A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
STAR OF THE MONTH
We continue with David Niven, October’s Star of the Month. While most of the programming scheduled for the two remaining days of his reign is mediocre, there are three classics definitely worth watching.
One interesting thing about Niven’s career is his appearance as James Bond in the 1967 version of Casino Royale. Niven had been Bond creator Ian Fleming’s first choice to portray the super spy in 1962’s Dr. No. Fleming was said to have written the book with Niven in mind and even sent Niven a copy of the text. Niven is also the only actor mentioned by name in a Fleming work. In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bond visits an exclusive ski resort in Switzerland where he is told that Niven is also a frequent visitor. In You Only Live Twice, Niven is referred to as the only real gentleman in Hollywood. This begs the question of whether or not Niven was the inspiration for James Bond. No, Fleming based his hero on another spy named Dusan “Dusko” Popov, a triple agent during World War II who, besides being a brilliant spy, was also a ladies man with an extravagant lifestyle.
Another highlight of Niven’s life was during his co-hosting assignment on the 46th Annual Oscars Ceremony when a naked man streaked behind him across the stage. His response became a classic: "Isn't it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?"
In July 1982, Blake Edwards engaged Niven to reprise his role of Sir Charles Lytton in cameo appearances in Trail of the Pink Panther and Curse of the Pink Panther, but by this timer Niven’s health problems (ALS) were such that his voice had to be dubbed by Rich Little. Those cameo were to be Niven’s final film appearances.
Besides acting, Niven also found fame as a writer. He wrote two novels (Round the Rugged Rocks, 1951; and Go Slowly, Come Back Quickly, 1981) an autobiography (The Moon’s a Balloon, 1971) and a collection of reminiscences (Bring On The Empty Horses, 1975).
He married twice, the first to Primula Susan Rollo, the daughter of a prominent English barrister, in 1918. The couple had two sons, David, Jr. and Jamie. The marriage lasted until Primula’s accidental death in 1946. In 1958, he married Swedish fashion model Hjordis Paulina Tersmeden; the marriage lasted until Niven’s death in 1983.
October 19: The only pick of the night is Around the World in 80 Days (1956), an engaging movie starring Niven and an all-star cast, including Cantinflas, Robert Morley, Noel Coward, Buster Keaton, and Sir John Gielgud. Mike Todd’s version of the Jules Verne tale is highly entertaining, with a great score from Victor Young and a strong screenplay from James Poe, John Farrow and S.J. Perelman.
October 26: Two films running back to back are the choices this night. First up is the pleasant family comedy Please Don’t Eat the Daises (1960) starring Niven and Doris Day as a drama critic and his family trying to adjust to life in the country. It’s based on Jean Kerr’s stories about life with critic husband Walter Kerr and their family. It’s followed by a marvelous ‘60s comedy, The Impossible Years (1968) with Niven as a famed psychiatrist whose nerves and patience are tested to the limit when his daughter starts dating. It’s based on the wildly successful Broadway play of the same name written by Arthur Marx, Groucho’s son.
October 27: In the spillover from the night before is an underrated gem, Where the Spies Are (1965). It’s one of the better Bond-style spy spoofs with Niven as a country doctor who is persuaded to become a spy. His reason? A promised 1937 Chrysler LeBaron to replace his wrecked 1937 Cord Phaeton. It costars Francoise Dorleac, well known as the older sister of Catherine Deneuve. Dorlac’s career was starting to really take off when she was killed when her sports car flipped and burned in Nice, France, on June 26, 1967. She was only 25 years old.
TCM SPOTLIGHT: TRAILBLAZING WOMEN
As the Spotlight feature continues, the movies being shown (except for October 27) date no earlier than 1980. It became a little easier for women to break into the directorial side of the cinema by that time, as compared to earlier times when women directors became famous as much for their scarcity as for their talent.
After Dorothy Arzner retired in 1943, there were no women directors working in Hollywood until 1949. During filming of the independent production Not Wanted in 1949, director Elmer Clifton suffered a crippling stroke. Producer Ida Lupino took his place and finished the film. She also developed a taste for directing, but there weren’t any openings. So she took the independent route, directing low-budget films to be released by Eagle-Lion and RKO. The first film that brought her to the attention of both critics and public alike was Outrage (1950), an independent production released through RKO. It was a stark and open look at a subject that was taboo in Hollywood, that of rape. The film performed very well at the box office and led to an RKO contract as a director, where she made The Hitch-Hiker and The Bigamist (both in 1953). However, though both films did well, she remained shutout in Hollywood and turned to television, where she carved out a pretty respectable career. The glass ceiling proved so suffocating that even a director with Lupino’s record couldn’t get a gig.
Despite the progress made since the ‘80s, there is still a long way to go, but at least the foot is firmly in the door.
October 20: We lead off at 8:00 with the Penny Marshall classic, A League of Their Own (1992), a film famous for its line “There’s no crying in baseball!” At 10:15 pm, it’s Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle (1993), starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Barbra Streisand’s The Prince of Tides (1991) takes over at 12:15 am, then it’s a lovely underrated film, Wrestling Ernest Hemingway (1993), from director Randa Haines, starring Robert Duvall and Richard Harris as two lonely retires that strike up an tenuous friendship. Finally, at 5:00 am it’s Jodie Foster’s disappointing Home for the Holidays (1995).
October 22: It’s a night of independent productions from African-American directors, beginning at 8:00 with the late Kathleen Collins directing Losing Ground (1982). At 9:45, it’s Julie Dash’s engaging look at the Gullah culture of the islands off South Carolina and Georgia, Daughters of the Dust (1991). Just Another Girl in the I.R.T.(1992), from Leslie Harris, follows at 11:45 pm. And Ava DuVernay’s recent feature about a woman who is forced to drop out of medical school when her husband is incarcerated, Middle of Nowhere (2012), airs at 1:30 am.
October 27: It’s an evening of films from European and Indian directors. Begin at 8:00 with the original Gigi (1948) from director Jacqueline Audry. Audry, who learned her craft working under the great G.W. Pabst, fashioned quite an interesting tale about a teenage girl (Daniele Delorme) who is being trained to be a courtesan by her grandmother, Mamita (Yvonne de Bray), and her courtesan aunt Alicia (Gaby Morlay). This is light years away from MGM’s 1958 adaptation that took the stuffing out of the original and rendered it into just another harmless musical.
At 9:30, it’s Agnes Varda’s classic, Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962), a compelling drama about two hours in the life of a French singer awaiting the results of her cancer test. While it may sound a tad unexciting, it is anything but. Varda’s genius is in constructing a meaningful drama about a superficial woman’s two-hour journey through the city’s streets neatly contrasting Cleo’s fear of death with the celebration of life going on all around her. Whether encountering friends, lovers, or total strangers we notice her beginning to realize the shallowness of her own life and slowly beginning to look at the world properly, with a sense of the eternal and freedom. Look for cameos by Jean-Luc Godard, Anna Karina and Jean-Claude Brialy as actors in a silent film seen by Cleo and her friend.
At 11:15 pm, it’s Salaam Bombay! (1988) from Mira Nair. A boy, Krisna, is abandoned by his mother at the Apollo Circus and told that he can only return home when he has the 500 rupees to pay for the bicycle of his brother that he wrecked. Nair shows his progression on the streets of Bombay, as each day is a test of survival with the hope that somehow he’ll be able to raise the money that will let him come home. It is a movie that, once seen, will remain always within our consciousness.
Lina Wertmuller, the queen of the surreal and unexpected, takes over at 1:15 am with her masterly Love and Anarchy (1973). Frequent star Giancarlo Giannini is a farmer whose close friend has been killed by Fascists. Outraged, he decides to kill Mussolini. His anarchist connections take him to Rome where he links up with his anarchist contact, a highly popular prostitute named Salome who works in a Roman bordello that also happens to be popular with the Fascists, especially Mussolini’s head of security. The film is typical Wertmuller – takes a while to get going, but once it does, we’re hooked.
Last, and certainly least, is an effort from the late Chantal Akerman, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), airing at 3:15 am. It’s an interesting film about a lonely widow who is forced to turn to prostitution to make ends meet, but it moves at a snail’s pace and at 3 hours and 21 minutes is just too long.
October 29: A mixed bag this evening with the best bets being Kathryn Bigelow’s war drama, The Hurt Locker (2008), and Salma Hayek in Julie Taymor’s Frida (2002), about the life and loves of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Both are well worth the time and effort.
FROM THE DISNEY VAULTS
October 28: Included are three cartoons scheduled at 8:00 pm including the 1933 Disney cartoon classic, Three Little Pigs. It was one of the most popular films, period, of the Depression and the Big Bad Wolf was said to have been a symbol of the Depression. The version we will see is most likely the edited version. In the original version, pulled from theaters shortly after its debut and replaced with a less disturbing version, the Wolf disguises himself as a Jewish peddler to gain entry into the pigs’ house. This may be why it was reportedly one of Adolf Hitler’s favorite films. He was said to have loved whistling the track “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” which also became a hit in America as well.
October 16: It’s a night devoted to “Killer Kids.” The best bets this night actually begin at 1:45 am with Village of the Damned (1960). George Sanders and Barbara Shelley must save the world from a brood of blond children all born on the same day to women in a British village impregnated in a most unusual manner. The children are not of this Earth and by looking at someone they can drive him or her to their death.
Following at 3:15 am is Curse of the Cat People (1944), a most unusual horror film from producer Val Lewton and RKO. Originally positioned as a sequel to 1942’s successful Cat People, it really not a sequel but a wonderfully atmospheric story of a lonely little girl who conjures up an image of her father’s first wife. For those looking for straight horror, dial somewhere else. For those looking for an excellent, moody adult fantasy, this is for you.
From director Jaromil Jires comes Valerie and Her Week of Wonder (1970). Based closely on Vtezslav Nezval’s fantasy novel of the same name, it’s a surreal tale of the sexual coming of age of a young woman told through a monstrous metaphor: vampires, who prey on the innocent to drain their youth and vitality. The film went through the usual process in Czechoslovakia, released, and later repressed. It was almost totally forgotten, consigned to the dustbins of cinema history, but word-of-mouth among cinephiles and revival screenings kept it alive and in the cinema consciousness. It also served as the role model for other films that combined the feminine and the monstrous, such as Lemora: A Child Tale of the Supernatural (1973), Carrie (1976), and The Company of Wolves (2012).
October 23: Best bets tonight include The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) at 10:30 pm with Charles Laughton giving a wonderful performance as the hunchback with Maureen O’Hara providing excellent support.
At 2:00 am, it’s one the classics of the genre, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), adapted from the Oscar Wilde work and starring George Sanders and Hurd Hatfield. It’s followed at 4:00 am by that old Hammer standard, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
October 29: It’s a whole morning and afternoon of horror, with the best being The Devil-Doll (1936) at 9:15 am, and the Roger Corman schmiel double feature of Bucket of Blood (1959) and Little Shop of Horrors (1960) at 5 pm.
October 30: It’s an entire day of horror. Best bets are the Hammer version of The Mummy (1959), at 8:15 am; Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966), at 9:45 am, and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed! (1970) at 3:00 pm. A curiosity for fans of the English detective series Foyle’s War will be Dracula A.D., 1972 (1972), as Inspector Foyle himself, Michael Kitchen, is featured in a supporting role.
The evening is devoted to the one and only Val Lewton, with Cat People (1942) at 8:00 pm, the wonderful Martin Scorsese documentary, Martin Scorsese Presents, Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows at 9:30, The Seventh Victim (1943) at 11:00, The Leopard Man (1943) at 12:15 am, The Ghost Ship (1943) at 1:30 am, The Body Snatcher (1945) at 2:45 am, Isle of the Dead (1945) at 4:15 am, and, finally, Bedlam (1946) at 5:30 am. All are recommended; the last three are starring Boris Karloff, an added treat for horror fans.
October 31: Halloween continues the horror marathon. Best bets are Doctor X (1932) at 7:00 am, the underrated White Zombie (1932) with Bela Lugosi at 8:30 am, Vincent Price in The Tingler (1959) at 3:00 pm and House of Wax (1953) at 4:30.
The evening brings us an encore airing of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) at 8:00 pm, Curse of the Demon (1958) at 10:00 pm, the excellent Dead of Night (1945) from Ealing Studios, at 11:30 pm, and Tod Browning’s Mark of the Vampire (1935) with Bela Lugosi and Lionel Barrymore, at 1:30 am.