Friday, April 15, 2016

Cinéma Inhabituel for April 16-30

A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

TCM devoted the evening of March 23 to airing selected episodes of classic serials featuring Superman, Batman, the Green Hornet, Dick Tracy, Buck Rodgers, Flash Gordon, the Phantom, and Ace Drummond. “From Comics to Film” was shown in conjunction with Warner Bros.' release of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, but the Batman serials ran in full last year, and I’m wondering why TCM can’t do the same with other classic serials. Saturday morning is the perfect place to run them, and a pretty good line-up can be carved out of Saturday mornings: Start with a B-series such as The Lone Wolf, or Boston Blackie, follow with a classic serial, and then run something not seen on TCM for a long time: Cartoon Alley. This show ran the old cartoons from Warner Brothers’ Termite Terrace, and was engagingly hosted by Ben Mankiewicz. As morning becomes afternoon, a classic B noir, Western, or horror/sci-fi flick can be shown. We think it would take many TCM viewers back to their childhood, when this was a regular happening on Saturday mornings. 


April 22: Another evening of Garland musicals, with the best being The Harvey Girls (8:00 pm), the wonderful Easter Parade (10:00 pm) with Fred Astaire, and Summer Stock (2:00 am). TCM has run Judy’s musicals so often that a “Star of the Month” celebration loses the sense of uniqueness such a special feature should have. Granted, Judy has only 38 films to her credit, but perhaps a episode or two of her television show from 1963-64 would have been nice, and given us another window to view Judy. TCM did this when they honored Danny Kaye as “Star of the Month” by running an episode of his variety show from the ‘60s.

April 29: At 11:15 pm, it’s the seldom screened A Child is Waiting (1962), with Judy as an emotionally fragile woman who takes a position teaching mentally handicapped children. Burt Lancaster co-stars. Following at 1:15 am is Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) with Judy simply stunning as Irene Hoffman, an ordinary German woman whose Jewish friend was executed by the Nazis on suspicion that he had “improper relations” with her (“defiling the race”) and executed. Judy is simply superb, standing her ground when defense lawyer Maximillian Schell challenges the veracity of her testimony. Overall this is an excellent picture, with the acting overcoming producer Stanley Kramer’s usual heavy hand.


April 18: This evening is devoted to Ethel Barrymore. An actress much more at home on the stage than on the silver screen, she still managed to amass 43 credits, and although lacking the box office appeal of her brothers, she still managed to be nominated four times for an Oscar, all in the Supporting Actress category, and won for None But the Lonely Heart (1944), as the mother of ne’er-do-well Cary Grant. Those who may have missed it over the years are in luck, for it’s being shown at 8:00 pm.

At 10:00 pm, we can see Ethel’s Oscar nominated performance as the bedridden Mrs. Warren in Robert Siodmak’s drama, The Spiral Staircase (1946). It’s a wonderful Old Dark House-type thriller with a killer on the loose, and Mrs. Warren’s only company a mute servant girl (Dorothy McGuire). A marvelously constructed film that still retains its power to shock today.

At 11:30 pm, its Ethel in Elia Kazan’s well-intentioned but clumsy racial drama, Pinky (1949), with Jeanne Crain as a young biracial woman who returns to her hometown after passing for white in nursing school. At 1:30 am, Ethel stars in the remake of Kind Lady (1951) as an innocent victim held hostage in her home by a con man and his gang. At 3:00 am, Ethel is the Mother Superior of a convent in the British Zone of postwar Vienna who gives asylum to fleeing Russian ballerina Janet Leigh in the heavy-handed Cold War melodrama Red Danube (1949). 

Finally, at 5:00 am, she stars as Katharine “Nana” Chandler in her last film, Johnny Trouble (1957), a remake of a 1943 drama, Someone to Remember. Ethel is a woman whose son disappeared 27 years ago after being expelled from school. Working as a sort of dorm mother, she meets Johnny (Stuart Whitman), a troubled young man she believes to be her grandson, and she attempts to steer him in the right direction.

April 24: Tonight is literally a mixed bag, as the Barrymores work together. Starting at 8:00 pm, it’s the only film in which all three Barrymores appeared, Rasputin and the Empress (1932). John is Prince Paul Chegodieff, Ethel (in her talkie debut) is Czarina Alexandra, and Lionel plays the mad monk himself. One would assume that with all three Barrymore, this must be one helluva picture. Unfortunately, though it’s entertaining, it’s far from great. In fact, the most fun to be had is in watching the trio trying to upstage one another.

At 10:15, it's the classic Grand Hotel from 1932 with John as the doomed jewel thief in love with Garbo, and Lionel as a dying industrialist. Following at 12:15 am is the underrated Night Flight (1933), starring John as the hard driving operations director of an air freight line in South America and Lionel as the company’s inspector, accused of being too chummy with the pilots. With a stellar cast that includes Robert Montgomery, Clark Gable, and Myrna Loy.

The brothers push on at 1:45 am in the classic Dinner at Eight (1933), an ensemble piece with John as a desperate fading movie star and Lionel as a businessman suffering from health problems as his business teeters on the verge of collapse. Though the Barrymores provide the big names, the real stars of the picture are Wallace Beery and Jean Harlow as a conniving self-made tycoon and his fed-up wife, and Marie Dressler as Beery’s socialite ex-lover. It’s definitely required viewing with outstanding performances from a supporting cast that includes Karen Morley, Lee Tracy, Billie Burke, Edmund Lowe, and May Robson.

Finally, at 3:45 am, it's John and Lionel in the delightful Arsene Lupin from 1932. John is the suave gentleman jewel thief Arsene Lupin, aka The Duke of Charmance, and Lionel is Guerchard, the French detective inspector who has made the arrest of Lupin number one on his list of Things To Do. It’s their first film together, and in many ways their best.


April 20: TCM continues its festival of Weimar cinema, concentrating on director Fritz Lang. The evening begins with his 1922 silent masterpiece Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, as both parts are shown.

At 12:45 am it’s Lang’s sequel, Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse), from 1933. Here the similarity to Hitler was so strong that Goebbels banned the film from exhibition in Germany. Like its predecessor, the film reveals Lang’s understanding of the nature of crime and the criminal mind and the underlying social forces that allow it to thrive in the modern, industrialized state. 3:00 am brings us what many think is Lang’s masterpiece, Metropolis (1926), but at 5:45 am airs what I believe to be Lang’s masterpiece, M (1931).

April 27: Begin at 8:00 pm with G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929), a tale of the quintessential femme fatale – Lulu – played by Louise Brooks. It’s followed at 10:30 with Pabst’s Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), also starring Brooks, and even more sordid. Brooks is raped and gives birth. When she refuses to marry the father, the baby is given to a midwife and Brooks is put in a detention home. She escapes from there, moves to a brothel, inherits money, marries, is widowed in a most unusual turn of the plot, and taken in by her late husband’s grief-stricken uncle. Later she is invited to become a member of the board of directors of the deletion home from which she escaped.

At midnight, it’s Pabst’s acclaimed war drama, Westfront 1918 (1930), a film that is every bit as strong in its antiwar views and disquieting as All Quiet on the Western FrontAt 1:45 am comes Pabst’s take on Brecht and Weill’s 3 Penny Opera (1931), followed at 3:45 by Kameradschaft, a tale of international cooperation after a mine disaster, also from 1931.

Finally, for all you insomniacs out there, it’s the German version of Anna Christie, starring Greta Garbo, from 1931. MGM filmed this at the same time as the English version, intended for the vast German market, where Garbo was a huge drawing card. 


April 17: Jean Gabin is one of my favorite actors and the night offers a film of his I haven’t yet managed to catch along with one I’ve seen numerous times and which is one of my favorites. First up at 2:00 am is A Pig Across Paris, from director Claude Autant-Lara, in 1957. Set in Paris during the Occupation, the film tells the story of a hapless black marketeer named Marcel Martin (Bourvil), who must transport about 220 pounds of pork distributed in four suitcases. As this is too much for one man alone, he recruits a vagabond named Grandgil (Gabin), who claims to be a painter. A Pig Across Paris is a farce wrapped as a buddy comedy, with the duo facing numerous tricky situations (one of which is bring followed by hungry dogs) and close shaves while attempting to deliver their contraband. 

It’s followed at 3:30 am by Pepe LeMoko (1937), with Gabin in possibly his best role as the exiled Paris thief who has been hiding in the Casbah quarter of Algiers, a place where the police will never find him, as he is able to hide in the maze of tunnels and secret places supplied to him by the Casbah denizens, who make it a point never to cooperate with the authorities. Life is good, but when Pepe meets Gaby, a Parisienne who is the mistress of a wealthy Frenchman, their affair magnifies his loneliness and ultimately leads to his downfall. Director Julian Duvivier, an acolyte of the Poetic Realism movement, created a marvelously atmospheric film bolstered by the internal battle within Gabin’s Le Moko, as he struggles to uphold his tough image against the romantic melancholy that is coming to dominate his existence. Gabin’s performance sealed his reputation as one of France’s best actors and remains as one of the best ever committed to celluloid. The film was remade in the States by producer Walter Wanger as Algiers (1938) with Charles Boyer as Pepe Le Moko and Hedy Lamarr as Gaby. But the film tanked, for Boyer was no Gabin (Honestly, Chevalier would’ve been better.), and Lamarr, though drop-dead gorgeous, simply couldn’t act. Universal released a musical version of the film as Casbah in 1948 with Tony Martin as Pepe. The less said about that, the better.


April 24: The Japanese are the last people I would have expected to make an “art” film. Simply, they don’t need to, for directors such as Ozu, Kurosawa, and Kenji Mizoguchi made their superbly crafted films into masterpieces simply by following everyday stories or adapting classic works of literature, as Kurosawa did with Shakespeare. Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes (1964), which airs at 2:00 am, is based on the 1962 novel of the same name by author Kobo Abe. Abe’s novel, Sunna no Onna (“Sand Woman”), concerns a teacher from Tokyo, Jumpei Niki, who visits a fishing village to collect insects. After missing the last bus out, the villagers lead him to a house in the dunes that can only be reached by ladder. The next morning, he finds the villagers have removed the ladder and that he is expected to keep sand out of the house with the woman who is already living there and with whom he has children. He eventually gives up trying to escape when he concludes that returning to his old life would not result in any more freedom. After seven years, he is officially proclaimed dead. 

Abe’s novel is a complex tome about the meaning of freedom in today’s society, a variation of the Myth of Sisyphus as elaborated by Camus. Like the novels of Henry James, many of which are internally, as opposed to externally, driven, it really does not translate into a movie, for movies cannot capture the necessary depth that makes the story work. Metaphors only go so far; one needs a solid storyline to move the film along, otherwise it tends to become mired in its own heaviness, which is the case with Woman in the Dunes. Yes, I know that Abe adopted the screenplay himself. His other adaptations of his works, The Face of Another and The Man Without a Map, work because they are externally based and entail movement towards a goal. Woman in the Dunes only proves that what works in a novel does not necessarily work in film, as both a separate crafts.


April 26: Beginning at 5:00 pm, TCM is running two hours of shorts starring the incomparable Edgar Kennedy, beginning with Wrong Direction (1934) and finishing with The Big Beef (1945). Made by RKO, the shorts revolved around Edgar as the put-upon husband of Florance Lake, whose sponging mother and brother have moved in and drive Edgar crazy. Utilizing Kennedy’s comedy skills, in particular the slow burn, the shorts have Edgar trying to accomplish something only to be thwarted by his buffoonish relatives. Adding to his misery is his wife’s constant defense of her mother and brother. I remember watching the shorts, which were part of a late night package with the shorts of Leon Errol and Clark and McCullough on New York’s Channel 5 called Reel Camp. TCM would be wise to make all these RKO shorts part of a regular feature.


April 26: Although she’s mostly forgotten today, back in the mid-‘50s to mid-‘60s, Tuesday Weld was a pop culture icon. She was featured on the cult television series The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (CBS, 1959-63), along with such actors as Warren Beatty, with whom Dobie competed for Weld’s attention, and made quite a few teen movies. At 8:00 pm, TCM is screening her film debut, Rock, Rock, Rock (1956) from Columbia and produced by schlockmeister Milton Subotsky. Following at 9:45 is Because They’re Young (Columbia, 1960). With Dick Clark as the new “with-it” teacher at Harrison High, where Tuesday is a student. You can pass through Lord Love a Duck (1966) at 11:30 and the lame by-the-numbers Bob Hope “comedy,” I’ll Take Sweden (1965), until the magic hour of 3:15 am is reached. Then hold on to your seats (and DVRs), because one of the great bad movies is being shown, Sex Kittens Go To College (1960), starring Tuesday and the great Mamie Van Doren. Here’s the synopsis: A stripper with a genius IQ (Van Doren) gets a college teaching job in the science department after being chosen in a selection process determined by Thinko the Robot. Yes, you read right. If we now mention that the film was produced and directed by Albert Zugsmith, much would be explained. 

Zugsmith gave us the landmark psychotronic classic, High School Confidential (1958), as well as classics such as Invasion U.S.A. (1952), Female on the Beach with Joan Crawford (1955), Girls Town (1959), The Private Lives of Adam and Eve (1960), Russ Meyer's Fanny Hill (1964), and Sappho Darling (1968). To be fair he also gave us The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) and Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958). Starring with Mamie and Tuesday are John Carradine, Mijanou Bardot (Brigette’s sister), Louis Nye, Mickey Shaughnessy, Jackie Coogan (Uncle Fester!), Vampira, and Conway Twitty. There is no actual sex in the film; the naughtiest it gets is when the strippers get down to thong panties with pasties on their nipples. Despite this, I remember looking through the movie times section of the local newspaper and seeing this film advertised at an adult theater in Newark called The Little Theater. How desperate must a pervert be to pay his money to see this? But that was part of Zugsmith’s genius – to make the marks think they were getting a lot more than he was actually supplying.


April 16: An evening of horror spoofs is scheduled, with Young Frankenstein (1974) leading off at 8:00 pm, followed by Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers (1966) at 10 pm, and Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953) at midnight.

At 2:00 am, TCM Underground takes over, with Lucio Fulci’s outrageous gialloThe House by the Cemetery (1984), and the terrible Burnt Offerings (1976) following at 3:30. The latter is yet another film about a family that moves into a possessed house with the usual results. On the plus side, it has Karen Black and Bette Davis in the cast. On the minus, it’s directed by Dan Curtis. To quote critic Michael Weldon, “Dan Curtis is better off making TV films.”

April 18: A morning and afternoon of films from Val Lewton, beginning at 7:45 am with the classic Bedlam (1946), and ending at 6:15 pm with the exquisite Curse of the Cat People (1944). Lewton, no matter how many times TCM plays his films, is always worth watching for the twists and craftsmanship he brings to films that otherwise could easily be on the level of Sam Katzman’s atrocities for Monogram.

April 20: Though it’s a failed film, Leo McCarey’s The Milky Way (1936) starring Harold Lloyd as a milquetoast milkman who becomes a boxer after it appears that he knocked out the middleweight champion (William Gargan) in a brawl, it's worth your time if you haven’t yet seen it. Showtime is 3:00 pm. It’s one of many Lloyd films being screened in the morning and afternoon.

April 22: Blondes are the order of the day with morning and afternoon devoted to films about blondes or with the word “blonde” in the title. The festivities begin at 7:00 am with Glenda Farrell as Torchy Blaine in Smart Blonde (1936), followed by Farrell again as Blaine in The Adventurous Blonde from 1937. The other highlight of the day is at 4:45 pm with James Cagney and Joan Blondell in the wonderful Blonde Crazy (1931), followed at 6:15 with Jean Harlow and Lee Tracy in the raucous Bombshell (1933). 

April 23: One of the strangest films ever made is on tap at 2:00 am – director Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981), starting Isabelle Adjani as a woman with strange tastes in lovers, to say the least. Tune in and watch a film that truly has to be seen to be believed.

April 30: Begin with the Lone Wolf in Passport to Suez (1943) at 9:30 am, then stick around for The Bowery Boys in Blues Buster(1950) at 10:45, The Fly (1958) at noon, Soylent Green(1973) at 2:00, Five Million Years to Earth (1968) at 4:00, and Countdown (1968) at 6:00. At 2:15 am, it’s a Larry Cohen double feature with God Told Me To (1976), and It Lives Again (1978).

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