A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
STAR OF THE MONTH
As we know, TCM is devoting the month of February, along with the first two days in March, to its annual “31 Days of Oscar” festival. Unlike last year, there’s little that’s new this time around. It’s mostly the same old films. Because of this, we are changing our format for the month. We will feature a different film each day; a film that we feel is usually not discussed and sometimes overlooked.
February 1: Our choice for the day is the Broadway Melody of 1936 from MGM, airing at 10:00 am. Jack Benny plays a Walter Winchell-esque Broadway columnist who is locked in a feud with producer Robert Taylor. The real reason to watch is the marvelous performance by Eleanor Powell in her first major role in a big-budget film. She plays Taylor’s childhood sweetheart who gets into his show by masquerading as Mlle. Arlette, a famous French stage star. The film also boasts a strong supporting cast led by Una Merkel, Buddy and Vilma Ebsen, and Frances Langford. But it’s Powell who is the showstopper. Three of the songs: “I’ve Got a Feelin’ You’re Fooling,” “Broadway Rhythm,” and “You Are My Lucky Star” would later be recycled in the 1951 classic, Singin’ in the Rain. Nominated for three Oscars, it won for Best Dance Direction (Dave Gould).
February 2: Our pick here is Forbidden Planet (MGM, 1956) at 1:45 pm. One of the classics of science-fiction cinema, it boasts excellent special effects and an intelligent story. A group of space troops, led by Leslie Nielsen, has come to the planet Altira-4 to relieve the members of the Bellerophon mission 20 years earlier. But upon landing, they learn that the only survivors are Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his daughter, Altaira (Anne Francis), along with Robby the Robot, which Morbius had pieced together years ago. Nielsen must phone home for further instructions as how to handle this new situation, while Morbius wants him and his crew gone as soon as possible. Nielsen, however, is suspicious. Something’s not passing the smell test, and when several of his crew meet their deaths, things heat up fast. Those new to this classic will love it while us old hands can certainly watch it once more. It won the Oscar for Best Effects, Special Effects (A. Arnold Gillespie, Irving G. Riles, and Wesley C. Miller).
February 3: At 11:15 am it’s Edward G. Robinson in the hard-hitting Five Star Final (WB, 1931). Eddie G. is the editor of the New York Gazette, a tabloid scandal sheet. Ordered by the paper’s owner (Oscar Apfel) to re-examine a sensational murder case of the recent past, Eddie’s digging results in heartache and death, forcing him to review his role in muck slinging. Aline MacMahon is excellent as his lovestruck, loyal secretary, and Boris Karloff comes close to stealing the film with his performance as a sleazebag reporter. It garnered only one nomination for a Oscar – in the category of Best Picture.
February 4: Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand, especially when Cool Hand Luke (WB, 1967) is scheduled to play (8:00 pm). Paul Newman was never better than as Lucas Jackson, a man who just doesn’t fit in, no matter where he is, and this time he’s in jail for sawing the heads of parking meters while drunk. His natural inclination to stand up for his principles makes him a hero of sorts on the road gang, especially after he’s befriended by convict leader Dragline (George Kennedy). He gets along fine at first with the powers-that-be until they break his honor code by punishing him for something he hasn’t done. Then it’s war, even though he knows he will lose in the end. Newman was nominated for Best Actor, but fell short, while Kennedy won for Best Supporting Actor (the film received four nominations, including Best Actor for Paul Newman). Part of the fun of the film is watching for familiar actors in supporting parts, such as Wayne Rogers, J.D. Cannon, Strother Martin, Lou Antonio, Jo Van Fleet, Richard Davalos, Harry Dean Stanton, Joe Don Baker, James Gammon, Ralph Waite, Anthony Zerbe, and, of course, Dennis Hopper.
February 5: It’s time for a bit of the “Lubitsch touch,” and so we recommend The Smiling Lieutenant (Paramount, 1931). Based on the popular 1907 operetta, A Waltz Dream, by Leopold Jacobson, Felix Doermann, and Oscar Straus, Maurice Chevelier is Nikolaus “Niki” von Preyn, a lieutenant in the Austrian Royal Guard who smiles and winks at his girlfriend, Franzi (Colbert), across the street. Unfortunately, the King of Flausenthurm and his sheltered daughter, Princess Anna (Miriam Hopkins), are passing by at that very moment, and Anna thinks Niki was winking and smiling at her and making fun of her. One misunderstanding leads to another, as Niki has to think his way out of this mess. Simply put, it’s a delightful movie, with all three stars giving terrific performances. It was nominated for an Oscar as Best Picture.
February 6: At 12:30 am it’s the film that changed Hollywood: Easy Rider (Columbia, 1969). Made for $555,000, it ended up grossing over $60 million. But more importantly, it changed the reigning paradigm in Hollywood and ushered in a youth movement that changed the industry. It was a road film on acid and a lot of pot, and also revitalized the career of Jack Nicholson, who was about to leave an unsuccessful acting career for one as a producer. Nicholson was nominated for Best Supporting Actor and the trio of Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Terry Southern for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Based on Material Not Previously Published or Produced.
February 7: For those looking for a nice change of pace, we suggest Key Largo (WB, 1948). Even though it airs at the hour of 2:15 am, it’s still worth a viewing. Or simply record it for later. Eddie G. Robinson is mesmerizing as deported crime boss Johnny Rocco, who is up from Cuba to deliver some counterfeit money. But an approaching storm has delayed his contacts. His stopover at James Temple’s (Lionel Barrymore) hotel on Key Largo proves to be fateful, as returning veteran Humphrey Bogart has come to pay his respects to Nora Temple (Lauren Bacall), the widow of an Army buddy killed in Italy. The drama just keeps building from there, with the hurricane ratcheting things to the boiling point. Claire Trevor won the Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as Gaye Dawn, Rocco’s alcoholic former mistress.
February 8: At 10:00 pm comes Patton (20th Century Fox, 1970), one of the best war films ever made, with George C. Scott literally becoming the embodiment of General George S. Patton. Though it purports to be a documentary of the general’s life, it is a highly mythologized version of Patton we see on the screen. His arrogance and egotism, which almost got him removed from the theater of war, are seen here as virtues. Even his slapping of a shell-shocked soldier (Tim Considine) is seen as just another day with George. The film won a bushel of awards, including Best Director (Franklin J. Schaffner), Best Adapted Screenplay (Francis Ford Coppola), Best Picture, and Best Actor, which was refused by Scott.
February 9: Of all the ‘70s and beyond musicals, our favorite by far is Cabaret, which will be shown at 8:00 pm. It’s easily Liza Minnelli’s best performance and most likely her most memorable one. Based on “Sally Bowles,” a short story by Christopher Isherwood (from his collection Berlin Stories), the movie captures perfectly the setting and mood of early ‘30s Berlin, just before Hitler became chancellor in 1933. Minnelli is Sally Bowles, a bohemian young dancer who performs at the Kit Kat Club. Joel Grey, who steals the film, is the emcee at the club. Michael York plays Brian Roberts, a bisexual writer (based on Isherwood), who shares his bed with Sally and Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem). Director Bob Fosse took the Broadway musical on which the film is based and increased the focus of the film on the Kit Kat Club, cutting all but one of the musical numbers that took place outside the club. The number he kept in was the harrowing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” a folk song spontaneously sung by young Nazis at an outdoor café. I have seen this film numerous times and the scene still sends a chill down my spine. A point of trivia that’s worth mentioning is that when the musical opened in London’s West End in 1966, the role of Sally Bowles was played by Dame Judi Dench. Cabaret was nominated for 10 Oscars, with Minnelli winning Best Actress, Grey winning Best Supporting Actor, and Fosse walking away with Best Director.
February 10: War pictures can be hit or miss, but one film that always hits the mark is The Great Escape (8:00 pm). Based on the true story of the mass escape from the supposedly escape-proof Luftstalag 3 in Silesia, Germany, it boasts an impressive ensemble cast headed by Sir Richard Attenborough, Steve McQueen, James Garner, James Donald, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, and Donald Pleasence. Because most of the POWs who escaped were British, McQueen, Garner and Bronson were added for American audiences. The movie is based on a novel by Paul Brickhill, a former prisoner at the Luftstalag, with the screenplay written by James Clavell and W.R. Burnett. Brickhill took part in the preparations for escape, but was not among the 250 men chosen by lot. Of the 250 that escaped, 50 (including leader Roger Bushnell) were captured and executed by the Gestapo. The rest, except for three that escaped to England, were recaptured and returned to prison. When it came to the Academy Award, the film garnered only one nomination, that for Best Film Editing (Ferris Webster).
February 11: We would be forever remiss if we didn’t recommend The Life of Emile Zola (8:30 am). It’s a sincere, if mostly fictional, account of the famous novelist’s life, with particular focus on his campaign to free Captain Alfred Dreyfus, who was framed for espionage and sent to Devil’s Island. Muni, whose idea of acting was over-emoting from behind lots of make-up, stars as Zola, with Joseph Schildkraut in the pivotal role of Captain Dreyfus. Schildkraut won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and the film won for Best Picture. The trio of Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg and Norman Reilly Raine also won for Best Writing, Screenplay. Gale Sondergaard plays Lucie Dreyfus, and Gloria Holden, who two years earlier won fame as the title character in Dracula’s Daughter, plays Zola’s wife, Alexandrine. Muni can be a bit difficult to take at times as he putters around, but the picture is engrossing from start to finish under the firm hand of director William Dieterle.
February 12: One of the few premieres during this year's Oscar-fest has to be aired at the ungodly hour of 3:15 am. But once we tell you it’s Goodfellas, you’ll know the reason why and why it’s worth it to be shown at such as late hour if viewers want to see it uncut. It may have set a record for the use of the F-word (about 300 times) in a film. However, without the profanity, the movie loses much of its impact, for the language helps convey the violent world in which the film’s characters lived and died. Although it’s been rated in various polls as the second greatest gangster film ever made, behind The Godfather, our opinion is that it outranks its Mob predecessor. While The Godfather romanticized its mobsters and saw Don Corleone as essentially a man of honor, Goodfellas portrays its mobsters for what they truly are: dishonorable lowlifes who cheat and betray each other without a second thought. We are also of the opinion that it is director Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece; an almost flawless piece of cinema. Boasting a cast headed by Robert De Niro, Paul Sorvino, Joe Pesci, Ray Liotta, and Lorraine Bracco, it also featured several recognizable actors in supporting roles, including Michael Imperioli and Tony Sirico, who went on to star in HBO’s successful Mob drama, The Sopranos. It was nominated for six Oscars, only winning in the Best Supporting Actor category (Pesci). Four interesting bits of trivia: First, the character played by Robert De Niro was Jimmy Burke, who masterminded the famous 1978 Lufthansa heist. The character was renamed “Jimmy Conway” in the film for legal reasons, but in real life, “Burke” was Jimmy adopted name. He was born to a woman named “Conway.” Second, Julie Garfield, John Garfield’s daughter, played Jimmy Conway’s wife, Mickey. Third, a sequel of sorts to Goodfellas was My Blue Heaven, which is really about the later life of Henry Hill after he entered the Witness Protection Program. Nora Ephron, whose husband, Nicholas Pileggi, wrote Wiseguy, the book upon which Goodfellas was based, wrote the film. (Pileggi also co-authored the script to Goodfellas with Scorsese.) Fourth, in the film, Hill is relocated to Youngstown, Ohio, which in reality was a Mob haven, and the newspaper he gets at the end of the movie is The Vindicator, the daily newspaper of that city. The longtime politics writer and city hall reporter for that newspaper is our own David Skolnick.
February 13: Director Stanley Kubrick and novelist Vladimir Nabokov did the near impossible when they wrote the screenplay for Nabokov’s novel about pedophilia, Lolita, which airs at 12:30 am. James Mason gives an excellent, nuanced performance as Nabokov’s tortured protagonist, Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged academic so obsessed with sexually precocious nymphet Lolita Haze that he marries her overbearing mother, Charlotte, just to be with her. When Charlotte is killed after being hit by a car, Humbert takes charge of Lolita, figuring he has finally realized his dream. However, he loses his dream girl to equally amoral television playwright Clare Quilty, who has wooed her away from Humbert. This leads to a tragic chain of events that will end with Quilty’s death and Humbert in prison. Mason’s supporting cast is excellent: Shelley Winters as Charlotte, Peter Sellers as the devious Quilty, and Sue Lyon, who turned 13 during filming, became a major star overnight. Kubrick shot the film in England to avoid meddling from both the studio and groups such as the Legion of Decency, even though they earlier approved the script. Errol Flynn proposed both himself and his teenage love, Beverly Aadland, for the lead roles, but Kubrick declined the offer as he already had trouble enough. The film did not fare well with the Academy; its only nomination was for Best Adapted Screenplay.
February 14: To recommend any film other than Casablanca (8:00 pm) this night would be sheer blasphemy. There has been much written about this beloved film, and we think most film buffs are familiar with the backstory: how it was improvised from day to day (Ingrid Bergman reportedly didn’t even know until the last minute whether her character would be going away with Humphrey Bogart or Paul Henried), and the famous story of how it was to originally star George Raft, Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan before cooler heads prevailed. At any rate there is no doubt about the hold it has had not only on film fans but also the American public at large since the early ‘60s, when a small theater in Massachusetts began showing it for three weeks every year to bigger and bigger crowds. Since then Casablanca has rightfully earned a place as a staple of American pop culture. Even those who haven’t seen it can quote lines of dialogue, such as “Here’s looking to you, kid,” and “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Even Captain Renault’s line, “Major Strasser has been shot . . . Round up the usual suspects,” was turned into a hit movie by Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie. The film was nominated for eight Oscars, winning three for Best Picture, Best Director (Michael Curtiz), and Best Writing, Screenplay (Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch). Another famous story told about the film concerned its director, the Hungarian-born Michael Curtiz, who was famous for mangling the English language. One day, he supposedly wanted to see how Ingrid Bergman’s character, Ilsa Lund, would look with a pet dog. He decided on a French Poodle and sent a young stagehand to scour the studio for one. The young man returned over an hour later with a different breed of dog, telling an annoyed Curtiz that he couldn’t find a French Poodle. “Never mind,” Curtiz supposedly shot back. “The next time I send an idiot out for something, I go myself.”
February 15: James Cagney began his career in show business as a dancer on the stage, yet only five of his 69 films allowed him a role that called for singing and dancing. Yet it was one of those, 1942’s Yankee Doodle Dandy (10:00 pm), where he won his only Oscar. Ostensibly the story of Irish-Åmerican singer-dancer-playwright-composer George M. Cohan, it contains little in the way of facts, but much in the way of blarney – and music. Cagney gives a mesmerizing performance as Cohan, even going to the trouble of copying Cohan’s dancing style, which he used to great effect. Walter Huston, Rosemary DeCamp, Joan Leslie, and sister Jeanne Cagney provide solid support. In fact, the film was a family affair: in addition to Cagney’s sister, Jeanne, as Cohan’s sister, Josie, brother William Cagney served as associate producer. With its many flag-waving musical moments, it was the perfect choice for World War II audiences, and became not only the top grossing film of the year, but also the top grossing film in Warner Bros. history to that point. Cagney was eager to play Cohan, for in addition to the singing and dancing, the flag-waving in the film would quiet persistent accusation that he was a communist sympathizer because of his union activity (president of SAG) and his enthusiastic support for FDR’s New Deal. The film was nominated for eight Oscars, winning three for Best Actor (Cagney), Best Sound, Recording (Nathan Levinson), and Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture (Ray Heindorf and Heinz Roemheld). It was also nominated for Best Picture, and Walter Huston, who played Cohan’s father, was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. The only stain on the film, for me, is a minor one: given the subject matter, it cried out for Technicolor. Filming it in black and white was a disappointment.