A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
T.S. Eliot said “April is the cruelest month.” And in many ways it is, but not this month and not when it comes to the movies TCM is offering. There are some real gems among the dross, and some standbys that make one glad to be a cinephile.
Judy, Judy, Judy. Garland is TCM’s Star of the Month and if musicals are your thing, there’s plenty on the menu. As every Garland fan has seen every one of her musicals at least five times, we’ll concentrate on her lesser known films.
April 1: Begin at 8:00 pm with Pigskin Parade, from Fox in 1936. Somewhere in this musical comedy about a coach (Jack Haley) brought in to change the fortunes of a college football team, you’ll find Judy as the younger sister of football hero Amos Dodd (Stuart Erwin). It’s not much of a role, but Judy does get to sing “It’s Love I’m After.” As for the film, it’s entertaining, with the great Patsy Kelly practically stealing the film as the coach’s wife who knows more about the game than he does. Look for young Betty Grable as a Betty Co-Ed type and Elisha Cook Jr. as the campus commie.
At 11:15, it’s the best in the Andy Hardy series, Love Finds Andy Hardy, from 1939. Judy is Betsy Booth, a 12-year old ingenue visiting her grandmother who develops a crush on Andy. Good thing for Andy, too, for she helps him out of a jam. Andy is “minding” his pal Beezy’s girlfriend (Lana Turner, gorgeous with her natural auburn hair) until he gets back. But Beezy goes and dumps Turner right before the big dance, leaving Andy in a fix, for he’s already promised to take his regular girl, Polly Benedict (Ann Rutherford). But it’s Judy to the rescue and she straightens everything out in the end. Garland also gets to sing a couple of songs, not only displaying her range, but her incredible knack for styling a song.
April 8: Two great films are on tap, beginning at 8:00 pm with The Wizard of Oz. (Followed by an excellent documentary, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: 50 Years of Magic, which goes into the behind-the-scenes stories about the classic film. It’s a Must See for Oz fans.) At 11:00, it’s the Busby Berkeley directed Strike Up the Band, with Rooney as Jimmy Connors, the leader of a high school band hoping to compete in Paul Whiteman's nationwide radio contest. Garland provides solid support as Mary Holden. She sings with the band and is in love with Jimmy, but can’t get him to notice her as anything more than a friend. She sings several memorable songs, including “Nobody,” “La Conga,” and the wonderful “Our Love Affair,” a number written especially for her and which was nominated for a Oscar.
April 15: All the films offered this evening are worth watching, but our focus is on a film being shown at a late hour. First up at 1:45 am is The Clock, from 1945. Judy and Robert Walker star in this romance about a GI en route to Europe who meets, falls in love with, and marries Judy over the course of two days while in New York. Beautifully directed by Vincente Minelli, who skillfully used rear projection and ingenious art direction to create one of the most vivid and compelling images of New York City ever captured on film.
TCM SPOTLIGHT: THE BEST OF THE BARRYMORES
Now here is a good idea – a film festival featuring all three of the Barrymores: Ethel, John, and Lionel. What could be better, or more entertaining, than to see the Barrymores at work, either separate or together?
April 4: The best of the evening is John Barrymore in State’s Attorney (1932), airing at 11:30. Barrymore is in fine form as a flamboyant and ambitious criminal attorney Tom Cardigan, who uses his ties to the underworld to further his career. After a successful defense of “good-hearted” hooker June (Helen Twelvetrees) as a favor for mob heavy Valentine “Vanny” Powers (William Boyd), Tom falls for his client, who persuades him to go straight. Powers is also trying to get Tom to go straight – straight to the D.A.’s office as an inside plant for the mob. Tom is torn between his political ambition and his loyalty to June, which is further tested when Valentine goes on trial for murder. While there’s not much new in the story department, the dialogue by Gene Fowler and Rowland Brown plus the performance of Barrymore combines to make this most pleasurable viewing.
April 11: We switch from John to Lionel for tonight’s recommendations. At 8:00 pm, Lionel stars with May Robson and Joel McCrea in One Man’s Journey (1933), a melodrama about a doctor who trades in his city practice after his wife dies in childbirth for one in his rural hometown. There, he serves his clients, often accepting potatoes and eggs as payments. His son, Jimmy (McCrea), who has followed his father into medicine, is a successful, but selfish and materialistic, surgeon. He takes his beautiful fiancee, Joan (Frances Dee), for granted until Dad helps him see the error of his ways. Robson is Lionel’s feisty and loyal housekeeper. although the film is a pure soaper, it was considered lost until rediscovered as part of the late producer Merian C. Cooper’s library. It has not been seen since a few television showings in the late 1950s.
At 11:30 is a film beloved not only by Barrymore fans but by cinephiles in general: Young Dr. Kildare (1938). Co-starring Lionel Barrymore as Dr. Gillespie alongside Lew Ayres as Dr. Kildare, it’s a role Barrymore wouldn’t even have considered a year before, but a broken hip suffered in an accident plus worsening arthritis made him amenable to playing the crusty head of diagnostics at Blair General Hospital and the mentor of Ayres’ idealistic young doctor. For more on the film, read our essay here. And for those who can’t get enough of life at Blair General, there’s The Secret of Dr. Kildare (1939) at 4:30 am.
April 3: A double feature from German director Wim Wenders begins at 2:30 am with Wings of Desire (1987), followed by Alice in the Cities (1974). Wings of Desire is a tale of two angels, Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander) who watch over life in modern Berlin. They amble through the city, finding it full of lonely, angst-ridden citizens, and offer polite and silent comfort to women in labor and those contemplating suicide. They are invisible to all except children. But Damien wants more out of his existence – he seeks a more intense involvement to the joys and pain of being human. When he meets an American actor (Peter Falk) in town to film a World War II movie, and a trapeze artist named Marion (Solveig Dommartin), he contemplates being made mortal.
Alice in the Cities, inspired in part by the experiences of Wenders' friend Peter Handke with single fatherhood, concerns Philip Winter (Rudiger Vogler), a rootless, disillusioned photojournalist who, through an odd series of circumstances at an airport, finds himself responsible for caring for young Alice Van Damm (Yella Rottlander). Winter finds himself traveling from America to Europe with Alice in the hope of returning her to her grandmother and a home she can't really remember in a Germany he can’t really remember.
April 10: TCM delves into Spanish cinema with a double feature beginning at 2:45 am. Death of a Cyclist from director Juan Antonio Bardem (uncle of Javier) in 1955 concerns a couple having an affair. On the way back, they strike a bicyclist with their car. Afraid of offering assistance in fear of their affair being exposed, they leave the cyclist to die. From here, the movie evolves into a study of how people interact to endure their lives. The woman is a beautiful society matron, trapped in a marriage of convenience, while her lover is an academic who would see his career come to a halt if word of their affair leaks out. Bardem was a Marxist and the film a critique of the hypocrisy of the Spanish bourgeoisie.
Following at 4:15 am is Peppermint Frappe, from director Carlos Saura, in 1967. The story centers on Julian (Jose Luis Lopez Vazquez), a doctor who runs a radiology clinic from his personal residence, assisted by a shy, mild mannered nurse named Ana (Geraldine Chaplin). Invited to a reunion with old friend Pablo (Alfredo Mayo), he becomes obsessed with Pablo’s new wife, a free-spirited, beautiful woman named Elena (also played by Chaplin), the wife of an old friend, believing her to be a mysterious drummer that he once fell in love with at a Holy Week festival. He pursues her only to be rebuffed multiple times, with tragic consequences at the end. The film, a metaphor for Spain during Franco’s rule, boasts a stellar performance by Chaplin in the dual role.
FROM CALIGARI TO HITLER
April 13: TCM is running a special feature called “From Caligari to Hitler,” examining the cinema of Weimar Germany. Running on three consecutive Wednesday nights, the series is based on the book, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, by German film critic and writer Siegfried Kracauer. The book is considered one of the first major studies of German film between the two World Wars, and puts forward the thesis that the films, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (8 pm), Nosferatu (11:30 pm), and Faust (1:15 am). with their Expressionist styling, can be seen as an allegory for German social attitudes in the period following World War I that expressed a fear of chaos and a desire for order, even at the price of authoritarian rule. However, other critics, including Thomas Elsaessar (Weimar Cinema and After: Germany's Historical Imaginary (2000)) maintain the Expressionist style is a method to differentiate German films from those made in America. Also airing this night, at 9:30 pm is From Caligari to Hitler: German Cinema in the Age of the Masses, a 2014 documentary from filmmaker Ruediger Suchsland. Though the scholarship behind the documentary is suspect, it’s the restored clips that provide the reason to tune in.
April 14: At 10:45 pm, it’s The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), from director Jacques Demy, who in many ways is to French cinema what Ernst Lubitsch was to American. The film takes place over the course of a weekend in the seaside town of Rochefort. Twin sisters Delphine (Catherine Deneuve), who teaches ballet classes, and Solange (Francoise Dorleac), an aspiring songwriter who earns her living giving music lessons, each long to find true love and believe they have done so when they meet two smooth-talking, but kind carnies, Etienne (George Chakiris) and Bill (Grover Dale).
Meanwhile, their mother, Yvonne (Danielle Darrieux), who owns a cafe in the center of town, pines for a fiancé she impulsively dumped about 10 years ago due to his “embarrassing” last name of Dame. In the cafe she meets a sailor, Maxence (Jacques Perrin), about to be released from naval service. He is a poet and painter searching for his true feminine ideal. But little does she know that her former fiancé, Simon Dame (Michel Piccoli) has recently opened a music store in town. He knows Yvonne had twins from a previous relationship, but he’s never met them. Simon meets Solange and promises to introduce her to his American friend Andy Miller (Gene Kelly). Solange later meets Andy accidentally while on her way to pick up her younger brother from school, but they do not stop for introductions. On the day of the fair, the paths of all the characters cross at the town square and at Yvonne’s cafe.
As with his previous The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, this is a film about missed chances, albeit a much more effervescent one. As with Lubitsch, it is a tribute to love and optimism. Plus it’s a chance to see sisters Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac, two of the most beautiful actresses ever to grace a screen, working together. Dorleac, the elder sister, was well on her way to mega-stardom when her sports car flipped and burned on a roadway near Nice, France, on June 26, 1967.
One of the best boxing dramas ever made – if not the best – airs at 2:00 am. It’s Body and Soul (1947) from director Robert Rossen and screenwriter Abraham Polansky. John Garfield stars as Charlie Davis, a young, talented boxer from the Jewish ghetto who strings along with gangsters for the big money even if it means crossing everyone he loves. James Wong Howe’s cinematography is exquisite, taking us right into the ring alone with Garfield. Catch it and see its influence on later boxing dramas such as Champion and Raging Bull.
PSYCHOTRONICA AND THE B-HIVE
April 1: Stripper Ann Corio made a handful of films for Monogram in the early ‘40s. The Sultan’s Daughter (1943), which can be seen at 2:30 pm, has Ann as Patra, the daughter of the Sultan of Armband (Charles Butterworth). She has inherited all the oil lands of the country following the death of her mother. The Sultan wants to sign the lands over to German agents Rata (Jack LaRue) and Ludwig (Gene Roth), but Patra will only sign them over to Americans. The Sultan’s right-hand man, Kuda (Fortunio Bonanova) is crazy about Patra, but the feeling isn’t mutual. Along with her friend and teacher, Irene (Irene Ryan), Patria visits the big city, where they meet Americans Jimmy (Edward Norris) and Tim (Tim Ryan). Luda hires them to convince Patra to sign over the oil leases to him. Co-written by Tim Ryan and Milton Raison and directed by Poverty Row stalwart Arthur Dreifuss, the film is a fast 64 minutes, filled with some engaging musical numbers and looking as if Monogram actually spent some money making it. At any rate, it’s Monogram, and it’s good to see Jack LaRue and Charles Butterworth.
April 2: At 9:15 am, Warren William delights in The Lone Wolf Keeps a Date from 1940, followed by The Bowery Boys in Blonde Dynamite from 1950.
At 2:00 am, it’s the Must-Be-Seen-To-Be-Believed Blaxploitation epic, Abar, the First Black Superman (read our review here), followed at 3:45 am by the watchable Shaft in Africa (1973).
April 4: For Bulldog Drummond fans, there’s Bulldog Drummond Comes Back (1937) at 2:30 am followed by Bulldog Drummond's Revenge (1937) at 3:45, and Bulldog Drummond's Peril (1938) at 4:45. All feature John Barrymore as Colonel Nielson and John Howard as Captain Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond.
April 9: At 9:15 am, The Lone Wolf Takes a Chance (1941). At 10:30 am, it’s The Bowery Boys take a chance on the stock market in Lucky Losers (1950).
At 2:00 am, it's Mario Bava’s final feature film, Shock (1977), followed at 3:45 by all-time stinker, Exorcist II: The Heretic. The gist of the film is that Linda Blair neglects to pay her exorcist and so gets re-possessed. With Richard Burton, it is one of the great laughable performances. Don’t miss it!
April 15: At 2:00 pm, it’s the last of the Warner Bros. Dead End Kids features: Dead End Kids on Dress Parade (1939). The young delinquents are shipped off to military school, which transforms them rather unconvincingly into model citizens. Next stop: Universal serials and Sam Katzman.