A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
STAR OF THE MONTH: ANTHONY QUINN
Wow. This month, TCM has picked not only a star, but a superstar whose name is rather synonymous with the great epics that came out in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Quinn is also an actor who rose up the career ladder of Hollywood, going from extra to bit player to supporting actor, to lead, and finally to superstar. The amazing thing about Quinn, however, is how many bad movies he made, not just studio programmers, but lead roles, and this could probably be attributed to the fact that Quinn reached his apex just as the studio system collapsed. Actors had to choose on projects quickly and usually with only the advice of an agent.
April 1: It’s a night of Quinn at his best, starting at 8:00 pm with Viva Zapata! (1952). Quinn won a Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Eufemio Zapata, brother of revolutionary Emiliano, played by Marlon Brando. It’s a rousing film, directed by Elia Kazan with his usual verve.
It’s followed at 10:15 pm by the film Quinn is probably best known for amongst film buffs – Zorba the Greek (1962), and the performance for which he should have gotten the Oscar. Quinn is a lusty, larger-than-life laborer in Crete who helps stifled English writer Alan Bates discover the meaning of life. It’s a performance that solidified Quinn as one of the greatest slob-actors of all time. Irene Papas is also on hand as a widow to whom Bates finds himself attracted.
To 12:45 am it’s yet another great slob role for Quinn, this time as the painter Paul Gauguin in Lust for Life (1956). Although Kirk Douglas stars as tortured painter Vincent Van Gogh, Quinn more than holds his own, as witnessed by his Supporting Actor Oscar for the part.
At 3:00 am, we see Quinn in a supporting part, that of oily dancer Murray Burns in the James Cagney-Ann Sheridan soap opera, City for Conquest, from WB in 1940. It’s Cagney’s show as an easy-going sort of fellow who turns to boxing to help support his brother and show his girl, Sheridan, that he does have ambition. Of course, he goes blind from illegal in-ring shenanigans and ends up selling newspapers in a kiosk, but there’s that big scene when he gets to listen to little brother Arthur Kennedy conduct his own symphony at Carnegie Hall. With Donald Crisp as perhaps the only honest boxing promoter known to history and Elia Kazan as a gangster. Want to see really bad acting? Just check out Kazan’s performance in this movie and wonder no more as to why he went into directing.
Finally, at 5:00 am, it’s Quinn in the 1941 WB programmer, Knockout, as a slimy boxing promoter who manipulates prizefighter Arthur Kennedy. Could be better, could be worse, but Quinn is fine.
April 8: We begin at 8:00 pm with arguably the best film Quinn ever made. It’s La Strada (1954) from director Frederico Fellini. Quinn is masterful as Zampano, a crude and brutal carnival strongman who buys simple peasant girl Gelsomnia (Giulietta Masina) from her family to be his wife and help him with the act. Though he treats her worse than a beaten dog, all is fine until the day she encounters a tightrope walker known simply as “the Fool” (Richard Basehart), who changes everything. Quinn is wonderful, but it is Masina who dominates the film; his Method acting no match for her beautiful simplicity. (And yet, the producer who put up the money for the film specifically did not want Masina for the film. Fellini had to tell him to forget it and looked elsewhere for funding.) I know a lot of would-be fans who shy away from this movie because of all the analysis. Forget all that nonsense and just enjoy the movie for what it is: a beautiful, simple tale of carnival life. The only thing towards analysis I will say here is that the circus is a frequent theme of Fellini, perhaps mirroring Shakespeare’s line about "all the world being a stage..."
Hey, here’s one for the books. At 10:15 we can tune in to see a film starring Quinn made for Monogram! Yes, Monogram! It’s Black Gold (1947), a sentimental tale of an American Indian (Quinn) who discovers oil on his land and trains (get this) an adopted Chinese orphan (Ducky Louie) to ride his beloved thoroughbred. Why Monogram? Because it was the first studio to offer Quinn’s a starring role and he got to co-star with first-wife Katherine DeMille (daughter of C.B.). Don’t worry, though. It’s a fine film with an excellent performance from Quinn and first-rate direction from none other than Phil Karlson. This was also the first Monogram film to be made in color and was released under their Allied Artists label so filmgoers wouldn’t merely pass it by.
At midnight, it’s Dream of Kings (1969) from director Daniel Mann and National General. The plot is basically Zorba in America as Quinn plays a middle-aged man living on the margin, married to Irene Papas, with a sick young boy he wants to take to Greece, convinced the change of scenery will make him better. The only thing he lacks is money, and the film is wound around his attempts to get the money. Suds aplenty.
At the lonely hour of 2:00 am, it’s the excellent Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962). This production from Columbia, written by Rod Serling and produced by David Susskind, was the film version of the 1956 teleplay starring Jack Palance as Mountain Rivera, a broken-down boxer who can no longer fight. Quinn plays Rivera in the film, along with Jackie Gleason as his duplicitous manager and Mickey Rooney as his sympathetic trainer. In the teleplay, things work out for Rivera, but in the film there is no escape as Gleason sells his contract to wrestling promoters to cover gambling debts, and Rivera is stuck.
3:45 am finds Quinn back in another supporting ethnic role, this time that of the Emir of Daibul in RKO’s Sinbad the Sailor (1947). It’s followed at 5:45 am by Larceny, Inc (1942), a funny comedy starring Edward G. Robinson as an ex-con who, with his pals, buys a decrepit luggage store in order to burrow into the vault of the bank next door. Things go wrong when Robinson unexpectedly makes the store a success. Quinn is an old cellmate of Robinson’s whose robbery scheme Eddie G. stole and who now wants his cut.
April 15: It’s evening of epics. At 8:00 pm comes Barabbas (1962) with Quinn as the thief who was pardoned so Jesus could take his place, followed at 10:30 pm by The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968). Quinn is a humble Russian Roman Catholic priest released from hard labor in Siberia and sent to Rome to give the U.S.S.R. a foothold in the Vatican. He is quickly elevated to cardinal, and when the Pope dies, Quinn succeeds him, but on the eve of his coronation he makes an announcement that will change the Church forever.
Next is Lawrence of Arabia (1962) at 1:15 with Quinn in a supporting role as Auda Abu Tayi, one of Lawrence’s Arab allies against the Ottoman Turks. And finally, at 5:15 am, it’s Thieves Fall Out, a 1941 programmer from Warner Bros. starring Eddie Albert as a dreamer who has to rescue his kidnapped grandmother from Quinn and his gang.
FRIDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT
The Friday Night Spotlight in April is devoted to special effects man and art director A. Arnold Gillespie. Gillespie was nominated for Oscars 13 times from 1939 to 1963 (winning four times) for his work with special effects, which were a lot more challenging then than now, with the advent of CGI. He joined MGM in 1925 as set designer for Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925), and over the year worked at the studio in different capacities (set designer, art director) until becoming head of the Special Effects Department in 1936. We run down the films being aired and his role in them.
April 3: We begin at 8:00 pm with The Wizard of Oz (1939, Special Effects). 10:00 pm – San Francisco (1936, Associate Art Director). 12:15 am – Tarzan and His Mate (1934, Art Director). 2:15 am – Mutiny on the Bounty (1935 - Associate Art Director).
April 10: It’s Test Pilot at 8:00 pm (1938, Special Effects). 10:15 pm – Boom Town (1940, Special Effects). 12:30 am – Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944, Special Effects). 3:00 am – The Good Earth (1937, Associate Art Director).
OUT OF THE ORDINARY
April 5: A double feature from Italian director Raffaello Matarazzo is on tap for the wee hours of the morning. Matarazzo is not as nearly well known as fellow directors Vittorio De Sica, Frederico Fellini and Roberto Rossellini, but his films were immensely successful with audiences in Italy. Despite this, he was not popular with the literati, who looked down on his films as mere soap-opera melodramas with wildly convoluted plots, overstated Catholic symbolism, and an intention to uphold the sacred family unit no matter what. Leftist critics labeled him a reactionary; Catholic critics deplored what they called his overheated sexuality, and mainstream critics called his work cheap, frivolous and a pale copy of neorealism.
However, with the passage of time a new generation of critics began to take up the cudgels, seeing in Matarazzo emotionally rich and elegantly woven tapestries of calamity that reached out to postwar Italian audiences in need of emotional relief. First rehabilitated by French critics in the ‘60s and Italian critics in the ‘70s, Matarazzo is now viewed as akin to Douglas Sirk, Vincente Minnelli, and Luchino Visconti as one of the treasures of the golden age of ‘50s melodramas.
The double feature begins at 2:45 am with his 1950 drama, Tormento, the story of Anna, a young woman in Naples whose stepmother hinders her life. She becomes mixed up with Carlo, who plans to liquidate his business as to have the funds necessary to marry. But he is blamed when his partner is murdered, and although innocent, he’s found guilty and given a long sentence. Now with a young daughter, Anna must return to her parents, and her stepmother stipulates that in order for the child to be taken care of, Anna must commit herself to a home for unmarried mothers.
Following at 4:30 am is Chi e senza paccato (Who Is Without Sin? 1952), a melodrama starring Amedeo Nazzari as Stefano, a smuggler who left the business and emigrated to Canada to work as a woodcutter. He is to be joined by Maria Nermoz (Yvonne Sanson), a woman he married by proxy. But Maria has to care for younger sister Lisette (Anna Maria Sandri), whose relationship with the rich young son of a local countess results in her pregnancy. On the instructions of the countess, a servant brings the baby to the Church and abandons him. Maria rushes to retrieve the baby, a son named Nino, but she’s mistaken as the one who abandoned the child. Lisette dies soon afterward and Maria’s in a pickle, sent to jail for child abandonment. Stefano, thinking Maria guilty annuls the marriage. 12 years pass. Stefano has made his fortune in Canada while Maria has wandered about Italy working various jobs after her release from prison. The truth finally comes out and the couple is happily reunited. I must admit that I haven’t yet seen this one, but if it’s anything like Tormento, which I’ve seen, I’m in for a lot of suds.
April 6: At 3:30 pm comes a 1933 film from MGM that one must see to believe. It’s Gabriel Over the White House, starring Walter Huston as President Judson Hammond, a crook only interested in what he can get out of the American people. His high living results in an auto accident, from which he emerges a changed man, for while recuperating he’s received a visit from the Archangel Gabriel. Now acknowledging that the country is in a mess of his doing, he vows to set America right. He fires the crooked cabinet members he’s appointed and goes before Congress to grant him the powers of a dictator in order to fight crime and make world peace. Congress (naturally or we wouldn’t have a film) grants him those powers and he slashes through bureaucracy to fight crime, cut unemployment, get the country back on its feet and bully the other nations into signing a permanent peace. In the end, his job finished, he dies a martyr. This one’s definitely a keeper.
April 12: It’s a Rudolph Valentino double feature! First up at midnight is The Young Rajah from 1922. Valentino plays an All-American boy who learns he is really an Indian ruler and must desert sweetheart Wanda Hawley to reclaim his throne. Son of the Sheik (1926), his last film, follows at 1:00 am. Here Valentino is an Arabian knight who falls for dancer Yasmin (Vilma Banky). Captured by her father, Valentino comes to believe that she tricked him, but later learns it was one of her jealous admirers who did the deed. He follows Yasmin to a dancehall where he has it out with the guy who betrayed him in a glorious knife fight. He emerges unscathed with Yasmin in his arms. The films are a genuine hoot and should be seen by anyone interested in Valentino’s grip on his fans, both female and male. Many male fans of Valentino dressed rather provocatively, giving rise to Valentino as possibly being the founder of the metrosexual look.
Following Valentino is a double feature of director Jean Renoir. At 2:25 am it’s French Cancan from 1955 starring Jean Gabin as a café proprietor who turns a laundress into a dancing star and revives the Cancan. It’s a wonderful evocation of the famous Moulon Rouge in glorious Technicolor, and anything with Jean Gabin is always worth seeing.
At 4:00 am, it’s The Golden Coach (1953), an utterly delightful film about an acting troupe touring South America in the 18th century and the amorous adventures of its star, played by the exquisite Anna Magnani. A flop upon release, it has since become one of Renoir’s most acclaimed films.
PSYCHOTRONICA AND THE B HIVE
April 1: Beginning at 12:15 pm, it’s an afternoon of Abbott and Costello’s films made outside their home studio of Universal. In order – Rio Rita (MGM, 1942, 12:15), Lost in a Harem (MGM, 1944, 2:00), Abbott and Costello in Hollywood (MGM, 1945, 3:45), Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (WB, 1952, 5:15), and Jack and the Beanstalk (WB, 1952, 6:30). The last two, being in color, should interest the kiddies, but overall, the boys never performed well outside Universal for some reason, even though at MGM they had better production values.
April 4: At 2:15, it’s The Hunger, the 1983 cult favorite from MGM with Catherine Deneuve as the ageless vampire, David Bowie as her 300-year old lover, and Susan Sarandon as a gerontologist who becomes the object of Deneuve’s affection. Trashed by many critics and a box office bomb when originally released, it’s imaginative style gave it a new life on cable, VHS and laser disk. It has also influenced a new generation of vampire movies from Fright Night and The Lost Boys to the Twilight series.