A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
November is somewhat of a unique month on TCM, as it’s a month that segues from a free-basing schedule into the Holiday classics that carry over into December.
Natalie Wood is the TCM Star of the Month for November. A gorgeous and talented actress, she was one of the few to make the transition from child star to adult star. Part of the reason for her success was that, unlike other child stars, she was continually working, so audiences saw her grow up on the screen. Born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko in San Francisco on July 20, 1938, she made her film debut at the age of five in Irving Pichel’s The Happy Land (Fox, 1943), as a toddler who dropped her ice cream cone. Her best-known childhood role was that of Susan Walker, Maureen O’Hara’s skeptical daughter, in the 1948 film Miracle on 34th Street, which is not part of the Natalie Wood retrospective this month.
Her problem was that she came of age at a time when the quality of Hollywood’s product was beginning its decline, and her resume reflects that fact. It seemed as if the studios were more interested in her box office appeal rather than the quality of the films in which she was starring. Thus, for every Love With the Proper Stranger, there was an Inside Daisy Clover. Wood also did a lot of television, much of which was better than her movies.
In the late 70s, she seemed to lose interest in movies, appearing as Karen Holmes (the Deborah Kerr role) in a TV miniseries adaptation of From Here To Eternity (1979). Her movies from that period: Meteor (1979), The Last Married Couple in America (1980), and Willie & Phil (1980) were artistic and financial duds. Shortly after wrapping production on her last movie, Brainstorm(1983), Wood was tragically killed while sailing aboard the family yacht with husband Robert Wagner, family friend Christopher Walken, and boat’s captain Dennis Davern, when she fell trying to board a rubber dinghy tied alongside and drowned.
Her death stirred the interest of conspiracy theorists. It was well-known that Wood, having survived a near-drowning during the filming of The Green Promise (1949), was deathly afraid of water. During the filming of Splendor in the Grass (1961), director Elia Kazan stated that Wood balked at doing the scenes at the water reservoir and the only way he got her to comply was by promising a double – a promise on which he reneged. Though her death was ruled accidental by Los Angeles Coroner Thomas T. Noguchi, rumors still persist as to another cause.
November 4: One of Wood’s early films that doesn’t get much airplay is Chicken Every Sunday (10 pm) from director George Seaton and 20th Century Fox. It’s a nice little slice of turn-of-the-century Americana with Celeste Holm as an understanding wife who takes in boarders to support husband Dan Dailey’s harebrained financial schemes. Wood plays daughter Ruth Hefferen.
November 11: The focus tonight is on Wood’s teenage and early adult roles. Since practically everyone has seen Rebel Without a Cause and The Searchers almost to death, our pick for the night is Kings Go Forth (2:15 am), a World War II drama from United Artists and director Delmar Daves with Wood as a French beauty whose charms are sought by GI’s Frank Sinatra and Tony Curtis. The kicker is that neither Sinatra nor Curtis realize that Wood’s character is half-African. Ah, a little miscegenation in the plot pot. Despite the soapiness, it’s well-made and the performances are excellent, with Wood outacting both male leads.
The TCM SPOTLIGHT this month is called “To Tell The Truth,” and it is a compilation of documentaries from the earlier years of film until today.
The title of “To Tell the Truth” is somewhat of a misnomer, based on a belief that documentaries tell the truth. Actually, they do not. What they do is give the point-of-view of the filmmaker. If the truth happens to coincide with his P.O.V., so much the better. In the social and political world, truth is quite often the synthesis of conflicting viewpoints, and often a documentary can change the ruling paradigm, as we shall see later this month.
November 2: Amid a night of Depression-era government documentaries is an excellent feature airing at 8:00 pm called To Tell the Truth: Working for Change (Episode 1). It’s a compilation of film clips from 1929 to 1941 outlining the development of the social documentary.
November 7: Politically themed documentaries are on tap tonight, beginning at 8:00 pm with Robert Drew’s excellent Primary from 1960. It focuses on the 1960 Wisconsin primary, where young and charismatic Sen. John F. Kennedy from Massachusetts went up against the established favorite, Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey from Minnesota. Primary provides us with a compelling look inside the political workings at a time when handshakes, grassroots networking, and good old-fashioned legwork were the order of the day, as opposed to today’s world of sound bytes and media images.
Following are three excellent looks at American politics and business: The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), about the career and assassination of San Francisco’s first elected openly gay city supervisor; Roger & Me (1989), the first documentary from Flint, Michigan, native Roger Moore. Moore is trying to get a meeting with General Motors President Roger Smith in order to find out why GM left the city and eliminated 30,000 jobs in the process, dooming the city to poverty. It’s riveting viewing, and followed by the Academy Award-winning documentary Hearts and Minds (1974), chronicling this country’s involvement in the country of Vietnam. Critics called it one-sided and anti-American, as it never stopped to investigate the atrocities committed by the Viet Cong, but director Peter Davis, a respected documentary director and producer with CBS news, was not interested in an objective film; he was simply interested in addressing the reasons we went to Vietnam, what we did there, and how the experience affected this country. Therein lies its value to the audience.
November 9: The night is devoted to documentaries from World War II and the best way to start is with To Tell the Truth: Working for Change (Episode 2) at 8:00 pm, a compilation of clips exploring the use of the documentary in World War II. It’s followed by a slew of World War II documentaries, all of which have been screened before numerous times. However, the most interesting of the bunch is December 7th (11:30 pm), co-directed by John Ford and Gregg Toland. It features a debate between Uncle Sam (Walter Huston) and Mr. C (Harry Davenport) over Uncle Sam’s over the torn allegiances of Japanese-Americans and included scenes of an American soldier, a casualty of the attack played by Dana Andrews, looking down from heaven. Due to the controversy it stirred up among the military brass, the project was shelved until 1943, when Ford and his editor, Robert Parrish, cut it down to a more acceptable version, jettisoning the debate over loyalties and the deceased soldier. Ford concentrated on the battle itself, and the recovery afterwards, mourning the soldiers who were lost. The film then shifts its concentration on the rebuilding effort, shortening the film from 83 minutes to just over half an hour. With both versions of the documentary now available, the film makes for a most interesting contrast of attitudes.
November 14: The night leads off at 8 pm with one of the best and most powerful documentaries ever made: The Sorrow and the Pity, Marcel Ophuls’ examination of the years 1940 to 1944, when France was occupied by Nazi Germany. Originally intended to be shown on French television, broadcasters refused to air it because of its assertion that, contrary to the myth perpetuated by the Gaullists after the war, the Occupation was far from one of active resistance by the French. (It wasn’t shown until 1981.) The unoccupied zone that was known as Vichy France was an active collaborator with the Nazis and in the Occupied Zone, which consisted of the north and coastal areas, collaboration was more or less passive in nature. The film is a look into the nature and the reasons for collaboration, which include anti-Semitism, anglophobia, fear of Communism with a possible Soviet invasion, and the simple desires for power with a great deal of caution. Weighing in a 251 minutes, the film is split into two parts: “The Collapse,” which features an extensive interview with former Prime Minister Pierre Mendes-France, a Jew who joined The Resistance, and “The Choice,” which features an interview with Christian de la Meziere, who as a youth embraced fascism and fought for the Nazis on the Eastern Front. There is no unified P.O.V. in the film; it shows the response of the people to occupation as heroic, pitiable, and pathetically monstrous, sometimes all at once. The most heart-wrenching part of the film is the treatment accorded to those women who served or were married to Vichy men and German soldiers. I think most viewers will be surprised by the amount of humor in the film. Without that humor, the film would be virtually unwatchable. For instance, one truly laugh-out-loud moment occurs in an interview with a Resistance leader where he says his reason for fighting the Germans was because they monopolized the best meat. This is a film that must be seen, not only for its overall quality, but for its effect on the country where it is set.
Following at 12:30 am is another groundbreaking documentary on the Nazis, this time from director Alain Resnais. Night and Fog (1956) is only 32 minutes long, but a lot is packed into those 32 minutes. It is one of the most vivid and unsparing looks at the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, combining new color film with black and white footage from newsreels and footage shot by the Allies to tell the story not only of the camps but to also show the horror of the brutal inhumanity at the core. The title comes from Himmler’s phrase that anyone caught resisting the Nazis would be arrested and immediately whisked off to the camps in such a way that it could be said they vanished without a trace into the “night and fog.” Required viewing for French schoolchildren, Francois Truffaut calls it the greatest film ever made.
When we search for those films considered Out of the Ordinary, rest assured that TCM is not neglecting us this month.
November 13: Three excellent films – two from the Soviet Union and one from Czechoslovakia – highlight the evening’s fare beginning at 12:15 am with the classic from Sergei Eisenstein, The Battleship Potemkin (1925). It’s followed at 1:30 am by a film made during a period in Russian history known as “The Thaw,” which occurred when Khrushchev came to power. The Cranes Are Flying (1957) is a moving and touching film from director Mikhail Kalatozov set during World War II. The main character is a young woman, Veronika (Tatyana Samojlova), whose boyfriend, Boris (Aleksey Batalov), joins the army. After her family is decimated by German bombing, she moves in with Boris’ family, where his cousin Mark (Aleksandr Shvorin) falls in love with her. She marries him out of guilt over having been seduced and the fact that Boris has officially been reported as missing in action. The marriage quickly goes sour, and Boris’ family comes to realize that the immoral Mark is to blame and Veronika didn't betray Boris of her own choice. In the end, Veronika finally comes to terms with Boris’ death and that his memory and devotion still lives on.
At 3:15 am comes one of the best films from the Czech New Wave, a film that has been unjustly neglected over the years. Courage for Every Day (1964), the feature debut from director Evald Schorm, is the story of Jarda Lukas (Jan Kacer), a worker from a big machine-tool plant who had a rather meteoric career after the Communist putsch of February 1948. As one of the pioneers of the youth-movement of Stakhanovites, he skillfully engaged himself in the political work with young people, and thus quickly climbed up the political ladder. However, when Stalin's cult of personality crumbled in the mid-50s many things changed and Jarda finds himself in something of an existential crisis, unable to cope with those changes. He keeps trudging along under the old directives and is at a loss to understand why the political work for which he used to be praised has become just a reason for mockery as his life takes a dangerous downward spiral.
After the glut of psychotronic films last month, TCM can be excused if the pickings this time around are rather slim.
November 3: At 2:45 pm airs one of Hitchcock’s best early films, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). It employs one of the director’s favorite themes: what happened when evil comes to an unsuspecting innocent. Bob and Jill Lawrence (Leslie Banks and Edna Best) are enjoying a quiet vacation in Switzerland. When their friend, Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay), is shot while dancing with Jill, he tells Bob about an assassination plot about to take place in London. Fearing the Lawrences will reveal the plot, the assassins, led by the charming Abbott (Peter Lorre) kidnaps their daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam) to ensure their silence in the matter. Unable to secure police assistance, the Lawrences return to London to take on the assassins themselves. In typical Hitchcock fashion, the kidnapping is the film’s MacGuffin; there to set in motion the dynamic between Bob and Jill, who are portrayed here as the less-than-ideal couple. It’s Lorre, however, who steals the movie as Abbott. Having fled Germany after Hitler came to power, Lorre caught the eye of Hitchcock’s associate producer Ivor Montagu, who reminded his boss of Lorre’s role in M. From that point on there was never any question of anyone else taking the part. Hitchcock remade the film in 1956 with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day. Though fans are split over which version is better, I prefer the 1934 film for its dry humor and sheer grittiness.
November 6: The Bowery Boys move up in the world after Sach (Huntz Hall) is mistaken for a society heir in High Society (1955). It’s not to be confused with the Frank Sinatra-Bing Crosby musical of the same year, but I prefer The Bowery Boys in all their squalor to the stylings of Frank and Bing.
At 2:00 am comes a psychotronic psychopathic double-feature. First up is Alone in the Dark (1982). Set in New Jersey, four murderous psychopaths, led by Martin Landau and Jack Palance, walk out of the Haven maximum security mental institute during a power blackout. Their targets are psychiatrist Donald Pleasance and his assistant Dwight Schultz. Critic Michael Weldon describes it as “a classic horror move with humor, a punk sensibility and a great overacting cast.” See it and judge for yourselves.
At 3:35 am is He Knows You’re Alone, from 1980. Set on Staten Island, a serial killer (Tom Rolfing) is stalking brides-to-be, but ultimately meets his match in feisty bride-to-be Amy Jensen (Caitlin O’Heaney). It’s the usual slasher-on-the loose film, with its only distinguishing feature is that it marks the debut of Tom Hanks as Elliot.
November 8: In an evening dedicated to Norman Lloyd, TCM is airing Hitchcock's Saboteur, with Bob Cummings, Priscilla Lane, and Norman Lloyd at 9:15 pm.
November 12: After The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) at 9:15 am, it’s The Bowery Boys in Spy Chasers (1955) at 10:30 am as they get involved with an exiled king (Sig Ruman) and a band of murderous spies. Look for Leon Askin (Hogan’s Heroes) as one of the spies.
Blaxploitation returns at 2:00 am with The Muthers (1976), with Janine Bell and Rosanne Katon as modern day pirates who must rescue Jeanne’s sister from the insidious clutches of coffee plantation owner Tony Carreon. Sportscaster-turned-actress Jayne Kennedy is on hand as Carreon’s mistress.
It’s immediately followed at 3:30 am by Melinda (1972), starring Calvin Lockhart as a DJ out to avenge the murder of his girlfriend (Vonetta McGee). Rosalind Cash is on hand to add spice to the mix.
November 13: A double shot of Popeye cartoons enliven the evening beginning at 8 pm. First up is Popeye The Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor (1936) followed by Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves (1937). Both are in color and representative of the fine work Max and Dave Fleischer have done over the years.
At 9:00 pm, hardboiled detective Charles McGraw must protect star witness and gangster’s widow Marie Windsor on a train to Los Angeles in Narrow Margin (1952). One of the best noirs made it fell into the land of forgotten films and only now is being revived for the classic of the genre it is.
And for those who find the selection of psychotronic films rather slim, the Pre-Code fare is better.
On November 3, Warren William and Bette Davis try to accomplish the impossible and get dumb hick Guy Kibbee elected governor in the witty The Dark Horse (1932) at 11:30 pm.
On November 6, Greta Garbo forsakes husband Armand Kaliz and lover Marc McDermott for the charms of young engineer Antonio Moreno in The Temptress (1926) at midnight.
It’s Garbo again on November 9 in A Woman of Affairs (1928) with John Gilbert and Lewis Stone at 10:30 am.
On November 11, Joel McCrea is head over heels about Dolores Del Rio in 1932’s Bird of Paradise.
Those looking for The Lubitsch Touch can find it on November 12 in 1933’s Design for Living, with Miriam Hopkins as an independent woman who can’t choose between playwright Frederic March or artist Gary Cooper. It airs at 11:45 pm.
On November 14, Robert Montgomery is a cad in Sins of the Children (1930) at 3:00 pm, and Clark Gable is a Salvation Army preacher who saves troubled Joan Crawford from suicide in Laughing Sinners (1931) at 4:30 pm.
On November 15, Howard Hawks' directs race car driving brother Jimmy Cagney and Eric Linden in The Crowd Roars (1932) at 6:45 pm.