buffs know, was a rising young starlet whose career was derailed when she was arrested, along with Robert Mitchum, in a bust on a marijuana party. His career survived, hers did not. Her only featured role after that was in the Sam Newfield directed exploitation classic, Wild Weed, and guess what that was about?
February 27: If you haven’t seen this before, do catch the 1932 Paramount version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (12:30 am) with an Oscar-winning performance by Frederic March as the drug-addled Doctor Jekyll. March split the Oscar that year with Wallace Beery, who won for the Kleenex-fest, The Champ. March would be the only actor winning the Best Actor statue for a horror film until 1992, when Anthony Hopkins won for The Silence of the Lambs.
February 28: At 8:00 pm it’s that hallowed psychotronic classic, Casablanca. To any adult reading this who has not yet seen this film, I can only ask, “Where the hell have you been all these years?”
-- Edited by Steve Herte