A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
By Ed Garea
Last month was “31 Days of Oscar” on TCM and we picked an Oscar winning or nominated film for each day of the month. But the theme still has three days to go in March, and so we shall begin this month with the continuation of last month’s format.
March 1: During the first three days of March, TCM is screening some relatively recent movies beginning at 8:00 pm. But tonight, there’s nothing really worth our while. The one that might be, Chicago (2002, at 10:15 pm), is one we somehow managed to miss over the years. But we will finally be watching this night. So we have chosen an older movie from the morning’s pickings, and that is 1937’s Shall We Dance, which airs at 8:15 am. Next to Top Hat, we at The Celluloid Club feel this is the best Astaire-Rogers musical, with top-flight dance numbers and great songs from George and Ira Gershwin, including “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “They All Laughed,” and the title track, “Shall We Dance?” Nominated: Best Music, Original Song (George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”), 1938.
March 2: Although the highlight of the evening is the complete Lord of the Rings trilogy, our recommendation is the science fiction classic from 1954 Them! (1:30 pm). This is an excellent combination of noir mystery, science fiction, and Red scare, with James Whitmore, James Arness, Joan Weldon and Edmund Gwenn fighting a war against ants mutated into giants by lingering radiation from the White Sands A-bomb testing. Nominated: Best Effects, Special Effects, 1955.
March 3: It’s an embarrassment of riches this night beginning at 8:00 pm. But as we’ve already mentioned The Artist and The Queen in our Best Bets for the TiVO Alert, we will choose The King’s Speech (2010, 10:00 pm). It’s the story of King George VI of England (Colin Firth), his unexpected ascension to the throne, and the speech therapist hired to correct his chronic stutter in order that he may speak succinctly to his subjects. Geoffrey Rush is memorable as the teacher and Colin Firth is marvelous as the monarch, with Helena Bonham Carter almost walking away with the film in her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth. WON: Best Picture, Best Actor (Colin Firth), Best Director (Tom Hooper) Best Writing, Original Screenplay (David Seidler). NOMINATED: Best Supporting Actor (Geoffrey Rush), Best Supporting Actress (Helena Bonham Carter), Best Cinematography (Danny Cohen), Best Film Editing (Tariq Anwar), Best Costume Design (Jenny Beavan), Best Music, Original Score (Alexandre Desplat), Best Sound Mixing (Paul Hamblin, Martin Jensen & John Midgley), Best Art Direction (Eve Stewart, Judy Farr), 2011.
STAR OF THE MONTH
The Star of the Month for March is Ann Sothern. She’s a most interesting choice, because in “A” films she was a supporting player. She only headlined B-movies. Yet much of those B-movies are much beloved by film fans everywhere, as is Sothern herself, who had great on-screen presence no matter what film she was cast in, A or B. She’s probably best known for her portrayal of the brassy showgirl with a heart of gold. In a role originally intended for Jean Harlow, Maisie (1939) began a series that lasted until 1947. Fans couldn’t get enough of Sothern as Maisie, as she seemed to be born for the role. When the film roles dried up, Sothern turned to television, playing the meddlesome Susie in Private Secretary (1953-57). After the show was cancelled, Sothern starred in The Ann Sothern Show (1958-61), and is also famed as the voice of the 1928 Porter in My Mother the Car (1965). She kept busy in the ‘70s and ‘80s working mostly in television and made-for-television movies. In 1987, she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as the neighbor of Lillian Gish and Bette Davis in The Whales of August (1987).
March 4: It’s an entire evening of Ann Sothern. However, we’re recommending Grand Exit (1935), at 8:00 pm. While it’s not her first credited film (that would be Let’s Fall in Love for Columbia in 1933), it is the earliest TCM is showing. Others worth catching are Trade Winds (1938), with Frederic March as a private eye who falls in love with Joan Bennett, the murder suspect he is trailing (Ann is great is March’s secretary), and Super Sleuth (1937), where Ann stars with Jack Oakie, at 4:15 am.
March 11: This night is devoted to Sothern’s “Maisie” films, beginning with the first in the series, Maisie (1939), airing at 8:00 pm. Even though the film was originally tailored for the talents of Jean Harlow, we would swear it was made for Sothern, as she fits the character perfectly. The other films airing this night are all roughly of the same quality, but we recommend Maisie Was a Lady (1941), showing at 12:30 am, and Ringside Maisie (1941), which airs right after at 2:00 am.
FRIDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT
The Friday Night Spotlight for March is devoted Roadshow Musicals, which we’re thinking is tied to Matthew Kennedy’s excellent study, Roadshow!: The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s. It promises to be an interesting marathon of sorts of mediocre to downright awful musicals.
March 6: This night is probably your best chance to watch a good musical, as three of them are airing: Funny Girl (8 pm), Sweet Charity (10:45 pm), and Fiddler on the Roof (1:30 am).
March 13: Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang (8:00 pm), Oliver! (10:45 pm), and Goodbye Mr. Chips (1:30 am). See what we mean about the quality declining?
OUT OF THE ORDINARY
March 5: We begin the day at 10:15 am with a wartime rah-rah morale film that became viewed in an entirely new light after the war. Tender Comrade (RKO, 1944) is the story of a group of women defense workers who share a house to save expenses while their husbands are away at war. Leading the group is alpha female Ginger Rogers. It’s not really a good movie, as the poorly-written script lets the actors down and the film itself is caught up in patriotic jingo with a healthy measure of suds near the end. But in the postwar hysteria, when Washington imagined there was a Commie under every bed, this ludicrous film is rolled out and becomes Exhibit A in the case of its writer, Dalton Trumbo, who had Red leanings, and its director, Edward Dmytryk, also suspected of Red leanings. That this film could be regarded as Communist propaganda is one of the great mysteries of the time. The other great mystery is how someone like Trumbo, who wrote this drivel and whose screenplays are masterpieces of dreck, could be considered a great writer. The movie is interesting as a time capsule and how a talented cast could almost overcome a shoddy screenplay and indifferent direction.
At 12:15 pm is one of the enduring masterpieces of film, A Matter of Life and Death (1947), from co-directors/writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. David Niven gives a performance for the ages as a pilot who was supposed to die, but through a mix-up in Heaven, not only is he alive, but he has just met the love of his life (Kim Hunter). Niven reasons that because the mix-up was not his fault, he should be given a second chance, and Heaven convenes for a trial to determine his fate. This is a beautifully moving film; each shot looks as though it was painstakingly and immaculately composed. (The cinematography by Jack Cardiff alone is reason enough to watch.) Add to this an intelligent script with the message about the power of love, and just how important life is, the excellent performances by the cast, and razor sharp direction and editing, and we are watching one of the most compelling pictures ever made.
The highlight of an evening devoted to Helen Hayes sees her starring with Clark Gable, Robert Montgomery, Myrna Loy, and the Barrymore brothers in the excellent, underrated Night Flight from MGM in 1933, airing at 10:00 pm. The film is about a fateful 24 hours in the life of an airfreight service run by martinet John Barrymore. A doctor in Rio De Janeiro awaits the receipt of life-saving serum from Santiago, Chile, for his desperately ill patient, a young boy. Rough weather makes the flight of the serum a life-threatening event in itself, and the question becomes one of whether the serum will arrive, and if it does, how many lives will be sacrificed getting it there. The all-star cast lives up to the billing, and rarely do any of the members share scenes with each other. It one definitely with catching if you haven’t yet seen it - and even if you have.
March 7: At 12:30 am, TCM is airing Jean Cocteau’s compelling film, Orpheus (1950), starring Jean Marias, Edouard Dermit, and Marie Dea as Eurydice in Cocteau’s take on the classic Greek fable. Maria Casares is fascinating as the Princess of Death, with whom the poet Orphee becomes obsessed in this modernized updating. Also take note of the superb score by Georges Auric. Even though it comes across a little heavy-handed at times, Cocteau still pulls of a hypnotic visual treat that we simply cannot imagine being made today. If ever a film deserved the title of Masterpiece, it is this one.
March 8: Tune in for a triple feature by French director Agnes Varda. We begin at 2:00 am with two short documentaries: Du cote de la cote (1958), a humorous tour of the French Riviera, followed by Diary of a Pregnant Woman, a 16-minute short of the impressions of the rue de Mouffetard in the Latin Quarter of Paris through the eyes of pregnant writer-director Varda. It’s a mix of gritty realism and surrealistic scenes containing vignettes on the feeling of nature, pregnancy, anxiety, and desire, among others, as we focus on the various visitors and denizens of the area. At 3:00 am is her 1965 feature Le Bonheur, starring Jean-Claude Drouot as Francois Chevalier, a carpenter happily married to Therese (Claire Drouot), with two children, Pierrot and Gisou (Olivier and Sandrine Druuot). One day he meets telephone operator Emilie (Marie-France Boyer) with whom he falls in love. But Francois decides that he not only wants Emilie as a lover, but also as a part of his family, which ultimately leads to tragic consequences. It’s a beautifully shot movie; its pastel colors showing the influence of Varda’s husband, Jacques Demy. It was also quite audacious when released in 1965, and, as I learned when seeing it last year for the first time since 1973, it has lost none of its shock value.
March 10: Here’s a rarely seen film, and with good reason, some might say. Symphony of Six Million (RKO, 1932) stars Ricardo Cortez as Dr. Felix Klauber in a sudsy film based on a Fannie Hurst story. He’s one of a family of German immigrants who live in a poor Jewish neighborhood in New York, and he dreams of growing up to be a doctor. Once out of medical school he works at a local clinic for the poor and is beloved by patients and colleagues alike. But his brother Magnus (Noel Madison) tells him he could be doing a lot better on Park Avenue, as he can provide for the family with a practice there. So Felix opens a practice and becomes wealthy prescribing placebos for rich hypochondriacs. Blinded by his financial success, he ignores his family, and worse, his crippled childhood sweetheart, Jessica (Irene Dunne), who teaches at the Braille Institute for the Blind. Long story short, he loses his father while performing brain surgery on the old duffer. This drives him into a depression and he givers up medicine. But when his girlfriend’s condition worsens and requires an operation, he is the only one they can turn to. It’s worth seeing for Cortez’s performance and the fact that it’s not shown very often. As to the subject matter, try The Citadel (MGM, 1938) instead for an intelligent handling of the same type of material - and without the schmaltz.
March 11: A real treat is in store at 11:30 am as TCM airs the original 1940 version of Gaslight, with Anton Walbrook as the insane criminal trying to drive Diana Wynyard insane in order to get his hands on hidden jewels. We’re used to the 1944 MGM remake with Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, but this one’s better, even down to the performances.
March 6 is the anniversary of Guy Kibbee’s birth (March 6, 1882), and TCM is honoring him with a morning and afternoon of his films, five of which are Pre-Code. Of the day’s offerings, we are most attracted to Crooner (1932, 8:30 am), starring David Manners as a struggling bandleader who becomes a singing sensation when a drunken patron hands him a megaphone to sing through; The Merry Frinks (1934, 11:00 am), starring Guy and Aline MacMahon as the heads of an eccentric family; and Three Men on a Horse (1936, 5:15 pm), an underrated comedy with Frank McHugh as a timid poet who has the uncanny ability for picking winning horses.
March 11: Karloff is disgraced hypnotist Marcus Monserrat in the 1967 thriller The Sorcerers (6:30 pm). Seeking a way back to respectability, he develops a technique for mind control based on a mesmerizing light machine. Using a bored, swinging London teen (Ian Ogilvy) as a volunteer, he and his domineering wife, Estelle (Catherine Lacy), gain total control of him and are able to experience everything he does. But Estelle becomes totally enchanted with the control she has over Ogilvy and the vicarious pleasures such control provides. Soon she’s willing the mod zombie to steal and murder. The offbeat subject matter and Karloff, as usual, make it worth a peek.
On March 7 TCM begins showing Batman, the 1943 serial from Columbia starring Lewis Wilson as the Caped Crusader and Douglas Croft as Robin. As it was made in 1943, it shows the influence of the war. In this 15-chapter serial, Batman and Robin are fighting Dr. Tito Daka, a Japanese mastermind of an espionage-sabotage cell. He has a radium powered death ray that pulverizes walls, and can turn men into zombies that do his bidding. The costumes are a bit ill fitting, but this serial is pure entertainment and has been cited by critics as one of the best serials ever made. So park the brain for a few minutes, tune in, and enjoy. All episodes air at 10:00 am.
PSYCHOTRONICA AND THE B-HIVE
March 4: The morning and afternoon is devoted to psychotronic horror and sci-fi movies. The gem in the bunch is The Last Man on Earth (1:30 pm), a 1964 Italian production based on the novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, and starring Vincent Price as the only survivor of a plague that has turned everyone else into zombified vampires. It’s been remade three times over the years, but none of the remakes managed to capture the quality of the original.
Bad Movie Lover’s Alert! Among the day’s offerings are three films that qualify for the title of “So Bad It’s Good.” First up at 8:45 am is the immortal The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962), the tender and moving tale of mad scientist, Dr. Bill Cortner (Jason Evers), whose fiancée, Jan (Virginia Leith) is decapitated during an accident on their drive to his country home. So he wraps her head and carries it to his lab, where he keeps it alive in a pan until he can find a suitable body by turning into a lounge lizard. The highlight of the movie is the scenery-chewing antics of deformed henchman Kurt (Leslie Daniel), whose philosophical conversations with Jan’s head are hysterical. The movie had long enjoyed a cult status that was only enhanced when it was shown on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Since that episode aired, heroine Jan has been known as ”Jan in the Pan,” and was played in sketch breaks by cast member Mary Jo Pehl. For years, only a censored version was shown on television, due to the so-called violent ending when the creature in the closet, a failed earlier experiment, gets out to wreak his revenge on Kurt and the Doc.
Next up at 3:00 pm is Jack Hill’s 1967 atrocity, Spider Baby or, The Maddest Story Ever Told, the story of the inbred Merrye family, whose members suffer from a genetic disease that causes them to mentally regress from the age of around 10 or so, even as they develop physically. The family’s ever-loyal chauffeur (Lon Chaney, Jr.) looks out for them and covers up their indiscretions, even murder. But trouble ensues when greedy distant relatives and their lawyer arrive to dispossess the family of its home, with predictable results.
Finally, at 6:00 pm is the sci-fi classic Night of the Lepus (1972), where rabbits artificially enlarged by bad science (and miniature sets) go on a rampage that threatens an Arizona town. Read our article on it here.
March 5: For those interested in a good horror tale, we recommend RKO’s 1943 The Seventh Victim (9:00 am), an offbeat chiller from producer Val Lewton and director Mark Robson about a young girl’s search for her missing sister, a search that takes her into the lap of an anonymous cult of Satanists in Greenwich Village in New York City that would like to remain anonymous. It’s an intelligent and definitely offbeat chiller, revealing the existence of evil in a place where one wouldn’t think it would exist.
March 7: At 10:30 am, the “Carry On” films make their return to TCM. This day it’s Carry on Spying (1964), a spoof of not only the James Bond films, but also Carol Reed’s classic noir, The Third Man. A top secret chemical formula has been stolen by STENCH (the Society for the Total Extinction of Non-Conforming Humans), and so it’s up to agent Desmond Simpkins (Kenneth Williams), and his three trainees: Charlie Bind (Charles Hawtrey), Harold Crump (Bernard Cribbins), and Daphne Honeybutt (Barbara Windsor) to retrieve it before humanity as we know it is destroyed. It’s the usual Carry On series antics, so we know what to expect. And we love it.
March 13: Friday the 13th just wouldn’t be the same without a Bowery Boys film, we guess. And TCM is airing one of their more coherent films this day, The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters (1964, 3:30 pm). Unlike many of their less successful ventures, this one is actually written by two gents known for comedy, Elwood Ullman and Edward Bernds, with the latter directing. Ullman and Bernds had previously teamed on a number of Three Stooges shorts, so they knew their way around. In this entry, Slip (Leo Gorcey) and Sach (Huntz Hall) seek to rent a vacant lot so the neighborhood kids will have a safe place to play. Unfortunately for them, the property belongs to the Gravesend family, an odd bunch, two of whom require heads for their transplant experiments, one who seeks food for her man-eating plant, and one who is a vampire. We can just take it from there. Two of the Gravesends are played by Ellen Corby and John Dehner, who went on to carve out good careers in television, particularly Corby, who became famous as Grandma Walton. It’s a cut above the usual silliness, and at 65 minutes is definitely worth catching.
March 14: It’s another “Carry On” film, and it might just be the best of the bunch. Carry On Cleo (1964, 10:30 am) is an obvious take off on Liz and Dick’s Cleopatra, only this one is of a much, much lower budget and stars Sidney James as Marc Antony and Kenneth Williams as Julius Caesar. Two Britons, Hengist Pod (Kenneth Connors) and Horsa (Jim Dale) are captured by the invading Romans and taken back to Rome. Pod spends his time creating useless inventions, but Horsa proves himself quite a warrior and is assigned as part of the bodyguard for Cleopatra (Amanda Barrie). The upshot of all this is that Hengist and Horsa end up foiling Antony and Cleo’s plot to take over Rome and are rewarded with their freedom. With Charles Hawtrey as Seneca.