A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
March is renowned in the popular imagination for “coming in like a lion and going out like a lamb.” Regarding TCM, March went in like a lamb and is going out like a lion.
We continue with our look at TCM’s Star of the Month. Last issue, we noted how producer Alexander Korda discovered Oberon and basically played Svengali to her Trilby. He also became her first husband when they wed on June 3, 1939. The marriage lasted until June 4, 1945, after which Oberon would wed three more times, the last being Robert Wolders, from January 31, 1975, until her death from a massive stroke on November 23, 1979.
March 18: First Comes Courage is our pick for the evening. The 1943 film, airing at 8:00 pm, finds Merle as a Norwegian resistance fighter who seduces German Wehrmacht Major Carl Esmond in order to learn his military secrets. The most interesting thing about the film was that it was the last project of Dorothy Arzner, who chose it for its unique subject matter, which would allow her to focus on Oberon’s character. However, Arzner never had the chance to finish the film, as she contracted pneumonia and was forced to hand the directorial reins over to Charles Vidor. It was Arzner’s last hurrah in Hollywood, a sad ending for Hollywood’s only female director for too many years.
March 25: Tonight we recommend a film that’s being shown in the wee hours of the morning: 2:30 am, to be exact. It’s Berlin Express, from RKO in 1948 and directed by the talented Jacques Tourneur. Merle is Lucienne, the French secretary to German peace movement champion Dr. Bernhardt (Paul Lukas), who has been kidnapped, plucked right off the Berlin Express, by Nazi wehrvolves intent on derailing the postwar peace process. With the help of American Lieutenant Robert Ryan, Merle assembles a multi-national band (a Brit, a Russian, and a fellow Frenchman) to rescue the good doctor. It sounds like an exercise in train wreck cinema, but it all comes together nicely, written by Harold Medford from a Curt Siodmak story and deftly directed by Tourneur. The film makes use of some fascinating historical footage of Germany immediately after the war. In fact, a title card during the opening credits states that the photography in Berlin and Frankfurt is used with the cooperation of the occupying armies. It’s also a nice little thriller, as the good guys are working against the clock to rescue the doc before the Nazis kill him.
JERRY LEWIS, PART 2
March 16 is the second night of TCM’s two-day tribute to the comedian. Our recommendation for the evening is Martin Scorsese’s dark satire, The King of Comedy (1983), with Lewis as a talk show host kidnapped by sociopath stand-up comic Robert De Niro and his accomplice, Sandra Bernhard, in order that DeNiro might get a shot on Lewis’ talk show. The highlight of the film is Bernhard, who, in a supporting role, nearly walks away with the picture. Her performance in this film made her into a sort of cult figure and led to appearances on talk shows and parts in psychotronic films. She even hosted a show on USA called Reel Wild Cinema (1994), featuring scenes from various z-movies followed by jokes and commentaries from the host and her guests. Obviously inspired by Mystery Science Theater 3000, it lasted about two short seasons.
It’s surprising that in the two-day tribute, only one film is being shown from a director who we think did more for Lewis than any other, and that is Frank Tashlin, who directed Artists and Models (shown March 15). Tashlin was famous for his work at the Warner Bros. animation department. He was one of a trio of directors (along with Tex Avery and Bob Clampett) who revolutionized cartoons by introducing cinematic techniques, such as odd camera angles, fast editing and montages. Tashlin felt stifled as an animator and moonlighted writing gags for comedians such as Charley Chase and Harpo Marx. Given a chance to direct by Bob Hope (taking over for Sidney Lanfield in The Lemon Drop Kid, a film that Tashlin wrote), Tashlin was able to apply the techniques he used in directing animation to live action. And in Lewis he found his perfect subject – a live-action cartoon. Tashlin helped Lewis perfect his infantile slapstick routines in such films as The Geisha Boy, Cinderfella, and The Disorderly Orderly.
Lewis, of course, would go on to be parodied himself, most notably by Joe Piscopo and Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live, and by Eugene Levy as “Bobby Bittman” on SCTV. Jean-Luc Godard once said of Lewis that “he is funny even when he’s not being funny.” Obviously, he’s easy to please.
March 20: The Bergman fest on TCM continues with Scenes From a Marriage scheduled for 2:00 am. Originally shot as six 50-minute episodes for Swedish television in 1973 and edited down into a 169-minute feature film by Bergman the following year, the film follows the changing fortunes of married couple Johan (Erland Josephson) and Marianne (Liv Ullmann) 10 years into their union and over the course of the next 10 years. This is one of the most truthful, honest, brutal, and heartbreaking portraits of a couple ever captured on film. Shot in documentary style, it’s like cinéma vérité and one of the most intense character studies ever committed to film.
March 27: Two disturbing films by Bergman are featured tonight, 1967’s Persona (3:00 am) and The Virgin Spring (1960), at 4:30 am. Persona stars Liv Ullman (in her Bergman debut) as Elisabet, an actress who has stopped speaking in the middle of a performance. Her doctor sends her to a rather remote seaside cottage, where she's cared for by a young nurse, named Alma (Bibi Andersson). Alma speaks constantly to break the silence. At first, she speaks about the books she’s read and trivial matters, but as their relationship deepens Alma begins to speak about her own anxieties and her relationship with her fiancé, who scolds her for lacking ambition. Gradually the women, who bear a strong physical resemblance to each other, begin to assume each other's identities.
The Virgin Spring is about a devoutly Christian knight and his family whose virginal daughter is raped and killed by a trio of vagrants while on her way to church. The criminals make their way to the family’s farm, where they are offered accommodations. It is when one tries to sell the daughter’s undergarments to the mother that they are found out, and the knight takes an extremely brutal revenge upon the trio. Leonard Maltin points out that Wes Craven’s 1972 horror film, The Last House on the Left, is a remake of The Virgin Spring.
March 23: It’s an entire morning and afternoon of Kurosawa beginning at 6:00 am with No Regrets For Our Youth from 1946. Setsuko Hara, in a breakout performance, is Yukie, the privileged and frivolous daughter of a university professor. Her world begins to come apart when he is fired and arrested as a political criminal. Then, when her fiancé, Noge, is executed as a spy, Yukie decides it is her duty to move to the country home of Noge’s parents, where she works the fields with Noge’s mother, remaining in the village after the war has ended and her father is reinstated at the university. This was Kurosawa’s fifth film and the only one to feature a woman in the main role.
Also on the slate this morning is Stray Dog (details in next week's TiVo Alert), immediately following at 8:00 am; Seven Samurai at 10:30; The Bad Sleep Well (next week's featured “We Agree” film in the TiVo Alert) at 2:15; and High and Low at 5:15.
OUT OF THE ORDINARY
March 17: As part of a TCM Spotlight on movies condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency (talk about a stretch), Luis Bunuel’s 1962 drama, Viridiana, is airing at 8:00 pm. Sylvia Pinal is a young nun who has inherited a fortune and decides to distribute it among the poor, finding that the poor aren’t as noble and virtuous as she had previously believed. Highly controversial in its time, the film was banned in Spain and Italy.
March 19: Following the wonderful The Great Escape (8:00), it’s Robert Bresson’s intelligently made take on the subject, A Man Escaped, from 1956, at 11:00 pm.
March 30: One of the best films of recent times, The Artist, is airing at 8:00 pm. Written and directed by French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius, it’s the story of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a major star at Kinograph Studios. At the red-carpet premiere of his latest film he meets Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), who he helps get a leg up at the studio. However, the coming of sound sinks his career while making her into a major star. It’s a wonderful homage to the silent era and its techniques, and the plot has a slight echo of A Star is Born. Both leads are excellent, but Bejo stands out as an actress to watch. Look for the scene were she scours the streets of Hollywood looking for her wayward husband. We can hear the strains of the soundtrack to Vertigo. Hazanavicius has presented us with a totally enchanting film from beginning to end; a true love letter to Hollywood.
March 31: At the ungodly hour of 3:45 comes one of the best caper movies ever made – Jules Dassin’s Rififi, from 1954. A quartet of jewel thieves come together to pull off a heist of the Paris equivalent of Tiffany’s, but in the end find each other to be more dangerous than the police. The heist itself takes up nearly half an hour and is conducted in complete silence. This is the sort of film that pulls us in to its world of criminals, schemes and double-crosses. It starts slowly, but once it gets going, we don’t want to look away. The script is based on Auguste Le Breton’s 1953 novel Du Rififi chez les hommes. Dassin and Ren Wheeler helped Le Breton adapt it for the screen. Le Breton also wrote the screenplay for Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1956 crime masterpiece, Bob le flambeur.
March 18: At 12:45 pm, it’s William and Joan Blondell in a delightful Pre-Code “battle of the sexes,” Smarty (1934). Blondell’s constant teasing of husband William finally has him to the point where he hauls off and socks her, prompting a divorce. But she finds that when she marries her divorce lawyer, Edward Everett Horton, on the rebound, she has just entered into a new fresh hell. Things eventually work out, but not without some real bumps in the road.
March 19: William returns as Michael Lanyard in one of our favorite series – The Lone Wolf, one of the better gentleman-detective franchises, and a character he would go on to play in eight more films. We begin at 9:15 am with the first, and probably the best, in the series, The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt (1939). Spies in Washington D.C. kidnap Lanyard in an attempt to force him to crack a safe containing precious military secrets. Looks for Rita Hayworth in an early role as a femme fatale.
March 26: One again at 9:15 William returns as Michael Lanyard, this time in 1940’s The Lone Wolf Meets a Lady. This time he must come to the aid of a socialite (Jean Muir) whose $100,000 necklace has been lifted on the eve of her wedding. Eric Blore joins William as Jamison, butler and Man Friday.
March 20: Beginning at midnight and running until 2:00 am is a compilation of shorts by Fatty Arbuckle. With the exception of the first, That Little Band of Gold (1915), in which he starred with Mabel Normand, the others are merely directed by him. After his series of trials for the death of starlet Virginia Rappe, in which he was ultimately found not guilty, Fatty was persona non grata with the studios and public alike. He caught on with small studio Educational Films and directed under the alias of Will B. Goodrich. Besides That Little Band of Gold, shorts to look for include Curses!, starring his nephew Al “Fuzzy” St. John, and Fool’s Luck.
March 18: A mini-marathon of Pre-Code films takes place from 6:00 am to 2:00 pm. None really stand out, aside from Smarty (mentioned earlier), but it’s always good for the Pre-Code completists to add a few notches to the reel.
March 21: Being shown are a run of films by B-director Nick Grinde: The Bishop Murder Case (1930), with Basil Rathbone as Philo Vance; Remote Control (1930), with William Haines; and Shopworn (1932), with Stanwyck and Regis Toomey. The fun begins at 6:00 am.
March 29: At 9:15 am. it’s Warner Baxter and Myrna Loy in Woody Van Dyke’s comedy-drama, Penthouse (1933). Baxter is a lawyer framed by the mob who must rely on the help of call girl Loy to clear himself. With Mae Clarke and Nat Pendleton. Loy is totally enchanting.
March 31: It’s Bette Davis and Margaret Lindsay as sisters in the rarely shown Fog Over Frisco (1934), airing at 6:30 am. Bette is the bad sister, consorting with gangsters and other low lifes in a stolen securities scheme. Lindsay is the good sister, who tries to help her sister out of the mess. Lyle Talbot, Robert Barrat, and William Demarest co-star.
BAD MOVIE ALERT
March 21: Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck stink up the screen in The Two Mrs. Carrolls, airing at 8:00 pm. Made in 1945 but not released until 1947, Bogart is a nutzoid artist who paints his wives as Angels of Death and then kills them. Guess who his new wife is? In the climatic chase scene, Bogie and Babs make more faces than Bugs Bunny after seeing the orange monster in Hair-Raising Hare. With Alexis Smith, who Bogie is penciling in as Babs’s replacement.
March 27: It’s Easter, and what would Easter be without the all-time stinker The Silver Chalice (1954). Starring the young Paul Newman as Basil the silversmith who is charged with engraving the Holy Grail. Co-starring Virginia Mayo, who does what she does best in these types of movies – vamp, and Jack Palance, who leaves no piece of scenery unchewed.
March 31: Robert Taylor displays his limited range in 1944’s Song Over Russia (11:30 am) as an American symphonic conductor enamored with Tchaikovsky on tour in Russia. Naturally he falls in love with, and marries, a Russian peasant woman (Susan Peters) who shares his fondness, but then those nasty old Nazis invade the Motherland, John, who wants to beat it back to New York, stays and fights alongside his bride.
PSYCHOTRONICA AND THE B HIVE
March 19: It’s a monstrous douane-feature from director Eugene Lourie, beginning at 6:15 am with The Giant Behemoth (1959) and followed at 7:45 by The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953).
10:30 am sees The Bowery Boys go undercover to expose a gang in Angels in Disguise (1949).
March 23: The evening is devoted to selected episodes from classic serials of the ‘30s and ‘40s. Among those featured are Batman (1943), Batman and Robin (1949), Superman (1948), Atom Man vs. Superman (1950), The Green Hornet (1940), Buck Rogers (1939), Flash Gordon (1940), The Phantom (1943), Ace Drummond (1936), and Dick Tracy (1937). Several of these have run on Saturday mornings, and it would be nice to see the others featured as well.
March 24: At 2:15 am, it’s a different kind of vampire picture, Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (1973). Set in 1920s Georgia, a female vampire (Leslie Gilb) tricks a 13-year old choirgirl who came back to her hometown to see her dying father (Cheryl Smith) into visiting her home in the woods. The strong sexual overtones and the corruption of innocence earned the film a condemnation from the Catholic Church, but the film relies on atmosphere and performances rather than nudity as it does an excellent job showing a child’s fears. Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith went on to appear in Jonathan Demme’s Caged Heat, among other psychotronic films.
March 30: At 11:15 pm, Arthur Franz stars as the serial killer compelled to shoot women in producer Stanley Kramer’s The Sniper (1952). Directed by Edward Dmytryk, the film differs from the usual manhunt by delving into the psychological reasons as well as raising questions about treating the mentally ill and how to identify and cure the most extreme cases. This is Stanley Kramer, after all.