A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
STAR OF THE MONTH
As January winds down on TCM’s Star of the Month, Fred MacMurray, we’d like to share a Facebook post we received from one of our most loyal readers, Mary Lewis. She disagreed with our estimation of MacMurray as one of the most underrated actors of his generation. Says Mary: “I disagree with you about Fred MacMurray. In my opinion, he played the same person in every movie he made.”
We’re not about to disagree that he played the same person in every film. Let’s quote Allen Swan (Peter O’Toole) from one of our favorite pictures, My Favorite Year: “I’m not an actor, I’m a movie star!” That’s what being a movie star was all about. Clark Gable played the same person in all his films, as did James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and practically every star in the studio system. It’s what being a movie star was all about. The studio wanted it that way; once an actor became popular they did not want him or her deviating from what brought in the money. The public also wanted it that way, as they didn’t like seeing their favorite stars in something not palatable. When Gable starred in Parnell in 1937, the critical and public reaction was so negative that in the future Gable stuck to playing Gable. We would also agree with you that MacMurray was not a great actor. But he was a good actor and proved it in many a movie. Talking to people after seeing Double Indemnity, I often asked what struck them the most. The answer, 9 times out of 10, was Fred MacMurray’s performance. They knew him only from television and didn’t think he had it in him.
January 20: A good night to watch MacMurray, as two of his best films are on tap beginning at 8:00. First, it’s his bravura performance in 1954’s The Caine Mutiny. He’s genially evil as Lt. Thomas Keefer, the Iago of the Caine who instigates what will turn into a full-blown mutiny, and when later called to testify at the trial of the mutineers, denies everything. I once saw this at a revival house and when Jose Ferrer threw his drink in MacMurray’s face near the end of the film, the entire theater erupted in cheers. This is a film I can watch time and time again just for the performances.
Following at 10:15 is another MacMurray triumph of genial immorality – Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, from 1960. He plays J.D. Sheldrake, the boss of ambitious young clerk C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon). He uses Baxter’s apartment for his extramarital trysts with elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). MacMaurray, a last-minute replacement for Paul Douglas, who died shortly before filming began, was so good at being so despicable in the role that he received an avalanche of hate mail from female moviegoers who were disappointed in his choice of roles and begged him to play more sympathetic roles in the future. And he did just that, signing on as the amiable Steve Douglas in My Three Sons (1960-72) and playing leads in such Walt Disney fare as The Absent-Minded Professor (1961).
January 27: It’s a Disney double feature for Fred at 8:00 with the excellent The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), and the not so excellent The Shaggy Dog (1959). In the first, MacMurray is Ned Brainard, a science teacher at Medfield College and in his spare time a devoted experimenter whose experiments usually end with explosions. After one such explosion, he finds he’s left with a gooey substance that defies gravity that he calls “flubber.” When greedy tycoon Alonzo Hawk (Keenan Wynn) threatens to close Medfield down, the professor begins to use flubber to save the school, at one point finding that a little on the bottoms of the soles of the basketball team’s shoes gives them a great edge over opponents. Eventually the professor uses flubber on his Model T to travel to the White House to meet the president, completely upsetting the Pentagon’s defense system and becoming a national hero. It’s a fun picture, punctuated by MacMurray’s performance as the befuddled professor, and one that children should like, even though it’s not in color.
At 10:00 pm, it Disney’s The Shaggy Dog, with Fred as the father of teenager Wilby Daniels (Tommy Kirk), who is turned into a “Bratislavian Sheepdog” though a mysterious ring he accidentally takes home with him from the local museum. To make a bad situation worse, father Fred is highly allergic to dogs and plans to shoot the next one that he sees in his house.
At 3:15 am comes an interesting comedy from MGM, Callaway Went Thataway (1951), a gentle proof of television’s “Hopalong Cassidy” craze. Long-forgotten cowboy actor “Smoky” Callaway's career gets a shot in the arm when his old films begin playing on television and he builds a fan following among youngsters. Unfortunately, Callaway has been missing from the public for years. Desperate, the network assigns promoters Mike Frye (MacMurray) and Deborah Patterson (Dorothy McGuire) to find the cowboy star. They're unsuccessful in their search for the reclusive actor. But while at a Colorado ranch, they're introduced to “Stretch” Barnes (Howard Keel), a virtual double for Callaway. After a little haggling, they sign Barnes and pass him off as Callaway. Unfortunately, it all goes to Barnes’s head and there’s another monster to deal with. And if things couldn’t get worse, the real Callaway (also Keel) has resurfaced from his hideway in Mexico and it not pleased to find a double in his stead.
Look for Clark Gable, Esther Williams, and Elizabeth Taylor playing themselves. Sharp eyes will spot Acquanetta, John Banner (Hogan’s Heroes), Mae Clarke, Hugh Beaumont (Leave It to Beaver), and Natalie Schafer (Gilligan’s Island) in small roles.
TCM continues with its tribute to William Cameron Menzies, hosted by Robert Osborne and Menzies biographer (and film historian extraordinaire) James Curtis. We found it most disappointing that this spotlight on the talented Menzies does not include his 1953 low-budget masterpiece, Invaders From Mars. The film was notable because it looked at an invasion from outer space through the eyes of a young boy, played by Jimmy Hunt. Although today, we tend to dismiss its failings, in our youth this film scared the living bejeezus out of us, and still retains an impact today. The idea of Martians kidnapping our parents and turning them into complaint zombies is unsettling, and Menzies uses several tricks to emphasize the terror. We’re surprised the network’s not showing it because they’ve shown it a couple of times before.
January 21: Recommended tonight are Foreign Correspondent (1940) at 8:00, Pride of the Yankees (1942) at 10:15, and the underrated Address Unknown (1944), with a great performance from star Paul Lukas, at 3:15 am.
January 28: Tonight’s a late night at 11:30 pm with the Menzies-directed astounding anti-commie shock feature, The Whip Hand (1951). The film was originally about Hitler escaping to America, where he plans to wipe out the U.S. with germ warfare. However, RKO studio head Howard Hughes believed the film was not commercial enough, so he ordered reshoots to change the enemy from Nazis to commies, making the film even more of an exercise in camp.
DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. DAY
January 18: Martin Luther King Jr. Day always means a schedule of films by African-Americans or African-American themed. This year is no different, but the real treat is in the morning and early afternoon when a slate of “race films” is scheduled. “Race film” is a term for films produced for black audiences and featuring all-black casts. It’s estimated that about 500 or so of these films were produced, and of these, only fewer than 100 still remain. In the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, films were segregated and very few made by Hollywood studios were aimed at an African-American audience. Because race films were made outside the Hollywood system, they have tended to be ignored by mainstream film historians, but in their day they were very popular with their target audiences.
In the South, they were shown at “all-colored” theaters to comply with segregation. In the North, which was not segregated, they were usually shown at theaters in African-American neighborhoods. Some large Northern white theaters in major cities often reserved special time slots for black audiences, and the films were usually shown at matinees or midnight shows. African-American stars who usually played maids or comic relief roles in Hollywood pictures often starred in these vehicles, which steered clear of stereotyping. Often made on a shoestring, the studios that made these films made Poverty Row studios like Monogram and PRC seem like MGM and Paramount in comparison. But these films are important, as they provide us with a look into a side of America that was sadly ignored. Ignore the production values and concentrate on the historical significance these films bring.
The mini-marathon begins at 6:00 am with Broken Strings (1940), a drama about an injured violinist (Clarence Muse) who pushes his son (William Washington) into a classical music career, even though the young man prefers swing. At 7:00 am is the mystery Miracle in Harlem (1948), with Sheila Guyse as a young woman suspected of killing the grifter who swindled her. Midnight Shadow (1939) airs next at 8:15 am, as Margaret Wilson (Frances Redd) must figure out which of her suitors killed her father, aided in her quest by bumbling would-be detective Junior Lingley (Richard Bates).
Lena Horne stars in the 1938 musical The Duke is Tops at 9:15 am. She plays singer Ethel Andrews, whose burgeoning career affects her relationship with Duke Davis, her good-hearted boyfriend/manager (Ralph Cooper). Be warned: the production values in this film are near zero, but Horne’s winning performance gives us a glimpse into her immense talent.
At 10:30 am comes Herb Jeffries, “The Bronze Buckaroo,” starring in Harlem Rides the Range (1939). the first singing black cowboy film, I first saw this in 1980 at the Beacon Theater in New York as part of the Medved Brothers “Worst Film Festival.” Believe me, the film is not as bad as all that; no better or worse than the Westerns being churned out by Monogram and PRC. Let’s just say the Medveds have a talent for exaggeration. It’s a fun film, just watch for yourselves. The plot has Our Hero Herb, along with his trusty steed, Stardust, protecting the beautiful heir (Artie Young) to a radium mine.
Spirit of Youth (1938) is up next at 11:30 am. Made for major studio wannabe Grand National Films. It stars Joe Louis (yes, the Joe Louis) as promising boxer Joe Thomas. It parallels many events in Louis’s life and boasts an all-star supporting cast that includes Clarence Muse, Edna Mae Harris, Mae Turner, and Mantan Moreland.
The musical drama Swing! (1938), from director Oscar Micheaux, closes out the festival at 12:45 pm. Ted Gregory (Carman Newsome) is trying to be the first black producer to mount a show on Broadway. As if that wasn’t hard enough, he’s also having major trouble with his star singer, Eloise Jackson (Hazel Diaz). His secretary, Lena Powell (Dorothy Van Engle), suggests hiring her old friend Amanda Jenkins (Cora Green) as the wardrobe mistress. When Eloise falls down drunk and breaks her leg, Gregory replaces her with Amanda, who saves the show.
We’ve been getting requests to include Pre-Code films in this column, so, as befits our aim, we will focus on the rarely shown Pre-Codes.
January 21: Two interesting films from Warner Brothers, beginning at 11:15 am with Lloyd Bacon’s 1932 comedy, Crooner. Ted Taylor (David Manners) is a struggling young saxophone player with a passable voice. When his audience complains that they can’t hear him, a patron hands him a megaphone. By singing through the megaphone (a la Rudy Vallee), Ted now becomes a big star, with a swelled head to match. Ann Dvorak plays his long-suffering love interest. As with anything directed by Lloyd Bacon, Crooner is predictable, but fun nevertheless.
Following at 12:30 pm is another Bacon entry, the rarely seen The Famous Ferguson Case (1932), starring the one and only Joan Blondell as one of a flock of New York City reporters that descend upon the small upstate town of Cornwall after its leading citizen, financier George Ferguson is killed. While the New York reporters, save for Blondell, are looking for sensational “news,” local reporter Bruce Foster (Tom Brown), who runs the Cornwall Courier, teaches the city slickers a thing or two on how to dig for real news instead of spinning the story to meet their own needs. Blondell is a New York reporter who gets fed up with the modus operandi of her co-workers. It has a good cast that acquits themselves nicely, but Bacon bungles the story, and the writing by Harvey Thew and Granville Moore doesn’t help matters, either. But it’s always good to watch Blondell in action, even if she is wasted, as she is here.
January 29: At 10:45 am, it’s Warren William in one of his great sleazebag portrayals in Bedside (1932). William is an expelled medical student who buys a medical degree from a junkie doctor and cons his way into a lucrative career as a quack for high-society hypochondriacs. It’s far-fetched, sure, but William is always fun to watch.
Kay Francis dons the stethoscope at 12:15 pm in Doctor Monica (1934). She is a successful obstetrician who can’t conceive a child of her own. Unbeknownst to her, well-known author husband John (Warren William) knocks up one of her acquaintances, Mary Hathaway (Jean Muir), and then hightails it to Europe for an extended trip. He is unaware of the pregnancy, as his wife is unaware of her husband’s paternity. When Monica learns of Mary’s situation, she helps with prenatal care and plans to deliver the baby. Then, overhearing a phone call from Mary to John, she learns the truth. She delivers the baby, then tells hubby she wants a divorce. Meanwhile, Mary does the self-sacrificing thing by going up in her plane and committing suicide, leaving the baby in the possession of Monica and John. It seems silly and campy today, but the film’s frank treatment of adult subjects such as adultery and illegitimacy led censors to cut a large part of it before it hit the screen.
OUT OF THE ORDINARY
January 17: A night of films featuring “threesomes” begins at 8:00 pm with Ernst Lubitsch’s witty and urbane Design for Living (1932) with Miriam Hopkins as an independent woman who can’t choose between suitors Frederic March and Gary Cooper. The evening continues at 9:45 with Jeanne Moreau balancing Oskar Werner and Henri Serre in Truffaut’s 1962 classic, Jules and Jim. Cut to 2:00 am and it’s the wild and wacky Czech New Wave feature, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders from 1970. Finally, at 3:30 am, Fellini takes the helm with his 1965 comedy/drama/fantasy Juliet of the Spirits featuring an outstanding performance by Giuletta Masina as a woman whose world comes crashing down when she learns of her husband’s infidelity.
January 21: At 3:15 pm, it's the rarely seen Special Agent from Warner Brothers in 1936 with George Brent as an IRS agent who poses as a news reporter to get the goods on mobster Ricardo Cortez, and Bette Davis in another of her forgettable roles of the time as Cortez’s bookkeeper
January 29: At 10:15 pm, it’s the TCM premiere of the Oscar-winning Vietnam War documentary Hearts and Minds (1975). The title comes from a phrase by President Lyndon Johnson to justify our increasing involvement in Vietnam: “The ultimate victory will depend on the hearts and minds of the people who actually live out there.” The documentary seeks to address three questions: (1) Why did we get involved in Vietnam; (2) what did we do there; and (3) and how did our involvement affect us at home? The film raises more questions than it answers, but it looks at a particularly painful chapter in American history with even-handedness and intelligence.
January 31: Beginning at 2:00 am, it’s a double feature starting with the superb 1960 Korean horror/drama The Housemaid about an unstable and unbalanced maid who destroys her employer’s family. It’s followed at 4:00 am by Director Henri-Georges Clouzot’s unforgettable 1955 drama, Diabolique. Clouzot manages to out-Hitchcock Alfred Hitchcock in this tale of a cruel headmaster (Paul Meurisse) who is murdered by his long-suffering wife (Vera Clouzot) and his mistress (Simone Signoret). Clouzot’s masterpiece influenced both Hitchcock (in making Psycho) and Stanley Kubrick (in making The Shining). This is a film not to be missed.
PSYCHOTRONICA AND THE B-HIVE
January 16: We begin with the Bowery Boys in Jinx Money (1948) at 10:30 am, followed by the Ursula Andress adventure She (1965) at noon, and wait until 2:00 am for the 1976 independent production of Alice, Sweet Alice. After a young girl is brutally murdered during her first communion, her weird older sister becomes the main suspect. Look for Brooke Shields as the victim, Lillian Roth as a therapist, and Antonino “Argentina” Rocca as a pallbearer. Shot on location in Paterson, N.J.
January 23: The Gothic horror film, The Church (1989) from Italian director Michele Soavi airs at 2:00 am, followed by Hammer Studio’s and director Terence Fisher’s underrated Gothic contribution, The Devil’s Bride (1968), starring Christopher Lee and Charles Gray (Rocky Horror Picture Show).
January 25: TCM devotes the entire morning and afternoon to the works of macabre master Tod Browning. Among the Browning classics shown are The Unholy Three (1925) at 6:15 am; the eerie The Show (1927) at 9:15am; West of Zanzibar (1928) at 10:15; the rarely shown 1929 early talkie The Thirteenth Chair, with Bela Lugosi in a pre-Dracula role at noon; Freaks (1932) at 2:45 pm; and the nearly forgotten Miracles for Sale (1939) at 6:30 pm.
January 30: At 10:45 am, it’s the Bowery Boys in Trouble Makers (1948).
January 31: At midnight, it’s the great psychotronic silent, The Magician (1926) starring Paul Wegener as a bizarre doctor/hypnotist/scientist/alchemist enamored with sculptress Alice Terry, who is injured when one of her sculptures falls on her. Rarely shown, it’s definitely one to record and watch.