A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
October is the Psychotronic Month, due to all the horror films being shown. Also to honor October we are placing the Psychotronic category at the head of the column this month.
There can be few other choices for Star of the Month as apt as Christopher Lee, and TCM has a representative selection of his films. To be honest, Lee was somewhat wooden, but this was more than compensated for by his incredible screen presence. No one else outside of Bela Lugosi could have played Dracula with as much menace or eroticism. In films where he had a lot of dialogue to handle, his wooden delivery could be a problem, but as he reached worldwide stardom, this flaw was overlooked in favor of his charisma.
October 3: TCM leads off at 8 pm with a most unusual film for Lee, Jinnah, from 1998. Lee plays Mohammed Ali Jinnah, an Indian Muslim who fought for a Pakistan separate from India. It’s most interesting, as we’ve had films about Gandhi and the founding of modern India, but Pakistan has received scant attention. Jinnah takes us behind the scenes and gives us a glimpse into the machinations of Jinnah, Gandhi, Nehru and Lord Mountbatten in separating Pakistan from India proper and establishing it as a separate nation in its own right. James Fox makes for a fine Mountbatten, and Robert Ashby impresses as Nehru, who was opposed to the idea of a separate Pakistan. Highly recommended.
The rest of the slate is composed of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), the first of the trilogy, at 10 pm, immediately followed at 1:15 am by Richard Lester’s remake of The Three Musketeers (1973) and its sequel, The Four Musketeers (1975), at 3:15 am. Lee plays Rochefort in both films.
October 10: Three of the five films starring Lee as Chinese supervillain Fu Manchu are on tap, beginning at 8 pm with The Face of Fu Manchu from 1965. Made by West German company, Constantin Productions, the films are all centered around some fiendish plot Fu Manchu has to conquer the world. Though not technically low budget affairs, they suffer from vague and badly written plots, too many extraneous characters, and ambiguous endings, where we are led to believe that Fu Manchu has been dispatched only to find he’s coming back.
Following at 10 pm is The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), where Fu has kidnaps 12 beautiful women, each the daughter of an international political figure. The ladies appear in topless fight scenes, which are cut from American prints. At 11:45 pm comes The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1968). Fu kidnaps a famous surgeon and his daughter, forcing the doctor to transform a prisoner into an exact double of Fu’s mortal enemy, Scotland Yard Inspector Sir Nayland Smith (Douglas Wilmer). Fu also joins with the Mafia to form a super crime syndicate. As usual, when the good guys think they’ve seen the last of him, he shouts, “The world will hear from me again.” The beautiful Tsai Chin plays Fu’s daughter, Lin Tang, in each of the films in there series. In her memoir, Chin denounced the films for their stereotyping of Chinese, especially their use of “Yellowface” in having Caucasian actors play Asians. While I agree with her – these sort of films, like those employing Blackface – make me particularly uncomfortable, I find it rather odd that she waited so long to denounce them from the safety of elapsed time. She was a successful star in England when she made these “classics” and could have easily said something at the time. I check it up to a trait the late Truman Capote said actors possessed in abundance: stupidity. He was right, they weren’t exactly the sharpest knives in the drawer. At least Myrna Loy denounced playing in Blackface in the 1927 crap classic, Ham and Eggs at the Front, a short while later. Interestingly, however, she never regretted appearing in Yellowface, a further symptom of Capote Syndrome.
TCM finishes out the evening with two Lee horror/mystery programmers, Nothing But the Night (1972), with Peter Cushing and Diana Dors, at 1:30 am, and Scream and Scream Again, with Vincent Price and Peter Cushing, (1970) at 3:15 am. Both are fun time wasters. A point of trivia: Nothing But the Night was never released in America.
In a commendable flash of inspiration, TCM has anointed Frankenstein as “Monster of the Month.” God knows they have enough Frankenstein films in their library and this is a novel way to present them.
October 2: It’s a triple-header of classic Universal Frankenstein films, beginning at 8 pm with James Whale’s Frankenstein from 1931, continuing at 9:30 pm with Whale’s 1935 superior sequel,The Bride of Frankenstein, and follows up at 11 pm with Rowland Lee’s expressionistic Son of Frankenstein (1939).
October 9: TCM continues with the Universal films, leading off with The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) at 8 pm, 1943’s epic battle of the monsters, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, at 9:15 pm, and Karloff, not as the Monster but a mad scientist, in 1944’s House of Frankenstein, at 10:45 pm. The latter is a sort of monsterpalooza with Dracula (John Carradine), the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney, Jr), The Monster (Glenn Strange), and a hunchback (J. Carroll Naish) thrown in for good measure. Also with the gorgeous Anne Gwynne, George Zucco, and the young Elena Verdugo (who later achieved fame in Marcus Welby, M.D., with Robert Young.)
October 7: TCM is really on a roll this month, as they dedicate an evening to horror films from the 1920’s. Yeah, we’ve seen them all before; there’s nothing new, but for us horror devotees, it’s always good to see them again. Here’s the lineup: 8:00 – Nosferatu (1922), 9:45 – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), 11:15 – The Unholy Three (1925), 1:00 am – The Phantom of the Opera (1925), 2:45 am – Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922), and 4:45 am – The Penalty (1920).
October 14: TCM continues the theme by airing an evening of horror comedies. Again nothing new, but fun to catch again: 8:00 pm – The Cat and the Canary (1939), 9:30 pm – The Fearless Vampire Killers (1966), 11:30 pm – The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), 1:00 am – Young Frankenstein (1974), 3:00 am – Hillbillys in a Haunted House (1967), 4:30 pm – Spooks Run Wild (1941), and 5:45 am – Ghosts on the Loose (1943).
October 15: Monogram’s comedy team, The Bowery Boys, cross the horror divide in four films aired this morning, beginning with Master Minds (1949, 7:00 am), Spook Busters (1946, 8:15 am), Spook Chasers (1957, 9:30 am), and the aptly titled The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters (1954, at 10:45 am).
October 1: When Sach suddenly develops the ability to read minds, The Bowery Boys become investigators in Private Eyes (Monogram, 1953).
October 2: At 1 am, it’s the 1925 silent version of The Wizard of Oz, with Dorothy Dwan as Dorothy, Larry Semon as The Scarecrow, Oliver Hardy as The Tin Woodsman, and Spencer Bell as The Cowardly Lion. Semon who also directed, gives us a new version with Semon as a toymaker who reads the book to his granddaughter. He then alternates with scenes of Dorothy in Kansas and Oz, where the citizens are demanding the return of their queen, overthrown along with the beloved Prince Kind (Bryant Washburn) by the evil Prime Minister Keuel (Josef Swickard). The rest somewhat follows the book, as Dorothy is caught up in a twister and delivered to Oz. But in the end she becomes the new queen. The film was a flop with audiences and critics alike, who derided it as having a “custard pie atmosphere.”
At 4:45 am comes producer Val Lewton’s marvelous take on the loneliness of childhood, The Curse of the Cat People (RKO, 1944).
October 8: At 6:30 am, Lon Chaney lets Joan Crawford slip through his arms in Tod Browning’s macabre masterpiece The Unknown (MGM, 1927). At 7:30 am, deranged lovesick surgeon Peter Lorre grafts a murderer’s hands onto the wrists of concert pianist Colin Clive in MGM’s Mad Love (1935). At 9 am, Boris Karloff is trapped on a quarantined Greek island with a group of people, one of whom may be a vampire, in Val Lewton’s slow moving Isle of the Dead (RKO, 1945). At 10:30 am, The Bowery Boys battle spies in Paris Playboys (Allied Artists, 1954).
At 2 am, San Francisco is terrorized by The Zodiac Killer (1971), while at 3:30 am we have the underrated The Town That Dreaded Sundown from AIP in 1977. It's based on the unsolved 1946 killings by a hooded serial killer in Texarkana, Arkansas.
October 9: At 12:15, it’s the silent version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with the great John Barrymore in the title role. Following at 2:00 am comes the offbeat (to say the least) haunted house story, House, from 1977, the film that revived the fortunes of its studio, Toho. Immediately following at 3:30 is director Robert Wise’s masterful The Haunting (MGM, 1963).
October 14: Race car driver Elvis tears up the track in Speedway (1968) while trying to outrun beautiful tax auditor Nancy Sinatra. The fun begins at 6:15 pm.
October 15: David Niven deserts wife Deborah Kerr because of some old family secret in Eye of the Devil (1967) at midnight. At 2:00 am, it’s a Blaxploitation doubleheader, beginning with the inimitable Rudy Ray Moore starring in Dolemite (1975) as a pimp who’s framed by the police for drug dealing. After he gets out of jail he enlists the help of old friends Queen Bee and her black belt karate ‘hos to help him exact revenge. Tune this one in – it’s even stranger than I described. Following at 3:30 am is one of the classics of the genre, as Ron O’Neal stars in Superfly, from 1972.
October 10: Begin the morning at 6:00 am with Gus Williams in Captain Sindbad from 1963. At 7:30 am, it's Atlantis, The Lost Continent (1961) from director George Pal. The Greek army sets out to destroy the Colossus of Rhodes in the aptly named The Colossus of Rhodes (1961) at 9:15 am. Finally, at 11:30 am, the marooned Ulysses and Hercules say hello to Biblical strongman Samson in Hercules, Samson & Ulysses (1965).
OUT OF THE ORDINARY
October 5: At the incredible hour of 5:15 am comes a film I’ve read much about, but have never seen. Nor have the vast majority of us. It’s The Last Mile, a realization of the hit Broadway play, with Howard Phillips, Preston Foster, George E. Stone, and Paul Fix. Foster plays the iconic role of “Killer” John Mears, which won fame for both Spencer Tracy (on Broadway, bringing him to the attention of Hollywood) and Clark Gable, who played the role on the L.A. stage. One would think that the film rights to such a Broadway hit would be fought for by the major studios, but the film was directed by Sam Bischoff (with a screenplay by Seton I. Miller) and released by Poverty Row studio World Wide Pictures in 1932. A 1959 remake starred Mickey Rooney, but this original version lapsed into the public domain and has been rarely shown in the years since. It was one of the first movies shown on television in 1946.
October 11: At 11:30 am, it’s director Roberto Rossellini’s beautiful and moving story of the life of St. Francis, The Flowers of St. Francis (1950). Composed of short vignettes, it was written by Rossellini, Fellini, and two Italian priests. Except for famed Italian comic actor Aldo Fabrizi, the rest of the cast is comprised of non-actors. As St. Francis, Rossellini cast a real-life Franciscan monk, Brother Nazario Gerardi.
October 13: From director Costa-Gavras and star Yves Montand comes the political double feature of Z (1969), based on the 1963 assassination of Grigoris Lambrakis, an antiwar activist and liberal member of the Greek legislature, at 3:15 pm, and The Confession (1970) an extremely harrowing story based on an autobiographical book by the married Artur and Lise London, who were targets in the Slánský Trial of 1952 in Czechoslovakia. Fourteen notable Communists, most of them Jewish, were accused of espionage for Western nations and after the show trial, 11 of then were executed, with three sentenced to life. Their sentences were commuted when Alexander Dubcek came to power.
LIONS AND LIONS AND LIONS, OH MY!
October 1: At 2:00 am, TCM throws us to the lions beginning with Roar (1981), starring the mother-daughter team of Tippi Hedren and Melanie Griffith about an environmentalist’s estranged family visiting his home in Africa only to find it overrun with wild animals. At 3:45, it’s the animal classic Born Free (1965), the hit tearjerker about Elsa the lioness, with the husband and wife team of Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers, no strangers to animal-themed movies.
October 3: Three in a row beginning at 6:00 am with John Gilbert and Renee Adoree in Redemption (1930); the Woody Van Dyke directed The Cuban Love Song (1931) at 7:15 with Lawrence Tibbett and Lupe Velez in a story of an ex-marine returning to Cuba to find the child he fathered; and at 8:45 the comedy, The Prodigal (1931) with Tibbett and Esther Ralston about a wealthy Southern boy who decides to take to the road as a hobo.
October 4: Four Buster Keaton movies, beginning at 7:30 am with the classic The Cameraman from 1928. Following is Spite Marriage (1929) at 9:00, Free and Easy (1930) at 10:30, and Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1931) at 12:15 pm. It’s interesting to watch them in a row and witness MGM sucking the creative life out of one of the most brilliant comedians in the history of the movies.
October 14: Cheeky young race car driver William Haines zooms not into the winner’s circle in Speedway (1929) at 6:00 am while co-star Anita Page looks on adoringly.
October 7: Spend the entire morning and afternoon with Dr. Kildare as TCM runs all the classic MGM films about there good doctor beginning with Young Dr. Kildare (1938) at 6:00 am. Read our essay about it here.
October 12: Philo Vance (Edmund Lowe) suspects there’s more than meets the eye when he investigates a mysterious series of suicides in 1936’s The Garden Murder Case from MGM. Virginia Bruce is along for the ride.