By Ed Garea
STAR OF THE MONTH
Janet Leigh is the Star of the Month for October. It’s an odd choice considering this is October, when horror films are emphasized. But keep in mind, perhaps, that Leigh starred in two of the most iconic horror films of their era: Psycho and The Fog. So maybe there is method in the madness.
The problem with Leigh is that her films never quite matched her potential. The story of her famous “discovery” by Norma Shearer when Shearer spotted her photo on the desk of her father, who ran a ski lodge, is part and parcel of Hollywood lore. But Leigh came of age in the ‘50s, a down time in Hollywood creativity, and she sublimated her career to husband Tony Curtis in order to raise their family. Still, there are some quite watchable Leigh films on the schedule.
October 1: Try The Romance of Rosy Ridge (1947), a passable little post-Civil War drama from MGM. It was also Leigh’s debut.
October 8: The pick of the night is Holiday Affair (1949), with Leigh as a young war widow pursued by button-down Wendell Corey and ne’er-do-well Robert Mitchum. Guess who wins?
October 15: Two good films tonight, starting at 8:00 pm with Anthony Mann’s great psychological Western, The Naked Spur (1953), also starring Jimmy Stewart and Robert Ryan, and followed by the great swashbuckler Scaramouche (1952), starring Stewart Granger, at 10:00 pm.
FRIDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT: AFRICA
Each Friday night this month, TCM will run films about Africa or shot in Africa.
October 3: Three good films are set for the night. First up at 8:00 pm is The African Queen (1951), followed at 10:00 pm by the underrated war drama, Sahara (1943), with Humphrey Bogart as a tank commander trapped with a motley crew at a dried-up oasis in Libya, besieged by German troops. And at 2:00 am. it’s the old stand-by, Casablanca (1942).
October 10: Two interesting films in the lineup. First, at 10:15 pm, is Something of Value (1957) with Rock Hudson and Sidney Poitier as friends caught up in the brutal Mau-Mau uprising in Kenya. Following, at 12:15, is the brilliant The Battle of Algiers (1966), a masterful look at the struggle for Algerian independence.
OUT OF THE ORDINARY
October 5: One of the best mysteries ever filmed is being shown at 8:15 am. The title is Green For Danger (1946). We open in the latter stages of World War II at a rural English hospital. V-1 “buzz bombs” are falling about the countryside. A postman is injured and dies on the operating table, but a nurse swears it was murder. Shortly afterward, she, too, is killed. Enter Scotland Yard Inspector Cockrill (Alastair Sim) to investigate. His rather unusual methods drive his six suspects to utter distraction. It’s a joy to watch Sim in action as he dominates the movie, not an easy task when the co-stars are Trevor Howard, Leo Genn, Wendy Thompson, and Rosamund John. It’s not run that often so tune in or record for later.
At 2:00 am, it’s director Ritwak Ghatak’s A River Called Titas (1973). This is a stark collection of stories about the impoverished people who live along the banks of Bangladesh’s rivers. It’s realistic, shot on location, and deeply moving as one wonders how people can survive in one of the poorest regions in the world. Best of all, it doesn’t seem contrived, giving us an ever deeper look into the lives of those whose livelihood depends on the river.
October 6: A trio of excellent documentaries about animation is on tap. First, at 8:00 pm, is The Cartoons of Winsor McKay (2014), the pioneering animator most renowned for giving us Gertie the Dinosaur. At 9:45 pm, it’s the 100th Anniversary of Bray Studios (2014). Little more than a blip on the historical radar today, John Randolph Bray as a contemporary of McKay, who invented the process for the commercial method of animated art, eliminating the need for thousands of individual drawings and speeding up the process. The program is a series of early cartoons from the studios, including one made by Paul Terry, who would later found his Terrytoons studios, giving us Mighty Mouse, Gandy Goose, and Heckle and Jeckle. Terry’s cartoon features a character called Farmer Al Falfa in Farmer Al Falfa Sees New York (1916). You might recognize the character from early television, where the poor farmer is always besieged by hordes and hordes of mice.
Finally, at 11:00 pm, comes Animation From Van Beuren Studios (2014), a look at the almost forgotten animation studio of the ‘30s. Again, it’s a collection of some of their cartoons from their brief existence, including one from their series of “Aesop’s Fables” series and an unusual cartoon of The Wizard of Oz from around 1933. There’s also a cartoon featuring their popular duo of Tom and Jerry (not MGM’s cat and mouse, but a Mutt and Jeff duo). Van Beuren was a small operation that released their output through RKO. When Walt Disney jumped ship from United Artists to RKO in 1936, Van Beuren suddenly became de trop and RKO dropped their distribution deal. Unable to find another distributor, Van Beuren simply closed shop. Their cartoons slipped into the public domain and supplied much of the early Saturday morning fare for television.
October 12: From director Jaromil Jires comes Valerie and Her Week of Wonder (1970). Based closely on Vtezslav Nezval’s fantasy novel of the same name, it’s a surreal tale of the sexual coming of age of a young woman told through a monstrous metaphor: vampires, who prey on the innocent to drain their youth and vitality. The film went through the usual process in Czechoslovakia, released, and later repressed. It was almost totally forgotten, consigned to the dustbins of cinema history, but word-of-mouth among cinephiles and revival screenings kept it alive and in the cinema consciousness. It also served as the role model for other films that combined the feminine and the monstrous, such as Lemora: A Child Tale of the Supernatural (1973), Carrie (1976), and The Company of Wolves (2012).
October 8: TCM is airing a mini-marathon of Tom Keene Westerns, beginning at 1:30 pm with Sundown Trail, followed by Beyond the Rockies, Freighters of Destiny, and Ghost Valley. It ends with The Saddle Buster at 5:30 pm. All were made for RKO in 1931 and 1932 and are excellent examples of the assembly-line methods of B production. Cowboy star Keene differed from his contemporaries in that he played a different character in each movie. While the plots may not be the most complex, the films are entertaining for both Western and non-Western fans.
October 14: A pair of forgotten Richard Dix Westerns highlights the day. We begin with The Arizonian (1935) at 12:45 pm, followed by Yellow Dust (1936) at 2:15 pm. Dix was Paramount’s big action star during the silent era. He jumped to RKO in 1929, starring in the mystery-comedy Seven Keys to Baldpate (shown at 8:45 am, for anyone interested). As his star faded in the mid-30s he found himself relegated to B programmers. However, while these two Westerns may be B’s, they are well written, tightly directed and well acted. In the case of The Arizonian, Dudley Nichols, who would later collaborate with the great John Ford, wrote the screenplay, while Cyril Hume wrote Yellow Dust. Thus, what we have are two superior B-Westerns definitely worth checking out.
It wouldn’t be October without a full helping of psychotronic films, and we lead off on October 3 at 6:15 pm with producer/director George Pal’s fantasy film, 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964), written by Charles Beaumont and starring Tony Randall. The makeup for Randall is outstanding, as are the special effects. Furthermore, it’s a film the whole family can enjoy.
Director Michael Powell is featured with two films. On October 5 at the early hour of 6:00 am, it’s A Canterbury Tale from 1944. Co-directed by frequent collaborator Emeric Pressburger, the film is a wonderfully simple story about three people whose lives intersect in a small English country village during the war. Together they journey to Canterbury, each with an agenda - and a wish. Don’t miss this one if you haven’t seen it.
Roll back a day to October 4, and it’s the film that almost destroyed Powell’s career: Peeping Tom (1960). This is an intense film about a photographer raised by his sadistic psychologist father. He works by day as a focus puller at a movie studio, but at night he prowls the streets, finding great pleasure in photographing, then murdering, a succession of beautiful women, capturing their reaction at the time of their death. The critics and press excoriated the film, and the public stayed away in droves. That might have been it, but as time passed, the film began to gain a cult reputation, including Martin Scorsese, who said that this movie and Fellini’s 8½ contain all that can be said about directing.
Speaking of October 4, as we all know, not every psychotronic film is good. For a particularly bad one, look no further than Five Minutes to Live (aka Door-to-Door Maniac, 1961) at 2:00 am. Johnny Cash stars as a deranged bank robber who holds the bank president’s wife hostage. Watch Cash emote for just 10 minutes and you’ll understand why he decided to stick to singing. It’s a film so bad, it’s enjoyable to watch.
On October 11, it’s a treat for blaxploitation fans with a double-bill of Blacula (1972) at 2:15 am, followed by its sequel, Scream, Blacula Scream at 4:00 am. At least the latter has the good taste to feature the lovely Pam Grier as a vengeful Voodoo priestess out to get Blacula.
Finally, on Thursdays in October, TCM is running a Special Theme dedicated to ghost stories. On October 2, the evening’s choice is The Time of Their Lives (1946), starring Lou Costello and Marjorie Reynolds as a pair of Revolutionary War ghosts that must find the letter exonerating them from treason if they are to leave the mansion they are haunting and ascend to Heaven. Bud Abbott, who plays a psychiatrist descended from the man who framed Costello and Reynolds, aids them in their quest. It’s funny, imaginative, and a nice departure from their usual slapstick.
On October 9, two films stand out from the rest. The first is Portrait of Jennie (1948), at 8:00 pm, with Joseph Cotten as a penniless artist inspired by beautiful ghost Jennifer Jones. Later, at 4:15 am, it’s the Japanese classic Tokaido Yotsuya kaidan (aka, The Ghost of Yotsuya, 1959), a dark tale of fate, passion, betrayal, and revenge based on a kabuki play from 1825 and concerning a devious samurai named Iemon who murders to get what he wants. Finally he gets his when he goes too far and disturbs the spirits. It’s one to catch; just be aware that it’s in color and the level of violence is ratcheted way up with gory close-ups of slashed bodies and amputated limbs.