Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Cinéma Inhabituel for March 1-15

A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea


Last month we got through 29 of the “31 Days of Oscar,” picking an Oscar winning or nominated film for each day of the month. (Last year, it was “32 Days of Oscar,” so it’s improving.) But the theme still has two days to go in March, so we shall begin this month with the continuation of February’s format.

March 1: Mystery Street, from 1950, is a nice, little procedural film, as pathologists use forensics to solve what looks like a perfect crime. Ricardo Montalban and Bruce Bennett make a good team as the crimefighters, and Elsa Lanchester has a nice turn as a ditsy landlady. This superior B-movie airs at noon.

March 2: Speaking of noon, another recommended film is also airing at that time: Vivacious Lady (1938), with Jimmy Stewart as a straight-laced botany professor who falls in love with, and marries, nightclub performer Ginger Rogers. Marrying her was the easy part. Now he has to take her home to meet his folks, whose picture can be found into dictionary under “Conservative Parents,” and the fiancee (Frances Mercer) he left behind. Both Rogers and Stewart are at their best in director George Stevens’ raucous comedy. 


Merle Oberon is March’s “Star of the Month.” Born in India, she left for London at age 17, beginning her career in forgettable supporting parts in equally forgettable English films. She made an impression as Ysobel d'Aunay in Men of Tomorrow (1932), catching the eye of producer Alexander Korda, who spotted her in the tea line at the studio commissary. He changed her name from Estelle Thompson to Merle Oberon and cast her as Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), the first British picture to be nominated for an Academy Award.  After her success in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), Korda took her to Hollywood, where she blossomed, becoming a star in both England and the United States.

March 4: Our interest in Oberon is with her lesser-known films, and filling the bill perfectly is Folies Bergere de Paris (1935, 11:30 pm). Oberon is the Baroness Cassini, wife of Maurice Chevalier, who has a dual role as both the Baron and a look-alike entertainer, who impersonates the Baron in this musical comedy. It’s not a great film, but has its moments. We couldn’t end the night without a mention of the film that established her as a star, The Private Life of Henry VIII, which airs at 4:30 in the morning. To say the film is essential viewing is an understatement.

March 11: Two films have our attention. First up at 8:00 pm is 1944’s The Lodger, a wonderfully atmospheric chiller about the lodgers at a London boardinghouse who suspect their new tenant may be Jack the Ripper.

At 3:00 am is The Lion Has Wings, a morale film from 1940 about the resistance to the Blitz. Filmed in a unique for its time docudrama style, it features a top-notch cast that includes Oberon, Ralph Richardson, and Flora Robson. 


March 3: An entire morning and afternoon is dedicated to the star and is showcases her development from a wooden, stagy actress to the free-wheeling comic actress we think of today. Of the films being shown, our “Must See” is 1932’s Red-Headed Woman from MGM (1:00 pm), with Harlow changing her look from the trademarked Platinum Blonde to the titular red. Redheads were seen in the public mythology as sexually charged femme fatales with loose morals. Scripted by Anita Loos, the film is a prototype of the “slobs vs. snobs” comedy with Harlow as Lil Andrews, a stenographer out to bag her quarry in the form of her boss, Bill Legendre (Chester Morris). He is so taken with her that he divorces his wife and marries Lil. But things don’t work out as Lil planned, as Bill’s high society friends look down on her, preferring the company of his ex-wife, who lives right across the street. Bored, Lil conducts a couple of affairs, one with her French chauffeur. When Bill goes back to his ex, a confrontation breaks out in which Lil tries to kill her husband. He refuses to prosecute, and just when we think we’ve seen the last of Lil, she pops up two years later in Paris, the kept mistress of a Paris millionaire who is having an affair with her chauffeur (the same as in America) on the side. Watch that driver carefully – he’s none other than Charles Boyer, then a young actor on a six-month option to the studio.

Also check out Hold Your Man (1933), airing at 3:45, starring Clark Gable as a con man and Harlow as the hard-boiled babe who falls for, and eventually takes the rap for him. Next to Red Dust, it’s their best pairing. 


Sundays in March feature late-night Bergman double-features, with Cries and Whispers (1973) and A Lesson in Love (1954) leading, beginning at  2:00 am on March 5. Of the two, the more interesting is the latter. It hasn’t been run to death like Cries and Whispers, and its story of a doctor and his wife (Gunnar Björnstrand and Eva Dalhbeck), happily married for 15 years until the doctor has an affair with one of his patients, is one that Bergman returned to and developed in later films.

On March 13, both Bergman films are well worth viewing. The first, Sawdust and Tinsel (1953, 3:00 am) is a well done allegorical film centered on a circus owner (Ake Gronberg) and his oversexed mistress (Harriet Andersson). Like Fellini, Bergman often staged his films in the world of performers, using the allegory to drive home his point about human nature and the futility trapped within. Following at 3:45 am is The Devil’s Eye (1961). Don Juan (Jarl Kulie) makes a wager with Satan (Stig Jarrel) that he can seduce a minister’s wife (Bibi Andersson) whose chastity is giving Satan fits. How she reacts to Don Juan’s attempted seduction is the crux of the film.


March 7: Jose Ferrer gives a masterful performance as Toulouse-Lautrec in John Huston’s Moulin Rouge (1953), airing at 10:30 pm. Huston brilliantly captures the atmosphere of Paris’s Montmartre, its denizens, and Lautrec’s view of life. The highlight for us is Zsa Zsa Gabor as singer Jane Avril, one of Lautrec’s subjects. Her acting, or lack thereof, almost brings the film down with her. Huston wanted to replace her, but the producers wouldn’t allow it. (Wonder why?)

March 7: At 12:30 am, TCM is airing Jean Cocteau’s compelling film, Orpheus (1950), starring Jean Marias, Edouard Dermit, and Marie Dea as Eurydice in Cocteau’s take on the classic Greek fable. Maria Casares is fascinating as the Princess of Death, with whom the poet Orphee becomes obsessed in this modernized updating. Also take note of the superb score by Georges Auric. Even though it comes across a little heavy-handed at times, Cocteau still pulls of a hypnotic visual treat that we simply cannot imagine being made today. If ever a film deserved the title of Masterpiece, it is this one.


TCM is slowly beginning to show films from Universal Studios, and on March 8 at midnight the station is airing one of Abbott and Costello’s better films, Who Done It? from 1942. The boys are soda jerks who dream of writing radio mysteries. They pitch their latest idea right in the middle of a real murder, when the station owner is killed during a broadcast. The boys get a brainstorm, figuring that if they can solve the murder, the station will hire them as writers. They pretend to be policemen, a ruse everyone is buying, including the killer. Well plotted, with a few good bits by the boys. Watch for Mary Wickes as a wise-cracking secretary in the mold of Joan Davis, and William Bendix as a cop who challenges Lou in the lack-of-brains department.


On March 15 TCM honors Jerry Lewis with a two-day celebration of his 90th birthday. At 8:00 pm, it’s The Stooge (1952), followed by The Caddy (1953), Artists and Models (1955), You’re Never Too Young (1955), and At War With the Army (1950), airing at 4:00 am. 


March 7: Three buddies travel to Hawaii in search of the perfect wave in Columbia’s Ride the Wild Surf (1964), starring Fabian, Shelley Fabares, and Tab Hunter. TCM’s article on the film has it as a cut above the rest. Unfortunately, we’ve seen it and can’t agree, though we do like Jan and Dean’s theme song. Anyway, it’s on at 6:00 pm for those interested.

March 10: At 1:30 am, it’s the one and only Mamie Van Doren in the 1957 Warner film Untamed Youth. When she and sister Lori Nelson are picked up on charges of vagrancy, crooked judge Lurlene Tuttle has them shipped off to boyfriend John Russell’s work camp, picking cotton by day and ripping it up dancing at night. It’s a four-star camp classic, co-starring Eddie Cochran as “Bong.” To quote Leonard Maltin: “You know something's wrong when Mamie sings four songs and Cochran only one.” As with all Van Doren’s cinematic exploits, it’s required viewing.

March 13: At noon comes a superior ghost story, The Uninvited (1944). Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey are a brother and sister who purchase a spooky old place on the Cornish coast of England. Gail Russell is the previous owner’s granddaughter, a medium who tries to exorcise the ghost that haunting the place, which turns out to be the spirit of her dead mother. It’s a rarity for the time: a serious ghost story and well worth the time.

March 14: It’s a Bomba mini-marathon, with three of the Jungle Lord’s films being shown, beginning with the first in the series, Bomba the Jungle Boy, at 7:15 am. Preceding them is the 1954 Bowery Boys entry, Jungle Gents, in which the gang traveled to Africa to search for diamonds after discovering that Sach (Huntz Hall) can smell them. 

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