Friday, October 31, 2014

Cinéma Inhabituel for November 1-15

A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea


TCM’s approach to the Star of the Month takes a distinctly different turn in November, as not one, but many stars are featured. Stars of the Silent Screen is the theme, and a great excuse to expose us to silent cinema and the great faces that drove it

November 3: We begin at 8:00 pm with the Mary Pickford classic, The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), with the scenario from her best friend, Frances Marion. It’s the first time Pickford plays a young girl, and she pulls it off admirably. I know there are many out there that can’t relate to silent features for some reason or other, but I beseech you to at least give this one a try. You may end up liking it, and perhaps even becoming a Pickford fan.

Following at 10:00 pm is the film that put Clara Bow in the Hollywood firmament: It (1927). This is a rather ordinary film enlivened by the performance of Bow as a spirited, gold-digging shop girl with designs on her handsome boss, played by Antonio Moreno. Look for Gary Cooper in a small role as a reporter.

At 11:00, it’s Gloria Swanson in one of her greatest roles as Sadie Thompson (1928), a solid version of W. Somerset Maugham's Rain. Swanson is a carefree prostitute in the South Seas who runs afoul of fire and brimstone preacher Lionel Barrymore. It was mostly unseen for many years because of the deterioration of the final reel. However, in recent years the film has been restored, with the lost footage recreated using stills and the original title cards.

Two other films merit attention this night. First, at 2:15 am is G.W. Pabst’s morality tale, Pandora’s Box (2:15 pm), the story of the amoral Lulu, who destroys every man that happens to come across her path. It made a megastar of its leading lady, expatriate American Louise Brooks, if only for a brief time. Her European films for Pabst were so explicit for their time that they were heavily censored and led to an informal blacklisting from Hollywood, which offered Brooks few roles, mostly in meaningless films. But William Wellman did offer her a part in his Public Enemy, which Brooks rejected in favor of a trip to New York to be with her then lover. The part went to Jean Harlow and sealed Brooks’s fate in Tinseltown.

Finally, at the wee hour of 4:45 am, it’s D.W. Griffith’s classic melodrama, Way Down East (1920), with Lillian Gish as a country girl who tries to return home after being seduced and abandoned by heel Lowell Sherman, with the white knight in the persona of Richard Barthelmess.

November 10: While the week prior featured female stars of the silents, tonight is dedicated to the male stars. We begin at 8:00 pm with Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik (1921), the film that vaulted him into the upper strata of stars in the ‘20s and changed his female fan base from merely rabid into a cult. Following at 9:30 pm, we get to see the great Douglas Fairbanks cavorting in The Thief of Bagdad (1924). While we can admire Fairbanks’s athleticism, fighting such terrors as a man-hating monkey and a giant underwater spider, what really gets male hearts pounding is the presence of the beautiful Julanne Johnston as the Princess Fairbanks wins, and the drop dead gorgeous Anna May Wong as a Mongol slave.

At 12:15 am comes the film that made a superstar out of John Gilbert: King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925). Gilbert is a young innocent who enlists for World War I, but soon learns the horrors of battlefield life. The film also made a star of Gilbert’s romantic co-lead, Renee Adoree, whose scenes with Gilbert thrilled audiences. Vidor supplemented this love-and-war story with some of the most realistic battle scenes filmed at the time.

Next, at 3:00 am comes the original silent Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925), with Ramon Novarro as Ben-Hur and Francis X. Bushman as Messala. The movie has gone down in Hollywood legend as the troubled production with runaway costs on location in Italy and Egypt, and unusable footage brought back to the sound stages of MGM by Louis B. Mayer and handed to assistant Irving Thalberg to mold into a watchable film. Thalberg did that by spending an additional 300 grand on a specially built replica of the Circus Maximus, where the climatic chariot race was held. Reportedly, the film cost $3.9 million to make, an astronomical sum in those days, and one that could break a studio. But the movie grossed $9,386,000. Yet, the studio ended up with a net loss of $850,000 owing to royalties and high distribution costs. Despite this, the beauty of the film cemented the status of Thalberg as Hollywood’s new resident genius.

We end with a superb performance by the greatest actor of the silent era: Lon Chaney. The film is He Who Gets Slapped (1924), starring Chaney as a scientist who loses both his invention and wife to an unscrupulous baron. The scientist then decides to lose himself in the laughter of others and becomes France’s most famous circus clown. Norma Shearer co-stars as Consuelo, a bareback rider and the object of Chaney’s unrequited love. Chaney was amazing to watch in action and this was reportedly his favorite role.


This is a really fun Friday Night Spotlight, concentrating on “Road Movies.” Many qualify as Psychotronic, but almost all are enjoyable and well worth the time.

November 7: Every film shown tonight can safely be categorized as Psychotronic. Begin with Edgar G. Ulmer’s noir classic, Detour (1945), at 8:00 pm, move on to Ida Lupino’s tense thriller, The Hitch-Hiker (1953), at 9:15. Continue with Joseph Lewis and the King Brothers classic Gun Crazy (1950), at 10:45 pm. Badlands (1972), the story of Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek) in a film based on thrill killers Charles Starkweather and Carol Ann Fugate, airs at 12:30 am, followed by Dana Andrews and Jeanne Crain giving miscreants Mimsy Farmer and her pals what for after being terrorized for most of the film in Hot Rods to Hell (1967), produced by the amazing Sam Katzman. And if that’s not enough for one night, ride along with Adam Rourke and Jack Nicholson in the cult classic, Hells Angels on Wheels, from 1967.

November 14: While not nearly a raucous as the week before, the night still delivers some powerful classics. Begin with Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957) at 8:00 pm, one of co-editor Dave Skolnick’s favorite films, and a classic for the ages. At 10:00 pm, it’s the well acted but flawed Five Easy Pieces (1970) with outstanding performances by stars Jack Nicholson and Karen Black. Watch for the great nude scene by Gloria Stivic herself, Sally Struthers. And the other one not to miss this night is William Wellman’s powerful 1933 drama, Wild Boys of the Road. Even after all these years it still retains the power to shock. Forget the sappy ending, though.


November 2: Jean-Pierre Melville Double Feature - Not only is this a double dose of Melville, but a double dose of two of his earliest films, when he was just starting out. First up, at 2:00 am, is The Silence of the Sea (check out my Best Bet on the TiVo Alert for more) from 1949, followed by The Strange Ones (aka Les Enfants Terribles, 1952), with a script by Jean Cocteau from his novel, about a brother and sister who close themselves off from the world by playing a series of fantasy-filled games with whoever enters their territory.

November 5: A forgotten film is airing at the forgotten hour of 3:00 am. That film is The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934). Made and released the same year as the von Sternberg version of the Tsarina’s life starring Marlene Dietrich, the film was lost in the shuffle. However, it is an excellent portrait of the Czarina and Elizabeth Bergner gives a wonderful performance in the part. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. acquits himself nicely in the part of Catherine’s husband. Grand Duke Peter, later Czar Peter II. I remember first coming to this film skeptically, being such a fan of the Dietrich version. But the performances of Bergner and Fairbanks astounded me, and I hope they will astound you as well.

November 9: It’s a double feature from the former Yugoslavia director Dusan Makavejev, beginning at 2:15 am with Man is Not a Bird (1966), and followed at 3:45 am by Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1968). Both deal with relationships. The first is about the romance that develops between a hairdresser and a middle-aged engineer supervising an energy project. The second deals with the relationship between a young switchboard operator and a serious young man. But while he’s away on a lengthy business trip, she gets lonely and succumbs to a colleague’s passes. When he returns he finds things are very different, which leads to tragedy. Both films are transparent satires of life in communist Yugoslavia as seen through the nature of the relationships. As they are quite unlike conventional films on the subject of relationships, a little patience is required.


November 4: At 8:00 pm it’s Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard in Paramount’s 1939 remake of Paul Leni’s classic “old dark house” thriller, The Cat and the Canary. This is the film that cemented Hope as a top-rank film comedian, as he plays a cowardly radio personality who involuntarily becomes the bodyguard to the sole heir (Goddard) of a millionaire’s most creepy estate. If Goddard’s character should die within a month, the estate will go to a person named in a sealed envelope locked in a safe. This is a wonderful film that, for some reason, is aired only rarely. For that reason alone it merits a look, not to mention that Hope and Goddard are terrific together.

November 5: At 4:30 pm, it’s Joel McCrea, Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, and Leslie Banks in the classic The Most Dangerous Game (1932). Banks is Count Zaroff, whose idea of fun is hunting people like big game on his secluded island. This is by far the best version of an O’Henry prize winning story by Richard Connell that’s been done to death ever since, so catch this one

November 8: We go from the ridiculous to the sublime beginning at 2:30 am with the atrocious Bloody Birthday (1980). Three 10-year old children in California use bats, arrows, and guns to dispatch townsfolk and teachers, Seems they were all born simultaneously during a solar eclipse, in idea lifted from Village of the Damned. Susan Strasberg and Jose Ferrer star. Following at 4:00 am is the classic chiller, Poltergeist (1982). For those interested, Poltergeist will be repeated at the more convenient hour of 4:00 pm on November 15.

November 11: Ready for some great unintentional comedy? Then watch RKO’s The Whip Hand (1951), airing at 6:30 pm. A group of former Nazis-turned-Commies intent on wiping out America through germ warfare is using an abandoned lodge in Minnesota as their headquarters. But they didn’t count on Matt Corbin (Elliott Reid), a vacationing magazine writer who stumbles across a lake where all the fish have died. None of the locals are willing to talk about it, which only whets his appetite and causes him to investigate further, eventually learning the truth and flushing the godless atheists right out of their wormhole. Folks, you have to see this one to believe it. It was originally filmed as The Man He Found, a story about Hitler relocating to America and planning germ warfare. But super-patriot Howard Hughes changed the evildoers to Communists, shooting new footage, to the dismay of director William Cameron Menzies, who deserved better. As with all his films, Menzies also served as the art director.

November 15: At 6:00 pm, it’s Charlton Heston in the dystopian Soylent Green from 1973. Heston is a cop in the year 2020 who uncovers the deadly secret behind overpopulated America’s favorite snack food. It’s also the last film of the great Edward G. Robinson, and he is clearly the best thing in it, but to be truthful, at least Heston doesn’t stink up the joint as usual.

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