A Guide to the interesting and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
STAR OF THE MONTH – MARY ASTOR
TCM has some excellent movies lined up with Mary Astor for the last two weeks in March. All in all, TCM is showing 55 of her movies. According to IMDb, Astor had 156 film and television credits stretching back to 1920.
March 19: Any lingering doubts that Mary Astor could not pull off a comedy should be completely dispelled with her performance in Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story (8:00 pm). Astor is the delightfully dizzy, man-hungry millionaire, Princess Centimillia, whose bumbling brother, J.D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee), is the target of Jerry Jeffers (Claudette Clobert). She plans to divorce her poor inventor husband, Tom (Joel McCrea), marry J.D., and use his money to finance her ex-husband. It’s one of Sturges’ best, although Astor herself was not that taken with it, according to her autobiography.
At 9:45 comes an interesting little film, The Lost Squadron. From RKO, it about former World War I flying aces (Richard Dix and Robert Armstrong) seeking work in movies as stuntmen. Erich Von Stroheim, however, steals the film as a sadistic director in a performance that verges on self-parody. Astor plays his wife, and the crap really hits the fan when Von Stroheim learns she’s still in love with one of the pilots.
Fast forward to 11:15 pm and we find Astor in one of her best films from the early ‘30s: The Kennel Murder Case. In this excellent Whodunit with William Powell as Philo Vance investigating a murder ties to a swank long Island Dog show, Astor provides fine support as Hilda Lake, the niece of murder victim Archer Coe (Robert Barrat). She joins a long list of suspects who had good reason to kill Coe and has several nice scenes with Powell.
March 20: In the spillover of Astor films to the next day, the pick of the litter is The Little Giant at 7:45 am. This 1933 comedy from Warner Bros. stars Edward G. Robinson as James Francis “Bugs” Ahern, a bootlegger whose attempts to crash high society after Prohibition ends are thwarted by his gangster origins. Mary is Ruth Wayburn, a real estate agent who rents a mansion to Bugs and becomes his secretary and adviser. “Bugs” is in love with socialite Polly Cass (Helen Vinson), but as the film progresses, he comes to realize that things are not what they seem. There is a superficial resemblance to Robinson’s later bootlegger-gone-straight comedy, A Slight Case of Murder (1938), but the latter is more of a “the slobs meet the snobs” plot and is played for broader laughs. By the way, look for a couple of scenes where things on the set begin to shake. That’s because the Los Angeles Earthquake of 1932 struck while The Little Giantwas being filmed.
March 26: At 8:00 pm comes Astor as Marmee in MGM’s 1949 remake of Little Women, starring June Allyson, who, by the way, will be the Star of the Month for May. At 10:15 pm she plays the mother of Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien in the totally delightful MGM classic about an America that never existed: Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). Following at 12:30 am is her supporting turn as one of Clark Gable’s lovers in 1932’s Red Dust. For those who haven’t yet seen this one, record it! I also recommend the DVD version – it’s a keeper no matter how you look at it. Another film worth the time is Men of Chance, from RKO in 1932. It airs at the late hour of 2:00 am, but is a fascinating movie to watch. A star’s early efforts are always interesting, and Astor is setting the template in this film for later performances; the self-possessed woman, classy on the outside, but inside a cauldron of larcenous past actions. Simply put – give the “Men” a chance. Finally, there’s the royal comedy, The Royal Bed (RKO, 1931), a film Astor almost didn’t get a chance to make, for a failed sound test put her on the unemployment line. A role in a prominent Broadway production roused her spirit, only to be told of the death of her husband, Kenneth Hawks (brother of Howard), who died in January 1930 in a stunt accident while on a film location. Her grief, coupled with exhaustion, resulted in a form of tuberculosis made even worse by the effects of malnutrition. After taking a cure, she passed a subsequent sound test and began freelancing at Paramount and Warner Brothers, acting in any role as long as there was a paycheck attached. The Royal Bed is one of those films, but Astor is interesting nevertheless. It’s definitely worth a look if only to study Astor’s emotional state during this period, a state that no amount of acting can truly cover up, and a state of mind that later led to a prolonged battle with the bottle.
March 27: Because Astor made so many films, there’s a 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 16: In the afternoon is playing one of Preston Sturges’ best movies: Hail the Conquering Hero (12:00 pm). From Paramount in 1944, it’s the hilarious story of Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (Eddie Bracken), a sickly son of a Marine hero who could never live up to the image of his heroic father. He enlists in the Marines, but is sent home because of chronic hay fever. Bracken becomes so distraught that he decides not to return home, finding employment in a shipyard. He sends letters home so his mother and girlfriend will still believe he’s overseas fighting. One day, while nursing a drink in a local bar, he runs into some Marines who just returned from Guadalcanal. He spills the sad story of his life to them, and they decide to help by making him into a war hero sent home not from hay fever, but from jungle fever. He returns to his hometown a war hero and finds that he can’t escape from that role. It’s yet another of Sturges’ brilliant satires on the current world and all its foibles. Though he takes on a familiar target to him in the small-town politician, he also adds thoughtless hero-worship and the knee-jerk worship of Motherhood. Well acted by the Sturges stock company, it was the eighth – and last – picture Sturges would make for Paramount, capping off a wonderful series of satires that began in 1940 with the vastly underrated The Great McGinty.
By all means set your alarm clocks or recorders for 2:00 am. Showing at this incredible hour is a real rarity; a film you’ve probably never seen and one that I can definitely say did not play at the local theater. The film is called Without Pity. Directed by Alberto Lattuada and boasting a screenplay by none other than Federico Fellini, it’s the arresting story of the relationship between Angela (Carla Del Poggio), a local Italian girl, and Jerry (John Kitzmiller), an African-American G.I., during the later days of World War II. I do not believe it has ever been released on videotape or DVD, and the closest I came to it was reading about it during my college days in an essay on Fellini’s time as a screenwriter. I’ve been yearning to see it ever since. Also look for the great Giulietta Masina as one of Angela’s friends.
At 3:45 am follows a 1944 Neorealist film directed and co-written by Vittorio DeSica, The Children Are Watching Us. This is a touching and moving film about the breakup of a marriage due to adultery on the part of the wife as told from her son’s point of view. As with The Bicycle Thief (which airs on March 30, at 2:00 am, naturally), Umberto D, and Two Women, the only people that would fail to be moved by this film are those that are dead.
March 18: Among the films we can cast today as Interesting Failures is Joseph Losey’s The Boy With Green Hair (9:00 am). Losey directed this gentle anti-war fable about a war orphan (Dean Stockwell) who awakens one day to find his hair has turned bright green. He becomes the joke of his small town, with the locals urging him to shave his head. He runs away, but returns because of dreams in which he is urged by other war orphans to return to town and make everyone aware of what can happen when little differences blow up into armed conflagrations. Unfortunately for Losey he happened to make this film for RKO, which was run by super-reactionary Howard Hughes. Hughes hated the pacifist message in the film and did his best to neuter it. Honestly speaking, though, the film is too over the top and the message too obvious to be truly effective. But it is interesting viewing nonetheless.
March 20: Speaking of Howard Hughes, TCM is showing his 1930 aerial epic, Hell’s Angels, at 2:00 am. (Why are the most interesting films always being shown on the graveyard shift?) The film is concerned with the adventures of two brothers in World War I (Ben Lyon and James Hall) who, when not occupied fighting the Germans in aerial duels, are fighting each other for the charms of local English muffin Jean Harlow. The film was the teenaged Harlow’s big break on the silver screen (it was her 19th appearance in a film), and her line, “Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?” became one of the catch phrases of the day, and brought the platinum blonde even more attention despite her atrociously wooden acting at the time. Although Hughes tried to glom the directing credit, Edmund Goulding helmed the flying sequences and James Whale directed the dramatic scenes. Reportedly Whale was so disconcerted by Harlow’s non-acting that, despite all his efforts to teach her, he wound up resorting to bringing a flask filled with cognac to the set each day and slowly anesthetizing the pain with it.
March 21: The Friday Night Spotlight on “Food in the Movies” grows discernibly weaker tonight, with food being only a periphery instead of the main event: Oliver, The Gold Rush, The Loved One, Cool Hand Luke, and the Adventures of Robin Hood have dining scenes, but cannot be said to be about food. Looks like the programmers are really reaching here.
March 23: The superlative Italian film, Il Posto, is being shown during the graveyard shift (naturally), at 4:00 am. Directed by Ermanno Olmi, this is a clever and perceptive satire about how the corporate world crushes the hopes and ambitions of those that work in it. Domenico Cantoni (Sandro Panseri), the eldest son of a working-class family living outside Milan, has the chance of a lifetime: to work for one of Italy’s major corporations. After taking a battery of surreal tests, he wins a job and becomes a cog in the machine. He even meets a girl, Antonietta (Loredana Detto), at the factory. They strike a spark and have coffee during lunch, but that’s it, as they are assigned to different sections and never have a chance to get together. Watch for the final scene when a worker dies and his desk goes up for grabs. It’s all too real.
March 28: Looking for a film rarely seen? May I recommend John Gilbert in the 1931 MGM crime drama, Gentleman’s Fate, which is airing at 5:45 p.m. (What, the afternoon?) Gilbert is Jack Thomas, a man of leisure who learns he is not the orphan of a wealthy society scion, but actually the son of dying gangster and bootlegger Francesco Tomasulo, whose money financed his lifestyle. Of course, he learns all this barely a month before his upcoming marriage to socialite Marjorie Channing (Leila Hyams). He also meets a brother, Frank (Louis Wolheim) he never knew he had, and after the marriage to Marjorie predictably goes south, Jack fully embraces the gangster life. Gilbert is excellent, as is Wolheim as his resentful older brother. Gilbert’s sound films are a whole ‘nother world entirely, and as such are definitely worth the viewing investment.
The final Friday Night Spotlight offerings for “Food in the Movies” partially redeem TCM from the travesty that was the week prior. We begin at 8:00 pm, with Babette’s Feast from 1987. I could present a review of the plot here, but David previously featured this film as one of his best bets for February 1-8, so I shall reprint his recap below. Why guild the lily?
This 1987 Danish movie (and the Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film) is one you shouldn't miss. It's a special film about loyalty, passion, faith, sacrifice and love. The title character moves to a small village and lives there for 14 years as the cook of two elderly sisters who had found true love decades earlier, but didn't marry because their father, the leader of a religious sect, didn't approve. The sisters and the rest of the village become very fond of Babette, and she feels the same. She wins 10,000 francs in a French lottery. Rather than take the money and return home, she spends it on an extravagant feast for the sisters, their lost loves and others in the village. The story is beautiful, the acting is exceptionally strong, and the message is powerful.
Following this at 10:00 is a truly exceptional film. The fact that Steve Herte has not seen this always amazes me, for it was surely made with him in mind. It’s Big Night, a wonderfully offbeat film from co-directors Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci about two brothers from Italy, Primo (Tony Shaloub) and Secondo (Tucci) who have opened an Italian restaurant, named Paradise, on the Jersey Shore during the ‘50s. The restaurant is failing, in large part to Primo’s insistence on authentic cuisine. The other Italian eatery in the area is wildly successful, featuring dishes more suited to the American palette, such as spaghetti and meatballs, while Primo insists on serving risotto, which was something of an exotic dish back then. They have a chance to gamble everything on big night (hence the title) to save the business. It’s quite an endearing look about the culture clash between Old World Italy and ‘50s America. Minnie Driver, Isabella Rossellini, Liev Schreiber, Ian Holm, and Alison Janney supply able support, and make the film even better.
For the other films featured with the theme on this night, skip below to the “Psychotronica” section.
March 29: At 2:00 a.m., TCM reaches out to the roots of independent film and screens the documentary Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film. Following is a series of shorts made from 1919 to 1972 by such names as Viking Eggling (Diagonal Symphony), the wife/husband team of Myra Deren and Alexander Hammid (Meshes of the Afternoon), Ken Jacobs (Orchard Street), Hans Richter (Ghosts Before Breakfast), and Arthur Swerdloff (Gang Boy). As one who has seen several of the shorts featured, I can vouch for their unique perspectives on life and film itself. It’s worth the time and effort to record and watch at leisure.
March 22: A double-header of the boring Zardoz (1974) at 2:00 am, followed by the incredible The Green Slime (1969) at 3:45. Zardoz is so pretentious and boring, directed by John Boorman (Correct pronunciation here – Bore-man), that not even the combined talents of Sean Connery and Charlotte Rampling can save it. On the other hand, The Green Slime is unremittingly and unintentionally hilarious. Read the article about it on TCM.com; it’s almost as hilarious as the film itself, with the author trying to sell us on the “importance” of the film. He notes that it was the first co-production with a Japanese crew and a Western cast, and that it’s director, Kinji Fukasasu, was a favorite of Quentin Tarantino; Tarantino having dedicated Kill Bill, Vol. 1 to him. So far, okay, but when our author gives out with sentences such as: “From idiosyncratic movies like the film noir-like Black Lizard (1968), starring transvestite actor Akihiro Maruyama, to a downbeat tale of youthful rebellion, If You Were Young: Rage (1970), to the Sam Peckinpah-inspired violence of Sympathy for the Underdog (1971), Fukasaku's empathy for characters living on the margins of society is obvious and so is his interest in exploring apocalyptic culture and survivalist scenarios. In this context, even the anarchic, rampaging monsters of The Green Slime achieve a greater significance in Fukasaku's filmography,” we firmly begin to suspect that he’s been smoking something really good. All I can say is this: try to watch it without laughing, especially at what are possibly the goofiest monsters in film history.
March 28: After going through their stock of serious themed movies, TCM finishes it’s Friday night Spotlight on “Food in the Movies” with a Psychotronic triplex. At 10:00 pm, viewers can see cast members chow down on people crackers in Soylent Green (1973), people themselves in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), and finally, Bette Davis serves Joan Crawford a meal she’ll never forget in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962).
March 29: At 10:00, TCM is airing Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963). It’s plot of ambitious reporter Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) having his stripper girlfriend (Constance Towers) pose as his sister and commit him to asylum so he can investigate a murder committed there, was savaged by critics at the time. But it has aged with time into a classic of its kind. The question that haunts the viewer throughout the film is just how long can Barrett hold up until he really requires mental help? Highly recommended.