A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
STAR OF THE MONTH
The Star of the Month for July is Shirley Temple, the little bundle of cuteness who saved Paramount and 20th Century Fox from bankruptcy and was one of the leaders at the box office during the ‘30s. However, come the ‘40s, things changed radically: she grew up and was no longer considered adorable. As with most hot child stars it was a rough transition to adult roles, and she lost much of her appeal while sliding down the credits listing.
July 6: It’s Shirley from 1934 to 1936, beginning at 8:00 pm with 1934’s Little Miss Marker, based on a story by Damon Runyon about a father who places his daughter as a marker in a bet with his bookie. When the father loses the bet he commits suicide in despair, leaving the girl in the custody of the bookie, a hardened character named Sorrowful Jones, played with style by Adolphe Menjou. Its success would set the template for future Temple films. The film would be remade three times: in 1949 as Sorrowful Jones with Bob Hope and Mary Jane Saunders; in 1963 as Forty Pounds of Trouble with Tony Curtis and Claire Wilcox, and in 1980 under its original title with Walter Matthau and Sara Stimson.
Following at 9:30 is Now and Forever, also from 1934, with Shirley starring with Gary Cooper and Carole Lombard in a story of a young swindler (Cooper) who tries to mend his ways when reunited with his young daughter. Lombard plays Cooper’s girlfriend who solidifies the family unit to the happy ending.
Come 11:00 pm, it’s Bright Eyes (1934) and Shirley is again a little cutie taken in by society snobs. This film is notable for her warbling of “On the Good Ship Lollipop.” James Dunn and Jane Darwell co-star.
At 12:30 am, it’s Curly Top (1935), Temple’s first film for Fox. John Boles is a wealthy man who adopts moppet Shirley and her older sister Rochelle Hudson. Shirley spends the film playing Cupid for Boles and Hudson signing “Animal Crackers in My Soup.”
Finally, at 2:00 am it’s one of her best films, Poor Little Rich Girl (1936), where she plays Barbara Barry, who runs away from home and is taken in by the vaudeville team of Alice Faye and Jack Haley, which gives little Shirley lots of time to perform before the happy reunion with Dad (Michael Whalen) and his fiancé, Gloria Stuart.
July 13: More from Shirley in her moppet years. Beginning at 8:00 pm it’s Stowaway (1936), with Robert Young and Alice Faye, followed by Wee Willie Winkie (1937), Heidi (1937), Little Miss Broadway (1938), and finally at 3:00 am, The Little Princess (1938). The plots are basically the same, only the locales and co-stars are different.
FRIDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT
The Friday Night Spotlight for July continues the theme began last month: Summer of Darkness.
July 3: Our choices this night begin with The Big Clock (Paramount, 1948) at 8:00 pm, with Charles Laughton in fine form as a corrupt publisher who commits murder and Ray Milland as a career-driven editor who tries to solve the case, only to find that the clues all point to him. Following at 9:45 pm is the excellent and underrated The Window (RKO, 1949) with Bobby Driscoll as a little boy who witnesses as murder and, because he’s a teller of tall tales, can’t get anyone to believe him. Barbara Hale and Arthur Kennedy play his parents, with Paul Stewart and Ruth Roman also co-starring.
July 10: A solid night of noir beginning at 8:00 pm with the night’s worst, Red Light (UA, 1949) starring the tepid George Raft as – what else? – an innocent guy out for revenge. At 9:45, it’s the wonderful Kiss Me Deadly from director Robert Aldrich. And at 1:30 am, it’s the best of the night: The Hitch-Hiker (RKO, 1953), director Ida Lupino’s breakthrough film.
July 5: Beginning at 2:15 am, it’s a double helping of director Jacques Demy starting off with his wonderful musical Donkey Skin from 1970. Based on a fairy tale by Charles Perrault, it’s about a king (Jean Marias) who wishes to marry his daughter. He has promises his dying queen that after her death he will only marry a woman as beautiful and virtuous as she. He later comes to the conclusion that the only one who fits the bill is his daughter, the Princess Peau D’Ane (Catherine Deneuve). As she doesn’t want to marry her father, she takes the advice of her godmother, the Lilac Fairy (Delphine Seyrig) and demands a series of seemingly impossible nuptial gifts in the hope that he will give up. But the king fulfills every request, gifting her with dresses the color of the weather, of the moon and of the sun, and finally with the skin of a magic donkey that excretes jewels. The princess dons the donkey skin and flees the kingdom. In the guise of “Donkey Skin” she finds employment as a pig-keeper in a neighboring kingdom, whose prince (Jacques Perrin) spies her from a distance and falls in love. Lovesick, he retires to his bed and instructs Donkey Skin to bake him a cake that will restore him to health. In the cake he finds a ring the princess has placed there and is sure his love is reciprocated. He declares that he will marry the woman whose finger fits the ring. It is a beautiful and stylish film, with Demy’s mastery of the use of color in full view. The film’s beauty rests in that it’s told with the beauty and simplicity of a children’s fairy tale, but its emotional undertones and surrealistic style are cued to the adult viewer.
Following at 4:00 am, it’s The Universe of Jacques Demy, a 1995 documentary from his widow, Agnes Varda. It is an intensely personal tribute that examines his life and career, looking deeply into his vision as a director and his filmmaking techniques. Through the use of film clips and interviews with people who worked for him, Varda constructs both a loving tribute and a thorough analysis of the great director’s work.
WAR ON THE EASTERN FRONT
July 12: One of the most interesting aspects of watching film about World War 2 is the difference between how the war is viewed on the West versus the East. In the West, especially in America, the war is a pretty straightforward affair. We entered the war comparatively late, and compared to our allies, suffered little damage. But when viewed from behind the Iron Curtain, the war takes on an entirely different dimension. TCM provides two excellent examples of this mindset beginning at 2:30 am, beginning with Ivan’s Childhood from the Soviet Union in 1963. Directed by the renowned Andrei Tarkovsky (his first feature film), this is the story of a young escapee from the Germans named Ivan Bondarev (Nikolai Burlyayev) working as a spy for the Russian army. We learn that the Germans wiped out his family, but he got away and joined a group of partisans. When the group was surrounded, Ivan was captured and taken to a boarding school, from which he escaped again, trekking through the war-torn countryside until he’s captured by Russian soldiers and taken to Lieutenant Galtsev (Evgeny Zharikov), the unit’s commander, who questions him. Ivan insists that he call “Number 51” at the unit’s headquarters and report his presence. The lieutenant is reluctant, but places the call and learns that Ivan is working as a spy for Lieutenant-Colonel Gryaznov (Nikolai Grinko). Gryaznov tells Galtsev to give the boy pencil and paper to make his report, which will be given the highest priority, and to treat him well. Though Gryaznov wants to send Ivan to a military school safely behind the lines, the boy persists in his mission to exact revenge on the Germans. It is a touching and disturbing film, showing the war from the viewpoint of a child caught up in the violence. The film won international acclaim, including the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival. It’s not an easy film to watch, but is quite rewarding for those who sit through it.
Following at 4:15 am is a renowned film from Polish director Andrzej Wajda, Kanal (1957). Its subject matter is the Warsaw uprising of 1944, itself a controversial topic in Poland. As the Soviet troops approached Warsaw in 1944, the Polish government-in-exile instructed the Home Army to liberate the city from its German occupiers in order to prevent a Communist takeover. But when the rebellion began, the Soviets camped outside Warsaw refused to take part, even blocking relief supplies to the fighters. The Germans, buoyed by this turn of events, turned Warsaw into a pile of rubble and defeated the Home Army, after which they began razing Warsaw to the ground. It remains a sore point with Poles to this day. The film was made during a thaw in Soviet politics following the death of Stalin in 1953 and follows the Home Army as they fought the Germans in a guerrilla-style campaign using the city’s sewers to move around. It’s a fascinating chronicle of the times and is a film that will appeal to a broad spectrum of film buffs.
July 13: A double feature of Kurosawa begins at the relatively normal time of 9:45 am with his urban classic The Bad Sleep Well from 1960. Like his earlier Throne of Blood, this is a Kurosawa adaptation of Shakespeare. This time it’s Hamlet, set in the Japanese urban corporate world and posing as a crime drama. The film begins with the wedding of Yoshiko Iwabuchi (Kyoko Kagawa), the daughter of Vice President Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori, the villain of the piece) of the Unexploited Land Development Corporation, to Koichi Nishi (Toshiro Mifune), the president’s secretary. The police interrupt the nuptials to arrest corporate assistant officer Wada (Kamatari Fujiwara) on charges of bribery related to a kickback scheme. From here it becomes a no-holds-barred investigation by Nishi himself, who is later exposed as the illegitimate son of Assistant Chief Furuya, who was the set-up guy in an earlier scheme and who committed suicide in order to save the higher-ups responsible. It is an intense movie with all the earmarks of a Warner’s 1940’s crime drama. Mifune is excellent, as is Mori. The Bad Sleep Well is Kurosawa’s commentary on the contemporary corporate scene in Japan, which he sees as a world of scandal, larceny, manipulation, deceit, murder, and revenge. In this he mirrors his samurai sagas, in which a white knight, pure in spirit and deed, takes on the forces of corruption and all it spoils. For Kurosawa, the modern corporate world is merely an updating of the reactionary feudalism that ruled in medieval times.
Immediately following at 12:30 pm is his prescient Scandal, from 1950. It’s a fascinating look into the Americanization of postwar Japan: An artist (Toshiro Mifune) vacationing in the mountains comes across a famous singer (Shirley Yamaguchi) who has just missed her bus. He offers her a ride back to her hotel, where, coincidentally, he is also staying. A reporter for a tabloid magazine takes a picture of them together, and his bosses at the tabloid blow it up into a huge fabricated story designed to humiliate the singer, who is targeted by the publication for her lack of cooperation with the press. Ichiro, the artist, is outraged and sues the tabloid, but not everything goes as planned. Although this is something that we would expect from Ozu, Kurosawa handles the subject matter brilliantly, showing the levels of corruption that have made their way into Japanese society and the confusion by the media of freedom with license. Early Kurosawa films are always interesting and this one is no different.
PSYCHOTRONICA AND THE B HIVE
As always, there’s a good selection of psychotronic films.
July 4: Blaxpolitation rules! It’s a double feature of Tamara Dobson, who played special agent Cleopatra Jones. In the same year that Pam Grier shot to stardom in Coffy(1973), Warner Bros. decided to get in on the act with their female star in the eponymous Cleopatra Jones, which airs at 3:15 am. Cleo, as played by Dobson, is a no-nonsense but glamorous international agent working for the American government (her badge simply reads “Special Agent to the President”). Dressed in chic, colorful outfits that accentuate her 6’2” frame, Cleo is on the trail of a Los Angeles drug lord named “Mommy,” played in ultra-hammy style by Shelley Winters, who at this point in her career would appears in anything for the buck. It’s wild, wacky, and totally impossible to take seriously.
It’s followed at 4:45 am by its 1975 sequel, Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold. This time out Cleo travels to Hong Kong to rescue two fellow agents captured by the Dragon Lady (Stella Stevens, another older actress doing anything for the buck). Once in Hong Kong she teams with Chinese agent Tanny (Mi Ling) and the two crash the Dragon Lady’s casino, which is a front for her international drug empire. The highlight of the film is watching the catfight showdown between Cleo and the Dragon Lady in the casino. Unfortunately, it was released as the Blaxploitation craze was dying out and the film did middling business. Dobson did a few more films before returning to modeling. Multiple sclerosis claimed her at the early age of 59. Though she was never given a chance for a decent comeback, her character was paid homage in the spy spoof sequel Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002) as Foxy Cleopatra, played by Beyonce.
July 9: The evening is devoted to the theme of “Alien Invasion.” Beginning at 8:00 pm, it’s Ray Harryhausen’s marvelous Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), with Hugh Marlowe and Joan Taylor leading the fight against an alien invasion intent on conquering Earth. Harryhausen created the saucers, as well as the aliens, and both rank with his greatest effects. Though the film is more than a tad pedestrian, the saucers are well worth the time.
Following at 9:30 and 11:00 respectively are the excellent and intelligent It Came From Outer Space (1953) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Then the quality declines sharply, with Edgar G. Ulmer’s interesting, but below low-budget The Man From Planet X (1951) at 1:00 am; the lame Invisible Invaders (1959), directed by Edward L. Cahn and starring the atrocious John Agar, at 2:30 am. Rounding out the evening is the ludicrous They Came From Beyond Space (1967), starring Robert Hutton and wasting the talents of Jennifer Jayne, at 3:45 am.
July 11: TCM screens a forgotten crap classic at 2:00 am with the premiere of Bayou (1957), starring, of all people, Peter Graves. A rip-off of Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll (1957), Graves is Martin Davis, a Northern architect who visits a carnival in the Cajun country of Southern Louisiana, where he meets Marie (Lita Milan) a sensual girl of 17 working as a crabber in the bayou to help support herself and her alcoholic father. Needless to say, they fall in love, but Martin has to fight off the sadistic Ulysses (Tim Carey), who also has designs on Marie. The film flopped upon release, but in 1960, M.A. Ripps, the executive producer, bought the rights from United Artists, and the next year, with the help of an ingeniously designed ad campaign, released it under the title of Poor White Trash. It became a huge hit on the exploitation and Southern drive-in circuit, playing into the early ‘70s. Ripps also purchased the rights to Roger Corman’s The Intruder, starring William Shatner as a Klan-style race-baiter, retitled it Shame, and paired it on a double bill with Poor White Trash.