Saturday, September 30, 2017

Cinéma Inhabituel for October 1-15

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

October is the Psychotronic Month, but TCM isn’t showing as many of them as it did last year. There are some days of wonderful B-Westerns. In the next column we’ll tell you the Westerns the station should be showing.


This October, Dracula is TCM’s “Monster of the Month,” and TCM has a goodly supply of our favorite vampire on hand. 

October 1: We begin at 8:00 pm with Bela Lugosi in the original Dracula. Directed by Tod Browning in 1931, it creaks along rather slowly, but the performances of Edward Van Sloan, Dwight Frye and, especially Bela Lugosi, make this always one to catch. Following at 9:30 is Dracula’s Daughter (1936) with Gloria Holden as the titular vampire, Countess Maria Zaleska, who wants to be cured of her vampiric curse and looks up psychiatrist Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger) to see if he can pull it off. He can’t, of course, and she wants to make him a vampire to live with her for eternity. But she runs into unforeseen complications that end in her doom. An excellent film, atmospheric and blessed with strong performances from Holden, Kruger, Edward Van Sloan and Irving Pichel as her green eyed manservant. 

Universal reasoned that if Dracula could have a daughter, he could certainly have a son, and so Lon Chaney, Jr. stars in Son of Dracula (1943) as Count Alucard, Dracula himself, who has come to America in search of new blood. An underrated horror picture that is definitely worth seeing. Finally comes Nosferatu (1922) at 12:30 am, director F.W. Murnau’s take on Dracula, only it isn’t because Murnau hadn’t bothered to secure the screen rights from the Stoker estate. Dracula becomes Count Orlock in this version, a creepy rodent-like member of the Undead, convincingly played by Max Schreck. When Stoker’s widow, Florence, learned of the film, she sued for copyright infringement and won an easy victory. The court ordered that all existing prints of the film be destroyed. However, one print of the film had already been distributed worldwide. The print was duplicated over the years and Nosferatu became one of the first cult films. As the prints suffered from further cuts in length due to censorship and reissue, it was decided in 1981 to attempt a complete restoration. A restoration team led by Enno Patalas (then head of the Munich Museum of Film), in conjunction with the Cineteca di Bologna, brought  together prints from several different European archives. Further improvements were made in 1984 and 1987, and in 1995 Patalas made a complete overhaul of the film using a recently discovered original French print as his basis.

October 8: The Dracula fest continues with Francis Lederer in The Return of Dracula (1958) at 8:00 pm.  In this low budget effort from Gramercy Pictures, released through United Artists, Dracula flees Eastern Europe for the fresh fields of California. To hide his identity he kills a Czech artist named Belak Gordal (Norbert Schiller) and assumes his identity. He then moves in with Gordal’s American cousins in the quaint town of Carleton, California. Once ensconced he begins to put the bite on everyone until he is finally tracked down by Czech vampire hunters and put out of everyone’s misery. Lederer makes for a good vampire, but the lousy script lets him down.

At 9:30 we return to Universal for 1945’s House of Dracula. John Carradine as Dracula joins Lon Chaney Jr. as Larry Talbot to visit mad scientist Dr. Edlemann (Onslow Stevens) to get cures for their afflictions. While Talbot is sincere, Dracula is really interested in getting hold of the doc’s gorgeous nurse (Martha O’Driscoll) in order to turn her into a vampire. Dracula reverses the devampirizing process on the doc, turning him into a beast. Meanwhile, Talbot has found the Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange), and what self-respecting mad scientist wouldn’t want to revive him and have little fun? In the end Talbot is cured, but not for long as he reverts to form in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1948. Good performances by the cast almost compensate for a wacky, ill conceived and executed script.

The last film on tonight’s bill is also the worst. Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966) was made by Embassy Pictures as part of a double bill with Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (also 1966). Both films were directed by William Beaudine in his swan song before retiring. Both films also feature lots of bad writing, over-the-top performances and unintentional humor. Sharp-eyed viewers of Billy the Kid vs. Dracula will notice that blood isn’t the only thing Drac is drinking. (Read our essay on it here.)

October 15: Tonight Dracula is down to a double bill from Hammer. Leading off at 8:00 pm is Horror of Dracula (1958) with Peter Cushing as Van Helsing and Christopher Lee in his star-making turn as Dracula. Following at 9:45 pm is The Brides of Dracula (1960). Lee and Cushing were to have reprised their roles, but a funny thing happened along the way. Lee dropped out. There are two versions of why this happened. Version 1 comes from Lee himself, saying he turned down the sequel out of fear off being typecast. Version 2 comes from Hammer insiders who claim that Lee was just not as important to the studio as Cushing and that anyone could have played the vampire. So enter David Peel as Baron Meinster, who is kept shackled by his mother in the basement and fed pretty young things for nourishment. Peel makes for as different type of vampire than Lee. He’s more feral and certainly, with his looks, much more fey, more in keeping with Lord Byron than Stoker. And more than a match for Van Helsing, though the intrepid vampire hunter comes out on top in the end. After overcoming Van Helsing, Meinster puts the bite on him, drawing out enough blood to ensure the doctor’s future as one of the Undead. But Van Helsing has a radical cure. Painting a cross over his bite marks, he takes a red hot branding iron and applies it to the wounds, later daubing the scars with Holy Water to make them disappear. When Christopher Lee returned to the role in 1966, Hammer all but forgot this version, but it has gained a steady following over the years to the point where many critics believe it to be the best of Hammer’s Dracula series. Tune in and find out for yourselves.


October 1: When it comes to French directors, Jean-Pierre Melville is right at the top of my list of favorites. There are precious few as good at the crime or heist film as he was. And one of his best was Le Cercle Rouge (1970), scheduled to air at 2:00 am. It’s a different sort of buddy movie with a plot that is pure Melville: We first meet master thief Corey (Alain Delon) has just been released from prison. The night before, a prison guard approached him with a scheme to rob a jewelry emporium. On the lam from Rico (Andre Ekyan), a criminal boss he robbed, he meets up with Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte) by blind chance. Vogel had just escaped from veteran police detective Mattei (Andre Bourvil) and hid in the trunk of Corey’s car. 

With Mattei hot on their trail Corey and Vogel, needing a big score, plot the jewel heist. They recruit Jansen (Yves Montand), an ex-cop who has a serious problem with the bottle. The heist is performed with the planning and precision we have come to expect of a movie heist. In this sense it resembles Rififi, with a little of Bob le flambeur (read our essay on the film here) thrown in. But here’s where Melville parts ways with other heist films. As with Bob le flambeur, the heist itself is not the main focus of the movie, for this movie is not about their jobs, but rather about their natures. Melville sees the true test of ethics as being in how men comport themselves under pressure (he fought with the Resistance during World War II). Do they comport themselves honorably, or do they compromise to save themselves? For Melville that is the central question. Rico is seeking his revenge and Mattei, while efficient, is highly unethical and will use any means to get his result. This test of character vs. characters is what makes Le Cercle Rouge a film to catch.


October 8: Director Nobuo Nakagawa is saluted with a double-feature highlighting his unique take on horror. Leading off at 2:00 am is Jigoku (aka The Sinners of Hell), his 1960 film that has become a cult classic. The story concerns two friends, the naive Shiro (Shigeru Amachi), engaged to his theology professor’s daughter Yukiko (Utako Mitsuya), and the sinister Tamura (Yoichi Numata). One night, riding in a car with Tamura at the wheel, Shiro is involved in the hit-and-run fatality of a drunken yakuza who had staggered out onto a poorly-lit country road. Shiro is unable to convince his friend of their complicity in the accident. Racked by guilt, he persuades Yukiko to accompany him to the police station to turn himself in. But their taxi careens off the road, leaving Yukiko dead. His future now in chaos, Shiro falls precipitously into drink and despair. 

A medical emergency concerning his mother brings Shiro to Tenjoen, his father’s countryside retirement facility. However, instead of being the “heavenly garden” its name promises, and a place to escape his haunted conscience, he instead finds an earthly version of hell, a place populated by drunken painters, unrepentant adulterers, criminally negligent doctors, lecherous cops, and, most painfully, an unsettling double of Yukiko. Shiro again meets up with Tamura, followed by the arrival of their victim’s mother and former girlfriend who, having learned the identity of the guilty couple, are intent on avenging his death. A night of drunken revelry follows, with a feast of tainted fish and poisoned sake, which by morning has killed the entire community, Shiro included. As Shiro is sent screaming into hell, his horrifying journey into darkness has only begun. 

Nakagawa's hell is approximately based on Buddhist conceptions. Those who have sinned in life will, in death, go to hell to atone. Once there, depending on the severity of their sins, they will be assigned to one of several different kinds of hell, with punishment in each kind different and presided over by King Enma, a red-skinned, bearded giant. But Buddhist Hell is not eternal: once atonement is completed the redeemed sinner can moved on to higher states of existence. While Shiro is presented with a path of redemption, others are in for a very long and tortuous sentence, complete with esoteric and brutal forms of punishment, all of which makes Jigoku a film to catch.

Jigoku is followed at 4:00 am by Nakagawa’s 1959 opus, Tokaido Yotsuya kaidan (aka The Ghost of Yotsuya). One of the most popular and famous Japanese ghost stories, it is based on a kabuki play written in 1825 by Nanboku Tsuruya. Filmed many times over the years, Nakagawa’s version is the one favored by critics. It is a story of fate, passion, betrayal and revenge, classic themes not only of kabuki, but Greek theater and Shakespeare as well.     

Iemon (Shigeru Amachi) is a ruthless wandering samurai with designs on Oiwa (Katsuko Wakasugi), who comes from the respectable Yotsuya family. When Iemon asks her father, Samon (Shinjirô Asano) for her hand in marriage, he is coldly rebuffed. Iemon reacts by murdering both Samon and his retainer. But there is a witness – Naosuke (Shuntaro Emi), a lamp carrier. He helps Iemon dispose of the bodies in exchange for a partnership that will benefit them both. In time Iemon grows bored with Oiwa. As their life together is beset by constant poverty, Iemon begins to pursue wealthy heiress Oume (Junko Ikeuchi). Soon he is plotting Oiwa’s death. He first arranges an adulterous tryst for her with Takuetsu (Jun Otomo), an admirer. He will then poison her and slay her suitor. All goes well until Iemon's wedding night. The vengeful ghosts of Oiwa and Takuetsu appear and trick Iemon into murdering his new wife and her parents.

The Ghost of Yotsuya is a stylish film, opening like a stage play and transitioning to a mixture of natural locations combined with an outlandish art direction. Nakagawa’s use of color shows the strong influence of the Hammer horrors The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958). Another clear Hammer influence can be seen in the level and intensity of violence – grisly close-ups of slashed bodies and amputated limbs. The images of Oiwa observing the horrible disfigurement of her face from the poison or seeing the spirits rise from a blood red swamp, their bodies nailed to wooden boards, will remain with the viewer for quite some time to come. 


October 11: A two-day tribute to fantasy film and sci-fi producer George Pal kicks off at 8:00 with the wonderful documentary, The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal (1985). At 10 pm it’s The Puppetoon Movie (1987), a compilation of selected short films from the producer. At 11:30 Pal gives us a science-fiction film with much more science than fiction: Destination Moon (1950). If you’re looking for villains with ray guns or monsters, look elsewhere. Based on Robert Heinlein’s novel, Rocketship Galileo, and made for Eagle-Lion, this is a wonderful low-budget feature about a manned expedition to the moon. I loved it as a kid and still love it today.

Later, at 1:00 am, comes on of Pal’s best loved features: The Time Machine (1960). It’s a terrific adaptation of the H.G. Wells dystopia about the future starring Rod Taylor and Yvette Mimieux. Mimieux never achieved the stardom she was being primed for, but she is pitch perfect as Weena, a member of the Eloi, who are submissive and raised as food by the Morlocks, who live underground and are extremely sensitive to light, only coming to the surface after sundown. As The Time Machine is serious, the night’s next feature, Atlantis, The Lost Continent (1960), which airs at 3:00 am, is silly. Anthony Hall is Demetrios, a Greek fisherman who rescues Antillia (Joyce Taylor), who turns out to be a princess. He takes her back to Atlantis, which is now ruled by the evil wizard Zaren (John Dall), who turns slaves into animal-men and rulers through use of an atomic crystal. As is usual with these kind of pictures, Atlantis is wiped out by a volcanic eruption and a tidal wave. And finally, at the wee hour of 5:00 am, it’s The Power from 1968, an underrated film set at a research facility in Southern California and focusing on the members of the Human Endurance Committee, a group of scientists studying the human body’s capacity for pain in order to better prepare astronauts for space travel. She learn that someone in the group has extraordinary mental powers and is using them for evil, beginning with the murder of Dr. Hallson (Arthur O’Connell). As other members are being picked off, Inspector Corlaine (Gary Merrill) suspects the head of the project, Dr. Tanner (George Hamilton) of perpetuating the dirty deeds. For his part, Tanner begins looking for the real killer. 

October 12: We begin at 8:00 pm with Pal’s excellent 1958 feature, Tom Thumb, starring Russ Tamblyn as the six-inch tall boy who is taken in by a kindly couple and has to go up against the villainous Terry-Thomas and his henchman, Peter Sellers. Following at 10:00 pm comes another excellent feature, The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962), an imaginative biography of the 19th-century Bavarian writers Wilhelm Grimm (Laurence Harvey) and his brother Jacob (Karl Bohm), who became world famous for their fairy tales. The story of the brothers is brilliantly intercut with three of their tales – “The Dancing Princess,” “The Cobbler and the Elves,” and “The Singing Bone” – all brought to life with the help of Pal’s famed Puppetoons.

At 12:30 am, Chinese magician Dr. Lao (Tony Randall) uses his magical powers to save a Western town in 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964). Read our essay on it hereDoc Savage: The Man of Bronze (1975), Pal’s last feature, airs at 2:30 am. Ron Ely, famous as one of the later Tarzans, stars. The director, Michael Anderson, directed Logan’s Run the next year. The evening concludes with a repeat showing of The Puppetoon Movie at 4:30 am.


October 10: The evening is devoted to RKO B-producer Val Lewton, who with minuscule budgets created some of the most fascinating and enduring horror classics of all time. Here’s the schedule – 8 pm, Cat People (1942); 9:30 pm, The Body Snatcher (1945); 11:00 pm, Martin Scorsese Presents, Val Lewton: The Man In The Shadows (2007); 12:30 am, I Walked With a Zombie (1943); 2 am, The Seventh Victim (1943); 3:30 am, Bedlam (1946); 5 am, The Leopard Man (1943).

October 11: The action spills over to the next morning with Richard Dix in The Ghost Ship (1943) at 6:15 and Karloff in Isle of the Dead (1945) at 7:30.


October 3: A night of classic horror features Frankenstein (1931) at 8 pm, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) at 9:30, The Mummy (1932) at 11:00, and The Wolf Man (1941) at 12:30 am.

Other classics on tap this night includes Island of Lost Souls (1933) at 2 am, The Black Cat (1934) at 3:30 am, and The Invisible Man (1933) at 4:45 am.

October 8: The 1920 silent classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari airs at 12:15 am.

October 13: A morning and afternoon of horror. Highlights include the premiere of The Snake Woman (1961) at 8 am. Set in 1890s England, a doctor injects his wife with snake venom to cure her “sick mind.” She gives birth to a baby the villagers dub “The Devil’s Baby.” Years later a Scotland Yard detective is sent to the village to investigate a rash of deaths that are caused by snakebite.

Other notable films – The Nanny (1965) at 11 am;  Margaret Lockwood and James Mason in a study of a young girl’s possession, A Place of One’s Own (1945) at 2:45 pm; and Val Lewton’s sensitive study of a child’s loneliness, The Curse of the Cat People (1944) at 6:45 pm.

October 14: Beginning at 2 am it’s Blacula (1972),  Starring William Marshall as the titular vampire followed by Scream, Blacula Scream (1973) with Pam Grier at 4 am.

October 15: In addition to the aforementioned Dracula films, the evening also includes The Phantom Carriage (1921) at midnight, Diabolique (1955) at 2 am, and the 1944 version of Gaslight at 4 am.


October 4: A morning and afternoon of Buster Keaton movies, beginning at 6 am with the 1917 Coney Island. Other highlights include The Passionate Plumber (1932) at 6:30; Sidewalks of New York (1931) at 9 am; Spite Marriage (1929) at 10:30; Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1931) at noon; Doughboys (1930) at 1:45 pm; The Cameraman (1928) at 3:15; the documentary Buster Keaton: So Funny It Hurt! (2004) at 4:30; Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) at 5:15; and The General (1926) at 6:30.


October 2: James Cagney became a star as Tom Powers in the brutal and brilliant The Public Enemy (1931) at 5:45 pm. At 5 am socialite Kay Johnson, in order to secure her trust fund fortune, marries condemned miner Charles Bickford, but at the last minute he’s freed when the real criminal is found, in Dynamite. Now Cynthia is stuck with someone she doesn’t know and doesn’t want to know, but to fulfill the terms of her financial agreement, she must live with him as husband and wife. This 1929 drama was Cecil DeMille’s first talkie.

October 8: Frank Buck traps anything that moves on his Malaysian expedition in the 1932 Bring ‘Em Back Alive at 6 am. Following at 7:15 Robert Armstrong is an American who stumbles into a morass of international intrigue in Blind Aventure (1933). Assisting him are the beautiful Helen Mack and Roland Young.

October 12Grand Hotel, the 1932 all-star extravaganza with Garbo, John and Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone, and Joan Crawford, airs at 6 pm.

October 15: Gold-digging chorus girl Jean Harlow tries to keep her virtue while searching for a rich husband in the wonderful The Girl From Missouri (1934) at 6 am. Lionel Barrymore, Franchot Tone, Lewis Stone and Patsy Kelly co-star.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

TCM TiVo Alert for October 1-7

October 1–October 7


STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. (October 4, 5:15 pm): Buster Keaton's last independent silent film – and one of the last silent films he ever made – is the legendary actor at his best. The stunts are stunning, including one of the most memorable in cinematic history. The facade of a house falls forward with Keaton, who is in front of it, saved by perfectly hitting his mark standing where the empty third-story window lands. It is an insane stunt that could have easily killed Keaton. Don't try this at home, kids. It's a perfect example of Keaton's physical comedic style. Keaton is basically the entire movie as the plot is paper-thin. Keaton is the small college-graduate son of a riverboat captain, who's about to lose his broken-down paddle steamer and livelihood to a wealthy rival. Keaton's character is in love with the daughter of his father's rival. Besides the physical comedy, there's some other exceptionally funny moments in the film such as Keaton attempting to get his father out of jail by giving him a loaf of bread with tools obviously inside.

HEAD (October 7, 3:45 am): This confusing but entertaining film features manufactured pop band The Monkees doing their best to break their "Pre-Fab" mold. The four jump off a bridge symbolically killing themselves, but they learn even that does nothing to change their image. The trouble for the group is when this film was released in late 1968, The Monkees' popularity was low. The group desperately wanted to leave behind their teen-pop image and appeal to a cooler hippie audience. The problem is the band's core audience is dismissed and ridiculed in the film, and because The Monkees were squares with the in-crowd (despite some excellent songs), no one went to see this movie. And that's a shame. While the plot is simple enough, how it is handled is rather sophisticated even though the viewer has no idea at times what's happening – something that was intentionally done.


DRACULA’S DAUGHTER (October 1, 9:30 pm): An excellent sequel to Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) with Dracula’s daughter, Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden), trying to free herself of the vampire spell her father put over her. She returns to London with her manservant Sandor (Irving Pichel), who is in love with her, but her vampiric tendencies still reign. She engages psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger) to help her in shedding her problem. To ensure his cooperation she has Sandor kidnap his secretary/lover Janet Blake (Marguerite Churchill). However, the Countess wants more than a consultation. Will she get it? Tune in.

ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (October 3, 2:00 am): A gruesome and unsettling adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau starring Charles Laughton at his most fiendish as the mad doctor isolated on a remote island who is conducting experiments transforming jungle animals ostensibly into human brings, but in reality coming up with half-human abominations. Moreau's theory is that evolution can be sped up through experimental skin grafting. The man-beasts who populate the island know his laboratory as “the house of pain.” When Richard Arlen, the sole survivor of a shipwreck, arrives at the island Moreau wastes no time in trying to mate him with his most successful creation, a panther woman (Kathleen Burke). But Moreau’s empire comes crashing down after the arrival of Captain Donahue (Paul Hurst) and Parker's fiancee Ruth (Leila Hyams) who have come for the missing Arlen. The finale is equally gruesome as Moreau gets a taste of his own medicine from his creations. Banned in England, many film historians credit it with helping to sped enforcement of the Code.

WE AGREE ON ... THE PUBLIC ENEMY (October 2, 5:45 pm)

ED: A+. If ever a film deserved to be labeled as an “essential,” this is the one. Ably directed by William Wellman and adapted by Kubec Glasmon and John Bright from their novel about the Chicago mobs, Beer and Blood, it made a star out of James Cagney. I’m sure everyone is familiar with the old story about Edward Woods being cast in the lead with Cagney as his sidekick. Over the years everyone from Wellman to Glasmon and Bright to Darryl Zanuck has taken credit for the switch. But whoever made it obviously made the right move, for Cagney is electrifying as Tom Powers. Even though he’s completely amoral, ruthless, emotionally brutal, and terrifyingly lethal, we are still drawn to his every move. Without him, the film is just another run-of-the-mill gangster epic, much like Doorway to Hell, made the year before and starring the miscast Lew Ayres in the lead, with Cagney as his sidekick. Shot in less than a month at a cost of around $151,000, The Public Enemy was the first film to gross over $1 million at the box office. It might surprise some viewers out there to learn that many of the happenings in the movie were based on real-life events. The shooting of the horse, the grapefruit to the face of Mae Clarke (in reality it was an omelette), the machine gun ambush of Tom and Matt Doyle (Woods), and the murder of Putty Nose were among the events fictionalized by the authors and repeated in the screenplay. Cagney’s Tom Powers is a combination of real life mobsters Hymie Weiss and Dion O’Banion, who ruled the North Side of Chicago, while Johnny Torrio and Al Capone ruled the South Side. Wellman keeps the action going at a frantic pace, never allowing the viewer to slow down and take stock of the situation. The only downside to the movie is the short shrift given to Joan Blondell and Mae Clarke as the molls of Matt and Tom respectively. When Edward Woods played Tom Powers, he had quite a frisky bedroom scene with a scantily-clad Blondell. When the roles were switched, the scene was cut from the movie. For those who have not yet had the pleasure of watching this film, I urge you to do so when it comes on. For those of you who have seen it, you’ll probably want to see it again – that is, unless you have it on DVD as I do. The most mesmerizing thing about The Public Enemy is that it has lost none of its power or magnetism over the years; in fact, the opposite may well be true and the movie has actually gained in stature. 

DAVID: A+. After the credits and the cast of characters, the film opens with this: “It is the ambition of the authors of The Public Enemy to honestly depict an environment that exists today in a certain strata of American life rather than glorify the hoodlum or the criminal.” Despite the warning and giving the lead character, Tom Powers (James Cagney), no redeeming qualities – except he loves his mother – he is the quintessential anti-hero. You can't help but like him as he commits murder, serves as muscle for a bootlegger and is an overall vicious and cruel criminal. It is Cagney that makes this early talkie/Pre-Code film a classic. Eighty-six years after it came out, it is still one of the greatest gangster movie ever made. Tom and Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) grow up committing petty crimes before finally making it big thanks to bootlegging during Prohibition. It's a Warner Brothers gangster film from 1931 so obviously it's gritty. While most of the violence is off-screen, the last 20 or so minutes are absolutely brutal and hold nothing back. This is Pre-Code so when someone gets shot, they bleed. Thanks to the brilliant and intense performance by Cagney and an incredible directing job by William A. Wellman, this goes far beyond any other gangster film of its time and even to this day. Gangster films have become more violent, but The Public Enemy is so authentic and captivating that you can't turn away from it – and you don't want to. It includes two of the most iconic scenes in cinematic history: Tom shoving a grapefruit in the face of Mae Clarke and the shocking ending.

For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

I've Heard the Mermaids Singing

Films in Focus

By Jonathon Saia

I've Heard the Mermaids Singing (Miramax, 1987) – Director: Patricia Rozema. Writer: Patricia Rozema. Stars: Sheila McCarthy, Paule Baillargeon, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Richard Monette, John Evans & Brenda Kamino. Color and B&W, Rated R, 81 minutes.

"To make something beautiful is to be beautiful forever."

It's about...well, I'm not exactly sure. I'm not sure the film knows. I've Heard the Mermaids Singing seems to be trying to make some kind of statement about art and Art and how artists find worth in their work, but it's all done in such a blissfully low key manner that it's hard to glean hard answers. Maybe it's not trying to give answers. Maybe it's just posing questions. Or at the very least, trying to showcase its lead actress. Which is more than enough reason to see the film. Hold that thought though. I'll get back to Sheila McCarthy in a few paragraphs.

OK, so the story follows Polly (McCarthy), a socially awkward recluse, as she temps for a curator. She has no art education or great interest for that matter in the subject, but needed a job so here she is. She is dreadfully ordinary, yet doesn't seem to mind. Or really even notice. She lives alone, but doesn't seem lonely. It's so refreshing to see a protagonist, especially a female protagonist, not wallowing in her own self-pity while searching for a man. Her philosophy is direct and self-aware: "Sometimes I think my head is like a gas tank. You have to be careful what you put into it or it may destroy the whole system." She holds no great dreams other than surviving. And taking photographs. But these photos are not for grandeur, not for others, but for herself. For her own pleasure. Her photos capture simple things, real life beauty that, like herself, is usually ignored. She tacks them up on her drab apartment walls and fantasizes elaborate scenes where she lives inside her photos. Polly makes Art for the purest of reasons: to create the world in which she wants to live.

But that begins to shift after a conversation with Gabrielle, her boss. Gabrielle (Baillargeon) doesn't want to just curate art. She wants to make it. To create one universally revered piece of work to solidify a legacy and prove her worth. She shows her paintings to Polly. Polly is flabbergasted. They are beautiful. Radiant. The paintings seem to glow, in fact. These paintings must be seen. After Gabrielle has passed out on the couch, Polly decides to steal one. But not for herself. To help her boss overcome her shyness and achieve her dream of sharing her talent with the world.

In a somewhat contrived piece of business, an art critic stops by the office while Gabrielle is out, reviews the painting in the Times, and she is suddenly the newest genius on the block. This awakens Polly's curiosity to see if maybe her hidden talents are worthy of accolades. She sends Gabrielle an anonymous package hoping that her photos will speak for themselves so she can be featured in the next art show. Polly has latched onto Gabrielle as a role model, a mentor, and even a romantic object. Surely, she will see, as one artist to another, her potential. But Gabrielle thinks they are "simple-minded" – exactly what others had said about her own work before she made it big.

Since Gabrielle's opinion has come to serve as her own, Polly is devastated. And feels betrayed. How could she not see her soul, her heart, her passion in the photos? We see for the first time Polly's pride in her work – which may have been the first time Polly even realized how much her photos meant to her – and that beneath her provincial charm, maybe she actually does long to be someone of note. Sadly, she is quick to give up, burning all of her photos and throwing her camera off the roof. Later, when Polly discovers Gabrielle is a fraud, that she has a ghost painter, she loses her sense of self and lashes out with unclear consequences.

If the film seems light on action, it's because it is. I've Heard the Mermaids Singing is really a character study of an unremarkable woman trying to find her way in a remarkable milieu. Though a Canadian production, it bears a resemblance to the European style of a-day-in-the-life films like Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962); the type of films that drown without a dynamic lead character at the helm. It's a unique film (with a confounding title) that rests on the talents of its leading lady to carry it through its somewhat dull and esoteric universe. And make no mistake about it: Sheila McCarthy is a revelation.

In her incredibly gifted hands, Polly is mousy without being pathetic, plain without being boring, and so full of specificity I wish she had existed in silent pictures. Take the scene in a restaurant. We notice the way she tries to sit at the Japanese table. The way she fumbles with her chopsticks plays like a reverse dinner roll scene from The Gold Rush (1925) or a much more subdued version of Ernest fumbling with his fork. I could have watched this scene unfold for an hour. There's the way she chugs her rum, maybe drinking for the first time, wanting to seem sophisticated. The way she wraps up her own comforter as a birthday gift for her boss. The way she narrates the film and somehow doesn't make it seem superfluous. The slow drain of disappointment when Gabrielle tells her her photos are no good. The subtle smile when she realizes her photos have the power to transport her to other worlds. Her offbeat charisma reads like Amy Poehler without the wink. McCarthy won the Best Actress Genie (Canada's version of the Oscars) for I've Heard the Mermaids Singing, her first film.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise)

Films in Focus

By Ed Garea

Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) (MGM, 1931) – Director: Robert Z. Leonard (uncredited). Writers: Wanda Tuchock (adaptation & continuity). Leon Gordon & Zelda Sears (dialogue). David Graham Phillips (novel). Paul Bern, Lenore Coffee, Mildred Cram, Edith Fitzgerald, Becky Gardiner, George Kelly, Joseph Moncure March, Bayard Veiller & King Vidor (all uncredited). Cast: Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Jean Hersholt, John Miljan, Alan Hale, Hale Hamilton, Hilda Vaughn, Russell Simpson, Cecil Cunningham & Ian Keith. B&W, 76 minutes.

Susan Lenox is a curiosity from MGM, a turgid little melodrama with a preposterous plot that marks the only pairing of Clark Gable and Greta Garbo. 

It’s the usual Garbo plot: a suffering, victimized, misunderstood woman for whom nothing matters except love. When she first saw the script, she was dissatisfied and pulled her timeworn stunt when dissatisfied – she threatened to go back to Sweden. To make sure she was happy, Louis B. Mayer brought in a number of writers to alter the script to her liking (see the writing credits above). However, when one is given a can of pork and beans to make for dinner, no amount of disguise or other sleight-of-hand can alter the fact that it’s still a can of pork and beans. And this is exactly what we have here. Add to this the fact that Garbo is playing a role essentially made for Joan Crawford and our disappointment is heightened after we finish watching.

Garbo is Helga, a farm girl who was born illegitimately in Lenoxville, Michigan. Her mother died during childbirth and she is left in the care of her stern, cruel uncle, Karl Ohlin (Hersholt), who treats her as an object of scorn. The brief scenes we see of her childhood remind us of a ‘20s German expressionist drama, as she is a shadow on the wall, practically mute, and considered not as one of the family proper, but as someone on the fringe. Uncle Karl gets it in his head that the only way to prevent her from turning out like her mother is to marry her off. He tells her, “You're not going the way of your mother. You're starting out just like her, reading novels, getting crazy notions in your head! Well, it ain't a-gonna happen in my family twice.” 

For the bridegroom he chooses a knuckle-dragging lout named Jeb Mondstrom (Hale). Fueled by a couple of belts of cheap whiskey, Jeb figures he’ll get the bridal night started early and slobbers his way into Helga’s bedroom to finish the job. She fights him off and escapes into the night, fleeing into a heavy rainstorm.

She makes her way to a nearby house and hides in the garage, where she is found by Rodney Spencer (Gable) and his dog Major. In his previous films Gable played various kinds of thugs and lowlifes, but here he’s a Boy Scout. Though she won’t tell him what she’s running away from, he recognizes her fear and goes out of his way to placate her. Since she wouldn’t talk, he’ll do the talking for both of them: “Never mind. We won’t talk about you at all. No sir. You know what we’ll do? We’ll talk about me. You know who I am? No? Well, I’ll tell you. I’m Rodney, Mr. Spencer’s little boy. I’m thirty, white and unmarried. I’m really a very fine fellow–never unkind to animals, never kick babies in the teeth, always courteous when drunk.” And a Boy Scout.

There is one scene where he gives her the use of his bedroom while he sleeps in the living room. After seeing her into the room, he leaves. He turns back, and for a brief instant, we think he’s going to back in and help himself to some Swedish cuisine. But he thinks better of it, smiles, and heads towards the living room as the scene fades out.

Over the next couple of days, it’s bliss for Helga. Rodney treats her ever so gently, and like any other Boy Scout, even takes her fishing. He tells her that he is an engineer and must go to Detroit on a job. Meanwhile she can stay in his home until he gets back, and when he does, he’ll be bringing something back with him: “But, you're going to have a ring Helga. I'm bringing one back with me.” 

However, no sooner has he left than Uncle Karl and loutish Jeb show up to bring her back. A deal is a deal and she is only a piece of chattel promised to Jeb. Once again she manages to get away and hops a circus train leaving town, where she is befriended by Madame Panorama (Cunningham), the outfit’s tattooed lady. When the boss, Burlingham (Miljan) comes into the compartment, Madame asks him to take her on as one of the dancers, introducing her as “Susie Lenox.” Burlingham agrees, and when the circus is performing in a nearby town, hides her from Jeb and Uncle, telling her to duck out in his private car. We soon find out that her choice is either to give herself up and be raped by Jeb or hide out and be raped by Burlingham. She chooses the latter, becoming the boss’ unwilling mistress. 

Writing Rodney to meet her in Marquette, he is shocked when he sees her and quickly figures out what she’s been up to. But rather than hear her explanation he storms off. As he leaves she gives him the old line about her bedroom being open to every man but him from now on, yada, yada, yada. 

Helga, heartbroken, goes from one man to another until she becomes the mistress of wealthy New York politician Mike Kelly (Hamilton). Rodney fares no better. His drinking has cost him a succession of jobs.

Despite now living in a penthouse, the mistress of a rich politician and known as Susan Lenox, she just can’t get Ol’ Rodney out of her mind. Thinking he’d crap green if he could see her now and how well she’s doing, she arranges to have him invited to one of her soirees without giving him as clue as to who he’s really there to see. He assumes it’s Kelly. He needs a contract and buttering up a politician is one of the surest ways to get it. But when he gets a gander at her he puts two and two together and comes to the realization he’s being played for a sap. And he doesn’t like it one bit. 

The dinner party quickly becomes a verbal joust that grows uglier with each passing line. Susan raises the ante when she proclaims, “I think the most amusing thing about men is that they mistake cruelty for character. They can’t forgive.” This little bit of twaddle is regarded as wisdom by some of the ladies at the table, but for Rodney it’s a verbal kick in the groin. He gets into a brief verbal altercation with Susan, then hightails it out of there, with Susan in hot pursuit. She still loves the big galoot.

Susan travels from city to city looking for her man. Eventually she finds him working on a project in a town in South America where she’s working as a singer-dancer in a waterfront dive. She is romanced there by Robert Lane (Keith), an American who arrives by yacht and wants to marry her and take her away from all this. 

When Rodney wanders by chance into the joint and sees Helga there, he comes onto her like he would any other waterfront girl. Disillusioned, she throws him out, and plans to meet Robert on his yacht. However, the next day she goes to see Rodney one last time. Finally sober, Rodney admits he’s has been wrong, and they both decide to stop hurting each other and start to love again.


This is one of the more unusual films in Garbo’s resume, a turgid melodrama that as mentioned above, is more suited to the likes of Joan Crawford than Greta Garbo. The source material is a 1912 novel by journalist David Graham Phillips that was still considered racy in 1931 America. The reason Thalberg green lighted the film was because three of his secretaries had read and recommended it.  

The working titles of this film were Suzanne Lenox and Susan Lenox. King Vidor was initially set to direct the picture, and actresses Lynn Bernager and Marjorie King were to have roles in the film. Robert Z. Leonard replaced Vidor in the director’s chair. Even though Thalberg purchased the rights to the book as a vehicle for Garbo, why she agreed to star in this film is a mystery. An even bigger mystery is why she requested Clark Gable as her co-star. Supposedly she requested him as her costar because as an up and coming star he wouldn’t overshadow her. 

For his part Gable wanted nothing to do with the picture. Learning he was cast by reading an item in the trade papers, he only agreed to take the role when he was convinced it would help him in his quest for bigger and better roles.

Gable was an actor who liked a good, healthy affair on the set with his co-star. But if he thought Garbo was willing he was barking up the wrong Swede. They came to despise each other during the course of filming. Gable thought she was extremely unprofessional and hated her aloofness. Garbo thought he was crude and later described him as a “wooden” actor, which was ironic coming from Garbo, herself much more of a movie star than an actress.

The state of their relationship was reflected in the lack of chemistry between the stars, though to be honest, Garbo only had chemistry with two people: John Gilbert and herself. The only scene where I glimpsed any hint of chemistry is the one of them in together in the cabin, where Garbo, who has been told and traded from birth as if she was worthless, has a really poignant and sad reaction when Clark tells her that when he comes back from Detroit, he’ll be coming back with a ring. Other than that, nada.

The first 20 minutes or so of the film is unremittingly bleak, a rumination on the situation of being a woman in a world of unconstrained patriarchy that can have its cake and eat it too. A brief opening in this desolate fog is when Helga meets Rodney. He functions as the proof that not all males of the species are brutes. But once he leaves it’s back to business as usual as Karl and Jeb track her down.  

The most interesting part of the movie takes place when Susan flees to the circus. Much like the later Freaks (1932), the circus is depicted as a place for those who can find no place in normal society, whether because of their appearance or social status. Susan’s scenes with Madame Panorama (Cunningham) are precious as the two outcasts start to bond.

Rodney lets Susan down when, after finding her at the circus, he refuses to listen to any explanations on her part. Susan takes Rodney at the extreme and decides that if he’s going to think she’s a whore, then she might as well be the best one in the country. Which is exactly what she does, changing her name to Susan Lenox and becoming a wealthy courtesan. She invites Rodney to one of her soirees. He, of course, has no idea who it was that invited him, but when he gets a good look at her, the venom comes out all over again, as he tells her that he returned to the circus to apologize, only to find her gone. After an argument that’s the posh equivalent of “That’s what you are, but what am I?” Rodney calls her a parasite and storms off. 

This is where the movie becomes ridiculous. Susan comes to believe he acted this way because he really loves her, so she decides to track him down. After finding him in Puerto Sacate, they argue and finally decide to try and start again. This despite the generous offer she has from Robert. The film ends on an ambiguous note. Will they work it out? Will she change her mind and go away with Robert? The only thing we know for sure is that, as with The Divorcee, a woman may have her fun, but she is nothing without a man, for it’s all meaningless and she is not quite a person. What begins as a brutally honest study of the relationship between men and women degenerates into a tawdry romantic potboiler that loses its steam after Gable walks out on Garbo in New York. 

Much of the blame for this can be laid at the feet of director Robert Z. Leonard. There is some splendid camera work along with nicely staged atmospheric effects, but the dialogue is too often choppy, with periods of silence that slow the film down, which is strange, because at other times Leonard seems as if he’s in a hurry to move the film along, come what may.

The hurried tone of the film robs it of any suspense and it often comes across like a by-the-numbers melodrama. We can see everything coming; there are no surprises. What saves the film from going under entirely is the strength of Garbo’s performance. She never fails to hold our attention and becomes the reason we stick around to see what happens next, even though we know what’s coming. 

It could be said in Leonard’s defense that he was not quite used to using sound, but I’m surprised that no one in the executive suite caught on to this, almost as if they were depending on Garbo alone to carry the load; that her fans would accept anything she was in, especially with the novelty of sound. What we come away with in the final analysis is a combination of poorly written dialogue and an exaggerated physical movement that only serves to illustrate, rather than deflect from, a poorly developed and preposterous narrative.

As I said before, Garbo is essentially miscast in a role that was better suited to Joan Crawford or Marlene Dietrich, though she gave a heartfelt performance that essentially saved the film. Indeed, Dietrich took the plot one step farther in 1932’s Blonde Venus in a performance that made Garbo’s look weak by comparison. Garbo is at her best when among the aristocrats, not among the hoi polloi. Though she acquitted herself well in Anna Christie, she was helped by strong supporting performances. After Susan Lenox, MGM had the good sense to limit her options and, because of her box office power in Europe. In the films where she did not play an aristocrat, such as As You Desire Me and Ninotchka, she still played a European, with a European mind-set, and the very setting in Europe gave her a patrician standing with American audiences. 

It was thought to team Garbo can with Gable in Red Dust, but MGM came to their senses. Where would she fit in? The only role for her would be the Mary Astor role and we can easily surmise that Garbo would not like being upstaged by Jean Harlow. Besides, not only was there a lack of chemistry between her and Gable, she detested him. 


The film suffered many cuts upon release by local censor boards and was actually banned in England. However, with a few cuts the British censors, who knew of the source novel and heartedly disapproved it as well approved it under the title The Rise of Helga. As if the public wouldn’t find out.  

The role of Clark Gable’s dog, Major, was played by Gable’s own dog. There are two stories of how the actor acquired his animal companion: (1) The dog already belonged to Gable, and when he learned he was to have a dog in the film he volunteered Major, selling the studio on the fact that they didn’t need to shell out for a dog trainer since the dog did what Gable instructed him to do. (2) The dog was a trained movie dog that Gable came to love so much that he bought him from the trainer for twice what he was worth. Take your pick.

According to MGM’s records the film cost $1,142,000. It made $806,000 in the US and Canada and $700,000 elsewhere, resulting in a $364,000 profit.

Notable Quotables

Rodney (to Susan): “You know, you’re the only woman I ever wanted to build a fence around and have all to myself. Yeah, you built the fence–an army of men!”

Friday, September 22, 2017


Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

It (New Line, 2017) – Director: Andy Muschietti. Writers: Gary Dauberman, Cary Fukunaga & Chase Palmer (s/p). Stephen King (novel). Stars: Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Bill Skarsgård, Nicholas Hamilton, Logan Thompson, Owen Teague, Jackson Robert Scott, Stephen Bogaert, Stuart Hughes, Geoffrey Pounsett, Pip Dwyer, Mollie Jane Atkinson, Steven Williams, Elizabeth Saunders, Megan Charpentier, Joe Bostick, Ari Cohen, Anthony Ulc, Javier Botet, Carter Musselman, Tatum Lee & Edie Inksetter. Color, Rated R, 135 minutes.

We all float down here, you’ll float too,” said a possessed Georgie Denbrough (Scott) to his heartsick big brother before the malevolent clown rose from the sewer water.

As terrifying as the 1990 television miniseries was, this remake is more so. The special effects technology that hadn’t been developed 27 years ago was used to full effect in this chilling movie. And at two hours and fifteen minutes, it’s only half the story.

For those who are not “of the body” in Derry, Maine, we have the Losers Club (though they never refer to themselves that way). The club consists of Bill Denbrough (Lieberher), Ben Hanscom (Taylor), Beverly Marsh (Lillis), Richie Tozler (Wolfhard), Mike Hanlon (Jacobs), Eddie Kaspbrak (Grazer), and Stanley Uris (Oleff). They’re brought together by being the victims of the town bullies, led by Henry Bowers (Hamilton). But these guys take the term to the next level, as Ben, the new kid in Derry, gets the name “Henry” carved into his belly with a knife at the hands of Bowers.

But Ben is a bookworm who discovers that every 27 years a rash of child abductions breaks out in Derry and a voracious lunatic clown is at the bottom of it. Bill’s younger brother Georgie is the first one to see Pennywise (Skarsgård) when his paper boat floats down an open catch basin drain. When the clown holds it out for him, he makes the mistake of reaching for it and eventually follows it down in the most brutal manner.

They all see manifestations of Pennywise cloaked in their own individual fears (Richie is afraid of clowns, Beverly is afraid of her lecherous father, etc.), and band together under Bill’s firm resolve to find his brother and overcome their fears and stand against the evil monster. They even make a pact to return in 27 years.

I read the book several years ago but this film brought it all back with a few twists I don’t remember but liked. For instance, one kid’s fear was of the Modigliani painting hanging in the family home. Pennywise makes sure that painting comes alive in the worst way. The casting is excellent. All the characters are recognizable and you can’t help but be drawn into the action of this version. The soundtrack alone is terrifying, tense and shocking. And, like the grand master of the macabre, the effects do not shy away from excessive gore and the gross-out factor. I don’t think I’ll look at a red balloon in just the same way ever again. I hope the sequel comes soon.

Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 Martini glasses.

35 East 21st Street
New York

After a dark, violent movie, where do you go for dinner? Obviously, a dark, “Mexican-inspired” restaurant that was once a strip club.

Yes, I learned that Cosme, under the guise of innovative Mexican dishes was previously a “Gentlemen’s entertainment venue.” When I ordered the Striptease cocktail – Vida Mezcal, Dolin Blanc vermouth, guanabana lime, and absinthe salt – my server Xavi clued me in. It wasn’t quite as dark as Wolfgang Puck’s new restaurant, though. I could read the menu without a flashlight. The drink was similar to a margarita, but drier and with that strange wormwood flavor.

The menu featured a whole section of vegetarian dishes that, though interesting, did not appeal to me. I decided on two in the “seafood” category and one of the main courses for my dinner. The wine list was one of the most varied I’ve seen. I ordered the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Vena Cava from the Guadalupe Valley, Baja California, Mexico. It was fabulous, medium-bodied and with deep fruits, and held its own with the subtle and not-so-subtle flavors of my meal. And it seemed a logical title after a bloody movie.

First up was a combination I’ve never seen in any Mexican restaurant, the “Uni Tostada” – sea urchin, avocado, bone marrow salsa and cucumber garnished with cilantro and slices of jalapeno on a crispy tostada. It was a delicious and unusual combination, as the sweet of the avocado is mixed with the delicate taste of the sea urchin and the savory salsa to create a fiesta of flavors. Carefully using a knife and fork I managed to get all the layers into each bite. Instead of bread, Cosme serves a single large, homemade blue corn chip and a mildly spiced bean salsa. Very nice.

My next dish was “Fluke Aguachile,” featuring Chicatana ant (yes, a Mexican insect), with sesame seeds. The “chili water” surrounded the sushi-grade filets of fluke and made them come alive with spice. The ants were not obvious, nor was the dish crawling with them. They were there just for the nutty flavor.

The main course was a beautiful strip of “Short Rib” with scallions, Cipollini onions and avocado, served with a basket of fresh warm homemade blue corn tortillas. The avocado part of this dish was a spicy puree that I spooned onto a tortilla around pieces of tender short rib and a slice of onion before wrapping it and taking a bite. A little messy, but fun and delicious.

Mexican desserts are usually predictable and limited, but not at Cosme. The “Blueberries with lavender Semi-freddo” was an eye-opener as well as a delight. Think of a pond frozen over with lavender ice, broken up and almost covering large juicy sweet blueberries and garnished with a purple flower. Heavenly.

To finish this unique dinner I chose a “Carajillo,” a Spanish drink combining coffee with brandy, whisky and anisette. Perfect. Cosme successfully followed an awesome movie with an awesome dinner. 

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.