By Ed Garea
STAR OF THE FORTNIGHT
Our featured star this issue is the great Lee Tracy, who makes his debut with “Summer Under the Stars” with a day of his films on August 21.
Tracy is the quintessential Pre-Code star. Renowned for his wiseguy persona, impeccable timing and rapid-fire delivery, Tracy starred in 20 pictures between 1929 and 1933. However, in 1933, an incident in Mexico City during the filming of Viva Villa cost Tracy his job with MGM. He turned to freelancing, but as the years went on, the quality of his films declined. It was the coming of television that revived his career and Tracy made the most of it, starring in two series during the ‘50s. He also returned to the stage and won notice for his role as ex-President Art Hockstader (based on Harry Truman) in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man. He reprised the role in film in 1964, and was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor.
I’m sorry to say that The Best Man is not among the films bring run this day, but many of his Pre-Code gems are being shown, including The Half Naked Truth, with Lupe Velez (3:45 pm), Love is a Racket (5:15 pm), Turn Back the Clock (6:30 pm), Bombshell, with Jean Harlow (8:00 pm), Blessed Event, my favorite (10:00 pm), Dinner at Eight (11:30 pm), Doctor X (1:30 am), and Clear All Wires (4:30 am).
Tracy is one of the lost treasures of the Pre-Code era, packing the manic energy, novelty, and innuendo of the era into his thin, redheaded frame.
OUT OF THE ORDINARY
August 16: On the day dedicated to Herbert Marshall, two gems are running back to back. First up at midnight is William Wyler’s remake of Somerset Maugham’s The Letter, starring Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie. Marshall plays Bette’s husband, Robert Crosbie. Following at 1:45 am is the original 1929 version with Jeanne Eagels as Leslie and Marshall as her lover, Geoffrey Hammond, whom she shoots in a lover’s quarrel. It’s great to watch both back to back and compare the versions, one Pre-Code, and the other shot under the new censorship. The 1929 version is also important for film buffs, as it’s the first - and only - surviving appearance of Jeanne Eagels in a talkie. This version is also a helluva lot more frank. While I love Davis’ portrayal, I have to admit that Eagels has her beat by the proverbial country mile, overcoming the handicaps of the primitive sound system to deliver a performance that justifies her reputation as one of Broadway’s most-accomplished actresses. A long-time abuser of alcohol and drugs, Jeanne passed away on October 3, 1929, from an overdose of heroin.
August 20: It’s Thelma Ritter’s day, and the pick of the litter is her wonderful turn in Sam Fuller’s 1953 noir, Pickup on South Street (10:00 pm), starring Richard Widmark as a pickpocket who steals the wrong purse. This one belongs to a woman (Jean Peters) whose boyfriend (Richard Kiley), a Commie spy, has hidden top-secret microfilm in it. Naturally the Reds are eager to get the contents back and launch a manhunt for it. Ritter is Moe, an alcoholic ex-pickpocket who will sell information to anyone - except Communists. She garnered a well-earned nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her efforts. This is a brutal - and compelling - film where every character is a loser. For his part, J. Edgar Hoover hated it and sought changes in the way his agents were portrayed, but neither Fuller nor Fox Studio head Darryl Zanuck would give in to his demands. This is a noir that’s definitely worth one’s time.
August 26: The pick on a day devoted to the films of Sophia Loren is the venerable Two Women, from 1961. Sophia shines in this story of an Italian mother who, along with her daughter, is raped by Allied Moroccan soldiers during WW2. (Couldn’t make it the same way today. Political Correctness, you know.) How they manage to survive and get to safety is the story, which is wonderfully directed by Vittorio De Sica.
August 29: It’s Joseph Cotten’s day, and I would be remiss if I did not mention The Third Man (1949), with Orson Welles, showing at 12:15 am. Precious few movies are in a league with this masterpiece of intrigue, set in the divided city of Postwar Vienna. With a script by Graham Greene and direction by the great Carol Reed, what seems to us at first as a mere film noir is actually a complex look at morals, and that is why it’s a masterpiece.
August 31: Alan Ladd owns the day, and, at 8:00 pm, one of the greatest Westerns of all time is being shown: Shane. Ladd is the enigmatic former gunslinger who comes to the aid of homesteader Van Heflin, who is being harassed by evil land baron Emile Meyer. When Ladd drives off Meyer’s gunsels, the baron responds by hiring creepy gunslinger Jack Palance (in an unforgettable performance.) The film presents an image of a mythic West that in all likelihood existed only in the imagination, but who cares? This is Hollywood, and Hollywood at it best. Jean Arthur and young Brandon De Wilde are excellent as Van Heflin’s wife and son.
August 21: At 1:30 am, it’s Lee Tracy in Doctor X. He’s a reporter investigating a series of gruesome murders at a medical college headed by the film’s red herring, Lionel Atwill. The two-strip Technicolor process only adds to the film’s eeriness as Tracy pokes around corners and looks into crevices in search of the killer. Though it looks somewhat dated, made in 1932, it’s great fun. Horror fans will love it. Mystery fans will love it. Lee Tracy fans will love it. Fay Wray fans will love it. Get my point?
August 27: It’s Edmond O’Brien in three great psychotronic classics. First up at 8:00 am is The Hitch-Hiker (1953), an excellent noir directed by Ida Lupino. O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy are two businessmen on a hunting trip who make the mistake of their lives when they give a ride to William Talman, who turns out to be a murderous psychopath on the run. Lupino brought the same intensity that had marked her career as an actress to this low-budget film, basing it on the real-life story of serial killer William Cook. It makes for first-class entertainment and a must of lovers of noir.
Next, at 6:00 pm, O’Brien is a federal agent tailing psycho mommy-addled gangster Jimmy Cagney in Raoul Walsh’s White Heat. Cagney is superb as Cody Jarrett and O’Brien’s not too far behind as Treasury Agent Hank Fallon, who has been assigned to infiltrate Jarrett’s gang. It’s a non-stop roller-coaster of one great scene after another with a stellar supporting cast featuring Virginia Mayo as Jarrett’s duplicitous wife and Margaret Wycherly in a performance of a lifetime as Ma Jarrett.
Following at 8:00 pm is the role O’Brien is best known for, that of accountant Frank Bigelow in the noir classic, D.O.A. (1950). Bigelow has only a few hours to track down who gave him a slow-acting poison, and why. We are hooked right from the opening scene where he walks into a police station to report a murder - his own. They do not come any better than this one.
August 28: Looking for some pure escapism? Try Journey to the Center of the Earth, from 1959, screening at 8:00 pm. Based on a Jules Verne story, James Mason stars with Pat Boone and Arlene Dahl as explorers who discover a path to the center of the Earth in an Icelandic volcano. It’s a bit silly at times, but that only adds to the fun. It’s the sort of film they don’t make any longer: a good, old-fashioned adventure.
August 30: Here’s a good one starring Betty Grable, of all people: I Wake Up Screaming. (And wouldn’t you, if you found out you were co-starring with Victor Mature?) This 1941 Whodunit stars Grable and Mature as suspects in the murder of Grable’s sister. They are pursued throughout by dogged detective Laird Cregar, who steals the film. It airs at 11:45 pm.
August 31: A double-dip of psychotronic noir from Alan Ladd. At 12:45 pm, it’s Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key. This remake of the 1935 original has Ladd as the henchman to political boss Brian Donlevy. Donlevy is backing a reform candidate for governor because he’s in love with the candidate’s daughter, played by alluring Veronica Lake. When Donlevy emerges as the leading candidate in the death of the candidate’s son, it’s up to Ladd to clear his boss, all the while falling for Donlevy’s girl.
At 10:15 pm it’s the picture that put Alan Ladd on the star map, This Gun For Hire (1942). Ladd is stone-cold gunman Raven, who seeks revenge when his treacherous employer tries to frame him for the crime. The screenplay by Albert Maltz and W.R. Burnett is from Graham Greene’s novel, A Gun For Sale. Check my Best Bet in next week's TiVo Alert for more on this wonderful noir.
Speaking of Ladd, it would have been nice of TCM to show more of his earlier efforts, especially his 1939 picture, Hitler - Beast of Berlin, which he made for PRC predecessor Producer’s Distributing Corporation and director Sam Newfield. Maybe soon, huh?
RECOMMENDED WEBSITE: Do you like bad movies as much as I do? Well, I have a great site for you. It’s called Bad Movie Night Cinema and can be accessed at badmovienightcinema.com.
You just gotta love any site that posts rules such as these for judging its product:
1. The film must be devoid of coolness and charm, except the coolness and charm due to its being so godawful.
2. It should inspire some sense of anger in normal people, the kind of anger that can only be deadened by alcohol.
3. It should be cast with people who clearly are not professional actors. At least some of the cast must be such bad actors that the question is raised as to whether they have ever seen a film.
4. All special effects should be laughable. It isn’t enough to merely use a string to lift the rocket…you should be able to see that the SFX person was too lazy to cut away the excess.
5. All aspects of the production should appear to be done by amateurs. It should arouse the belief that cameras and lights were handed to chimpanzees hopped up on Mountain Dew.
6. If the producers try to show a moral to the film, it should benefit no one. If anything, you might be a worse person for having watched it.
7. There must be moments in the movie that are so bad that the video must be stopped and rewound to confirm how bad the scene was. In some cases, no amount of review will relieve the disbelief.
8. At the end of the movie, the viewer should feel emotionally damaged. The way to measure that damage is to see how long it takes the viewer to look at a clock or watch to determine how much of their life was just wasted.
As Olson Johnson said in Blazing Saddles, “Now, who can argue with that?” That’s why I urge everyone to pay a visit and enjoy the show.