A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
STAR OF THE MONTH
The Star of the Month this May is Sterling Hayden, who made quite a mark on and off the screen. Hayden made his mark in action films, whether film noir or Westerns, and managed quite a long and successful career. Off the screen, his military service, working for OSS in World War II, took him to Yugoslavia, where he worked with Tito’s partisans. This close affiliation led him to join the Communist Party briefly after the war, and he was active in supporting the Communist-controlled painter’s union in its quest to absorb other unions. Called before the House on Un-American Activities Committee, Hayden confessed his past affiliations and named names. Hayden’s then-wife, Betty de Noon, said that the Committee, having a list of all known Communists in the U.S., already knew the names her husband provided. In later years, Hayden repudiated his cooperation with the committee, stating in his autobiography that he has held himself in contempt ever since.
May 6: Featured this night are some of Hayden’s better-known films and performances beginning at 8:00 pm with The Killing (1956) for director Stanley Kubrick. Following at 9:45 is John Huston’s masterful The Asphalt Jungle (1950). At 11:45, it’s Crime Wave (1954), a neat little B from Warner Bros. with Hayden as a cop. The last noteworthy film airs at 1:15 am, the underrated Suddenly (1954), with Hayden as a sheriff of a small California town (named Suddenly) who must confront Frank Sinatra and his band of assassins, who are in town to kill the president.
May 13: At 8:00 pm, it’s the wonderfully ridiculous Zero Hour! (1957). A flight crew suddenly falls ill to ptomaine poisoning during a flight from Winnipeg to Vancouver. The only man capable of taking over is ex-pilot Ted Stryker (Dana Andrews), but his experiences as a pilot in the war have given him a distinct fear of flying. If this all sounds familiar, it is, for it formed the plot of the hilarious Airplane! (1980). Hayden plays the Robert Stack role in this film.
The rest of the night is so-so, with The Golden Hawk (1952), a pirate saga with Rhonda Fleming as a female pirate, at 9:30; Ten Days to Tulara (1958), a dud thriller, at 11:15 pm; and the Korean War actioner, Battle Taxi (1955), at 12:45 am.
FRIDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT
The Friday Night Spotlight for May is an excellent one, devoted to the films of Orson Welles. This is great, because it’s almost like having two Stars of the Month, except for the fact that, as a director, and sometimes actor, Welles wasn’t that prolific.
May 1: The evening begins with what are arguably Welles’s two greatest films – Citizen Kane (1941) at 8:00 pm, and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) immediately following at 10:15 pm. Even though Ambersons was taken away from Welles by the studio, re-edited, and new scenes were shot, enough of Welles’ original vision comes across in this portrait of turn-of-the-century Midwestern America.
At midnight, it’s Welles as an actor in the rarely seen Jane Eyre (1944) from 20th Century Fox. Welles plays the mysterious Mr. Rochester and Joan Fontaine is the title character in this slow-moving adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel.
Lastly, at 1:45 am, we’re in for a real treat. It’s Too Much Johnson (1938), a farce based on portions of a 1912 play by William Gillette, a prominent actor/dramatist best known for his stage interpretation of Sherlock Holmes. Most film fans will say that Citizen Kane was Welles’s directorial debut, but the truth is that he directed three other films before making Kane, and this is one of them. Welles never completed the film, and even if he had it wouldn’t have been shown as a regular movie, as it was meant to be part of a stage production by the Mercury Theatre, the New York troupe founded by Welles and producer John Houseman. The film had been considered lost for years, but in 2013, 10 reels were discovered at a warehouse in Pordenone, Italy, a major center of film culture renowned for its annual festival of silent cinema. The footage was sent to the George Eastman House in the U.S., where the film was stabilized and transferred to modern film stock. I’ll be setting my recorder to capture this one for sure.
May 8: More familiar Welles classics air tonight, led off at 8:00 pm by the restored version of his 1958 noir, Touch of Evil. At 10:00 pm, it’s the wonderful The Lady From Shanghai (1948), with Welles as a drifter who gets tangled up with a corrupt tycoon (Everett Sloane) and his beautiful wife (Rita Hayworth).
At 11:45 pm, it’s the overrated Mr. Arkadin (1962), directed by and starring Welles as a famous tycoon with a shady past that a blackmailer is attempting to exploit. Lastly, at 1:45 am, it’s a film Welles co-wrote (with Joseph Cotten), co-produced, and was said to have directed: Journey Into Fear (1943). It’s yet another project RKO took away from him, and in later years he denied directing it. But there are definite signs that Welles did at least direct some scenes, as they bear his unmistakable touch. Everything aside, it’s a well-written and acted thriller, and those who haven’t yet seen it should take it in.
May 15: Anyone for Shakespeare? Airing tonight – three of Welles’s adaptations of Shakespeare. They are interesting, to say the least, and very rarely shown on television. Starting at 8:00 pm, it’s Chimes at Midnight, aka Falstaff (1965), with Welles as Shakespeare’s knight errant. Welles draws mainly from Henry IV and adds scenes from other plays to complete a portrait of the larger-then-life Falstaff; with Jeanne Moreau, John Gielgud, Margaret Rutherford, and Fernando Rey.
At 10:15 pm, it’s Welles’s take on Othello – The Tragedy of Othello, The Moor of Venice (1952) with Welles as the celebrated Moorish general and Micheal MacLiammoir brilliant as the scheming Iago. Also with Suzanne Cloutier as Desdemona, and Doris Dowling as Bianca. Look for Joseph Cotten and Joan Fontaine in bit parts.
At midnight, it’s Macbeth (1948), from Republic Studios, believe it or not. Welles is the Scottish warlord, and Jeanette Nolan (in her film debut) shines as Lady Macbeth. It’s a moody and atmospheric adaptation shot in bizarre sets to emphasize its theatricality. I’ve never forgotten it since I first saw it as a teenager, my first exposure to Shakespeare.
OUT OF THE ORDINARY
May 3: At 2:00 am, it’s director Akira Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai (1954). There’s little I can add to what’s already been said about this adventure about a 16th century Japanese village that hires samurais to protect them from bandits. Of course, it was remade in America as The Magnificent Seven in 1960, but it has also influenced scores of filmmakers from Sam Peckinpah to Arthur Penn.
May 9: Tune in at 12:45 am for James Whale’s original Show Boat (1936), with Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, and the magnificent Paul Robeson (singing “Old Man River”). It’s miles ahead of the tepid 1951 MGM remake. It might seem unusual for Whale, who specialized in horror films, to direct this musical, but he did and it was an excellent job: the film is paced well, never dragging for a minute, and his attention to detail gives us a better look at the setting.
May 10: From Russia, it’s The Ascent (1977), the last film from renowned Soviet director Larisa Shepitko and a film I’ve been yearning to see for years. It’s a haunting drama of two Russian partisans who are captured by Nazi-friendly Belarusians. During their captivity, one of them experiences a spiritual awakening. It contains all the horrors associated with the Great Patriotic War, but it also contains a lot of religious symbolism and has many references to the Crucifixion, unusual for a film made in the Soviet Union at the time. I’m looking forward to seeing it and I hope other cinephiles are, too.
May 12: At 5:45 pm is an interesting film that would have been much better if only they had changed leads. The film is The Madwoman of Chaillot (1969), a modernized adaptation of French playwright Jean Giraduox’s 1943 satire on the Occupation. It concerns a woman named Countess Aurelia, who drifts through life in late ‘60s Paris as if it were still 1919, carrying a parasol and wearing oversized picture hats loaded with veiling. Though she’s a definite oddity, the locals look upon her warmly, as she is a model of civility in an increasingly uncivil world. When she gets wind of a plot by powerful men to level Paris in the belief that it’s sitting on a vast pool of oil, she rallies her fellow citizens and vows to stop all the madness and greed. The problem with the film is not only its modernized setting, but also its lead. Katharine Hepburn plays Countess Aurelia, and she captures nothing of the character’s zany optimism of life, instead sticking out like a sore foot. The Countess should have been played by one of the supporting cast, Giuletta Masina, who is totally wasted in the small role of Gabrielle. Masina has the requisite touch for playing such a complex character within the confines of the delicacy envisioned by the playwright. Where Hepburn galumphs, Masina would charm.
May 15: Following the Welles Shakespeare festival, stay tuned for Akira Kurosawa’s take on Macbeth, Throne of Blood (1957). It’s the Bard in a samurai setting with a brilliant performance from Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune as the Macbeth character, Taketoki Washizu. I can safely say that nothing like it has ever appeared before or since on the screen. It’s one of the enduring masterpieces of cinema. Look especially for the finale. It’s followed at 4:00 am by another Kurosawa saga, Yojimbo (1961), with Mifune as a traveling samurai who happens upon a town in the midst of a war with different factions fighting each other for control. Mifune plays both sides against each other and brings peace to the town. It owes a lot to Westerns that Kurosawa had seen from America, and would itself be recycled by Sergio Leone as Fistful of Dollars in 1964.
PSYCHOTRONICA AND THE B HIVE
May 2: At 10:30 am, TCM begins unspooling the “Bomba the Jungle Boy” series with the initial entry, Bomba the Jungle Boy (1949). Bomba was Monogram’s answer to Tarzan and even employed Johnny Sheffield, who was Boy in the Tarzan series, as Bomba. This was the first of 12 such Bomba adventures, the series lasting through 1955. Ford Beebe directed and wrote many of the screenplays for the series, which was based on the “Bomba” novels by Roy Rockwood. The films were aimed at the Saturday matinee crowd and were a gold mine for Monogram before the growing programming of television convinced many kids to stay home instead of going to the theater. They’re pretty bad, but if you can be patient and give them a try . . . they’re still pretty bad. In the opener, Bomba helps a photographer (Onslow Stevens) and his daughter on safari.
At 2:00 am, it’s Linda Blair in the incredibly cheesy Roller Boogie (1979). Imagine, someone actually tried to make a disco film on roller skates and it’s even worse then the description, thanks to some awesome non-acting from star Blair.
May 4: At 6:00 pm, it’s Two on a Guillotine (1965) from Warner Bros. Connie Stevens has to spend a week in a creepy old mansion in order to collect her inheritance. Cesar Romero hams it up as her magician father, thought dead, but who is alive, insane, and wants to kill his daughter. It’s William Castle without any of the fun.
May 9: Bomba returns in The Lost Volcano (1950). In this entry he fights greedy African guides who are after hidden treasure.
At 2:00 am, it’s one of the most publicized, and profitable, psychotronic films ever. From none other than director Larry Cohen comes It’s Alive (1974). Somehow, Cohen got Warner Bros. to co-produce and release this film. It concerns a couple who want to have a baby, and an overdose of fertility drugs results in a monster baby being born. The creature doesn’t waste any time killing the doctor and nurses in the delivery room. Later it attacks a milk truck. But the most shocking thing about the film is its PG rating.
May 11: TCM devotes this evening to the theme of “Biker Gang” films, starting at 8:00 pm with Tom Laughlin’s The Born Losers (1967), the film that introduces the character of Billy Jack to an unsuspecting world. At 10:00 pm, it’s the original biker gang flick, Stanley Kramer’s The Wild One (1953), with Marlon Brando and biker rival Lee Marvin competing to see who can be the best slob actor. At 11:30 pm, it’s Jack Nicholson and Adam Rourke in Hell’s Angels on Wheels (1967), a lame attempt to cash in on Roger Corman’s successful The Wild Angels of a year before. This film actually features some real Hell’s Angels, including leader Sonny Barger. At 1:30 am, it’s the psychotronic classic, Easy Rider (1969), followed immediately at 3:15 am by The Glory Stompers (1967), another attempt to cash in on The Wild Angels, with a pre-Easy Rider Dennis Hopper, and Jody McCrea, son of Joel and veteran of the Beach Party films. It also stars Sally Field’s stepfather, Jock Mahoney as one of the bikers. Finally at the wee hour of 4:45 am, it’s Devil’s Angels (1967), a rather lame re-working from AIP of The Wild One, and starring John Cassavetes, of all people.
May 13: A rarely seen “comedy” from RKO airs at 12:15. It’s Genius at Work, with the incredibly lame comedy team of Wally Brown and Alan Carney. Brown and Carney are two radio sleuths that get involved in the hunt for a killer called “The Cobra.” Lionel Atwill is the killer, and Bela Lugosi is wasted as his sidekick.
May 15: An entire morning and afternoon of psychotronic films. Those worth your time are Five Million Years to Earth (1968, 7:30 am); Village of the Damned (1961, 9:15 am); The Giant Behemoth (1959, noon); These Are the Damned (1962, 3:15 pm), and X the Unknown (1956, 5:00 pm).