A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
January 2: At 1:30 pm, it’s Svengali (1931), with John Barrymore as the maestro who uses his telepathic powers to transform the doll-faced Marian Marsh from a beautiful model into a great singer. Based on the George du Maurier novel Trilby, it made “Svengali,” as meaning one who attempts another, usually with selfish or evil intentions, into a household word. Marsh is captivating and Barrymore is his usual self, though this was filmed as years of alcohol began to take their toll.
January 6: Two good entries, beginning at 5:15 pm with 1933’s The Life of Jimmy Dolan. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. stars as a boxer hyped as squeaky clean, a youth loyal to his mother. At a party after he wins the championship, Dolan is living it up with booze and broads. A reporter is discovered among the revelers and he intends to blow the whistle. Jimmy hits him in an attempt to stop him and ends up killing the reporter. His manager and girl friend take it on the lam, leaving Jimmy to face the charges. While speeding away their car crashes, burning their bodies beyond recognition. Because the manager was wearing Jimmy’s watch at the time, the police think it’s Jimmy and close the case. But a disrupted detective named Phlaxer (Guy Kibbee) isn’t buying it and thinks Dolan is still alive. Meanwhile, Dolan ends up broke and dirty at a farm run by Peggy (Loretta Young) and her aunt, Mrs. Moore (Aline MacMahon), as a home for crippled children. They nurse him back to health and he works off his debt to them on the farm, until Phloxes tracks him down. If this seems somehow familiar, you’re probably thinking of the remake, They Made Me a Criminal (1939), with John Garfield as the boxer and Claude Rains as the detective. Amazingly, the remake even kept the original Pre-Code ending. As the original is not shown that often we strongly recommend it. Look for John Wayne as a boxer and Mickey Rooney as a kid named “Freckles.”
Following at 6:45 pm, Jimmy Cagney takes on the syndicate in Taxi! (1932). Cagney is a hack driver working for small-time operator Guy Kibbee and in love with his daughter, Loretta Young. It’s Cagney in his feisty Tom Powers persona, but this time working on the side of right against the big company trying to drive independent cabbies out of business. It’s a lot of fun to watch, and we get to hear Cagney speaking Yiddish, which he learned growing up in his New York neighborhood.
January 9: Speaking of big business, at 8:00 pm it’s Ruth Chatterton and George Brent in Female (1933), one of the quintessential Pre-Code films. Chatterton is Alison Drake, the CEO of a large automobile firm who, when she wants company, calls on a boy toy. They confirm her belief that men, like women, can be bought with money and power. She meets her match in engineer George Brent, with whom she falls in love and who teaches her the proper place for a woman. Like most films of the era in which a woman wields power, it takes a strong man to put her back in her place. Chatterton and Brent were married at the time of filming.
January 12: Ugly ducking Norma Shearer becomes a swan to the surprise of her philandering husband in Let Us Be Gay (1930), airing at 9:30 am. Check out the pre-glam Shearer in the beginning. And you can our review of it here.
January 15: Lionel Barrymore won an Oscar for his portrayal of a brilliant, but hopelessly alcoholic, criminal lawyer in A Free Soul (1931), airing at noon. He gets gangster Clark Gable off the hook with a stunt that anticipates the O.J. Simpson trial. Once free, Gable moves on to Barrymore’s daughter Norma Shearer. Read our review of it here.
January 4: At 1:45 pm, it’s the time RKO tried to force Katharine Hepburn into, which resulted in her being released from her contract, Mother Carey’s Chickens (1938), about a widow with four children who fights to save her home. Ruby Keeler plays Kitty Carey, the role RKO wanted Hepburn to take. It’s a stinker, but interesting to watch, as one can try to see Hepburn in the role.
Victor McLaglen is a foreman in a munitions plant who must protect absent-minded scientist Edmond O’Brien from enemy agents as he creates a new explosive in 1942’s Powder Town, at 5:00 pm.
January 9: John Wayne stars with Sheila Terry and a pre-Gabby George Hayes in 1934’s The Lawless Frontier at the ungodly hour of 5:00 am. As with all Wayne’s early Poverty Row productions, it’s a must.
January 1: Ring in the new year with a day of Hitchcock films.
January 2: At 4:30 pm, it’s one of the most unsettling films made during that time, The Hypnotic Eye (1960). Hypnotist Jacques Bergerac plants post-hypnotic suggestions that compel beautiful women to later mutilate themselves. Co-starring the beautiful Allison Hayes as Bergerac’s assistant, Justine. We recommend this one highly.
January 3: The TCM Spotlight this month is on prison films. Nothing new, though tonight we do recommend Brute Force (1947, 10:15 pm) and the Pre-Code classic, The Big House (1930, 1:30 am).
January 7: For sheer ineptness of plot, direction and acting, tune into Gymkata (1985) at 2:00 am with Olympic gymnast Kurt Thomas as a martial artists expert who uses gymnastics to subdue the bad guys. Yes, it’s as bad as it sounds.
January 10: Prison films worth watching tonight include Papillion (1973, 8:00 pm), Escape From Alcatraz (1979, 10:45 pm), and the Pre-Code I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932, 3:00 am).
January 11: At 10:00 am, it’s the venerable The Thing From Another World (1951), a film I could watch on a endless loop. I had such a crush on Margaret Sheridan as a kid.
January 13: The rarely seen The Thirteenth Chair (1937), with Lewis Stone, Dame May Whitty and Madge Evans shows today at 4:30 pm. A phony psychic, played by Whitty, tries to solve a murder that took place during her seance.
January 14: A double-feature of sorts, with Phyliss Davis starring as an inmate in a women’s prison on an isolated island in Terminal Island (1973), leads off at 2:00 am, followed by director Jamaa Fanaka’s brutal and engrossing Penitentiary (1980) at 3:30 am. Leon Kennedy is a regular guy framed and sent to a maximum security penitentiary where the inmate have names like “Seldom Seen,” and “Half-Dead.” To survive, “Too Sweet,” as he’s now called, must take part in the prison boxing tournament, which he learns all too late is rigged.
OUT OF THE ORDINARY
January 8: At 2:00 am look for In The Mood For Love (2000), Wong Kar-Wai’s master stroke of a beautifully layered view of a relationship that develops when a man and woman discover their spouses are cheating with each other. It’s 1962 Hong Kong. Cow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) are neighbors in an apartment building. He is a journalist who publishes martial arts novels and she is a secretary for a shipping company. He sees from the beginning that they will get together, but the beauty of this is the way in which it is done. As their spouses are often away, Chow and Li-Zhen spend a lot of the together as friends, having in common such things as noodle shops to martial arts. When they discover their spouses are having an affair, they take comfort in their growing friendship even as they vow not to follow in the footsteps of their spouses. And therein lies the beauty of this film. We expect them to get physical, but Wong is too skilled to take the easy way out. As the film progresses we find ourselves in awe of Wong’s ability to take such a simple story and make it so moving and compelling. For those who love romances, this film fits the bill perfectly.
January 15: A film from Federico Fellini is always welcome, even if it is such a late entry as his 1984 opus And The Ship Sails On, which airs at 2:00 am. It boasts a simple plot: the year is 1914, and a luxury liner leaves Italy, occupied by various statesmen, aristocrats and members of the opera world is on its way to a remote island, where the ashes of the world’s greatest soprano are to be scattered. The voyage is chronicled by a journalist, who meets the singer's many eccentric friends and admirers. Everything is fine for the first few days, but on the third day the captain has to save a large number of Serbian refugees from the sea. World War I has been declared. Like many a Fellini film the characters are broadly drawn, with unique physical features and behavior dominating. In other words, they are caricatures drawn stereotypically, for this is a gentle satire of the pre-World War I aristocracy. The film blossoms as the passengers at first view the refugees with disdain. Slowly worlds of the rich and poor come together. Look for the scene where the aristocrats try to trace the roots of the Serbian dances and eventually go down on deck to dance with the Serbians, all done to a beautiful musical score. Also worth noting are the scenes of the wine glass concert and the scene in the boiler room where great opera singers compete to impress the sailors below. It’s a typical Fellini mix of light-heartedness and tragedy. The film bombed at the box office when it was released, but is seen as a gem today.