By Ed Garea
STAR OF THE MONTH
Our Star of the month for May is June Allyson. She was one of MGM’s most popular and busiest actors. When a star has run his or her course, studios usually look for someone in that star’s image as a replacement. My line of thought as it concerns June Allyson is that she was MGM’s replacement for Margaret Sullavan, who had left MGM in 1943, the same year Allyson started with the studio. Allyson bears a slight resemblance to Sullavan and shares that husky voice.
May 7: TCM kicks off the celebration with two films worth seeing. These also happen to feature her best co-star, Jimmy Stewart. First up at 8 pm is The Glenn Miller Story (1954) with Stewart as the popular late bandleader and Allyson as his supportive wife. Then, at 10 pm, comes an above-average baseball movie, The Stratton Story (1949) with Stewart as the pitcher who refused to let the loss of a leg in a hunting accident deter his pitching career. Allyson again plays the supportive wife - a role she played frequently.
May 14: Catch June at 8 pm in MGM’s remake of Little Women (1949). It’s the usual MGM gloss, but Allyson is far less annoying as Jo March than Katharine Hepburn was in the 1933 original for RKO. Then get the recorder ready, for at 2 am is an interesting little comedy from 1950 she made with real-life husband Dick Powell, The Reformer and the Redhead. Powell is a lawyer running for mayor who finds himself enlisted by zookeeper Allyson to help her father, who has lost his job because of politics. Powell goes after the corrupt incumbent, but almost loses Allyson when she begins to suspect that the only reason he’s involved with her is for political gain. But all is saved when Powell makes friends with one of Allyson’s favorite charges, a lion named Herman.
FRIDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT
The Friday Night Spotlight for May is devoted to Australian cinema, or rather, the best of Australian cinema.
May 2: Two of the best films about war will be shown this night, beginning with Breaker Morant (1980) at 8 pm. Based on an actual incident in the Boer War, Edward Woodward is Lt. Harry “Breaker” Morant, who along with two other Australian soldiers, is court-martialed for executing enemy prisoners during the Boer War. However, they are merely serving as scapegoats, for it was covert British policy to execute Boer (Dutch settlers) prisoners. When the killings became world news the English were afraid the Germans would use this as an excuse to become involved on the side of the Boers. This is an intelligent film boasting a standout performance by Woodward.
At 10 pm follows another classic, Gallipoli (1981), Peter Weir’s film about one of the most disastrous defeats by the allies in World War I. The film focuses on two men, Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee) and Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson), who enlist in the Australian army and are deployed, along with other Australian and New Zealand troops, as part of a poorly planned and coordinated invasion of Ottoman Turkey, landing on the Gallipoli Peninsula, where, in the face of difficult terrain and poor naval support, they became little more than cannon fodder for the Turkish defenders. The campaign, by the way, was planned by none other than Winston Churchill, not one of his finest hours. This was the lone film produced by Associated R&R Films, co-owned by Robert Stigwood (a music legend who managed Cream and the Bee Gees) and media mogul Rupert Murdoch four years before he bought Fox.
At midnight is a rare screening of an early Mel Gibson film (his third), Tim, from 1979. Based on a novel by Australian writer Colleen McCollough, Gibson plays a 23-year-old mentally handicapped man who takes a job doing gardening work for 40-year-old American businesswoman Piper Laurie. The relationship blossoms into friendship, then love. I found it somewhat akin to the 1955 Douglas Sirk film, All That Heaven Allows, another May-December romance with Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman.
Lastly, at 2 am, is the film that put Gibson on the road to stardom: Mad Max. This 1979 post-apocalyptic tale of a cop who seeks revenge on the bikers that killed his family, was a box office hit in Australia and gained a strong cult following in America. I’m only glad I saw the sequel, The Road Warrior (1981), before I saw this. Otherwise I never would have shelled out the money to see the sequel. While The Road Warrior is wild roller-coaster thrill ride, Mad Max moves at a snail’s pace, and I found it difficult to connect with the film. But one cannot fully appreciate the sequel without seeing the original, so I recommend Mad Max.
May 9: The best bets for the night begin with Peter Weir’s compelling Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) at 8 pm, a great open-ended mystery about the disappearance of several students and their math teacher while at a picnic. What makes this one different is the ambiguity; it’s not just another cut-and-dried mystery where everything is solved at the end, and because of that, it’s recommended viewing.
Later, at the wee hour of 1:45 am comes Nicholas Roeg’s 1971 gem, Walkabout. Jenny Agutter and Lucien John are a brother and sister abandoned by their father at a picnic and become lost in the Australian wilderness. David Gumpilil is the Aborigine boy who helps them survive. While Roeg went on to direct two of the most notable films of the ‘70s, Don’t Look Now (1973) and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), this early effort seemed to have fallen through the cracks before being discovered after a belated video release in 2000. It’s one of the best films made in 1971 and one of the most beautifully shot.
OUT OF THE ORDINARY
May 4: A nice double feature from Czechoslovakia is being featured, albeit at the late hour of 2 am. First up is Intimate Lighting, a 1969 production from director Ivan Passer (Cutter’s Way, Stalin). This was his first feature film (he wrote Loves of a Blonde and The Fireman’s Ball) and is a simple tale of two old friends that haven’t seen each other for about 10 years. Both are musicians: Peter (Zdenek Bezusek) is an accomplished cellist in town to give a concert. His old friend from music school, Bambas (Karel Blazek), lives in town and plays trumpet at local funerals besides directing the local conservatory. It’s a charming look at the urban point-of-view as opposed to the rural and the human condition in general. There are few films I would designate as a “must see,” but this is one of them.
Following right after is another gem, Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos’ The Shop on Main Street (4 am), a bittersweet tale of the unlikely friendship formed between a Czech carpenter and a Jewish shopkeeper during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. Tono the carpenter (Jozef Kroner) lacks ambition, and Rozalie the shopkeeper (Ida Kamisnka) is virtually deaf and oblivious to the fact that a war is going on. Tono is hired by Rozalie’s friends to give her an Aryan partner and forestall her being sent off to a camp. The warm friendship they develop is put to the test when the Nazis decree that all Jews are to be rounded up and shipped to concentration camps. Tono’s reaction when he realizes the depth of this pronouncement, is shocking, to say the least. Adding to the films is the real-life experience of co-director Kadar, whose studies at Czechoslovakia’s Bratislava Film School ended when he was sent to a forced labor camp.
May 7: Gary Cooper’s birthday. TCM celebrates it with a morning and afternoon of Cooper's films. If I had to pick two of the films to watch, I’d start with A Farewell to Arms (1932) at 6:15 am and later watch William Wyler’s delightful The Westerner (1940) at 11: 15 am, even though - or because - Walter Brennan steals the film as Judge Roy Bean.
May 8: In the wee hours of the morning, when folks are beginning to arise and Dracula is going to bed (4:30 am), TCM is airing Marat/Sade: The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade (1967). The film is based on Peter Weiss’ play of the same name for the West Berlin’s Schiller Theater in 1964, and which Peter Brook adapted into English for The Royal Shakespeare Company in 1965. The title says it all: it had become the fashion for audience to attend these theatrical performances, which were given as a sort of therapy. However, during the course of the play that night, the inmates, who have performed their parts so often as to believe they have become the characters, begin to see the proceedings as real, with unsettling results. The film boasts a distinguished cast, featuring Glenda Jackson, Patrick Magee, Ian Richardson, Clifford Rose, Freddie Jones, and Michael Williams.
May 11: Louis Malle’s wonderful wartime drama, Lacombe, Lucien (1974), will be shown at 2:30 am. Pierre Blaise is Lucien Lacombe, a French peasant who joins up with the Gestapo after being rejected by the French Resistance. Malle‘s film is a brilliant psychological study without the inevitable psychological interpretation, and, if anything, shows the influence of Robert Bresson on Malle. Lucien is neither inherently evil nor good. His father is a prisoner in a German camp and his mother, with whom he lives, is dating her employer. Angry the Resistance rejected him because of his youth, Lucien joins up with the Germans through a series of accidental circumstances and becomes a nasty thug. Does he believe in the Nazi cause? No, the Gestapo is merely a means to a sense of self worth for a young man who lacks any sense of power. And just when he has found his purpose, his world is turned upside down when he falls in love with a Jewish girl. With this film, Malle has taken Hannah Arendt’s famous dictum about the banality of evil out of the ivory tower and located it right in our everyday world. This is a film that belongs in every film lover’s library.
May 12: As they did with regard to Gary Cooper earlier, TCM celebrates Katharine Hepburn’s birthday with a morning and afternoon of her films. My picks this day would by 1937’s Stage Door (8 am), and Howard Hawk’s delightful 1938 screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby (2 pm). Also of interest is her performance as Jo March in 1933’s Little Women (6 am) for those who might want to compare it with June Allyson’s performance as Jo, slated for May 14 at 8 pm.
May 13: TCM is dedicating a night to a forgotten actress who at the time was being heralded by producer Samuel Goldwyn as “the next Garbo”: Anna Sten. Goldwyn gave her the big buildup after seeing her in her breakthrough German film Der Morder Dimitri Karamasoff (The Murder of Dimitri Karamasoff) and signed the Russian-born actress to a lucrative two-year contract. That Sten spoke not a word of English upon her arrival didn’t deter Goldwyn in the least. He had high hopes for her, labeling her as “The Passionate Peasant” in his publicity. Her first film for Goldwyn was Nana (8 pm) a bowdlerized version of Zola’s racy novel. She looked good, but the film was a turkey. Goldwyn next put her in We Live Again (9:45 pm), also from 1934, but better suited to her as she plays a Russian peasant girl seduced by nobleman Frederic March, based on Tolstoy’s Resurrection. That, too, flopped. When her third film for Goldwyn, The Wedding Night (1935), failed to generate any interest at the box office, despite the presence of top-billed Gary Cooper, Goldwyn decided to cut bait. She ended the ‘30s working for Poverty Row studio Grand National before moving to Fox in the ‘40s for a series of low-budget B’s. An excellent example of her Fox tour airs at 11:15 pm: They Came to Blow Up America (1943), starring George Sanders as a German-American attorney out to expose Nazi spies. Finally, at 12:45 am comes a film from 1962, The Nun and the Sergeant, a Korean War saga that finds Anna as a nun who is trapped with her schoolgirls near the front line.
PSYCHOTRONICA AND THE B HIVE
Not a bad selection for May, featuring several gems and a twin bill from Awful Auteur Ted V. Mikels.
May 3: Begin the day at 8:30 am with He Walked By Night (1948), a great piece of film noir from Eagle-Lion (the company that absorbed PRC), told in semi-documentary style, about the search for a cop killer in L.A. Richard Basehart is effectively and mysteriously creepy as the killer, and Scott Brady fine as the cop determined to bring Basehart to justice. Look for Jack Webb as one of the police lab workers. Webb was inspired by the film to create Dragnet a year later. Cinematographer John Alton creates a dark and eerie setting, and director Alfred Werker (with help from Anthony Mann, it is said), keeps the film moving.
At 10:30 am comes another entry on RKO’s popular “Mexican Spitfire” series, Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost. It’s not one of the better entries in the series, which finds Lupe Velez, as Carmelita Lindsay, visiting the country with husband Dennis (Charles “Buddy” Rogers). They stop at what they believe to be a deserted country house, but in reality gangsters in the basement are building a nitroglycerine bomb. If it were not for the talents of Leon Errol as Uncle Matt/Lord Epping, this film would be almost unwatchable. Even worse, the great comedian, Mantin Moreland is given almost nothing to do, which might just be a blessing as his name in the film in “Lightnin.” The film is also notable to film historians as the movie paired with the truncated 88-minute version of The Magnificent Ambersons, which was put into the “B” slot on the marquee.
But then comes Late Night, with a double bill from Ted V. Mikels. It begins at 2:15 am with The Doll Squad (1973), about a team of female secret agents who take down a master criminal. With name players like Michael Ansara and Anthony Eisley, it was Mikels’ most expensive production to date. Watch it for the girls, especially Tura Satana. Reportedly, Sissy Spacek auditioned to play one of the girls, but was turned down. Following at 4 am is 10 Violent Women (1982). In this one, a group of women miners (?) tired of their work decide to go into the robbery business. They knock off a jewelry store but can’t fence the goods and are busted by undercover cops. Sent to prison they are exploited (naturally) by a deviant head guard and eventually bust out. Record this one - Mikels’ directing style and dialogue can be sleep inducing.
May 5: The day begins at 6:15 am with the docudrama UFO from United Artists in 1956. This was a favorite of mine when I was a kid and actually believed in flying saucers. It’s a rather skillful mixture of fictional characters with real-life witnesses and personnel as we follow a government investigator and press liaison (Tom Towers) as he goes from military base to base, investigating events and interviewing witnesses.
At 6:30 pm comes one of the great film noirs. D.O.A. (1950) stars Edmond O’Brien as a small-town accountant who visits San Francisco for a week of fun before settling down with his fiancée. Waking one morning with what he believes to be a hangover, he is told by doctors that someone has poisoned him and that he has a week or less to live. We then follow O’Brien as he tries to track down the culprit and the reason why. Look for Neville Brand playing one of the villains. And forget the lousy 1988 remake with Dennis Quaid. This is the one to see.
May 6: This is a “Scarlet” day, with the word “Scarlet” appearing in the title of every movie shown in the morning and the afternoon. I recommend two. First, at 11:15 am, A Study in Scarlet from 1933. When members of a secret society begin disappearing, Sherlock Holmes is called in to investigate. It’s a good, low-budget effort from World-Wide Pictures and Fox with Reginald Owen as a decent, if not particularly memorable, Sherlock Holmes. Also in the film is the exquisite Anna May Wong as a shady widow. The plot, which bears almost no resemblance to the original story, has good twists and turns; enough to keep the mystery fan fully involved.
At 2:15 pm is Fritz Lang’s noir classic, Scarlet Street (1945) starring Edward G. Robinson as a meek, henpecked would-be artist who is pulled into the depths of crime and deception by Joan Bennett and her slimy boyfriend, Dan Duryea. Directly following at 4:15 is The Scarlet Clue, one of the better Charlie Chan entries from Monogram Studios, which took over the Chan franchise after Fox dropped it in 1942. In this one, Charlie (Sidney Toler) is on the track of murderous spies who have stolen government radar plans. The Monogram Chans featured Benson Fong as Number Three Son Tommy, and Mantin Moreland as chauffeur Birmingham Brown. In this entry, Moreland actually gets something more to do than bug out his eyes and act scared. Here he gets to reenact some routines from his vaudeville days with frequent partner Ben Carter, who’s also in the film.
May 9: At the dreadful hour of 5:45 am comes an entertaining little B from Warner Bros, San Quentin (1937). Directed in workmanlike manner by Lloyd Bacon, it stars Pat O’Brien as the captain of the prison guards. His troubles begin when his girlfriend’s (Ann Sheridan) rebellious brother (Humphrey Bogart) is assigned to his block. Never mind the predictable plot and concentrate on the great dialogue and the support of cast members such as Barton MacLane. Marc Lawrence, Joe Sawyer, and Veda Ann Borg.
May 10: At 3:45 am, it’s the Japanese psychotronic wonder, Hausu (1977). This is the movie that revived the moribund Toho Studios when it suddenly became an unexpected hit. For a more detailed description see my Best Bets in the current TiVo Alert. Suffice to say you won’t know whether to moan, groan or laugh out loud when watching this one.
May 15: To round out this chapter comes Roger Corman’s celebrated The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) about Audrey Jr., the carnivorous plant grown by one Seymour Krelboin (Jonathan Haze). With Mel Welles in a fine turn as flower shop owner Gravis Muchnick, Jackie Joseph as Audrey Fulquard, the love of Seymour’s life, Jack Nicholson in an early role as masochistic dental patient Wilbur Force, and Corman regular Dick Miller. Most of the movie’s success lies in the fact that it was adapted into a successful stage musical that was later made into a film. But Corman’s version is actually better than the later versions and definitely worth the time.