Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Cinéma Inhabituel for October 1-15

A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea


David Niven is the Star of the Month for October. I have always found him a most interesting actor, the perfect personification of the Englishman abroad. From the fragile, debonair figures he played in the movies we would never suspect that he was a career soldier at one point, having graduated from the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. It was there that he acquired the “officer and a gentleman” persona which later became his trademark. But after a few years as a lieutenant with the Highland Light Infantry, he began to chafe under military life and resigned his commission in 1933. He came to Hollywood and found work as an extra and stuntman. Sam Goldwyn spotted him in Mutiny on the Bounty and signed him to a contract. 

Under Goldwyn’s management, Niven blossomed into a star with solid supporting turns in DodsworthRose-Marie, and The Charge of the Light Brigade (all 1936), and leading roles in The Dawn Patrol (1938), Wuthering HeightsRaffles, and Bachelor Mother, with Ginger Rogers (all 1939).

When the Second World War broke out, Niven returned to England and rejoined the Army as a lieutenant, serving in the Commandos. He also served with the Army Film Unit appearing in The First of the Few (1942) and The Way Ahead (1944). He served in France with the “Phantom Signals Unit,” which located and reported enemy positions and kept rear commanders informed on changing battle lines. Niven ended the war as a lieutenant-colonel and received the Legion of Merit, an American military decoration presented by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower himself.

Niven resumed his film career in 1946, making three highly regarded classics: A Matter of Life and Death (1946), The Bishop’s Wife (1947), and Enchantment(1948). A falling-out with Goldwyn over money led to Niven being barred from Hollywood work in the early 1950s. Instead he found work in low-budget and independent productions, most notably Otto Preminger’s The Moon is Blue (1953), for which he won a Golden Globe.

The Hollywood ban ended in 1956 when Niven won acclaim for his role as Phileas Fogg in Mike Todd’s Around the World in 80 Days. In 1958, he won the Best Actor Oscar for Separate Tables. He would go on to star in another 30 films, including such classics as The Guns of Navarone (1961), The Pink Panther (1963), the underrated Where the Spies Are (1965), Murder By Death (1976), Death on the Nile (1978), and The Sea Wolves (1980).

October 5: Four outstanding Niven flicks. Begin at 8:00 pm with Raffles, and stay for the funny Bachelor Mother (9:30 pm), the thrilling The Dawn Patrol (11:00 pm), and the all-time five-hanky picture, Wuthering Heights (1:00 am).

October 6: Can’t go wrong with Charge of the Light Brigade at 8:00 am and The Prisoner of Zenda at 10:00 am.

October 12: Sit back and enjoy Niven in one of his best films, A Matter of Life and Death at 8:00 pm. Then it’s The Bishop’s Wife, a holiday classic that grows in repute each year, at 10 pm. At Midnight it’s The First of the Few, a wonderful film about the birth of the Spitfire fighting plane, followed at 2:15 am by The Way Ahead, Niven’s other war film and just as compelling. Close out the night with the weepy Enchantment at 3:45 am.


The TCM Spotlight is titled “Trailblazing Women.” What they mean is women directors. 48 women directors will be profiled over 9 nights this month. Directing, like most other roles behind the camera, was a job shut out to women, even though the first film director was most likely a woman.

Alice Guy was a secretary to Leon Gaumont, who went from his camera-making business to found Gaumont studios. One afternoon, Alice and her boss attended a screening of the Lumiere’s Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory. Alice was gobsmacked by what she saw. Reflecting on the film later she began to see the potential of film if she could move it away from the “demonstration films,” simply scenes of people leaving a factory, or watching a train pull into a station, for instance. What, she thought, if storytelling elements could be woven into the film. She asked Gaumont for permission to make a film. He agreed, but only if she did it on her own time; she was too valuable as a secretary.

Her first film – and arguably the first narrative film – was La Fee aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy) in 1896. It’s a humorous story of a woman who grows children in a cabbage patch. From 1896 to 1906, she was Gaumont’s head of production, exploring the boundaries of film, producing films featuring dancing, color tinting, and expanded story lines. She also experimented with audio recordings in conjunction with the screen images in Gaumont’s “Chronophone” system, which employed a vertical-cut disc synchronized to the film. She also experimented with special effects with double exposure masking techniques and running film backward. In 1906, she made The Life of Christ, a big-budget production featuring more than 300 extras.

During the early days of silent’s women were well represented in film. Lois Weber, who cut her teeth working for Alice Guy when Guy came to America, made films featuring social significance, questioning society’s priorities. Such films as Where Are My Children? (1916), The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1917), and The Blot (1921) were box office hits, which in turn made her the highest paid director in the country. Weber was lucky enough to work for Carl Laemmle, the unorthodox head of Universal Studios. Laemmle also employed such as Ida May Park, Ruth Ann Baldwin, Ruth Stonehouse, Lule Warrenton, and Grace Cunard. Cleo Madison starred in and made her own films at Universal.

Gene Gauntier began as an actress, but quickly found her calling as a writer and director, turning out several one-reelers in a single day. Helen Gardner turned from acting at Vitagraph to owning her own production company. Nell Shipman was famous for wildlife adventure films, and Jeanie McPherson, another actress turned from being in front of the camera to behind as she made a lasting mark as the writer of many of Cecil B. DeMille’s epics. And, of course, there was Frances Marion, who directed several films starring her husband Fred Thomason and her best friend Mary Pickford before turning exclusively to writing, finding it far less stressful.

However, as smaller studios went out of business or were incorporated into larger ones, directing opportunities for women also faded. As film found its voice with the coming of sound, women lost theirs. The Depression only made a bad situation worse, as women were now seen to be taking jobs away from men. The only woman director to survive into The Depression was Dorothy Arzner, who in 1936 was the first woman to join the fledgling Director’s Guild of America. She quit in 1943, moving to UCLA to teach directing and screenwriting.

October 1: The silent era is featured, with Alice Guy’s The Birth, Life and Death of Christ one to see beginning at 8:00 pm. Actually, all the featured films are worth seeing, especially The Blot from Lois Weber (10:15 pm).

October 6: Dorothy Arzner’s Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), with Maureen O’Hara, is on tap at 8:00 pm, followed by Ida Lupino’s Outrage (1950) at 9:45 pm. Also worth catching is Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid (1972), airing at 11:15 pm.

October 8: Try Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970) at 8:00 pm., and Martha Coolidge’s comedy, Valley Girl (1983), at 11:15 pm.

October 13: Joan Micklin Silver’s wonderful Crossing Delancey (1988) airs at 8:00 pm. Our other recommendation is Euzhan Pulcy’s A Dry White Season (1989), at 11:45 pm).

October 15: It’s Documentaries Night. We recommend Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, U.S.A. from 1976, which airs at 9:30 pm; Connie Field’s The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (1980) at 11:30 pm; and Penelope Spheeris’ take on the L.A. music scene, The Decline of Western Civilization (1981), at 2:45 am.


October 4: At 2:30 am, it’s director G.W. Pabst’s Kameradschaft (1931), a moving film about a tunnel collapse that traps French miners. They are rescued when German miners across the border tunnel in to save them. It was an attempt by producer Seymour Nebenzahl to foster a common unity from the rubble of nationalism that arose after World War I. When the Nazis came to power, they banned the film and Nebenzahl fled to America where he made films for PRC and United Artists. Apart from his campy remake of G.W. Pabst’s L’Atlantide as Siren of Atlantis (UA, 1949), he is most famous for his 1951 Columbia remake of M, with David Wayne in the Peter Lorre role.

October 11: At the odd hour of 3:45 am, it’s Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Mamma Roma (1962), with a breathtaking performance by Anna Magnani as a former streetwalker who tries to save her son from a life of crime and take him to better surroundings.


October 2: A night of haunted house movies. Best of the lot is William Castle’s 1958 opus, House on Haunted Hill (10:00 pm), and Robert Wise’s chiller, The Haunting (11:30 pm). The Haunting is a masterpiece of horror in the Val Lewton vein (Wise once worked for Lewton), proving that the biggest scares come from our imagination.

October 4: At 12:45 am, it’s Lon Chaney in his 1925 masterpiece, The Phantom of the Opera. It’s always worth seeing and Chaney has lost none of his power over the years. Forget the remakes, this is still the one to see.

October 9: Start the day with a mystery that makes no sense, Murder in the Private Car (MGM, 1934), starring Charlie Ruggles and Una Merkel. It’s silly and incoherent, with an ending that comes too late to save it. Ruggles stars as an amateur detective trying to solve the crime that has taken place aboard a moving train. The film tries to be a comedy-mystery, but the humor falls flat on its face. Still, it has lots of camp value and is worth a peek.

A night with the theme “Rogue Body Parts” kicks off at 8:00 pm with Peter Lorre in the excellent and eerie take on “The Hands of Orlac,” Mad Love from MGM in 1935. It’s followed at 9:30 with another great Lorre performance in the classic The Beast With Five Fingers (1946). At 1:00 am, it’s that 1962 laff riot, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, a film that put the final nail in the career of actress Virginia Leith. What was she thinking when she agreed to star in this one? More to the point, who was her agent? Leith did go on to a fame of sorts when the folks at MST 3000 popularized her character as “Jan in the Pan” and made her a cult figure among bad movie buffs. As ridiculous as it is, it’s a Must See, especially for those who love bad movies.

Finally, at 4:35 am, it’s one of the most exotic and disturbing films from France, Eyes Without a Face (1959). Directed by Georges Franju, it’s the story of a surgeon (Pierre Brasseur) who kidnaps young women and grafts their faces onto that of his disfigured daughter (Edith Scob). It’s a “can’t miss” if you’ve never seen it and a “must see again” if you have. Hell, I even like the Billy Idol song of the same name, a tribute to the film.

October 14: At midnight, it’s the premiere of Stanley Kubrick’s urban dystopia, A Clockwork Orange (1971), the film that made Malcolm McDowell into a star. 

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