A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
CONTINUING WHERE WE LEFT OFF LAST MONTH...
Last month we made it through 28 of the “31 Days of Oscar,” picking an Oscar winning or nominated film for each day of the month. As there are three days to go in March, we shall begin this month with the continuation of last month’s format.
March 1: Today is packed full of excellent movies. There are four from which to choose: Two Women (2:30 pm), Ugetsu (4:30 pm), Umberto D (6:15 pm), and Vertigo (10:00 pm). You really can’t go wrong with any of them, but if I had to choose only one, I think I would go with Two Women. Though as a film it’s the weakest of the four, it benefits from having Sophia Loren’s best performance on film, and for that reason alone I recommend it.
March 2: My choice this day is the often overlooked, but brilliant What Price Hollywood? (1:30 am) Expertly directed by George Cukor, this is the story of a waitress (Constance Bennett) and the drunken director (Lowell Sherman) who mentors her and turns her into a star. Said to have been based by writer Adela Rogers St. John on the marriage of silent screen star Colleen Moore and alcoholic producer John McCormick, it went on to inspire the much better known A Star is Born (said to have been based on the marriage of Barbara Stanwyck and Frank Fay) in 1937. Produced by David O. Selznick, it was the first “inside Hollywood” film to treat its subject reverentially, and doesn’t hit one false note along the way.
March 3: Out of all the day’s offerings, my choice in Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort from 1967, which airs at midnight. The director’s homage to the grand MGM musicals of the late ‘40s and ‘50s, it employed the same splashy colors as did The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), but this time the storyline is much lighter, the songs peppier and more traditionally interspersed with the dialogue. It stars Gene Kelly, Danielle Darrieux and George Chakras, but there real reason to see it is for the Dorleac sisters, Francoise and Catherine (Deneuve). A more beautiful and enchanting pair of sisters never existed (No, not even Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine) and watching them work their charm makes us only realize the loss we suffered when Franchise Dorleac met her death in an auto accident at the age of 25.
OUT OF THE ORDINARY
March 5: A wonderful Danish double-feature begins at 3 am with Gabriel Axel’s Babette’s Feast (1987). Based on the novel by Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen), who is perhaps best known in this country for Out of Africa, it’s the story of two sisters in a remote 19th century Danish village who lead a very rigidly structured life that is centered around their father, the local minister and the church. Although both have had opportunities to leave the village (one by marrying a young army officer and the other by marrying a French opera singer), in both cases their father stepped in to quash their plans, with the result that they spent their lives caring for him. Now that he is deceased the sisters hire a French servant, Babette Hersant, to cook and look after the house. When Babette suddenly comes into good fortune, she wants to repay the sisters for their kindness by cooking a French meal for them and their friends on the 100th anniversary of their father’s birth. That’s all I’ll give away. Tune in and you won’t be disappointed.
Following at 5 am is Carl Dreyer’s classic, Gertrud, from 1964. Rather controversial in its day, it concerns a woman who places her notion of ideal love above everything else – and suffers immense disappointment because of her choices. Gertrud, a former singer, is married to politician Gustav Kanning, who, she claims, puts his work before everything else – in particular, her. She wants a man who will put love before everything else. Her motto in life is “Amor omnia,” love is all. She leaves her husband for composer Erland Jansson, and at first, everything is fine until she discovers that he only became involved with her to boost his own stock. She leaves him and journeys to Paris with an old friend to devote herself to study. She had confided to him that she had the misfortune only to love men who were incapable of understanding her or unwilling to give themselves completely to her. Thirty years later, Axel, the friend, visits her in her hometown and gives her a copy of his new book. But what seems to be a happy ending is shattered when she intuits that he wants his old letters back. She hands them over and he throws them into the fire in front of her before taking his leave. But before he asks through the door she reads to him a poem about love, written when she was just 16. Her uncompromising position on love may be a reflection of Dreyer’s own position on his films. At any rate, the film is typical Dreyer: lengthy, with some shots running to 10 minutes, superbly acted, and paced like a snail running for its life. Though panned at first by most critics, it has gained in stature over the years and now is seen as one of the director’s finest efforts. It was also his last film.
March 8: We now go from last to first in a sense, as director Agnes Varda’s first effort, La Pointe Courte, is airing at 11 am. A director’s first film is not so much a statement as a promise of things to come, and with Varda, it’s a large promise indeed that was magnificently fulfilled over the course of her career. Named after the district in France where it takes place, the film interweaves two stories that are connected only by where they take place, a small fishing community in Sete, a Mediterranean city, located in the southeast of France. One story concerns the experiences of local citizens as they go about their jobs, dealing with the petty bureaucrats and their rules that only make staying in business harder to do. The other story is about a young Parisian couple, known as Him and Her, as they cope with a growing marital crisis. He grew up in La Pointe Courte and loves its sights and sounds, while she was raised in Paris, with her tastes reflecting those of her cosmopolitan environment. To try to set things right, they visit the husband’s old neighborhood, talking their way through their differences.
Varda centers the movie’s drama in a series of small, but vitally important questions, such as, with regard to the first story thread, of whether the man will allow his daughter to marry the man she loves, a man the father regards as a milquetoast. Will the police crack down on the fisherman who secured his shellfish from an off-limits stretch of water? And finally, will our big city couple reconcile their differences or split up? The answers to these questions are set against the backdrop of a water-jousting tournament that actually takes place in Sete each year. Varda is at her best when underlining the differences between the natives and the visitors, stopping the city folks short of making the locals seem like ignorant yokels; instead subtly emphasizing the commonality of both lifestyles. It’s a film that once seen, tends to stay with the viewer like a good hearty meal and its influence can be seen in her later works, as it represented a world-view she never disowned.
March 15: At 3:30 am TCM is showing Rene Clements’s thought provoking Les Maudits (The Damned). The 1947 films set during the last days of the Third Reich, as a group of high-ranking Nazis and French collaborators board a U-boat in Oslo heading for South America. The film’s narrator (Henri Vidal) is a doctor who has been kidnapped to tend to the ill Hilde Garosi (Florence Marly), the wife of one of the passengers and the lover of another. Realizing that once the woman recovers his life is forfeit, the doctor tries various ruses to stay live, all to no avail. We discover that the passengers are on a mission to continue the war in South America, but as the voyage goes on the mission begins to deteriorate once they learn that Berlin has fallen and that a message has gone out for all U-boats to return to port. The film is firmly in the tradition of claustrophobic dramas such as Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, with the audience guessing who and who does not make it to the destination. It is a gripping film, notable for its depiction of a World War II U-boat and its tracking shots through the boat. Fans of war films should take this one in.
March 10: The seldom shown Bureau of Missing Persons (1933) airs at 7:45 am. Pat O’Brien stars in this comedy-drama as Butch Saunders, a hard-working detective in the robbery division transferred because of his brutal tactics. Lewis Stone is his captain. Bette Davis is Norma Roberts, who reports her husband missing, and Butch takes the case, falling for Norma along the way, despite some glitches in her background. Realizing that she’s playing him, Butch sets a trap to catch her. Look for Glenda Farrell, who steals the movie as Butch’s estranged wife.
March 13: Katharine Hepburn plays a strong-willed and independent aviatrix who falls in love with middle-aged nobleman and politician Colin Clive in Dorothy Arzner’s Christopher Strong (1933), which will be shown at 6:15 am. It’s not Arzner’s best, though a lot of the problems have to do with casting the stodgy Clive as a man of passion and the fact that Hepburn had the audacity to tell Arzner how to direct her picture. There is zero chemistry between the two stars, as Hepburn’s Lady Cynthia Darrington chooses to end her life by crashing her plane rather than bring disrepute to her lover. Look for Margaret Lindsay in an unbilled role.
March 14: Joel McCrea is a hardworking fisherman who has to take on the villainous Gavin Gordon for control of a fishery and the hand of beautiful society woman Jean Arthur in The Silver Horde (1930), airing at 9:15 am. Evelyn Brent is excellent as dance hall gal Cherry Malotte, who proves to be McCrea’s true love.
A real gem is being shown at 1:30 pm: The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933), from Mack Sennett and starring W.C. Fields as Yukon prospector Mr. Snavely, who lost his only son, Chester (George Chandler) to the temptations of the big city. Now, years later, Chester, released from prison, has come home to Ma and Pa in this parody of the melodramas that were the rage of low-budget movies. Definitely worth a glance, especially for Fields and his now famous line, “It Ain't a Fit Night Out for Man or Beast.”
PSYCHOTRONICA AND THE B HIVE
March 4: At 10:30 am TCM begins showing us another long-running B-series with Maisie (1939), starring Ann Sothern as a Brooklyn showgirl with a heart “of spun sugar” that gets herself into various adventures around the world. Created by MGM producer J. Walter Ruben and originally intended for the late Jean Harlow, Ruben found his star in the sassy and intelligent Sothern, who had recently joined the studio after a stay at RKO, where she was going nowhere fast, stuck as a supporting character in B-pictures. Ironically, the film was a hit and typecast Sothern in yet another B-series, albeit a more lavishly produced one. The Maisie series became so popular that letters to the star, simply addressed to “Maisie, U.S.A.” found their way to the MGM studio. In the opener, Maisie Ravier, stranded and broke, lands in a small Wyoming town where she meets "Slim" Martin (Robert Young), the foreman on a Clifford Ames’s (Ian Hunter) ranch. Slim doesn’t trust women, being as one once did him some serious hurt, and orders her out of town. But Ames, who is trying to patch up his marriage to Sybil (Ruth Hussey), hires Maisie as Sybil’s maid. Of course Maisie and Slim fall in love and Sybil tries to disrupt things, and Maisie leaves in anger after quarreling with Slim. Ames discovers that Sybil is cheating on him and kills himself, for which Slim is blamed and placed on trial. Maisie comes rushing to his defense and all ends well as Maisie and Slim plan to marry and live on the ranch, which Ames had willed to Maisie in his suicide note.
March 11: More adventures of Maisie as she is stranded in the jungle with a romantic doctor (John Carroll) in Congo Maisie (1940), airing at 10:30 am.
March 12: At 10:00 am it’s that psychotronic classic, Edgar Ulmer’s Detour (1945), starring Tom Neal is the ill-fated musician and Ann Savage as the hitchhiker from hell.
March 14: It’s a classic psychotronic doubleheader beginning at 2:00 am with Richard Roundtree in Shaft (1971), the film that began the Blaxploitation genre. Immediately following at 4:00 am is Shaft’s Big Score (1972), in which Our Hero is back to find who murdered his old friend Cal Asby (Robert Kya-Hill), a funeral director and beloved businessman who secretly ran the numbers racket in Harlem. Along for the ride is Moses Gunn, reprising his role as gangster Bumpy Jonas (loosely based on real life Harlem gangster Bumpy Johnson, an ally of Lucky Luciano). As with most sequels, it’s not up to the original, but still manages to be quite and entertaining ride nonetheless.
BAD MOVIE ALERT
March 9: In our upcoming look at Richard Burton and his movies, we mention he had done quite a few howlers. At 12:45 am comes one of them, The Sandpiper (1965) in which he is ably abetted in this exercise in bad moviemaking by then wife Elizabeth Taylor. Dick is a straight-laced married Episcopal minister who has those laces undone by Liz as a single mom beatnik artist in this silly update of Somerset Maugham’s Miss Thompson. With Charles Bronson playing a sculptor, of all things. It's directed by Vincente Minnelli after William Wyler had the good sense to turn it down and scripted by the overrated Dalton Trumbo. Watch it for its utter pretentiousness; lines dripping with meaning accompanied by the requisite mugging. It just sits there like a decaying corpse as its two stars blather on about God-knows-what, which makes it required viewing.
March 20: Can you see Katharine Hepburn as an Ozarks Hillbilly? Neither can we, which is why Spitfire, from 1934, is a must. It airs at 9:45 am and you can read our essay on it here.