A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
STAR OF THE MONTH -- SHIRLEY TEMPLE
The 1940s were the career-changing decade for Shirley Temple. She was growing up, no longer the cute little moppet of the ‘30s. As with any child star, these are the most difficult years, for the actor must undergo almost a total remake. Louis B. Mayer originally wanted her for the role of Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz, but producers Arthur Freed and Mervyn LeRoy thought her vocal talents were inadequate. 20th Century Fox head Darryl Zanuck gave Shirley the lead in The Blue Bird as a consolation prize, but the film was a flop, not helped by the fact that Shirley played an unsympathetic character. It’s generally thought to be her last film for Fox, but that honor goes to Young People, also in 1940, with Jack Haley and Charlotte Greenwood. It employed the same basic plot as her ‘30s films, but Shirley was now 12 years old, and failed to recapture the magic of her earlier films. She moved to MGM for Kathleen in 1941, another weak vehicle that did nothing to help her career. It wasn’t until she began working for David O. Selznick that she was able to transition to adult roles. However, she could not overcome the audience’s perception of her, and, as she wasn’t the greatest actress, her star faded, suffering through a bad first marriage to John Agar. Her last film was A Kiss For Corliss in 1949. After her divorce from Agar, she married businessman Charles Black and never looked back from there.
July 20: We begin with a Selznick double header: the weepy 1944 home-front film Since You Went Away at 8:00 pm, followed by the romance I’ll Be Seeing You (1944) at 11:15. They’re followed at 1:00 am by the weak romantic comedy Honeymoon (1947), the obvious That Hagen Girl (1947) with Ronnie Reagan, and the aforementioned Kathleen ending the evening at 4:00 am.
July 27: Tonight’s highlight is The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer (1947) with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy at 8:00 pm. After that, it’s straight downhill, with the only highlight thereafter being A Kiss For Corliss (1949), as it’s her last film.
FRIDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT: SUMMER OF DARKNESS
TCM’s Friday Night Spotlight, devoted to noirs, continues with some interesting selections.
July 17: Three excellent films begin the night: Too Late For Tears (1949) from producer Hunt Stromberg at 8:00 pm, featuring a great performance by the one and only Lizabeth Scott as the ultimate femme fatale. Stay tuned at 10:00 for The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), starring Barbara Stanwyck, Scott and Kirk Douglas in his feature film debut. At 12:15 am, it’s the underrated 99 River Street (1953) from director Phil Karlson, starring John Payne as a cab driver who gets involved with jewel thieves and must clear himself of the charge of murdering his wife (Peggie Castle in a bravura performance).
July 24: Begin at 8:00 with the nail-biter The Narrow Margin (1952) with Charles McGraw as a hard-boiled cop assigned to escort gangster’s moll Marie Windsor from Chicago to Los Angeles, where she’s due to appear as a witness for the prosecution. It’s one wild train ride as gangsters out to silence Windsor are also aboard. For those who haven’t yet seen this gem, it’s a must.
At 9:30, it’s the cult classic His Kind of Woman (1951) starring Robert Mitchum as a professional gambler who’s paid $50,000 to travel to a Mexican resort, where he’ll await further instructions. On the way, he meets Jane Russell and the sparks fly. Once in Mexico, Mitchum learns his role is provide his face to Raymond Burr, a gangster wanted by U.S. authorities who figures his best way to get back into the country is via plastic surgery – having his face altered into that of Mitchum’s. (Burr’s character was based on that of Charles “Lucky” Luciano.) Meanwhile Mitchum and Russell are heating things up, even though she’s also having an affair with married actor Vincent Price. Price is the reason to tune in, as it’s obvious that he’s having a whale of a time as the hammy Mark Cardigan. He’s outrageous, hysterical, and totally mesmerizing, transforming an already dicey plot into a psychotronic classic.
The other film worth tuning in to watch airs at the wee hour of 3:30 am – director Louis Malle’s 1958 stylish thriller Elevator to the Gallows. Jeanne Moreau and her lover, Maurice Ronet, are plotting to rid themselves of her rich arms dealer husband, Jean Wall. Ronet pulls off the perfect murder – until he realizes he’s left a key piece of evidence behind. He goes back to retrieve it, but as he’s ascending in the elevator, the superintendent shuts off the building’s power for the weekend, leaving Ronet trapped in the elevator. When Moreau doesn’t hear from Ronet, insecurity and panic begin to set in, setting the stage for the film’s most famous sequence. As she wanders the street looking for Ronet, cinematographer Henri Decae is riding alongside in a baby carriage, filming her with a hand-held camera. He tracks her as she walks, lit only by battery-activated lamps and the light from store windows along the Champs Elysees. It makes for one of the most fascinating scenes in film and captures the mood perfectly.
July 31: A night of classics begins with Burt Lancaster and Yvonne DeCarlo in Criss Cross (1949) at 8:00. Brute Force (1947), Jules Dassin’s extraordinary hard-bitten prison flick starring Burt Lancaster and Hume Cronyn as a thoroughly despicable and sadistic captain of the guards, follows at 9:45. At 1:00, it’s John Huston’s heist classic, The Asphalt Jungle (1950), and at 3:00, it’s Hitchcock’s unsettling The Wrong Man (1956) starring Henry Fonda in a nightmare of mistaken identity.
July 27: OMG, an Ingmar Bergman film at an accessible time! The Magician (1959), which will be shown at 2:45 pm, is one of Bergman’s most thoughtful – and underrated – films. In this film, Bergman is concentrating on the divide between skepticism and faith, with a little black humor and horror thrown into the mix. Bergman is simply reworking G.K. Chesterton’s 1913 play, Magic, about as illusionist who is confronted by a scientist, a clergyman, and an aristocrat. (Bergman had directed the play on the stage back in 1947.) Max Von Sydow plays a wandering 19th century illusionist working the provinces with a company that includes his wife (Ingrid Thulin), who masquerades as a man. To make ends meet, he uses the show to sell useless bottles of potions to the audience. Traveling to his latest town, he and his troupe are arrested by the local authorities and put to the test by the local medical examiner and a councilman (Erland Jospehson) fascinated by spiritualism. The film is an engrossing meditation about the nature of art and the manipulation of illusionism.
July 28: Les Blank was one of those filmmakers who always seemed to fall through the cracks. A documentarian is always doomed to the obscure fringes of film, and Blank worked for almost 50 years in this relative obscurity. His specialty was his portraits of American traditional musicians and the culture surrounding them. He focused on a variety of musical forms: blues, jazz, Appalachian folk, Cajun, Creole, polka, Tex-Mex, and Hawaiian. For many of the subjects, his documentaries are the only filmed documents of their life and work. However, Blank wasn’t simply interested in the music alone – his films concentrated on the culture surrounding the music itself. With this interest in culture, Blank also filmed documentaries about cuisine and its influence on both local culture and culture at large. His 1980 film, Garlic Is As Good as Ten Mothers (11:45 pm) is a highly interesting documentary on the history and cultural influence of this popular culinary ingredient. TCM is devoting the evening to a representative selection of his 41 documentaries. Some may seem to be esoteric, but none are dull.
ROBERT OSBORNE’S PICKS
July 29: When Robert Osborne hosts an evening of his favorites we know we’re always in for a treat. And this evening is no different. Osborne has a eye for the different, the offbeat, and the unusual. He begins at 8:00 pm with an excellent film from directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger than is often overlooked when compared to their other films. I Know Where I’m Going (1945) is about a headstrong young woman, Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller), en route to one of Scotland’s remote Hebrides islands to marry a rich industrialist she doesn’t love. But fate takes a role when bad weather stands her on the nearby island of Mull, and there she meets, and eventually falls in love with, naval officer Torquil McNeil (Roger Livesay). The movie is light on plot, but what makes it so engrossing is the romance that develops between the lead characters and the film’s depiction of the village, and its inhabitants, where Joan and Torqil are stranded. It’s a quietly winning movie that concentrates on its characters rather than simply moving the plot along, and, as usual with Powell and Pressburger, gives the viewer much to think about during its course.
Next up at 10:00 is another wonderful film set in Britain, Separate Tables, based on the play by Terrence Rattigan, and starring a wonderful cast, including Deborah Kerr, Wendy Hiller, Rita Hayworth, David Niven, and Burt Lancaster. It’s a film, much in the style of Grand Hotel, centered on the lives and problems of a group of boarders at an English seaside resort. Wonderfully written and acted, it’s an interesting character study of a group of disparate guests and the hotel proprietor (Hiller) who deals intelligently and sincerely with their problems. This is one I can see again and again.
At midnight, it Bonjour Tristesse (1958) from director Otto Preminger, featuring an extraordinary performance from Jean Seberg as Cecile, a young woman whose attachment to her bachelor father, Raymond (David Niven), causes her to manipulate his love life, with tragic consequences. Deborah Kerr is outstanding as Niven’s doomed mistress, Anne.
And at 2:00, am, it’s a debut film by a young director who once showed a lot of promise: Breathless (1960), from Jean-Luc Godard. Read our essay on it here. Whatever happened to Godard?
From time to time we shall devote a few words to deserving films that seem to have fallen through the cracks, as it were, into obscurity. We have a couple of worthy contenders this issue.
July 18: On a night devoted to the theme of “The Campaign Trail,” the most interesting of the films being shown airs at 12:15 am. It’s The Dark Horse from Warner Brothers in 1932, starring Warren William, Bette Davis and Guy Kibbee. The film is a wonderful, funny parody of the election process. William is in fine form as Hal Blake, a campaign manager who must make a silk purse out of dim bulb Zachary Hicks (Kibbee), a man who Blake describes as follows: “He’s the dumbest human being I ever saw. Every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.” William has the unenviable of getting Hicks, a man who wears his stupidity like a medal, elected governor. The young Davis acquits herself nicely as William’s assistant. It’s she who suggests Blake to the party bosses. When they point out that he’s in jail for non-payment of alimony, she simply retorts that other great men such as Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, and Christopher Columbus were also jailbirds. This is a snappy, sassy 73 minutes that never fails to amuse, and gives us a good look into the politics of the day. Some things never change.
July 22: Spencer Tracy had just jumped over to MGM, and The Show-Off (1934), airing at 7:45 am, was his debut film for the company. Tracy plays Aubrey Piper, bumbling braggart who never knows when to stop. A small part of a big operation (railroad) Piper keeps bragging, lying, exaggerating and inflating his station. He just can’t stop, until finally the weight of his whoppers does him in. Madge Evans is great as Amy, who mistakes Aubrey for a hero during an excursion boat outing and marries him. It will never be confused with a great film, but Tracy and Evans make it worth catching.
July 27: John Gilbert was nowhere near the horrible actor popular culture made him out to be. In The Phantom of Paris (1931), airing at 6:00 am, we can get a look at Gilbert at his best as escape artist Cheri-Bibi, falsely accused of the murder of his love’s (Leila Hyams) father. He escapes and goes into hiding, looking to prove his innocence, eventually impersonating the real murderer in a bid to clear his name. Lewis Stone does well as police inspector Costaud, and Jean Hersholt shines as Gilbert’s faithful friend Herman.
GERMAN NEW WAVE
Yes Virginia, there is such a thing as the German New Wave, which denotes a period lasting from the late ‘60s into the ‘80s. Personified by such directors as Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Margarethe von Trotta, Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, and Volker Schlondorff, it worked with low budgets and was heavily influenced by the French New Wave. On July 19 at 3:15 am, TCM is airing Schlondorff’s 1966 school drama, Young Torless. A faithful adaptation of Robert Musil’s 1906 novel, The Confusions of Young Torless, the film is set in a pre-World War I boys school in Austro-Hungary where a student’s petty theft triggers an escalating series of punishments by his classmates while the title character casually stands by, offering his observations. Think of Lindsay Andersen’s 1968 If without the inevitable student rebellion. Look for psychotronic cult actress Barbara Steele, who plays Bozena, a local prostitute.
On July 26 TCM is showing a double feature starring Spanish actress Ana Torrent. Born Ana Torrent Bertran de Lis, she made her film debut at the age of seven in The Spirit of the Beehive (4:15 am), about a young girl who, after seeing the classic Frankenstein in her village, goes out to look for the monster. It’s an interesting look at the terrors of childhood, juxtaposed against the bleak background of post-Civil War Francoist Spain. Airing right before, at 2:15 am, is Cria Cuevros, a 1976 tale with Ana as an orphan who is struggling to adjust to live with her dictatorial aunt (Geraldine Chaplin). Ana is still going strong today, going against the grain of child stars whose careers hit the wall when they become adults.
I forgot to mention last month that TCM has remade its summer series, The Essentials, Jr, as Movie Camp. The TCM website states that, “Movie Camp was created to give viewers a chance to find inspiration and fun in classic movies.” Whereas The Essentials. Jr. had one wacky host in Bill Hader, Movie Camp has two in William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg and a new animated opening created by the hosts. By its very title, the previous show was aimed at a younger audience than this incarnation, which seems to be aimed at teenagers and young adults, along with us who are simply young at heart. I gave The Essentials, Jr. an “A” for effort, but the idea of showing black and white films and silents during the early hours of the evening was a bad idea. As anyone with kids knows, it’s darned near impossible to get them to watch black and white films, much less a silent film. Yeah, good luck with that.
July 19: The hosts are committing the same error as their predecessor with a Fritz Lang triple-header. Not only are all the films in black and white, two of them are silent. Let’s hope they’re aiming for an older audience this time. It begins with Metropolis, a 1927 classic of the silent screen, which airs right after The Numberlys, a 12-minute short from the hosts. It’s about five friends in a world where there is no alphabet, only numbers. They decide they want more from their black and white world and set out to create each letter of the alphabet and bring color, creativity, and jellybeans into their world. It sounds interesting and I wish them the best of luck. The more people who can appreciate film at an early age is something to be hoped for, especially today. Following Metropolis, the show is screening Fury (1936) at 11:00 pm, and the silent classic Spione (Spies) at 12:45 am.
July 26: Featured this evening is a double feature from Alexander Korda, beginning with the wonderful The Thief of Bagdad (1940) at 8:00, followed at 10:00 by the Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh adventure, That Hamilton Woman (1941).
PSYCHOTRONICA AND THE B HIVE
As always, there’s a good selection in both the psychotronic and the B-category.
July 16: At 3:30 pm, it’s the one and only Humphrey Bogart starring in a film that would have crushed the dreams of lesser actors. Thinking it over, there is nothing more improbable or downright strange than the notion of Humphrey Bogart as a vampire. And yet, there it is: The Return of Dr. X from Warner’s in 1939. Now Bogart is not your traditional vampire, with coffin, cape and fangs. No, he’s a deceased killer brought back to life by a typical mad scientist of the time, played by John Litel. To stay alive, Bogie needs blood – not just any blood, but a rare blood type, and he’ll do anything to obtain it. The film, also starring Wayne Morris and Dennis Morgan, is framed more like a conventional mystery than an outright horror flick. However, when Bogie’s not on the screen the film drags. He’s clearly the show, pasty-faced with a white streak running down his hair, ever so gently stroking a rabbit and speaking with a soft lisp. He knows it’s a horrible film, but ever the pro, he tries to make the best of it. Being that it’s his good friend, Vincent Sherman, making his debut as a director, Bogie’s on his best behavior. How bad a film is it? Bela Lugosi was offered the lead before Bogart and he turned it down.
July 21: At 2:30 am it’s the film that almost derailed director Michael Powell’s career, Peeping Tom (1960). No one ever expected this from the beloved director, and it almost scuttled his career. This is an extremely uncompromising story of depravity, focusing on a serial killer (Carl Boehm) who likes to film the terror on the faces of his victims before doing them in. We learn later in the film that our killer himself was exposed to similar terrors from his psychiatrist father, who recorded his son’s reactions to fear. Despite the sordid subject matter, Powell has made a sober, serious study of sexual violence by using the audience as a voyeur, as the camera positions us directly behind Mark, our killer, and his spectators, making us in a sense his unwilling accomplices. This is an Essential that will never be shown in that time slot, unless somehow Martin Scorsese becomes Bob’s next co-host.
July 25: At 2:00 pm, it’s one of the classics of sci-fi and also one of the most squeamish films ever made: The Fly, from 1958. Al (later David) Hedison is a French scientist whose experiment with teleportation goes horribly wrong, transforming him into the title character. Vincent Price is along for the ride as his brother, Francois. Watch for the extremely chilling scene at the end.
TCM’s Saturday tribute to Bomba the Jungle Boy is mercifully coming to an end. On July 18, Killer Leopard (1954) is airing. It's a moving story of the jungle boy and his battle against a crazed big cat to help movie star Beverly Garland locate her missing husband. It’s worth watching for Garland. One of the great scream queens of B-moviedom, she began her career in 1950 and was still finding her feet when she made this classic.
On July 25, it’s Lord of the Jungle (1955), the last of the series. By this time, Johnny Sheffield, who played Bomba, was definitely long in the tooth at the age of 24. But the film is deeper than the usual fare. Seems a herd of rogue elephants is destroying entire villages. Hunters led by Wayne Morris, Paul Picerni, and William Phipps want to whack the entire herd of 100 elephants. Bomba opposes this idea, suggesting that, because elephants are naturally docile, they are being led astray, and they only need to kill the renegade leader, Raju. While this is going on, Bomba somehow finds the time to advise the niece of series regular Commissioner Barnes (Leonard Mudie) on her problems with her fiancé back home. Perhaps Bomba was looking forward to a career as a replacement for Dear Abby.