A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
We continue with our look at Natalie Wood as Star of the Month. As we get into the 60s and beyond, the films of Wood vary wildly in quality.
November 18: Looking over the night’s offerings, we recommend Splendor in the Grass (1961), directed by Elia Kazan, which airs at 8:00 pm, and that old standby, Gypsy (1963), which is showing at 3:00 am. Splendor in the Grass is a poignant, coming-of-age story set in Kansas during the Roaring ‘20s. Kazan deals sensitively with the issue of sexual repression as seen in the young lovers Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood. Warren is from money, Natalie from the other side of the tracks and that also plays into their love affair as meddling parents are all too eager to run the kids’ lives for them. It’s Warren Beatty’s feature film debut and he comes off quite well, but it’s Wood who dominates. The film came at a crucial crossroads in her career and answered the question of whether she could pull off an adult role. Her performance sealed her status as one of Hollywood’s up-and-coming stars. As for Gypsy, it’s more of Rosalind Russell’s film, playing Wood’s mother, but Natalie acquits herself nicely and makes us believe she is Gypsy Rose Lee.
November 25: Two interesting films are running back to back. First at 10:15 pm is Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Made in 1969 at the height of ‘60s madness, it’s described by its director, Paul Mazursky, as a satire on the sexual revolution. Today it seems hopelessly dated, but does offer insight in a time capsule way into the silliness of the era when we were all to get in touch with ourselves and our feelings.
Brainstorm, which follows immediately after at 12:15 am, is a sci-fi story about two scientists (Christopher Walken and Louise Fletcher) who have come up with a machine to record and vicariously experience other people's feelings and perceptions. It sounds better than it plays out, but for Natalie Wood fans it’s notable as being her last film.
The TCM Spotlight, “To Tell the Truth,” continues with some hard-hitting and fascinating documentaries.
However, as we made clear last issue, documentaries do not so much tell the truth as they present the point-of-view of the filmmaker. If we were to take the pronouncement at face value, that documentaries tell the truth, then we would have to accept that the infamous Nazi documentary, The Eternal Jew, was telling the truth about Jews, which, of course, it wasn’t. It was simply made in support of the Nazis’ anti-Semitic philosophy; a documentary so hateful, so disgusting, that audiences were revolted, with many leaving the theater long before it ended. The Nazis used it instead as an indoctrination film for new SS recruits.
November 16: There something here tonight for everyone. For those who love surfing, there’s The Endless Summer (1966) at 8:00 pm. For those who love basketball there’s Hoop Dreams (1994) at 9:45 pm. If nostalgia and ‘60s music is your thing, you might want to check out Woodstock (1970) at 12:45 am. And if you’re an Elvis fan, there’s Elvis: That’s The Way It Is (1970). All are excellent and worth the time.
November 21: Best Bets for the night are Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976), airing at 8:00 pm, about the plight of Kentucky coal miners, and Louis Malle’s documentary about the plight of Minnesota farmers, God’s Country (1986), at 10:00 pm.
November 23: So much to see tonight, so much to choose from on the schedule. An excellent documentary on the Apollo missions, For All Mankind (1989) starts off the evening at 8:00 pm. Following at 9:30 is one of the first of the environmental documentaries, The Sea Around Us from Irwin Allen in 1952, based on Rachel Carson’s best-selling book of the same name. At 10:45 comes the brilliant Salesman (1969) from the Maysles Brothers. The film follows four salesmen for the Mid-American Bible company, mainly focusing on one: Paul Brennan, aka The Badger. As the TCM essay on the film states, we’ve seen his like before in such literature as Death of a Salesman and Glengarry Glen Ross. But here is the real thing in the flesh; a salesman whose sales and spirits are down and who is viewed by the other three as something of a jinx. It’s a fascinating look at a job few would want – selling items to lower middle class customers for whom such a purchase is a luxury.
At 2:00 am it’s the fascinating Chronicle of a Summer (1961). It begins with a market researcher, Marceline, on the street stopping passersby and asking a simple question, “Are you happy?” She receives answers to this and a whole lot more as the simple question grows into a host of related issues. At the end, the filmmakers screen it for those involved. Directors Edgar Morin, a sociologist, and Jean Rouch, an ethnographer, conclude that they have failed in their aim to offer a slice of life because the very act of filming something even off the cuff ends up transforming it. Morin coined the term “Cinema Verite” in one of his texts shortly before the film was produced.
At 3:45 am Louis Malle returns with his engaging Place de la Republique (1974). Filmed in Paris, Malle questions passerby about their lives, their feelings, and their interests. The answers are amazing, with some of those interviewed jumping in to become interviewers themselves.
November 28: Recommendations for this evening begin with the venerable Grey Gardens (1976) from the Maysles Brothers at 11:00 pm, followed by Crumb (1994), a portrait of the pioneering underground comics artist, at 1:00 am.
November 30: Tonight’s picks are Sherman’s March (1986), about the efforts of filmmaker Ross Mcelwee to study the effects of General Sherman’s famous march through the South during the Civil War, at 10:00 pm, and Antonio Gaudi (1984), director Hiroshi Teshigahara’s exploration of the works of the famous architect in Barcelona and Catalonia, Spain.
OUT OF THE ORDINARY
November 20: Two more films from the former Soviet Union and director Larisa Shepitko are featured tonight beginning at 2:00 am with the incisive and finely layered Krylya (Wings). The 1966 production is centered around Nadezhda Petrovna (Mayya Bulgakova), a once famous fighter pilot and loyal Stalinist who now works as a school director in a provincial district who is becoming increasingly dissatisfied with her life. Does she miss the adulation and regimentation of military life? Is it the fact that her daughter has married an older man of whom she does not approve? How about the women she’s met who are quite content with their lives? Is this the life she really wanted? The beauty of this film is that her contemplations take place without words. We see her at her job, taking on the task of administration, conversing with people who recognize her, dealing with a young student who looks up to her, taking the place of a student who refuses to perform a musical number by putting on the girl’s costume so the others can still go on, and chewing the fat with a cafe waitress with whom she later waltzes. Krylya is a film that will stay with you long after it’s over.
Following at 3:30 am is one of the best films of the ‘70s, The Ascent (1977). Shepitko’s last film before her career ended abruptly in a tragic auto accident. It’s a jarring, brutal, relentless tale of war. Set in 1942 in Nazi-occupied Belarus, it concerns a group of refugees led by two soldiers. After a brief firefight with a German patrol, the refugees head off into the woods. The soldiers strike out, looking for food to sustain the rest. They finally find a cabin where inside is a Russian farmer openly working with the Nazis. They think him a coward but move on. They are later captured and taken to a Nazi camp in a nearby town for interrogation. What happens there is shown by the director with sublime delicacy, as the soldiers are kept in a cell with three others awaiting execution. This is a relentlessly powerful film that examines the motivations and thoughts of its protagonists without being obvious. It is a true Must See.
November 27: At 2:00 am it’s Vittorio DeSica’s sublime and moving Umberto D. from 1952. For more on this wonderful film see the “Best Bets” section of the November 23 - 30 TiVo Alert.
November 17: In a night dedicated to female con artists there are two excellent Pre-Codes. First up at 9:45 pm is Blonde Crazy, from Warner Bros. in 1931. James Cagney stars as a crooked bellhop who recruits newly-hired chambermaid Joan Blondell into his schemes to fleece hotel guests. Cagney, of course, is Cagney, but it’s Blondell’s film and she makes the most of her role as Anne Roberts, the reluctant partner of bellhop Bert Harris (Cagney). Blondell and Cagney play off each other beautifully throughout the film and she proves to be more than a match for his con games. One of the little tragedies in Hollywood was the misuse of Blondell by the studio. Warner Bros. was a male-driven studio and there was little room for female stars. Their biggest female star, and the only one they pushed for a time, was Barbara Stanwyck. But Stanwyck had already proved her mettle at other studios, particularly Columbia, and she wasn’t tied to the exclusive contract that players like Blondell, Bette Davis, and Ann Dvorak were. Warner’s treatment of women made Loretta Young take her talents to Fox to get her much needed push and ruined the budding career of Marian Marsh, who the studio practically worked to the point of breakdown in such trifles as Under 18, Alias the Doctor, and The Road to Singapore. Had Blondell worked for Paramount or Columbia instead of Warner Bros., she would have been a much bigger star instead of one always seen in support of the leading man.
Immediately following at 11:15 pm is one of director Ernst Lubitsch’s best – Trouble in Paradise, from 1932. Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall star as a couple of grifters who initially target each other and end up as lovers. Fleeing Venice, where Marshall has just taken a rich Frenchman to the cleaners by pretending to be a doctor called in to examine his tonsils, they wind up in Paris and set their sights on rich widow Madame Colet (Kay Francis). They’re soon in her employ, but as they’re getting ready for the kill, Marshall finds himself falling in love with his intended victim. Will he go straight and remain with Francis or return to Hopkins and his casual life of crime? No one could pose that dilemma quite like Lubitsch. Trouble in Paradise is typical of the sophisticated comedies he made for Paramount in the early ‘30s. Critics called it “the Lubitsch touch,” which was a name for his distinctive style, one that, in the case of comedy and farces, treated even the most scandalous manners and behavior in a breezy, humorous style; his pushing and redefining the boundaries for what was seen as sexually risqué; conversations that one does not need to hear in order to understand what is going on; and a sparkling, sometimes cynical, wit that came through screenplays of cleverly plotted situations and sexual gamesmanship, always accompanied by witty, lively dialogue. Lubitsch’s cinematic fluency was also on display in the film. An entire scene of seduction/resistance/suspicion/betrayal/conquest is carried out using nothing more on the screen than a series of clocks. Sex is never obvious, but implied by shadows cast onto a bed and the opening and closing of doors, with the accompanying mystery of who is entering and who is leaving. Even the scene of theft between Hopkins and Marshall in the beginning of the movie is done in such as way as to denote foreplay, and is played out once more near the end of the movie, frequently leaving us not only enchanted, but in awe of the director’s power to entertain on an adult, sophisticated level. That’s the real secret of the Lubitsch touch.
PSYCHOTRONICA AND THE B-HIVE
November 19: It’s an entire evening of Harry Palmer as played by Michael Caine beginning at 8:00 pm with The Ipcress File (1965), followed at 10:00 pm by Funeral in Berlin (1966), and Billion Dollar Brain (1967) at midnight. While the first two are entertaining, the third almost lapses into parody and signaled the end of the series.
At 2:00 am, Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni tries to crash the counterculture scene, and misses, with Zabriskie Point (1970). Star Mark Frechette is a college radical on the run from the police. He steals an airplane and flies to the desert with secretary Daria Halprin. They end up at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley where they, along with lots of imagined people, make love in the dunes. Mark and Daria’s consciousnesses are expanded and Daria experiences a climatic vision of American commercialism being blown to bits, all in slow motion to Pink Floyd’s “Careful With That Axe, Eugene.” Antonioni commissioned Pink Floyd to score the entire feature, but in the end decided to use only three tracks. It was filmed during the director’s conversion to radical leftism, and like most Antonioni films, it makes little sense. The movie also made little cents at the box office and proved a big setback to the director’s career. The young, non-actor stars lived together briefly in the experimental Fort Hill Community, a Boston commune run by Mel Lyman (that was later determined to be a cult) before splitting up. Halprin later was briefly married to Dennis Hopper. Frechette went to jail for robbing a bank in 1973 – for political reasons he claimed – and died in prison in 1975 in a supposed weightlifting accident.
At the wee hour of 4:00 am comes the Monkees in Head (1968). Released several months after their slickly packaged Help-inspired TV show was axed by NBC, the film does a 180-degree turnabout from their prior image with its plotless, anti-establishment, drug-influenced musical-comedy segments featuring the foursome in their search for the meaning of life while singing about how phony the Monkees concept is.(!) While it must have confused the holy hell out of their young fans, today it stands as a fascinating period piece from the ‘60s full of Hollywood in-jokes, fringe celebrities, old movie clips and footage from the Vietnam War. Along the way the band is seen as dandruff in the hair of a 50-foot Victor Mature (“Big Victor”), their music is criticized by Frank Zappa, Sonny Liston knocks out Dave Jones, they meet topless dancer Carol Doda, Annette Funicello and Teri Garr. Look for co-writers Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson, along with Dennis Hopper. The music is some of the group’s best and can be heard on Rhino’s re-released soundtrack album.
November 24: A real rarity is on tap tonight as TCM airs The Life of Riley (1949) at 8:00 pm. An adaptation of the popular radio series, William Bendix stars as the hard-luck working stiff Chester A. Riley with Rosemary DeCamp playing his wife Peg. Jackie Gleason is on hand as neighbor-buddy Gillis. Oddly enough, Gleason stared as Riley when the show debuted on TV in 1949. William Bendix was supposed to reprise his role from the radio show but declined. The television show lasted for only 26 episodes before the sponsor, Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, pulled the plug to devote more money to its boxing show. Supposedly, before Gleason took the role, a pilot was made with Lon Chaney Jr. playing Riley. (What fun that must have been.) Bendix finally appeared on the small screen as Riley in a revived version which began in 1953 and ran until 1958.
November 26: When Bowery Boy Chuck Anderson (David Gorcey) is beaten up during an undercover reporting assignment in the state prison, Slip, Sach and his other Bowery buddies rush to his aid in Jail Busters (1955), airing at 10:30 am. The film bucks the Boys’ trend of farcical slapstick programmers and returns to the comedy-drama format of the late ‘40s. With Barton MacLane and Lyle Talbot.
At 2:45 am, it’s Punk Vacation (1990), a budget-challenged effort about a gang of punk rockers who terrorize a small town. It’s followed at 4:15 am by Killer Party (1986). A sorority is holding a traditional April Fools' party for a fraternity in an abandoned frat house where a young man named Allan was killed 22 years prior. His spirit still haunts the house and takes over one of the sorority sisters, who begins killing off the others one by one.