A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
STAR OF THE MONTH
TCM’s Star of the Month is Norma Shearer, who reigned as the queen of the MGM lot from the days of the studio’s silent era through the late '30s. Her career was cut short by the death of husband Irving Thalberg, which took away her love of making movies, and the post-Thalberg politics of the studio, which de-emphasized her role as a star. Born in Montreal, Canada, she won a beauty contest at the age of 14 in 1916. In 1920, her mother took Norma and sister Athole (who later married Howard Hawks) to New York. Ziegfeld turned her down for a role in his “Follies,” but she found work as an extra in movies in addition to modeling.
When he joined Louis Mayer in 1923, Thalberg, having remembered her from her work in films, signed her to a contract and built her into a star. Shearer spent much time, and money, seeing doctors to correct her cross-eyed stare, which resulted from a muscle weakness in the eye. After they married in 1927, he thought she should retire, but she was now a star and wanted to keep it that way. Norma effortlessly slid over into talking pictures, her first being The Trial of Mary Dugan in 1929. In 1930, she won an Oscar for The Divorcee. As the ‘30s progressed she cut down her schedule to tend to Irving and their two children, appearing only in Thalberg’s prestige projects, such as The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934) and Romeo and Juliet (1936). When Thalberg dies from a second heart attack in 1936, Shearer wanted to retire, but MGM more or less bullied her into signing a six-picture contract. When her last film, Her Cardboard Lover (1942) wrapped, Norma walked away from Hollywood, marrying ski instructor Martin Arrouge, 11 years her junior, later that year. The marriage lasted until her death in 1983 from pneumonia.
November 3: It’s a night of Shearer silents and all are worth watching. Begin at 8:00 pm with Lady of the Night (1924). It’s the old chestnut about a young man named David (Malcolm McGregor), an ambitious young inventor who must choose between two women: Florence, the pampered daughter of an affluent judge, and Molly, an underprivileged dance hall girl. Shearer plays both young women in a bravura performance that sealed her status as a leading lady. The film, from screenwriters Alice D.G. Miller and Adela Rogers St. John, is an unabashedly sentimental tearjerker, but the thing to watch here is Shearer in the dual role. She is positively magnetic as both young women, more interesting as the jaded, streetwise Molly, but fun to watch nevertheless.
At 9:15 pm, it’s Norma in a more adult role – that of con artist Dolly in the 1928 comedy, A Lady of Chance. A devious but doll-faced gold digger who also goes by the name “Angel Face,” she’s working a luxury hotel, and zeroes in on a rich businessman. However, her plans go awry when fellow crooks Bradley (Lowell Sherman) and his girlfriend Gwen (Gwen Lee) glom onto the scheme and beat her to the punch. The resourceful Dolly manages to swindle them and then sets her sights on gullible inventor Steve Crandall (Johnny Mack Brown, incorrectly spelled as Mc Brown in the above movie card). Convinced he lives on a plantation and has a fortune back down south, she travels with him to meet his folks. When her two erstwhile cronies show up to blackmail Steve, however, Dolly finds she’s fallen in love and goes straight to help her man. This is a prime example of the star making the film, for without Shearer, this movie would be about as interesting as watching paint dry.
At 10:45, Norma stars opposite Ramon Novarro in The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1928), a solid version of Sigmund Romberg’s famous operetta and directed by none other than Ernst Lubitsch. Novarro is the youthful Prince Karl Heinrich, who leads a pampered and sheltered life as he’s being tutored to someday assume the throne. His father, the overly strict King Karl VII (Gustav Von Seyffertitz), keeps him away from the ordinary pleasures of life, as that would distract from his overall mission of succeeding Karl as king. However, his tutor, Dr Jutter (Jean Hersholt), manages to sneak in glimpses of the outside world that the prince finds so fascinating. It is when Dr. Juttner takes the young prince to the university at Heidelberg that his world begins to expand. While there he meets and falls in love with barmaid Kathi (Shearer). Even though they both know that he cannot marry someone below his station, the Prince and Kathi make the most of their time together. When his father dies, he must unhappily return and assume the throne. He still loves Kathi, even though he is betrothed to a princess. Will they find happiness together? Tune in and find out.
The film that follows is seen today as a classic, mainly because it stars Lon Chaney at the peak of his creative powers. He Who Gets Slapped (1924), airing at 12:45 am. Chaney is a scientist who is cheated out of his discovery. Humiliated he withdraws from both his profession and society, becoming a clown in the circus simply known as “He.” Shearer is Consuelo, a bareback rider with whom Chaney falls in love. Tragically, when he confesses his love to her, she laughs in his face, as she is in love with her partner Bezano (John Gilbert). Chaney learns that Consuelo’s father, Count Mancini (Tully Marshall) plans to marry his daughter to Baron Regnard (Marc McDermott), and takes drastic measures that backfire on almost all. It was said by Chaney to have been his favorite role and is definitely worth watching.
November 10: On this night we follow Norma into the era of sound, which is decidedly a mixed bag. Not every film she made was notable, so we are choosing what, in our humble opinions, are the best of the tonight’s bunch. We begin at 8:00 with a film that shows off the sophistication of Shearer, 1931’s Private Lives, a dazzling, witty adaptation of Noel Coward’s stage play. Shearer and Robert Montgomery star as Amanda Prynne and Elyot Chase, a divorced couple who are now married to other people (Reginald Denny and Una Merkel). Unfortunately, their separate honeymoons with the new spouses take them to the same hotel, where the couples are staying in adjoining rooms. One thing leads to another and Amanda and Elyot are once again in love, but for how long? It’s a very funny comedy of manners, with all four actors giving as good as each gets. Merkel, in particular, is a gem.
We follow at 9:30 with Norma as Jan Ashe, the free-spirited daughter of hard-drinking attorney Stephen Ashe (Lionel Barrymore) in 1932’s A Free Soul. Although from a socially prominent family, freethinking Stephen defends some of society’s most undesirable characters. This time, it’s Ace Wilfong (Clark Gable), who is up for murder. Naturally, Ace and Jan fall in love and want to marry as she dumps her old beau Dwight (Leslie Howard). Stephen denies their request, although Jan continues to see him. But the romance between Jan and Ace turns violent when Ace jealously scolds her for leaving him to go on vacation with her father. After attacking her, Ace demands that she marry him. Jan says nothing doing and returns to old beau Dwight. Ace follows, and when Dwight sees him manhandling her, he shoots and kills Ace. Now it’s up to Stephen to defend Dwight. This is a movie more famous for its Pre-Code shenanigans rather than any dramatic quality. It’s amazing that Barrymore won the Best Actor award for what is essentially one of the hammiest performances of his career. However, it is entertaining, if only on a lower level, and those who have not yet seen it would be well advised to give it as peek.
At 12:45, it’s the film that put Shearer on the map as one of the most risque actresses, The Divorcee (1930). Jerry (Shearer) and Ted (Chester Morris) have enjoyed three years of wedded bliss. But when she discovers that he’s having an affair, she decides to play tit for tat and have one herself, turning to Ted’s friend Don (Robert Montgomery) for comfort. When Ted finds out, he refuses to accept her having affairs with other men. Consequently, they divorce and go their separate ways. Eventually they reconcile, but not before much water passes under the bridge. The film is based on a novel titled Ex-Wife that was so racy its author, Ursula Parrott, published it anonymously. The Production Code Administration wanted cuts to the novel before it was filmed. The studio promised much, but gave little; the only note of consequence was in accepting the suggestion that the original title not be used to the movie. Shearer garnered her first Best Actress nomination for the role of Jerry, though the odds were heavily favoring Greta Garbo for her talkie debut, Anna Christie. However, when the award was announced, it went to Shearer. Rumors persisted that Thalberg ordered MGM’s employees to vote for his wife.
Finally, at 3:30 am, it’s Shearer in an early talkie, The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1929). She plays the leader of a group of suave, chic jewel thieves that prey on the rich. Her downfall comes when she falls for one of her marks (Basil Rathbone). Besides the performances of Shearer and Rathbone, the film is worth seeing for the technical difficulties that came with the shift to sound. Watch the actors talking into floral arrangements on the table or a corsage one is wearing. There are times during the film when the sound of the background music is indistinguishable from the soundtrack and we find ourselves rewinding to hear what was said. But it’s worth it, for some of the dialogue is absolutely sparkling, such as the scene where Shearer and Rathbone face off in their nightwear. As Shearer’s Fay Cheyney scrutinizes Rathbone’s Arthur Dilling dressed to the nines in an obviously expensive silk dressing gown and finds it not up to snuff, Rathbone can only say, “Oh, and I chose the one that suits me best. How depressing! It must be me!” Shearer’s nemesis Joan Crawford starred in a 1937 remake, hoping to teach Norma a thing or two about acting, but falls pitifully short. Crawford could never pass herself off as to the manor born. She should’ve stuck to playing shopgirls.
The TCM spotlight this month is on Southern writers and their films. After presenting us with an extremely fascinating look at women directors last month, it looks as if they’ve chosen to coast this month.
November 4: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with Mickey Rooney and Rex Ingram, is a good choice to lead off at 8:00 pm. Following at 9:45 is Gone With the Wind. Some love it, while some hate it. But those who love it have it on DVD, so it’s up to those who don’t yet have it and neophytes to tune in. Me, I’m not a fan. And at the wee hour of 4:15 am it’s the best of tonight’s bunch, John Huston’s In This Our Life (1942), a study of a crumbling Southern family, with Bette Davis in top form as the bad sister, and Olivia de Havilland as the good sister.
November 11: At 8:00 pm, it’s easily the film of the night: Robert Mitchum was never scarier than in The Night of the Hunter (1955) as a faux preacher whose real mission is not the salvation of souls, but the hiding place of his late cellmate’s ill-gotten loot. He seduces and later kills the widow (Shelly Winters) in his quest, and is about to murder her children when neighbor Lillian Gish foils his plans for murder. This film is a wonderful parable of greed, corruption, and the saving grace of redemption directed by Charles Laughton. It was Laughton’s first, and only, film. When it proved a box office flop upon its release. Laughton decided to stick with acting, which was cinema’s loss, for this is one of the best films ever made and a superb example of the psychological thriller. Hitchcock could not have done any better.
At 9:45 comes Wise Blood (1979), director John Huston’s failed attempt to translate the great Flannery O’Connor to the screen. At 11:45 it’s – once again – To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), a brilliantly realized version of Harper Lee’s classic novel.
OUT OF THE ORDINARY
November 1: The evening’s highlight is I, Vitteloni, an early effort from Federico Fellini in 1953. It’s a magnificent film about the efforts of five young friends having to cope with their emerging adulthood and their wish to escape the boredom and confinement of their provincial hometown. Think of an Italian version of American Graffiti, but with much more depth. It’s a fascinating study of small town life and would anticipate his later Amarcord. It’s also the film that gave Alberto Sordi his first big break. I cannot recommend this film more; in fact, some critics see it as Fellini’s masterpiece, and this with La Strada, The Nights of Cabiria, La Dolce Vita, and 8½ still to come.
November 5: At 8:00 pm. it’s one of the greatest films ever made, 1937’s La Grande Illusion, from director Jean Renoir, a moving and compelling story of French POWs and their German captors in World War I. Starring Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, and Marcel Dalio as the French POWs and a masterful performance by Eric von Stroheim as their commandant. It was the first foreign film to be nominated by the Academy for Best Picture in 1937, and was one of the first films Joseph Goebbels seized when the Germans marched into France, as Renoir was his Public Enemy No. 1. It was thought for years that an air raid by the Allies in 1942 destroyed it, but it turns out that a German film archivist named Frank Hansel had smuggled the original negative back to Berlin. When the Russians captured Berlin the film was moved to a Soviet archive and unknowingly sent back to France during the mid ‘60s in a swap with an archive in Toulouse. Meanwhile, at the same time, Renoir had restored a copy of the film from an old muddy print, but with so many prints of the film now available, the original negative wasn’t discovered until the early ‘90s. Renoir’s assistant director on the film was Jacques Becker, who went on to make some wonderful films of his own.
November 8: It’s Fellini’s La Strada at 2:00 am, followed by Without Pity (1948) from director Alberto Lattuada and written by Fellini. This is the touching story of a woman (Carla Del Poggio) reduced to prostitution and the black GI (John Kitzmuller) who falls in love with her. Kitzmuller, interestingly, was a real GI stationed in Italy during the war. He stayed behind after the war and went into acting, where he became the stock black American or African character. He made quite a few sword and sandal movies when the genre was hot in the late ‘50s to early ‘60s. His most famous role was that of Quarrel in Dr. No (1962). Also look for Giuletta Masina as Del Poggio’s best friend.
November 12: The night is dedicated to the efforts of Milestone Films. Besides the early In the Land of the Head Hunters (8:00 pm) from 1914, which should be seen due to the year it was made, other tidbits worth looking into are I am Cuba (9:15) a documentary from Mosfilm in 1964 about the adjustment of Cuba to Castro’s new regime, and Come Back, Africa (1960), a documentary about the harsh realities of living under apartheid in South Africa that is being aired at 3:15 am.. While both are certainly worth watching, it’s the latter that is a Must See. I Am Cuba is in reality a propaganda piece partially written by the Russian poet and filmmaker Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the latter is a devastating look at the lives of black South Africans living in a brutal regime.
November 15: It’s Fellini once again, in what may have been his wife’s (Giuletta Masina) greatest performance: The Nights of Cabiria (1957). Masina dazzles in an almost flawless performance as a prostitute in Rome looking for real love and attracting only the worst of men. It would be the basis for the Broadway and film musical, Sweet Charity.
Following after at 4:15 am is Rossellini’s powerful The Flowers of St. Francis (1950). It’s the story of St. Francis of Assisi, a man who renounced his family’s wealth to lead a band of followers into poverty, and ultimately grace, in the service of God. It starred non-actors and was co-written by Rossellini, Federico Fellini, and two Italian priests.
November 6: Begin at 10:00 pm with the best of the adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, And Then There Were None (1945). It boasts a sterling cast that includes Walter Huston, Louis Hayward, Barry Fitzgerald, Roland Young, June Duprez, Mischa Auer, C. Aubrey Smith, Judith Anderson, and Richard Haydn. The plot is pure Christie: 10 people are invited to a mansion on an isolated island by a host who is nowhere to be seen. He has left a phonograph keyed to a song based on the nursery rhyme, Ten Little Indians. On the dining room table is a centerpiece comprised of a ring on which 10 Indians stand in a circle. Each time a guest is killed, one of the Indians is smashed. A combination of tough seas and no transport means the guests must wait until the ferry returns a couple of days later. One by one the guests are murdered. Who’s doing the killing? Is it their unseen host? Or is the killer one of them? Christie, known as a meticulous and ingenious plotter, couldn’t have had a better person to direct this film than Rene Clair, who matches her step for step, utilizing the camera brilliantly to fully capture the suspense that builds up as the film progresses. Like Christie, Clair knows that suspense comes not from what happens, but from what is about to happen. As with any good old dark house thriller, it’s the use of shadows, of something coming out of the dark, which stokes the tension. And this film is the best of the genre.
At midnight comes It, the Terror From Beyond Space (1958). Though the title seemingly gives it all away, this little independent B boasts an above average script, courtesy of Jerome Bixby, and a competent cast. Director Edward L. Cahn, not noted as one of the better directors of his time, keeps the pacing sharp and the suspense continuous. A rescue mission to Mars in 1973(!) picks up the last survivor of the previous expedition. It’s assumed that he did in his crewmates, but the real killer is a Martian who has stowed away on the ship. To live he needs blood and he’ll go anything to get it. Though the production values are near zero – we can easily see the zipper on the back of the Martian (Ray “Crash” Corrigan) – the script and the pacing more than makes up for the deficiencies. The crew must find and kill their visitor before he kills them, which is a difficult task, as he likes to play hide and seek in the airshafts of the ship. Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon lifted the film’s premise and turned it into Alien for director Ridley Scott in 1979. Forget the production values, just ride along with the crew. A good time is guaranteed.
Rounding out the fare at 3:30 am is frumpy Bette Davis playing a frumpy killer nanny in the equally frumpy The Nanny, from 1965.
November 7: Those of us who are Bowery Boys fans (and we know who we are) should have the cockles of our hearts warmed by the fact that TCM is beginning a new cycle of Bowery Boys films airing each Saturday at 10:30 am. We begin with the first of the series, Live Wires (1946), which sees Slip, Sach, and the boys plying their trade as skip tracers, repossessing goods from people who are behind on their payments. It’s a remake of He Couldn’t Take It, from 1933 (Written by Dore Schary!), which was remade as Here Comes Kelly in 1943. Directed by the able Phil Karlson, Live Wires is an entertaining mix of crime and slapstick, highlighted by a scene where Slip is to collect from someone named “Patsy Clark.” Figuring Patsy’s a woman, he’s in for the surprise of his life when he discovers that Patsy is a man in the form of Mike Mazurki.
November 14: Again, at 10:30 am it’s another Bowery Boys feature. In Fast Company (1946) finds the gang embroiled in a taxi war brought on by the crooked manager of a taxicab company eager to eliminate the competition in the form of independent cabbies. It’s directed by Del Lord, who helmed many a Three Stooges short.
SO BAD IT’S GOOD
Tune in November 6 at 1:30 am for the one and only Joan Crawford starring in one of her most ridiculous features: Berserk (1967), from schlockmeister Herman Cohen, who also produced Joan’s unforgettable Trog three years later. Joan stars as Monica Rivers, whose circus is beset by a slasher. Murder-in-the-circus films were always popular, but the ‘60s spawned three color classics: the 1960 Circus of Horrors, with Anton Diffring; the 1967 Circus of Fear (aka Psycho-Circus), with Christopher Lee; and Berserk, originally titled “Circus of Blood.” All three have a killer on the run plying his trade in a circus, which increases attendance. And all three were made in color, which allows for plenty of blood, the red stuff that takes the place of shadows – and sex – in the horror movie. Berserk goes the others one better, though, in that it stars Crawford. Joan is aptly hilarious, wearing a ringmaster’s outfit more suited for a woman half her age that exposes her long legs, accompanied by an outlandish bleached blonde hairdo, and spouting such lines as “Just remember, I was the one who gave you all a home!” She also has an attractive studmuffin on the hook (Ty Hardin), and during their love scenes, her appearance in see-through night apparel is truly something to behold. She also has a bitchy relationship with the circus’s other diva, played by Diana Dors, that degenerates into a cat fight after one takes offense to the other’s heckling. But stick around for the conclusion, when the killer is revealed along with the laughable reasons why the killings were committed. All this ends in a chase outside the tent, where the killer is conveniently electrocuted. As with all of Joan’s later films, it’s a must. Bring on those dancing poodles!