A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
STAR OF THE FORTNIGHT
Despite our comments last issue, we actually do have a star for this category, and it’s none other than the great Mae Clarke, whose day on “Summer Under the Stars” can be seen on August 20.
Unjustly overlooked today, Clarke was at her best in films of the Pre-Code era, playing anything from sassy wisecracker to endangered heroine to sympathetic prostitute. To many casual film fans, her fame rests on the fact that she was the one on the receiving end of Cagney’s grapefruit in The Public Enemy, which will air at 2:45 am, right after another pairing with Cagney where he uses her as a sort of punching bag, Lady Killer (1:15 am). It’s a shame that her third, and last pairing with Cagney is not being shown this day, that being Great Guy, which they made for Grand National in 1936.
The day begins at 6:00 am with three of her 50s Westerns being screened. They are all somewhat entertaining, but can hardly be called Mae Clarke vehicles, as her part in each is very small. But at 11:00 am, it’s Pre-Code time, as every movie from here on in was made no later than 1934. Several, such as 1930’s The Fall Guy (11:00) and Parole Girl from 1933 (3:30 am), are very rarely televised. (In fact, it will be my first time watching both.)
At 8:00 pm, it’s Clarke’s best performance as the star of Universal’s 1931 version of Waterloo Bridge. Although MGM remade this in 1940 with Robert Taylor and Vivien Leigh, this is the version to see, for two reasons: the great James Whale directed it, and Clarke outdoes Leigh in the role Myra. (Although, to be fair to Leigh, her film was made at the height of the strangling Code.)
Clarke is another of our lost treasures of the Pre-Code era; one of the actresses who made Hollywood great and then was thrown by the wayside. She is an actress who definitely deserves her due this day.
OUT OF THE ORDINARY
August 16 (Patricia Neal): An excellent doubleheader begins at 10:00 pm with Neal’s Oscar-winning performance in the redoubtable Hud (1963). As Alma, the housekeeper overseeing the disintegration of the Bannon family, Neal puts up with much from Homer Bannon’s rotten son, Hud (Paul Newman), until she can stand no more and leaves after the old man dies. Melvyn Douglas also won an Oscar for his performance as Homer.
At midnight, it’s one of the truly underrated classics of all time: Andy Griffith starring with Patricia Neal in Elia Kazan’s A Face In The Crowd (1957). Griffith, a rising young comedian known for his gentle, folksy humor, is absolutely brilliant as the devious megalomaniac Lonesome Rhodes in his film debut. The film stands as a prescient examination of the power of media-created figures. Also making their debuts in this film as Walter Matthau, Tony Franciosa, and Lee Remick. The film was totally ignored come Oscar time, but like most other excellent films that were ignored by the Academy, it will be better remembered and influential than that year’s winners.
August 17 (Lee J. Cobb): At 8:00 pm, Cobb stars with Richard Conte in Jules Dassin’s masterful Thieves’ Highway (1949). Conte is Nick Garcos, a returning veteran who discovers that his father, who lost both legs in an accident while working as a truck driver, was cheated at the hands of produce dealer Mike Figlia (Cobb), who may also have been responsible for the accident that disabled the senior Garcos. Cobb is excellent as the callous chiseler who doesn’t mind destroying careers and lives to make an extra buck. It takes a while for the story to get going, but once it does we’re in for one hell of a ride. Even though Dassin cops out at the end with the obligatory happy ending, his hero, Conte, remains forever scarred by his experience. This is one not to be missed.
August 18 (Vivien Leigh): At noon, tune in to see Leigh in an enchanting early performance in St. Martin’s Lane (1938). She plays Liberty, a young pickpocket taken in by busker (street entertainer) Charles Laughton and taught the art of busking, at which she excels. We expect Laughton to dominate, but Leigh matches him stroke for stroke as Liberty becomes adept at using people in her quest to become a star on the stage. Rex Harrison is the songwriter and theater impresario for whom Liberty leaves her fellow buskers to break into the big time.
Later, at 3:15 pm, it’s another Leigh-Harrison pairing, Storm in a Teacup (1937). Set in a small Scottish village, this is a very witty social comedy with Harrison as a journalist who reports on the cruel treatment received by a poor widow unable to afford a dog-license fee at the hands of a local pompous politician (Cecil Parker). Meanwhile, the reporter finds himself falling in love with the politician’s daughter (Leigh).
August 22 (Marlene Dietrich): The highlight of the day is at 10:15 pm with the airing of Josef Von Sternberg’s atmospheric Shanghai Express (1932). Dietrich is “Shanghai Lily,” a prostitute known as the “White Flower of the Chinese coast.” During a period of national unrest she boards a train at Peking along with a collection of other characters, including an English officer and former lover (Clive Brook), a rebel leader traveling incognito (Warner Oland), and Hui Fei (Anna May Wong), a companion of Lily’s and a fellow prostitute seeking to make a new start. Dietrich dominates in one of her best performances, highlighted by the line “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.” However, keep a close eye on Wong’s performance as well. She is superb as Hui Fei and an equal of Dietrich in both the acting and mystery departments, displaying a talent that was stifled by Hollywood’s apartheid system. There is no doubt that if she were acting today she would be one of the biggest stars in the Hollywood firmament.
August 27 (Monty Woolley): We’re in for a triple-treat of Woolley beginning at 8:00 pm with Holy Matrimony, from Fox in 1943 and directed by John M. Stahl. Woolley is Priam Farli, a famous artist living in seclusion in the South Seas. He is called home to England by the King to receive a knighthood. During the voyage, his valet, Leek, dies, and Farli assumes his identity to avoid the crush of publicity. Once in England, everything goes as planned until one day when Leek receives a letter from Alice Chalice (Gracie Fields), a widow with whom Leek had been corresponding through a marriage bureau. Now that Leek has arrived in England, she is expecting to finally meet her beloved in person. And that’s just the beginning of his problems. It’s a funny and charming comedy with Woolley and Fields in fine form and given ample support from Una O’Connor as Leek’s estranged wife, George Zucco as a prosecuting barrister, Franklin Pangborn as Priam’s cousin, Duncan Farli, and the tragic Laird Cregar as art dealer Clive Oxford.
Woolley and Fields were so good in Holy Matrimony that Fox paired them again in 1945’s Molly and Me (9:45 pm). Fields is unemployed actress Molly Barry. Desperate for work, she decides the best way to get it is by playing the part of an experienced housekeeper. She later discovers that Peabody (Reginald Gardiner), the butler, obtained his position the same way. Their employer is John Graham (Woolley), a dour retired politician, divorced from his wife (Doris Lloyd), who ran off with another man, and estranged from his son, Jimmy (Roddy McDowell). He lives alone with a staff of servants. Molly single-handedly cleans up the household and decides Mr. Graham’s life needs a little shaking up. Seeing as she’s the one for the job, she begins thawing Graham’s icy exterior, and later his heart, teaching him the value of things as opposed to money, which he knows only too well. It’s a charming film, with the talented Gardiner almost walking away with it.
At 11:45 pm, it’s Woolley’s best known role, that of uber critic Sheridan Whiteside in George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s farce, The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942). Playing a thinly-disguised Alexander Woollcott, Woolley is on a nationwide tour when his long-suffering secretary, Maggie Cutler (Bette Davis) arranges for him to have dinner during a stopover in Mesalia, Ohio, at the home of a locally prominent family, the Stanleys (Billie Burke and Grant Mitchell). A snob to the nth degree, Whiteside is appalled, but shows up out of obligation. Unfortunately for his hosts, Whiteside slips on their icy porch and injures his hip, necessitating a lengthy stay with the Stanleys during which he takes over the household, barking out orders to everyone he sees, entertaining questionable visitors, running up the Stanley’s phone bill, and insulting everyone he sees. Davis is fine in a rare comedic role, with Mary Wickes as Whiteside’s put-upon nurse, Ann Sheridan as a floozy actress, and Jimmy Durante as an even more thinly veiled Harpo Marx. Woolley is masterful in role, and why shouldn’t he be? He was reprising his lengthy Broadway performance. Screenwriters Julius and Philip Epstein do an excellent job of adapting the play for the movie version.
August 16: Patricia Neal shines in the 1951 sci-fi classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still, from 20th Century Fox and co-starring Michael Rennie as the unforgettable Klaatu. Made at the height of the Cold War hysteria, it offers a sober, rational alternative vision telling us that not all space aliens are cold-blooded killers.
At 4:00 am, it’s a film that’s mostly neglected when discussing the Neal oeuvre, The Road Builder, aka The Night Digger (1971). Neal is a single woman living with her invalid mother (Pamela Brown) when their peace is interrupted one day by the arrival of a young drifter named Billy (Nicholas Clay) who tells them he was referred as a handyman by their neighbor. At first, Maura is suspicious and resentful of the stranger, but soon she finds herself falling in love with the emotionally volatile young man. Meanwhile, a serial killer is terrorizing the countryside, raping and murdering women and burying their bodies in the path of a soon to be paved public highway. The film, full of sexual tension and Gothic flavor, was adapted by Neal’s then-husband, Roald Dahl, from a novel by Joy Cowley. It was Neal’s second film since her return to work after suffering a series of near-fatal strokes in 1965.
August 20: On Mae Clarke’s day, tune in at 9:30 pm to see her small, but pivotal, role of Elizabeth in James Whale’s eerie and atmospheric horror classic Frankenstein (1931). Bette Davis was originally set for the role, but when Whale took over the project from Robert Florey, he believed that Davis was too aggressive to play a threatened horror heroine, and brought in Clarke to play the role.
August 21: Tune in – or record – at 6:00 am for a truly rare airing of director Larry Cohen’s attempt at horror-comedy, Full Moon High (1981). Adam Arkin (son of Alan) is an Eisenhower-era teenager who goes behind the Iron Curtain to Transylvania with his government agent father (Ed McMahon). He becomes a teenage werewolf who likes to bite girls on the ass. Real-life father, Alan Arkin, plays an abusive psychiatrist. This seldom-seen comedy was released right after the box office hit An American Werewolf in London.
August 24: Warren Oates has a supporting role in director Budd Boetticher’s gangster opus, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960), which is showing at 7:45 am. Ray Danton plays the former dancer turned thief and killer. Karen Steele, as his moll, supplies the necessary eye candy, and look for a young Dyan Cannon as Dixie. As realized by Boetticher, it’s short on historical fact, but long on energy and slam bang melodramatics.
August 25: Two good psychotronic entries from star-of-the-day Virginia Bruce. First up at 6:30 pm is Kongo, MGM’s 1932 remake of Lon Chaney’s 1928 silent West of Zanzibar. Walter Huston takes over the role of the bitter and sadistic crippled Flint, who seeks revenge on the daughter (Bruce) of his wife’s over and the man responsible for his paralysis (C. Henry Gordon). For those under the belief that only Warner Brothers made films like this (see William Wellman’s Safe in Hell from 1931), Kongo will prove most unsettling. Huston gives a bravura performance as a deranged man with more than a trace of megalomania who takes his rage out on his perceived enemies. He’s in for quite a surprise, though, at the end of this one. And for you Pre-Code enthusiasts out there, this film has everything one could want in a Pre-Code film: Torture, alcoholism, drug addiction, rape, and sado-masochism.
At 9:30 pm, Bruce stars in the better-than-you-think sci-fi comedy, The Invisible Woman, from Universal in 1940. Bruce is unemployed model Kitty Carroll, who answers an ad placed by scientist Professor Gibbs (John Barrymore) looking for a guinea pig in his experiments, even though his benefactor, playboy millionaire Richard Russell (John Howard), has gone bankrupt. Gibbs invents a machine to make her invisible, and she quickly slips away to partake in mischievous revenge on the cloddish fashion store manager who fired her. Meanwhile, a gang of crooks led by Blackie (Oscar Homolka) learns about the Professor’s machine and try to steal it for their purposes. Everything comes together at Blackie’s secret hideout in Mexico as the baddies are defeated and Richard and Kitty fall in love and marry, with their daughter inheriting Mom’s invisible proclivities.