A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
SUMMER UNDER THE STARS
It’s August, which means a month of “Summer Under the Stars,” in which each day is devoted to the films of a particular actor or actress. In the past, TCM has made this somewhat interesting by including people we don’t normally see, i.e., those not from Hollywood, the international stars. But this year the only international star we get is Simone Signoret, and if we really want to stretch it, Vanessa Redgrave (and that’s really stretching it, as she has made quite a few films in America).
Instead, we get yet another day of stars whose films have been nearly run to death. Given the opportunity to do something out of the ordinary, TCM once again sticks to the tried and true, and in the end, lets its fans down. As I said in this column last year, I would like to see a day devoted to the films of the following: Marcello Mastroianni, Alec Guinness, Setsuko Hara, Monica Vitti. Paul Wegener, George Arliss, Michel Charles Hawtrey, Anouk Aimee, Ugo Tognazzi, Emil Jannings, Richard Attenborough, Vittorio Gassman, Googie Withers, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina, Alberto Sordi, Diana Dors, Jean-Claude Brialy, Gerard Depardieu, Giulietta Masina, Isabelle Huppert, Jean Marais, Anna Magnani, and Albert Remy. And that’s just off the top of my head.
This column is ostensibly dedicated to the rare and unusual, but there’s not much that’s rare this month and even less that’s unusual, so please excuse the brevity.
OUT OF THE ORDINARY
August 1: On a day devoted to Marilyn Monroe, try Ladies of the Chorus (Columbia, 1949) at 6:00 am. Adele Jergens and Marilyn are mother/daughter burlesque chorus girls. Adele sees Marilyn going down the same rocky romantic road she did when she was young and tries to prevent it. It’s Marilyn’s first substantial role and the only movie she made for Columbia, which dropped her contract shortly after this film was released. Directed by old pro Phil Karlson, it’s definitely worth a look. Eddie Garr, who plays burlesque clown Billy Mackay, is the father of Teri, which should give film buffs even more reason to tune in.
August 8: Franchot Tone stars with Ann Sothern in the breezy and entertaining Fast and Furious, the last in the Joel and Garda Sloane mystery series, airing at 10:45 am.
August 8: Franchot Tone makes his second film appearance in Howard Hawks’ disappointing drama, Today We Live (6:00 am). This 1933 effort from MGM stars Gary Cooper and Robert Young as two officers (one a pilot and one in the Navy) competing for the love of English aristocrat Joan Crawford during World War I. Despite a script co-written by Willian Faulkner (from his story “Turn About”), the film is pretty heavy slogging with one of the corniest endings in the history of movies. Tone plays Crawford’s brother.
At 2:45 am, Tone is a playboy trying to break down showgirl Jean Harlow’s resolve in the delightful The Girl From Missouri (1934), with Harlow determined to preserve her “virtue” before marriage. With Lionel Barrymore as Tone’s millionaire father and Lewis Stone as a prospective husband whose suicide leads to trouble for Harlow.
August 11: A day dedicated to Ginger Rogers begins with four Pre-Code movies. First up at 6:00 am is The Tenderfoot (1932), a Joe E. Brown comedy that sees him as a naive cowboy with a roll of cash who wants to back a Broadway show in the worst way.
At 7:30 am, Ginger and Fred Astaire end up stealing Flying Down To Rio (1933) from erstwhile stars Dolores Del Rio and Gene Raymond. Their number, “the Carioca,” carried them from supporting roles to stars of the show.
Ginger loses honest, hardworking fiancee Joel McCrea to spoiled heiress Marian Nixon in the dull Chance at Heaven (1933) at 9:15 am, a move he lives to regret. Didn’t they just show this a couple of weeks ago?
Finally, at 10:45 am, Ginger joins with Pat O’Brien and Dick Powell in the musical Twenty Million Sweethearts (1934). Otherwise humdrum, it’s worth seeing for the appearance of the Mills Brothers.
August 13: Three excellent Pre-codes starring Barbara Stanwyck begin at 6:00 am with So Big! (1932). Based on the Edna Ferber novel, Stanwyck is a farmer’s widow who not only must take on the land after her husband dies, but must also deal with his difficult son in whom she has invested the family hopes. Look for Bette Davis in an early role.
At 7:30 am Stanwyck is a nightclub singer on the lam who hides out by becoming a mail order bride for struggling farmer George Brent in the wild melodrama The Purchase Price (1932). Directed by William Wellman, it’s bizarre, but moves along so fast we don’t have time to reflect on just how bizarre it is while we relish the racy dialogue along the way. Look for the scene where another of the mail order brides says, “You know what they say about men with bushy eyebrows and a long nose!” as she holds up a banana.
At 9:00 am Stanwyck stars in the Grandmother of Women’s Prison films: Ladies They Talk About (1933). Stanwyck made quite a few bizarre movies during her Pre-Code days, but this one is a doozy, with Babs as a moll arrested for her part in robbing a bank, betrayed by preacher Preston Foster, and sent to the Big House, where she interacts with as strange a cast of characters as you’ve ever seen. Look for there scene where Lillian Roth croons “If I Could Be With You” to a photo of Joe E. Brown. Obviously, she’s been cooped up too long. Also look for the quick scene where Lillian introduces Babs to some of the inmates. They pass by a well-built mannish woman smoking a cigar. “Watch out for her,” says Lillian. “She likes to wrestle!”
PSYCHOTRONICA AND THE B-HIVE
August 2: Two from Star of the Day Ray Milland. First up at 7:15 am is Bulldog Drummond Escapes (Paramount, 1937), a reimaging of the classic Ronald Colman film. Milland is excellent in the role and the film is an enjoyable B-programmer. At noon, Milland faces the aftermath of nuclear war in AIP’s Panic in the Year Zero (1962). Jean Hagen plays Ray’s wife and Frankie Avalon plays his son. Milland did double duty, as he also directed the film.
August 4: Dick Powell does an amazing job bringing detective Philip Marlowe to life in 1944’s Murder, My Sweet, at 10:00 pm. Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley, Otto Kruger, Mike Mazurki, and Mile Mander co-star.
August 6: An early film with Robert Mitchum airs at 7:30 am. In When Strangers Marry, Mitchum has his first co-starring role as Fred Graham, former beau of Millie Baxter (Kim Hunter), who has just married traveling salesman Paul Baxter (Dean Jagger). As the film unfolds Millie comes to wonder if her new husband isn’t the killer the police are looking for after a drunk was murdered in his hotel room and relieved of the $10,000 bank roll he was carrying. This 1944 production from Monogram is crisply directed by William Castle and provides a good showcase for Mitchum. Even though it was made before he became a star, it was already his 22nd film credit, including six Hopalong Cassidy oaters. Those would have been interesting for TCM to run on this day.
August 9: Sandra Dee is an innocent college student lured away and drugged by crazed Dean Stockwell, who has stolen the Necronomicon from the school library and plans to sacrifice her in The Dunwich Horror (1970), at 4:00 am. It’s a lot duller than this synopsis sounds, as warlock Ed Begley, Sr. plans to stop Stockwell with the proper curse. Roger Corman served as executive producer, which should serve to explain things.
LON CHANEY – AUGUST 3
Lon Chaney is one of the greatest actors ever to appear before a camera. Who knows what he might have accomplished if his career was not cut short by lung cancer at the age of 47 in 1930. He had recently scored a success in his first – and only – talkie, a remake of his 1925 classic The Unholy Three (airing at 4:45 pm). The sound remake is airing at the late hour of 4:15 am.
Chaney was justifiably renowned for his ability to not only lose himself in his character, but to bend his body into almost impossible poses to play such characters. Watching him effortlessly cavort around the set as the legless criminal mastermind Blizzard in 1920’s The Penalty (6:00 am), one would almost be led to think he was born without legs. But he underwent a most painful binding of his lower legs behind him to create the effect.
In The Unknown, from 1927 (2:00 pm), he plays Alonzo the Armless Wonder. With his arms bound at his side, he learned to throw knives with his feet. In reality he is hiding from the police, and the reason he pretends to be armless is to hide his undeniable identifying mark: the fact he has two thumbs on one hand. Deeply in love with his lovely assistant Nanon, who cannot bear the feel of a man’s arms around her, he decides to make the ultimate sacrifice. As this is a Chaney film, we have an inkling how it turns out.
At 8 pm comes his most famous role: Erik the Phantom, the vengeful composer from The Phantom of the Opera (1925). If you haven’t yet seen this one, I urge you to watch it. It’s been remade several times, and even became a Broadway musical, but none of the remakes can touch the original.
Actually, all the Chaney films should be seen, but as most of us can’t really spare the time, in addition to those titles listed above, here are the best of the day:
9:15 am – Oliver Twist. Chaney makes for an unforgettable Fagin in this 1922 production with Jackie Coogan in the title role.
6:30 pm – He Who Gets Slapped (1924). Chaney is brilliant scientist Paul Beaumont. On the eve of a great success, loses both his wife (Ruth Hall) and invention to Baron Regnard (Marc McDermott). Heartbroken, he decides to become a clown in the circus, where he falls in love with beautiful bareback rider Consuelo (Norma Shearer). Unfortunately for Chaney, she is in love with her handsome partner Bezano (John Gilbert). This marks one of Chaney’s greatest performances and is definitely one to see.
9:45 pm – Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928). Again Chaney is a circus clown. He adopts an orphan who grows up to be Loretta Young (in her first substantial role). When she discovers he is in love with her, she realizes she must choose between her devotion to him and wealthy nobleman Luigi (Nils Asther), who has asked her to marry him. The film is a perfect example of Chaney's unmatched talent for turning what could merely be an unabashed tearjerking melodrama into a heartbreaking tragedy without resorting to chewing tons of scenery.
11:15 pm – Tell It to the Marines (1926). A departure of sorts for Chaney as he plays a tough drill sergeant who becomes a rival of spoiled recruit William Haines for the love of Eleanor Boardman. Recommended because it marks one of the rare times Chaney performed sans some sort of grotesque makeup.
1:15 am – West Of Zanzibar (1928). Chaney stars as Flint in this adaptation of the Broadway hit Kongo. A magician known as Phroso, he’s an amiable music-hall entertainer known for his act with wife Anna (Jacqueline Gadsden). But when Anna runs away with wealthy ivory trader Crane (Lionel Barrymore), Phroso tumbles from a balcony during a fight with Crane, injuring his spine and rendering him unable to walk. Mrs. Flint passes away several months later, leaving behind a daughter names Maizie. Flint, believing Maizie is the love child of Anna and Crane, takes the child and runs off to East Africa. He has Maizie raised in a brothel, and sets up his own kingdom in the jungle, deceiving the locals with his magic tricks. Now known as “Dead-Legs,” he sends for Maizie (Mary Nolan) after she turns 18, telling her that she will finally meet her father. He treats her with open hatred, in the process turning her into an alcoholic. When he finally has his showdown scene with Crane, Flint learns that what he thought was so all these years really isn’t. This builds up to a major surprise for Flint in his relationship with Maizie. MGM remade the film in 1932 as Kongo, starring Walter Huston, who originated the part on Broadway. Those who think West of Zanzibar is extreme after seeing it should get a load of the remake. It actually goes beyond the silent version in depravity.
During his all-too-short career, Chaney was one of the most popular movie stars of his day. A popular joke of the era was was “Don't step on it; it might be Lon Chaney!” For many years, the cause of the cancer was thought to have been a piece of artificial snow, made out of crushed gypsum, that lodged in his throat during the filming of Thunder (1929), his last silent film. However, Chaney was a heavy smoker, whose habit was said to have reached four packs a day.
Chaney was one of those rare talents who could give life to a character without overdoing it. Again, we can only imagine what it might have been like had Chaney lived.