A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
As we know, TCM is devoting the month of February, along with the first three days in March, to its annual “31 Days of Oscar” festival. Unlike last year, there’s little that’s new this time around. They have changed the format this year, showing the movies in alphabetical order, but once again, it’s mostly the same old films. Because of this, we here at Cinema Inhabituel are changing our format for the month. We will feature a different film each day and try to find those we feel are usually not discussed and sometimes overlooked. Barring that we’ll do what we can.
February 1: Let’s begin with one of the greatest action films ever made: The Adventures of Robin Hood (12:15 am). Robin Hood was a role Errol Flynn was born to play. In fact it’s perfectly cast all around, with Claude Rains as the devious King John, Basil Rathbone at his villainous best as Sir Guy of Gisbourne, and Olivia De Havilland impossibly beautiful as Maid Marian. One of the delights of the film is its inability to take itself seriously, as the cast seems to be performing their roles with a wink and a nod. The casting genius even extends to the minor roles: Can anyone else than Alan Hale play Little John? And no one but Eugene Palette can play Friar Tuck with such confidence. Warner Brothers had three strokes of genius in making the film: First, they replaced the staid William Keighley during filming with Michael Curtiz, who knew how to get the action into an action film. Second, they cast Errol Flynn as Robin. Believe it or not, James Cagney was the first choice for the role. Cagney’s good, but this is out of his league. We could no more see him as Robin Hood as we could see Flynn playing Rocky Sullivan in Angels With Dirty Faces. And thirdly, they shot the film in Technicolor, which made it even more mesmerizing and appealing. We’ve seen this movie more times than we can count, but we’re always willing to see it again.
February 2: Though it’s being aired at the late hour of 3:30 am, The Battle of Algiers is definitely one worth catching. Directed by Gilleo Pontecorvo, it’s a reconstruction of the events of 1954 to 1957 in the struggle of the guerrillas in the National Liberation Front against the French authorities. As portrayed by Jean Martin, Col. Mathieu isn’t so much a character as a representation of the repressive power of the regime against the feral heat generated by the inhabitants as they fight tooth and nail against their oppressors. What the French accomplish in the end is to win the battle against terrorism while losing the concurrent battle of ideas. It’s a lesson of history that has been repeated since then from Vietnam to Iraq. The device of Col. Mathieu is a clever stroke from the director and co-writer Franco Solinas in that the revolutionaries do not need to spout revolutionary consciousness since the Colonel is given such a counter-revolutionary consciousness that he says it for them. He is a fatalist, knowing that history has always been on the side of the oppressed, but at the same time realizing that he is a part of an imperialistic holding pattern ultimately doomed to failure. The movie never comes right out and espouses these feelings; rather it takes us along in the revolutionary fervor we see on the screen, with events happening so quickly that we don’t have time to pause and think. some may even accept the N.L.F.’s philosophy that violence s there only path to liberation. The French government complained that the film’s politics were anything but “fair and balanced.” They were right – it's a paean to revolution, which while documenting violent extremes on the part of the N.L.F., never retreats from its position that the Algerian side is right. The ethical questions raised by the film are still with us today and are the best reason why this is required viewing.
February 3: Here’s a strange choice. In a night of better known (and better) pictures, our recommendation is the seldom seen Blues in the Night. This overheated, fermented mix of jazz and melodrama from 1941 stars Richard Whorf as a pianist in a jazz band that includes Jack Carson (the band’s leader) on trumpet, Priscilla Lane on vocals, Elia Kazan on clarinet, Peter Whitney on bass, and Billy Halop on the drums. Along the way they run into escaped convict Lloyd Nolan, which leads to big trouble down the road when former girlfriend Betty Field succeeds in making Lloyd jealous. Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer composed the score, which includes the Oscar nominated “Blues in the Night.” Some may not recognize it from the title, but it begins with “My momma done told me, when I was in knee pants, My momma done told me, son...” I can still remember Daffy Dick and Porky Pig singing it in My Favorite Duck from 1942. This was Elia Kazan’s last acting role before he turned to directing, and as for Billy Halop, next stop was Poverty Row after starring in a couple of Universal serials.
February 4: Of all the ‘70s and beyond musicals our favorite by far is Cabaret, which will be shown tonight at 1:30 am. It’s easily Liza Minnelli’s best performance and most likely her most memorable one. Based on “Sally Bowles,” a short story by Christopher Isherwood (from his collection Berlin Stories), the movie captures perfectly the setting and mood of early ‘30s Berlin, just before Hitler became chancellor in 1933. Minnelli is Sally Bowles, a bohemian young dancer who performs at the Kit Kat Club. Joel Grey, who steals the film, is the emcee at the club. Michael York plays Brian Roberts, a bisexual writer (based on Isherwood), who shares his bed with Sally and Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem). Director Bob Fosse took the Broadway musical on which the film is based and increased the focus of the film on the Kit Kat Club, cutting all but one of the musical numbers that took place outside the club. The number he kept in was the harrowing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” a folk song spontaneously sung by young Nazis at an outdoor café. I have seen this film numerous times and the scene still sends a chill down my spine. A point of trivia that’s worth mentioning is that when the musical opened in London’s West End in 1966, the role of Bowles was played by Dame Judi Dench. Cabaret was nominated for 10 Oscars, with Minnelli winning Best Actress, Joel Grey winning Best Supporting Actor, and Bob Fosse walking away with Best Director.
February 5: To recommend any film other than Casablanca (8:00 pm) this night would be sheer blasphemy. Ingrid Bergman was never more popular or beloved than when the world’s most famous saloonkeeper was treating her like a whore. There has been much written about this beloved film, and we think every film buff is familiar with the backstory: how it was improvised from day to day (Ingrid Bergman reportedly didn’t even know until the last minute whether her character would be going away with Humphrey Bogart or Paul Henried), and the famous story of how it was to originally star George Raft, Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan (which was just a story) before cooler heads prevailed. At any rate, there is no doubt about the hold it as had not only on film fans but also the American public at large since the early ‘60s, when a small theater in Massachusetts began showing it for three weeks every year to bigger and bigger crowds. Since then, Casablanca has rightfully earned a place as a staple of American pop culture. Even those who haven’t seen it can quote lines of dialogue, such as “Here’s looking to you, kid,” and “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Captain Renault’s line, “Major Strasser has been shot ... Round up the usual suspects,” was turned into a hit movie by Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie. The film was nominated for eight Oscars, winning three for Best Picture, Best Director (Michael Curtiz), and Best Writing, Screenplay (Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch). Another famous story told about the film concerned its director, the Hungarian-born Michael Curtiz, who was famous for mangling the English language. One day he supposedly wanted to see how Ingrid Bergman’s character, Ilsa Lund, would look with a pet dog. He decided on a French poodle and sent a young stagehand to scour the studio for one. The young man returned over an hour later with a different breed of dog, telling an annoyed Curtiz that he couldn’t find a French poodle. “Never mind,” Curtiz supposedly shot back. “The next time I send an idiot out for something, I go myself.”
February 6: Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand, especially when 1967’s Cool Hand Luke is scheduled to play (8:00 pm). Paul Newman was never better than as Lucas Jackson, a man who just doesn’t fit in, no matter where he is, and this time he’s in jail for sawing the heads of parking meters while drunk. His natural inclination to stand up for his principles makes him a hero of sorts on the road gang, especially after he’s befriended by convict leader Dragline (George Kennedy). He gets along fine at first with the powers-that-be until they break his honor code by punishing him for something he hasn’t done. Then it’s war, even though he knows he will lose in the end. Part of the fun of the film is watching for familiar actors in supporting parts, such as Wayne Rogers, J.D. Cannon, Strother Martin, Lou Antonio, Jo Van Fleet, Richard Davalos, Harry Dean Stanton, Joe Don Baker, James Gammon, Ralph Waite, Anthony Zerbe, and, of course, Dennis Hopper.
February 7: How about a TCM premiere tonight, namely Dreamgirls, from 2006. Loosely based on the story of the Supremes, it stars Jamie Foxx, Beyonce Knowles, Eddie Murphy, and Jennifer Hudson, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Knowles, Hudson and Anika Noni Rose are members of an all girl R&B group called the Dreamettes. Foxx is the man who discovers them and finagles them a job as backup singers for charismatic R&B superstar James “Thunder” Early (Murphy). The film follows the girls’ rise to the top and all the shenanigans that accompany it, such as payola along with the inevitable break-up that occurs after success has been achieved. The performances are all top notch, especially Hudson, who deserved her Oscar, and Murphy, who was nominated and should have won, but didn’t. It’s a movie well worth the time with great tunes and a riveting storyline.
February 8: Our pick this day, from 1956, is Forbidden Planet at 4:00 pm. One of the classics of science-fiction cinema, it boasts excellent special effects and an intelligent story. A group of space troops, led by Leslie Nielsen, has come to the planter Altira-4 to relieve the members of the Bellerophon mission 20 years earlier. But upon landing, they learn that the only survivors are Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his daughter, Altaira (Anne Francis), along with Robby the Robot, which Morbius had pieced together years ago. Nielsen must phone home for further instructions as how to handle this new situation, while Morbius wants him and his crew gone as soon as possible. Nielsen, however, is suspicious. Something’s not passing the smell test, and when several of his crew meet their deaths, things heat up fast. Those new to this classic will love it while us old hands can certainly watch it once more.
February 9: We’re in a bit of a quandary today, with so many wonderful films on the slate. But our recommendation is ‘G’ Men with Jimmy Cagney from Warner Bros. at 6:15 pm. Cagney is in top form as “Brock” Davis, a lawyer put through law school by powerful gangster “Mac” McKay (William Harrigan). When Davis’ friend, FBI agent Eddie Buchanan (Regis Toomey), is gunned down by gangsters, Davis joins the FBI. After receiving his training, he travels to New York City and tells the mobsters, including McKay, that he will return to get each and every one of them. And get them he does, putting his knowledge of the gangland to good use with both guns blazing. Margaret Lindsay and the underrated Ann Dvorak are on hand to supply the eye candy, and Robert Armstrong and Lloyd Nolan (in his film debut) are part of the good guys at the Bureau. Barton MacLane is main heel Brad Collins and plays the role only as Barton MacLane can. By the way, note the absence of submachine guns. The newly enforced Production Code outlawed the use of the weapon as it was thought it would corrupt the youth of America.
February 10: The best choice for today is Preston Sturges’ The Great McGinty, from 1940. Brian Donlevy is in top form as a bum who is given a ticket to vote in a crooked election. As each ticket is worth two dollars, he votes in as many wards possible, delivering almost a bucketful to the political boss. The boss is not impressed, but asks if he wants a job. Donlevy wants to know what he’s supposed to do and he’s told to collect from those behind in their graft payments. From here, he’s made an alderman, and when the mayor is found wanting in the polls, the Boss, nicely played by Akim Tamiroff, asks him if he want to be the Reform Party’s candidate for mayor. “Since when do you have anything to do with the Reform Party?” he asks. “I am the Reform Party,” the Boss replies. “Since when?” “Since always. What, I should starve just because the city changes administrations?” Donlevy’s even given a family, in the form of Muriel Angelus and her children. After awhile they fall in love and marry, which proves to be his downfall, because she reforms him. This is a finely tuned satire of politics which is just as fresh now as it was in 1940. It airs at 10:30 pm.
February 11: How about another musical to liven thing up a little? Our pick for today is A Hard Day’s Night, from 1964, starring the Beatles. When the group hit it big in 1963, it was only a matter of time before they would do a movie to appeal to their legion of fans. Put together quickly, in fear that the group might just be a passing fad, directorial chores were given to Richard Lester. Before tackling this project, Lester had worked mainly in commercials and television, with only two movies to his credit: It’s Trad, Dad! (a 1962 film about jazz youth) and Mouse on the Moon (1963). Quickly realizing that neither film could serve as a model, he instead drew from his work in commercials, with its quick cutting and energetic pacing. Writer Alun Owen followed the boys around, careful to adapt his screenplay to words and phrases the Beatles actually spoke. (It was said the John Lennon ad-libbed many of his lines while the others stuck to the script.) What Lester ended up with was a semidocumentary about a day in the life of the Beatles, the main plot being that they had to make a television show set for later in the evening and, of course, almost don’t make it. A subplot was added for Paul in the form of his grandfather, nicely played by television and music hall star Wilford Brambell. Throughout the film everyone remarks on what a clean old man he is, a reference to his hit television series Steptoe and Son (the basis for the later American sitcom Sanford and Son), in which a popularly repeated line is that he’s “a dirty old man.” Lester’s quick cutting style and pacing liken the film to the style of the French New Wave. And it still holds up well. Tune it in at 10 pm if you don’t believe us.
February 12: Today’s choice is a wonderful film airing at the despicable hour of 3:45 am, I Vitelloni. Directed by Fellini in 1953, and released in America under the title The Young and the Passionate, it’s the story of five young friends and their struggle to escape from the boredom of their small town in Italy. According to the TCM essay, the film’s title translates to “five big slabs of veal.” Actually, a literal translation is “The Bulls,” but checking with our resident European, Christine (who is fluent in Italian), a more fitting idiomatic rendering would be “Young Slobs,” an apt description of the protagonists: five very immature sons of indulgent, middle-class families, living off their parents and wasting their lives away on the Atlantic seashore town of Rimini, waiting for the world to come to them, rather than vice versa. The summer tourist season has just ended, which means all there is to do for Fausto (Franco Fabrizi), Leopoldo (Leopoldo Trieste), Riccardo (Riccardo Fellini), Alberto (Alberto Sordi), and Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi) to do is hang out on the town streets, play pool, and await the coming of Carnival, all the while telling each other what they tend to do in life – a series of childish pipe dreams. As with many of his films, I Vitelloni is autobiographical. He observes the human farce without being condescending. Although the tone of the film is satirical, at the same time a genuine warmth emanates, making the humor richer. Of the five, Moraldo (the stand-in for Fellini himself) is the only one with courage enough to escape this farcical existence. The others will succumb to the pressures of provincial life. Fellini grew up in the town of Rimini and Riccardo is played by his brother, who the director cast because he felt that Riccardo would best understand the sensibilities of living in the small town. Think of American Graffiti or Diner, only much, much better.
February 13: For those looking for a nice change of pace, we suggest 1948’s Key Largo. Airing at 12:30 am, it’s always worth seeing. Or simply record it for later. Eddie G. Robinson is mesmerizing as deported crime boss Johnny Rocco, who is up from Cuba to deliver some counterfeit money. But an approaching storm has delayed his contacts. His stopover at James Temple’s (Lionel Barrymore) hotel on Key Largo proves to be fateful, as returning veteran Humphrey Bogart has come to pay his respects to Nora Temple (Lauren Bacall), the widow of an army buddy killed in Italy. The drama just keeps building from there, with the hurricane ratcheting things to the boiling point. Claire Trevor won the Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as Gaye Dawn, Rocco’s alcoholic former mistress.
February 14: None other than Francois Truffaut was once quote as saying the French New Wave might never have come into being if not for “the young American Morris Engel, who showed us the way to independent production with his fine movie, The Little Fugitive.” The Little Fugitive, which airs at 1:15 am, was the first effort of director Morris Engel and his collaborator – and later wife – Ruth Orkin. Made in 1953 and shot on a tiny budget with non-actors on location (mainly Coney Island), it’s a delightful tale about the adventures of seven-year old Joey (Richie Andrusco), whose brother Lennie (Richard Brewster) has him believing that he shot him to death. Joey runs away to Coney Island, where he mingles with the crowd and later hides under the boardwalk. Eventually a carnival employee obtains Joey’s name and address and calls his home, reaching brother Lennie, who comes to bring him home right before Mom arrives and real trouble breaks out. The Little Fugitive was obviously filmed in a more innocent era, when a kid could walk around safely, and the carnival employees who takes an interest in him is genuinely concerned about a lost little boy. Engel shot the film on a shoulder-mounted 35 mm camera as he follows Joey around the amusement park. He also shot the film without sound, dubbing in the dialogue later in the studio. The background sound was all done by professional sound editors, who create a very lively soundscape for the film. Eddy Manson composed and played the score on harmonica. Although the film did scant business in the States, it won a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival. We can almost guarantee that viewers who come to this quaint picture for the first time will be charmed out of their socks, especially those old enough to remember the Coney Island of their childhood.
February 15: Director Stanley Kubrick and novelist Vladimir Nabokov did the near impossible when they wrote the screenplay for Nabokov’s novel about pedophilia, Lolita, which airs at 12:30 am. James Mason gives an excellent, nuanced performance as Nabokov’s tortured protagonist, Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged academic so obsessed with sexually precocious nymphet Lolita Haze that he marries her overbearing mother, Charlotte, just to be with her. When Charlotte is killed after being hit by a car, Humbert takes charge of Lolita, figuring he has finally realized his dream. However, he loses his dream girl to equally amoral television playwright Clare Quilty, who has wooed her away from Humbert. This leads to a tragic chain of events that end with Quilty’s death and Humbert in prison. Mason’s supporting cast is excellent: Shelley Winters as Charlotte, Peter Sellers as the devious Quilty, and Sue Lyon, who turned 13 during filming, became a major star overnight. Kubrick shot the film in England to avoid meddling from both the studio and groups such as the Legion of Decency, even though they earlier approved the script. Errol Flynn proposed both himself and his teenage love, Beverly Aadland, for the lead roles, but Kubrick declined the offer as he already had trouble enough. The film did not fare well with the Academy; its only nomination was for Best Adapted Screenplay.