A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
By Ed Garea
OUT OF THE ORDINARY
January 19: My first choice tonight is to rectify a mistake I made when I put the Jane Wyman article together. Unfortunately, even though it was in my notes for the column, I omitted one of my favorite Wyman films – Magic Town (1947), which airs at 10:00 pm. Fortunately, our readers would never let such a slip go unrecognized. Phyl commented: “You left out Magic Town (1947)!! It's a delightful film written by Robert Riskin who wrote several films for Frank Capra. It's like a Capra film that Capra didn't direct!”
She is absolutely right. The reason it’s like a Capra film that Capra didn’t direct was because it was written by frequent Capra collaborator, Robert Riskin. After the financial flop of It’s a Wonderful Life, Capra decided to steer away from his “Capra-corn” formula in favor of more “relevant” films. His next film was State of the Union (1948), with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in a political/domestic drama, but when the film didn’t exactly shake the box office, Capra returned to what his fans liked best.
Riskin wrote both the screenplay and the original story. He was intrigued with the new “science” of polling, supposedly a foolproof method to gauge public opinion. Jimmy Stewart is a pollster who believes he has found the perfect demographic in a small town and travels there with his co-workers to conduct a poll. There, he meets Mary Peterman (Wyman), who wants the town to grow. Stewart believes this would destroy his perfect demographic and goes on a campaign to keep the town just as it is, which put him up against Mary, to whom he has become attracted.
Expertly directed by William A. Wellman, Magic Town is a beautifully constructed satire that, while it doesn’t always hit the mark, comes across with the warmth we would expect from a Riskin comedy. Unfortunately, the moviegoing public wasn’t as interested. The film lost around $350,000 and Bank of America, which financed the film, foreclosed on it and sued Robert Riskin Productions for the balance.
Over the years, though, the film caught on with audiences, who saw it as the genial comedy it was, much in the spirit of Frank Capra. Besides Stewart and Wyman, the film is populated by such wonderful actors as Kent Smith, Ned Sparks, Wallace Ford, Regis Toomey, Ann Doran and Donald Meek, who passed away in the middle of production on November 18, 1946. Famed newscaster Gabriel Heatter appears in a cameo as himself, which he would later repeat in other films, such as The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951). For those who haven’t yet seen it, take Phyl’s advice and tune in. You won’t be disappointed.
January 22: At 2:00 am, TCM is airing Kurosawa’s 1965 medical drama, Red Beard. The story, set in the 19th century, concerns a young physician, Dr. Noboru Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama) who becomes upset when he is assigned to a clinic in Edo for the impoverished run by Dr. Nilde (Toshiro Mifune), a dedicated physical known to his patients as Red Beard. Slowly the younger physician learns lessons in medicine, compassion and humanity from his older colleague. Checking in at a hefty 181 minutes, the film was a big hit in Japan and marked the last collaboration of Kurosawa and Mifune. However, the American public and critics weren’t as dazzled and it took a couple of decades for the film to be recognized as a classic in America. A large part of the reason is the the film, unlike many other Kurosawa efforts, doesn’t translate well. It’s slow-moving and talky, finding its drama in a clash of philosophies rather than action. It’s a good film, but requires patience to watch, which its why we recommend recording it.
January 29: An Eric Rohmer double-feature is on tap tonight, beginning at 2:00 am with Claire’s Knee (1970), followed at 4:00 am by his 1969 effort, My Night at Maud’s. In Claire’s Knee, Jean-Claude Brialy stars as Jerome, a 30-ish diplomat engaged to a fellow diplomat’s daughter. Her decides to spend a summer before his marriage at the resort of Lake Annecy with his novelist friend Aurora (real life novelist Aurora Cornu). For her part, Aurora is seeking to draw inspiration by observing Jerome's encounters with two teenage sisters, Claire (Laurence de Monaghan) and Laura (Batrice Romand), who he meets at the resort. The film’s title comes from the disruption of Jerome’s life after spotting Claire’s knee on a ladder. As Jerome is having second and third thoughts about marriage, the sight of her knee is enough to disrupt his world. The performances are excellent, with Brialy leading the way, though Romand comes close to stealing the film right from under his nose with a totally engaging performance. Rohmer’s films can take a while to engage one, but stick with it, for the rewards are subtle and captivating.
My Night At Maud’s stars Jean-Louis Trintignant as a shy, Catholic engineer who regularly sees a student, Francoise (Marie-Christine Barrault) at mass, but is too intimidated to approach her. One night, Jean-Louis runs into Vidal (Antoine Vitez), an old school friend who has become a Marxist and philosophy professor. After enjoying a Christmas drink together, Vidal invites Jean-Louis to join him for dinner at the apartment of his intellectual friend Maud, a recent divorcée with whom he has been having a rather discouraging affair. The dinner is a success. Afterward, Vidal excuses himself and suggests that Jean-Louis avoid the inclement weather by staying in Maud's spare room. Jean-Louis, woozy from the effects of too much wine, gives in Vidal and Maud’s coaxing. Maud later tells Jean-Louis she has no spare room and attempts to seduce him, telling him that her marriage broke up because her husband had an affair with a student. Jean-Louis refuses her entreaties and the two part friends the next morning. Over time, Jean-Louis marries Francoise and five years later meet Maud and her husband at a party, where Jean-Louis learns the name of the student. Guess who?
DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. DAY
January 16: Martin Luther King Jr. Day always means a schedule of films by African-Americans or African-American themed. This year is highlighted by several excellent documentaries about the struggle for civil rights, beginning at 8 pm with You Got to Move - Stories of Change in the South (1985), an engaging film from directors Lucy Massie Phenix and Veronica Selver featuring graduates of the Highlander Folk School, a free, integrated school founded in 1932 by Myles Horton with a mission of education and social action that included teaching literacy to black citizens and how to overturn Jim Crow voting requirements along with providing the necessary tools for community activism. During the course of the film, graduates tell their stories of activism for social justice and give us a glimpse into a world not many of us readily think about.
At 10 pm comes Freedom on My Mind, a documentary directed by Connie Field and Marilyn Mulford using interviews and archival footage to tell the story of the drive to register African-American voters in 1960s Mississippi.
And at midnight is director Robert Drew’s 1963 Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment, about the Kennedy Administration’s attempt to integrate the University of Alabama despite the opposition of Alabama governor George Wallace.
Following the documentaries at 1:15 am is a unique double-feature examining the then taboo subject of interracial marriage. First up is director Larry Peerce’s One Potato, Two Potato (1964), a low-budget film about a couple who decide to marry and the aftereffects from that decision. Julie Cullen (Barbara Barrie) and Frank Richards (Bernie Hamilton), two coworkers in a small northeastern Ohio town, fall in love love and decide to marry despite the objections of Frank's parents and the prejudices of Julie's friends. Julie and Ellen Mary (Marti Mericka), her daughter from a previous marriage, move to the Richards homestead, where Frank's parents farm the land. After Julie and Frank have a child of their own, his parents warm up to their new extended family. Trouble comes when Julie’s ex-husband, Joe Cullen (Richard Mulligan), who deserted the family to pursue an exciting career opportunity in South America, returns and discovers his ex-wife has married a “Negro,” and sues for custody of Ellen Mary. As I’ve said before, “Low budget” does hot always mean “low class.” This is a wonderful and moving film about the problem of race back in the mid-1960s, a problem we still haven’t conquered. Barrie won an award at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival for her performance. Watching it you’ll still find it packs a powerful punch.
Contrast it with the film following at 3:00 am, Stanley Kramer’s slick 1967 Hollywood product, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? It’s the difference between an earnest little low-budget film and a big-budget slickly made Hollywood production. Kramer, who made a reputation with his “socially conscious” dramas, stars Sidney Poitier with Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, and Katherine Houghton in a film that never once ventures into uncomfortable territory; its characters, scenes and dialogue all pointing to a happy, optimistic Hollywood ending. There’s too much preaching and not enough screen time given to the romance, which is why the film appears terribly dated today, like many of Kramer’s other kitschy social dramas.
January 17: TCM’s spotlight on prison films continues tonight with Elvis in Jailhouse Rock (1957) at 8:00 pm; Richard Barthelmess in the Pre-Code Weary River (1929) at 9:45; The Bowery Boys in Jail Busters (1955) at 2:45 am, and Laurel and Hardy wrapping things up with Pardon Us (1931) at 4:00 am. The plot of Pardon Us, with Stan and Ollie being convicted of illegally making homemade beer, was copied by the Three Stooges in their 1946 short, Beer Barrel Polecats.
January 24: It’s Ladies’ Night with the evening given over to films about women in prison. The best bet for the evening is Ladies They Talk About at 11:30 pm, a tough-as-nails Pre-Code prison drama starring Barbara Stanwyck and Lillian Roth. Stanwyck is her usual outstanding self and Roth turns in a surprisingly good performance as the inmate who shows Babs the ropes. Also is Caged (1950), an over-the-top remake of sorts starring Eleanor Parker as the vulnerable innocent, Lee Patrick as a knowing lesbian, and Agnes Moorehead in the stock role of the understanding warden. But the movie is completely stolen by Hope Emerson as brutal matron Evelyn Harper, who isn’t happy unless her charges are unhappy. The film is a riot to watch, with so much scenery chewing that I swear several of the actors had teeth marks on their persons. Actually, I’m surprised the ladies didn’t just chew their way through the bars to escape. The evening comes to a disappointing end, however, at 4:00 am with the incredibly lame Riot in Juvenile Prison (1959).
January 31: Every film this night is worth catching, beginning with Burt Lancaster in his best known role as The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) at 8:00 pm. Following is John Ford’s excellent The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936) starring Warner Baxter as Dr. Samuel Alexander Mudd, the conspirator who set the leg of assassin John Wilkes Booth. Also with Gloria Stuart and John Carradine. At 12:30 am Spencer Tracy takes the rap for girlfriend Bette Davis in the 1932 Pre-Code drama 20,000 Years in Sing-Sing. Robert Redford is a new prison warden who takes on corruption in Brubaker (1982) at 2:00 am. And finally, at 4:15 am, it’s the solid B-actioner, Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, from Warner Bros. in 1951, starring Steve Cochran, Ted de Corsia, David Brian, and Philip Carey.
January 29: The durable and always watchable Gold Diggers of 1933 airs at 6:30 am. And at 12:30 am it’s Lewis Milestone’s silent crime classic, The Racket (1928), starring Thomas Meighan as a renegade police captain who will stop at nothing to catch bootlegging king Louis Wolheim.
PSYCHOTRONICA AND THE B-HIVE
January 20: A marathon starring the Saint kicks off at 8:00 pm with Louis Hayward portraying the reformed thief in The Saint in New York (1938). When I was younger I remember film buffs arguing over who was the better Simon Templar, George Sanders or Roger Moore? For me the best Simon Templar was Louis Hayward, who brought the right mix of derring-do and sardonic humor to the part. Read our essay on the film here.
The evening also features all the George Sanders' Saint entries and wraps up at 2:45 am with a double-feature starring Hugh Sinclair: The Saint’s Vacation (1941), and The Saint Meets The Tiger (1943), which was made for Republic after RKO dropped the series in favor of the more economical Falcon series that starred Sanders and later, his real-life brother, Tom Conway.
January 21: At 2:45 am it’s The Hidden (1987), starring Michael Nouri and Kyle Maclachan in a tale of an alien parasite that drives its hosts to commit violent crimes. Following at 4:30 am is 1974’s The Terminal Man, a sci-fi entry starring George Segal as a computer genius who has a microcomputer implanted in his brain to stop his violent seizures.
January 28: At 6:00 am it’s the underrated time-travel dystopian film World Without End (1955) with Hugh Marlowe and Rod Taylor among a group of astronauts to accidentally go through the time barrier to a postnuclear nightmare world inhabited by mutated savages with the normal survivors living in protected caves. There’s also the requisite puppeteer spider, but don’t let that deter you. This is a good film.
At 9:30 am begins a Bowery Boys double feature of Up in Smoke (1957), followed by the last in a series that once seemed as if it would never end, In the Money (1958). The post Leo Gorcey films are painful to watch with Huntz Hall in the lead and Stanley Clements filling in for the missing Slip Mahoney. There is no chemistry between Clements and Hall, and the series worked much better with Hall as Gorcey’s subservient friend.
At 2:00 pm it’s Rodan (1957), from Toho Studios, the first Japanese monster movie made in color, which was a mistake because the lighting required for color only revealed how phony the men-in-a-suit monsters were. It does have its good moments though, especially the scene in the mine when the police are looking for missing miners.
Closing out the day at 2:45 am is David Cronenberg’s 1981 Scanners, about a scientist with explosive psychic powers. A surprise hit in its day it fostered a few sequels and was parodied on Mystery Science Theater 3000. It’s followed by Coma (1978), a nice little thriller directed by Michael Crichton about a doctor (Genevieve Bujold) who investigates a series of strange deaths and disappearing bodies at the hospital where she works. Also starring Michael Douglas and Elizabeth Ashley.
January 30: At 11:45 pm Elvis and Ann-Margaret take center stage in Viva Las Vegas (1964), followed at 3:30 am by The Bowery Boys in Crashing Las Vegas (1956), Leo Gorcey’s last turn with the group.