By Ed Garea
STAR OF THE MONTH
The Star of the month for May is June Allyson, and TCM continues their tribute. Although the films are of lesser quality as the month winds down, there are still some gems.
May 21: TCM leads off the night at 8:00 pm with the entertaining musical, Two Girls and a Sailor, from MGM in 1944. June and Gloria DeHaven are singing sisters who operate a canteen for GIs. They are both after the same sailor, played by Van Johnson. It’s nice, light entertainment with many fine musical numbers included, from Gracie Allen playing the piano (!) to the impeccable Lena Horne singing “Paper Doll.” Also look for Ava Gardner (who MGM still didn’t have a clue about using) as a dancing showgirl and appearing in the dream sequence.
At 10:15 comes Best Foot Forward (MGM, 1943). Lucille Ball plays a big star who visits a small-town school on a lark, with both Nancy Walker and June making their feature film debuts recreating their Broadway roles. One of the highlights is Harry James and his band performing “Two O’Clock Jump.”
At midnight, it’s one of June’s best-known musicals, 1947’s Good News. Screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green do an excellent job breathing new life into this 1920s Broadway musical. Peter Lawford stars as a collegiate football hero and June is the French tutor who grabs him on the rebound. It includes the vintage songs “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” “Just Imagine,” and “Varsity Drag,” along with new numbers “The French Lesson,” and “Pass That Peace Pipe.”
May 28: Skip the 8:00 pm showing of Universal’s tepid remake of its 1936 classic, My Man Godfrey, and the 10:00 pm showing of The Opposite Sex, MGM’s tepid remake of its 1939 hit The Women. Wait instead, or get out the recorder for 2:00 am and the screening of the above-average Battle Circus (MGM, 1953), with Humphrey Bogart as a MASH surgeon in the Korean War and June as the nurse with whom he becomes romantically involved. Following at 5:30 am is one that definitely requires the recorder. It’s the best Allyson of the night, Executive Suite (MGM, 1956). This is a great tale of corporate intrigue among a board of directors after the head of the firm dies as they jockey to be his replacement. Helping June along in the fun is William Holden, Barbara Stanwyck, Frederic March, Walter Pidgeon, and Louis Calhern.
FRIDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT
The Friday Night Spotlight for May, devoted to the best of Australian cinema, continues.
May 16: Two films stand out this night. At 8:00 pm there’s the excellent My Brilliant Career from 1979 with Judy Davis as a spirited young woman who must choose between marriage to Sam Neill and a career. With this film, director Gillian Armstrong did for female Australian cinema what George Miller did for male Australian cinema the same year with Mad Max, which was to put it firmly on the map and announce to the world that it was here to stay.
The other film to watch is Jane Campion’s 1989 drama, Sweetie, about a young woman (Karen Colston) whose emotionally fragile grip on reality is shaken when her seriously off-the-wall sister, Sweetie (Genevieve Lemon) returns to the dysfunctional family fold. I remember seeing this in the movies and coming out feeling like I’d gone through the wringer; it was that intense an experience. I recommend this one highly.
May 23: There are three worth your time tonight. Leading off at 8:00 pm is the Sigorney Weaver-Mel Gibson vehicle, The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), with Mel as an Australian journalist who is brought romantically together with British Embassy attaché Sigourney during the 1965 Indonesian Revolution by street-smart photographer Linda Hunt, who not only steals the picture, but also secured a Academy Award nomination for Supporting Actress. Much of the film is pretty slow going, so one really has to stick with it at times.
At 10:00 pm, it’s Peter Weir’s 1979, psychological thriller/black comedy, The Plumber. Ivar Kants is Max, the plumber-from-Hell, who arrives to fix the bathroom and ends up scaring the living wits out of yuppie academician Judy Morris. It seems yuppies have nothing to fear but the working class.
At the late hour of 3:30 am, it the interesting Muriel’s Wedding. Toni Collette stars as Muriel Heslop, a young woman living in the tediously dull town of Porpoise Point, Australia. She spends a lot of time in her bedroom, where she dreams of getting married and moving away from both the town and her psychologically abusive father, all the while listening to the music of ABBA. Finally, she absconds with the family savings and scrams to an island resort, where she meets Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths), who acts as the catalyst for Muriel to become a new person. Finally Muriel takes her dream of marriage too far and marries for the sake of it, coming around later to find there’s more to marriage than first meets the eye.
May 30: Leading off at 8:00 pm is Newsfront (1978), a pleasant little film that follows the adventures of movie newsreel reporters during the ‘40s. Then, at 11:45, TCM is showing the powerful 1978 drama, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Based on the 1972 novel of the same name by Thomas Keneally, it’s a story of the exploits and exploitation of Jimmie Governor, an Indigenous Australian man who commits a series of murders around the turn of the century that sprang from a long-simmering rage. It’s an oft-times disturbing film that pulls no punches in depicting the social inequity of turn-of-the-century Australia and the lives of those caught up in the social net. Of all the films offered by TCM in this category during the month, this is the one I recommend above all else.
MEMORIAL DAY MARATHON
For those of us who love war films, TCM is running its annual Memorial Day Marathon from May 24 to May 27. During the holiday weekend, 34 films will be shown, and while nothing new will be screened, there are a few films during the marathon that aren’t screened all that often.
May 24: Tune in at 5:45 pm for The Hill, Sidney Lumet’s study of a World War II British military stockade in North Africa. Starring Sean Connery (who also arranged for the movie’s financing) as an officer court-martialed for refusing to lead his troops in a suicide charge, the movie presents us with a Connery light years removed from his day job at the time as Agent 007. It also garnered Connery the best reviews of his career to that point, though the public was not as enamored of the movie as were the critics and largely stayed away. A great supporting cast that includes Ossie Davis, Ian Bannen, Roy Kinnear, and Ian Hendry surrounds Connery. Other notable performances come from Harry Andrews as the sadistic sergeant, and Michael Redgrave as the weak-willed medical officer.
May 25: The pick of the day airs at 2:00 am. Carnival in Flanders, from director Jacques Feyder, is a thoroughly delightful farce about the Spanish invasion of a small Flemish village in the 17th century. While the men of the village all find excuses to run, the women stay behind, conquering the conquerors with non-stop revelry and romance such that the invaders not only leave the village intact, but also give the townsfolk a year’s amnesty from paying taxes. Just how far the “entertainment” went is left to the imagination, but the women allow the men to believe it was their tactics that saved the village, even though they ran away and the town’s mayor played dead.
May 26: How could I not recommend The Best Years of Our Lives? This drama about the trials and tribulations of three soldiers making the transition back to civilian life was a multiple winner at the 1946 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Frederic March), and Best Director (William Wyler). But the best performance in the film was one that didn’t even garner a nomination. That was Myrna Loy, who gave one of the best performances of her career as the understanding wife of returning vet Frederic March, and the one who keeps the family together and life at a normal pitch. How she could be overlooked remains as one of Oscar’s greatest mysteries.
May 27: Even though the Marathon ends on May 26, there is a bonus pick of sorts for us cinephiles. During a daytime marathon of Merle Oberon movies (no, it’s not her birthday) comes a rarely seen gem from producer Alexander Korda and London Films, The Lion Has Wings (1940). Korda had promised Winston Churchill that if England went to war with Germany, he would produce a morale film for the British public, and in return Churchill would use the British film industry as a propaganda weapon during the war. That was one hell of a bargain, being that Churchill wasn’t even Prime Minister at the time; he was Lord of the Admiralty. Be that as it may, Korda assigned three directors to the film - Michael Powell, Brian Desmond Hurst, and Adrian Brunel. Filming took about 12 days, with the result being a mixture of documentary-style footage, scripted narrative featuring Ralph Richardson and Merle Oberon, and footage taken from two previous films: Fire Over England (1936) and The Gap (1937). It all makes for most curious viewing and it’s one I do not plan to miss.
On May 16, in the wee hours of the morning (5:45 am), TCM is screening a rarely seen Cagney vehicle. Jimmy the Gent, from 1934, finds Cagney as a shady locator of heirs for fortunes. Cagney pours over the news stories of accidents, deaths, grisly murders and the like, and then sets out to find the heirs to whatever fortune is left behind. And if he can’t find the heir, he’s not above making one up for the right fee. Bette Davis plays his love interest, a former employee who has left him to work for a more respectable “genealogist.” But we know she still carries the torch for Jimmy, even though her new boss wants her to marry him. It’s a movie both stars disparaged at the time, but one that still entertains today rather than just being a curiosity piece. And check out Cagney’s hairstyle. Talk about severe; it was done as a protest to being cast in what he termed as “mug” movies - where he plays just another in a long line of mugs. This was the first time both Cagney and Davis appeared in the same film. They would not do so again until 1941 when they made The Bride Came C.O.D.
OUT OF THE ORDINARY
May 18: The Swedish coming-of-age film, My Life as a Dog (1986) from director Lasse Hallstrom, will be airing at 2:00 am. Though it’s been featured here before, it’s still a delight to watch.
May 19 & 20: How about a nice change of pace from Mel Brooks, of all people? Actually it’s more from his wife Anne Bancroft. First up, on May 19 at 10:00 pm, it's 84 Charing Cross Road, starring Bancroft as a New York scriptwriter who forms a most unusual friendship over the years entirely through correspondence with London bookseller Anthony Hopkins. It’s a delightful, intelligent film about how the love of books can bring two disparate people together, even from across the ocean. Based on the book and play of the same name by Helene Hanff, Bancroft makes for a fine Hanff. Look for Judi Dench as Hopkins’ wife and Mercedes Ruehl in a small part.
Then, on May 20 at 8:00 pm, it’s the classic The Elephant Man, starring John Hurt as John Merrick, the sensitive man whose affliction has caused him to live in a sideshow, and Anthony Hopkins as the compassionate London doctor who rescues Merrick from his plight. Hurt’s performance as the hideously deformed Merrick is one for the ages, injecting just enough humanity (without overdoing it) to make us reach for the Kleenex every time. Hurt’s performance, in fact, reminds me of Boris Karloff’s as the monster in The Bride of Frankenstein, it’s that good.
Then, at midnight, it’s Mel Brooks’ remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s classic, To Be Or Not To Be. Though Mel changed things around a bit for his remake, it’s one of the few remakes that actually come close to the original. Anne Bancroft is superb as Anna Bronski, wife of insufferable ham Frederick Bronski (Brooks). Jose Ferrer is on hand as the treacherous Professor Siletski, and Charles Durning almost steals the film as the dimwitted Gestapo officer Colonel Erhardt (played by Sig Ruman in the original).
May 22: Tune in at 8:00 pm for a night of host Bob Osborne’s picks, leading off with the great 1945 noir, The House on 92nd Street, a documentary-style drama based on actual fact and using some of the same locations used in the real story of how the FBI infiltrated and broke up a Nazi spy ring. The always-dependable Lloyd Nolan stars.
At 11:00 pm it’s David Lean’s wonderful comedy, Hobson’s Choice (1954), starring Charles Laughton as the tyrannical, overbearing owner of a boot shop who is used to having his every whim attended to by his three subservient daughters. Then his oldest (Brenda De Banzie) decides to turn the tables with delightful results.
May 31: As long as we’re discussing seldom seen movies, tune in to TCM on May 31 at 11:00 pm for the 1935 classic starring the great Josephine Baker, Princess Tam Tam. Baker lives up to her legend, and then some, in this take on Pygmalion. She is a poor, beautiful Tunisian shepherdess discovered, then polished and educated by writer Max Demirecourt (Max Prejean) and passed off as an Indian princess, much to the dismay of Max’s two-timing wife, Lucie (Germaine Aussey). It’s a deft combination of charming story and lavish musical numbers. If you’ve never seen Baker before, hold on to your hats, for after watching her in this film, I guarantee you’ll never forget her. The shame of it all was that this beautiful, multi-talented woman had to go to France to realize her talents.
PSYCHOTRONICA AND THE B HIVE
We lead off this installment with a night of haunted house movies.
May 17: We begin the day at 8:00 pm with one of the best movies of the genre, 1963’s The Haunting. I remember seeing this one in the movies and being genuinely scared throughout. I chalked it up to the fact that I was only eight years of age and saw it again a couple of years ago, just to see if it still held its power. It did. Robert Wise did a masterful job of building the tension, and with a cast that included Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, and Richard Johnson keeping that tension going throughout the film. Even those who do not ordinarily care for horror films will find something to like here.
At 10:00 pm, The Legend of Hell House follows. This 1973 production had a good start, being adapted by master of horror Richard Matheson from his novel, Hell House, but the results are rather uneven, perhaps due to the mix of horror and sexuality. During the course of the movie, one of the leads - former child star Pamela Franklin - has sex with an invisible ghost, and this may be the reason why the British censors originally sapped an “X” rating on the movie (although it was released here as “PG”), despite the fact that Matheson toned down the sexual content of his novel. To me it always seemed like a weak take on The Haunting; neither the cast nor the director was up to the standards of the 1963 chiller. Look for an unbilled Michael Gough during the ending.
At 11:45 pm comes another film that disappointed me, Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist (1982). Originally, Spielberg was just supposed to be the producer, with horror-film veteran, Tobe Hooper, as director. But from what I’ve read about the production itself, it seems that Spielberg and Hooper had a David Selznick/Alfred Hitchcock relationship with Spielberg ultimately making the decisions and even filming portions of the movie. As critic Michael Weldon notes, except for one scene of a face falling apart, the film is more akin to the silly but fun thrills of William Castle’s 13 Ghosts. Perhaps too many cooks do spoil the broth.
Following at 2:00 am is Death By Invitation (1971), a low budget wonder with practically no scares, but lots of bad acting. See my essay on the movie here. “Death By Boredom” is more like it.
Finally, the mini-marathon wraps with a first-rate exercise in supernatural horror, Burn, Witch, Burn. Based on Fritz Leiber’s 1943 novel, Conjure Wife, it’s a suspenseful, well-written tale of Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde), a rising star in the sociology department of Hempnell Medical College whose success may be more to the witchcraft practiced by his wife, Tansy (Janet Blair). This is bad news to Norman, for not only is his male ego wounded, but Norman is also a skeptic. The screenplay, by Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, builds the movie to a fever pitch, never relenting for a moment. By the way, this is the second time Leiber’s novel has been filmed. The first was Weird Woman, from Universal in 1944. If you can catch this one on DVD, you’re in for a treat, even though it suffers from the wooden performance of Lon Chaney, Jr.
May 19: Begin at midnight with 1985’s so-so The Doctor and the Devils from Brooksfilms and director Freddie Francis. Yet another version of the story of grave robbers Burke and Hare, which inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic story, “The Body Snatcher,” it’s been filmed many times over the years, with perhaps the best version being RKO’s The Body Snatcher from 1944, produced by Val Lewton. The most interesting points about this version is that it was based on a screenplay written by none other than Dylan Thomas (written in the 1940s) and Twiggy is one of the leads. Other than that . . .
Following at 1:45 am is Hammer’s 1957 horror classic, The Curse of Frankenstein. A smash hit upon its release, it would spawn countless sequels and forever identify star Peter Cushing with the scientist Victor Frankenstein. Cushing gives a first-rate performance, conveying the decadence beneath the Baron’s upper-class crust. As I mentioned elsewhere, Christopher Lee has a thankless role as the Monster, with no dialogue. It was on the set of this film that Lee and Cushing first met. Reportedly, Lee came into Cushing’s dressing room to complain that he had no lines. Cushing said, “You’re lucky. I read the script.” As their friendship progressed they discovered they were both fans of Warner Brothers Looney Tunes and would often pass the time on the set exchanging phrases from the cartoons.
William Castle’s macabre Mr. Sardonicus follows at 3:15 am, the story of a rich (of course) 19th century man whose face is permanently frozen into a horrific smile. The baron (Guy Rolfe) tricks his wife’s doctor and ex-lover (Ronald Lewis) into operating on his face. The final result is surprising. As was his custom, Castle supplied a gimmick for patrons of the film. They were given a florescent thumb card, to be used near the end of the film in a “Punishment Poll.” Supposedly, two endings were filmed. At the appropriate time, the film was stopped and Castle appeared on screen to ask the audience to hold up their cards with the thumb either pointing up (mercy) or down (no mercy). According to Castle, then ending where Sardonicus is allowed to live was rarely, if ever, used, as most of the audience voted “thumbs down.”
Evening becomes morning and wraps up with Roger Corman’s 1963 opus, The Haunted Castle, starring Vincent Price as the descendent of a warlock burned at the stake by the villagers of Arkham. When Price arrives to reopen his ancestor’s castle he is possessed by the warlock’s spirit, and aided by warlock partners Lon Chaney, Jr. and Milton Parsons, resurrects his former witch partner and sacrifices his wife at an altar in the basement. Although the film was publicized as a Poe adaptation, it was actually based on H.P. Lovecraft’s story, “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” Charles Beaumont wrote the screenplay.
May 20: Bad Film Lover’s Alert. At 10:30 am, TCM is airing Joseph Von Sternberg’s 1941 cult classic, The Shanghai Gesture. A bowdlerized version of John Colton’s London and Broadway stage play, it starred Ona Munson as “Mother Gin Sling,” the owner of a famous Shanghai casino. In the play she was Mother Godamn and ran a bordello. Oh, the Hays Office. It’s typical Von Sternberg: all style with only a smattering of substance. Among the denizens of Mother’s House of Whoopee is Omar, “a doctor of nothing.” Fittingly, Victor Mature, an actor of nothing, plays Omar. And check out mother while you’re at it. She makes her first appearance in a headdress that would cause Cher spasms of jealousy. Yeah, it’s bad, but it’s not boring, and that’s why those who haven’t yet seen this masterpiece should tune in. Von Sternberg would later give us another classic bad film, Jet Pilot, with John Wayne and Janet Leigh, produced in 1950 but not released until 1957 for reasons that will immediately become clear when you begin to watch.
May 23: One of the great film noirs makes its appearance at 5:15 pm - Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal, a beautifully made story from 1948 of a guy (Dennis O’Keefe) who takes the rap for gangster Raymond Burr, only to have Burr welch on the deal. O’Keefe busts out of prison and begins looking for his ex-boss. Two things make this one to watch: Burr’s great performance as a sadistic thug, and Mann’s fluent direction. I always thought the worst thing to happen to Anthony Mann was success and promotion from the Bs.
May 31: Speaking of low budget movies, tune in at 4:30 pm for Allied Artists’ 1956 opus World Without End. Hugh Marlowe, Rod Taylor, Nelson Leigh, and Christopher Dark are astronauts caught in a time warp while returning from a mission and find themselves on a post-apocalyptic Earth sometime around 2188 AD. For what it is, it’s not bad and plays rather like a Star Trek episode, only no one figures out how to return to 1957.