A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
TCM is taking a different approach with its “Star of the Month” by making it into a John Wayne marathon of sorts. It begins on April 21 and ends on April 26. I don't know why they're taking this approach for they did not do this before and they are not repeating it in May (June Allyson) or June (Rock Hudson). But maybe we should just sit back and enjoy this All-Wayne-All-Of-The-Time film fest.
STAR OF THE MONTH – JOHN WAYNE
April 21: Tune in for Duke at 8 pm in his first starring role. He plays a young mountaineer leading hundreds of settlers on a journey from Missouri to California in Raoul Walsh’s epic Western, The Big Trail (Fox, 1930). Although the Duke was fine, the movie bombed at the box office. As this was the Depression, this was tantamount to a death sentence for the actors involved, especially Wayne. It didn’t matter if one could act or not, but a star has to bring in the green, otherwise he or she is washed up quickly. And this is exactly what happened with Wayne. He went on to years of starring roles in cheap B-Westerns and serials and minor supporting roles in other films. It wasn’t until John Ford’s Stagecoach in 1939 that Wayne was able to see career daylight. Fair treatment? No, but that was the economics of the business. Film fans, especially Western fans, should tune in to this underrated gem.
At 10:30 pm comes New Frontier, a 1939 production from Republic made after Wayne wrapped on Stagecoach. This film is interesting because it was the final time Wayne appeared as Stony Brooke in the Three Mesquiteers series. The series originally started in 1935 with The Three Mesquiteers, about a trio of World War I buddies who go west to farmstead but find nothing but trouble. The original cast was Ray Corrigan as Tuscon Smith, Robert Livingston as Stony Brooke, and Sid Saylor as Lullaby Joslin. Terhune replaced Saylor in the sequel, Ghost-Town Gold, in 1936. Livingston left the series for a while in 1938 because of personality conflicts with Corrigan, and Wayne took the role of Brooke beginning with Pals of the Saddle (1938). He played Brooke in seven more films in 1938-39, three more after Stagecoach in fulfillment of his contract. Like his predecessor, Livingston, Wayne also had a personality crash with Corrigan, who made sure Wayne’s time as Brooke was a miserable one. Added to the fact that he had three more to make after his critical and popular plash as The Ringo Kid only made matters worse.
Haunted Gold, one of the quickies Wayne churned out for Warner Brothers, comes on at midnight. An otherwise uneventful film, but look for the statue of the original Maltese Falcon sitting on the piano of heroine Sheila Terry. Also look for Wayne’s horse, named Duke.
The only other catch for the night is seeing Wayne as an office worker seduced by Barbara Stanwyck in the notorious 1933 drama, Baby Face. Look carefully, however, for Wayne is not given much screen time.
April 22: An entire day of Wayne films kicks off with The Life of Jimmy Dolan (WB, 1933). Wayne has a bit part as a boxer. This is followed by a load of B-Westerns Wayne made for Warners and Monogram. The best of the bunch are Randy Rides Alone (Great title!) at 1:30 pm, followed by The Star Packer at 2:45 pm. At 8:00 pm, the Grade-A films come out, beginning with Stagecoach. Then it’s the sublime The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (10:00), Fort Apache (12:15 am), and The Searchers (2:30 am). The evening wraps with an underrated film from John Ford that features an excellent performance from Wayne, The Long Voyage Home (4:45 am).
April 23: The Wayne marathon continues with 3 Godfathers (6:45 am), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (8:45), and Rio Grande (10:45). At 12:30 pm, it’s the heralded The Quiet Man from 1952. Beginning at 8 pm, it’s “John Wayne Goes to War.” We begin with the excellent They Were Expendable (1945), followed by Operation Pacific (10:45), The Fighting Seabees at 1:00 am (See if you can count how many Japanese Wayne kills single-handedly), Back to Bataan at 3:00, and The Green Berets at 4:45 am, with George Takei.
April 24: The day begins with more war films starring Wayne. The best of the bunch are Flying Tigers at 9:15 am, and Cast a Giant Shadow, a 1966 film about the founding of Israel with an all-star cast, at 3:15 pm. In the evening, it’s a mixed genre bag with Howard Hawks’ 1948 masterpiece, Red River, leading off. The best of the rest are Reap the Wild Wind (12:45 am) from 1942 with Wayne as a sailor chasing both pirates and Paulette Goddard; and The Spoilers (3:15 am) with Wayne and Randolph Scott fighting for the affections of saloon singer Marlene Dietrich.
April 25: Yet more Wayne, beginning with Tall in the Saddle (RKO, 1944) at 6:15 am. Also of interest in the afternoon are Trouble Along the Way (1:45) with Wayne as a hard-driving football coach, Big Jim McLain, a 1952 opus that finds Wayne and Jim Arness fighting Commies in Hawaii, and the 1958 Howard Hawks Western, Rio Bravo (5:15) with Dean Marin and Angie Dickinson. The evening starts at 8:00 with North to Alaska, with Wayne and Stewart Granger as prospectors having to deal with con man Ernie Kovacs. At 10:15 it’s McClintock!, starring Wayne and Maureen O’Hara as a battling married couple in the West. At 12:45 am, it’s Wayne’s swan song, The Shootist, from 1976. He plays a dying gunman trying to get his affairs in order. The evening then rounds out with 1965’s The Sons of Katie Elder (2:30 am), and at 4:45 am, the epic The Greatest Story Ever Told, also from 1965.
April 26: The Wayne-a-Thon finally comes to an end with 1971’s Big Jake showing at 8:15 am.
TCM salutes MGM’s 90th anniversary on April 17 and 18 with such fare as the Garbo-Gilbert silent steamer, Flesh and the Devil from 1926 (April 17, 8:00 pm),Grand Hotel (April 17, 10:00 pm), the original Mutiny on the Bounty (April 17, midnight), Ninotchka (April 17, 2:15 am), The Band Wagon (April 18, 9:00 am), North by Northwest (April 18, 11:00 am), The Postman Always Rings Twice with John Garfield and Lana Turner (April 18, 10:00 pm), and Singin’ In The Rain (midnight).
OUT OF THE ORDINARY
April 20: Tune in at midnight for a double header of Fritz Lang’s silent spy thriller, Spione (1928), followed by Max Ophuls’ 1955 drama, Lola Montes.
Spione, or Spies was inspired by a real life story about Scotland Yard’s uncovering of a Soviet spy ring working in London under the cover of being a trade delegation. But when Lang and his wife, Thea von Harbou, get through with it, Spione becomes something more akin to a pulp thriller: financial mastermind Haghi (Rudolph Klein-Rogge) runs a international espionage network under the cover of a bank. In fact, his headquarters is under the bank’s foundation. A master of disguise, he controls a vast surveillance network used to steal state secrets. His top operative is the beautiful Sonia (Gerda Maurus). Opposing them are rival agent Doctor Masimoto (Lupu Pick) and the heroic Agent 326 (Willy Fritsch), who falls in love with Sonia while trying to stop Haghi. It contains all the familiar Lang tricks and turns and will thrill all Lang’s fans. Even for those who usually bypass silents, this is still fun to watch.
In Lola Montes, director Ophuls picks up the story of the celebrated courtesan after her days of adventure have passed and she is reduced to being a featured attraction in a circus. It was the only color movie that Ophuls directed and was the last of his career. Panned by critics upon its release, it came to the attention of the French New Wave directors and critics who celebrated Ophuls’ themes about how male-dominated society destroys women and the paths they try to pursue to independence and happiness. Ophuls said in interviews that his inspiration for the film came from seeing how celebrities Judy Garland and Zsa Zsa Gabor were treated by society after being caught in affairs. It’s a lushly filmed saga with the colors popping out right at us, but more than that, it’s a thoughtful piece that will make the viewer reflect after it ends. As Francois Truffaut observed, “there are films that demand undivided attention. Lola Montes is one of them.”
April 27: It’s a double feature from Finnish director Ari Kaurismaki, beginning with The Match Factory Girl at 2:00 am. It’s the third film in Kaurismaki’s “Proletariat Trilogy,” after Shadows in Paradise (1986), about a garbageman, and Ariel (1988) about an unemployed miner. This time the subject is Iris, a young woman who toils on a factory assembly line. After work she returns to a tiny apartment, where she lives with her uncaring mother and stepfather. It’s a roof over her head, but nothing more, as she turns over her wages, does the cooking and cleaning, and sleeps on the sofa. Looking for any kind of affection, she frequents a dance hall, where she meets and sleeps with a man, with whom she falls in love. But she means nothing to him, which proves to have rather disastrous consequences. Rejected, depressed, her life a mess, Iris wakes up and decides to gain revenge on those who wronged her. But the style of the director keeps this from lapsing into a wallowing in depression. His method of following each helping of misery with another gives the film a veneer of black comedy, and we find ourselves rooting for Iris to exact her revenge.
The Match Factory Girl is followed at 3:15 am by Kaurismaki’s second film in the “Proletariat Trilogy,” Ariel. It’s the story of Taisto Kasurinen, a Finnish coal miner thrown out of work when the mine is closed and shuttered. He meets his father afterwards in a coffee house. Dad tells him how much life stinks, then retreats to the restroom and blows his brains out. Taisto cleans out his bank account of 8,000 marks, but loses the money to a pair of muggers. Needing money, he then becomes a dockworker, working intermittently. He meets Irmeli, a divorced woman with a son and falls in love. As he finds work is not forthcoming, he sells his car, and as he walks out with his money he spots one of the men who robbed him. The man pulls a knife and Taisto kills him in self-defense, but instead he is framed as the criminal and sentenced to prison. He quickly befriends his cellmate, Mikkonen, and when Irmeli visits him one day he proposes marriage, to which she accepts. He and Mikkonen break out of prison, he marries Irmeli, and after a series of escapades during which Mikkonen is shot and killed, Taisto and Irmeli finally make it to the ship that will take them to Mexico – the Ariel. Again, it’s the director’s method of staging each scene and setback that turns the film from a mere depression-filled melodrama into a black comedy. It’s definitely worth a peek.
April 28: Looking for a nice little change of pace? Then say no more and tune in at 3:30 pm to Night Flight, an MGM drama from 1933 starring John Barrymore as A. Riviere, a man who runs his air freight company with an iron hand, driving his pilots harder and harder and clashing with his easygoing inspector, Robineau (Lionel Barrymore). The movie’s plot is concerned with a desperately ill child in Rio de Janeiro who needs medicine from Santiago, Chile, ASAP. Robert Montgomery is the pilot that takes the serum from Chile to Buenos Aires, Argentina, flying through rough weather, only to be fined by Riviere for arriving late. From there, pilot William Gargan flies the serum to Rio over the protests of wife Myrna Loy, who fears that he won’t get to Rio alive. In the meantime, there’s a subplot with pilot Clark Gable flying from the southern tip of Chile to Rio in stormy night weather as wife Helen Hayes worries. It’s an interesting little picture that was suddenly vaulted by the studio in 1942, remaining there until TCM and Warners Home Video came to the rescue.
PSYCHOTRONICA & THE B-HIVE
To paraphrase Spencer Tracy from Pat and Mike, “there’s not much there, but what’s there is cherce.”
April 19: We begin with one of the few good films to come from hack director Otto Preminger, Laura, which airs at 8:00 pm. Dana Andrews is in excellent form as a detective investigating the murder of Gene Tierney, who casts a spell over everyone she meets, including Andrews. It’s a delightful Whodunit filled with plot twists, including the ultimate twist just when Andrews thinks he’s solved the mystery. Clifton Webb is memorable as the acerbic critic Waldo Lydecker and won the Oscar for his performance. Judith Anderson is fine as Laura’s wealthy, scheming aunt, Ann Treadwell, as is Vincent Price, who plays Laura’s oily parasite of a fiancée, Shelby Carpenter. For those who want to see just how good Price could be, especially in a non-horror role, tune in and find out. Laura was originally slated as a B-film, but the favorable reaction was so great that it began playing as the featured attraction and made Preminger, who won the Oscar as Best Director for the film, one of the hottest directors in Hollywood.
At 2:00 am comes one of the great-demented horrors from Italian director Mario Bava, Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970). Stephen Forsyth stars as a bridal shop owner stuck in a loveless marriage to wife Laura Betti, who is obsessed with the occult. However, he’s also bothered no end by a childhood trauma that he can only recall in tiny, disjointed fragments. He discovers that each time he kills one of his female clients (with a hatchet) after she ties the knot, more of his puzzle becomes clear to him. He finally gets around to killing his wife, burying her in the hothouse garden, but she proves to be a hard person to get rid of in a most supernatural manner. The performance of Betti, one of Italy’s most distinguished actresses, makes this one to catch. Also keep your ears peeled for the soundtrack by Sante Maria Romitelli.
We then go from the sublime to the boring as TCM airs Roger Corman’s fangless horror film, The Terror, with Jack Nicholson as a French soldier in the Napoleonic Era who is separated from his regiment and through a series of misfortunate events, ends up at the castle of Boris Karloff. Jack is looking for this mysterious woman named Helene (Sandra Knight) who has loved and left him. He has trailed her to Karloff’s castle, but Karloff claims there is no woman inside. Nicholson enters and looks for her while Karloff continues acting mysterious. It has a great Gothic atmosphere, but makes no sense whatsoever. For Corman completists only.
April 21: Before the John Wayne marathon begins that night, TCM devoted the morning and afternoon to teen moves from the ‘60s, especially the “Beach Party” series starring Frankie and Annette. Yeah, they’re stupid. Yeah, they’re badly acted and have low production values. BUT – they are fun to watch, nonetheless, because try as one might, it’s impossible to take these films seriously. As to “best” of the bunch, they are as follows: Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine(AIP, 1965) at 6 am, with Vincent Price as a mad scientist out to ensnare the fortunes of the world’s wealthiest men using bikini-clad beautiful robots and Frankie Avalon as the secret agent who foils his plan. At 12:45 pm, it’s Bikini Beach, as Frankie faces competition from British rock star The Potato Bug (also played by Avalon). How bad is it? Let me quote critic Michael Weldon: “He (Avalon) had trouble with one role, let alone two. His Bug portrayal, complete with long wig and ‘yeah-yeahs,’ is really embarrassing.” In other words: great entertainment for those hooked on bad movies.
April 26: We go from the ridiculous to the sublime beginning at 2:00 am with The Candy Snatchers (1973), a totally wretched, sleazy, and lurid piece of celluloid utterly lacking any quality. It’s about the abduction of 19-year old Candy (Susan Sennet) by a trio of kidnapers (Tiffany Bolling, Brad David and Vince Martorano) who bind and gag her, then bury her alive in a grave supplied only with an air pipe as they demand ransom from her stepfather, the owner of a jewelry store. But Pops has other plans and could care less. The key to her freedom is in the hands of a small, mute, autistic boy who has witnessed the kidnapping. Now, if he could only communicate with the adults and refrain from dropping snacks down the air pipe, everything might just work out.
Bolling, a former Playboy model, has called this movie “the worst film in the history of the world,” and said she only did it because she needed work and was on cocaine at the time and unable to form good judgments. Yeah . . . Okay.
The sublime comes to us at 3:45 am in the form of Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964). It’s a fine tale, directed by Brian Forbes, about a self-styled medium (Kim Stanley) who kidnaps a child so she can help police solve the crime. Although may of the scenes could be shortened or deleted to strengthen the film, the main reason to watch is the performances of Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough as her weak-willed husband. The two are well supported by Judith Donner as the kidnapped child and Nanette Newman as the distraught mother. It’s definitely one to watch.
April 30: Let’s wind up the month on a high note with one of director Fritz Lang’s best thrillers, Man Hunt (1941) which airs at 10:00 pm. Walter Pidgeon is perfect as Captain Alan Thorndyke, a big game hunter who infiltrates Hitler’s Berchtesgarden retreat and gets the Fuehrer in his sights before being stopped by the Gestapo. Brought before Gestapo Major Quive-Smith (George Sanders), Thorndyke tells him that he never intended to shoot, but his pleas hit deaf ears. Instead he is given a confession to sign that says he was an agent of the British government. He refuses to sign and is tortured, but when he continues to refuse to sign, Quive-Smith arranges for him to be thrown off a cliff, in order that it looks like an accident, but Thorndyke falls into a river and survives. He eludes the Gestapo and makes it to England, but they are in close pursuit. He manages to evade them with the help of a young Cockney woman, Jenny Stokes (Joan Bennett). It’s touch and go with the Nazis until the final scenes, as Lang keeps the pressure up, helped by the sublime villainy of Sanders. For those who haven’t yet seen this one, by all means watch. You will not be disappointed.