Monday, July 8, 2013

Cinéma Inhabituel for July 8-14

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea 
The big news this issue is Direct-TV dropping the Cinemoi Channel from its lineup effective July 1. From what I’ve been able to discern, Cinemoi has been paying Direct for the satellite space to reach its audience. According to a tweet from Direct, Cinemoi was “removed for non-payment. It is undetermined if it will return." Sounds final, but one never knows. Cinemoi has been a major disappointment to me since it first premiered on the Direct. Claiming to be a place showing French movies and culture, it has been woefully short on the French movie front, showing instead American movies that have already made the rounds on TCM. If they had stick to their original design, I believe they would have had viewers flowing out the old Wazoo, so to speak.

Yes, it would have been a niche audience, but there is definitely a place for the niche audience, and the niche audience is larger than presumed, as TCM has proven. But this seems to be the norm when discussing cable movie channels. Remember when HBO, Cinemax, Starz, and Showtime used to show recent and classic movies? No more. Now it’s just the Same Old, Same Old, with “original series,” most of which are simply dreadful, taking the place where the movies had proudly stood. We’ve seen this with AMC, IFC (which used to be a truly wonderful channel), and it’s now happening with the Sundance Channel. What do these channels have in common? All are owned by Rainbow Media, a subsidiary of Cablevision. Now both AMC and IFC show edited, relatively current films, and are riddled with endless commercials. This is entirely in keeping with Cablevision’s attitude towards its subscribers. Dumb it down, charge lots and lots, and treat your customers like sheep in a field. Were it up to me, the Dolans, who own Cablevision, would be flogged in a public venue. I hope the upshot of this will be that less and less will tune into their crap, but we never know. I’ve stopped watching both AMC and IFC, and I’m feeling the same way towards Sundance.

“Thank God for TCM,” is all I can say.
July 8

2:00 pm For Those Who Think Young (UA, 1964) – Director: Leslie H. Martinson. Cast: James Darren, Pamela Tiffin, Ellen Burstyn, Woody Woodbury, Paul Lynde, Tina Louise, Nancy Sinatra, & Bob Denver. Color, 96 minutes.

When Frankie and Annette proved that mindless beach movies could make lots and lots of cash, the race was on with the other studios to make mindless beach movies of their own. This was perhaps the strangest of the bunch.

It follows the usual teen movie formula of the squares versus the hipsters, but this thing is so tame that we’re left wondering at the end whether the thing was aimed at teens or their parents. For instance, the place where the students at Oceancrest College like to hang out, the Surf’s Up nightclub, is characterized by school administrators (led by Burstyn, of all people) as “a low dive on the corners of our campus,” Yet, it’s attended by well-dressed college kids in dark blazers and neat, slicked hair who are well behaved and attentive as the show begins.

Even stranger is the club’s main attraction: Woody Woodbury. Known to his adoring throng as “Uncle Woody,” he comes to the stage in a cap and gown, plays the piano, toasts the audience with Pepsi (lest we think the underage kiddies are boozing it up) and regales the crowd with the lamest jokes this side of what we used to tell each other in the third grade.

Another sub-plot deals with the attempts of co-ed Tiffin to escape the advances of campus ladies’ man Darren. Also, the evil Burystn would like nothing better than to shutter the nightclub, so we have that sub-plot going at the same time. Perhaps the wackiest of all are Sinatra and her boyfriend Denver, who otherwise functions as Darren’s sidekick and gofer. As far as these sort of movies go, this is a must see. It seems to be the first film to feature product placement, compliments of Pepsi, whose ad tag line forms the movie’s title.

Trivia: This was Nancy Sinatra’s movie debut. Father Frank helped with backing. Also look for brief roles by Allen Jenkins and Robert Armstrong near the end.

4:00 pm Bikini Beach (AIP, 1964) – Director: William Asher. Cast: Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello, Martha Hyer, Harvey Lembeck, Don Rickkles, John Ashley, Jody McCrea, & Candy Johnson. Color, 100 minutes.

Once Beach Party took off at the box office, the inevitable sequels followed. This is the third installment. Avalon gets a smidge of revenge against the Beatles and other British pop groups that were dominating the Billboard charts at the time by playing the Potato Bug, an effete English recording star. Frankie also – to no one’s surprise – plays Frankie. Michael Weldon said it best: “He had enough trouble with one role, let alone two. His Bug portrayal, complete with long wig and ‘yeah-yeahs,’ is really embarrassing. An also the reason you should tune in. Performances this bad don’t come along every day.

Keenan Wynn is also on hand as the mandatory adult star with a point to prove about Frankie and his gang. In this case, Wynn is a millionaire who tries to prove that his chimp, Clyde, is more intelligent than American teens. Annette, for her part, is torn between Frankie and the Potato Bug, and Eric Von Zipper shows up with the Rats to assist Wynn in his antiteen campaign.

Trivia: Boris Karloff, who appears in a cameo, was filling in for old friend Peter Lorre, who passed away shortly before filming began.
6:00 pm Beach Blanket Bingo (AIP, 1965) – Director: William Asher. Cast: Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello, Deborah Walley, Harvey Lembeck, John Ashley, Jody McCrea, Marta Kristen, Linda Evans, & Timothy Carey. Color, 98 minutes.

Installment Number Four in the series would be Avalon’s last as a full-time character. In the next, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, he appears for only six minutes. Perhaps he knew when it was time to leave. This is a rather staid entry in the series, with Paul Lynde as a manager/publicist for Evans, who plays singer Sugar Kane. He dreams up wacky stunts in the hopes that Earl Wilson will put them in his column. One of the stunts involves sky diving surfers in which Frankie gets involved, much to the displeasure of Annette. Eric Von Zipper and his gang show up and kidnap Evans, who thinks it’s another publicity stunt. Meanwhile Frankie’s buddy Deadhead (McCrea) has a romance of sorts going on with the mysterious Kristen, who’s a mermaid. No wonder Frankie left.

Trivia: Dell issued a comic-book tie-in to the picture. (Only 12 cents back then!) . . . Nancy Sinatra was originally signed to play Sugar Kane, gut dropped out when she read in the script that her character would be kidnapped. Her brother, Frank Jr., was recently kidnapped in real life. It was to be her movie debut.

July 9

8:00 am Terror on a Train (MGM, 1953) – Director: Ted Tetzlaff. Cast: Glenn Ford, Anne Vernon, Maurice Denham, Harcourt Williams, & Victor Maddern. B&W, 73 minutes.

This is a nice little time waster with Ford as a Canadian bomb expert during the war called back to defuse a bomb placed on a freight train by a saboteur. Ford is suffering from an unhappy marriage at home – his wife just left after their 10th argument or so – and this is just the thing to divert him from his troubles. The motivation of the bomber is never made clear, as the focus of the movie is on Ford and his efforts to find and defuse the bomb before it goes off. And to provide the requisite happy ending, Wifey shows up to support Ford just as he’s in the act of finding the explosive. Watch for Herbert C. Walton, as Charlie, as a nutty old man obsessed with trains, who almost screws things up for our hero. 

2:00 am The Madwoman of Chaillot (WB, 1969) – Director: Bryan Forbes. Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Danny Kaye, Giulietta Masina, Charles Boyer, Claude Dauphin, Nanette Newman, Yul Brenner, John Gavin, & Paul Henreid. Color, 132 minutes.

If you’re looking to watch some old favorites come together at the end of their careers, you are going to come away disappointed after watching this turkey. The problem with the film is not with the cast; it’s the leaden script they’re given to try and breathe life into as the film drags and drags.

The plot is concerned with a cabal of bad guys led by “The Chairman” (Brenner) that would gladly destroy Paris in the belief that it’s sitting on a sea of oil. Countess Aurelia (Hepburn) learns of the plot and, enlisting the help of local citizens, vows to stop the plotters in their tracks. It’s a serious theme, but we’re beaten over the head with it to the point of no return. It wouldn’t be so bad if there were a little humor included to diffuse the seriousness, but alas, there’s not, even with the brilliant Danny Kaye on hand (his last film) as The Ragpicker.

Another problem was the miscasting of Hepburn in the starring role. After a while her brittle manner becomes irritating. It would have worked far better, though with that script it was akin to skiing uphill in mud, if Giuletta Masina had played the lead role. Her light touch with this sort of material would have helped.

Trivia: The Place de Chaillot set, still standing at Studio la Victorine, was reused by François Truffaut as the set on which "Meet Pamela", the film-within-a-film in Day for Night, was being shot.

July 10

3:30 pm The Phantom of Paris (MGM, 1931) – Director: John S. Robertson. Cast: John Gilbert, Leila Hyams, Lewis Stone, Jean Hersholt, C. Aubrey Smith, & Ian Keith. B&W, 74 minutes.

Louie Mayer was busy greasing the skids for Gilbert’s exit from MGM, and to be honest, Gilbert wasn’t exactly helping his own cause at the time. Mayer spread the rumor that Gilbert’s voice didn’t translate to the screen, and that has more or less become the common wisdom, but if we watch Gilbert’s talkies, we discover that his voice came out just fine.

Here Gilbert takes on a role originally intended for the late Lon Chaney (hence, the title), and does a nice job with a movie that is rather fantastic, to say the least. Based on Gaston Leroux’s (who also wrote The Phantom of the Opera) novel, Cheri-Bibi, Gilbert plays the eponymous hero, a magician/escape artist in the style of Houdini. He falls for the daughter of a nobleman, and when said nobleman is murdered by her disreputable fiancée, Gilbert is framed for the crime. He uses his skills to escape prison and goes into hiding, eventually coming out and impersonating the real killer to clear his name and win the woman he loves.

As I mentioned, Gilbert is quite capable in the role and has a wonderful supporting cast, including Hyams as the love interest, Stone as the police inspector, and Smith as the murdered nobleman. Hersholt also appears as Gilbert’s best friend and confidant.

Trivia: Leila Hyams was being prepped as The Next Big Thing by MGM and, during the next year, appeared in both Freaks and Island of Lost Souls (loan-out). She was offered the role of Jane in Tarzan, but turned it down. She married agent Phil Berg, and in 1936, retired from films, although she remained active in the Hollywood community.

11:15 pm Algiers (UA, 1938) – Director: John Cromwell. Cast: Charles Boyer, Hedy Lamarr, Sigrid Gurie, Joseph Calleia, Alan Hale, Gene Lockhart, & Johnny Downs. B&W, 96 minutes.

The only reason I mention this film is for the chance for film buffs to compare it to the vastly superior Pepe Le Moko, with Jean Gabin in the title role. This, of course, is the American remake, and stars Boyer in the Gabin role. When we watch Boyer as Le Moko, we realize how much we miss Gabin. Not that Boyer is bad; actually, he’s not that bad at all, but . . . he’s no Gabin. Actually, the one to watch in this version is Lamarr, as Gaby, the love interest that lures the ill-fated Le Moko out of hiding. She’s terrible to the point where it’s fun to watch her on the screen. If she does seem competent at times in the film, it’s because of Boyer. He nurses her through and makes it seem like she can actually pull this off at times. MGM loaned her out to producer Walter Wanger in order to get some films under her belt before taking on the MGM assembly line in earnest.

Trivia: Walter Wanger tried to obtain all other copies of Pepe Le Moko in doer to destroy them. We can only be grateful he failed in this.

4:15 am X the Unknown (WB/Hammer, 1956) – Director: Leslie Norman. Cast: Dean Jagger, Leo McKern, Edward Chapman, Anthony Newley, William Lucas, & Ian McNaughton. B&W, 80 minutes.

As I stated in my Best Bet concerning the subject, though X the Unknown has an absurd premise, an intelligent script coupled with intelligent performances saves it from the Kingdom of Camp. The most interesting thing about the film is what didn’t happen. Originally, Hammer hired expatriate American Joseph Losey (working as Joseph Walton) as director. However, Jagger, the American star, said he wouldn’t appear in any movie for a Red director. Jagger was necessary to the film as the American star – for some strange reason English studios labored under the belief that they had to star an American actor in order for the film to succeed financially in America. Let’s face facts, neither Jagger nor Brian Donlevy, who top-lined the 1955 Hammer production of The Quartermass Experiment, were actors that the American public would go out of their way to see. Why Hammer felt compelled to do this is a mystery, for they didn’t do it with their horror films – no, they used Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. They later repeated this with Losey’s 1963 masterwork, These Are the Damned, by starring Macdonald Carey, whose best move was to later retreat to the soaps as the patriarch in Days of Our Lives. According to my English friend, Stuart, who appears as an extra in the movie (he was about nine years old at the time) Carey was so pickled that they had to pump coffee into him and place some of his lines on cue cards. And for what? Would any reader bust down the doors of the theater to see Macdonald Carey?

Anyway, their replacement for Losey, Norman, was even more unpopular with Jagger than Losey. It’s the old saw, “Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it.” So if Jagger appears a little disinterested at times we know the reason why. At any rate, it’s a damn good movie and one well worth your time. 

July 11

8:00 pm Jason and the Argonauts (Columbia, 1963) – Director: Don Chaffey. Cast: Todd Armstrong, Nancy Kovack, Gary Raymond, Laurence Naismith, Niall McGinnis, & Honor Blackman. Color, 104 minutes.

It’s Ray Harryhausen night on TCM, and though he deserves a full 24 hours, we understand and appreciate the tribute. This is simply an excellent film all around, as Harryhausen’s creations show up quite well in color. And they are clearly the stars of the film, as the only actor known to most moviegoers is Blackman. MacGinnis is Zeus, but only hardcore film fans and devotees of the psychotronic will remember him from Curse of the Demon, where he played the Aleister Crowley character. Tim Burton, who called it an influence, cites the film, as does Tom Hanks who called it the best film ever made.

Trivia: Exteriors for the film were shot in Palinuro, a small town in Southeastern Italy. Because of the chilly morning temps, Kovack (Medea) wore a sweater, the only one she brought. Unfortunately it was a purple sweater, which caused an uproar among the locals because purple is associated there with funerals . . . The voice of Armstrong and Kovack were dubbed over in the release version . . . Kovack retired from acting when she married the renowned conductor Zubin Mehta. Wonder if she has to call him “Maestro?”

2:00 pm Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (Columbia, 1956) – Director: Fred F. Sears. Cast: Hugh Marlowe, Joan Taylor, Donald Curtis, Morris Ankrum, John Zaremba, & Tom Browne Henry. B&W, 82 minutes.

The highlight of this rather tepid production is the flying saucers animated by Harryhausen; otherwise it’s a quite forgettable sci-fi flick. Marlowe and wife Taylor must fight the obligatory invasion by aliens from another planet and save the earth for us all. But those saucers are a wonder in themselves, whirling around, firing death rays, and downing stock footage B-17s. Watch for the scene where the aliens set fire to the forest where Marlowe and his gang were hiding. The saucers move effortlessly while we can see the humans are running quite uncomfortably on a treadmill in front of a rear-projected fire.

Trivia: In interviews, Harryhausen stated this was his least favorite film.

3:30 am The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (WB, 1957) – D: Paul Landres. Cast: Paul Christian, Paula Raymond, Cecil Kellaway, Kenneth Tobey, Donald Woods, & Lee Van Cleef. B&W, 80 minutes.

No Ray Harryhausen tribute would be complete without this, the first of his solo creations. This film about a dinosaur – called a rhedosaurus – disturbed from his suspended animation slumber in the Arctic and eventually finding his way to New York City – is loosely based of Ray Bradbury’s short story, “The Foghorn.” It also marks the first solo effort of Ray Harryhausen in the special effects department. And what a great job Harryhausen does in animating this stop-motion creature. It makes for a quick and totally enjoyable 80 minutes as the creature makes his way from the North Pole to New York City’s Financial District, coming ashore at what is now the South Street Seaport (back then the Fulton Fish Market). Look for a young Van Cleef at the climax as the sharpshooter who injects the lethal radioactive isotope into the creature.

Trivia: Film buffs may recognize Alvin Greenman, the first soldier to see the creature on radar. Greenman had earlier been seen as Alfred, the Macy’s janitor from Miracle on 34th Street . . . the dinosaur skeleton in the museum is the one that was constructed for RKO’s Bringing Up Baby in 1938.
July 12

3:15 pm Sincerely Yours (WB, 1955) – Director: Gordon Douglas. Cast: Liberace, Joanne Dru, Dorothy Malone, Alex Nicol, William Demerest, Lori Nelson & Lurene Tuttle. B&W, 118 minutes.

With all the hoopla over HBO’s Liberace bio, Behind the Candelabra, with Michael Douglas as Lib and Matt Damon as Scott Thorson, his young lover, this film, starring the real Liberace, is one not to miss. It’s one the great camp classics and contains a great embarrassing performance by Liberace, who plays pianist Anthony Warrin, a man that is beginning to go deaf. It’s a remake of the George Arliss 1922 silent, later made into a 1932 talkie with Arliss, called The Man Who Played God. Arliss, too, is a pianist going deaf, and like Liberace, he learns to read lips and spies on the people across in the park from his penthouse. From there, like Liberace, he goes on to help those people. But that’s where the comparisons end. Unlike Arliss, Liberace has zero charisma in the film. Zero. And while Arliss was quite an accomplished actor, Liberace couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag. But perhaps the funniest thing about the movie is that supporting actresses Dru and Malone are on screen as women fighting over Liberace. Repeat: Dru and Malone play characters fighting over Liberace. As if . . .

Trivia: This was Liberace’s screen debut, part one of a two-picture deal with Warner Brothers. The reception to the film was so bad that the studio paid him off rather than make a second film. For his part, except for cameos in When the Boys Meet the Girls and The Loved One (both 1965), Liberace never appeared in a movie again.

July 13

3:30 am The Haunting (MGM, 1963) – Director: Robert Wise. Cast: Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, Russ Tamblyn, & Rosalie Crutchley. B&W, 112 minutes.

Remember the days when a ton of special effects wasn’t necessary to scare the daylights out of the audience? This film was perhaps the best example of what just using one’s imagination could do when it came to horror and the unseen. It was directed by Wise, who began his directorial career proper under the guidance of the great Val Lewton, a man that proved elaborate props and effects weren’t necessary to scare the audience. For those of you that haven’t seen this classic, record it and watch it sometime during the evening. Be sure to turn out all the lights. Then just sit back with your popcorn and your loved one, relax, and enjoy the fun.

Trivia: Wise dedicated the film to his mentor, Val Lewton . . . Martin Scorsese named this as his favorite horror film.

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