By Ed Garea
STAR OF THE MONTH
Now that August is over, we’re back to having a Star of the Month. This month, the star is Melvyn Douglas, a solid actor whose steady presence has brightened up many a film. The thing that always surprises me about Douglas is just how long he’s been making films. I used to think of him as beginning around 1936, but his first movie was in 1931, and when we consider that his last picture, Ghost Story, was made in 1981, that adds up to a round 50 years in film. He has two evenings dedicated to him during the first half of the month.
September 3: Three excellent films are on tap. Start with Being There (1979) at 8:00 pm, a droll and sharp, allegorical satire on media-created personalities. Douglas is wealthy industrialist and presidential adviser Benjamin Rand. Then stick around at 10 pm for Mr. Blandings Build His Dream House (1948). Cary Grant and Myrna Loy are a couple whose search for the “perfect” house is fraught with one obstacle after another. Douglas is lawyer Bill Cole, a family friend. His job is to try to keep the costs of the house under control. Grant also suspects him of masking passes at his wife. It’s one of those nice low-key comedies Hollywood doesn’t make any longer. At midnight, we see another side of Douglas as Dr. Gustav Segert in MGM’s 1941 drama, A Woman’s Face. This is a remake of a 1938 Swedish film of the same name starring Ingrid Bergman as the facially-scarred leader of a criminal gang who goes straight when a blackmail victim pays her by arranging for a noted plastic surgeon to repair her face. In the MGM remake, Joan Crawford is in the Bergman part, and Douglas plays the plastic surgeon. George Cukor directs with a sensitive hand and Crawford s fine in the role, although it didn’t help her downward slide at the box office. But it is one to see.
September 10: The best pick of the night is at 8:00, with Ernst Lubitsch’s satire of communism, Ninotchka (1939). The tag line in advertisement for the film was “Garbo Laughs,” something moviegoers had never seen before. Garbo is perfect as the icy Ninotchka, sent by Moscow to Paris to check up on the doings of three comrade sent earlier to raise money for the Soviet government by selling the confiscated jewels of Russian aristocrat Grand Duchess Swana. When her lover, Count Leon d’Algout, discovers their mission, he sues to block the sale on behalf his client, who now lives in Paris. When the Count meets Ninotchka, he is fascinated by her and slowly begins to thaw her frosty exterior. She remains impassive and coldly stoical until a wonderful scene in a restaurant that I will not divulge lest I spoil the enjoyment of one who has not yet seen this classic. It would be Garbo’s last successful movie and she was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her performance.
At midnight, it’s Irene Dunne in the amusing Theodora Goes Wild (1936). She is a church organist in a small, straight-laced Connecticut town who writes a racy best-selling novel, and is forced to live two lives: that of the author and of the townsperson. Never shall the two meet, lest her neighbors discover who that racy woman really is. Douglas is the illustrator of her book, a scion of a prominent New York family, and as he and Dunne fall in love, they also have to hide her true identity from his family as well. It’s one of the lesser known of the great ‘30s screwball comedies, and really should be better known. It’s fresh and funny, with both stars giving great performances. An odd bit of trivia: Columbia Studios, to whom Dunne was under contract, lined this up as her next film. She didn’t want to do it and took an impromptu vacation in Europe, thinking that when she returned, the studio would have cast someone else. But this was not the case and when Dunne balked upon her return, the studio threatened her with suspension. So she made the film, her first comedy, and it turned out to be one of her biggest hits.
Two other films bear mentioning. At 3:15 am is The Vampire Bat, from 1932. (More on that later in the “Psychotronic” section.) And at 4:30 am, it’s Garbo’s last film, Two-Headed Woman (1941), or “Garbo Laughs, But No One Gives A Rat’s Tail.” When World War II broke out, it meant the dissolution of MGM’s overseas business, which accounted for the vast majority of Garbo’s paying audience. So MGM placed her in this lame comedy playing a ski instructor who conducts a whirlwind romance and marriage with businessman Douglas. Going to meet him one afternoon at a restaurant, she spies him with his old flame (Constance Bennett), and before she can leave, she runs into her husband’s business partner. To cover herself, she explains that she is really the twin sister of her husband’s wife. It sinks from there, being about as funny as a sprained ankle. Critics hated it, audiences stayed away in droves, and Garbo made the studio happy when she decided to retire shortly thereafter.
THE PROJECTED IMAGE
This month, The Projected Image is all about the Jewish experience in Hollywood. Though it begins slowly, the festival really picks up steam around the middle of the month, with several outstanding films before sinking back into the morass.
September 2: Best Bets are The Jazz Singer (1927) at 8:00 pm, if only for historical value, as it isn’t anywhere near a good film; Hester Street at 11:45, a wonderful evocation of the Jewish immigrant experience in America with standout performances from Steven Keats, Carol Kane, and Doris Roberts, and Street Scene (1931) at 4:00 am, a wonderful slice of life in the New York City of its time. And check out the cast: Silvia Sidney, Beulah Bondi, David Landau, and Russell Hopton.
September 9: Two films really stand out this night. First up at 8:00 pm is Orson Welles’ directed The Stranger, with the star-director in fine form as an escaped Nazi war criminal hiding in a New England town until he’s exposed by federal agent Eddie G. Robinson in a wonderfully understated performance. Then check out Sidney Lumet’s 1965 drama, The Pawnbroker, starring Rod Steiger as a Harlem pawnbroker trying to adapt to his changing neighborhood while haunted by his days in a Nazi concentration camp. Steiger was justly nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his performance.
FRIDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT
It’s the Friday Night Spotlight all Cinephiles will look forward to seeing - a festival of classic Pre-Code films. Most of us have seen them all before, but they are fun to watch and watch again. My role in this column will be to point out the lesser shown of the lot, God knows they are all highly recommended. Unless noted otherwise, the vast majority of the films shown are from Warner Brothers, which lacking the gloss of MGM and Paramount, and the horror gimmick of Universal, more than made up for the deficit with these real horror stories.
September 5: Try a William Wellman double feature of Safe in Hell (1931) at 12:15 pm, followed by Frisco Jenny (1932) at 1:30. The former is a sleaze classic, with Dorothy Mackaill as a whore on the run from the law who makes the mistake of hiding out in Tortuga. Besides Mackaill, there are several other fine performances in the film, including Nina Mae McKinney (one of the screen’s true beauties) and Clarence Muse as Tortuga’s only decent residents, Ralf Harolde as the Client-From Hell, and Morgan Wallace as the sleazy jailer. They don’t make ‘em any better. Follow this up with Frisco Jenny, the story of a San Francisco madam who kills a blackmailer and is prosecuted for the crime by the district attorney. The twist? He doesn’t know he prosecuting his own mother. It benefits from star Ruth Chatterton, who is at the top of her form. She later stated that this was her favorite film. It’s definitely one to catch.
At 2:45 am is one that should be recorded unless you want to say up for it - Search for Beauty (Paramount, 1934). It’s the story of three con artists (Robert Armstrong, Jean Strange, and James Gleason) just out of stir and looking for a score. They find it by backing a magazine called “Health and Fitness,” purportedly dedicated to the subject matter of its title, but in reality an excuse for showing scantily-clad men and women. To front the scheme and lend an air of legitimacy, the trio recruits two former Olympic athletes (Buster Crabbe and Ida Lupino) as editors. It’s a comedy, it’s considered Pre-Code, it’s rarely shown, and therefore worth the time for a movie buff.
September 12: A day and night devoted to classic Pre-Code. Start at 6:00 am with The Naughty Flirt (1931) and discover young Myrna Loy running rings around star Alice White in the acting department. It’s a crime that Loy had to wait until 1934 to break through to stardom. Then take a peek at When Ladies Meet (MGM, 1933) at 8:30 am, a sophisticated, intelligent drama about two women (Loy and Ann Harding) in love with the same man. Also of great interest is For the Defense (WB, 1930), with William Powell and Kay Francis in her first starring role. Powell is a smooth-talking attorney with a marvelous acquittal record, and Francis is in love with him. When he dumps her, she takes up with Scott Kolk, gets roasted, and strikes a pedestrian, killing him. Kolk gallantly takes the rap and Francis seeks out Powell to defend him.
The evening begins at 6:30 with the film that put Jean Harlow on the superstar map: Red-Headed Woman (MGM, 1932). Penned by the great Anita Loos, Harlow plays the ultimate gold digger and home wrecker. This being a Pre-Code film - she gets away with it at the end. But the fun is in seeing her get away with it, and that’s what makes this movie so compelling.
Aside from a wonderful doubleheader from Ernst Lubitsch of the type of sophisticated comedy they don’t make any longer (more’s the pity): Design For Living (Paramount, 1933) at 9:30 pm, and Trouble in Paradise (Paramount, 1932) following at 11:15 pm. There’s the wickedly lurid The Story of Temple Drake Paramount, 1933) at the relatively safe hour of 2:30 am, with Miriam Hopkins as a Southern belle kidnapped by a vicious gang of bootleggers led by Jack LaRue. And do they mean business. Believe it or not, this is a screen adaptation of William Faulkner’s novel, Sanctuary. Watch for the performance of Jack LaRue as Trigger. He is mesmerizing.
OUT OF THE ORDINARY
September 8: It’s a night of Beatrice Lillie, a stage and film performer once dubbed “the funniest woman in the world.” Unfortunately she’s all but forgotten today, replaced by so-called comics with only 1 percent of her formidable talent. The night begins at 8:00 pm with the screening of one the great forgotten comedies, On Approval, from 1944. The film was praised by director Lindsay Anderson as “the funniest British light comedy ever,” quite a recommendation. At 9:30 follows Lillie’s great silent comedy, Exit Smiling, from 1926. The plot is simple - and devastating: a theatrical company’s survival hinges on the talents of its worst actress. After seeing this, Charlie Chaplin remarked that if there was such a thing as a “female Chaplin,” it was Beatrice Lillie.
At 11:00 pm is Thoroughly Modern Millie, a charming little film from 1967 starring Julie Andrews and Mary Tyler Moore as two gold diggers during the Roaring Twenties. Lillie has a supporting role as a seemingly nice woman running a hotel for women, but who turns out to be a white slaver, with her eye on Moore’s character.
At 1:45 am is the Warner Brothers extravaganza, Show of Shows (1929), a relic from the early days of sound where everyone in it performs in sketches or sings - anything to prove that they have voices. Lillie is one of those who perform. Lastly, at 4:00 am, is the all-star Around the World in 80 Days (1956).
September 7: Airing at midnight is one of the great African-American films by one of America’s greatest directors. The film is Within Our Gates, from 1920, and it was written, produced and directed by Oscar Micheaux. The film’s complex plot tells the story of Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer), who travels to Boston to raise money for a poor Southern school for Black children where she teaches and the racism she runs into, both in the South and the North. There are various subplots about the life of Ms. Landry, and, as Leonard Maltin points out, strong scenes of lynching. Micheaux certainly does not waiver in depicting the tenor of the times for African-Americans. It’s a must for cinephiles and anyone else interested in the forgotten history of film in America, away from the glamour and glitz of Hollywood.
For those who like their agitprop served well, there’s Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 docudrama, The Battle of Algiers. Skillfully written and directed, it shows just how the French military won the battles against terrorism and lost the war to win hearts and minds. Shot in a style that evokes Italian Neo-Realism, Pontecorvo never lets up, never relaxes for a moment, to show us what the Algerian War was really like in his eyes. It was even shown in the Pentagon in 2004 to give folks there what it was like in Iraq. The parallels are striking. That’s the difference between this and the faux posturings of a Jean-Luc Godard in his 1972 atrocity, Tout va bien (Everything’s Great).
Following at the late hour of 4:15 am is the interesting Hands Over the City, from 1963). Rod Steiger is a corrupt developer who is exposed when one of his substandard buildings in Naples collapses. Director Francesco Rosi also follows the ensuing investigation into the tragedy, as the city council, corrupt themselves, are reluctant to take action. Record it - it’s one definitely worth the time.
September 9: The morning and afternoon are devoted to a mini-marathon of Aline MacMahon films. For those not yet up on this marvelous actress, check out our article here. Best Bets for the day include Silver Dollar (WB, 1932), with Eddie G. Robinson as a farmer who strikes it really rich out West. So the first thing he does in trade in his faithful wife (MacMahon) for a trophy model (Bebe Daniels). Then tune into The Mouthpiece (WB, 1932), at 9:15 am, a really first-rate tale of a rising star in the prosecutor’s office who discovers there’s more to be made on the defense side of the table. Warren William projects just the right amount of amorality needed for the role, and he receives terrific support from Sidney Fox as the innocent little stenographer from Kentucky Warren has his eye on, and MacMahon, in a familiar role as his long-suffering secretary who is in love with him. At 10:45, it’s the quirky Heat Lightning (WB, 1934), with MacMahon and Ann Dvorak as sisters running a motel-café-service station in the Mojave Desert whose day is turned upside down by the arrival of several unannounced guests, plus two bank robbers on the lam. It’s one of the last films released before the Production Code was strictly enforced. For a closer look, you can read our article on the film here. Finally, at 1:15 pm, it’s MacMahon in MGM’s Kind Lady (1935) as a woman who is blackmailed and held prisoner in her own home by Basil Rathbone and his colleagues.
September 14: Looking for a change of pace? Try Il Sorpasso (“The Easy Life,” 1963), a road picture, Italian Style. Roberto Mariani (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a shy law student who meets Bruno Cortona (Vittorio Gassman), a 40-year old bon vivant, and the two go on a road trip through the Roman and Tuscan countryside. They will spend two days together and meet each other’s families, especially Bruno’s gorgeous teenage daughter, Lilly (Catherine Spaak). It’s both extremely funny and extremely touching, thanks to a wonderful script where the characters actually have three dimensions, and the firm hand of director Dino Risi. And check out the car Bruno is driving, a 1954 Lancia Aurelia B24 Spider - one of the classic cars of Italian cinema. Sports car fans should love this film.
September 15: A 24-hour tribute to Lauren Bacall begins at 8:00 pm with the documentary, Private Screenings: Lauren Bacall. Made in 2005, it’s an entertaining look at the career of Bacall as she sits down with Robert Osborne and recalls the highs and lows of what was an extraordinary career by anyone’s standards. Then it’s on to the two films that made her in the eyes of the movie-going public: To Have and Have Not (WB, 1944) at 9:00 pm, and The Big Sleep(WB, 1946), at 11:00 pm. The tribute continues into the next day with such gems as Young Man With a Horn (WB, 1950) at 8:00 am, Dark Passage (WB, 1947) at 10:00 am, Key Largo (WB, 1948) at noon, Blood Alley (WB, 1955) at 2:00 pm, and Designing Woman (MGM, 1957) at 6:00 pm.
THE B HIVE
There are few things in cinema I love more than a B Western. And this month, TCM is airing four films by the iconic duo of Ken Maynard and Hoot Gibson. The movies are part of Monogram’s “Trail Blazers” series: two retired lawmen that can’t stay retired and become federal marshals: protecting everyone form Indian chiefs to railroad executives. Okay, so Hoot and Ken are a little past their prime. Who cares? All four films were produced in 1943 by Monogram, so we’re sure of their B pedigree.
We begin on September 6 at noon with Wild Horse Stampede. Hoot and Ken help an inexperienced sheriff (Bob Baker) prevent a crooked town boss (Ian Keith) and his gang from diverting a herd of horses badly needed by the army to protect the railroad from Indian attacks. On September 13, also at noon, Hoot and Ken star in The Law Rides Again. Here they’re out to catch crooked Indian agent John Hampton (Kenneth Hartlan), who has been using his position to steal from the tribes. In order to catch him, though, they need the help of captured outlaw Duke Dillon (Jack La Rue). Look for Western star Kenne Duncan as Sheriff Jeff. Duncan later worked for Ed Wood, Jr., appearing in Crossroads Avenger, Night of the Ghouls, and The Sinister Urge.
September 4: Ozzie Nelson and Ruby Keeler together! Yes, it could only happen on Columbia’s Sweetheart of the Campus, which airs at 11:45 am. Edward Dmytryk directed this piece of fluff about a bandleader (Nelson) and his featured dancer (Keeler) who run afoul of university bluenose Kathleen Howard when they try to open a nightclub near the university campus. Harriet’s in there, too, as a professor’s daughter who falls for Ozzie. It’s also Keeler’s last movie. In 1964 the basic plot would be redone in MGM’s For Those Who Think Young, with James Darren, Pamela Tiffin, Bob Denver, and Woody Woodbury.
September 6: It’s a women-in-prison double feature beginning at 2:45 am with House of Women (1962). It’s followed by the venerable chicks-behind-bars feature, Caged (1950).
September 7: Go ape with this double feature consisting of the original Planet of the Apes (1968) at 8:00 pm, followed by the first of many sequels, Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), at 10:00 pm.
September 10: At 3:15 am, it’s Star of the Month Melvyn Douglas in his psychotronic classic, The Vampire Bat. Made in 1933 for Poverty Row studio, Majestic Pictures, Douglas plays Karl Brettschneider, police inspector for the European town of Klineschloss. The town has been plagued of late by a series of murders. Even more suspicious, the bodies were drained of blood and had puncture wounds on their necks. Karl doesn’t believe the vampire theory, but the villagers are sure the vampire is village idiot Herman Gleib (Dwight Frye), who loves bats so much that he keeps them in his jacket pockets. Also on hand are the town doctor, Otto Van Niemann (Lionel Atwill) and his lovely assistant, Ruth (Fay Wray), who is being romanced by Karl. For what it is, The Vampire Bat is not bad. It was shot on the same Universal lot where Frankenstein and The Old Dark House were filmed.
September 12: On a day and night of classic Pre-Code films, two classic horror films are among them. If you haven’t seen this before, do catch the 1932 Paramount version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (12:45 am) with an Oscar-winning performance by Frederic March as the drug-addled Doctor Jekyll. March split the Oscar that year with Wallace Beery, who won for the Kleenex-fest, The Champ. March would be the only actor winning the Best Actor statue for a horror film until 1992, when Anthony Hopkins won for The Silence of the Lambs.
At 3:45 am, it’s Tod Browning’s misfire for MGM, Freaks (1932). It’s a story of greed, murder, and revenge set in a circus using real circus freaks. The real freaks tended to drive audiences away, and the film ended up banned in many states and countries. It wasn’t until the 1960s that it surfaced once more, this time as the feature attraction in many a Midnight Movie program. There have been many knockoffs over the years, most with ghoulish makeup, but not one has managed to capture the humanity of these people as Browning did, using them instead merely as fodder to get people into the theaters. If there are any movie lovers out there who have not yet seen this, then by all means, use the “record” button on your VCR, DVR or TiVo.
September 13: Vincent Price headlines his own psychotronic double feature beginning at 2:00 am with Madhouse (1974). Price is Paul Toombes, famed horror star. On his way to England for a TV series, he has a breakdown. Suddenly, cast and crewmembers begin to die in ways characters did in Toombes’ old movies. Peter Cushing and Robert Quarry offer support in this disappointing film.
At 3:45 am, it’s Price in the film that established him as a horror star, House of Wax (1953). House of Wax is a remake of 1932’s The Mystery of the Wax Museum; only it was made in full Technicolor and was shown in 3-D to cash in on the craze that was sweeping Hollywood in its battle with television. By the way, look for Igor, the deaf mute assistant of Price’s mad Professor Henry Jarrod. It’s none other than Charles Buchinsky in one of his early roles. Don’t know who Charles Buchinsky is? Well, in 1955 he changed his name to Charles Bronson.