A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
It’s the Holiday Season and TCM will treat us to a mixture of beloved old holiday favorites and some others that will sure to please.
The Star of the Month is Myrna Loy. There couldn’t be a better choice. Loy was one of the most talented and beautiful actresses ever to grace the silver screen. She began just as the Silent Era was ending and it took her a while to get established as talkies came in, even though her voice tested just fine. In fact, it wasn’t until 1934 and her starring role as Nora Charles in The Thin Man that her studio, MGM, realized they had another star in their stable. Because she made so many movies and most are familiar to our readers, we will concentrate on her early work and the lesser-known films in her catalog.
December 2: Today’s Myrna-thon begins at 11:15 am with the 1929 Warner’s musical The Desert Song. John Boles stars as Pierre Birbeau, the seemingly weak and scatterbrained son of the French commandant of an outpost in the Moroccan desert. But our Pierre moonlights as The Red Shadow, the swashbuckling leader of a troop of Riffs horsemen. Myrna has a small role as an exotic. It’s followed at 1:30 pm by The Great Divide, a nonstarter of a Western from 1929 starring Ian Keith as a businessman who disguises himself as a bandit to kidnap flapper Dorothy Mackaill and put an end to her wild and wooly days. Besides Mackaill, the only reason to watch is the performance of third-billed Myrna as the hot-blooded Mexican vixen Manuella.
At 4:45 pm it’s Show of Shows (1929), a series of musical and dramatic vignettes designed for the express purpose of showing the audience that Warner Bros. stars can actually speak. Myrna is a Floradora girl in a sketch near the beginning. Look closely.
And following at 5:00 is Myrna Loy: So Nice To Come Home To, a 1991 retrospective of her life and films hosted and narrated by Kathleen Turner.
The evening is loaded with Myrna’s films from 1929 to 1931. Begin with The Devil To Pay (8 pm), a witty comedy from 1930 starring Ronald Colman as Willie Hale, the devil-may-care son of Lord Leland (Frederick Kerr) who returns home after his gambling debts forced him to sell his property in Kenya. Though his father threatens to throw him out of the family home, Willie still manages to get up to his old tricks. Though he is in the midst of a affair with actress Mary Cradle (Loy), he falls in love with the free-spirited Dorothy Hope (Loretta Young). One problem: Dorothy is engaged to a Russian count. The film has solid performances from Colman, Kerr, Loy and Young, and despite its staginess, it is one to catch.
At 2:15 am, it’s Loy and Young once again in The Squall, a interesting drama from Warner Bros./First National. Loy stars as Nubi, a Gypsy beauty who finds sanctuary with farmer Josef Lajos (Richard Tucker) and his family after running away from her camp. Once installed within the household, she proceeds to tear the family apart, with the men fighting over her favors. She is the squall of the title. It’s interesting to watch Loy playing an exotic and her acting is wonderful as she seduces the men and plays them off against each other.
December 9: We are treated to a day and night of Myrna, beginning at 10 am with The Naughty Flirt (1930). The film stars Alice White as a flighty heiress with Myrna as a seductress who tries to take Alice’s boyfriend away. It’s not much of a movie save for Myrna, who acts rings around the lightweight White.
At 12:30 pm, Loy plays one of the children raised by housekeeper Marie Dressler in the superior soaper Emma (1932). Following at 2:00 pm, Loy is Fah Lo See, the daughter of the evil Fu Manchu in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932). Boris Karloff is in fine form as the Chinese warlord who wishes to conquer the world and Loy doesn’t miss a beat as his helpful daughter. Fu needs the sword and mask of Genghis Khan, which have supernatural powers, to complete his task. Standing in his way is British agent Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone) and British Museum official Sir Charles Barton (Lawrence Grant). Karen Morley plays Barton’s damsel-in-distress daughter, and Terrence Granville is along as her fiancé, Charles Starrett, whom Fah Lo See has her eyes on as well.
The evening offers Loy’s work from 1932 to 1933. Most notable is The Prizefighter and the Lady, a 1933 comedy with Loy as a gangster’s girlfriend who succumbs to the charms of heavyweight boxing contender Max Bear and marries him, only to have him take her for granted. Though everything comes out right in the end, the way there is fraught with bumps. Directed by Woody Van Dyke, this was a breakout film for Loy, showing what she could do if given the chance as leading lady in an MGM picture.
At 12:30 am, Loy is the villain in the delightfully psychotronic Thirteen Women, from RKO in 1932, with an excellent ensemble cast, headed by Irene Dunne and Ricardo Cortez. Loy is fun to watch as Ursula Georgi, a Japanese-Indian half-caste who is seeking revenge against the sorority sisters who ostracized her in school. This would be Loy’s last role as an exotic. Look for Peg Entwistle in the role of Hazel Clay Cousins. This was the would-be star’s only film and she committed suicide shortly after the film opened by climbing a ladder up the HOLLYWOODLAND sign and jumping to her death. She was only 24.
At 2:45 am, Loy shines in MGM’s 1933 Penthouse. Warner Baxter stars as lawyer Jackson Durant. Framed for the murder of his fiancee (Mae Clarke), he searches for the guilty party with the help of call girl Gertie Waxted (Loy). Baxter may be the star, but Loy walks away with the movie.
The TCM Spotlight for December is “The Golden Years,” highlighting films focusing on the elderly.
December 6: At 8:00 is one of the saddest and most heart-wrenching films ever made, Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow (1937). Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi play an elderly couple who have just lost their home in a foreclosure and have to be taken in by their grown children. But no one child has enough room for them both, with the solution being that two of their five children, who live 300 miles apart, each take one parent. Though the split is looked upon at first as only temporary, the children's own lives and families combine with their selfish attitudes to transform the presence of their parents into a burden, and eventually there is talk of placing them in an old-age home. McCarey doesn’t let up and there is no happy ending, which makes the film even more poignant.
At 1:30 am it’s Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953). Considered by critics as one of the best films ever made, it’s the story of an elderly couple (Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama) who travel to Tokyo to visit their children. But the children have no time for them. The daughter (Haruko Sugimura) is a beautician who owns her own busy parlor, and their son (So Yamamura) is a pediatrician with a thriving practice. The only one who has time for them is their widowed daughter-in-law (Setsuko Hara). Slowly the parents realize they have become a burden for their children. The ending is very poignant as the elderly wife passes away after the couple return home and their Tokyo children are only interested in taking their possessions. The film was Ozu’s statement on the increasing Westernization of Japan after the war and its effect on the Japanese family and culture. It is a beautifully made, finely-layered film, and despite the subject matter it does not sink to the level of a soap opera. Ozu does not point fingers at either the parents or the children; instead it is a finely textured thoughtful meditation on the changing values of life in modern Japan.
December 13: Three all-time classics are on tonight’s bill. Leading off at 8 pm is director Vittorio deSica’s Umberto D (1952), the tale of a pensioner whose meager retirement check is not enough to keep him from being evicted from his apartment with his beloved little terrier. DeSica considered it his best film and it did spark a debate over retirees’ pensions that led to reforms. At 9:45 pm comes Ingmar Bergman’s brilliant and moving Wild Strawberries (1957). Victor Seastrom stars as Isak Borg, an elderly professor who, in the course of travel to his alma mater to receive a prestigious award, recalls the people, places and memories over the course of his life, which leads him to re-examine his life. He comes to realize how his choices and career led to a growing isolation from other people and how it kept him from taking advantage of the many opportunities offered him in his youth.
Finally, at 11:30 pm it’s Kurosawa’s thoughtful Ikiru, from 1954. Takashi Shimura stars as Kanji Watanabe, a longtime minor bureaucrat in Tokyo’s postwar government who, along with his co-workers, has spent his entire working life without accomplishing anything of importance. Now diagnosed with terminal cancer, he examines his life and comes up empty. To atone for his lack of engagement with others he decides to fund the building of a playground in a destitute section of the city. Kurosawa avoids easy answers in favor of a situation where the more difficult road must be traveled in order to make amends and inject meaning into a lifetime remarkably absent of any such emotions.
December 13: It’s a rare treat with a double feature from acclaimed director Keisuke Kinoshita beginning at 2:00 am with his 1958 drama of death and culture, The Ballad of Narayama, and followed at 4:00 am by his 1944 early drama, Army. The first, which I must confess I haven’t yet seen, is a story about a poor village whose people have to be carried to a nearby mountain to die once they get old. Instead of simply telling you to watch a movie I haven’t seen, I am including part of a review by Francois Truffaut, included in his book, The Films in My Life:
When the old people of a certain village where a bowl of rice feeds a man for several months reach seventy, they are left on the summit of Narayama mountain so they will no longer burden their families. When the moment comes, and she asks, the dutiful son must carry his aging mother there on his back. The hero of this film must carry his father, too, on his back like a mountaineer’s knapsack. He puts the old man down in a crevice in the rocks and descends to the village, lighter in his body, if heavier in his heart. Vultures begin to fly around the summit. When it begins to snow, the hero, filled with remorse, turns and goes back to find his father dead, turned into a statue. It is a sight we don’t see every day.
The astonishing thing is that this cruel and inhuman legend is treated only in its most human aspect. There are evasions, exceptions, procrastinations. The old man doesn’t want to go to the mountain and so and so again he delays his departure. The old woman wants to go, but before she does so she breaks her teeth on a stone so that she will no longer be able to eat solid food. . . My God, what a beautiful film.
Army I’ve seen. It’s a beautifully moving film about one family and their military legacy. Their son is about to be shipped off into battle and the film shows their desire over the possibility of the son being killed. Look for the scene near the end where the mother (Kinuyo Tanaka) trying to find her son among those marching. It is very emotional and ends with her close-up. Although ostensibly a propaganda film (the money to film came from the Japanese Army), the film cheesed off the military to the point where they would not allow Kinoshita to direct another film. He had to do that after the war, when he could freely express himself. It is a film definitely worth watching for its subtle unwinding.
WHO WATCHES SHORT SHORTS? WE WATCH SHORT SHORTS
December 5: The entire day is devoted to Vitaphone shorts as TCM celebrates the 90th anniversary of Vitaphone. There are around 37 shorts in all, plus The Jazz Singer (6 pm), which marked the beginning of talking pictures. So if shorts are your thing, this is a feast. Be aware, however, that these are only the shorts made by Warner Bros.
December 4: Akira Kurosawa shines a light on Tokyo slim dwellers in Dodes’Ka-Den (1971), at 3:30 am. The title comes from the sound a trolley makes going down the tracks, and is chanted again and again at the film’s opening by Roku-chan (Yoshitaka Zushi), a mentally handicapped slum dweller who spends his days conducting an imaginary trolley. His is only one story in this tar papered part of the city, as each dweller spends the day finding ways to cope with the crushing poverty.
December 11: A double feature of sorts begins at 2 am with director Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba (1965), a tale of a mother and her nubile young daughter in 14th century Japan who survive during a civil war by selling the weapons and armor removed from bodies of exhausted samurai and soldiers they have ambushed and murdered. The woman comes to distrust her daughter after she takes up with a deserter. Attempting to break up the couple she uses a facial mask taken from a slain samurai and appears to her daughter, who takes her for a demon. Simply put, this is an intensely atmospheric, erotic, sensual, savage and creepy a horror film as one is going to find. Superbly directed and proving that the worst horrors are the horrors of the mind.
Following at 4:15 am is Kenji Mizoguchi’s classic, Ugetsu (1953). The tale concerns two peasants who try leave their wives behind to make their fortune during a civil war in 16th century Japan. One, Genjuro (Masayuki Mori), is a potter who hopes to make money selling his creations, while the other, Tobei (Sakae Ozawa), hopes to become a samurai. Genjuro is diverted from his road by a mysterious noblewoman who is not what she seems. Tobei archives his dream, but only through deceit. It will be their wives who pay for their trespasses. This is a beautifully written and directed tale of war, greed, and sexual desire, with the realms of fantasy and realism blended so seamlessly they appear to be one and the same. Record and watch at your leisure.
PSYCHOTRONICA AND THE B-HIVE
December 3: The Bowery Boys fight crooks for control of a uranium mine in Dig That Uranium! (1956) at 10:30 am. This was the last film for Bernard Gorcey, who played Louie Dumbrowski. Shortly after filming wrapped he was killed in an auto accident. Look closely for Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer.
At 8 pm is Douglas Sirk’s first American movie, Hitler’s Madman (1943), based on the story of Czech resistance fighters and their assassination of Nazi overlord Reinhard Heydrich, the man responsible for planning the Final Solution. Literally ripped from the headlines (Heydrich was assassinated in 1942; the film came out in 1943), the film remains true to the facts for the most part. John Carradine makes for a very effective Heydrich and Patricia Morison is excellent as Jarmilla Hanka, the sweetheart of assassin Karel Vavra (Alan Curtis). Solid support from Ralph Morgan, Edgar Kennedy and Elizabeth Russell make us forget this is a low budget film from Poverty Row studio PRC. In fact, the execs at PRC realized themselves that the film was too good for them and sold it to MGM for distribution.
December 8: John Barrymore is a deranged ballet teacher and Marian Marsh his protege in The Mad Genius (1931), a follow up to their previous hit Svengali. And it’s almost as good. Look for Boris Karloff as Frankie Darro’s sadistic father. The film airs at 6:45 am.
December 10: An entire evening of psychotronica, beginning at 8 pm with pioneering animator Willis O’Brien still dazzling us today with his creations in the 1933 classic King Kong. At 10 pm it’s Ray Harryhausen’s stop motion classic Clash of the Titans (1981), and Harryhausen returns to create more stop motion creatures designed to terrify prehistoric babe Raquel Welch in Hammer’s One Million Years B.C. (1966).
Late night finds Bertrand Tavernier’s look at the dark side of reality TV in Death Watch (1980), airing at 2 am. Roddy (Harvey Keitel) has been hired to film a documentary about terminally ill Katherine Mortenhoe (Romy Schneider), but without her knowledge. He has a camera specially impacted into his brain for the project. The results will be shown on the popular TV series “Death Watch.” It’s a highly original, eerie and beautifully photographed film that foresees the age of reality TV and is one to catch.
Following at 4:15 is a film much in the same vein, The Sorcerers (1967). Boris Karloff and Catherine Lacey star as as elderly couple who develop a technique that allows them to control the minds and feel the emotions of their subjects. They use it on bored, swinging Londoner Ian Ogilvy, experiencing everything he does. It’s a surprisingly effective piece of entertainment, with Karloff and Lacey in fine form as the practitioners who become hooked on another person’s life. Lacey becomes so hooked with each thrill that she takes it to the next step, willing him to steal and murder. With Susan George.
December 2: Get your Warren William fix early (6:15 am) as he plays Perry Mason in The Case of the Howling Dog (1934). Great cinema, it’s not, but it’s a great time-waster as Mason becomes caught between two feuding neighbors who claim to be married to the same woman.
Then sit back and hold on to your hats, for at 7:45 am, it’s one of the great Pre-Code envelope pushers, Massacre (1934). Richard Barthelmess is Joe Thunder Horse, a college-educated Sioux, a Wild West trick shooter in denial of his Sioux roots whose eyes are opened when he returns to the reservation to visit his dying father and sees the corruption perpetuated upon the poor residents by unscrupulous businessmen from outside the reservation. He becomes a champion for Indian rights, and after his sister is raped by one of the guilty parties Joe hunts him down and kills him. Eventually he escapes custody to take his case all the way to Washington, D.C. This is a stark and brutal film with a great performances from Barthelmess and Ann Dvorak as Lydia, a college-educated Sioux nurse and Joe’s sweetheart. When we think about the Pre-Code era, we may think about Norma Shearer, Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Blondell as the Queens, but as for the king, the choice is clear: it’s Barthelmess by the proverbial mile. Mostly known for his work in silents, Barthelmess hardly looks like a screen idol – stoop-shouldered and a little overweight, but his choice of films was second to none during the era: The Dawn Patrol (1930), The Finger Points (1931), Alias the Doctor (1932), The Cabin in the Cotton (1932), Heroes for Sale (1933), and Massacre (1934). Quite a resume.
December 15: It’s a poor hour for such a great movie, but at 6 am it’s Warren William giving one of his best performances in The Match King (1932). Based on the life of Ivar Kreugar, the real life Swedish match king whose creative financing and swindling deals helped deepen an already rough Depression. As Paul Kroll, William is delighting in one of the roles for which he was famous, playing the suave villain whose unscrupulousness will stop at nothing – even murder – and railroading an innocent inventor who comes up with an inextinguishable match into the asylum while breaking hearts along the way until he overreaches and his business fails. But it’s a helluva ride until then. With solid support from Lili Damita, Glenda Farrell, Juliette Compton, Claire Dodd, and the underrated Murray Kinnell.