A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
TCM SPOTLIGHT: CREATURE FEATURES
As readers are no doubt aware, Dennis Miller has been hosting this month’s Spotlight. I like Dennis Miller, but not as a horror/sci-fi host. It’s sad watching him read the idiot cards and pretend to be something of an expert. Here’s an idea, TCM. Why not get a real expert instead of merely plugging another celebrity in as a host? One of the directions TCM has taken that annoys me no end is the use of celebrities as hosts. They know nothing, except how to pose. TCM needs a regular host for its Underground and special horror/sci-fi showings. Hey TCM, it’s not as if there’s no one out there. How about Michael H. Price, Gary Don Rhodes, Michael Weldon, Gary Svehla, Tom Weaver, John McCarty, Bill Warren, Danny Peary, Philip J. Riley and Gregory William Mank, for starters? Hell, why not spend the money you delegated for Miller and hire Stephen King? Remember him? I’m tired of the station dumbing us down. It’s supposed to be a channel that promotes movies. Such promotion includes knowledge, and celebrities are, for the most part, hired for their faces.
If TCM had been pursuing its current policy when it began we might never have had the wonderful Robert Osborne. Nor, probably, would we have the delightful Ben Mankiewicz. Think about it. Also remember that the best season of The Essentials was the first, when Bob had the informative Molly Haskell as co-host.
May 18: Start the evening at 8 pm with the excellent sci-fi classic and Red scare film, Them! (1954). Then follow it at 9:45 with the Americanized version of Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956), a sanitized version of the 1954 Gojira with Raymond Burr talking to the backs of actor’s heads. At 11:30 pm it’s the classic It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955), starring Kenneth Tobey, Donald Curtis, and the drop dead gorgeous Faith Domergue, who probably connived a lot of us young males that watched it to take an interest in science. Apart from Faith, the highlight of the film was the giant octopus, created by master animator Ray Harryhausen. As the executive producer was “Jungle” Sam Katzman, one of the side joys of the flick is to count the number of legs on the octopus. Experts disagree as to whether there were five or six legs on the beast. Sam certainly wasn’t going to pay for eight.
At 1 am comes the intelligently done, though budget challenged, The Giant Behemoth (1959), director Eugene Lourie’s remake of his The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. Gene Evans and Andre Morrell (World’s Luckiest Man: he was married to the delectable Joan Greenwood) are on the track of a giant dinosaur who has somehow become radioactive. The animation is by the heralded Willis O’Brien (King Kong) who, at this point in his career was dogged by limited budgets for his wonderfully constructed stop-motion creations.
At 2:30 am we go straight to the ridiculous. The Phantom From 10,000 Leagues (1955). A mad scientist has a pet monster that lurks in the shallows attacking unwary scuba divers and fishermen who get too close to his lair. The monster soon takes a back seat to a script filled with secret experiments, kinky characters, espionage, threats and paranoia that are all linked to a mysterious beam of radioactive light emanating from the ocean floor. To quote critic Michael Weldon in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film: “Spies, an underwater death ray, and a laughable puppet monster are dispersed by hero Kent Taylor. It was co-billed with Corman’s The Day the World Ended, making that movie look great by comparison.” If that doesn’t make you want to watch, nothing does.
Finally, at 4 am, it’s a different sort of monster from producer Ivan Tors. The Magnetic Monster (1953) stars Richard Carlson and King Donovan as investigators from the government’s Office of Scientific Investigation (OSI). They are on the track of a radioactive element that could destroy the world, the creation of scientist Leonard Mudie in his atomic laboratory located above a hardware store(!). Dangerously unstable, it must be “fed” larger and larges quantities of electric energy to remain stable. Otherwise – Boom! The massive top secret subterranean “deltatron” used to try to stop the monster is lifted from the 1934 German production of Gold from UFA. Despite the budget shortcuts it remains one of the most intelligent of the ‘50s sci-fi flicks. Director Herbert L. Strock, who is uncredited, took over from original director Curt Siodmak after Tors fired him.
May 25: The Spotlight closes out, beginning at 8 pm with the superb and underrated Tarantula (1955). It’s notable for being one of John Agar’s best performances. Mara Corday and Leo G. Carroll co-star. At 9:30 it’s the subpar Return of the Fly (1959), with Vincent Price, followed by The Cosmic Monster (1958) at 11:15 pm. (Read our essay on it here.)
At 12:45 am it’s Roger Corman’s ridiculously entertaining The Wasp Woman (1960), starring the unjustly forgotten Susan Cabot. At 2:00 am it’s the overrated Swamp Thing (1982). And to close out the festival, it’s Texas radio mogul Gordon McClendon’s dismal attempt at making product for his drive-in theaters chain, The Killer Shrews (1959). We recommend the MST 3000 version of the film instead. It’s way more interesting.
May 21: At 2:00 am comes A Brighter Summer Day (1991) from the Shanghai-born director (born Te-Chang Yang), a JD class inspired by a real-life 1961 incident in which a 14-year-old Taiwanese boy murdered his girlfriend in a public park. In addition to a multitude of actors – there are over 100 speaking parts – the film is rife with pop culture references from both East and West including nods to Citizen Kane, Rebel without a Cause, and Rio Lobo. It’s quite lengthy – 3 hours and 57 minutes – but it’s one of those films that grab the viewer and never let go. I saw it on the large screen and the minutes just seemed to fly by. Yang is a master at portraying Taiwan’s underworld and this film is testament to that mastery.
May 17: Myrna Loy is a lusty gypsy who breaks up a family in The Squall (1929) at 1:30 pm. Following at 3:15 Wheeler and Woosley are tramps turned fortune tellers in The Cuckoos (1930). Also starring W&W regular Dorothy Lee.
At 9:30 pm, it’s Phillips Holmes, Sylvia Sidney and Frances Dee in Josef Von Sternberg’s An American Tragedy, a rarely seen Paramount Pre-Code production.
At 2:45 am it’s the superb Of Human Bondage (1934) starring Leslie Howard with Bette Davis in the role that brought her stardom. Following at 4:15 am, Frances Dee returns, along with Billie Burke and Ginger Rogers, in Finishing School (1934).
Finally, at the late hour of 5:45 am comes a real Pre-Code treat: Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Ann Dvorak and Lee Tracy in William Wellman’s Love is a Racket (1932) from Warner Bros. Fairbanks plays a rather callous Broadway columnist romancing Frances Dee while racing around the city looking for fodder for his gossip column. Things take a nasty turn when gangster Lyle Talbot buys up Dee’s shopping debts with an eye to making her his mistress. It’s up to Doug to prevent this from reaching the tabloids while he figures a way out of Mary’s fix. Lee Tracy is Doug’s co-worker, and Ann Dvorak is a young actress Doug promotes in his columns.
May 22: Ann Harding marries poor writer Laurence Olivier and lives to regret it in Westward Passage, a 1932 drama from RKO. Check out the mustache on Olivier. It makes him look like poor man’s Ronald Colman. Though the film’s not very good (it lost $250,000 for RKO, a huge sum in the Depression) it is rarely screened.
May 26: A triple-feature, beginning at 6 am with Bessie Love and Raymond Hackett in the 1929 MGM show biz comedy-drama, The Girl in the Show. At 8:30 am, Anita Page and June Walker are dedicated nurses serving in World War I in MGM’s gritty, excellent War Nurse, from 1930. As it’s an excellent film that rarely gets shown, we recommend you record it for later pleasurable viewing. You won’t be disappointed. Finally, at 10 am, Diana Wynyard, Lewis Stone and Phillips Holmes star in the thoughtful Men Must Fight (MGM, 1933), a prophetic tale of a mother trying to keep her son out of war in 1940(!). Sounds like the story of Neville Chamberlain. The film also predicts the mainstream popularity of television. By all means, catch this one!
May 30: Tuna fisherman Edward G. Robinson marries wayward Zita Johann only to see her fall for his best friend Richard Arlen in Tiger Shark, from director Howard Hawks and Warner Bros. in 1932. Worth catching for Robinson’s awesome performance.
May 31: Poor orphan girl Jean Parker and reform school runaway Tom Brown are mistreated by farmer Arthur Byron in 1934’s Two Alone from RKO.
MEMORIAL DAY MARATHON
May on TCM means the annual Memorial Day Marathon, saluting movies about war and our reaction to war. Though once again nothing new is added to this year’s schedule, there are still several favorites being run for our enjoyment.
May 26: Begin at 8 pm with John Wayne playing pioneer aviator Frank “Spig” Wead in John Ford’s The Wings of Eagles (MGM, 1957). What’s a Memorial Day Marathon without the Duke and Ford? Then, at 10 pm, we get to see what World War I hero Alvin York would have been like if he was Gary Cooper in Sergeant York (WB, 1941).
May 27: Samuel Fuller’s Korean War masterpiece, The Steel Helmet, airs at 4:30 pm. At 8 pm, it’s Andy Griffith, Nick Adams and Don Knotts in the classic service comedy No Time for Sergeants (WB, 1958), followed by Henry Fonda, Jimmy Cagney and Jack Lemmon in Mister Roberts (WB, 1955) at 10:30.
May 28: Begin the day with Conrad Veidt in a dual role in Nazi Agent (MGM, 1942). Then stay tuned for Faye Emerson, Helmut Dantine and Raymond Massey in Hotel Berlin (1945), Warner Bros.’ answer to MGM’s Grand Hotel. At 4:15 Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane star in Hitchcock’s Saboteur (Universal, 1942). At 6:15 Humphrey Bogart closes out the afternoon, along with Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet in John Huston’s Across the Pacific (WB, 1942).
The evening is highlighted by two superb films. First up at 8 pm is Twelve O’Clock High (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1948), a psychological drama about the pressure of bomber combat missions over Europe starring Gregory Peck, Gary Merrill, Dean Jagger, and Hugh Marlowe. It’s followed at 10:30 pm by the sublime and engaging docudrama Tora, Tora, Tora (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1970) as the story of the Pearl Harbor attack is told from both American and Japanese sides. With an all-star cast including Martin Balsam, So Yamamura, Jason Robards, Joseph Cotten, Tatsuya Mihashi, E. G. Marshall, Takahiro Tamura, and James Whitmore.
An entertaining triple-feature begins at 12:00 pm with Clint Eastwood starring in Kelly’s Heroes (MGM, 1970), based on the true story of a group of GIs out to rob a bank in occupied France containing 14,000 bars of gold. Originally a subtle anti-war film, Eastwood and director Brian G. Hutton were forced to make cuts by their studio, MGM, that resulted in a different film from the one they originally made. It wasn’t until 1999 that the same plot of soldiers taking leave of a war to find hidden gold was employed for the movie Three Kings, which was not cut by the studio.
At 2:30 pm follows an adaptation of Alistair McLean’s, Where Eagles Dare (MGM, 1968), starring Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood as part of a team of commandos parachuted into the Bavarian Alps to rescue an Allied officer held prisoner at a castle-fortress known as the “Castle of the Eagle.”
Finally, at 5:15 pm comes Robert Aldrich’s tale of convicts turned commandos: The Dirty Dozen (MGM, 1967), starring Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson and a host of other slob actors.
At 8 pm the emphasis shifts to submarine warfare beginning with Cary Grant and John Garfield in Destination Tokyo (WB, 1943). At 12:30 am U.S. destroyer commander Robert Mitchum and U-Boat Commander Curd Jurgens engage in a deadly game of chess in The Enemy Below (20th Century Fox, 1957). The film was remade in a 1966 episode of the classic Star Trek, where Kirk battles it out with a cloaked Romulan warship. It was our first look at the Romulans and their resemblance to Vulcans.
PSYCHOTRONIA AND THE B-HIVE
May 17: Frances Dee stars run producer Val Lewton’s psychotronic adaptation of Jane Eyre, I Walked With a Zombie (RKO, 1943), at 11:30 pm. She is a nurse in the Caribbean who resorts to voodoo to cure her patient, even though she is head over heels for the woman’s husband. With the always entertaining Sir Lancelot.
May 18: With water being a precious commodity, Robert Urich heads a band of intergalactic buccaneers after giant ice cubes in Ice Pirates (MGM, 1984) at 10:30 am. Also starring Mary Crosby, Anjelica Huston, the venerable John Carradine, and Ron Perlman.
May 19: A mini-marathon of films about The Whistler begins at 6 am with, appropriately enough, The Whistler (1944). One of 8 B-movies made by Columbia and based on a popular radio series, the thread linking the plots of the series is an unseen narrator who introduces the stories, just as he did on the radio show. In this film, Richard Dix is Earl Conrad, a man who believes his wife has died in an accident and is badly depressed as a result. He chooses to end it all by hiring hit man J. Carrol Naish to kill him. But the plot thickens when the wife turns out to be alive (she was being held by the Japanese on a Pacific island, of all things). Dix, however, can't find the hit man to call off his own murder. Besides the narrator, Dix was the only star who appeared in all of the films except the last, alternating between playing victims and villains.
At 7:30 am comes The Power of The Whistler (1945). Once again, Richard Dix stars as an amnesiac who is helped by kindly Janis Carter as he tries to regain his memory. With her help he finally does regain it – and it turns out that he is actually a homicidal maniac! A great entry in the series.
At 9 am it’s Voice of the Whistler (1945), with Richard Dix as a wealthy industrialist who, on doctor's orders to take a long rest, assumes a different identity and goes to live in a remote seaside spot in Maine with his nurse in tow. Revealing his true identity to her, he offers to leave her everything in his will if she will marry him and stay with him for what he believes are the final months of his life. But complications arise when Dix falls for the nurse and returns to health. Now he comes up with a plan to murder her intern boyfriend, who expects to marry her after the rich man's death. Directed by William Castle.
Following at 10:30 comes another Castle-directed entry, The Mysterious Intruder (1945). Elderly music shop owner Edward Stillwell (Paul Burns) shows up at the office of detective Don Gale (Richard Dix) to inform him he's seeking Elora Lund (Pamela Blake). Not only has she been missing for seven years, ever since her mother died when Elora was only 14 years old, but Elora is now rich, though she doesn't know it. Stillwell, for his part, won't tell Gale how he knows it. To find out just how Elora came by her wealth, Gale hires actress named Freda Hanson (Helen Mowery) to pose as Elora, figuring that Stillwell won't be able to tell the difference between Eloras. He's right, but unfortunately, before Stillwell can tell Elora about her newfound wealth, he's murdered and Gale has now become a suspect.
At noon Dix is an insane artist in The Secret of The Whistler (1946). His wealthy wife, Edith, catches him in an affair with Kay Morrell, one of his models. After Edith asks for a divorce he poisons her and shortly after marries Kay. Kay, suspecting he killed his first wife, discovers Edith’s diary and learns the truth. Stick around for the great twist ending.
At 1:30 pm comes the final entry in the series, The Return of The Whistler (1948). Based on a story by Cornell Woolrich, young civil engineer Ted Nichols (Michael Duane) is engaged to widow Alice Dupres Barkeley (Lenore Aubert), when she suddenly disappears. The detective he hires (Richard Lane) to find her is actually working for the husband’s family. They have abducted her and are scheming to obtain the fortune she stands to inherit. Dix is not in this one and it’s just as well, as this is the weakest of the series. Not a good way to go out.
At 3 pm we now switch to another B-series made by Columbia and based on a radio show, namely, I Love a Mystery. In the 1945 debut film by that name, detectives Jack Packard (Jim Bannon) and Doc Long (Barton Yarborough) at the A-1 Detective Agency are hired by socialite Jefferson Monk (George Macready), who is receiving strange messages threatening his life from an Asian secret society. He comes to believe that he will be decapitated in three days and Packard and Long must think fast to prevent his death.
At 4:30 it’s The Devil’s Mask (1946). After a shrunken head is discovered in the wreckage of a downed plane Jack and Doc are drawn into the mystery of a missing museum curator and his psychologically damaged daughter (Anita Louise), whose undiagnosed Electra Complex may have driven her to murder. This is an intriguing film with great cinematography by Henry Freulich, who has an eye for bottomless shadows. Though the film promised great things to come for Columbia, the studio abruptly pulled the plug after only one more entry in the series.
And that entry is The Unknown (1946), which is airing at 6 pm. This old dark house whodunit takes place over a span of years with happening before Jack and Doc show up. Rachel Martin (Karen Morley) is engaged to James Wetherford (Robert Kellard); the engagement arranged by her mother, Phoebe (Helen Freeman). At the party Rachel is discovered in the study with Richard Arnold (Robert Wilcox). She reveals that they have been secretly married for several months. When her father pulls a gun and orders Richard to leave, he and Richard struggle for the gun and the father is accidentally killed. To avoid scandal, Phoebe has her sons and Rachel help her entomb Martin's body in the fireplace and forbids them ever to mention the occurrence. As time passes Rachel becomes mentally unbalanced and gives birth to a baby girl, whom Phoebe immediately has sent away. Years later, the child, now a grown woman named Nina (Jeff Donnell), returns to the home where she was born for the reading of Phoebe's will. Nina has never met any of her relatives, was reared by a succession of teachers paid for by a mysterious benefactor. Accompanied by private detectives Jack Packard and Doc Long, who have been hired by her benefactor, Nina finds the family has several closets containing skeletons, including a surprise appearance by the deceased before they track down a killer.
May 20: Casino blackjack dealer Gary Lockwood plans to knock over an armored car with his gang in They Came to Rob Las Vegas (WB, 1969) at 8:15 am. Elke Sommer and Jack Palance co-star.
At 10:30 reformed thief Boston Blackie (Chester Morris) uncovers a Nazi spy ring in Meet Boston Blackie (Columbia, 1941).
At noon Sherlock Holmes (Nicol Williamson) gets caught up in a murder while seeking help from Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin) in the highly entertaining The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (Universal, 1976).
A crashed spaceship contains a quickly growing monster from Venus in 20 Million Miles to Earth (Columbia, 1957). William Hopper and Joan Taylor star. The creature came from the imagination of master animator Ray Bradbury. Race car driver Elvis tries to outrun the beautiful tax auditor (Nancy Sinatra) out to settle his account in Speedway (MGM, 1968).
May 22: It’s a night of hagspoiltation, beginning at 8 pm with the classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (WB, 1962), with Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, followed by Tallulah Bankhead tormenting Stefanie Powers in Die! Die! My Darling (Columbia/Hammer, 1965) at 10:30 pm. At 12:30 am it’s Joan again, reaching new lows in William Castle’s Strait-Jacket (1964). Then, at 2:15 am, Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters sell themselves for a paycheck in What’s the Matter With Helen? (UA, 1971). Finally, Bette Davis is a psycho child caregiver in The Nanny (Twentieth Century Fox/Hammer, 1965) at 4:15 am.
May 30: One of the films being shown in a day-long tribute to director Howard Hawks is the classic The Thing From Another World (RKO, 1951). But Hawks did not direct it, he produced it. The directorial credit went to his film editor, Christian Nyby. Although some say Hawks actually directed it, they would be wrong.