A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
At this point, we’re about midway through TCM’s annual salute to the Oscars, to which the month of February is devoted, along with the first three days in March. We received some good feedback to our special format for this festival, so we’ll continue with what obviously works.
This year TCM is doing sort of “A Look at the Oscars From A to Z.” But face it: how many times can one repackage the same old films year after year? Definitely, more foreign films need to be added, and perhaps some animation as well. Something to think about, anyway.
February 16: Our pick today is The Maltese Falcon from 1941, which airs at 6:15. It marks John Huston’s directorial debut, and a director couldn’t ask for a better opening. Humphrey Bogart was at the top of his form as Sam Spade and was given a run for his money by a strong supporting cast, which included Elisha Cook, Jr., Mary Astor, Peter Lorre and the formidable Sydney Greenstreet, also making his film debut after a career on stage, most recently with the company of Lunt and Fontaine. We’ve all seen it multiple times, but so what? We can always watch it again – it’s just that good.
February 17: There’s nothing like a good Pre-Code film to make one’s day, and Min and Bill (1930), at 5:00 pm, starring the combination of Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery, is the ticket. It was the first time these two teamed, and the way they came off it seemed like they had been working together for years. Dressler is a cantankerous old buzzard who runs a waterfront hotel and Beery is an equally cantankerous old sailor who’s her best friend. Together they’re a pair of lovable underdogs. The plot revolves around Min’s efforts to get her adopted daughter Nancy (Dorothy Jordan) out of these crummy environs and out to a better life. In order to accomplish this she resorts to some radical tactics, such as pretending not to care about her charge as she sends her away to a more respectable home. Along the way she faces opposition from Nancy’s real mother, Bella (Marjorie Rambeau), a grasping floozie whose antics towards reclaiming her daughter (Hint: money is involved.) puts Min to the ultimate test of parental love. Adapted by Frances Marion from Lorna Moon’s novel, the parts were perfect for Dressler and Beery. Marion was quite good at this sort of thing, having also written the screenplay for one of the all-time tearjerkers, Stella Dallas, back in 1925. However, it’s the chemistry between Dressler and Beery that makes the film such a joy to watch. They are the ultimate slob actors.
February 18: There is nothing like a good comedy, especially on a winter’s day, to warm the heart. And TCM is dishing up a good one at 4:30 pm with one of Laurel and Hardy’s best shorts, The Music Box, from 1932. The boys play movers whose task is to haul a heavy player piano up a huge flight of stairs from the street to a house sitting high above; a feat that makes it seem more like climbing a mountainside. A bareboned plot such as this would test the mettle of any comedian, but for Laurel and Hardy it’s child’s play. They keep us glued to the screen with a variety of sight gags and a continuing flow of characters in and out of the story. The short, which was the first film to win an Oscar in the Best Comedy Short Subject category, is actually a remake of their classic 1927 silent short Hats Off, which found the boys lugging a washing machine up and down the same flight of stairs. It is thought that The Three Stooges used the same staircase in their 1941 short,An Ache in Every Stake, but that's not so. They used a similar staircase in the same neighborhood of the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles.
February 19: Films about religious life don’t get any better than this one from director Fred Zinnemann and star Audrey Hepburn. The Nun’s Story (11:00 am) is that rare bird in Hollywood: a religious film that eschews the usual Hollywood treatment of the feel-good happy ending in favor of a thoughtful story of a devout young woman, Gabrielle Van Der Mal (Hepburn), whose dream is to serve in the Belgian Congo as a nurse and who later finds fulfillment of sorts as missionary nun. But her inner-life is a struggle, revolving around her growing doubts about having the humility necessary to serve God. Eventually, her doubts make it difficult for her to succeed in her vocation. It’s not a perfect film, being too long in length with its drama mostly unrealized cinematically. However, it presents more of a realistic view of the Church, warts and all, and Hepburn gives perhaps the best performance of her life and was nominated for an Oscar for her trouble. Though the movie marks something of a breakthrough in presenting the religious life, Hollywood was soon back to happy, singing nuns.
February 20: Peter Sellers created a wonderfully hilarious character in Inspector Clousseau and becomes the focus of this otherwise bland comedy of jewel thieves among the beautiful people of Europe at a fashionable resort in the Italian Alps. The Pink Panther (4:00 pm) is a tour de force by Sellers and the picture slows to a crawl whenever he’s not on. David Niven, Robert Wagner, Capucine and Claudia Cardinale proved steady support, but Sellers is the show. His Clousseau character was put to better use in the sequel, A Shot in the Dark, where he was the star instead of being reduced almost to a supporting player.
February 21: Charles Laughton is always worth catching on the screen, and one of his best roles was as English monarch Henry VIII in Alexander Korda’s superb 1933 drama The Private Life of Henry VIII, which airs at 2:15 pm. Laughton gives an unforgettable performance as the colorful king whose obsession with producing a male heir took him through six wives. It begins just before the execution of second wife Anne Boleyn and Korda provides a sterling supporting cast as the wives: Merle Oberon as Anne Boleyn, Wendy Barrie as Jane Seymour, Elsa Lanchester as Anne of Cleves, Binnie Barnes as Katherine Howard, and Everley Gregg as his final wife, Katherine Paar. Robert Donat, Miles Mander and John Loder are also on hand, but it’s Laughton’s show all the way, and he doesn’t disappoint. The Academy also thought so, for they awarded him the Best Actor Oscar.
February 22: On a day without much to speak of in the way of movies, Peter Medak’s 1972 adaptation of Peter Barnes’ satirical stage play, The Ruling Class (12:15 am), offers a gem of a performance from Peter O’Toole as deranged 14th Earl of Gurney, who believes he’s the second coming of Christ. He suspends himself from a custom-made crucifix that he uses to get his beauty rest. The film itself is wildly uneven, with the Earl’s uncle (William Mervyn) marrying him to the uncle’s own mistress (Carolyn Seymour) with the intention of producing a male heir, after which the Duke can be sent to the funny farm with the family gaining a ruling member who is sane. The plot goes south when the newlyweds actually fall in love. At the same time, the Earl is becoming convinced that he is actually Jack the Ripper. It goes on from there to the accompaniment of songs and dances from the leading characters. Originally released in a shorter version in 1972, the movie gained a cult status that resulted in the cut footage being restored, bringing the film to 154 minutes. The restored footage only succeeds in slowing the movie down, but O’Toole is so mesmerizing we can’t help but stay tuned in.
February 23: At midnight comes one of the great B movies: Shaft. Richard Roundtree plays private eye John Shaft, who is hired by Harlem underworld boss Moses Gunn to retrieve his kidnaped daughter (Sherry Brewer). It’s not much different from a story with a white detective, but the character of John Shaft is so vividly played by Roundtree that he takes the film to another level entirely. Shaft rubs out the baddies and romances the ladies while strutting around in a leather coat to the throbbing rhythm of Isaac Hayes’ dynamic score. Never before had African-American audiences seen a character quite like him and they loved what they saw. The box office success of the 1971 movie helped jump start the genre known as blaxploitation, but films like this and performances like Roundtree’s would become the glaring exception.
February 24: The day features such gems as Singin’ in the Rain (2:00 pm), Some Like It Hot (8:00 pm), and Spartacus (10:15 pm), but our recommendation is one of the worst films ever made, The Silver Chalice (1954), which airs at 11:30 am. Released during a time when Biblical epics were considered money in the bank, it’s based on Thomas B. Costain’s best-seller about a Greek artisan named Basil (Paul Newman) sold into slavery and later commissioned by Christian leaders to make a chalice for the cup from which Jesus drank during the Last Supper. Audiences must have sat wondering if they could believe what they were seeing, as they were looking at obviously cardboard stone walls with wildly over-the-top performances by Jack Palance, a court magician who believes he’s the messiah; his assistant Helena (Virginia Mayo) whose main enjoyment in life is attending pagan orgies while chewing her share of the scenery; Pier Angeli as the unbelievably good Christian granddaughter of Joseph of Arimathea who marries Basil and converts him to Christianity, and Jacques Aubuchon as possibly the worst Nero ever to appear on the screen. Lorne Greene also gives a strange slant to his portrayal of St. Peter, making us wonder if he had watched James Dean too many times. The film is wretchedly written by the aptly named Lesser Samuels and cluelessly directed by Victor Saville, who acquired the rights to the novel right after it was published. Somehow he talked Warner Bros. into letting him produce this turkey. Newman’s debut was more on the lines of notorious than notable, giving a performance that lacked any sort of panache. Newman later got a little revenge when the move played on L.A.’s version of Million Dollar Movie in the 1960s. He placed ads in the trade papers that read, "Paul Newman apologizes every night this week-Channel 9." The film eventually became a camp classic and is a favorite of bad film fanatics.
February 25: A lot of good movies are being shown today but for our part we’re going with Gregory LaCava’s ensemble comedy-drama, Stage Door, airing at 8:15 am. This adaptation (by Morrie Ryskind and Anthony Veiller) of the hit play by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman about a young girl, Terry Randall (Katharine Hepburn), who aspires to become an actress and lodges in a boarding house filled with other acting hopefuls. Co-starring with Ginger Rogers, who was looking to escape from being typecast as Fred Astaire’s dancing partner, Hepburn and Rogers deftly use their off-screen antagonism to inform their on-screen antagonism, combining sharp comic timing with some serious dramatic acting, especially on the part of Rogers, who wowed the critics with her performance. They’re helped by terrific supporting performances from Lucille Ball, Gail Patrick, Constance Collier and Andrea Leeds, who provide the human background against which Hepburn and Rogers play. Adolphe Menjou, Samuel S. Hinds and Franklin Pangborn also provide solid support.
February 26: Can there be any other choice this day than The Thin Man (8:00 pm)? William Powell and Myrna Loy were the perfect match as Nick and Nora Charles, so much so that people actually thought they were married in real life. The mystery plays a decided second fiddle to the antics of Nick and Nora, who have a knack for making alcoholism seem most appealing, though the producers try to make up for it by having Nick assemble all the suspects in a room before naming the guilty party, a tactic that proved so popular with audiences it was repeated in every Thin Man sequel from then onward. But this is the first, and by far the best of the series, and it received four Oscar nominations. Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Writing, Adaptation.
February 27: At 8:00 pm comes a film that was not that well received at the time, but which has gone on to become one of the classics of the silver screen. We’re talking about Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be (1942). The idea of a comedy set in Nazi-occupied Poland may have rankled some who saw it as blasphemous, but newer generations have embraced the movie for the dark comedy it is. As the hammy Joseph Tura, Jack Benny is pitch perfect, hitting all the right notes. He’s matched line for line by Carole Lombard as his wife Maria in a performance many regard as her best. Lombard was a consummate performer, the best comedic actress of her time. Sadly this was to be her last performance. In a hurry to get home to husband Clark Gable after her War Bond tour wrapped, Lombardi’s plane crashed into a peak of Potosi Mountain near Las Vegas, killing all aboard. The tragic circumstances of her death resulted in a rewriting of her line “What can happen in a plane?” Mel Brooks remade the film in 1983 as a starring vehicle for both him and wife Anne Bancroft. As good as Bancroft was in the movie, though, she still couldn’t approach the dynamic of Lombard’s performance.
February 28: As the month closes, our pick for the evening is Luis Bunuel’s absorbing 1970 drama of revenge, Tristana (1:00 am), featuring Catherine Deneuve in a delicately nuanced performance as a young girl whose duplicitous guardian, Don Lope (Fernando Rey), seduces her and makes her his mistress. Although he tells Tristana that she is free, she knows the truth and feels increasingly trapped by his possessiveness. When she falls in love with young artist Horatio (Franco Nero), she runs away with him to Madrid to get away from Don Lope. However, a couple of years later she develops a large tumor in her leg and begs Horatio to bring her back to Don Lope, who has inherited a fortune. Her leg ends up being amputated, and with the help of Don Lope she slowly recovers from the surgery. Don Lope, who has aged considerably, has softened over the years and takes over the role of Tristana’s father. He encourages Horatio to court her, but Tristana, who is considered deformed, has let her deformity enter into her inner being. She coldly rejects Horatio's proposal of marriage. Eventually, at the urging of a local priest, Don Lope marries her. Over time their roles have completely reversed and the cold Tristana has become the caregiver for Don Lope, who has become senile and has turned to religion for consolation. One night he suffers a heart attack. He implores Tristana to call a doctor. She pretends to phone from the next room, but in actuality is opening a window to let the winter wind enter the dying man’s room. Her revenge is complete.