A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
STAR OF THE MONTH
TCM continues its Star of the Month festival with Ann Sothern. One thing a cinephile will discern after viewing some of her films is that she was a deft actress, equally at home with drama as comedy. As one who has enjoyed her work for years, my opinion is that MGM dreadfully wasted her talent by not allowing her to appear in films that might stretch her talents as an actress, typecasting her as a B performer. It would have been most interesting to see the results if she were paired in the lead with a Gable, a Tracy, or a Stewart. When allowed that chance 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 18: There are two excellent Sothern films bring aired this night. The first, at 11:30 pm, is Panama Hattie, a 1942 offering from MGM with Red Skelton, Rags Ragland, and Lena Horne. Ann is a nightclub owner in Panama who must deal with Nazi spies. It’s strictly “B’sville,” but the antics of Ann, Red and Rags make for enjoyable viewing. The other film worth catching follows right after at 1:00 am, Lady Be Good (1941), co-starring Robert Young and Eleanor Powell. Though the film was meant as a Powell vehicle, Ann and Robert acquit themselves nicely as married songwriters constantly battling. Again, it’s wholly enjoyable thanks to Sothern.
March 25: A much better night for those of us devoted to this talented and beautiful lady. First up at 8:00 pm is the excellent A Letter to Three Wives (1948). Sothern stars with Linda Darnell and Jeanne Crain as recipients of a letter from the town flirt telling them that she has run off with one of their husbands, but neglects to say who, leaving it to them to figure it our. And this is where the fun starts. Cleverly written and wonderfully directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, this is a definite “must see” for anyone who has missed seeing it over the years, and a “gotta see again” for those who have caught it. Sothern is solid as Rita and provides hilarious support to Crain and Darnell as they try to figure out which husband it is.
Following at 10:00 pm is her Oscar nominated performance in 1987’s The Whales of August. Here Ann was sandwiched between two heavyweights of the cinema in Bette Davis and Lillian Gish and rises to the occasion, giving us a glimpse of what might have been if only she were allowed to stretch herself like this in the past.
At 11:45 pm is the underrated The Blue Gardenia (1953). Ann is telephone operator Crystal Carpenter, who shares a room with fellow operators Anne Baxter and Jeff Donnell. Anne accidentally kills the leering Raymond Burr after he tries to force himself on her at his apartment, and becomes the subject of a search by Burr’s reporter friend, Richard Conte. Sothern acquits herself well in the familiar role of the wisecracking friend. Fritz Lang, who keeps viewers on the edge throughout, directed the film in his usual inimitable style.
One other film worth noting this evening is Cry Havoc, a 1943 effort from MGM about nurses and civilians stranded on Bataan before the Japanese invasion. Margaret Sullavan is top billed as Lt. Mary Smith. She receives excellent support in this film from Joan Blondell as an ex-vaudevillian and stripper, and Sothern as a wisecracking waitress. It was Sullavan’s swan song for the studio, as management was tired of her on-the-set antics and had already groomed her replacement, June Allyson. As it airs at the awful hour of 3:00 am, we suggest recording.
March 26: In the spillover of Sothern films from the night before is a most entertaining gem airing at 7:45 am – Fast and Furious, the last attempt by MGM in 1939 to make a viable franchise out of the Joel and Garda Sloane mysteries. Joel is a rare book dealer and Garda his helpful wife in this imitation of Nick and Nora Charles. Exhibitors were clamoring for more films in The Thin Man mold and the studio created the Sloane mysteries in response. The problem with the series was the fact that the studio kept changing the leads with each new film. In the first, titled Fast Company (1938), Joel and Garda were played by Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice. Reception was positive, so the studio filmed a sequel in 1939, titled Fast and Loose. This time Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell starred as Joel and Garda. Again audience reaction was positive, so a third film was commissioned. This time Franchot Tone and Sothern portrayed Joel and Garda. Though this is a decent film, it didn’t quite do the business as the previous two. The constant changing of leads kept the audiences from making a connection, and with Powell and Loy back at work on another Thin Man film, MGM decided to pull the plug on the Sloane mysteries.
FRIDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT
In our last installment we mentioned the Friday Night Spotlight for March is devoted Roadshow Musicals. But it’s been brought to our attention that we failed to tell our readers exactly what is meant by the term “roadshow musical,” and for that we apologize. It promises to be an interesting marathon of sorts of mediocre to downright awful musicals. In the early ‘60s, the traditional musical was dying, so the studios, in an effort to revive audience interest, decided to market their product, which by this time had become quite expensive, by opening the films in certain big cites before their general release. They also included reserved seating and special ticket prices. The first of these roadshow musicals was Julie Andrews’s The Sound of Music, which did extraordinary business. Hollywood made the mistake of confusing the marketing with the quality of the product and began rushing other musicals, musicals that really weren’t that good, into production, and, as a result, suffered several big box office bombs in addition to various success stories. After awhile the financial weight of the films alone doomed them to extinction as the public began to lose interest in the traditional musical in favor of other options.
March 20: The night is devoted to the star whose performance in The Sound of Music cemented the trend of roadshow musicals: Julie Andrews. We begin at 8:00 pm with the ponderous Darling Lili, from 1970, a film whose financial baggage and mediocre story combined to make it a box office disaster that almost bankrupted Paramount. It concerned the romance between WWI American flyboy Rock Hudson and Mata Hari type Andrews, not exactly a prime idea for a musical. No wonder it bombed.
Following at 10:30 pm is another box office bomb, this one from 1968: Star! Ostensibly the story of stage legend Gertrude Lawrence, it seemed like a good idea, but the way in which it was fleshed out as a musical left a lot to be desired. In these days of dwindling interest in musicals, it took a special film to reverse the trend. Giving audiences this drivel was not the way to reverse the trend.
At 1:30 am, it’s one of the few successes of the period, 1967’s Thoroughly Modern Millie. It’s a very enjoyable film, with sprightly performances from Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Channing. Set in the Roaring ‘20s, it features several excellent songs of the era plus a good background score by Elmer Bernstein. It’s definitely one to record.
Lastly, at 4:15 am, it’s the wonderful Victor Victoria from 1982, with show-stopping performances from Julie Andrews, James Garner, Robert Preston, and even Alex Karras. Unfortunately, the rot had set in so firmly that this film was unable to stop it, let alone reverse the trend of diminishing returns for musicals. Catch it anyway, it’s well worth the time and effort.
March 27: Our final night of roadshow musicals is not exactly one to go out with, as all shown are varying shades of dreadful. The worst is first: Man of La Mancha (1972), a stillborn version of the Broadway musical with Peter O’Toole as Don Quixote, James Coco as Sancho Panza, and the great Sophia Loren totally wasted as Dulcinea. They don’t get any worse than this one.
Next up at 10:30 is Camelot from 1967. Though it’s not as bad as the others being shown this night, given its connections with the Kennedy Administration, it was released four years too late.
At 1:45 am is an excruciating film from Francis Ford Coppola, Finian’s Rainbow, from 1968. This tale of a leprechaun who follows an Irishman who stole his pot of gold all the way to the U.S. South will have viewers hating leprechauns, gold, and the South. It starred Fred Astaire in his last musical (what a way to go out) and Petula Clark (??). Clark was too intimidated to dance with Astaire and Astaire was apprehensive about singing with Clark. See it only if you must.
Last, at 4:30 am (right where it belongs) is the musical adaptation of Frank Capra’s classic, Lost Horizon. Yes, you read that right. Produced by the clueless Ross Hunter and starring Sally Kellerman and Peter Finch (Hey, don’t blame them!), this film has nowhere to go but down. And it does. They say films like this are a dime a dozen. I just want to get my hands on whoever is supplying the dimes. Mommy, please make it stop hurting. Please?
OUT OF THE ORDINARY
March 16: At 1:45, director Henri-Georges Clouzot’s gripping thriller, The Wages of Fear (1953), is scheduled. This gritty and suspenseful film documents the lives of four drifters so desperate for work that they agree to sign on to deliver nitroglycerine needed to put out a fire in an oil well. The journey is considered so dangerous, and the chances of a truck exploding so high that two trucks, each with a crew of two men, are sought to drive at a safe interval behind each other to insure that the nitro gets to the fire. A reward of $2,000 is waiting for those who survive the trip. Yves Montand (the star), Peter Van Eyck, Folco Lulli, and French silent film star Charles Vanel are the four drivers picked for the assignment. Clouzot keeps the suspense ratcheted up with each passing minute as the men encounter an almost endless steam of obstacles. In order to be shown in America, 21 minutes were excised, cutting a homosexual subtext and references to the corrupt oil company that hired the men for this suicide mission. However, what is left is still a choice exercise in adult cinema that dispenses with the obligatory happy ending Hollywood and the Code had imposed on its product.
March 17: At 8:00 pm St. Patrick’s Day brings us one of director Carol Reed’s gems: Odd Man Out (1947), the tale of an IRA leader hunted by the British after pulling off a daring robbery. Made two years before Reed made The Third Man, many critics consider this film as his real masterpiece. James Mason, in a masterful and gripping performance, plays the wounded IRA leader who is left behind in the aftermath of the robbery and must make his way to sanctuary, all the while bleeding heavily and becoming more disoriented, as he encounters strangers on the streets of Belfast who vacillate between wanting to help and wanting to turn him in for the reward. It’s a desperate struggle for Mason and his friends to get him to safety. Reed does a wonderful job of capturing the mood of the times; the paranoia, morals, and fears of the period, which are seen with an unusual degree of depth through Mason’s character. To those who love The Third Man we also recommend this gem as companion viewing. For those who haven’t seen any films of Carol Reed we heartily recommend this film as an excellent place to begin.
March 22: The late night hours feature two marvelous films from Swedish director Alf Sjoberg. First up at 2:30 am is his 1944 opus, Torment. This is a well-crafted story of high school student Jan-Erik Widgren, whose Latin teacher, nicknamed Caligula, is feared by everybody, both teachers and students. Widgren falls in love with Berta, who works in a tobacco store. As their relationship blossoms, she confides to him that she is being harassed by a mean, sadistic man. What she doesn’t tell him is that her tormentor is none other than Caligula himself. It’s a beautifully realized film, highlighted by Sjoberg’s use of photography and a first rate script from the young Ingmar Bergman.
Following at 4:15 am is Miss Julie (1951), Sjoberg’s adaptation of playwright August Strindberg’s 1888 tragedy about a love affair between an aristocratic young woman and her father’s lowly valet. As doomed lovers, Miss Julie and Jean, Anita Bjork and Ulf Palme are superb, and the cinematography by Goran Strindberg added to the direction of Sjoberg infuses the usually static Strindberg with a vitality that never goes overboard into melodrama. This may be Sjoberg’s best work and is a film definitely worth a look.
March 27: The morning and afternoon hours are dedicated to the topic of “spring,” and films with “spring” in their title are running on this day. Among them, TCM is including director Yasuhiro Ozu’s 1956 drama Early Spring, airing at 10:30 am. Early Spring is an insightful drama about a married young clerk who, bored at home and on the job, begins an affair with the office flirt, nicknamed “Goldfish” by her co-workers. It sounds like a simple story, but this is Ozu – nothing is as simple as it appears, especially in Japanese society. Ozu does a magnificent job of showing the growing alienation of white-collar workers crushed by a corporate culture that was the result of Japan’s postwar recovery. That this culture is not all its cracked up to be can be easily discerned from the frequent use of the word “dissatisfaction” throughout the movie. Ozu shows the effect the affair has on co-workers, as well as the wife, who suspects her husband of straying when he refuses to pay attention to her. Ozu also poignantly shows the reaction of Goldfish when she realizes her lover is no longer interested in continuing the affair. As with life, Ozu shows us that nothing is as simple as it appears at first, and the choices we make come back to define us later – one reason why his films are so interesting, and continue to pack a punch years later.
March 29: It’s three from Luis Bunuel, beginning at 2:00 am with Tristana (1970). A love story as only Bunuel can make it, Catherine Deneuve stars as the title character, a young orphan in the custody of well-to-do Fernando Rey, who seduces her and makes her his mistress, but eventually loses her to the younger painter Franco Nero.
At 4:00 am, it’s the groundbreaking short Bunuel made with Surrealist painter Salvador Dali, Un Chien Andalou (1929), a film that must be seen numerous times to be fully appreciated. Then, at the dawn of day, 4:30 am, it’s Bunuel’s religious masterpiece, Simon of the Desert (1965). Claudio Brook is Simon, an ascetic who spends years perched on top of a column to perform penance for his sinful nature, while ministering and occasionally performing miracles for the devotees who come to watch. It’s a clever satire of dogma, heresy and the hypocrisy of the Church, as Simon’s faults are soon revealed to be egotistic pride and self-delusion in his quest to get closer to God by sitting atop a pillar. It’s only 45 minutes long, but says more in the allotted time than most films twice as long.
March 31: “An Evening With Louis Malle” could be the title of this day’s entries, as five of his films are screened beginning at 8:00 pm with the delightful comedy Zazie Dans Le Metro from 1960. Zazie is a precocious and energetic 11-year old who comes to stay with her uncle for a few days. Her dream is to ride the Paris Metro, but when a strike quashes that plan she takes her uncle on a wild romp through the streets of Paris.
At 10:00 pm, it’s Malle’s touching drama Au Revoir Les Enfants from 1987, about a wartime headmaster who attempts to hide three Jewish children in his boarding school.
Following at midnight is Malle’s brilliant take on collaboration, Lacombe, Lucien (1987). It was one of the first films to address France’s collaboration with the Nazis, as shown by its title character, a teenage peasant who joins up with the Gestapo after being rejected by the Resistance. Malle brilliantly deals with the tortured psychology of a young man who really doesn’t understand the ramifications of his choice, which are brought home when he falls in love with a Jewish girl.
At 2:30 am, it’s Malle’s bizarrely quirky coming-of-age comedy, Murmur of the Heart, from 1971. His hero, Lucien, is a 14-year old who experiences dramas enough to provide the plots for 100 made-for-television movies: underage drinking, underage sex, blasphemy, incest, petty theft, adultery, art forgery, whoring, and drunk driving among them. We won’t give away the ending; that would be unfair. But we will say this is a film that packs one helluva punch, no matter how many times we see it.
Finally, at the graveyard hour of 4:30 am comes one of Malle’s early masterpieces, the Hitchcockian Elevator to the Gallows, a 1958 combination of noir and the “New Wave,” with stars Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet as lovers plotting to kill her husband (Jean Wall), a rich arms dealer. They pull of what they believe to be the perfect crime, but a small mistake made by Ronet leads to a succession of events that undoes all their careful planning. It was released in the United States under the title Frantic in 1962.
On March 7 TCM began showing Batman, the 1943 serial from Columbia starring Lewis Wilson as the Caped Crusader and Douglas Croft as Robin. It’s old, it’s creaky, but it’s fun. As it was made in 1943, it shows the influence of the war and it contains 15 chapters. The costumes may be 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 Saturdays.
PSYCHOTRONICA AND THE B HIVE
March 16: At 8:00 pm it’s a Western so bad it’s good. The Oklahoma Kid, from 1939, stars Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart as two of the unlikeliest cowboys that ever rode a horse. Cagney is the title hero, a sort of Robin Hood of the Plains who comes after Bogart and his gang after they kill the Kid’s father. It’s hokey, corny, and totally unbelievable. The performances by Cagney and Bogart are so outlandish that they take the film into the realm of High Camp and make it a treat to watch. Check out Cagney in a hat so big it looks as though it was wearing him. As for Bogart (described as “another authentic Westerner from Tenth Avenue” by New York Times critic Frank S. Nugent), we can tell he’s the villain because he’s dressed all in black - an ahead-of-his-time urban gangsta. And catch Cagney singing “I Don’t Want to Play in Your Yard.” Directed by the equally clueless Lloyd Bacon, the strength of the film is the seriousness with which it takes itself. And that makes it one to catch. Total entertainment.
March 19: It’s a night of Bert I. Gordon films! Yes, the man who made himself a drive-in icon with giant monster pictures such as King Dinosaur (1955), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), Beginning of the End (1957), and the incredible Earth vs. the Spider (1958). No one quite made ‘em like Bert, also known as Mr. B.I.G., as any MST 3000 fan can testify. Several of Gordon’s efforts were shown during the course of the show. TCM gives us a retrospective of Gordon’s films, with only three giant monster films among the seven scheduled.
Beginning at 8:00 pm is Tormented, from 1960, with Richard Carlson as a composer haunted by the ghost of his former lover (Susan Gordon, Bert’s daughter), who he let die. At 9:30 comes Cyclops (1957), a version of sorts of The Amazing Colossal Man. Come 10:45 pm, it’s Attack of the Puppet People (1958). Mad scientist John Hoyt has shrunk several unwilling volunteers so they can be his puppet friends. At 12:15 am, it’s The Magic Sword (1962), Bert’s attempt at fantasy. Look quickly for Vampira as a hag.
The night grinds on with The Boy and the Pirates, from 1960, airing at 1:45 am, followed by the dull thriller Picture Mommy Dead (1966) at 3:15 am. Finally, at 4:45 am, it’s the campy Village of the Giants (1965), a take off on H.G. Wells’s Food of the Gods, as a group of teenage delinquents ingest a substance that makes them grow to 30 feet tall, and take over a small town. So bad it’s fun.
March 26: A night of noir from Hammer Studios begins at 8:00 pm with Heat Wave (1954), starring Alex Nicol, Hillary Brooke, and Sidney James. Paid to Kill (1954), with Dane Clark as a ruined executive who hires a man to kill him but later changes his mind, follows at 9:30 pm. If it seems familiar, note that it was done before: in 1944 as The Whistler, starring Richard Dix and directed by William Castle.
At 11:00 pm, it’s The Gambler and the Lady, from 1952, starring Dane Clark, again, as an American expatriate gambler who tries to buy his way into British society. Finally, at 12:30 am, Zachary Scott stars in Wings of Danger, a 1952 crime drama about a cargo shipper whose ties to the underworld are exposed after a plane crash.
Although all four films are, to be kind, relentlessly ordinary, they are rarely shown and give us cinephiles a peek into both Hammer Studios and British society at the time.
March 28: The “Carry On” crew gives us a superior effort in Carry On Screaming (1966, 10:30 am), a clever spoof of Hammer horror films with Harry Corbett as a clueless detective who must stop nefarious Dr. Watt (Kenneth Williams) from kidnapping women and turning them into mannequins to be sold to department stores.