Friday, January 1, 2016

Cinéma Inhabituel for January 1-15

A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea


January’s Star of the Month is an actor who epitomizes the very definition of “genial”: Fred MacMurray. He’s probably the most underrated actor of his generation, probably because so many of his early efforts were mediocre at best. And he might have been doomed to spend his life in one mediocrity after another were it not for a flash of casting genius from director Billy Wilder.

It was Wilder who wanted him for his upcoming movie, Double Indemnity (1944), for the role of Walter Neff. An ordinary insurance salesman, Neff's yen for great sex and an easy payday led to his getting involved with femme fatale Barbara Stanwyck in knocking off her husband for his insurance money. He is caught by his boss, played by Edward G. Robinson. MacMurray originally demurred when Wilder proposed it; he said he was a trombone player who made easy-going films with Carole Lombard. Wilder eventually wore him down by essentially telling him he wouldn't cast him if he wasn’t sure MacMurray could pull it off. He further told the actor to “take a chance for once in your life.” Wilder also had trouble convincing Stanwyck and Robinson. When Stanwyck told him she wasn’t comfortable playing a cold-blooded killer, Wilder simply looked at her and asked, “Are you a mouse or an actress?” Robinson signed on after some soul searching in which he realized his leading man days were over, the part was a fantastic one, and he’s be getting the same amount of money as the stars for less work.

After the film clicked with both critics and the public, MacMurray thereafter had no reluctance to playing the heel. In fact, it could be said that his best work was in films were he played the heels, such as The Caine Mutiny (1954), where he played the instigator all too eager to pin the results on shipmate Van Johnson; The Pushover (1954), where he played a crooked cop; and The Apartment (1961), playing a two-timing exec who uses underling Jack Lemmon’s apartment for his trysts with Shirley MacLaine.

But when Fred played the genial guy, there was no one better, as witness his turns in The Egg and I (1947) with Claudette Colbert, and his two Disney Films, The Shaggy Dog (1959) and The Absent-Minded Professor (1961). He also starred for 12 seasons as the genial Steve Douglas in the hit sitcom, My Three Sons. If it seemed that his character was never around much in the series, there was a very good reason. MacMurray played hardball in the contract negotiations with the producers and secured an agreement that stated he was only required to work 65 days per season. That’s why Bub (William Frawley) and Uncle Charlie (William Demarest) were frequently left to mind the kids.

Off-screen he was just as genial as he was on screen. He was married twice, first to Lillian Lamont, which lasted from 1936 to her death in 1953. He then married actress June Haver later that year, and the marriage lasted until his death from leukemia and pneumonia in 1991.

January 6: There are three recommended films in tonight’s line-up. First, at 9:30 pm, it's Murder, He Says (Paramount, 1945), a funny slapstick comedy starring Fred as a pollster who stumbles onto a batch of murderous hillbillies led by Marjorie Main. At 1:00 am, it’s the marvelous Alice Adams (RKO, 1935) starring Katharine Hepburn as a small-town social climber finally finding love in the person of unpretentious and rich Fred MacMurray. Finally, at 5:45 am, it’s Fred as a test pilot who helps Dr. Errol Flynn in his experiments to prevent pilots from blacking out during dive-bombing runs in Dive Bomber (WB, 1941). It’s strictly formula, but fun nonetheless.

January 13: Start the night at 8:00 pm with the incredible Double Indemnity (Paramount, 1945), a film it took nine years to make due to the Code. Screenwriters Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler (Charles Brackett, Wilder’s usual writing partner, bowed out of this one because he felt the material was too uncomfortable) were paid the ultimate compliment by the book’s author, James M. Cain. Cain said if he had come up with some of the solutions to the plot that Wilder and Chandler did, he would have employed them in his original novel.

At 11:45 pm, comes Remember the Night (Paramount, 1940) starring Barbara Stanwyck as a shoplifter prosecuted by assistant D.A. Fred MacMurray. Rather than see her sit in jail over the Christmas holiday, he gets permission from the court to release her in his custody. At first, he drives her to her mother’s home. But after the cold greeting she gets, he decides instead to take her to his family’s farm, where the atmosphere is much warmer, and, of course, they fall in love. It’s a heartwarming story from writer Preston Sturges and director Mitchell Leisen. In fact, it was Leisen’s trimming of Sturges’s script that convinced the writer to become a director. That way, no director could trim his work as he pleased.

And at the wee hour of 3:00 am comes Above Suspicion (MGM, 1943), starring Joan Crawford and MacMurray as secret agents for British Intelligence who are asked to gain some important information about a super weapon being developed by the Nazis in prewar Germany. Bail Rathbone is the villainous Nazi aristocrat who imprisons and tortures Crawford while Conrad Veidt goes against type as an Austrian resistance fighter. This was to be Veidt’s last role as he died of a massive heart attack shortly afterward while playing golf. Though critics panned the film when it was originally released (even Crawford referred to it as “tripe”), despite all its goofiness, it holds up well today as an example of pure escapism and is worth at least a look.


January’s TCM Spotlight is dedicated to the career of talented jack-of-all-trades William Cameron Menzies. A graduate of Yale University, the University of Edinburgh and the Art Students League in New York, Menzies entered the film business in 1919 as a set and special effects designer. His work was so good that after only three years he was promoted to full-fledged art director. At United Artists (1923-30, 1935-40) and Fox (1931-33) he worked with stars such as Rudolph Valentino, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks. He also had the distinction of winning the first-ever Oscar for art direction (The Dove, 1927).

From the beginning of the sound era, Menzies also became involved in directing and producing, but his real worth was an art director, where he acquired a reputation for his larger-than-life visual flair and love of adventure and fantasy. He also came to define the role of the art director as having the overall control over the look of the finished picture. He was hailed for his work on Gone With the Wind, where he actually directed the famous burning of Atlanta and the hospital sequences, including the famous long crane shot of the dead and wounded.

As a director, though, he was less effective, as he didn’t have the necessary ability to draw strong performances from his cast. As a result, he frequently has to share credit with a co-director brought in to finish the film. He also helmed several low-budget efforts that still stand out today as marvels of visualization, such as Invaders From Mars (1953) and The Maze (1953).

January 7: This is the better of the two nights featured in this edition, beginning at 8:00 pm with the suave Ronald Colman in the suave version of the adventure of that suave man of action, Bulldog Drummond (UA, 1929). Colman is fun to watch as he helps obligatory blonde bombshell Joan Bennett rescue her uncle from the clutches of sadistic shrink Lawrence Grant. Claude Allister is along for the ride as Drummond’s BFF, Algy.

Following at 9:45 is Edmund Lowe and Bela Lugosi in Chandu the Magician from Fox in 1932. Frank Chandler (Lowe) has spent three years studying the occult arts and hypnotism under the tutelage of the yogis. He is now sent out into the world to battle the forces of evil under his new moniker of Chandau. He finds himself up against the evil madman Roxor (Lugosi), who is intent on conquering the world now that he’s gotten his hands on a death ray conveniently invented by Chandau’s brother-in-law, Robert Regent (Henry B. Walthall). When Regent refuses to tell Roxor how to get the machine started, Roxor kidnaps Regent’s wife, daughter, and son, threatening them with death unless Regent hands over the keys to the car. Guess who comes to the rescue? The film was based on a popular radio serial that ran from 1932 to 1936. It was revived in 1948 with a new cast and ran until 1950. Although the movie tends to be more than a bit clunky at times, Lowe is excellent as Chandau and Lugosi makes for an effective, hammy villain. It’s worth tuning in, especially for those who haven’t seen it before, and those who are Lugosi fans, as this one is shown every once in a blue moon.

At 11:00 pm, it’s Paramount’s 1933 Alice in Wonderland. Directed by Norman Z. McLeod, it’s an example of unusual casting, with W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty, Richard Arlen as the Cheshire Cat, Louise Fazenda as The White Queen, Sterling Holloway as The Frog, Richard “Skeets” Gallagher as The White Rabbit, Edward Everett Horton as The Mad Hatter, Cary Grant as The Mock Turtle, and Gary Cooper, of all people, as The White Knight. The role of Alice was originally slated for young Ida Lupino, but the studio wound up casting Charlotte Henry. It sounds really interesting, given the cast, but the film turns out to be a dull, plodding affair thanks to McLeod’s uninspired direction. Tune in anyway, because this is another one that airs every once in a blue moon.

January 14: It’s yet another excuse to air Gone With the Wind (8:00 pm), but following at 12:00 am is the one to catch: the imaginative Things to Come (London Film/UA, 1936). Boasting a marvelous cast that includes Raymond Massey, Edward Chapman, Ralph Richardson, Cedric Hardwicke, Ann Todd, George Sanders, Terry-Thomas, and the unforgettable Pickles Livingston, Things to Come is a sort of “history of the future,” so to speak. As the film begins, we learn that the Second World War has broken out in 1940 (Amazingly, the producers were only a year off!) and has continued until 1966, by which time the social order has been completely destroyed and a plague called “the wandering sickness” has decimated the world’s population. A warlord known as “The Boss” (Richardson) now rules the ruins of Everytown. Former resident John Cabal (Massey) has returned to overthrow The Boss. He reveals the founding of a new World State in Basra, which is run by a cabal of scientists and philosophers who use superior air power to maintain order so that by 2036 Everytown has been transformed into a technologically advanced and tightly ordered society. Cabal’s grandson, Oswald (also Massey), plans to send the first humans to the moon using a “space gun.” But he is opposed by the dissident artist Theotocopulous (Hardwicke), who rejects the idea of human progress and is attempting to form a mass revolt against the moon mission. Seen today, it’s amusingly old-fashioned, but the visual design is striking and compelling. At any rate, it’s a lot of fun.


January 15: TCM devotes an entire night to this talented and often unsung actress with six of her films. Leading off at 8:00 pm is John Ford’s 1939 Stagecoach, which marked the transition of the Western from a strictly B product to A-level material. Although Trevor was top-billed in the film, fans tend to remember the film for John Wayne’s breakout role or Thomas Mitchell’s Oscar-winning turn as the drunken doctor. However, it’s Trevor’s saloon girl, Dallas, who holds the picture together, and one for which she should have earned an Oscar nomination. In later interviews, Trevor recalled how Ford liked to bully the cast members. Most, she recalled, kept quiet and took it, but Thomas Mitchell, upon receiving a profanity-laden blast from Ford, simply replied, “Just remember, I saw Mary of Scotland.” For once, the director was quiet.

Murder, My Sweet (RKO, 1944), with Trevor in a wonderful performance as the treacherous Velma, follows at 10:00 pm. Anthony Mann’s underrated noir, Raw Deal (Eagle-Lion, 1948), starring Dennis O’Keefe as a convict who broke out of jail to track down his enemy, the slimy Raymond Burr, airs at midnight. Trevor is Pat Cameron, a moll who’s head-over-heels about O’Keefe and wants to settle down with him. For those who thought Lee Marvin hit the heights of villainy in The Big Heat when he threw a pot of boiling coffee into mistress Gloria Grahame’s face, Burr goes him one better five years prior by throwing a glass of flaming brandy in the face of his mistress after she accidentally spills a drink on him.

At 1:30 am, it’s The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (WB, 1938), starring Eddie G. as a successful Park Avenue doctor who decides the best way to study the criminal mind is to become one himself. (No, I’m not making this up.) To do this, he joins a gang of thieves led by fence Keller (Trevor) and “Rocks” Valentine (Humphrey Bogart). It’s silly, unbelievable, but thanks to Eddie G. and Trevor, it is a lot of fun to watch. Bogart gives his usual one-note performance as Valentine, notable only for his death scene. (It’s been said that, “no one dies like Bogart.”) Bogie, who hated being typecast as the one-note thug in these films, openly derided it to anyone that asked, calling it “The Amazing Dr. Clitoris.”

Trevor dazzles in a small, but pivotal, role as Francie, the old girlfriend of doomed visiting gangster Baby Face Martin in Dead End (Goldwyn, 1937). Her performance is so powerful as to almost steal the picture. My partner, David Skolnick, however, hails the film because it’s the debut of his favorite actor, Leo Gorcey.

Finally, at 5:00 am, it’s Trevor, along with William Holden and Glenn Ford, in the above-average oater, Texas (Columbia, 1941). She plays the love interest of bad guy Holden and good guy Ford.


January 3: Beginning at 2:00 am, it’s a double feature of French director Alain Resnais, beginning with the supremely arty-fartsy romantic drama, Hiroshima, Mon Amour (New Yorker Films, 1959). The plot consists of a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) in Hiroshima to make an antiwar film about the impact of the atomic bomb on the city. There she meets a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) who lost his family in the bombing. Naturally they decide to have an affair, spending our precious time locked in a “let’s have one more night” vs. “let’s never see one another again” argument over what seems like their tenth drink. A lot of people fall all over themselves describing the beauties and charm of the film, but I’ll cut right to the chase: there is none. The characters are cut out of cardboard, merely two-dimensional, of whom we get no sense of as people; they have no depth. She’s an actor, he’s an architect, but we never learn anything more than that. As bad and as tortuous as this is, Resnais managed to top himself two years later with his Last Year at Marienbad.

And yet, at 3:30 am, what follows is one of the best documentaries ever made. Night and Fog (Argos Films, 1955) holds the distinction of being one of the first documentaries to deal with the Holocaust. It’s only 33 minutes in length, but so much is said in those 33 minutes. It’s compellingly photographed, and displays the real power of the moving image to convey a subject. In fact, Francois Truffaut considered it to be the greatest film ever made. It was supposed to be shown at Cannes, but the German government at the time (1955) successfully lobbied to have it barred on the grounds that the festival’s regulations prevented any film that would offend any participating nation from being shown. The title comes from a remark from Heinrich Himmler that anyone who opposed the Nazis would be whisked off to the camps in such a way that they would vanish without a trace “into the night and fog.”


January 10: It’s a night of director Yasuhiro Ozu beginning at midnight with his silent classic, A Story of Floating Weeds (Shochiku, 1934). At 2:00 am, it’s Ozu’s first color film, Equinox Flower (Shochiku, 1958), the story of a businessman (Shin Saburi) who is often asked by friends for advice and help regarding marriages, as well as family and romantic relationships. However, when it comes to his own family, his daughter has her own notions of what path a marriage should take. As usual, it features Ozu’s take on the quickly changing cultural scene in postwar Japan told with grace and much quiet humor. And, as with practically all of Ozu’s films, the viewer will experience what I like to call “scene nostalgia,” ruminating over some of his or her favorite scenes from the movie, of which I have plenty myself.

Wrapping up the night is his 1961 masterpiece from Toho Studios, The End of Summer (aka Early Autumn). A superb blend of comedy and tragedy, it concerns the fortunes of the Kohayagawa family. They run a small sake brewery on postwar Japan that is falling upon hard times, with the family thinking about whether to merge their business with a larger company. As the film opens, we quickly get a notion of what’s in store as a flashing neon sign in the Osaka skyline that proclaims the “New Japan.” Family patriarch Manbei (Hisaya Morishige) is in a bar fixing up a businessman with his widowed niece Akiko (Setsuko Hara) without her knowledge. She’s a clerk in an art gallery whose professor husband passed on six years ago, leaving her with a son on whom she dotes.

Manbei’s delicate condition, combined with the recent erratic behavior, is worrisome to his three daughters. He has developed a habit of suddenly leaving the office in the afternoons without letting anyone know his whereabouts. Hisao (Keiju Kobayashi), the husband of middle daughter Fumiko (Michiyo Aratama) and who is now in charge of running the business, has Manbei followed one day and it’s discovered that he’s been visiting his former mistress, Sasaki (Chieko Naniwa). Fumiko is concerned because her father is ignoring pressing family and business matters, including finding a wealthy husband for youngest daughter Noriko (Yoko Tsukasa) that can give the family business a much needed cash infusion.

Manbei suffers a heart attack, but recovers quickly and is up to his old tricks when he suddenly dies in the apartment of his mistress. It is now up to the younger generation to take over the job Manbei has watched over. Ozu handles everything with his customary finesse, and the performances by the cast are excellent. Hara, in her last film for Ozu, is simply wonderful as the niece with a mind of her own.


January 4: It’s a night of films devoted to the subject of the Spanish Civil War, beginning with Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (Paramount, 1943) at 8:00 pm. 

Other films of interest this night include the 1937 documentary, Spanish Earth at 3:00 am, and the whiny Walter Wanger produced Blockade (UA, 1938), the only film made about the Spanish Civil War not to mention who was fighting in the conflict. Henry Fonda’s final appeal to the audience is one of the whiniest moments in film, attempting to make us in the audience in cahoots with the Falange. Wanger was your typical gutless liberal, bold enough to stand up to the Catholic Church, which didn’t have any fangs, but who backed down before the Production board, which did. Wanger was also a hypocrite who chose his fights carefully. When he remade the French film Pepe Le Moko (1937) as Algiers (1938), with Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr, he tried to buy all the prints of Pepe Le Moko in order to burn them. Thankfully, he didn’t succeed. The film not only survives, but also makes its remake seem small next to it.

January 11: A lovely double feature of Preston Sturges commences at 2:45 am with his masterpiece (and one of the best films ever made), Sullivan’s Travels (Paramount, 1942). Following right after at 4:30 am is his 1947 effort for UA, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, aka Mad Wednesday.

January 12: TCM celebrates the 80th anniversary of MOMA’s film archive with a slate of rarely seen films, beginning at 8:00 pm with Morris Engel’s wonderful 1953 comedy-drama, The Little Fugitive. At 9:30, it’s the Ida Lupino directed Never Fear (Eagle-Lion, 1949), a drama about a dancer on the verge of her big break, only to discover she has contracted polio. And at 11:00 comes the 1931 romantic comedy, Don’t Bet on Women, from Fox. Star Edmund Lowe is a woman hater, thanks to a failed marriage and several disastrous romances. Friend Roland Young bets Lowe that the next woman who walks into the room, no matter who she is, won’t let Lowe kiss her for 48 hours. Right after Lowe makes the bet, into the room walks Young’s wife, Jeanette MacDonald.


January 9: A pair of B-Westerns airs beginning at 6:45 am with In Old Santa Fe, a 1934 oater from Mascot Pictures starring Ken Maynard. Maynard, he of the huge white hat, has just lost his prized horse, “Tarzan,” in a crooked race and now finds himself framed for murder. George (later “Gabby”) Hayes is on hand as Ken’s sidekick, Cactus. It’s also the film debuts of Gene Autry and Smiley Burnette, who would go on to form quite a pair themselves over at Republic Studios in a score of singing Westerns.

At 8:00 am comes Song of the Gringo from Grand National in 1936 and starring Tex Ritter and Fuzzy Knight, with Tex as a lawman who goes undercover as an outlaw to find his missing father.


January 1: It’s an entire morning and afternoon of psychotronic films. Nothing new, but we recommend The Fly (10:15 am), Them! (noon), and The Day the Earth Stood Still (3:45 pm).

January 2: A really terrible – and therefore a Must See – piece of cheese, Night Train to Terror (Visto Int’l, 1985), can be seen at 2:00 am. It seems someone took three horror films and whittled them down to into episodes for this astounding trilogy. It opens with “Mister Satan” (Tony Giorgio) and God (Ferdy Mayne) debate the fates of three people while riding the “Devil’s cannonball” train. A new wave Menudo-type band plays horrible music in the background with lyrics such as “Everybody’s got something to do, everybody but you,” sort of a mean message to those of us watching this thing. We then begin the segments: (1) John Phillip Law is an inmate in evil sanatorium where body parts are harvested. Richard Moll distinguishes himself by playing an employee who menaces and gropes young actresses in various states of undress before dismembering them. (2) A middle aged man becomes obsessed with a porn star and becomes seriously miffed when she falls for a guy who saw her in one of her movies when he stopped by a frat house for a beer. (The guy has to be at least 40 years old.) The middle-aged guy then enrolls them in a “Death Club,” which consists of desk-chairs like ones you would find in a classroom. The final meeting of the Club has the four surviving members bound in sleeping bags over which a demolition ball hangs. (3) A surgeon named Claire Hanson somehow becomes involved with Nazis and Satan when she autopsies a body of an old man who believed that a young man is the same Nazi who killed his family back in 1944. Since the police don’t believe his story, the old man goes after the young man himself and is killed by a fanged demon who blows a hole in his chest. After the autopsy, Claire begins having nightmares and seeing demons. It’s revealed that the young man is Satan, who has remained eternally young and killed people for centuries on end. Lots of bad claymation monsters in this one. Believe it or not, character actor Marc Lawrence plays the old man. He must’ve really needed the money. In the end, the model train crashes, but God decides to save everybody. Don’t miss it.

In what will surely seem like a come down, TCM follows this classic at 3:35 am with Stephen King’s Cat’s Eye (MGM, 1985), a trio of three horror stories as seen through the eyes of a stray cat. It boasts a good cast, including Drew Barrymore, James Woods, Robert Hays, Candy Clark, and James Naughton.

January 9: An interesting, but disappointing and puzzling science-fiction film comes our way at 2:15 am. Phase IV (Paramount, 1974), described by Jeff Stafford in his essay for TCM, likens it more to Last Year at Marienbad than to Them! Apparently, a disturbance in deep space is having its effects on Earth. British biologist Dr. Hobbs (Nigel Davenport) has noticed strange doings in the ant world, most strikingly in the way they attack each other. Apparently they are joining forces to attack other species. Hobbs sets up shop on a desolate area to study the critters, but after awhile, it becomes apparent that he is the experiment and they the experimenters, as they have become superior in intellect to the humans.

Following at 4:00 am is a repeat showing of Them! As long as we’re on the subject of ants ...

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