Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Cinéma Inhabituel for March 16-31

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

March is renowned in the popular imagination for “coming in like a lion and going out like a lamb.” Regarding TCM, March came in like a lamb and is going out like a lion.

Of course, the big news is the passing of Robert Osborne, TCM’s on-air host from its inception in 1994. I remember when TCM was launched. My cable company at the time, Comcast, did not carry the station until several years later. With Comcast, not carrying a new station upon its inception was par for the course. When the company announced that TCM would be appearing I was beside myself with joy. My wife and I watched the first night and saw Robert Osborne introduce the movie. “Great,” my wife said. “Another know-nothing host like Bob Dorian.” Dorian was at the time host of AMC, which was TCM’s rival for a couple of years until the company that owned it, Cablevision, wrecked the channel. 

No, no,” I replied. “Robert Osborne’s the real thing.” I dug out my worn copy of his book, Academy Awards Illustrated (with a forward by Bette Davis) and showed it to her. She was blown away by the wealth of information. “Yeah,” I said. “He’s a columnist for The Hollywood Reporter. A real film historian, not a paid spokesman.” I think what moved my wife was Osborne’s enthusiasm and love of movies, which came through loud and clear with every introduction. TCM easily became my favorite channel and remains so today. It is the ultimate essential.

Osborne was born on May 3, 1932, in Colfax, Washington. His father was a high school principal and coach, and his mother a homemaker. Osborne said his love of Hollywood began when in 1941, when his mother brought him a copy of Modern Screen magazine with Lana Turner on the cover. He became so engrossed that eventually he took a notebook and write down details about every first-run movie he could find. That interest never left him.

He gradated from the University of Washington with a degree in journalism. After graduation he began a career as a actor, working for 20th Century Fox and Desilu Studios. His first part in 1954 was an uncredited one as a stage driver in Death Valley Days. Most of his 11 movie and television roles were uncredited, including an appearance in Hitchcock’s Psycho

It is reported that Lucille Ball took a shine to him and gave him some useful career advice: give up trying to get into movies and write about them instead. In 1965 he wrote his book, Academy Awards Illustrated, which led to The Hollywood Reporter hiring him as a columnist and critic. In 1978 he published 50 Golden Years of Oscar, which won the 1979 National Book Award. He was elected president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association in 1981 and served a two-year term. In 1984 he began as the on-air host for The Movie Channel. When Ted Turner created Turner Movie Classics in 1994, it was a natural for Osborne to become the station’s on-air host. He remained so, hosting primetime movies in addition to hosting occasional specials, Private Screenings, where he interviewed actors and directors. He also established a weekly program in 2006 called The Essentials, featuring a movie that Osborne and his co-host considered essential for film buffs.

In early 2016, suffering from illness, Osborne stepped away from his duties as host. Osborne died at his Manhattan home on March 6, 2017. He was 84. 

He’ll be greatly missed. His combination of film knowledge, plus his boundless enthusiasm, made him the perfect ambassador for classic films. Although TCM is currently in good hands with Ben Mankiewicz succeeding Osborne as host, we can only hope the station will carry on the work Robert Osborne began. The network will pay tribute to Osborne on March 18 and 19.


March 23: At 8 pm, TCM is screening the original Godzilla (Gojira) from 1954. This is not your father’s Godzilla; in fact, Raymond Burr is nowhere to be seen. No, this is the original, which outside of a few weeks after its release in 1954, wasn’t seen widely in this country until 2004. Joseph E. Levine, who acquired the movie for U.S. distribution, lopped 40 minutes off it and replaced it with new footage featuring Burr as an American reporter who chases the Godzilla story to Japan and goes around talking to the backs of actors’ heads. This edited version was released in 1956 as Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and is the version we are familiar with today. It was seen by critics as nothing more than another campy sci-fi flick featuring a man in a monster suit who goes around stomping on miniature cities.

When the original gained widespread distribution in America through a DVD version, critics noticed that it was almost a completely different film from the one they were used to. It was much, much more than a movie about a giant lizard that runs amok in Tokyo. It is an allegory about the A-bomb and those that delivered it unto Japan. In other words, Godzilla R Us. When Levine acquired the movie he revoked all references to the bomb, Nagasaki, the fire bombing of Tokyo, and the emphasis on radiation poisoning. What was left was a film about a monster on the loose, much in the style of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, which, coincidentally, was the movie that inspired it, along with the Daigo Fukuryo Maru (“Lucky Dragon #5,” an ironic name as it turns out), a tuna fishing ship that strayed into a forbidden zone imposed around the Marshall Islands when we tested the first H-Bomb. The crew came down with radiation sickness and many died horribly. It became a point of contention between the Japanese and the Americans, and Gojira reflects that contention.

One scene that was lopped took place in the home of scientist Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura, who many film buffs will recognize as the star of Kurosawa’s Ikiru). As Yamane sits there with his daughter Emiko (Momoko Kochi) and her admirer Ogata (Akira Takarada), he laments the fact that Godzilla, the last of his species, has to be destroyed instead of studied. Ogata answers that, “Isn’t Godzilla a product of the atomic bomb that still haunts many of us Japanese?” There was no way Levine was going to let that one pass, nor the last line, where Yamane notes that, “If we keep conducting nuclear tests, it’s possible that another Godzilla might appear somewhere in the world again.” In removing the offending footage, Levine took out anything that might have made the film uncomfortable for American audiences. Terry O. Morse, who made his reputation mainly as a film editor, was hired as director to blend the new footage with the old as seamlessly as possible. Inshiro Honda directed the original for Toho Studios, with Akira Kurosawa as an uncredited executive producer. Kurosawa had also made his own anti-nuclear film that same year, titled I Live in Fear. It bombed at the box office, while Gojira was a hit.

Over the year Toho followed up its hit with sequels of diminishing quality. Eventually Godzilla would morph from being a force of destruction to being a good guy, a hero of children, much like competitor Daiei Studios did with its monster-in-a-suit, Gamera. In other words, Toho did to Godzilla what Hollywood would do to Elvis: they cut his balls off. There were attempts to restore the lizard to his former status, but they failed. Godzilla became a victim of typecasting.


March 29: It’s a night of movies based on the writings of Guy De Maupassant. Beginning at 8 pm, Vincent Price stars in Diary of a Madman (1963). At 10 pm it’s Le Plasir (1952), an episodic film based on three stories explore that explores what happens when pleasure, purity and sex meet up with each other. Directed by the great Max Ophuls, it stars Jean Gabin, Danielle Darrieux, Jean Servais, and Daniel Gelin, among others. As with any Ophuls film, it is a cinematic delight. At midnight it’s Mademoiselle Fifi, a 1944 film from RKO and producer Val Lewton. Told to make an anti-German morale flick, Lewton shapes it around the Franco-Russian War as a German officer (Kurt Krueger) tries to force a simple French laundress (Simone Simon) to be his mistress. Adapted from two De Maupassant stories: "Boule de Suif" (which also inspired John Ford’s Stagecoach, believe it or not) and "Mademoiselle Fifi.” It’s something of a curiosity piece today, and somewhat uneven in tone and execution, but is realized as only Val Lewton can. 

Believe it or not, even Jean-Luc Godard used De Maupassant as a source for a movie. The result, Masculin Feminin, can be seen at 2 am. Made when Godard made coherent films, it’s the story of an aspiring writer (Jean-Pierre Leaud) and his involvement with a rising pop star (Chantal Goya) and her two roommates. David likes it a lot more than I do, though I will admit it has its moment, only not enough of them. The movie was shot in Sweden. Ingmar Bergman, not exactly a fan of Godard, went to go and see it. His verdict? “A classic case of Godard: mind-numbingly boring.” 


March 26: At 3:30 am Renoir’s 1936 short, A Day in the Country is being shown as part of the De Maupassant theme. The family of a Parisian shop-owner spends a day in the country. At a picnic along the river, a bourgeois mother and daughter find romance while the men are busy fishing. The daughter falls in love with a man at the inn, where they spend the day. With Sylvia Bataille, Georges D'Arnoux (as Georges Saint-Saens), Jeanne Marken, André Gabriello, future director Jacques Becker, and Renoir himself as Poulain the Innkeeper. Becker and Luchino Visconti worked as Renoir's assistant directors. Look for the boy fishing from the bridge in the beginning of the film. It’s Jean Renoir's son, Alain.

Following at 4:30 am is one of Renoir’s early masterpieces, Boudu Saved From Drowning. Boudu (the wonderful Michel Simon) is saved from drowning in the Seine river by bookseller Edouard Lestingois (Charles Granval), who takes him in to his home until he recovers. Mrs. Lestingois (Marcelle Hainia) and the maid, Anne-Marie (Sévérine Lerczinska), who is also Lestingois' mistress, are far from delighted, for Boudu is lazy, dirty and salacious. And worse, Boudu becomes The Thing That Won’t Leave, maintaining that his savior is now responsible for his well-being. All attempts to adjust him to a middle-class, normal way of life fail. His antics include carelessly defacing priceless first edition books, flooding the kitchen, and other outrageous disturbances. In addition, he seduces Madame Lestingois and interrupts Mr. Lestingois' nightly visits to Anne-Marie, by insisting upon sleeping in the hall between their rooms. He later wins a lottery with a ticket given to him by Monsieur Lestingois, and decides to marry Anne-Marie. As they are drifting down the Seine in a river punt following their wedding, Boudu begins to yearn for the freedom he “lost.” The boat is somehow "accidentally" tipped over and Boudu disappears. While the others mourn his death, he swims ashore, changes clothes with a scarecrow, and sets out on the road again, a free man. Based a play by Rene Fauchois, it was remade in 1986 as Down and Out in Beverly Hills. But the 1932 version outshines any attempt at a remake. It is a comic masterpiece.


March 26: At 2 am it’s Torment, a 1944 film from director Alf Sjoberg, for which Bergman wrote the screenplay. This is a story of an idealistic high school student (Alf Kjellin), who saves a shop girl (Mai Zetterling) from harassment at the hands of his hated Latin teacher (Stig Järrel), who the students have named Caligula. At 4 am comes Hour of the Wolf (1968), a drama written and directed by Bergman about an artist (Max Von Sydow) in an emotional crisis punctuated by nightmares from the past while staying on windy and isolated island with his younger, pregnant wife (Liv Ullmann).  During "the hour of the wolf" – between midnight and dawn – he tells his wife about his most painful memories. It’s Ingmar Bergman's only horror film, and reminds me of a parody that took place on the old comedy show, SCTV.  On an episode of “Monster Chiller Horror Theater,” Count Floyd (Joe Flaherty) is showing this film for the kiddies out there. What follows is a brilliant and hysterical parody of the movie, called “Whispers of the Wolf,” and which elicits a reaction from the dumbfounded Count, who notes that “Hey, this isn’t a scary film at all! Who is responsible for this?”


March 25: At the dreadful hour of 4 am comes one of the most beautiful films to come from Japan, A Story From Chikamatsu, aka The Crucified Lovers (Chikamatsu Monogatari). It concerns Ishun (Eitarô Shindô), a wealthy scroll-maker in 17th century Japan who is married to Osan (Kyôko Kagawa). When he falsely accuses her of having an affair with his best worker, Mohei (Kazuo Hasegawa), the pair is forced to flee the city and declare their love for one another. Ishun orders his men to find them and separate them in order to avoid public humiliation. Based on a play by  classic Japanese author Monzaemon Chikamatsu (1653-1725), the Japanese title "Chikamatsu Monogatari" means "A Tale From Chikamatsu.” Director Kenji Mizoguchi realizes it beautifully, with an undercurrent of emotional power beneath the narrative’s surface that will resonate with the viewer long after the film ends. We would recommend recording it for later viewing.


March 30: A mini-marathon begins at 6 am and ends at 2:30 pm. Of the films bring shown we recommend Under Eighteen, with Marian Marsh and Warren William (10 am). A good film, it inexplicably bombed at the box office, despite the push from the studio. Read our essay on it hereEver In My Heart (11:30 am), starring Barbara Stanwyck and Otto Kruger, explores the anti-German prejudice doing World War I and has a decent melodramatic ending. And finally, at 12:45 pm, James Cagney is a racketeer who tries to improve conditions at a boy’s reformatory in the lively Mayor of Hell from 1933. The string linking all the films is that they were directed by Archie Mayo, an unimaginative studio hack (so much for auteur theory), which explains why even the best of them we mentioned are uneven.


March 20: The theme is “March Malice,” and the film the night is Michael Powell's shocking Peeping Tom (1960), airing at 10 pm. A cinematographer, raised by a sadist, photographs his female victims as he kills them. It is a deeply disturbing film and almost destroyed Powell’s career. Ignored for years, its reputation as a first-rate psychological thriller was restored due to filmakers such as Martin Scorsese, who championed it as a classic of the genre. I remember seeing it as a teenager late one Saturday night on New York’s Channel 9, and I have never forgotten it. I recommend it highly. 

March 22: At 4:15 am The Honeymoon Killers is being shown. Starring Tony LoBianco and Shirley Stoler, its based on the true story of Ray Fernandez and Martha Beck, who met through lonely-hearts correspondence and were executed in 1951 for the murders of Myrtle Young, Janet Fay, Delphine Downing and her 2-year old daughter Rainelle. To quote Michael Weldon in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film: “Definitely not made by the usual bozos. Required viewing.”

March 23: Besides Gojira, viewers can see his future antagonist, King Kong in the 1933 original, at 10 pm. The two would later meet in one of the great dreadful encounters that would become so common to Japanese sci-fi. Also of interest is the 1957 Ray Harryhausen epic, 20 Million Miles to Earth, which airs at the late hour of 5 am.

March 25: At 10:15 pm comes the Barrymore brothers in the uneven, but fascinating Arsene Lupin, from MGM in 1932. John is the gentleman their of the title who is relentlessly pursued by the great detective Guerchard (Lionel). It’s all around Paris that Lupin plans to steal the Mona Lisa, but the police, led by Guerchard, believe they know Lupin’s identity and have a secret weapon to catch him. With Karen Morely. It was the first pairing of the brothers and is highly entertaining.

The evening would not be complete if we didn’t recommend the wild and wacky House (Hausu), airing at 2 am. Threatened by the presence of her new stepmother, spoiled schoolgirl Oshare, aka “Gorgeous” (Kimiko Ikegami), takes six of her friends to visit her aunt in the countryside for the weekend. Thus begins a roller coaster of a movie, in bright pastels and a cartoonish flair, with outrageous things happening to each of the girls. It’s a movie that has to be seen to be believed and it’s popularity saved Toho Studios from bankruptcy. Be warned, it’s pretty graphic, although more on the level of a Road Runner cartoon in its outrageousness. 

March 28: The one and only Hugo Haas lends his dubious directing tales to Lizzie (1957), airing at 12:30 am. Based on Shirley Jackson’s novel, The Bird’s Nest, it’s a story of a Los Angeles psychiatrist (Richard Boone) who uses hypnosis to get to the bottom of a mousy woman’s (Eleanor Parker) multiple personality disorder. As Beth, she’s a happy, well-adjusted woman. But as Lizzie, she’s a wild party hardy who writes threatening letters. With Joan Blondell and the director in a role as a kindly neighbor. Realized as only Hugo Haas can, it was the only one of his moves to receive serious notice.

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