Sunday, November 15, 2015

Cinéma Inhabituel for November 16-30

A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea


We continue with Norma Shearer, TCM’s Star of the Month for November. We are now firmly in the age of talkies. When talking pictures were taking the country by storm, the studio heads were shaking in their boots as to which of their stars could make the transition and which would have to be left by the roadside.

They needn’t have worried about Shearer. Her voice came through loud and clear, even on the primitive equipment of the day. In fact, many on the MGM roster studied her speech to pick up a thing or two on how to speak. Being married to Head of Production Irving Thalberg certainly had its perks, as Norma was cast in many an “important picture.” But Shearer was popular n her own even without Irving’s help. The public, especially the female portion, adored her as the essence of the modern liberated woman. Behind the scenes, Norma was a woman who certainly had it all: a career, a loving husband, and two adorable children. But lest anyone think her marriage to Thalberg was simply a career move, a close look at her life while married reveals that her husband came before everything else. She turned down several career-boosting films to care for her fragile husband, and when he died, it was as if her world simply fell apart. The joy of moviemaking was gone. The quality of her films went down as the late ‘30s became the early ‘40s, and at the end she wasn’t interested in signing on for more films.

November 17: It’s a mixed bag tonight, concentrating on drama. The best bets are the sprightly romance, Smilin’ Through (1932) with Frederic March and Leslie Howard, at 9:30 pm, and the beautifully written and acted biopic, The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), at 1:15 am. In between, at 11:15, is one of the strangest films in MGM’s history – Strange Interlude (1932), with Clark Gable. Based on Eugene O’Neill’s stage hit of the same name, it’s the story of neurotic Nina Leeds, whose first love is killed in World War I. She tries to assuage her grief by marrying, but the marriage is a mistake when she discovers during the honeymoon that insanity runs through her husband’s family and thus she cannot have a child with him. So she drifts into an affair with a doctor (Gable) that results in an illegitimate child, and we go on from there as the play winds down into pure melodrama. This was a film that could only be made as a talkie, for one of the devices O’Neill used was to have the characters express their inner thoughts during the play. On stage, the character simply stopped and spoke directly to the audience. On film, voiceovers were used. While the film is decidedly talky, it features one of Shearer’s best performances. She captures the essence of Nina Leeds perfectly – each and every nuance of her character’s inner emotions. But the real surprise of the film is the performance of Gable. On most days, Gable could never be mistaken for an actor, but in Strange Interlude he gives a surprisingly effective performance as Dr. Ned Darrell. It’s also the first film in which he sports his now trademark mustache.

The rest of the night finds the so-so drama, Riptide (1934) airing at 3:15 am, followed by Shearer and Leslie Howard in Romeo and Juliet (1936) at 5:00 am. Though Shearer and Howard are marvelous as the two doomed lovers, the film suffers from a fatal flaw in that the leads are way too old to play the couple, who are supposed to be teenagers.

November 24: The final cycle of Shearer films begins at 8:00 pm with the uneven Marie Antoinette (1938). It’s an opulent production, to say the least, with Shearer simply magnificent as the queen, and Robert Morley stealing the film as Louis XVI. However, the pacing is all out of proportion with Woody Van Dyke directing. George Cukor would have been a much better choice given the material. Tyrone Power as Count Axel de Fersen, and John Barrymore as Louis XV add strength to an already solid cast. Perhaps the loudest kudos should be given to art director Cedric Gibbon, who painstakingly tries to recreate the lavish Versailles palace, and does a good job of it. Despite any misgivings, it’s still light years ahead of the dopey 2006 remake.

Following at 10:45 is the gem of the night: 1939’s The Women, the film adaptation of Claire Boothe Luce’s bitchfest. This time the studio got the directing chores right, assigning Cukor to the film. And he doesn’t disappoint, capturing the play’s essence as a nasty ensemble piece. Shearer may be the star as the virtuous Mary, but it’s Joan Crawford who nearly walks away with the film as the trashy Crystal, with whom Shearer’s husband is having an affair. I said, “nearly walks away” because, if it weren’t for Rosalind Russell, the movie would have been Crawford’s. Russell has a field day as the acerbic Sylvia Fowler (the Luce character), and the fact that she could act rings around Crawford, who saw only Shearer as her competition, enables us the remember her performance over that of Joan. One of the great myths is that women are the gentler sex, but anyone who wishes to deflate that misbegotten notion need only point to the behind-the-scenes shenanigans on the set of the film. For one thing, Crawford was intensely jealous of Shearer, who she saw as getting the best parts only because she was married to Thalberg. “How can I compete with Norma when she sleeps with the boss?” she said. When she had to sit off-camera and feed her lines to Shearer during Norma’s close ups, she sat and knitted furiously (and noisily), never once making eye contact with her co-star. Shearer was so rattled she asked Cukor to send Joan home, which he did. He later insisted Joan apologize, which she did most half-heartedly. Though Shearer was slated to be the star, Joan fought for, and won, equal billing. And when Russell, was informed about the magnitude of her performance, she also demanded equal billing, calling in sick until she got it. The Women is a film that hasn’t lost its power to astonish and entertain, being just as biting today as it was in 1939. It was remade twice, in 1956 as The Opposite Sex with the sexless and annoying June Allyson in the Shearer role and the juicy Joan Collins in the Crawford role, and in 2008 with the vapid Meg Ryan and the great Annette Bening.

At 1:00 am, it’s the misfire that is Idiot’s Delight (1939), a badly dated version of Robert E. Sherwood’s play about a group of disparate characters – including a tacky vaudevillian (Gable) and his former flame (Shearer), who has come up in the world – as they share company in a hotel near the Italian border just as World War II is about to break out. The only interesting scene in the entire mess was seeing Gable dancing and singing “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”

Shearer rebounds at 3:00 am with the underrated Escape (1940). Shearer is a countess and mistress to Nazi General Conrad Veidt who helps American Robert Taylor get his mother Alla Nazimova out of a German concentration camp shortly before World War II begins. It’s an engrossing film with Shearer giving one of her patented excellent performances and carrying the flat Taylor to a decent performance. But the real fun is watching Nazimova in a rare talkie, and the great Conrad Veidt, Hollywood’s favorite Naughty Nazi. Don’t miss it.

If Shearer thought that, with Escape, the quality of her films would improve as her contract wound down, she couldn’t have been more mistaken. At 4:45 am comes a film that surely must have made her cringe in later years: Her Cardboard Lover (1942). It was Shearer’s last film and they couldn’t even let her go out on a high note. Instead the studio gave her warmed over crap. The film began life on Broadway in the ‘20s and was purchased by MGM in 1928 as a silent vehicle for Marion Davies. It’s a farcical comedy about a woman who hires a man to pose as her lover in order to dissuade a persistent ex-fiancé from his ideas of reconciliation. Given the plot, we can also see that the time to film it had passed with the coming of the enforcement of the Code; thus, the timing needed to pull of the comedy was already censored before the cast stepped before the cameras. Another problem was the casting of Taylor, who is flatter-than-last-night’s-beer, as the hired lover. He’s about as subtle in the role as Marjorie Main would have been playing Peter Pan. Not even the presence of Cukor behind the camera can salvage this mess.

November 25: A spillover from the previous night is the airing of We Were Dancing (1942) at 6:30 am, the next-to-last film Shearer made. Though not as bad as Her Cardboard Lover, it’s still pretty dreadful in its own right. Based on two short comedies by Noel Coward, Shearer and co-star Melvyn Douglas are two impoverished Europeans looking for rich Americans to marry who inexplicably run off with each other and elope. Coming to the conclusion that they can’t live on love alone, they decide to divorce and look for rich mates, but their relationship keeps getting in the way. Both Shearer and Douglas are wasted in this fiasco.


The theme of  “Southern writers” continues. A tired category with the same films, save one or two. The less said the better.

November 18In Cold Blood (1967) at 10:00 pm and A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) following at 12:30 are the only items of interest this night. All the rest is filler.

November 25: At least it gets better this night, with the superb No Country For Old Men, from the Coen Brothers, at 1:00 am, followed by Sam Peckinpah’s wonderful psychotronic Western, Ride the High Country (1962) at 3:15 am.


November 20: TCM devotes the entire day to the late star with 12 of her films. Daytime: 6:00 am, Jamaica Inn (1939); 7:45 am, The Deadly Companions (1961); 9:30 am, Spencer’s Mountain (1963); 11:30 am, McLintock! (1963); 1:45 pm, The Battle of The Villa Fiorita (1965); 3:45 pm, Big Jake (1971); 5:45 pm, The Wings of Eagles (1957).

Evening: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) at 8:00. The Quiet Man (1952) at 10:00 pm, At Sword’s Point (1951) at 12:30 am, Sinbad the Sailor (1947) at 2:00 am, and The Spanish Main (1945) at 4:00 am.


November 22: Tonight’s offering at the ungodly hour of 3:30 am is Federico Fellini’s acclaimed Juliet of the Spirits, starring his wife, Giuletta Masina, in a performance for the ages as an Italian housewife who suspects he husband is tomcatting around but is too afraid to face up to the truth. She lives in a world of daydreams, totally fascinated with séances and spiritualism, and finally begins to open up to the possibilities of life when she meets Suzy (Sandra Milo), her sexually liberated neighbor who begins to slowly draw her out of her mundane fantasy life into something more life enhancing. It’s Fellini’s first color film and is, indeed, a feast for the eyes, as Fellini tries to capture Juliet’s inner life.

November 29: Two films on tap beginning at 2:00 am. First is Fellini’s mixed bag, Fellini’s Satyricon (1970), and afterward (4:15 am), The White Sheik, a 1952 comedy about newlyweds driven apart by the wife’s infatuation with a comic strip hero. It’s his first solo effort and deals with what would become a familiar theme of his future films: the clash of reality versus illusion. The wife is totally infatuated with a comic strip character called the White Sheik. The husband’s flaw is being overly concerned with social respectability. Does love conquer all? Yes and no; tune in and see for yourself.


November 16: A rarity is scheduled for today. At 9:30 am, The Painted Desert from RKO/Pathe is scheduled to air. Although it’s a somewhat less than stirring early talkie Western starring the formidable Bill “Hopalong Cassady” Boyd and the less than overwhelming Helen Twelvetrees, the real reason for film buffs to tune in is because it’s Gable’s first talkie. Many critics have erroneously thought it was Gable’s first movie, but the truth is that he worked as an extra from 1924 to 1926, with films such as What Price Glory and The Merry Widow in his c.v. Here he plays a dastardly type who eventually gets his from hero Bill Boyd. It’s prehistoric and moves at a snail’s pace, but it’s worth seeing for Gable and Boyd.

November 30: Tune in at 8:00 pm for director Satyajit Ray’s “Apu Trilogy.” The evening begins with a nice documentary on the restoration of the films, followed by the first in the trilogy, Pather Panchali (1956). It's followed by Aparajito from 1957 (10:30 pm), and Apur Sansar, made in 1959, at 12:30 am. The films depict the coming of age of a young Bengali named Apurba Kumer Roy, or simply “Apu” in the early part of the 20th century. The films are renowned for their depiction of the degrading poverty that the characters endure and Apu’s struggle for liberation from this economic tyranny. Afterward is an excellent documentary on the director, followed at the wee hour of 5:00 am with one of the best efforts, The Music Room (1958), a fascinating look at an aristocrat who is too proud to curb his extravagant lifestyle even though it’s ruining him financially. Each and every film tonight is a definite “Must See.”


November 19: It’s an evening of the films of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., the original man of Derring-Do. Although two of the films, The Mark of Zorro (10 pm) and The Thief of Bagdad (12:00 am) are being screened, three rarities are also being shown. At 8:00 pm, it’s The Good Bad Man from 1916 with Doug as a Wild West Robin Hood bent on vengeance on the man who killed his mother and abducted his girl. Following at 9:00 pm is another film from 1916, The Half-Breed. Adapted by Anita Loos from Bret Harte’s novella In the Carquinez Woods, Doug plays Lo Dorman, half-breed ostracized from white society and living with his adopted Indian grandfather outside of town. He meets Teresa, another outcast. She’s on the lam after stabbing her unfaithful lover. Sheriff Dunn, the local lawman mistakes Theresa for Nellie, his sweetheart. Believing she’s mixed up romantically with Lo, the Sheriff is out to kill him. But Theresa, who has gone through Lo’s belongings, discovers the Sheriff is in actuality Lo’s father. She tries to tell this to Dunn, to no avail. For the ending, watch the film. It’s quite good.

Closing out the night at 2:45 am is The Black Pirate (1926) with Doug as a nobleman who vows to avenge the death of his father at the hands of pirates by joining them. Filmed in the early Technicolor process it features Doug at his swashbuckling best.


November 23: An entire morning and afternoon of Boris Karloff, one of the greatest unheralded actors in film history. Because he made a lot of low-budget horror films, some might dismiss him as just another bad actor. Au contraire – Karloff was an excellent actor who had to take almost every film and stage offer that came his way due to the consequences of his being a serial monogamist. Alimony costs money and Karloff was married five times. The picks of the day are as follows: 6 am – The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932); 7:15 am – The Walking Dead (1936); 10:45 am – Devil’s Island (1940); noon – The Body Snatcher (1945); 1:30 am – Bedlam (1946); 4:45 pm – Frankenstein 1970 (1958). An example of some the lack of respect Karloff garnered came with his death when the New York Times ran his obit. With his obit the paper ran a picture of him as the Frankenstein Monster. Unfortunately, the photo was of Glenn Strange, who played the Monster in the ‘40s.


November 21: At 10:00 am – Bowery Bombshell (1946). The Boys hunt for the bank robbers who may have been caught in a photo taken by a friend of theirs (Teala Loring). Sheldon Leonard, as the leader of the gangsters, steals the film.

At 2:15, it’s Class of 1984 (1982), a run-of-the-mill film about a new high school teacher (Perry King) who finds his school is run by a gang led by Timothy Van Patten (!?).

November 27: At 8:00 pm, it’s an evening of fantasy films with Jason and the Argonauts (1963) leading off, and Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon airing at 11:45 pm.

November 28: At 9:00 am, it’s Dick Tracy (1945), as Tracy (Morgan Conway) squares off against Splitface (Mike Mazurki). Following at 10:30 am, it’s the Bowery Boys in Spook Busters (1946). The Boys are exterminators who tangle with a mad scientist (Douglas Drumbrille) at an old country house. At 6:15 pm, it’s the redoubtable The Thing From Another World (1951).

Dial ahead to late night and we find John Waters’s Polyester (1982) with the one and only Divine airing at 2:30 am. Following at 4:00, it’s the lame girl wrestling flick All The Marbles (1981) starring Peter Falk, who practically sleepwalks through the thing.


November 30: At 5:30 pm comes one of the worst movie debuts for a young actor in history. The actor is Paul Newman and the film is The Silver Chalice, an atrocious bomb from Warner Bros. in 1954. Newman is a young Greek silversmith, sold into slavery, then chosen by a group of Christians to design a chalice for the Holy Cup Jesus used at the Last Supper 20 years ago. Along the way he has to decide between the pagan world as exemplified by courtesan Virginia Mayo and the Christian life as exemplified by his young wife, Pier Angeli. While all this is happening, mad pagan magician Jack Palance is running around proclaiming himself the Messiah and performing cheesy magic tricks, and who wants to destroy the Holy Grail and replace Christianity with his own religion based on black magic. If your idea of a good movie is atrocious acting (especially Palance), obviously cardboard “stone” walls, and horrible special effects, look no further – this is the movie for you. It was so bad that even Newman himself took out ads in Variety decrying the movie’s cheesiness and warning people against seeing it. This was more of a career move than an honest summary, for Newman knew with a bomb such as this as his debut, it was a short road to films like The Killer ShrewsBeginning of the End, and anything by Roger Corman. It was Newman’s savviest career move.

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