Tuesday, October 31, 2017

James Stewart

Stardust: TCM’s November Star of the Month

By Ed Garea

I'd like people to remember me as someone who was good at his job and seemed to mean what he said.”

Over the years Jimmy Stewart became one of America's most loved actors. Noted for his unique drawl and down-to-earth persona, he became part of the nation’s popular culture in his later years. Several of his films were rightly recognized as classics, and his voice and mannerisms were imitated by countless mimics and comedians. Ironically, Stewart became his own best parody through his frequent appearances on The Tonight Show, where he read his homespun poetry and spun yarns recalling his life and career. 

The folksy persona he projected gave us the illusion that he was always that way, but in actuality there were two Jimmy Stewarts. The pre-War Stewart was folksy and innocent, the star of such fare as Born to DanceMr. Smith Goes to Washington and You Can’t Take It With You. A bomber pilot in World War II, he came back a different man, suffering from PTSD. The postwar Stewart was serious and somber, with an outlook that was reflected in his choice of roles. It took many years and a solid marriage to a loving and supportive wife for him to return to the humble and folksy man we saw in later years. 

Born James Maitland Stewart on May 20, 1908, in Indiana, Pennsylvania, he was the eldest of three children born to Alexander Maitland and Elizabeth Ruth (nee Jackson) Stewart. The only son, he was expected one day to inherit the family business – a hardware store that had been in the family for three generations. But young Jimmy also had an artistic side. His mother was an excellent pianist and Jimmy inherited her talents, teaching himself the accordion and becoming quite accomplished at it. His dream, however, was to become a flyer. He spent many of his after-school hours in his basement, occupied with building model airplanes, mechanical drawing and chemistry. 

His dream was to attend the Naval Academy and specialize in aviation, but his father instead sent him to Princeton, where he graduated with a B.A. in architecture. In his spare time Stewart became involved with the school’s music and drama clubs. After he graduated in 1932, his acting and musical talents earned him an invitation to the University Players, an intercollegiate summer stock company on Cape Cod directed by such notables as Joshua Logan and Bretaigne Windust. It was there he met lifelong friends Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan (who were married at the time) and Myron McCormick. He tried his luck on Broadway, but later noted that from 1932 to 1934 he had worked a total of three months, as every play he was cast in folded soon after. Landing a part in the play, Divided By Three, he was spotted by MGM talent scout Bill Grady. Fonda, who had come to Hollywood earlier in 1934, encouraged Stewart to take a screen test, after which he was signed as a contract player at $350 a week. 

His first film was The Murder Man (1935). Starring Spencer Tracy, it opened to dismal reviews and poor box office. In 1936, however, he began to get better parts, gaining notice as Jean Harlow’s boyfriend in Wife vs. Secretary, and for his strong dramatic part in After the Thin Man. Also that year he signed with powerhouse agent Leland Hayward, who decided his client’s best route to stardom was in being loaned out to other studios. 

The strategy paid off when he was loaned out to Columbia to star in Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You in 1938. Capra was so impressed with Stewart that he cast him as the star of his next film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), replacing original star Gary Cooper as the idealistic political neophyte. Also that year Stewart starred with Marlene Dietrich and Brian Donlevy in Universal’s hit Western parody, Destry Rides Again

Returning to MGM, he co-starred with Margaret Sullavan in two 1940 classics, The Shop Around The Corner, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, and the anti-Nazi drama, The Mortal Storm. Also that year, his performance as fast-talking reporter Macaulay Connor in the Cary Grant-Katharine Hepburn vehicle, The Philadelphia Story (1940), won him the Best Actor Oscar (which he gave to his father, who displayed it in a case inside the front door of his hardware store).

Stewart became the first major American movie star to wear a military uniform in World War II when he enlisted as a private in the Army on March 22, 1941. As a licensed commercial pilot and college graduate, he applied for an Air Corps commission and Service Pilot rating, receiving both as a second lieutenant. Originally assigned to recruiting duties, he applied for and was granted advanced training on multi-engine aircraft as well as the rank of captain. However, to his disappointment, he was still assigned to recruiting and training duties. He appealed to his commander, who recommended him to the commander of the 445th Bombardment Group.   

After several weeks of training, Stewart flew his first combat mission on December 13, 1943, to bomb the U-Boat base at Kiel, Germany. In 1944, Stewart was promoted to major, and on March 30, 1944, he became group operations officer of the 453rd Bombardment Group, a new B-24 unit that had just lost both its commander and operations officer. He would lead the group on 20 bombing missions over Germany, hitting targets in Bremen, Frankfurt and Berlin. His service resulted in a cascade of decorations: the Air Medal, a succession of oak leaf clusters, six battle stars and the Croix de Guerre with Palm. In addition he was twice awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, one for piloting the lead plane in a spectacular raid on key aircraft factories in Brunswick, Germany. 

He was promoted to full colonel on March 29, 1945, becoming one of the few Americans to rise from private to colonel during the Second World War. After the official establishment of the Air Force as an independent service in 1947, he joined the newly formed United States Air Force Reserve, where he remained until retiring as a major general on May 31, 1968.

Upon his return from the war in late 1945, Stewart insisted that his military exploits not be publicized. He avoided war films, making only the rather staid Strategic Air Command in 1955. The only hint that he was an active participant in the war came in an episode of the 1974 TV documentary series The World at War titled “Whirlwind: Bombing Germany – September 1939-April 1944,” commenting on a mission of October 14, 1943, against Schweinfurt, Germany, where American forces suffered heavy losses while doing minimal damage. In the episode, he was identified only as "James Stewart, Squadron Commander” at his request.

After the war Stewart took time off to reflect on his career. Upon returning to Hollywood in 1945 he decided not to renew his MGM contract. He also invested in Leland Hayward’s newly formed Southwest Airlines, figuring to fall back on a career in aviation if his film career faltered. His first postwar film was Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, released in 1946. Now considered one of the classics of cinema, it opened to mixed reviews and poor box office. After starring in a few more ill-received films, Stewart decided to return to the stage, filling in twice for vacationing Frank Fay on Broadway as Elwood P. Dodd, a wealthy eccentric whose best friend is a six-foot invisible rabbit, in Mary Coyle Chase’s Harvey. The play ran for three more years and Stewart reprised the role in the 1950 film adaptation, breaking his string of box office flops. 

The 1950s were also significant for Stewart for his collaborations with directors Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock. With Mann he helped redefine the classic western with films like Winchester ‘73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954), and The Man From Laramie (1955). 

Stewart’s collaboration with Hitchcock began with Rope in 1949, a box office failure. Their second collaboration, Rear Window (1954), was a hit, as was The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Hitchcock’s remake of his 1934 thriller. However, their 1958 film, Vertigo, opened to mixed reviews and poor box office though it's now considered one of the greatest films of all-time. Hitchcock blamed his star for the film’s failure, noting that Stewart looked too old to be romancing Kim Novak. As a consequence, Hitchcock replaced Stewart with Cary Grant (who was four years older, but photographed much younger) for North By Northwest (1959), a role Stewart coveted.

Other notable films of the '50s include Delmar Daves’ Broken Arrow (1950), Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), Anthony Mann’s The Glen Miller Story (1954), Billy Wilder’s The Spirit of St. Louis (1957), and Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959), which saw him awarded The New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor, and his fifth and final nomination for the Oscar as Best Actor.

In the early ‘60s he teamed with John Ford for three Westerns: Two Rode Together (1962, with Richard Widmark), the classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962, with John Wayne), and Cheyenne Autumn (1964, again with Widmark). Though Stewart also appeared in the multi-episodic How the West Was Won (1963) he did not appear in the segment Ford directed. In 1965 he starred in the Civil War-era Shenandoah and the family Western, The Rare Breed (1966) with Maureen O’Hara. Both were critical and commercial successes. His next, and final, film of any importance was The Shootist (1976), playing Dr. Hostetler, who gives John Wayne’s character his terminal cancer diagnosis.

During this period Stewart also began to transition to television. In the ‘50s he and wife Gloria guested on The Jack Benny Program, playing themselves. The running gag during their appearances was that Jack thought they were all good friends, while the Stewarts studiously tried to avoid him. He played a college professor in the NBC domestic comedy The Jimmy Stewart Show in 1971, but the show failed to find an audience and folded after a year. In 1973 he starred in Hawkins for CBS as a small-town lawyer in West Virginia whose laid-back manner often fooled his adversaries into underestimating his ability as an attorney. Although he won a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Dramatic TV Series, the show failed to gain a wide audience and was canceled after one season.

A revival of Harvey on Broadway in 1970 led to a 1972 TV-movie with Stewart again as Dodds. Another notable made-for-HBO movie was Right of Way (1973), in which he and Bette Davis starred as an elderly couple who, when they learn Bette is ill, make a joint suicide pact. His final role was as the voice of Sheriff Wylie Burp in the 1991 animated film An American Tail: Fievel Goes West.

On the personal side, Stewart married former model Gloria Hatrick McLean in 1949. Their marriage lasted until her death from lung cancer in 1994. Stewart adopted her two sons, Michael and Ronald, and with Gloria he had twin daughters, Judy and Kelly, on May 7, 1951.     

In February 1997, he was hospitalized for an irregular heartbeat. On June 25, a blood clot formed in his right leg, leading to a pulmonary embolism a week later. On July 2, 1997, surrounded by his children, Stewart died at the age of 89 at his home in Beverly Hills, California. His final words to his family were "I'm going to be with Gloria now.”

TCM is showing Stewart’s films on November 1, 8, 15, 22 and 29. Of these 54 films the following are our recommendations.     

 November 1 

6:00 am – THE MURDER MAN (RKO, 1935): Spencer Tracy, Lionel Atwill & Virginia Bruce. Tracy is a hotshot reporter specializing in murder cases. His latest investigation leads to the trial, conviction and a sentence of death. But Tracy is noticeably bothered by this case. His girlfriend, columnist Virginia Bruce, doesn’t understand why until she begins typing out his recorded dictation. Stewart has a small role as “Shorty,” Tracy’s fellow reporter. An actor’s first film is always a must see, and this case is no different.

9:15 am – WIFE VS. SECRETARY (MGM, 1936): Clark Gable, Myrna Loy & Jean Harlow. An executive’s wife believes her husband's relationship with his secretary is more than professional. Stewart acquits himself well as Harlow’s boyfriend. 

8:00 pm – JAMES STEWART: A WONDERFUL LIFE (MGM/WNET, 1987): A retrospective on the life and career of actor James Stewart, with clips from many of his films and interviews with people who have worked with him.

9:45 pm – MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (Columbia, 1938): James Stewart, Jean Arthur. Stewart is in top form as a naive young man who is appointed to fill out a Senate term and winds up turning the Senate upside down. One of his best.

12:15 am – DESTRY RIDES AGAIN (Universal, 1939): Marlene Dietrich, James Stewart. A deputy sworn not to shoot again takes on a corrupt town boss and a sultry saloon singer. Even though Dietrich gets top billing, it’s Stewart’s film. He is perfect for the role. Dietrich’s role as bar singer Frenchie, which revitalized her career, was the inspiration for Madeline’s Kahn’s Lili Von Schtupp in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles.

2:00 am – AFTER THE THIN MAN (MGM, 1936): William Powell, Myrna Loy, & James Stewart. Nick investigates the case of a missing man and later a murder that is connected to Nora’s family. A good early performance from Stewart, who turns out to be the film’s villain. 

November 8

6:30 am – NAVY BLUE AND GOLD (MGM, 1937): Robert Young, James Stewart, Tom Brown, & Lionel Barrymore. Three Midshipmen buddies adjust to life and football at the Naval Academy. It’s a real can of corn, but fun to watch.

8:15 am – BORN TO DANCE (MGM, 1936): Eleanor Powell, James Stewart. Stewart sings! Entertaining nonsense about a sailor who meets a girl at the Lonely Hearts Club and falls in love. As a singer, Stewart sounds like a tomcat in heat. One of his worst, and therefore, worth a look and a laugh. Truly cringeworthy.

5:30 pm – YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU (Columbia, 1938): James Stewart, Jean Arthur. Capra’s adaptation of the Kaufman-Hart play about a man from a staid family engaged to a woman from an eccentric family. Interestingly, none of the remakes were as funny or captured the chemistry that existed between Arthur and Stewart.

8:00 pm – THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (WB, 1940): James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan. Bickering co-workers Stewart and Sullavan do not know that they are secret romantic pen pals. Probably Lubitsch’s best film and one that can be seen numerous times without getting tired. The performances are perfect, as is the direction.

10:00 pm – THE MORTAL STORM (MGM, 1940): James Stewart, Frank Morgan & Margaret Sullavan. An uncompromising look at what occurs in a small town in Germany when the Nazis come to power. MGM finally stands up to Nazi Germany and the results are terrific.

12:00 am – THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (MGM, 1940): Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn & James Stewart. Society lady Hepburn finds herself being wooed by ex-husband Grant and tabloid reporter Stewart. Stewart won the Oscar for this, and it’s easy to see why. He walks away with the picture.

2:00 am – CALL NORTHSIDE 777 (20th Century Fox, 1948): James Stewart, Richard Conte, & Lee J. Cobb. Convinced an inmate is innocent, reporter Stewart re-opens a ten-year old murder case. Excellent docudrama from Henry Hathaway.

November 15

11:45 am – NO TIME FOR COMEDY (WB, 1940): James Stewart, Rosalind Russell. A playwright’s wife convinces him to give up comedy for tragedy with the usual comedic results. Nice give and take between Stewart and Russell. 

6:00 pm – ROPE (WB, 1948): James Stewart, John Dall, & Farley Granger. Two wealthy young men attempt the perfect crime by murdering a friend. Based on the famous Leopold-Loeb murder case, two pretentious college students kill a friend for the thrill of it, with the suspense coming as they invite friends and family to their apartment afterward – with the body hidden on the premises. Stewart, one of the dinner guests, is their former college mentor. His views on superior human beings formed the theoretical basis for their murder. He gives an excellent performance, controlling the party with his intellect and cynical humor, but later comes to reflect on his own opinions with more than a bit of guilt. It was Hitchcock’s first color film and was shot in ten-minute takes to provide a seamless flow of movement; an interesting experiment that the director never attempted again. 

8:00 pm – VERTIGO (Paramount, 1958): James Stewart, Kim Novak. Hitchcock’s masterpiece about a detective who falls for a mysterious woman he’s been hired to tail. A critical and commercial flop when released in 1958, it has gathered acclaim over the years and today is not only seen as the director’s best film, but some rank it over Citizen Kane as the greatest film ever made. Judge for yourselves. 

10:30 pm – ANATOMY OF A MURDER (Columbia, 1959): James Stewart, Ben Gazzara, & Lee Remick. A small town lawyer defends a military man who avenged an attack on his wife. Director Otto Preminger loved to push the envelope and like some of his other efforts, the film’s more serious and compelling aspects were overwhelmed by the production’s publicity, which played up and sensationalized the more unsavory aspects of the film’s rape/murder trial. 

November 22

4:00 pm – CARBINE WILLIAMS (MGM, 1952): James Stewart, Jean Hagen. Stewart is excellent in this true story of the bootlegger who fought for his freedom by inventing a new rifle. Stewart turns in a convincing performance as the inventor of the famous rifle in this simple and unpretentious film which examines his problems with the law and his simple family life.

6:00 pm – SHENANDOAH (Universal, 1965): James Stewart, Doug McClure. Stewart is a Virginia farmer who fights to keep his family together during the Civil War in this folksy, sentimental and well-acted drama. Directed in a forthright manner by Andrew McLaglen (son of Victor), who keeps things simple and moving. Released during the Vietnam War, it’s anti-war message caught on with the public and in 1974 it became a long-running Broadway musical. 

10:15 pm – HARVEY (Universal, 1950): James Stewart, Wallace Ford & Victoria Horne. A wealthy eccentric prefers the company of an invisible six-foot rabbit to his family. A comic tour de force from Stewart as amiable drunk Elwood P. Dowd, who is convinced that an imaginary white rabbit pal named Harvey is following him around. It’s a slight plot that wears noticeably thin near the end, but watch it for Stewart,

2:15 am – REAR WINDOW (Paramount, 1954): James Stewart, Grace Kelly. A superior exercise in dark suspense with Stewart as an incapacitated photojournalist who, out of boredom, begins spying on his neighbors and taking photos of them. Hitchcock makes the most of a simple plot line: an experienced journalist’s suspicions that a murder has been committed even though he lacks the corpse or even any witnesses to it. As much of a romance as a thriller, Hitchcock employs Grace Kelly very effectively as Stewart’s model girlfriend who is frustrated because she can’t talk him into marriage, but who helps him uncover the murderer. What helps the film gain momentum is the strong chemistry between Stewart and Kelly and the perfect casting of Raymond Burr as the killer.

November 29

The evening is dedicated to Stewarts Westerns, shot under the direction of John Ford and Anthony Mann. The actor turned to the Western genre after his return from World War II, and as he matured, the shy, modest innocents he played in the prewar years gave way to tougher, more worldly characters. They were troubled and petulant people torn between firmness and vulnerability, mirroring Stewart’s own adaptation to postwar life. Westerns were the perfect medium to express these feelings, and the ones directed by Ford and Mann allowed Stewart to express the full range of his characters.

In interviews he said his favorite movies were Westerns “because they're told against the background of a very dramatic period in our history.” Westerns also “give people a feeling of hope, an affirmative statement of living.’’     

Stewart's starring role in Winchester '73 marked a major turning point in Hollywood. Universal was negotiating with Stewart to appear both in that film and Harvey, but his $230,000 asking price was deemed too rich by the studio. In response Stewart’s agent, Lew Wasserman brokered an alternate deal: Stewart would star in both films for no pay. Instead he was to be given a percentage of the profits and approval of both cast and director. The deal proved to be a slam dunk for Stewart, as he wound up taking home about $600,000 for Winchester '73 alone. Other Hollywood stars were quick to capitalize on this new way of doing business, further undermining the already crumbling studio system and speeding its demise.

5:45 pm – THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (Paramount, 1962): James Stewart, Lee Marvin & John Wayne. John Ford’s Western about the visit of a popular senator to the town where he first made his fame by shooting the area’s deadly villain, Liberty Valance (played by Lee Marvin). The events in the film are seen through an interview Stewart grants to as young reporter, and as the film goes on, we see that Stewart’s heroism is not really the stuff of heroic legend, as he himself confesses to the young scribe.

8:00 pm – WINCHESTER ’73 (Universal, 1953): James Stewart, Dan Duryea, & Shelley Winters. Stewart wins a Winchester rifle in a shooting contest, but the prize is stolen by runner-up Duryea.  The movie follows Stewart as he combs the West in search of his stolen rifle. It’s a simple plot supported and enhanced by great characterization.

9:45 pm – BEND OF THE RIVER (Universal, 1952): James Stewart, Arthur Kennedy & Rock Hudson. Two men with questionable pasts (Stewart and Kennedy) lead a wagon train into the Oregon Territory. After Kennedy double-crosses him for quick profits, Stewart is forced to fight back. One of Mann and Stewart’s best efforts, a great combination of action and characterization.

11:30 pm – THE FAR COUNTRY (Universal, 1955): James Stewart, Ruth Roman & Walter Brennan. Stewart is a cynical adventurer who gets in on the Klondike gold rush, but his hard-bitten outlook and ignorance of the growing lawlessness in the area lead to events that cause him to think twice.

1:30 pm – THE NAKED SPUR (MGM, 1953): James Stewart, Robert Ryan, & Janet Leigh. Anthony Mann directed this tense drama about cold bounty hunter Stewart bringing murderer Ryan back to civilization. Interestingly, Stewart’s character is a Civil War veteran trying to raise money to get back the ranch he lost while fighting in the war. A message hidden in the movie is how Stewart is haunted by demons emanating from the psychological trauma he suffered from the war, demons that changed his character – very much like the demons he was haunted by after returning from Europe in 1945, now known as PTSD.

3:30 am – TWO RODE TOGETHER (Columbia, 1961): James Stewart, Richard Widmark. In this terrific John Ford Western, cynical and corrupt marshal Stewart is pressured by Army Lieutenant Widmark to assist in the negotiations with the Comanches for the release of a group of settlers who have spent years as hostages. However, just two are released, and their reintegration into white society proves difficult.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Cinéma Inhabituel for November 1-15

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

November is somewhat of a unique month on TCM, as it’s a month that segues from a free basing schedule into the holiday classics that carry over into December.


Gripped in the Cold War, politicians began looking for scapegoats, convenient people to pin blame on for “communist subversion” of our country. And no place had more scapegoats than Hollywood. Better yet, the Hollywood folks were not really on the bright side and thus not able to put up a good fight. Whether directors, actors, screenwriters, or even composers, someone, somewhere must be to blame for the emergence of the U.S.S.R. as a world power. The films TCM is airing all have directors, writers or actors who were later blacklisted. Watching these films today, one wonders what all the hubbub was about? But back then, the search for Commies was relentless. Anyone would be named by witness for the slightest of reasons. For instance, actor Lionel Stander was named by one witness for whistling “the Internationale” while waiting for an elevator in a scene. He didn’t work again until 1965. For those who wanted someone out of the way, whether for personal or professional reasons, this was the perfect way to accomplish it.

Were there Reds in Hollywood? Sure, but the films really don’t reflect their influence. The wartime films were made at the behest of the U.S. government, and Russia was to be portrayed as a loyal ally. That this fit in with the agenda of the Hollywood Reds was merely convenient. Postwar films reflected more the producers’ desires for social change than a call to revolution by the screenwriters and directors. As mentioned before, the Hollywood leftists were dim bulbs and made great fodder for opportunistic politicians. Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo used to host poolside parties at his mansion calling for support for the proletariat while underpaying and overworking his household staff. The watchword among Hollywood lefties was “What’s yours is mine, but what’s mine is mine and you’d better keep your hands off.”

Each film listed has its director or writer listed in parentheses. In the case of an actor, the full name is given. 

November 6: Begin with the excellent documentary, Hollywood on Trial at 8 pm, then settle back for Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (Kaufman, 1945) at 10 pm, Tender Comrade (Dmytryk, 1944) at midnight,  and Crossfire (Dmytryk, 1944) at  2 am, and One Man’s Journey (Ornitz, 1933) at 3:35 am.

November 7: Hollywood goes to war with Objective, Burma! (Cole, 1945) at 8 pm, The Master Race (Biberman, 1944) at 10:30 pm, Woman of the Year (Lardner, Jr., 1942) at 12:15 am, Counter-Attack (Lawson, 1945) at 2:30 am, and Pride of the Marines (Maltz, 1945) at 4:15 am. 

November 13Force of Evil (Polonsky, John Garfield, 1948) at 8 pm, The Man I Married (Pichel,1940) at 9:45 pm, The Racket (Cromwell, 1951) at 11:15 pm, Here Comes Mr. Jordan (Buchman,1941) at 1 am, and The Naked City (Dassin, 1948) at 3 am.

November 14: He Ran All the Way (John Garfield, Endore, 1951) at 8 pm, Anthony Adverse (Gale Sondergaard1936) at 9:45 pm, Scarface (Mahin, 1932) at Midnight, A Letter for Evie(Dassin, 1945) at 2 am, and A Streetcar Named Desire (Kazan, 1951) at 3:45 am. 


November 9: At 3:30 in the afternoon comes the beautiful and touching 1956 Japanese antiwar film, The Burmese HarpDirected by Kon Ichikawa and based on a popular Japanese novel by Takeyama Michio, it stars Shoji Yasui as Private Mizushima, who volunteers to persuade a group of mountain fighter to surrender at the end of World War II, but while fulfilling his mission he undergoes a religious experience and becomes obsessed with the desire to bury war casualties. It is a beautifully nuanced and affecting film. The director remade it in 1965, but the original stands superior.

November 10: Truffaut’s masterpiece, Jules and Jim, is scheduled for 3:15 pm. See the upcoming November 8-14 TiVo Alert for our take on the picture.

At 8:00 pm it’s Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso. The film was shot in Tornatore's hometown of Bagheria, Sicily and was drawn from the director's own life and times. A famous director, Salvatore Divitta (Jacques Perrin) learns of the death of elderly projectionist Alfredo (Philippe Noiret). Returning to his home town for Alfredo’s funeral, Salvatore recalls his childhood under the tutelage of the projectionist and how he learned to love movies through this tutelage. It’s a lovely coming-of-age film that tugs the heartstrings without going too far in the suds department. 


November 5: Luchino Visconti’s 1961 drama, Rocco and His Brothers is scheduled for 3:45 am. Widow Rosaria Parondi (Katina Paxinou) has moved with her five sons: Rocco (Alain Delon), Simone (Renato Salvatori), Ciro (Max Cartier), Luca (Rocco Vidolazzi) and Vincenzo (Spiros Focas) from the south of Italy to Milan in the north in search of a better life, but discovers that the big city has corrupted her family in the process. Made near the end of the Neorealist era, the film was found lacking by several critics, but it is entertaining, more than I can say when Visconti later eschewed entertainment for Art in his later films. It was also his most commercially successful film. Alain Delon stars, but watch for the performance of Annie Girardot as the disillusioned prostitute Nadia.


November 12: At 2:45 am TCM is bring a Bergman double feature, beginning with the 1953 film that established the director on the international scene, Summer With Monika. Following at 4:30 am is his 1964 comedy, All These Women. Cornelius (Jarl Kulle), a pompous music critic, is out to obtain an interview with a famous cellist, but his real agenda is to get the man to perform a piece that he’s composed. Failing to get an interview, he moves instead into the cellist's summer home, where he starts interviewing the women in his subject’s life, which include his wife (Eva Dahlbeck), his official mistress (Bibi Andersson), the housemaid (Harriet Andersson) with whom the musician was involved, and various other women who have had affairs with him. Eventually, Cornelius becomes romantically involved with them and now seeks to become the subject of his proposed interview. 


November 2: It’s an evening with the famed Italian beauty, starting at 8:00 pm with the delightful Marriage - Italian Style from 1964. At 10 pm it’s 1963’s Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow with Marcello Mastroianni. Following at 12:15 am is her Oscar-winning performance in De Sica’s Two Women (1961). At 2 am we see her interviewed in Live from the TCM Classic Film Festival: Sophia Loren (2016), after which at 3:15 am comes A Special Day.

The setting is 1938 Italy. Hitler has come to meet Mussolini and Loren’s husband leaves her behind to attend the affair. Meanwhile she strikes up friendship with mysterious neighbor Mastroianni. As day becomes night the two develop a very special relationship that will radically affect their lives. Finally, at 5:15 am, priest Marcello Mastroianni takes up with troubled parishioner Loren in the comedy The Priest’s Wife from 1970).


November 2: It’s an entire morning and afternoon of films starring the lovely and underrated Ann Rutherford. We begin at 6 am with Ann as the Spirit of Christmas Past in MGM’s 1938 production of A Christmas Carol

Other must sees for the Rutherford fan include You’re Only Young Once (1938, 9 am), the film where she appears for the first time as Andy Hardy’s girlfriend, Polly Benedict; Four Girls in White (1939, 10:30 am), stars Ann as one of four student nurses in an ensemble drama; The Ghost Comes Home (1940, 1:30 pm), with Ann as the daughter of henpecked and browbeaten Frank Morgan, who is presumed dead by his family after he misses his boat connection to Australia and they learn the boat has sunk, which leads to complications when he returns in this light comedy; Keeping Company (1940, 3 pm), a decent B-drama from MGM with Ann as a young woman whose engagement runs into trouble when her fiancee’s old girlfriend suddenly shows up; and Whistling in Brooklyn (1943, 6:15 pm), an entry in a comedy series starring Red Skelton as radio detective Wally “the Fox” Benton. Ann plays his long-suffering girlfriend, Carol Lambert.


November 6: At 3:45 am, it’s Lionel Barrymore, May Robson, Dorothy Jordan and Joel McCrea in the 1933 drama, One Man’s Journey

November 7: At 7:45 am, Lionel Barrymore, Miriam Hopkins and Franchot Tone star in The Stranger’s Return (1933).

November 14: Monarch George Arliss thinks he can find a much simpler life with former wife Marjorie Gateson in The King’s Vacation (1933). Of course, he’s wrong, but it’s nice to see him learn the error of his ways in this gentle comedy that also stars Arliss’ wife, Florence. 

At midnight comes the original 1932 Scarface, from director Howard Hawks and starring Paul Muni, George Raft, Boris Karloff, and in her breakthrough role, Ann Dvorak.


November 3: At 2:00 am Genevieve Bujold is looking into the strange doings at Boston Memorial Hospital in the 1978 thriller, Coma, written and directed by Michael Crichton and based on his novel. It’s followed by Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972). 

November 4: Commies blackmail shipping executive Robert Ryan into spying for them in the hilarious 1950 melodrama The Woman On Pier 13, aka I Married a Communist, at 12:30 am. Immediately following (2 am) Matthew Laborteaux and Kristy Swanson star in Wes Craven’s Deadly Friend (1986), followed at 3:45 am by another showing of Swamp Thing (1982).

November 6: The day is devoted to a marathon of Falcon films starring George Sanders and later, Tom Conway, George’s real-life brother.

November 9: At midnight it’s the original Little Shop of Horrors from director Roger Corman. 

November 12: At 10 am, compulsive liar Bobby Driscoll can’t convince his parents he really saw a murder committed in RKO’s 1949 thriller, The Window. Barbara Hale and Arthur Kennedy play young Bobby’s parents and Ruth Roman and Paul Stewart are the neighbors who aren’t what they seem.

Abbott and Costello are magicians drawn into intrigue in the bizarre city of Port Inferno in MGM’s 1944 Lost in a Harem at 2 pm. Marilyn Maxwell is the cabaret singer who travels with them and who they must rescue when she is kidnapped.

November 15: At 10:00 am it’s Gun Crazy, director Joseph H. Lewis’ 1949 psychotronic masterpiece about a young gun-crazy couple (Peggy Cummins and John Dall) who decide to turn their obsession into a life of crime. Definitely one not to be missed.


November 5: At 12:45 am, Harold Lloyd is the weakling in a family of he-men who must prove himself by defeating a nasty villain in The Kid Brother. This 1927 film is generally regarded as one of Lloyd’s best. 

November 9: John Gilbert is a young innocent who suffers the horror of World War I in director King Vidor’s The Big Parade. Both Gilbert and co-star Renee Adoree became stars as a result of the film’s popularity.

November 10: Greta Garbo is married to Lewis Stone, but falls for dashing Nils Asther while on a trip to Indonesia in MGM’s Wild Orchids (1929) at 9:30 am.

November 12: Spirited Norwegian lass Mona Martenson is torn between two suitors and two cultures in Laila (1929, airing at midnight.

Friday, October 27, 2017

TCM TiVo Alert for November 1-7

November 1–November 7


CHINA SYNDROME (November 3, 8:00 pm): This 1979 anti-nuclear film is anchored by excellent writing and a cast of terrific actors, most notably Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas, who also produced it. A television news crew goes into a nuclear power plant by chance during an emergency shutdown. We later find out that the plant is about to go into meltdown mode. We get corporate greed, government corruption and how the demand for energy results in people compromising their integrity. By coincidence, the film was released 12 days before the infamous Three Mile Island partial nuclear meltdown, giving credence to the message of the China Syndrome during the height of the "no-nukes" period. 

DODSWORTH (November 5, 8:00 am): Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston) is a rich automobile manufacturer who loves his job, but is convinced to retire early by his wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton), a vain woman who is fearful of growing old. She wants to see the world, particularly Europe, lead an exciting life. Sam is a regular guy who wants to please his wife. Fran quickly grows bored of Sam and spends most of her time with other men. She eventually dumps him for a European noble, leaving Sam to mope around Italy, where he sees a divorcee (Mary Astor), who he first met while traveling on the Queen Mary to Europe. The two fall in love, but Fran wants to reconcile. I won't ruin the ending. Everything works exceptionally well in this film. The acting is top-notch (besides the three leads, David Niven is great in a smaller role in one of his earliest films, and Maria Ouspenskaya as a baroness is a scene-stealer), the story is first-rate, and with William Wyler as the director, the movie is filmed and paced perfectly.


DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (Nov. 7, 6:00 am): Frederic March received the Best Actor Oscar for his turn as Dr. Jekyll, one of only two times an actor won Best Actor for a horror film. (Anthony Hopkins was the other in 1992.) The unrestrained violence of the film, combined with its sexual undertones, still pack a punch today. Miriam Hopkins co-stars as Ivy, who brings Dr. Jekyll’s repressed sexuality to the fore, later to be released in the form of Mr. Hyde. This could only be made in the Pre-Code era. The 1941 Spencer Tracy version, made when the Code was in full force, is limp by comparison. Also compare it to the 1920 John Barrymore silent version, where the pressures on Jekyll are external. Here the pressure and the evil released is internal. The beast in us all. Monsters from the Id. This is the version to watch. 

THE OLD MAID (Nov. 7, 2:15 pm): Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins are at it again in this lush and glossy soap opera from Warner Brothers. Bette and Miriam are cousins Charlotte and Delia during the Civil War, and both are head over heels for Clem (George Brent). But it’s Bette whom Clem gets preggers. He enlists in the Union Army and is conveniently killed on the battlefield. Years later, Bette is running a home of war orphans, including her love child by Clem, who she keeps secret until she plans to marry Joe Ralston (Jerome Cowan), and confesses all to Delia, who married Joe’s brother, Jim (James Stephenson) on the rebound. Bad move. We’ll stop here, but suffice to say the suds really begin to flow as the movie progresses. Directed by Edmund Goulding, who had a flair for this type of film, The Old Maid is Grade-A entertainment, thanks to the efforts of Davis and Hopkins, who absolutely loathed each other in real life.


ED: A. The problem with episodic films is one of consistency. While one segment may be wonderful, another may be barely watchable. No problem with that in this film from director Vittorio De Sica. Of course, it helps to have Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni in every episode and writers like Cesare Zavattini who know how to craft a story. Loren plays three very different women in three different Italian cities (Naples, Milan and Rome) and Mastroianni as the man in their lives. The last segment, with Loren as a high-class hooker in Rome is famous for the striptease she performs. (Almost every time a still from the film is featured it is of Loren stripping.) The performances are high quality. Loren is not only one of the world’s most beautiful women, but also one of the most talented, which comes through in each vignette. And Mastroianni shows a flair for comedy he never had a chance to demonstrate while being directed by Fellini. For those familiar with the film, you know what I’m talking about, and for those who have never caught this marvelous comedy, you are in for a treat,

DAVID: A. Legendary Italian neorealist director Vittorio De Sica built his well-deserved reputation on films such as The Bicycle ThiefUmberto D., and Two Women. That's what makes Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow even more impressive as De Sica does a superb job with a completely different film genre: a sex comedy. And this is a very funny sex comedy. If you're going to make a sex comedy in 1963, you couldn't do any better than to cast Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. But De Sica doesn't forget his roots and what made him a great director. Each of the three vignettes in the film focuses on social classes and the struggles of those in those groups to survive. Of the three segments, the final one with Loren as a prostitute and Mastroianni as a regular customer is the best. The chemistry between the two actors and the ability of the director to capture and showcase that chemistry in a way that is fun and entertaining to watch is a testament to the talents and skills of the trio. The first and third segments could have been made into quality full-length motion pictures. Instead, we are treated to three shorter films, which are all excellent and very sexy, particularly the final one with Loren's iconic strip tease.

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

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Saint Strikes Back

The B-Hive

By Ed Garea

The Saint Strikes Back (RKO, 1939) – Director: John Farrow. Writers: John Twist (s/p), A.C. Edington (treatment, uncredited), Leslie Charteris (novel Angels of Doom). Stars: George Sanders, Wendy Barrie, Jonathan Hale, Jerome Cowan, Barry Fitzgerald, Neil Hamilton, Robert Elliott, Russell Hopton, Edward Gargan, Robert Strange, Gilbert Emery, James Burke, Nella Walker, Willie Best & Paul E. Burns. B&W, 64 minutes.

This is the first of five films starring George Sanders as Leslie Charteris’ master criminal-turned-crime-fighter Simon Templar. As Charteris drew him, Templar was a charming, sophisticated rogue, whose humor hid his ruthlessness and a physical dimension he employed when the situation called for it. While Sanders lacked the physical dimension, he had all the rest, and his suave style combined with a silky smooth voice made the films a hit at the box office. At times it almost feels as if Sanders was playing an early version of James Bond. 

For a film with a running time of only 64 minutes, the plot is quite complicated. When a gangster is murdered while about to take out a fellow guest at San Francisco’s Colony Club on New Year’s Eve, Val Travers (Barrie), who orchestrated the attempted murder, is the first to flee. Travers is the daughter of a police inspector who committed suicide after he was bounced from the force on suspicion of being a member of the gang of a notorious gangster known as Waldeman. She has organized a gang herself to ferret out the mysterious Waldeman and enact her revenge. Outside the club she runs into Simon Templar, who helps Val make her escape. The fact that Templar is waiting outside the club himself leads us to suspect he was the man who killed the potential assassin. 

Hearing that Templar is in the city, the San Francisco police reach out to the NYPD for Inspector Henry Fernack (Hale), who is familiar with the Saint. The Saint visits Fernack in New York before the Inspector travels to San Francisco and the two form an uneasy alliance to catch Waldeman. 

At San Francisco police headquarters, Templar theorizes that Traverse was framed by an inside man in the police department, but he is ridiculed by criminologist Cullis (Cowan) who suggests that Templar is the mysterious Waldeman. 

Discovering that philanthropist Martin Eastman may be somehow involved, Templar and Zipper Dyson (Fitzgerald), a safecracker he learns was hired by Val to break into Eastman’s safe, do just that where they find a stack of federal bank notes Val’s father was supposed to have received from Waldeman’s organization as a bribe. When Eastman fails to notify the police of the theft, instead seeing Cullis, Templar suspects that Eastman and Cullis are in cahoots with Waldeman. However, the police are hesitant to act for fear of losing Waldeman. To flush out the gangster, Templar and Val visit Eastman. Templar had secretly returned the stolen bank notes and confronts Eastman with them after getting him to open his safe. Panicked, Eastman tries to flee but is shot down as he leaves the house. 

Templar and Val next pay a visit to Cullis, confronting him with the stolen notes. Cullis confesses to framing Val’s father, but unbeknownst to him the San Francisco police have been tapping his apartment and hears his confession. When Cullis again accuses Templar of being Waldeman, the police commissioner informs him that Templar has been working with the police all along and they approved all his actions. Trapped by the evidence, Cullis finally admits that Waldeman is really Allen Breck (Hamilton), Val’s friend, admirer and attorney. 


The novel that served as the basis for the film was also published under the titles of The Saint Meets His Match and She Was a Lady (the original publication title). Many changes were made for the film: moving the locale from London to San Francisco, replacing Scotland Yard Inspector Teal with NYPD Inspector Fernack, and changing the female lead’s name from Jill Trelawney to Valerie Travers. While Jill was British, Val is from San Francisco.  

Sanders was a good choice to replace Louis Hayward, who played Templar in 1938’s The Saint in New York. Hayward was a difficult act to follow (and in my estimation, the best actor to portray the character), but Sanders makes playing Templar seem almost effortless, as if he were born for the role, though he does lack the edge Hayward gave to his portrayal.  

Director Farrow keeps things moving, with the emphasis more on the whodunit aspect as opposed to gunplay. A delightful scene has Fernack and the Saint ending up on the same plane going back from New York to San Francisco, with Fernack insistent that he’s going to keep an eye on the Saint throughout the entire trip. When the plane has a stopover in Fort Worth, Templar slips out. When Fernack discovers the Saint is missing, he also leaves the plane, albeit in his dressing gown, only to find that Templar has trickled him and the plane departs for San Francisco leaving Fernack stranded. 

One point that intrigued me was when the San Francisco police commissioner told Cullis that the Saint has been working with the police the whole time. If that is true, then why did they reach out to New York for the services of Fernack? Thought the film Fernack seems like Templar’s reluctant sidekick, without a reason for being there other than the screenwriter’s whim.     

Another problem centers around Breck. We don’t see much of him in the film and never get any clues or explanations as to how he could have pulled of the ruse of being an attorney and Val’s wanna-be boyfriend while at the same time running a massive criminal organization.

One nice indication that this is indeed a B-movie comes when Cullis and the police break down Val’s front door. One would naturally suppose that a pair of front doors for a mansion would be heavy and would have to be knocked off their hinges, but the police break right through these with no tools as if it was made of balsa wood, which it probably was.

At any rate the film was a huge hit for RKO, and in rural and suburban theaters it was moved to the ‘A’ position. One thing that helps it nicely is the sterling supporting cast, including Fitzgerald, Cowan, Hamilton, Russell Hopton, and Edward Gargan. Willie Best, who may well have been the best actor in the film, is assigned the small role of Templar’s valet, Algernon. “Why Algernon?” Templar tells Fernack. “We tried several names and it was the one he liked best.” Hmmm.  

When Sanders moved on to playing Gay Lawrence, the Falcon, he was succeeded by British actor Hugh Sinclair. Sinclair starred in the last two installments (1941 and 1943) before RKO pulled the plug on the series. It was ten years before another Saint movie was made, with Louis Hayward returning to the role for Hammer. The film was not a success, and the Saint disappeared from the screen until the 1960s when he was revived first in France (once by Jean Marais) and then, in its most famous revival, by Roger Moore in a long-running TV series and movie spinoffs. Moore’s portrayal of Templar was even closer to James Bond. There was another revival of the character in England during the late ‘70s, and the last appearance of the character was in an execrable 1997 movie starring Val Kilmer.

In early publicity for the film the studio announced the leads as Frederic March and Joan Fontaine, For his part, Charteris wasn’t satisfied with with Hayward or Sanders, feeling both were “hopelessly miscast” as the Saint. He had pressed RKO for his character to be played by either Ronald Colman, Cary Grant or Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. He was far happier with Roger Moore's image and interpretation.

Notable Quotables

Val Travers: Why are you telling me all this?

Simon Templar: Because… well… because I love you. But don’t lets get sticky about it – I’m really a very shallow person. I also love fireflies, mockingbirds and pink sunsets. I think, however, that we could find each other more diverting than a pink sunset, don’t you?


Simon Templar: (to Fernack referring to Val) I mean how could a girl as pretty as that be so clever?