A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
At this point, we’re midway through, TCM’s annual salute to the Oscars, to which the month of February is devoted, along with the first three days in March. We received some good feedback on our special format for this festival, so we’ll continue with what obviously works.
But before we go any further, let us remind readers that the Academy Awards will be telecast February 28.
February 16: Our choice for the day is Black Legion, which will be seen at 8:30 am. This is a great B-movie, modeled on the Warner’s motto of “being ripped from the headlines.” The Black Legion, a Ku Klux Klan splinter group, actually did exist and was at its height in the mid-‘30s in the upper Midwest, particularly Michigan and Ohio. Humphrey Bogart plays a disgruntled factory worker who joins the group after he loses a promotion to a “foreigner.” After his involvement in the man’s kidnapping and murder, both Bogart and the group begin to unravel. It’s a fast-paced drama with a strong performance from Bogart. Screenwriter Robert Lord was nominated for Best Writing, Original Story.
February 17: Even though we’ve seen it at least a gazillion times, our choice is I Married a Witch (12:30 pm), director Rene Clair’s marvelous 1942 fantasy. Veronica Lake is Jennifer, a woman condemned as a witch with her father (Cecil Kellaway) and burned at the stake by Jonathan Wooley. When lightning hits the oak tree under which their ashes are buried, the spirits of both daughter and father are released and eventually gain corporeal bodies. Her target is the descendent of Jonathan Wooley, gubernatorial candidate Wallace Wooley (Frederic March), an exact likeness of Jonathan. But instead of taking revenge, she falls in love with him and they marry. She revels to him that she is a witch, something Wallace refuses to believe until she begins using witchcraft to further his campaign. You’d never guess from the chemistry that Lake and March have that they absolutely loathed each other off screen. Beautifully directed by Clair with some neat twists and turns of the plot, this is one to catch. The film garnered only one nomination for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (Roy Webb).
February 18: Among film buffs there is an argument over which was the better MGM musical: Singin’ in the Rain or The Band Wagon. We choose the latter. The Band Wagon, which airs at 10:00 pm, is a near perfect mix of acting, songs, and plot. Fred Astaire is completely charming as Tony Hunter, a Hollywood song and dance man whose days as a big star are over and who tries to re-establish himself on Broadway. His songwriting friends, Lily and Lester Marton (Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant), steer him to Theater Genius Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan). Cordova’s idea is to make a musical out of Faust, and to make his production even artier, he enlists the services of ballet diva Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse). Needless to say, the company is on course for a disaster, and after a disastrous preview in New Haven (cleverly represented by showing an egg after the show begins), the backers steal away. Tony, however, thinks the musical can be salvaged if they keep the music and throw away the art, and in the process wins over the beautiful Gabrielle, who began their relationship by loathing his sort of dancing. Astaire is his usual bouncy self, and Fabray and Levant are great playing the musical team of Comden and Green. But it’s Buchanan who steals the movie with his Jeffrey Cordova, who is a parody of Orson Welles. Charisse is a very sexy presence, especially in the “Girl Hunt” number, a spoof on the sex and violence of Mickey Spillane mysteries. In fact, she’s sexy enough for us to overlook her flat reading of her lines. But we didn’t come to see her act, we came to see her dance, which she does very nicely. The real Betty Comden and Adolph Green were nominated for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay; Mary Ann Nyberg for Best Costume Design, Color; and Adolph Deutsch for Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture.
February 19: Can there be any other choice this day than The Thin Man (10:00 pm)? William Powell and Myrna Loy were the perfect match as Nick and Nora Charles, so much so that people actually thought they were married in real life. If not, they should’ve been. The mystery plays a decided second fiddle to the antics of Nick and Nora, who have a knack for making alcoholism seem most appealing, though the producers try to make up for it by having Nick assemble all the suspects in a room before naming the guilty party, a tactic that proved so popular with audiences it was repeated in every Thin Man sequel from then onward. But this is the first, and by far the best of the series, and it received four Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Powell), Best Director (W.S. Van Dyke), and Best Writing, Adaptation (Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett).
February 20: Spencer Tracy was never more endearing than as Stanley Banks, who reluctantly gives daughter Kay (Elizabeth Taylor) away in Father of the Bride (4:15 pm). Under the deft hand of director Vincente Minnelli, the film proves that marriage is far from a simple affair. When we watch Tracy in the role of the doting father, we feel that no one else could play it. However, Tracy almost didn’t play the role. Jack Benny told studio head Dore Schary that he would like to play the role and Schary foolishly agreed to give him a test. When he wasn’t deemed right for the part, Minnelli and Schary turned to Tracy, but Tracy’s nose was out of joint after he learned he was the second choice for a part it was assumed he was a natural to play, and he turned the role down flat. Schary arranged for Katharine Hepburn to throw a dinner party, and it was there that Schary took Tracy aside and convinced him to take the part. 17-year old Elizabeth Taylor was the only choice for Tracy’s daughter, and to ramp up the publicity even more, on the day when the studio announced her casting, she announced her engagement to Conrad Hilton, Jr., telling the press that the thought of planning her own wedding and playing a bride at the same time was “positively drooly.” The film was also a triumph for Coca-Cola, who benefited from the product placement in the film, where Tracy offers guests a Coke at the engagement party. Tracy received a nomination for Best Actor, the film for Best Picture, and Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett were nominated for Best Writing, Screenplay.
February 21: What a lousy time to show such a great movie, airing The Adventures of Robin Hood at 6:00 am. It’s one of the greatest action movies in film history, with a role Errol Flynn was born to play. In fact, it’s perfectly cast all around, with Claude Rains as the devious King John, Basil Rathbone at his villainous best as Sir Guy of Gisbourne, and Olivia de Havilland impossibly beautiful as Maid Marian. One of the delights of the film is its inability to take itself seriously, as the cast seems to be performing their roles with a wink and a nod. The casting genius even extends to the minor roles: Can anyone else other than Alan Hale play Little John? And no one but Eugene Palette can play Friar Tuck with such confidence. Warner Brothers had three strokes of genius in making the film: First, they replaced the staid William Keighley during filming with Michael Curtiz, who knew how to get the action into an action film. Second, they cast Errol Flynn as Robin. Believe it or not, James Cagney was the first choice for the role. Cagney’s good, but this is out of his league. We could no more see him as Robin Hood as we could see Flynn playing Rocky Sullivan in Angels With Dirty Faces. And thirdly, they shot the film in Technicolor, which made it even more mesmerizing and appealing. We’ve seen this movie more times than we can count, but we’re always willing to see it again. Nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, it won three: Best Art Direction (Carl Jules Weyl), Best Film Editing (Ralph Dawson), and Best Music, Original Score (Erich Wolfgang Korngold).
February 22: Billy Wilder is a particular favorite of ours over at The Celluloid Club, and his 1948 comedy, A Foreign Affair, is perfect for this day. Set in Postwar Berlin, it’s a satirical contrast between the values of the American Heartland with the cynicism and poverty of a devastated Berlin. Jean Arthur is an upright – and uptight – Congresswoman from Iowa who comes to Berlin to look into reports of wholesale corruption and “moral malaria” infesting the occupying American forces. Even her name, Phoebe Frost,” is a tip-off to the sort of person she is. As her guide, she enlists Army Captain John Pringle (John Lund) and finds herself falling in love with him, unaware that he is romantically involved with German cabaret singer Erika von Schluetow (Marlene Dietrich) who, it later transpires, can lead them to a Nazi bigwig who was once her lover. The film opened to decidedly mixed reviews and a wholesale condemnation from Congress, who did not find it funny to be satirized. The Army banned its being shown in Germany, especially to the troops, who were engaged in the same sort of blatant fraternization and black-marketeering depicted in the film. Even co-writer Charles Brackett had trouble with setting the film in a destroyed city, but Wilder saw the comic possibilities in a clash of paternalistic American values with those of a ravaged city where the citizenry will do anything to survive, nicely packaged in a love triangle between victor and defeated. The film won two Oscar nominations: Best Writing, Screenplay (Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, and Richard L. Breen), and Best Cinematography, Black and White (Charles Lang).
February 23: It’s another horrible time for a wonderful movie. Bette Davis and Claude Rains are marvelous in the heart-tugging Mr. Skeffington (5:45 am), with Bette as the gold-digging Fanny Trellis Skeffington changing over the years from headstrong young beauty to aged, withered crone, marrying the rich Job Skeffington (Rains) for his money along the way. To capture the verve of the young Fanny, Davis raised her voice an octave higher than usual, and for the scenes where she loses her youthful looks after surviving diphtheria, she spent hours in the makeup chair with Perc Westmore creating an uncanny portrait of what she would look like in real life in her later years when Spy magazine, in their “Separated at Birth” feature, compared the aged Davis to the apple tree from The Wizard of Oz. Rains, who as we well know will try to steal any picture he’s in, walks away with this one at the end. Years after their estrangement, Job was in Europe and was thrown by the Nazis into a concentration camp. Now broken and blind, the withered Job still sees Fanny as the beauty she once was, and she, knowing this, welcomes him back home. Rains pulls out all the stops as Job and makes himself, and not Davis, the focus of the ending. It’s a great four-hanky picture that saw Davis and Rains nominated for Best Actress and Best Actor respectively.
February 24: We’re in a bit of a quandary today, with so many wonderful films on the slate. But our recommendation is ‘G’ Men with Jimmy Cagney from Warner Bros. at 1:00 pm. Cagney is in top form as “Brock” Davis, a lawyer put through law school by powerful gangster “Mac” McKay (William Harrigan). When Davis’ friend, an FBI agent, is shot dead by other of gangdom’s finest, Davis joins the FBI. After receiving his training, he travels to New York City and tells the mobsters, including McKay, that he will return to get each and every one of them. And get them he does, putting his knowledge of the gangland to good use with both guns blazing. Margaret Lindsay and the underrated Ann Dvorak are on hand to supply the eye candy, and Robert Armstrong and Lloyd Nolan (in his film debut) are part of the Good Guys at the Bureau. Barton MacLane is the main heel and acquits himself nicely. By the way, note the absence of submachine guns. The newly enforced Production Code outlawed the use of the weapon as it was thought it would corrupt the youth of America. The film airs at 12:30 pm. It was nominated for Best Writing, Original Story (Darryl F. Zanuck) in 1936.
February 25: How about one of the greatest Westerns ever made? Howard Hawks and Red River, airing at 11:15 pm, is our choice. It’s sort of a remake of Mutiny on the Bounty set during a cattle drive, with John Wayne’s Thomas Dunston in the Captain Bligh role. Opposing him in the Fletcher Christian role is Montgomery Clift as Dunston’s adopted son, Matthew Garth. Dunston’s tyrannical ways during the drive put the men at severe risk and drives them to the breaking point. In order to get the drive through to Abeliene, Garth is forced to take over. Dunston’s not taking this lying down and promises revenge. By keeping the revolt in the family the film takes on a theme from classical tragedy – the need for the son to challenge and surpass the father if things are to move forward. The film is perfectly cast and Wayne delivers an outstanding performance. He should have been nominated for Best Actor, and Hawks for Best Director, but all the film could garner in the way of nominations was Best Writing, Motion Picture Story (Borden Chase), and Best Film Editing (Christian Nyby). We should also credit cinematographer Russell Harlan for his breathtaking photography. Harlan had cut his teeth as photographer for the Hopalong Cassidy series.
February 26: At 8:00 pm, it’s the greatest horror spoof ever made, Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein. Even non-horror fans will love this tribute to the great Universal horrors of the ‘30s with Gene Wilder as the descendant of Victor Frankenstein. Marty Feldman steals the show as Frankenstein’s Man Friday, Igor, a hunchback whose hump mysteriously moves from one side of his back to the other. As the Monster, Peter Boyle plays it just right and Madeline Kahn is wonderful as Frankenstein tetchy fiancée. Look for the scene where the Monster stops at the house of the blind hermit, played by Gene Hackman. Brooks was so dedicated to getting everything right that be brought in Kenneth Strickland to recreate the great electrical effects he made for the originals. It was nominated for Best Writing, Screenplay Adapted From Other Material (Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder), and Best Sound (Richard Portman and Gene S. Cantamessa).
February 27: Our pick this day airs at 8:00 am, but it’s worth it: Gaslight, from MGM in 1944, starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. Based on the hit London stage play, it was filmed before, in 1939, with Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard in the leads. But MGM added gloss, bigger stars, and superb direction from George Cukor, who wrung an Oscar-winning performance out of Bergman. Nominated for seven awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actress (Angela Lansbury), it won for Best Actress and Best Art Direction - Interior Decoration, Black and White (Cedric Gibbons, William Ferrari, Edwin B. Willis, and Paul Huldschinsky).
February 28: As long as we recommended Goodfellas in our last column, we should recommend the film that influenced its director, Martin Scorsese: The Public Enemy, which comes on at the wee hour of 2:00 am. It’s one of the hardest-hitting – and best – gangster films ever made, with Jimmy Cagney in the performance that made him a star. Director William Wellman pulls no punches, showing us the less glamorous side of gangsterdom. The film also contains some superb supporting performances from Leslie Fenton, Donald Cook, Murray Kinnell, and especially Robert Emmet O’Connor. And let’s not forget the wonderful Mae Clarke, who takes a grapefruit right in the kisser from Cagney for her troubles. Incredibly, it was nominated for only one Oscar, that for Best Writing, Original Story (John Bright and Kubec Glasmon).
February 29: We close out the month with a film from Howard Hawks that Dave and I consider one of our favorites Only Angels Have Wings, which is showing at the civilized hour of 8:00 pm. The plot centers on a favorite theme of Hawks – a group of pilots facing death every day as they risk their lives flying for an airfreight company in South America that schedules regular flights over the Andes. The fragile peace among the pilots is put to the test when cabaret singer Jean Arthur comes into their world, and the peace is further endangered when new flyer Bat McPherson (Richard Barthelmess) arrives with his wife Judy (Rita Hayworth) in tow. McPherson has a bad reputation among the other flyers because he turned yellow and left Thomas Mitchell’s brother to die. Cary Grant, as the head of the company, is magnificent playing against his suave image. As Geoff Carter, he’s rude and obnoxious almost to the point of total unlikability. His relationship with Arthur provides much of the sub-plot drama, while the film also gives Hayworth a star showcase. We regard this as a Must See. It was nominated for Best Cinematography, Black and White (Joseph Walker), and Best Effects, Special Effects (Roy Davidson - photogenic, and Edwin C. Hahn - sound).