A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
The TCM Star of the Month for June is one of my favorites: Marie Dressler. A Broadway star who was also huge in silents, her career came to a skidding halt after the First World War, in large part due to being blacklisted for her role in the chorus girls’ strike of 1917. Unable to work in major stage productions or on screen, she was reduced to living on her savings and cleaning houses. Screenwriter Frances Marion, who remembered Marie’s kindness when she was first starting out, intervened with Irving Thalberg to give her a small part in 1927’s The Joy Girl, which was followed by a co-starring role with Polly Moran in The Callahans and the Murphys (1927). But the film was a commercial disaster, abruptly withdrawn after protests by Irish-American groups.
Again, her career stalled and the actress was reduced to near poverty, But Thalberg saw potential in her and was determined to rebuild her as a star. Dressler made a slow but steady rise in silents, but it was the coming of sound that turned her into a major star. Her turn as Marthy in Anna Christie (1930) resonated with audiences, and she won a Oscar for her starring role in Min and Bill(1930). In an era featuring Harlow, Garbo, Cagney, Shearer, and Crawford, it was homely old Marie Dressler that won the coveted exhibitor's poll as the most popular actress for three consecutive years. Had it not been for the cancer that claimed her life in 1934, who knows how may more years of super-stardom she would have had.
June 6: The night begins at 8:00 pm with Dressler in a supporting role in the early MGM talkie, Chasing Rainbows (1930). It’s followed at 9:30 with Dressler once again in a supporting role in 1929’s The Divine Lady, which stars Corinne Griffith and Victor Varconi in the story of Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton.
At 11:15, Dressler plays Marion Davies’ bossy mother in the silent comedy, The Patsy (1928). Davies gives a wonderful comic performance as the ignored youngest child in the family who transforms herself into a vivacious flapper in order to win away her sophisticated older sister’s boyfriend (Orville Caldwell). Another silent follows at 12:45 am, the classic comedy, Tillie’s Punctured Romance, from 1914. Marie is a farm girl who is fleeced by conman Charlie Chaplin in one of his rare performances outside of his Tramp character. The beautiful Mabel Normand co-stars as the girl Charlie left behind. That’s how we know it’s a comedy, for who in his right mind would ditch Mabel Normand for Marie Dressler? The film, the first full-length feature comedy, was so successful it spawned two sequels: Tillie’s Tomato Surprise and Tillie Wakes Up. At 2:15, the Dressler-a-thon closes out with Marie in 1929’s The Hollywood Revue. The film is nothing more than an all-star audition for silent stars to show the moviegoing public that they can, indeed, talk. Though Jack Benny plays the Master of Ceremonies, the top billed star is Conrad Nagel, at the time the busiest man in Hollywood due to his resonant voice.
June 13: At 8:00 pm, it’s the movie that made Dressler a star, Anna Christie (1930). Although the star is Greta Garbo (move posters for the film screamed out “Garbo Talks!”), it was Dressler as Marthy who caught the public’s attention, and fancy. A footnote: in the German version, made for MGM’s most important European market, Dressler’s part was played by Garbo’s good friend Salka Viertel.
At 9:30, Dressler provides solid support to Norma Shearer in the 1930 comedy Let Us Be Gay. Shearer is called upon by Dressler to break up an infatuation her granddaughter has for a man other then her fiancé. When Shearer agrees to help, she discovers the man is none other than her former husband (Rod La Rocque), who she divorced three years ago. One thing leads to another and Shearer and La Rocque get back together.
At 11:15, it’s The Girl Said No (1930), a comedy starring William Haines as a college sports star who surprises everyone with his money-making schemes. Dressler, in a supporting role, is a befuddled spinster who is offered bonds for sale by Haines.
It’s followed at 1:00 am by the Rudy Vallee musical, The Vagabond Lover (1929). Vallee is college student Rudy Bronson, who forms an orchestra and embarks on a search for famous impresario Ted Grant (Malcolm Waite), his mail order saxophone teacher. They arrive at his fashionable Long Island home to play for him and break down the door to get in. Grant’s neighbor, Mrs. Whitehall (Dressler), and her niece, Jean (Sally Blaine), notify Officer Tuttle (Charles Sellon), whereupon, Rudy claims to be Grant, who is away. As a result, Mrs. Whitehall engages his orchestra for an upcoming benefit for a orphanage, and Rudy falls in love with Jean. On the evening of the benefit, however, Jean discovers the impersonation and exposes Rudy, but the band is a sensation, and Grant arrives in time to prevent an arrest. Rudy is hailed as a great discovery, thus winning both success and the girl.
TCM SPECIAL THEME: BILLY WILDER
Friday evenings in June are dedicated to the works of writer/director Billy Wilder with 17 films being screened. Even though these films have all been screened repeatedly over the years, there is a special something about Wilder’s films that make them seem fresh no matter how many times we watch. Many of his films are indisputable classics, and even those that didn’t receive the classification of “classic” are still wildly entertaining. Even though I have most of his films on DVD, I’ll still be tuning in. I like being a captive audience.
June 3: Wilder’s American directorial debut, The Major and the Minor (1942) leads off at 8:00 pm. Following at 10:00 pm is Five Graves to Cairo (1943), starring Franchot Tone and a young Anne Baxter, with Erich Von Stroheim as Field Marshal Rommel. At midnight, it’s the 1944 noir classic Double Indemnity, and the evening wraps up at 2:00 am with Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend from 1945.
June 10: At 8:00 pm, it’s Wilder’s wonderfully cynical insider’s take on Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard (1950), with Gloria Swanson giving the performance of a lifetime (she should have gotten the Oscar). At 10:00 pm, its another Wilder cynical classic, this time pointed at the news media, Ace in the Hole (1951), with Kirk Douglas and Jan Sterling. Following at midnight is Wilder’s adaptation of the Broadway stage hit, Stalag 17, starring William Holden, Don Taylor, and Otto Preminger. The evening closes out at 2:00 am with Wilder directing Jimmy Stewart in the story of Charles Lindbergh’s famous solo flight from New York to Paris in The Spirit of St. Louis (1957).
OUT OF THE ORDINARY
June 2: At 7:45 am, it’s Akira Kurosawa’s gritty urban drama, The Lower Depths. This interesting film, adapted from Maxim Gorky’s play At Bottom, takes place in 19th century Edo and concerns a thief named Sutekichi (Toshiro Mifune) who becomes involved in a love triangle with his landlady and her sister. Like many of Kurosawa’s dramas, a bit talky, but worth the time.
June 5: Fatty Arbuckle directs the underrated Marion Davies in The Red Mill (1925), with Marion playing a Cinderella type working as a barmaid in a tavern who falls in love with the man downstairs and helps her boss’s daughter escape from an arranged marriage. Davies had a real talent for comedy and Arbuckle takes full advantage in showing her talents for slapstick. Davies was not afraid to look plain before the cameras, relying on her natural charm and beauty to see her through. It’s a pleasant 74 minutes thanks to the combined efforts of director and star.
A double feature of director Carl Theodore Dreyer begins at 2:00 am with Ordet (1955). Cited by many critics as Dreyer’s best film, it concerns two families, one headed by a widowed farmer and the other led by a tailor, who are at odds with each other over their religious differences – the farmer is a traditional Lutheran while the tailor belongs to a strict Lutheran sect. Complications ensue when the farmer’s son and the tailor’s daughter wish to marry, forcing the families to face their children’s love for each other. An interesting subplot focuses on the boy’s brother, a theology student driven mad by reading too many of Kierkegaard’s works (!) and who now believes himself to be Jesus Christ. Critic Leonard Maltin describes the film as “truly awe-inspiring, with a never-to-be-forgotten climactic scene.” We couldn’t agree more. The film, based on a play by Kaj Munk, was previously filmed in 1943 by Gustaf Molander.
Following at 4:15 am is Dreyer’s last film, Gertrud (1964). Gertrud Kanning (Nina Pens Rode) is an opera singer unhappily married to politician Gustav Kanning (Bendt Rothe). When Gustav is appointed to a cabinet post, Gertrud leaves him on the grounds that work leaves him no time for her. She wants someone who will put love before everything. Composer Erland Jansson (Baard Owe), for whom she left her husband, also has a flaw in that he loves to carouse with friends. When she begs him to abandon his dissolute life and put love above all, he refuses. In addition, she learns from a friend who still carries a torch for her that Erland has been making the rounds boasting about her being his latest conquest. When her emotional problems begin taking a physical toll, another old friend, psychologist Axel Nygren (Axel Strobye), offers a radical solution. Beautifully photographed, it can present a challenge due to its slow pace, but it’s worth it.
June 7: At 6:30 pm is The Murderer Lives At Number 21, an engaging 1942 screwball murder mystery from writer/director Henri-Georges Clouzot. In his essay for TCM, Sean Axmaker called the film “a continental answer to MGM's The Thin Man films – it has a sophisticated detective, a spunky girlfriend who joins him on his cases, and plenty of witty banter – but there is also a wry cynicism under the cheeky humor and a decidedly French attitude to sexual mores.” Pierre Fresnay and Suzy Delair hit all the right notes as Inspector Wenceslas Wens and his girlfriend Mila Malou. To catch serial killer Monsieur Durand, whom he learns lives at 21 Avenue Junot, Wens takes a room in the building in the guise of a Protestant minister, only to be followed by Mila, who poses as his wife, but who hardly seems to act like a minister’s wife.
The evening features a unique double feature about crime in Brighton, England. Up first at 8:00 pm is Jigsaw, a 1962 mystery from director Val Guest. Inspector Fred Fellows (Jack Warner) and Det. Sergeant Jim Wilks (Ronald Lewis) are investigating the murder and mutilation of a Brighton woman. There are few clues, which is the basis for the title – the police are trying to fit together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in order to solve this crime. Set in ‘60s Brighton, the film has great atmosphere that, along with an excellent script and strong performances, keeps us glued to the tube throughout. It’s one to catch.
Following at 10:00 pm is one of the best films to come out of Britain, Brighton Rock, a 1947 gem from the team of Roy and John Boulting. Based on Graham Greene’s 1937 novel of the same name, the film follows one Pinkie Brown (Richard Attenborough), a sadistic teenaged gangster who uses an innocuous waitress named Rose (Carol Marsh) as an alibi for the murder of an informer. Greene wrote the screenplay, capturing a sense of realism and dread that grabs our attention and keeps it throughout the film. (This was only the second time Greene penned a screenplay for a feature film, the first being the 1940 film, 21 Days.) Attenborough brings a frightening intensity to the character of Pinkie and March projects a naive innocence as Rose. It’s Hermione Badderly, however, as Ida Arnold, who steals every scene she’s in as she puts two and two together and gets Pinkie Brown. The ending is one of the most powerful ever for a film and is marvelously cynical. In our book, this is the best British noir ever made and one well worth catching.
June 12: A double feature from Belgian director Jacques Feyder begins at midnight with his 1925 silent drama Gribiche (aka Mother of Mine). Based on a short novel by Frederic Boutet, the film is about a likable but poor 13-year old boy named Antoine Belot (Jean Forest). Nicknamed “Gribiche,” he attracts the attention of wealthy American philanthropist Edith Maranet (Franoise Rosay) when he returns her dropped purse. She takes an interest and arranges with his doting mother (Cecile Guyon) to adopt him so that he can receive the finest education and a better chance in life. However, he quickly tires of the stifling regimen and finds ways to rebel. Though the moral of the story is fairly obvious, there is not a dull moment to be had as Feyder moves everything effectively along.
Following at 2:00 am is Feyder’s best known and most popular film, Carnival in Flanders, from 1935. This is a wild farce about a Spanish invasion of a small Flemish town in the 17th century. When the town’s menfolk learn the Spanish are coming, they run away and the mayor of the town plays dead. This leaves it to the women to defend their town. The women choose to entertain the invaders and do it so effectively that the invaders not only leave the town intact, but also give them a year off without taxes. How the women accomplish this is only hinted at during the film, but they allow the men to believe their own tactics carried the day even though they ran away and one played dead. A very funny costume comedy with superb photography by Harry Stradling and some unique art direction. An interesting footnote in Feyder’s career is that he came to America in 1928 to work at MGM. He directed Garbo in The Kiss (1929), and the German version of Anna Christie (1930), and Ramon Novarro in Daybreak (1931) before his frustration with the studio structure caused him to return to France in 1932.
June 14: It’s a simple film of how a woman’s little white lies cause her trouble down the road. But in the hands of director Max Ophuls, it becomes an exquisite film about how one woman’s vanity leads to high tragedy. The Earrings of Madame de ... (1954) is an elegant tragic romance powered by a trio of great stars: Charles Boyer, Danielle Darrieux, and Vittorio De Sica. A general’s wife sells her earrings, a wedding present from her husband, to settle her gambling debts, then tells him she had lost them. Her husband learns the truth and buys them backs as a farewell present for his mistress. When she proceeds to lose them gambling they come into the possession of an Italian baron who, falling for the general’s wife, gives them to her as a present. What happens next is inevitable and blows the lid off the entire affair. delicately plotted and realized by Ophuls the film is a psychological character study that keeps us riveted as we stop to contemplate the next move along with the characters. Don’t miss it.
Besides this month’s featured movies starring Marie Dressler, there are other Pre-Code gems to be found in the schedule.
June 7: A quartet of Pre-Codes led off by Ginger Rogers in Rafter Romance at 6:15 am. At 8:45 am, it’s Johnny Mack Brown and Sally O’Neil in the cute romantic 1929 comedy Jazz Heaven. Listen for the song “Someone” written by none other than Oscar Levant. At 10:00 am comes One Night At Susie’s (1930), starring Billie Dove, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Helen Ware. Ware owns a boarding house whose tenants are gangsters. When her foster son (Fairbanks) takes the blame for a murder committed by his fiancee (Dove), her tenants decide to try and help her out. And at 11:15 am, it’s Chic Sale in The Expert (1932) as Chic plays a spry old codger who moves in with his son and daughter-in-law. Complications ensue.
June 12: At 8:30 am George Arliss and Doris Kenyon star in Alexander Hamilton (1931). The film focuses on a particular moment in Hamilton’s life: his efforts to establish a federal banking system, which nearly come to naught through an attempt to blackmail him over an earlier extramarital affair. Naturally, liberties were taken with the historical record, with the biggest being the age discrepancy between star and subject – in his early 60s at the time of filming, Arliss was more than two decades older than Hamilton when the story takes place. But our advice is to just overlook it and go with the flow, so to speak, as Arliss’s films never fail to entertain.
June 13: Three in a row beginning at 6:00 am with The Crash, a 1932 drama starring Ruth Chatterton and George Brent in a story of a well-to-do couple where the wife is fooling around with a financier. Hubby allows it because of the financial tips she gets from her lover. But the lover catches on to her game and refuses to tell her where the market is going. Rather than admit defeat to hubby, she tells him she’s been told the market is strong. He invests everything they have and they are wiped out when the crash comes in October 1929. Chatterton and Brent were married to each other when this was filmed.
Following at 7:00 am is The Lady of Scandal (1930), starring Chatterton as Elsie, a famous English actress engaged to a member of the nobility whose family do not want him marrying a commoner. Basil Rathbone is the black sheep of the family who encourages Elsie not to accept defeat. But when Elsie’s father arrives, he agrees with the nobility and persuades Elsie to wait six months. She agrees and watches the change take place in the “noble” family as they loosen up. Meanwhile, she and Rathbone fall in love. All this in one hour and 16 minutes.
Then at 8:30 Constance Bennett and Kenneth McKenna star in Sin Takes a Holiday (1930), a romantic comedy with Bennett as Sylvia, a secretary to divorce lawyer Gaylord (McKenna). Gaylord has a very active social life and is currently involved with Grace (Rita La Roy), a woman whose third husband is suing her for divorce and naming McKenna in the lawsuit. Angered he proposes marriage to Constance under a arrangement whereby she is allowed to live where she likes. So she goes to Paris where she meets Reggie (Rathbone). He falls for her and wants to marry her, begging her to get a divorce. But Sylvia loves Gaylord and returns. Though she comes into conflict with Grace, everything works out fine. Though the story is rather ho-hum, it’s nice to see Rathbone, who usually either plays villains or detectives, as a dashing ladies man.
June 15: At 4:30 pm, it’s Jimmy Cagney is one of his best early films, Picture Snatcher (1932), as a photographer who’ll stop at nothing to get his photo. Based in part on New York Daily News photographer Tom Howard, who took the immortal photo of murderess Ruth Snyder being executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing. Cagney always brings a verve and life to his pictures that always make for enjoyable viewing.
PSYCHOTRONICA AND THE B HIVE
There is seemingly something for everyone in this month’s selection of psychotronic movies.
June 1: From Monogram, it’s Violence airing at 8:15 am. Ann Mason (Nancy Coleman) is a reporter investigating a group called The United Defenders purportedly supporting American servicemen, but is actually a front headed by Neo-Nazis. When they kill a war veteran who threatened to leave, Mason is hot on their trail. However, while on the way to deliver a roll of film to her editor, Ann’s taxi is involved in a crash arranged by the Neo-Nazis, who suspected her. The crash leads to amnesia and Ann believes one of the Neo-Nazis is her husband. It gets even crazier from there. Also in the film are Michael O’Shea, Sheldon Leonard, Emory Parnell, and John Hamilton (Perry White). As with all Monogram product, it is a Must See.
June 2: From England comes the 1958 crime drama Hell Drivers (noon), a film that has developed a solid following among British cinephiles. Stanley Baker stars as Tom Yately, an ex-con in need of a job. He signs on as a driver delivering gravel for a shady trucking company. Drivers are expected to deliver a minimum of 12 loads a day; anything less and they’re fired. It’s push the pedal to the metal and safety be damned. Tom’s nemesis is Red (Patrick McGoohan), the company's lead driver. Their mutual hatred leads to the film’s climax. Besides Baker and McGoohan, the film boasts a stellar cast that includes Sean Connery, Herbert Lom, Peggy Cummins (Gun Crazy), Wilfred Lawson, Sid James, Jill Ireland, and David McCallum. Hell Drivers was directed by Cy Endfield, who got his start in Hollywood directing shorts for MGM, and later features for Monogram. The film has that Monogram feeling about it as most of the time goes towards furthering the action. Endfield was blacklisted in 1952 for supposed Red connections and went to England to continue his career.
June 4: The 1936 serial Ace Drummond begins with Chapters One and Two, followed by The Bowery Boys in Crazy Over Horses (1951) as they get mixed up with race horses and a gambling racket.
At midnight, Roy Scheider and Helen Mirren star in 2010 (1984) the sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The plot concerns a joint U.S./Soviet space mission investigating a mysterious monolith orbiting Jupiter. It’s followed at 2:15 am by The Church (1989), a giallo from Italian director Michele Soavi about a priest who fights a demon that has taken over his church. Finally, at 4 am, it’s The Devil’s Bride (1968) as Christopher Lee tries to save the soul of his friend Simon (Patrick Mower), who has fallen victim to the charming evil of devil cult leader Mocata (Charles Gray).
June 8: The classic MGM thriller Night Must Fall is airing at 11:30 am, starring Robert Montgomery as a charming psychopath/serial killer who worms his way into the household of Dame May Whitty and her niece Rosalind Russell.
June 9: At 11:45 am comes a most unusual movie from MGM and director William Wellman, The Next Voice You Hear (1950). It stars James Whitmore and Nancy Davis as an average Los Angeles couple who are startled one night to hear the voice of God broadcasting over their radio. Other people across the city are also hearing God, and God manages to straighten out Whitmore’s family. It’s the ultimate message picture from producer Dore Schary.
June 10: An afternoon of psychotronic films begins at 2:00 pm with the Willis O’Brien animated The Black Scorpion from 1957, about huge scorpions, unleashed from their underground den following a volcano eruption, that are causing havoc in Mexico. Richard Denning and Mara Corday star.
At 3:45 pm, it’s The Killer Shrews (1958) from Texas media mogul Gordon McLendon and producer Ken “Gunsmoke” Curtis. A well-meaning – but mad – scientist has produced giant shrews on his isolated island. It's filmed on Lake Dallas, Texas. Catch the MST 3000 version instead, especially when you figure out the “shrews” are really big dogs with fake fangs and fur.
It’s crooks versus a spiderlike monster in Beast From Haunted Cave (1959), airing at 5:00 pm. It’s from Roger Corman’s The Filmgroup, so no further explanation is necessary. Look for Frank Sinatra’s nephew, Richard, as one of the gang.
At 6:15, Hammer Studios takes the stage with the 1966 The Reptile, starring Jacqueline Pearce as a woman who has been turned into a horrible monster by snake worshippers in Borneo.
June 11: The morning kicks off with Roger Corman’s The Wasp Woman (1960) at 6:45 am, followed by the preposterous Queen of Outer Space (1958) at 8:00 am. At 9:00 am, it’s Chapters 3 and 4 of Ace Drummond, and at 10:30, The Bowery Boys play football for their college in Hold That Line (1952).
June 13: Basil Rathbone stars at 4:00 pm in a film that was a staple of Chiller Theater years back, but which is rarely shown nowadays, The Black Sleep (1956). Basil is a mad doctor looking to cure his wife’s coma and has experimented on quite a few victims along the way. With Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Jr., and Tor Johnson all in non-speaking roles.