A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
April seems to be a very strange month. John Wayne is TCM's Star of the Month, yet we don’t see his films until the second half of the month. That leaves us short one category, but we’ll try to make up for it.
APRIL FOOL’S DAY
TCM marks April Fool’s Day with a day and night of comedies. Most of the superstars of comedy are featured, from the Marx Brothers (At the Circus, 7:30 am) to Abbott and Costello (Abbott and Costello in Hollywood, 9:00 am) to Wheeler and Woosley (The Nitwits, 10:30 am). The evening is devoted to slapstick comedy, with that favorite of the French, Jerry Lewis, leading off at 8:00 pm with The Disorderly Orderly, directed by Frank Tashlin, who was much better when he was making cartoons at Warners. At 9:30 is Woody Allen’s exquisite Sleeper. But the night’s best bets are Laurel and Hardy’s Way Out West, at 11:00 pm and the one and only Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill Jr. at 12:30 am.
April 3: TCM celebrates Doris Day’s 90th birthday with an entire day of her movies, so if you love Doris, this is for you. My picks are Love Me or Leave Me (12:15 pm), with Doris as torch singer Ruth Etting, looking to get away from gangster/boyfriend Martin “the Gimp” Snyder, menacingly portrayed by Jimmy Cagney. At the God-awful time of 4:00 am we are treated to one of her very best, Please Don’t Eat the Daises, from 1960, with Doris as drama critic David Niven’s wife as their family tries to adjust to life in the country. The film, based on the best-selling book of the same name by Jean Kerr, wife of New York Herald-Tribune drama critic Walter Kerr, was hugely popular at the box office and later spawned a television series of the same name.
OUT OF THE ORDINARY
April 4: Tune in at 7:00 am for the 1932 Pre-Code comedy/mystery, Miss Pinkerton, with Joan Blondell as a private duty nurse assigned to care for a murder victim’s elderly aunt (Elizabeth Patterson). As she tends to her duties she notices some strange things happening, and with the prodding of detective George Brent, she manages to get to the bottom of things, almost becoming a victim herself. It’s fun viewing, especially for Blondell, who always manages to parade around in her underwear no matter what the subject matter. Jean Harlow may have been the unattainable Blonde Bombshell, but Blondell was the Bombshell-next-door, complete with down-to-Earth attitude and salty language.
April 6: A most interesting film from Japan, Twenty-Four Eyes (1954), makes is debut at 2:00 am. Written and directed by Keisuke Kinoshita, it’s the story of a young Japanese schoolteacher, Hisako Oishi (Hideko Takamine), who is assigned to a rural school district. The local are at first suspicious because she rides a bike to school rather than walking, and wears a dress rather than a traditional kimono. But the students love her, and when the locals discover that she takes a bike to work because the long distance and wears a dress because of the long ride, they, too, warm to her. The time span of the film is from the late ‘20s to the early ‘50s, and we see the creeping jingoism and totalitarianism that envelops Japan during the ‘30s and its effect in the schoolroom. With the advent of World War II, Hisako retires from teaching rather than see her beloved pupils brought back in body bags, and waits to return to the school after the war, when her services will really be needed. It’s a film that has had an effect on me ever since I saw it right after college at a New York City revival house. Watch it and you’ll remember it always. Also look for popular actor Chishu Ryu as an older teacher.
April 7: In case you’ve been out of the country or in a coma the last seven years or so, this is a chance to see one of the most prescient films ever made: Elia Kazan’s 1957 underrated masterpiece, A Face in the Crowd. I first saw this around the age of 11 or so with my mother on what was known as The Schaefer Gold Circle Theater. This took the place of the Saturday night Late Show on WCBS once a month and was devoted to quality films. I was blown away by it. The idea of Andy Griffith – Sheriff Taylor – as a bad guy had me glued to the tube. Wow. I didn’t see it again until 1980 when I watched it with my wife. I remember talking it up all day at work, and when I saw it again, I was once more entranced by the sheer power of the movie. My wife was also blown away, especially as to how the film related to today’s media-dominated society. Griffith is simply great as Larry “Lonesome “ Rhodes, a hobo discovered by local radio producer Patricia Neal in the Pickett, Arkansas, lockup, where he was jailed for drunk and disorderly. She gives him a chance to do his stuff on her radio show and he’s so good that he quickly builds up a local audience, then conquers television in Memphis, and finally in New York. Once in New York, advertisers and corporate heads build him up into the Next Great Thing, a folklore philosopher. But there’s one big flaw, Rhodes is a nasty piece of work, a megalomaniac obsessed with power – and himself. Of course, he has to get his comeuppance at the end and the way it’s done is one of the great scenes in cinema history. This is one not only worth seeing, but worth purchasing on DVD as well.
April 9: Here’s one definitely worth catching. It’s from England and the odds are you haven’t seen it. Heck, I’ve never seen it, although I looked for it all over. It airs at 12:00 am and is titled Went the Day Well? Directed by Alberto Cavalcanti for Ealing Studios in 1942, it’s the story of a small English village that is taken over by German paratroopers sent ahead of a large-scale invasion force. How the villagers deal with the enemy in their midst is said to be compelling, and note that the film was made before the outcome of the war was still in doubt. As such it served as an effective morale tool. Starring Leslie Banks, Basil Sydney, and Elizabeth Allan, it’s based on a 1940 magazine story by Graham Greene called “The Lieutenant Died Last.” This, to me, is why I love TCM – movies such as this popping up and providing me with hours of viewing pleasure. I’ll be watching.
April 11: It’s Joan Blondell, again. This time she’s the title character in Warner Brothers’ 1933 crime drama, Blondie Johnson, airing at 12:45 pm. Joan is a victim of the Depression who, when the relief agency turns a deaf ear to her pleas for help for her ailing mother, vows to make money anyway she can. And she does, taking on the big boys in the Mob as well as the authorities. Backed by such stalwarts as Chester Morris, Allen Jenkins, and Mae Busch in this lively 68-minute drama, Joan manages to have us root for her, even though at the end we learn that crime does not pay. But it’s a great ride, nevertheless.
And then at 12:00 am, it a repeat showing of Federico Fellini’s wonderful film, Nights of Cabiria, with Giulietta Masina perfect as the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold who has bad taste in men in real life. Masina simply dominates the screen and her character is sure to wring a tear out of even the most hard-hearted viewer. It’s a film I can always make time to see.
PSYCHOTRONICA & THE B-HIVE
There are some choice bits of psychotronica available this period, with an unknown gem from Japan.
April 5: A unique entry in Blaxploitation cinema is being shown at the late hour of 2:00 am. Sweet Jesus, Preacherman (1973) was produced by independent company Entertainment Pyramid and released though MGM. The producers were known for their slate of cheap horror and exploitation films; their most famous release probably being 1972’s Grave of the Vampire, with William Smith and Michael Pataki. Sweet Jesus stars Roger E. Mosely (best known to fans as T.C. on Tom Selleck’s long-running private eye series, Magnum P.I.) In this film he plays a contract killer who assumes the role of a Baptist preacher at the local church, from which he takes over the local crime action in the ‘hood. Yeah, it doesn’t make sense at times, but it’s still a fun diversion.
April 7: A great psychotronic tripleheader begins with the sci-fi classic Them! airing at 1:30 am (When else?) It’s one of my all-time favorites, a cut above the usual ‘50s science fiction fare: a deft combination of a noir murder mystery and science fiction. The performances are all excellent, with James Whitmore as the state cop who discovers the murder, James Arness as the FBI agent assigned to the case, as the murder victim was an FBI agent and his family, and Edmund Gwenn as the entomologist sent by Washington to investigate. Entomologist? Yes, in case there are those who somehow haven’t seen this classic before, we are now up against gigantic ants. But there’s more: Them! is actually, believe it or not, a Red Scare flick; the ants are the Commies. Watch and you’ll see. Proper support is given to the stars by Onslow Stevens as an Air Force General assigned to mop up the pesky critters, Sean McClory as Stevens’ adjunct, Major Kibbee (with an Irish accent, yet), and Joan Weldon as Gwenn’s scientist daughter, who manages to be effective without being annoying. Also look for such familiar faces as Fess Parker, Olin Howard, Dub Taylor, Dick Wessel, Chris Drake, William Schallert, and Leonard Nimoy (!) in an early role as an Air Force Sergeant.
Following at 3:15 am is The Cosmic Monsters, a British film from 1958, where it was originally released as The Strange World of Planet X. As with other English Bs of the period, an American actor was added to make it somehow attractive to American audiences. And the American in this case is Forrest Tucker. He is Canadian scientist Gil Graham, assistant to the eccentric Dr. Laird (Alec Mango), who is working on experiments to manipulate the magnetic fields. During one such experiment Laird punches a hole in the ionosphere that allows cosmic rays to seep in. They, in turn, drive people mad and enlarge insects. Enter Smith (Martin Benson) a visitor from Planet X who has seen what was going on and comes to help us dig ourselves out of the mess. Gaby Andre is also on hand as the requisite eye candy, a French scientist assigned to assist the mad doc in his experiments. The problem with this film, however, is its low budget, which undermines the interesting premise. Still, for those who haven’t yet seen it, or for those who saw it a long time ago, it is worth catching.
Finally, at 4:45 am is the Roger Corman opus from 1959, The Wasp Woman, starring Susan Cabot as the head of a cosmetics firm that has discovered a serum made from wasp royal jelly that can wipe away aging. Cabot tries some and is hooked, despite warnings. Soon she turns into a wasp-like creature that kills. It’s the usual Corman nonsense with a paltry budget to back it up. Of course, in later interviews, after he was “discovered” and lionized by critics, Corman said the film is a social satire on the search for eternal beauty. Yeah, sure it is; and I’m the Wizard of Oz. All in all, this is just another cheapo Corman film; watch at your own risk.
April 12: It’s back to Blaxploitation with a good double-header. Leading off at 2:00 am is the incredible Rudy Ray Moore vehicle from 1979, Disco Godfather. Any film starring Mr. Moore must be seen to be truly appreciated (and believed). Moore is Tucker Williams, a former LAPD detective who is now running a disco (and doubling as a DJ there). Things are cool until his NBA-bound nephew ends up in the psych ward thanks to smoking angel dust. This makes Mr. Moore very angry, and when he gets very angry he takes it out on everyone responsible. And no one takes it to the streets like Rudy Ray Moore.
Following is the film that started the Blaxploitation genre, Shaft (1971). It made its star, Richard Roundtree, into a major figure on the action circuit and spawned two sequels in the process. Directed by Gordon Parks, it’s actually a very good film about a Black detective recruited by a Harlem mob boss to rescue his kidnapped daughter. Though not too different from other films in the genre, it was the attitude and actors that made this one stand out. First, it was about a Black detective, who not only has to fight the kidnappers but the white NYPD as well. And John Shaft takes no crap from no one. Also check it out for a panorama of New York City in 1971. It was a whole different city back then, and the photography both emphasizes and highlights those points. For those who have seen it, you know what I mean, and for those who haven’t, all I can say is that this is a Must See.
April 13: We begin at 12:00 am with The Mysterious Island, a 1929 film from MGM starring Lionel Barrymore as Count Dakkar, scientist and ruler on a small volcanic island. He is a benevolent ruler, having eliminated class distinctions among the populace. As he’s a scientist, he, his daughter Sonia (Jacqueline Gadsden) and future son-in-law Nikolai Roget (Lloyd Hughes) have built a submarine, which they use to escape the island just as it’s being overrun by the evil despotic Baron Falon of neighboring Hetvia. When the Baron learns that Dakkar and his relatives have escaped he follows them in his own submarine. The two craft, diving to the ocean’s floor, discover a strange land containing dragons, giant squid and an undiscovered humanoid race. The effects are prehistoric and the acting par for the time, but it is in 2-strip Technicolor.
Afterwards, at 2:00 am is a most unusual film from director Kazui Nihonmatsu and Shochiku, Genocide (1968), aka War of the Insects. Think of Hitchcock’s The Birds and you’ll have some idea of the plot. But the second act goes off the rails with a subplot about a missing H-bomb, the callous reaction by the American military, and a gorgeous, but deranged Holocaust survivor working in cahoots with spies from the Eastern Bloc. And we have the insects, who share one single purpose: to destroy mankind before mankind can destroy Earth. All this makes for a much harder-edged, but nonetheless compelling entry in a genre that was of late composed of comical monsters.
And following at 3:30 am is an earlier film from the same director and studio, The X From Outer Space (1967). A spaceship dispatched from Japan to Mars to investigate UFO reports finds itself covered in slimy goo, containing unusual spores. When the ship returns to Earth with one of the specimens, it grows into a ridiculous chicken-lizard monster that, as usual threatens Japan. Lots of unintentional humor and dialogue seemingly aimed at a pre-10-year-old audience. It’s interesting to compare this with the earlier film as they were both from the same director and studio. However, it’s not as bad as the Gammera films and others such as A.P.E. It’s worth a peek if you haven’t seen it before. If you have, then you know whet we’re dealing with in this one. Still, if you have a yen for a Japanese monster movie, there are worse.
April 15: TCM is showing a batch of teen rock ‘n’ roll movies beginning at 8:00 pm. Some are just plain awful, but there some gems. Aside from the Elvis movies (Jailhouse Rock at 10 pm and the 1970 documentary, Elvis: That’s the Way It Is at 5 am), there is a nice little film from 1959 called Go, Johnny, Go! There’s not much of a plot here – Alan Freed searching for a talent contest’s mysterious winner – but there are some great acts on the bill, including Chuck Berry, Jackie Wilson, Richie Valens, Eddie Cochran, The Cadillacs, and The Flamingos. For those who like classic rock ‘n’ roll, this is one to see.