Sunday, February 15, 2015

Cinéma Inhabituel for February 16-28

A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

At this point, we’re midway through TCM’s annual salute to the Oscars, to which the month of February is devoted, along with the first three days in March. We received some good feedback on our special format for this festival, so we’ll continue with what obviously works.

But before we go any further, let us remind readers that the Academy Awards will air February 22, which brings us to our subject. Over the years, many special Oscars and related awards, such as the Irving G. Thalberg Award and the Jean Hersholdt Award, have been handed out to deserving recipients.

But there is one person long overdue for an honorary award. This person has done more for the movies – and the Academy than anyone else in the last 20+ years. It’s high time this person is honored for his unique contributions to the craft of film and our enjoyment of it.

That person is none other than Robert Osborne.

Osborne has been the host for Turner Classic Movies ever since the channel went on the air back in 1994. During this time, he’s been a frequent and welcome guest in our living rooms, introducing classic movies, hosting TCM shows about movies, and reaching out to the public about movies with fan fests, cruises and bus tours. He is the face of TCM, and, unfortunately, we’re not going to have his robust presence around forever. At a time when television stations were eschewing old films for infomercials, TCM has carried the banner for cinephiles in America and abroad. TCM has become the place where movies are the only theme of the day. Whereas other movie channels such as AMC, Sundance, and IFC have deteriorated into catch-alls for recent movies and television reruns, TCM not only has remained faithful to its mission, but it’s also become part of the popular filmgoer consciousness. It’s a place where the film lover can enjoy the spectrum of movies, from Citizen Kane to The 400 Blows to even Plan 9 From Outer Space. TCM doesn’t attempt to dictate film culture as much as celebrate it, and that is largely due to the leadership of Osborne.

So listen up Hollywood. If you wish to bestow an honorary Oscar on anyone, it should be Robert Osborne.

February 16: Our choice for the day airs at 8:00 pm, the 1959 sex comedy from Universal, Pillow Talk. The plot is relatively simple: Rock Hudson is pursuing Doris Day. However, there is a very clever twist they begin feuding with each other over sharing a party line. They later meet in real life and are attracted to each other, but do not realize who the other really is. The chemistry between Rock and Doris is great, as is the support from Tony Randall, Thelma Ritter, Nick Adams, Allen Jenkins, and Marcel Dalio. WON: Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen (Russell Rouse (story), Clarence Greene (story), Stanley Shipiro (s/p), & Maurice Richlin (s/p). NOMINATED: Best Actress (Doris Day), Best Supporting Actress (Thelma Ritter), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color (Richard H. Riedel, Russell A. Gausmam, & Ruby R. Levitt), & Best Music, Original Score, Comedy or Drama (Frank DeVol), 1960.

February 17: Even though we’ve seen it at least a gazillion times, our choice is Psycho (midnight). Need we say more? NOMINATED: Best Actress (Janet Leigh), Best Director (Alfred Hitchcock), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black and White (Joseph Hurley, Robert Clatworthy, & George Milo), 1961.

February 18: Billy Wilder directed and wrote many a classic for the screen, but none better than The Apartment, which airs at 8:00 pm. It’s a witty, cynical story of a corporate climber (Jack Lemmon) who loans his apartment key to various executives for their extramarital trysts. His scheme backfires, however, when he falls for his boss’s latest girlfriend (Shirley MacLaine). WON: Best Picture, Best Director (Billy Wilder), Best Writing, Story and Screenplay - Written Directly for the Screen (Billy WilderI.A.L. Diamond), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black and White (Alexandre Trauner, Edward G. Boyle), Best Film Editing (Daniel Mandell).NOMINATED: Best Actor (Jack Lemmon), Best Actress (Shirley MacLaine), Best Supporting Actor (Jack Kruschen), Best Cinematography, Black and White (Joseph LaShelle), Best Sound (Gordon Sawyer), 1961.

February 19: We’re going with a rather offbeat choice for this day, A Hard Day’s Night, which airs at 3:30 am. Until this film, rock ‘n’ roll films all followed the same template and were totally predictable. Director Richard Lester drew on his background directing television commercials, and combined with the influence on the French New Wave, gave the public a totally different take on the rock ‘n ’roll film. All the boys had to do was to be themselves, as the plot was paper-thin. Lester and the boys tried to strike gold again with a sequel of sorts, Help! However, placing the Beatles in a film where they really could not play themselves proved a detriment, as did the tired Bond spoof plot. NOMINATED: Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen (Alun Owen), Best music, Scoring of Music, Adaptation or Treatment (George Martin), 1965.

February 20: Today’s recommendation is a film from the early days of sound, in the days before film crews became familiar with the new technology and just what it could do other than provide spoken dialogue. The Big House, from MGM in 1930, airs at 8:30 am and can be said to be the granddaddy of all prison pictures. It wasn’t so much that the cast spoke, no, it was what they said and how they said it. That’s what makes The Big House such a remarkable film. Credit should go to screenwriter Frances Marion, who toured San Quentin interviewing inmates with notebook in hand and ears wide open. WON: Best Writing, Achievement (Frances Marion), Best Sound, Recording (Douglas Shearer). NOMINATED: Best Picture, Best Actor (Wallace Beery), 1930.

February 21: At their height no one made comedies like Laurel and Hardy. Way Out West (1937), which airs at 12:45 pm, is one of their best. Stan and Ollie are sent to deliver the deed to a gold mine to the daughter of the prospector who worked the mine, but Stan inadvertently spills their mission to bad guy James Findlayson, who steers them to the wrong woman. Now they have to get it back to the right person, and they do so in hilarious style. The film moves along, without being waylaid by a useless romantic subplot, and we get to see Stan and Ollie do a classic soft shoe. NOMINATED: Best Music, Score (Marvin Hatley), 1938.

February 22: The great thing about TCM is that even during a month when Oscar is being saluted, we viewers can go from the sublime to the ridiculous as long as it’s nominated for an Academy Award. So, in keeping with this philosophy, we recommend the 1971 laff riot, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, which airs at 7:30 am. It’s Hammer’s silly sequel to its silly One Million Years, B.C., with Playmate Victoria Vetri taking over as head cavewoman from Raquel Welch. The film is a feast for the eyes, for besides the gorgeous Vetri, there’s the excellent stop-motion animation of Jim Danforth and Roger Dicken. The dialogue, or what passes for it in the movie, is limited to 27 words, which is 26 words too many. NOMINATED: Best Effects, Special Visual Effects (Jim DanforthRoger Dicken), 1972.

February 23: 1939 was a banner year for movies, to say the least. And one film from that year that is often overlooked is Of Mice and Men, which will be shown at 12:15 pm. It was a breakout film for its two leads, Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney, Jr. Chaney, in what is the best performance of his life, is the tragic Lennie, with Meredith as George, who looks out for him as they drift from job to job. The film also spurred a classic animated scene from cartoon director Tex Avery, who would kid the film by placing a Lenny type character in his cartoons, usually asking Bugs Bunny, “Which way did he go, George? Which way did he go?” NOMINATED: Best Picture, Best Sound, Recording (Elmer Raguse), Best Music, Scoring (Aaron Copland), Best Music, Original Score (Aaron Copland), 1940.

February 24: Again we are recommending a film not usually thought of as Academy award material. But 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, which airs at 8:30 am, is a delightful fantasy starring Tony Randall as a Chinese magician who uses his magical powers and leaves a Depression-era Western town better off than it was when he arrived. Randall is magnificent in the part, with wonderful make-up by William Tuttle and special effects wizardry by Jim Danforth. It’s a film the entire family can enjoy, and since it’s in color, the kids will have no objections to watching. WON (Honorary Award): Outstanding Make-Up Achievement (William Tuttle), NOMINATED: Best Effects, Special Visual Effects (Jim Danforth), 1965.

February 25: Again, in searching for the unusual, we have come up with another underrated gem. It’s Once Upon a Honeymoon, which is scheduled for noon. Ginger Rogers is delightful as a social-climbing ex-burlesque queen who thinks she’s hit the mother lode when she marries Baron Von Luber (Walter Slezak). What she doesn’t know is that the Baron is a Nazi bigwig. It’s up to radio commentator Cary Grant to rescue Ginger from her predicament and help her escape from Europe. The film contains an interesting, and much criticized sequence, where Grant and Rogers are mistaken for Jews and briefly interned in a concentration camp, and there are some dull stretches, but overall, it’s a fascinating time capsule of the depth to which the Nazis were perceived in the early days of the war. NOMINATED: Best Sound, Recording (Stephen Dunn), 1943.

February 26: One the best political thrillers to emerge in the ‘60s was directed by Greek exile Costa-Gavras. The movie, Z, which is showing at 11:00 am, differs right at the start with its unusual version of the standard disclaimer about a resemblance to real people or events being coincidental. Costa-Gavras tells us right from the get-go that this movie's resemblances are on purpose. Based on the novel of the same name from Greek writer Vasilis Vasilikos, it’s the thinly disguised story of the 1963 assassination of Grigors Lambrakis, an antiwar and liberal member of the Greek parliament. He was also a physician and a highly popular athlete in addition to being a politician. Lambrakis was murdered in the same manner as his character in the film, known as The Deputy, and played by Yves Montand: he was bludgeoned in the head by two extremists and died from bran injuries a few days later. Over half a million people came to his funeral, and reaction from his death led to the resignation of the prime minister and the beginnings of a progressive political movement that would remain influential for years to come. The repercussions would eventually lead to a military coup in 1967 that ushered in a repressive regime. Costa-Gavras released Z in 1969, and the ruling cabal promptly banned the film. It’s a rather talky film, but entertaining nonetheless, and one certainly worth catching. WON: Best Foreign Language Film (Algeria), Best Film Editing (Francoise Bonnot). NOMINATED: Best Picture (Jacques Perrin, Ahmed Rachedi), Best Director (Costa-Gavras), Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Jorge SemprunCosta-Garvas), 1970.

February 27: Speaking of politics, we return this day to a film made during the prehistoric days of talkies, when the microphone and the acting – was static. But don’t let that hold you back, especially when the film is Disraeli (airing at 8:45 am), and its star is the great George Arliss. In this remake of his 1921 silent take on the subject, Arliss is marvelous to watch, and the addition of sound makes him even more appealing as the famous English prime minister, who in this film uses all his skills to prevent Russia from dominating British India, which he accomplishes by blocking the efforts of a well-placed female spy and secretly purchasing control over the Suez Canal. And if that wasn’t enough, Disraeli still finds time to play matchmaker to Charles – Lord Deeford (Anthony Bushell) and Lady Clarissa Pevensey (Joan Bennett). The great prime minister was a secret yenta. While the film itself should be taken with a grain of salt, it is noteworthy as a showcase for the many talents of George Arliss, who had played Disraeli on stage as well as film. No matter what he’s in, Arliss is always worth watching. WON: Best Actor (George Arliss). NOMINATED: Best Picture, Best Writing, Achievement (Julien Josephson), 1930.

February 28: On this last day of the month we bring attention to a film that was not only a 180-degree turn for its star, Robert Montgomery, but was also a breakout role of sorts for his starlet co-star. The film is 1937’s Night Must Fall (playing at 7:15 am). It’s the story of a young woman who slowly comes to the realization that the brutal killer stalking the countryside is none other than the genial handyman her curmudgeonly aunt had recently hired. Montgomery is terrific as the killer, Danny, who charms his way into the household of Mrs. Bramson (Dame May Whitty) by playing on her vanity. Montgomery sought the role against the wishers of his boss, Louis B. Mayer, who believed that playing a psycho killer would do his career irreparable harm. But Montgomery was tired of playing the debonair and witty leading man and was looking for roles that would provide more challenge. The film was also a breakout for costar Rosalind Russell, who until this point has been cast as the ditzy, empty-headed socialite, usually taking roles that Myrna Loy had turned down. Russell was an intelligent actress, and here gets a chance to play off that intelligence. It’s a fascinating change of pace for the co-stars and we are the beneficiaries. NOMINATED: Best Actor (Robert Montgomery), Best Supporting Actress (Dame May Whitty), 1938.

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