A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
We continue with our look at the films of Marie Dressler, an actress as adept at drama as she was at comedy.
June 20: The evening begins at 8:00 pm with Marie and Wallace Beery in Min and Bill (1930). Min and her boyfriend Bill (Dressler and Beery) are two waterfront characters that brought up Nancy, a young girl abandoned by her mother while in infancy. Sacrificing so that Nancy could gain advantages in life, their plans are nearly thwarted when Nancy’s real mother shows up and threatens to blow the whistle. This forces Min to take drastic action in this four-hankie drama written by Frances Marion. Dressler received the Oscar for her performance.
Next up is Reducing (1931) a comedy with Polly Moran as Madame Pauline "Polly" Rochay, the proprietor of an upscale beauty parlor that specializes in weight reduction. When she learns that her sister Marie Truffle (Dressler) is destitute in South Bend, Indiana, she welcomes Marie, her husband Elmer (Lucien Littlefield), and their three children into her home with disastrous results.
At 10:45 pm, it’s Politics (1931), a drama starring Marie and Polly Moran as two women outraged by the racketeers running their town. When a friend of Marie’s daughter Myrtle (Karen Morley) is killed after being caught in a crossfire, Marie decides to run for mayor with Polly as her campaign manager.
Dressler’s night ends with the 12:15 am showing of One Romantic Night (1930). Marie is in a supporting role as Princess Beatrice, whose daughter Alexandra (Lillian Gish) is being courted by Prince Albert (Rod La Rocque) at his father’s insistence. Albert falls in love with Alexandra and they must overcome various obstacles to marry.
June 27: We begin with one of Dressler’s best known films – the wonderful ensemble piece, Dinner at Eight (1933). As one of an all-star cast that includes John and Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Jean Harlow, Lee Tracy, Edmund Lowe, Billie Burke, Jean Hersholt, and Karen Morley, Marie is former stage star Carlotta Vance, invited to a posh dinner gathering by Millicent and Oliver Jordan (Burke and Lionel Barrymore). A number of sub-plots are in play, with the most interesting being that of crooked mining magnate Dan Packard (Beery) and his brassy, gold-digging wife (Harlow). Also watch for John Barrymore as washed-up silent star Larry Renault and Lee Tracy as his agent Max Kane. Tracy is nothing short of amazing.
Next up at 10:00 pm is Dressler and Beery in Tugboat Annie (1933), a heart-tugging comedy with Marie as a tugboat captain and Wally as her ne’er-do-well husband. It’s a rather rambling film with the point being that Marie and Wally are trying to bring together their son Alec (Robert Young) with Pat Severn (Maureen O’Sullivan), daughter of her rival, Red Severn (Willard Robertson). Dressler and Beery outshine their material and make the film worth watching.
At 11:45 pm, it’s Marie in Emma (1932) as a housekeeper/nanny who marries her widowed employer (Jean Hersholt) and faces the snobbery of the community and the wrath of her employer’s spoiled children. It has all the elements for an overly schmaltzy drama, but Dressler refuses to let the film slide down to that level.
Closing out the night is a funny comedy from 1932, Prosperity, starring Marie and Polly Moran as longtime friends who become feuding fools when their children (Norman Foster and Anita Page) marry. When Marie’s bank begins to teeter on the edge of failure, she devises a unique method of saving it.
TCM SPECIAL THEME: BILLY WILDER
June 17: A good night for Wilder fans beginning at 8 pm with Sabrina (1954), followed by Love in the Afternoon (1957), A Foreign Affair (1948), and ending with Ball of Fire (1942).
June 24: An evening of later Wilder films begins at 8 pm with the exquisite Witness for the Prosecution (1957), followed by the comedy Some Like It Hot (1959), The Fortune Cookie (1966), the wry The Apartment (1961), and at 5 am, a film Wilder didn’t direct (that was Ernst Lubitsch), but one he wrote with partner Charles Brackett (and some help from Walter Reisch), the unforgettable Ninotchka (1939)
June 17: A good afternoon of Pre-Code features starts at 2:45 pm with Bill Boyd, James Gleason, and Warner Oland in the comedy The Big Gamble (1932). It’s followed by Helen Hayes, Ramon Novarro and Lewis Stone impersonating Asians in the dreadful Son-Daughter (1932). Then detectives seek to solve the murders in a mysterious mansion in RKO’s Before Dawn (1933), starring Stuart Erwin, Dorothy Jordan, and Warner Oland. The afternoon closes at 6:45 with the fascinating Mandalay (1934), with Kay Francis as Tanya, a woman with a past whose boyfriend, Nick (Ricardo Cortez), dumps her at Warner Oland’s Rangoon nightclub, Jardin d’Orient. She soon rises to fame and fortune as “White Spot,” the star attraction at the club. But she’s not in a staying mood and beats it on a ferry boat to Mandalay. While sailing, she manages a romance with Lyle Talbot when the ferry makes a stopover to take on new passengers. And who should board but Nick, anxious to win her back and install her as there star attraction of his new nightclub. Highly recommended, as Francis is superb.
June 22: It’s a morning and afternoon featuring the one and only James Cagney. Begin at 7 am with his first Hollywood feature Sinner’s Holiday (1930), then, in order it’s The Millionaire (1931), The Crowd Roars (1932), Hard to Handle (1933), He Was Her Man (1934), Jimmy the Gent (1934), The St. Louis Kid (1934), and Devil Dogs of the Air (1935). Closing out the fest at 6 pm is 1948’s The Time of Your Life.
OUT OF THE ORDINARY
June 21: At the ungodly hour of 5:00 am, Francois Truffaut’s second feature Shoot the Piano Player (1960) is being shown. Though the film flopped at the box office, it’s a great B-noir inspired look as a concert pianist (Charles Aznavour) on the run who becomes mixed up with gangsters. Seen today by critics as one of the key films of the French New Age, Truffaut took the B-gangster movies of the late 40s and 50s as his inspiration. But instead of producing an imitation, he decided to place his own stamp on it, much as his idol Nicholas Ray did with his 1954 Western Johnny Guitar. He adapted David Goodis’ crime novel Down There, which was published in France as Shoot the Piano Player. Truffaut loved Goodis’ mix of fantasy and tragedy, and gangsters who talked about love, the opposite sex and the banalities of everyday life. With co-writer Marcel Moussy, Truffaut moved the locale from Philadelphia to Paris, but kept the story of a has-been concert pianist reduced to playing in dive bars. This film is a definite Must See. Jean-Luc Godard may have dedicated his film to Monogram Studios, but Truffaut made the ultimate Monogram feature.
June 23: At 4 pm, it’s Marcel Camus’ unique take on the myth of Orpheus, Black Orpheus (1960). Set in Rio during Carnival, streetcar conductor Orfeo (Breno Mello) is engaged to the fiery Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira). But when he meets the country girl Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn), he falls head over heels. Before they can be together, he must deal with his fiancé's vengeful jealousy as Eurydice is also trying to escape from a mysterious man dressed as "Death" who wants to kill her. Things ultimately take a tragic turn, which necessitates that Orfeo must embark on a mystical journey to the underworld. Winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, Black Orpheus is awash in vibrant colors reflecting the passion of Rio’s Carnival and the emotions of the principals. Though I have it on DVD, I watch it each time TCM shows it. It is an addicting film.
June 26: At 2 am, it’s the Italian drama Dillinger is Dead from 1969, written and directed by Marco Ferreri. Industrial designer Glauco (Michel Piccoli) comes home from his job testing gas masks and finds his wife (Anita Pallenberg) sick in bed. She’s made dinner, but it’s cold. So Glauco decides to cook himself a gourmet meal. While looking for utensils, he finds a revolver wrapped in a newspaper dating from 1934 announcing the death of famed mobster, and we take it from there. Many viewers may find it confusing, but it is in the style of an experimental film and deals with alienation in the face of modernity. Those who stick with it may find it quite rewarding. The cinematography by Mario Vulpiani is quite engaging, and keep in mind that it’s a satire.
June 27: At 6 am it’s director Robert Bresson’s early masterpiece, Diary of a County Priest (1950), from the novel by Georges Bernanos about a young priest who takes over a parish and has to fight the suspicions of being a meddling outsider by the parishioners plus a mysterious stomach ailment that is slowly robbing him of life and which is diagnosed as cancer. Though his physical strength slowly ebbs away, his spirituality remains firms. The final scene inform us of his death and his final words: “All is grace.” Though he used professionals in his early films, beginning with this he switched to nonprofessionals, explaining that professionals are trained to be good at pretending and seeming while the nonprofessional is good at simply “being” in authentic ways. Combined with Bresson’s austerity of use, discarding that which is not vitally essential to the story and what he wants to show, it makes for most interesting viewing.
June 19: A Yasujiro Ozu double-feature begins at midnight with his 1932 silent Umarete Wa Mita Keredo (I Was Born, But ...), about two boys whose reaction to their father’s toadying to his boss is to go on a hunger strike, followed by his 1959 color remake, Good Morning. The remake shows how times in Japan have changed, for now the boys vow to stop speaking until their parents relent and buy a new TV.
June 26: A Buster Keaton double-feature begins at midnight with Go West (1925) with Keaton as a small-town boy who goes in search of a new life as a cowboy out West. It’s followed at 1:15 am by Coney Island (1917), with Fatty Arbuckle (who also directed) and Al “Fuzzy” St. John. Keaton is taking his girl (Alice Mann) to Coney Island, but when he can’t afford the price of admission, Alice is immediately swept up by St. John. Meanwhile, Arbuckle escapes from his wife by burying himself in sand on the beach. He charms the girl away from St. John, and the competition becomes more and more comically violent and outrageous. When Fatty and the girl go for a swim, there are no bathing suits large enough to fit him, so he swipes a woman’s swimsuit and spends most of the film's remainder in drag, later using his female charms (and sausage-curl wig) to seduce St. John. Fatty and St. John eventually wind up in jail, where they begin sparring in their cell, literally tearing the bars from the walls.
June 28: Some lovely old Disney cartoons are being offered tonight, beginning at 10:15 pm with Mickey, Donald and Goofy in Clock Cleaners from 1936. Mickey dreams himself into the world of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass in Thru the Mirror (1936). Then Mickey tries to lead a performance of the “William Tell Overture” despite interference from Donald Duck in The Band Concert (1935).
At 12:45 am the cartoons return with Old King Cole (1933), followed by the classic Flowers and Trees (1932) and ending with The Pied Piper (1933).
PSYCHOTRONICA AND THE B-HIVE
June 16: It’s a morning and afternoon of one of our favorite B-series: Mexican Spitfire, with Lupe Velez. All eight films in the series, from The Girl From Mexico in 1939 to Mexican Spitfire's Blessed Event in 1943, are scheduled beginning at 9:45 am. The series came along at the right time for Velez, whose career was in the dumpster. The Girl From Mexico was originally conceived as a one only film, with Velez playing a singer in Mexico who is spirited away to New York by ad-man Donald Woods and not only becomes a star on radio, but marries her ad-man. The unexpected public reaction to the movie convinced RKO to commission a sequel, Mexican Spitfire, in 1940. Woods would later be replaced in the series by Charles “Buddy” Rogers as Dennis Lindsay, but the important cast member was Leon Errol, who played Dennis’ uncle Matt. He and Velez had a unique chemistry throughout the series as he helped get her into and out of trouble in each film. When the series had run its course in 1943, it was the end of the line for Velez. She received the best reviews of her life for her role in the Mexican version of Emile Zola’s Nana (1944), and six months later committed suicide over a combination of a failed romance and a failure to find work.
June 18: Beginning at 9:30 am, it’s two more episodes of Ace Drummond (1936) followed by The Bowery Boys in Here Come the Marines (1952). Late night brings us a David Bowie double-feature: The tragic vampire tale, The Hunger (1983), with Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve, followed by the rock musical Absolute Beginners (1986).
June 25: More adventures of Ace Drummond at 9:30 followed at 10:30 by The Bowery Boys in Feuding Fools from 1952. Late night begins the the oft-aired gorefest Alice, Sweet Alice (1977), with Brooke Shields, at 2:15 pm, followed by the oft-aired gorefest Bloody Birthday from 1980.
June 28: It’s the end of the world as we know it in The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1959), as nuclear war leaves only three people: Inger Stevens, Harry Belafonte, and Mel Ferrer. Of course, there are more problems than good will in this melodrama as racism and sexual competition drive Harry and Mel into a showdown over Inger but eventually everyone decides to live in harmony. According to critic Michael Weldon, Roger Corman’s Last Woman on Earth had a more likely conclusion. Weldon also notes that the movie premiered in Cleveland.
NEW BLOG SITE
An exciting new blog site devoted to film has arrived in the person of cineaste Jonathan Saia at https://servingupsaia.com
The author, like his site, is a work in progress, but if he continues to serve us reviews like the one he did on Lew Landers’ 1935 Karloff-Lugosi screamfest, The Raven, this will become a Must Read site. Other reviews include It’s A Gift with W.C. Fields, Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety, Elaine May’s Ishtar, and Quentin Tarantino’s recent The Hateful Eight, all excellently written, researched and analyzed. Give it a peek, but remember: it can become addicting.