By Ed Garea
As the Oscar tribute fades into the limelight, we return to a normal schedule. Overall, the Oscar month was better than most in the past as TCM is mixing things up rather nicely. Let’s hope they do the same with the August “Summer Under the Stars” festival and mix in a few more names that have been absent in years past.
On another cable front is the name change of The Military Channel. It will become The American Heroes Channel (AHC) today. Executives at the network say that while the renamed channel will continue to present military-themed specials, it is hoped the new name will reflect a new desire to focus on a broader range of American heroes and helpers. It’s part of parent company Discovery’s desire to reach out more to the 25-54 male demographic. The Military Channel is already seen in 63 million homes.
The renamed channel will debut 17 new series and specials, including a six-part miniseries, Against the Odds. Narrated by Rob Lowe, the series takes a look at the harsh realities of war, using archival footage and first-hand interviews to feature U.S. troops who banded together during the heat of battle.
I suppose we’ll have to wait and see how it pans out, but the current Military Channel shows some excellent multi-series documentaries like Secrets of World War II, The Secret War, Nazi Collaborators, and The World at War, a BBC production from 1976 narrated by Laurence Olivier about World War II that has never been duplicated, let alone surpassed. These, along with the plethora of war movies shown on the channel, are two things I would hate to see changed for the sake of demographics.
STAR OF THE MONTH
Now that we’re back to normal, we once again have a Star of the Month. This month it’s Mary Astor, a most deserving choice. Astor is an “actor’s actor,” a person that can play a rage of parts and be effective in each one, whether as a charwoman or an heiress; a temperamental musician or a woman with a past on the run.
March 5: Astor begins with a bang with five of her films being shown. Leading off at 8:00 pm is the marvelous Dodsworth with Astor as Edith Cortright, a beautiful woman expatriate Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston) meets in Europe as his longtime marriage to Fran (Ruth Chatterton) hits the skids. Astor brings just the right amount of sensitivity and understanding to a role that could easily have gone off the rails, even with William Wyler directing. (Note Ruth Chatterton’s somewhat heavy-handed interpretation of her role.)
At 10:00 pm, it’s the film for which Astor received the Oscar for Supporting Actress, The Great Lie. Set as a typical “woman’s picture” of the period, with plenty of romantic travail, it had two things working against it: the lousy script, with unbelievable relationships, and star Bette Davis, who absolutely hated the script. She called Mary Astor and asked her to play the role of pianist Sandra Kovak, Bette’s rival for lover George Brent’s aviator, Pete Van Allen. Astor recalled in her memoirs that after two days of shooting, Bette stopped and hauled Astor off to the dressing room. Closing the door, Davis announced that this picture is “going to stink!” It’s too incredible for words. She told Astor that she had spoken with director Edmund Goulding and others on the staff, and they all thought it was a fine film. “So,” she said to Astor, “it’s up to us to rewrite this piece of junk to make it more interesting.” And so they did, building up Astor’s elegantly bitchy character of Sandra at the expense of Davis’ character. The rumor around town was that Astor was stealing the picture right out from under Davis, but Astor demurred, “She handed it to me on a silver platter.” All Goulding had to do each morning was to ask the ladies what they were going to go that day. It was an easy assignment for the director and Astor was rewarded with the Supporting Actress statue for her part. The film has lost none of its charm over the years and remains as fresh today as it did in 1941.
For those who love their silents – and even for those who do not – Mary shines forth in the 1926 Warner Bros. production of Don Juan. Mary is Adriana Della Varnese, the woman who becomes the love of Don Juan’s life in the villainous court of the Borgias. Watch for Myrna Loy in a small part as Lucretia Borgia’s (Estelle Taylor) maid.
At 3:00 am, Mary stars with Paul Muni and Aline MacMahon in Warner Bros.’ 1933 The World Changes, based on the Edna Ferber novel about a man who becomes a meat-packing baron and loses his family in the process. And at 4:45 am it Other Men’s Women, a 1931 drama from Warners with Mary in the middle of a love triangle between Grant Withers and Regis Toomey. However, watch it for the performances of supporting players James Cagney and Joan Blondell, who give this otherwise dead-on-arrival film a bit of life.
March 12: Oh, what a night! At 8:00 pm, it’s John Huston’s 1941 classic, The Maltese Falcon, one of the greatest noirs – if not the greatest – ever made. The casting is brilliant, with Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Elisha Cook, Jr., and Lee Patrick giving performances for the ages as they chase “the stuff that dreams are made of.” And no matter how many times I’ve seen it, I’ll be watching again.
At 10:00 pm, it’s Across the Pacific from 1942. Also directed by John Huston, the film reunites Bogart, Greenstreet and Astor with Bogart as an American agent trying to prevent Greenstreet and his Japanese buddies from blowing up the Panama Canal. Astor plays a woman of intrigue and plays it so well we don’t know whose side she’s on. When director Huston accepted his commission as a lieutenant in the Army Signal Corps he pulled an elaborate prank on Vincent Sherman, who was tasked with the job of finishing the film. Huston left Bogart tied to a chair surrounded by armed Japanese soldiers in a house surrounded by even more Japanese soldiers. Before leaving he told Jack Warner that he was on his way into the army, and that Bogart will be able to figure out how to escape. But, in reality, no one could figure out how to escape and the scene had to be reshot with Bogart being held under much more lax security.
At midnight, it’s the 1937 John Ford classic, The Hurricane. Set on the French possession of Manakura in the South Seas, Astor is Madame De Laage, the wife of the provincial governor (Raymond Massey) and offers support to the native couple of Terangi (Jon Hall) and Marama (Dorothy Lamour), especially when Terangi is pursued by the police for killing a white man in self-defense. The real star of the film is the special effects hurricane, which comes over most convincingly in those pre-CGI days.
The 1937 classic The Prisoner of Zenda, from UA, follows at 3:30 am. Anyone out there who has not yet seen this timeless classic would be well advised to record it, for if there ever was an “Essential,” this is it. The story of a rightful king being drugged and kidnapped by his brother with a lookalike cousin installed in his place has been done numerous times, but never quite this well. Astor has a supporting role as Antoinette de Mauban, mistress to the king. As usual, she gets the most out of it.
At 5:30 a.m., The Murder of Dr. Harrigan, another in the low-budget series about nurse/sleuth Sarah Keate. (Check my earlier article on While the Patient Slept, October 8, 2013.) While one would almost expect Astor to play Keate, she doesn’t. Instead Kay Linaker, a Broadway actress making her Hollywood debut, played Sarah. Linaker went on to make 55 more films, but stardom wasn’t in her future. Her parts diminished in size and she left the screen in 1945 after marrying Howard Phillps. She began a new career, writing for television and the movies. One of her most famous scripts was the one she wrote for 1958’s The Blob. It went on to gross millions, but she only received $150 for writing it. She also supplemented her income by teaching screenwriting in colleges in Canada and New England until her retirement from Keene State College in New Hampshire in 2005 at the age of 92. As for Astor, she simply plays one of the supporting characters, a nurse.
March 13: Because Astor made so many films, there’s runoff into this morning and afternoon, with the most interesting being The Lash from 1931. It’s interesting because it’s a Western and Astor didn’t make many in that genre. This is a Robin Hood story set in 1850s California with Richard Barthelmess as a totally unconvincing Spanish nobleman who returns to find his homeland being run by tyrants. Astor is his long love, Rosita Garcia. It’s very rarely shown, and I’d be lying if I said I saw it. So I’ll be tuning in as well.
OUT OF THE ORDINARY
March 4 – John Garfield’s Birthday: Jacob Jules Garfinkle was born on this day on the Lower East Side of New York City to David and Hannah Garfinkle, and TCM is devoting the morning and afternoon to nine of his films. Beginning at 6:00 am with the ever-sturdy soap, Dust Be My Destiny (1939) to his remake of To Have and Have Not, The Breaking Point (1950) with Patricia Neal at 6:15 pm, it’s a day of happy happy joy joy for all Garfield fans. Others worth your time and effort are East of the River (1940) at 11:00 am, Out of the Fog (1941), at 1:45 pm, and The Sea Wolf, with Edward G. Robinson, at 3:15 pm.
March 7: TCM’s “Friday Night Spotlight” this month has “Food in the Movies” as its theme. Ang Lee’s marvelous 1994 comedy, Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, leads off the festivities at 8:00 pm, followed by the charming Mostly Martha (2001) at 10:15. This wonderful and touching German production was remade in 2007 as No Reservations, with Catherine Zeta-Jones. At 12:15 am is one of the all-time cinema classics, Tom Jones (1963). All in all, it’s a great night. Bring plenty of food or eat beforehand.
March 9: TCM rolls out a tribute to the late Shirley Temple, beginning at 4:30 pm with 1937’s Heidi. The highlight of the mini-marathon in Bright Eyes (1934), where she sings “On the Good Ship Lollipop.” Another film of note is The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947), with Cary Grant and Muyra Loy, and the final film, shown at 4:15 a.m., That Hagen Girl, from 1949, with Ronald Reagan in a surprisingly taut performance.
March 14: Another edition of “Food in the Movies” finds us starting with the lovely comedy Christmas in Connecticut at 8. Then it’s on to the hallowed Christmas classic, A Christmas Story (1983), and I don’t care how many times we’ve seen it during its 24-hour runs on sister station TBS, it’s always worth a look. At midnight, it’s one of my favorite movies, My Dinner With Andre (1981), and then at 2:00 a.m. it’s one of David Skolnick’s faves, Diner.
PSYCHOTRONICA & THE B-HIVE
March 5: Even if musicals aren’t your cup of tea, Campus Rhythm is a must for all those interested in film history. It’s a musical from Monogram Studios starring Gale Storm as a popular radio singer who takes it on the lam to attend college incognito, where she falls for student newspaper editor Johnny Downs. Storm began her career at RKO, and then drifted over to Monogram where she toiled until Universal signed her in 1949. It was only with the coming of television that she became a star with My Little Margie and The Gale Storm Show. Co-Star Downs began his career in the silents as part of Our Gang. In the 30s, he worked in supporting roles at Fox, Paramount, Warner Bros., Columbia, and Universal before landing on Poverty Row in the 40s, working at Monogram and PRC (Remember him in The Mad Monster from 1942?). Another cast member of interest is Candy Candido, an actor/singer known for a voice that could go from soprano to alto to tenor within seconds, finishing with a bass a few notes lower than on the piano. Candido was also known for his brief partnership with Bud Abbott after the death of Lou Costello.
March 7: A Tarzan double-header, both from Johnny Weismuller’s RKO years, starts off the day. At 6:30 a.m. it’s Tarzan and the Amazons (1945), with greedy gold thieves after the stash held by a fierce Amazon tribe led by Maria Ouspenskaya (?!). Then at 8:00, the king of the jungle tangles with greedy hunters Patricia Morison and Barton MacLane in Tarzan and the Huntress (1947). Further information on these classics of the cinema can be found on this site in my essay, Johnny Weismuller’s Tarzan at RKO, Part 2 (September 3, 1012). Part 1 was published on August 25, 2012).
March 8: A good psychotronic double feature begins at 5:00 p.m. First up is the excellent 1961 sci-fi thriller, Village of the Damned. Based on the 1951 novel, The Midwich Cuckoos, by John Wyndham, it concerns an English village where a blackout takes place, rendering the villagers unconscious. Weeks later, every woman capable of giving birth in the village discovers that she is pregnant. Moreover they cannot remember how it happened. Twelve babies are born within hours of each other, all blonde, all with strange, arresting eyes. The children are discovered to be super-intelligent and telepathic. By gazing at their victim they can cause him to do their bidding. Needless to say, they must be stopped and it’s up to physicist Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders) to stop them before they take over the earth. Over the years, Village of the Damned has come to be regarded as a minor masterpiece of the genre, with Sanders and co-star Barbara Shelley giving notable performances. I remember going to the movies to see this one and being genuinely creeped out by the kids on the poster with those eyes.
At 6:30 comes another minor gem, It, the Terror From Beyond Space. Don’t let the title fool you, this is a good, tight B-movie about a rescue mission to Mars in the year 1973 (?!). Only one survivor from the previous expedition is found (Marshall Thompson), but as the ship prepares to leave for earth, it takes on another passenger, a deadly stowaway. Not only has it acquired a definite taste for human blood, it also spends much of the film playing hide-and-seek in the ventilation tunnels connecting the ship. At first it’s presumed that Thompson is the murderer – after all, he’s the only survivor, and no one else has been seen. But soon, other members of the crew begin to disappear, and it’s only a matter of time before they discover the real murderer. With a script superbly crafted by Jerome Bixby (who wrote a few Star Trek and Twilight Zone episodes) and a good ensemble cast headed by Thompson and veteran character actor Dabbs Greer, the movie actually convinces us in its own little way of its plausibility. Even Z–movie veteran director Edward L. Cahn manages to stay out of his own way and let the action flow. And, as every film buff knows by now, screenwriter Dan O’Bannon lifted the movie’s main premise for Ridley Scott’s sci-fi blockbuster, Alien. By the way, the wonderful costume worn by veteran stuntman Ray “Crash” Corrigan was designed by B-movie veteran Paul Blaisdell, whose inspired creations have been seen in quite a few Roger Corman films, including It Conquered the World, The She Creature, and The Day the World Ended. A side note: besides writing the script, Bixby also served as an uncredited set designer on the film.
March 11: Those of us who spent out formative years in the 50s glued to the idiot box will always remember watching The Lone Ranger. In world where we were too young to appreciate the High Art the medium was trying to impart to us via such shows as Playhouse 90 and The U.S. Steel Hour, not to mention the scary-looking Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, our preferred viewing was much more simple. Westerns were always a favorite, for, unlike the crime shows our parents seemed to prefer, the Western told a basic story without embellishment. The Good Guys were unmistakably Good and the Bad Guys totally without redemption. Besides, the stories were set so long ago that, unlike crime stories, there was no way whatsoever we’d actually run into these sorts in real life. There were Westerns geared for our parents, but we didn’t watch these. They had girls, and the romance got in the way of the shoot-em-outs.
Of all the Westerns I uncritically digested as a kid, one in particular stands out: The Lone Ranger. Now there was a guy you could trust, even though he wore a mask. After all, Tonto trusted him, didn’t he? And Tonto wouldn’t just trust anyone. So when that very special day came when The Lone Ranger brought his talents to the big screen (for Warner Brothers), we banded together and were schlepped by one of the mothers in her dodge station wagon to a theater in the next town, bringing cash for the ticket and necessaries such as popcorn, soda, and the ever popular spearmint leaves. I always get a thrill when TCM shows, as they are doing on this day at 6:30 am, which means that I’m going to record it. The plot of The Lone Ranger is merely an extended television show: a wealthy evil rancher/developer Reece Kilgore (Lyle Bettiger) is starting trouble between the Natives and the Whites. His goal is to gain control of nearby Spirit Mountain, sacred to the Natives, but loaded with enough silver to enable Kilgore to become even wealthier and spend half his time on the beach in Florida. For those of us that fondly remember the television show, this movie always comes as a welcome treat.