Saturday, November 15, 2014

Cinéma Inhabituel for November 16-30

A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea


TCM’s approach to the Star of the Month in November is not one featured actor, but many. Stars of the Silent Screen is the theme, exposing us to silent cinema and the great faces that drove it.

November 17 - It’s a mixed bag tonight, concentrating on drama. The best bets are the first two films - The Last Command (1928) at 8:00 pm, and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) at 10:00 pm. The former, directed by Josef Von Sternberg, is a wonderful drama of Sergius Alexander (Emil Jannings), a former Imperial Russian general living in Los Angeles after a narrow escape from Russia and destined for a bit part in a movie depicting the Russian Revolution. To add to his misery, the movie is being directed by Lev Andreyev (William Powell), a former revolutionary who recognizes Alexander from their bygone times, and worse, remembers him as a cruel and sadistic bully. The flashback scene to the revolutionary days is superb, as is the ending. I recommend this one highly.

Sunrise is a classic no matter how one slices it, just as powerful and moving today as it was back in 1927. Directed by the great F.W. Murnau, it tells the rather simple story of a country farmer (George O’Brien) seduced by a vacationing woman from the city (Margaret Livingston). She wants him to kill his wife (Janet Gaynor) so that they may dwell happily ever after in the city. As the film unspools, the viewer will quickly notice that the wonderful point about Sunrise isn’t so much the story as the way the story is told. It is a triumph of the director’s art, camerawork (cinematographers Karl Struss and Charles won Oscars for it), performances, and even art direction, with everything being constructed through the viewfinder. Even the furniture was built in perspective. Seen today as an essential classic of the cinema, it bombed financially when released back in 1927, and essentially destroyed Murnau’s career.

November 24: The emphasis this night is on comedy, and the best bets are the incomparable Charlie Chaplin at 8:00 pm in A Dog’s Life (1918), Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances (1925), and Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman (1925). Each film is followed by an interesting documentary about the star. In the wee hours of the morning, shorts starring Charley Chase, Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand, and Laurel and Hardy will be shown. All are highly recommended.


The theme of “road movies” continues. As stated before, many qualify as Psychotronic, but almost all are enjoyable and well worth the time.

November 21: Not really a good selection this evening, with the standout film being one originally made for television and directed by a 22-year old Steven Spielberg, with the teleplay by one of the great storytellers, Richard Matheson, based on his short story. The film is Duel. Made in 1971, it’s the tense, harrowing story of a businessman (Dennis Weaver) driving up the California coast en route to see a client. He innocently passes a gasoline tanker, but the incident turns out to be far from innocent as the truck begins tailgating his car. The unseen driver first taunts Weaver, and later tries to run him off the road, forcing the businessman into a battle of wits to save his life and sanity. Matheson based his story on a real-life incident from 1963 with a trucker on a Los Angeles freeway. Duel has been hailed by critics as one of the best made-for-TV movies, and was released theatrically overseas.

November 28: The Spotlight goes out this night with a great slate of films, beginning at 8:00 pm with the hilarious Hope-Crosby Road to Utopia (1945), followed by the Preston Sturges classic, Sullivan’s Travels (1942) at 9:45, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) at 11:30, and finally, the great Italian road picture, Il Sorpasso (1961), at 1:30 am. It’s definitely a popcorn and wine night.


November 16: It’s an Alberto Sordi double feature beginning at 2:00 am with Fellini’s I Vitelloni (1953), followed at 4:00 am with the comedy Mafioso (1962). Of the two, I Vitelloni is the one to catch. Arguably Fellini’s masterpiece, it’s the story of five rather shiftless young men in a small Adriatic town who have to cope with their emerging adulthood. There are definite resemblances between this and George Lucas’s American Graffiti, enough to make me ponder whether or not this film was an influence on the young Lucas. As for Mafioso, read the “We Disagree” in the November 15-22 TiVo listing.

November 21: The morning and afternoon is devoted to the musicals of Eleanor Powell. It begins at 6:30 am with Born to Dance (1936), the only film where Jimmy Stewart warbles; quite badly, by the way. Following, in order, are Broadway Melody of 1936 (1936) at 8:30 am, Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937) at 10:15, Rosalie (1937) at 12:15, Honolulu (1939) at 2:30, Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940) at 4:00, and finally, Lady Be Good (1941), where Powell does an unforgettable dance with her pooch, at 6:00.

November 23: Two films of note, again being aired in the wee hours of the night. First up at 2:15 am is La Cienaga (2001), from Argentina. I haven’t seen this one, but the plot sounds intriguing: Mecha (Graciela Borges) and Gregorio (Martin Adjemian) are at their rundown country place near La Ciénaga with their teenage kids. It’s a hot summer and the adults drink constantly, which leads to Mecha having an accident that sends her to the hospital, taking Gregorio with her and leaving the children on their own. Inevitably, trouble results.

Following at 4:00 am is director Agnes Varda’s masterful La Pointe Courte (1955), a brilliantly constructed tale of a small fishing community in southeastern France, Ste, its inhabitants and a parallel story of a husband and wife, known only as Him and Her, returning to the town of his youth as they try to repair their marriage. The movie's drama revolves around small but important questions: Will the father let his daughter marry the man she loves, even though he disapproves? Will the police arrest the man who harvested his shellfish from an off-limits area of the water? And will the Parisian couple resolve their differences, or split up? The film’s climax comes at Ste’s annual water-jousting tournament, where men knock each other off boats with medieval-style lances. With this film, Varda does indeed prove that little things can mean a lot.

November 30: Two outstanding films from Japan are on the card tonight, again being screened in the wee hours. First up at 2:30 am is director Keisuke Kinoshita’s Army (Rikugun, 1944), a multi-generational epic about the military legacy of a Japanese family. It is also a moving portrait of two parents (Chishu Ryu and Kinuyo Tanaka) whose sons are serving in the Imperial Japanese army. Never mind the hilarious party-line propaganda and concentrate on the parents. It’s a wonderful and insightful portrait of wartime Japan.

Following at 4:15 am is Yasujiro Osu’s satirical look at the Western-inspired consumerism Japan of his day, Good Morning (Ohayo, 1959). In a Japan where wrestling is the current craze, sales of television sets are booming. Two young boys grow tired of having to watch the bouts over a neighbor’s house and decide to go on a strike, taking a vow of silence until their parents give in and purchase a television. As usual Ozu has quite a few targets to skewer: the kids want televisions while housewives are clamoring for washing machines. The childless couple who invite the children in to watch wrestling on their television set are seen coming home early in the morning, scatting a jazz tune, which hints at a bohemian lifestyle and the influence of Western culture. Other adults simply engage in trivial patter instead of saying what’s really on their minds, and a single man and a single woman have difficulty in finding a way to express their mutual attraction. It’s vintage Ozu, and it’s a wonderful film to boot.


On November 18, TCM is showing Jimmy Cagney’s 1935 drama The Frisco Kid, from 1935. Directed by house employee Lloyd Bacon, it’s set against the backdrop of San Francisco’s wild and dangerous Barbary Coast about 1854. Cagney is Bat Morgan, a sailor who turns on those who try to shanghai him and through sheer determination and a pair of steel fists, bullies and bluffs his way to becoming a major player in the city and its vices. A sterling cast that includes Donald Woods, Ricardo Cortez, Barton MacLane, and Lili Damita provides ample support. It was also his last film with frequent co-star Margaret Lindsay, whom Cagney despised because of her affected faux English mannerisms. (She was born in Iowa.) It’s not that great a picture, and had the misfortune of having to follow Howard Hawks’s superior Barbary Coast, with Edward G. Robinson, and being followed six months later by the vastly superior San Francisco, with Clark Gable in virtually the same role. However, it is rarely shown on television, and for film fans, especially those of James Cagney, it is must viewing.


November 26: It’s always fun to watch John and Lionel Barrymore working together in a film, and Arsene Lupin (8:00 pm), their first as co-stars, is no exception to the rule. John is the gentlemanly thief known as Arsene Lupin, and Lionel is police detective Guerchard, whose mission is to apprehend the slippery Lupin. It’s a wonderful cat-and-mouse game with an offbeat ending that will have the viewer smiling. An excellent supporting cast backs up the Barrymores, including the underrated Karen Morley, John Miljan, Tully Marshall, Joseph Sawyer, and Mischa Auer.


November 19: The morning and afternoon are devoted to the real Queen of the B’s - Allison Hayes, with nine of her films being aired. Born Mary Jane Hayes on March 6, 1930, in Charleston, West Virginia, she represented Washington, D.C., in the Miss America pageant. Shortly afterward, she was signed by Universal, who changed her first name to Allison and stuck her in a series of forgettable B-movies. After her contract expired she freelanced for Warner Bros. and Columbia before finding herself working for a slew of Poverty Row studios, mainly Allied Artists, and starring in such dreck as The Disembodied (2:45 pm), Zombies of Mora Tau (4:00 pm), then exploitation classic, The Hypnotic Eye (5:15 pm), and the all-timer laff riot, Attack of the 50-Foot Woman (6:45 pm). Despite her exile to the lower regions of filmdom, Allison was able to keep a good profile via guest spots in such television shows as The UntouchablesPerry MasonDeath Valley DaysRawhide, and 77 Sunset Strip, as well as a recurring guest role on Bat Masterson. She was also a regular on the soap opera General Hospital. As her image improved due to the television appearances, better films came her way, and she had supporting roles in the Dean Martin comedy Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed? (1963), and Elvis Presley’s Tickle Me (1965). Unfortunately, her health declined through the ‘60s, and her death on February 27, 1977, remains somewhat of a mystery due either to leukemia or lead poisoning (from doctor-prescribed calcium supplements). She was one of the real beauties of the silver screen, with her natural brunette hair, voluptuous figure and deep sexy voice.

November 20: TCM is devoting the evening to Rod Taylor, and among the films being presented are psychotronic classics, The Birds (1962), from Alfred Hitchcock at 8:00 pm, and George Pal’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine at 10:15 pm.

November 22: Four excellent sci-fi flicks are airing in the afternoon, beginning with the original 1933 King Kong at noon. Following are Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) at 2:00, Them! (1954) at 4:00, and Hammer’s Five Million Years to Earth (1968) at 6:00.

November 25: At 8 pm, the documentary A Night at the Movies: George Lucas and the World of Fantasy Cinema premieres, examining in-depth both the director and the world of fantasy cinema that influenced him. The documentary also includes a new interview where the director lists his influences.

November 28: An entire morning and afternoon of Alfred Hitchcock films kicks off with Saboteur (1942) at 7:30 am. Following, in order, are Shadow of a Doubt (1943) at 9:30, Dial M For Murder (1954) at 11:30, Marnie (1964) at 1:30, The Birds (1962) at 3:45, and the classic Psycho at 6:00.

November 29: Start your psychotronic day at 4:00 pm with Howard Hawks’s classic The Thing From Another World (1951). Then take a dinner break and return for a screening of Jean Cocteau’s take on a classic fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast (1946) at 8:00 pm. And before going to bed, set your recorder for Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) at midnight, followed by Bob Clark’s eerie Deathdream (1972) at 2:00 am.

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