A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
The third annual TCM Big Screen Classics lineup has been announced and will feature 13 classic films spanning six decades – from the 1930s to the 1990s – playing over two days each in select theaters nationwide.
"It's about bringing movies to people who love movies and allowing them to share the experience," says Ben Mankiewicz, host of TCM Primetime. "These movies are hugely resonant with people.”
We could print the entire list, but we feel that it’s better just to remind readers of the film playing each month. We will mention that film in the first month’s edition of Cinema Inhabituel.
Many critics consider The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as director John Huston's finest cinematic achievement, a tale of obsession and greed during a gold mining expedition in Mexico that features outstanding performances from Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt (in a role originally intended for John Garfield) and Huston's father, Walter, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his troubles – one time the bozos in the Academy got it right.
January will mark the 70th anniversary of this classic and it will be screened on Jan. 14 and 16. We’ve said this before and we’ll say it again: nothing quite compares to seeing a classic such as this on the big screen at a theater, the way it was meant to be seen. If anyone who goes to see this classic would like to write of the experience, send it to us and we’ll print your observations.
January 2: An evening with the great comedian begins at 8 pm with the rarely seen classic Million Dollar Legs, from 1932. Fields is the president of Klopstokia, a small country in Eastern Europe whose citizens are all blessed with incredible athletic prowess. In fact, the presidency itself is determined by an arm wrestling contest. Given the country’s athletic gifts, it’s decided to enter a team in the 1932 Olympic Games, where there’s sure to be all sorts of political intrigue and wild hijinks. Checking in at only 62 minutes, the movie's plot is little more than an excuse for sight gags, physical comedy and sharp dialogue. Look for lovely Susan Fleming as Fields’s daughter, Angela. She was on-track for stardom when she decided to take a different path in life and married Harpo Marx in 1936. Their marriage was a very happy one, lasting until the great comic’s death in 1964.
Following Million Dollar Legs are It’s a Gift (1934), probably Fields’s greatest comedy, at 9:15 pm (read our review of it here); The Bank Dick (1940), at 10:45 pm; and his last starring role in the aptly named Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) at 12:15 am. Afterward, at 1:45 am, we are treated to two classic shorts Fields made for Mack Sennett: The Dentist, from 1932, and The Fatal Glass of Beer, from 1933. To close out the evening at 2:45 am, take in Fields’s classic portrayal of Mr. Micawber in MGM’s 1935 production of Dickens’s David Copperfield, ably directed by George Cukor.
TWO FROM JAPAN
January 14: Family life in Japan is viewed in two comedies from directors Kon Ichikawa and the incomparable Yasujiro Ozu. First up at 2:00 am is Ichikawa’s Being Two Isn’t Easy (Watashi wa nisai), from 1962. Long before the Look Who’s Talking movies came into vogue, Ichikawa made comedy featuring an infant narrator who expresses frustrations with his parents' child-rearing and loves that of his doting grandmother. It’s a look into Japanese culture and family structure. Conflict within the family comes from the father’s rather half-hearted efforts at helping with housework or child-rearing, while his mother, whom they move in with when their son is born, is firm in her belief that a man should do nothing more at home than simply relax. The household is the domain of the woman. And, keeping with another tradition, she spoils her grandson as grandparents are prone to, and to the consternation of her daughter-in-law. By the way, the meaning of the title comes from the Japanese view that children are considered to be one year old when they are born. The film ends with his first birthday, turning two in Japanese culture while only one year in Western eyes. This is a gentle and humorous look at the trials and tribulations, along with the joys, of parenthood.
It’s followed at 3:45 am by Ozu’s 1959 classic, Good Morning (Ohayo). A very loose remake of his 1932 I Was Born But . . . this film has more comic elements than its predecessor, though the two share the basic plot elements about both are about two young brothers who go on strike against their parents, and the relationships within their suburban community. The Japan of 1959 is vastly different than that of 1932 and the film reflects those changes. This new, postwar Japan Japan was in the midst of a pro wrestling craze, which greatly spurred the sales of television sets. It’s all part of the Western-style consumerism that Ozu sees sweeping Japan. Housewives want washing machines and vacuum cleaners while children want television. The trouble starts when one couple, apparently childless, welcomes the neighborhood boys in to watch TV in their home, although the parents disapprove of both television and the couple. Ozu shows them coming home in the early morning scatting a jazz tune – a hint at both their bohemian lifestyle and the degree to which Western culture has spread throughout Japan. The other adults in the film engage in the sort of mindless conversation about trivial matters that passes for good manners, instead of saying what they’re really thinking, with the result being that even a single man and single woman can’t even find the means to express their attraction to one another. At any rate, the children are adamant about their parents getting a television set. Their father considers television a box that makes its viewers into idiots, telling the boys that they talk too much nonsense. The boys counter that adults also talk too much nonsense and go on a silence strike to drive their point – and demand – home. Good Morning is a genial and insightful satire at the social mores of the modern Japan Ozu saw as rejecting traditional values for consumer values that only stress the importance of the moment. It’s a gem well worth recording.
January 1: Holiday Inn (1942) with Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Marjorie Reynolds and Virginia Dale, is airing today at 8:30 am. After song-and-dance man Crosby loses his amour Dale to partner Astaire, he retired to run a country inn, where he meets Reynolds, a performer sent there by Astaire’s agent to stop her from pestering him. Best known for Irving Berlin’s classic song, “White Christmas,” the film also features some snappy numbers from Astaire and Crosby along with a watchable plot. Reynolds gained much of her early experience on Poverty Row, most notably with Boris Karloff in Monogram’s Mr. Wong series as reporter Bobby Logan.
January 15: On a day honoring Martin Luther King Jr., tune in at 9:30 am and catch Lena Horne in her film debut in The Duke is Tops. This 1938 all-Black production is fascinating not only for Horne, who one can see had stardom written all over her, but for the perseverance of talented African-American performers and technicians denied the chance to ply their wares in Hollywood proper. If life hands you lemons, make lemonade.
January 2: Garbo sizzles in Mata Hari (1932) at 6:15 am. She’s followed by the great George Arliss in a pair of biopics: Disraeli (1929) at 8:00 am, and Alexander Hamilton (1931) at Noon.
January 4: Three Pre-Code classics are on tap, beginning at 7:45 am with Bill (Hopalong Cassidy) Boyd and Pat O’Brien in Flaming Gold (1933) at 7:45 am. At 9:30 am it’s Dolores Costello (Mrs. John Barrymore) and Warren William in Expensive Women (1931), followed at 10:45 am by Norma Shearer, Frederic March and Leslie Howard in Smilin’ Through (1932).
January 5: Charles Boyer has a bit part in MGM’s Red-Headed Woman (1932), with Jean Harlow and Chester Morris at 8:15 am.
January 9: At 6:30 am, Claudia Dell stars with Ernest Torrence, Perry Askam and Walter Pidgeon in Sweet Kitty Bellairs, from 1930. Directed by Alfred E. Green for Warner Bros., it’s the story of an English flirt (Dell) on her way to see her sister when her carriage is held up by a highwayman. He falls in love with Kitty, and therein hangs the plot. Will he win the lady, who is also being pursued by Lord Verney (Pidgeon)?
January 5: A Laurel and Hardy gem is on today’s bill. The Flying Deuces (1939), airing at 10:45 am, is one of the boys’ better films, with Stan and Ollie as a couple of workers from an Iowa fish market vacationing in France. After Ollie’s marriage proposal to an innkeeper's pretty daughter (Jean Parker), is rejected, he is despondent. It’s suggested by a passing French Foreign Legion soldier that he join the Foreign Legion to forget. And that’s just what her and Stan do, but the Legion turns out to be far from what they expected. Though it’s heavily reliant on their usual slapstick, The Flying Deuces is an entertaining comedy with enough swerves to keep the viewer interested.
January 9: Victor McLaglen is a foreman in a munitions plant who must protect absent-minded scientist Edmond O’Brien from enemy agents as he creates a new explosive in 1942’s Powder Town, at 2:15 am.
January 7: Beginning at Midnight see Rudolph Valentino in the films that made him a cult icon with women, The Sheik (1921) and The Son of the Sheik (1926). The first was based on Edith M. Hull’s 1919 “Roughly He Grabbed Me” best-seller about the independent-minded Lady Diana Mayo. When she makes an ill-advised trip on her own through the Algerian desert, she is abducted by Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan. Though she yearns to be free and recoils from any attempt by the Sheik at romance, when she is later kidnapped by desert bandits she realizes how much she loves him. Lest there be any insinuations of interethnic romance, it’s revealed near the film’s end that Ahmed is of English and Spanish nobility.
The Son of the Sheik was made five years later, when Valentino’s career was in serious decline and was an attempt to win back his audience. Screenwriter Frances Marion based her script on Hull’s own sexual, Sons of the Sheik, but combined the twin sons into one character. This time around, Ahmed falls in love with dancing girl Vilma Banky, who is the daughter of a bandit. Later, when Ahmed thinks she's betrayed him, he prepares to have his way with her, but is stopped in the nick of time by his father. This leads to much swashbuckling, with father and son teaming up to take on the thieves. Valentino had high hopes that the film might jump start his career, but one month after a smash opening, there actor died at the age of 31from peritonitis. Truth told, Rudy wasn’t much of an actor, unless you consider nostril-flaring to be a talent. But he was good at posing, and he did a lot of this in both films.
January 3: It’s a day with a lot of psychotronic films. We especially recommend The Giant Behemoth (9:30 am), Godzilla (11:00 am), The Boy With Green Hair (8:00 pm), and Eraserhead(1;45 am).
January 5: Secrets of the French Police (9:45 am) is a forgotten gem released by RKO in 1932. Inspector St. Cyr (Frank Morgan) is, charged with locating a beautiful Paris flower peddler (Gwili Andre) whose Russian heritage has madman General Hans Moloff (Gregory Ratoff) passing her off as “the last of the Romanovs” so he can grab a fortune secured in trust for the lost Anastasia in a London bank. It’s directed with an eye for the freakish by A. Edward Sutherland, who also directed the grotesque Murders in the Zoo that same year.
The TCM Spotlight on Survival Movies is running The Naked Prey, Deliverance, The Most Dangerous Game, and Run for the Sun in that order, beginning at 8:00 pm.
January 6: A double feature of gymnastic fighting films begins at 2:00 am with the “spoof,” Never Too Young to Die. The film stars John Stamos as Lance Stargrove, a high school gymnast whose James Bond-ish secret agent father (George Lazenby) is killed. What’s a boy to do? Team up with dad’s gorgeous female partner, Danja (Vanity), and go after the bad guys, that’s what. The bad guys are led by Velvet Von Ragner (Gene Simmons), a hermaphrodite terrorist who wants to poison L.A.’s water supply. When not busy being a terrorist, Ragnar performs a punk-burlesque act in a nightclub called the Incinerator, whose audience consists mainly of androgynous glam metal bikers. When Ragner captures Danja, it’s up to Stamos to rescue her.
While Never Too Young to Die is ridiculous, it’s much better than the film that follows at 4:15 am. For sheer ineptness of plot, direction and acting, you can’t beat 1985’s Gymkata, starring Olympic gymnast Kurt Thomas as a champion gymnast (What Else?) who must travel to the mythical country of Parmistan to compete in a traditional and brutal game called Game. He must also win if America is to be granted a Star Wars type early detection base there. Yes, it’s as bad as it sounds: with a ridiculous plot, terribly bad acting, and fight scenes that combine martial arts with Kurt's talents as a gymnast. By a strange coincidence, this new fighting method is called Gymkata. By the way, TCM seems to have this on a constant play list, cropping up every few months. Give it a rest, people; there must be something else worthwhile out there in the celluloid wilderness.
January 8: A night devoted to movies based on true crime begins at 8:00 pm with In Cold Blood, followed by 10 Rillington Place, The Honeymoon Killers, and Dog Day Afternoon, with the classic The Phenix City Story closing out the night at 4:45 am.
January 12: The TCM Spotlight on Survival movies continues. We recommend Inferno (1953), with Robert Ryan and Rhonda Fleming, at 10:00 pm, and Luis Bunuel’s magnificent 1954 Adventures of Robinson Crusoe at 11:45 pm.
January 13: Blaxploitation is on the menu tonight beginning at 2:00 am with Max Julien as a pimp up against two corrupt cops out to take him down in The Mack, from 1973. Following at 4:00 am is Ron O’Neal in Superfly, from 1972.
January 15: Another blaxploitation double feature begins at Midnight with Robert Hooks, Paul Winfield and Ralph Waite in Trouble Man, from 1972. Known among his peers as Mr. T, Hooks is a private eye who will take any case if you meet his price and are on the level. He’s up against two miscreants named Chalky Price (Winfield) and his partners, Pete Cockerel (Waite), who want to frame him for murder. It’s a typical action flick, nothing more, but it’s good entertainment for late night.
At 2:00 am comes the one that popularized the genre, the venerable Shaft (1971) from director Gordon Parks and starring Richard Roundtree as the private eye hired by Harlem underworld boss Moses Gunn to find and retrieve his kidnapped daughter. Along the way he finds time to beat up tough guys and impress the women, who serve only as props to Shaft’s masculinity. It’s all performed to the driving beat of Isaac Hayes’s memorable score.
TRAIN WRECK THEATER
January 2: Sit back and laugh as you try to take Clark Gable seriously in Parnell (1937) at 9:45 am.