A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
Staff writer Jon Saia informs us that Glam Masters, a show he produced, is set to begin airing Wednesday, February 28, at 9 pm on the Lifetime network. The show is a weekly competition series where make-up artists go head-to-head to prove they have what it takes to be the next big name in the beauty world.
Should you miss the first show, it will be repeated on the following days and times: February 28, 10 pm; Thursday, March 1, 1:05 am; Thursday, March 1, 2:05 am; and Thursday, March 1, at 9 pm. The series looks like a lot of fun and should prove to be quite enjoyable. We hope you tune in.
ANNA MAY WONG
March 4: TCM is dedicating the evening to Anna May Wong with four of her films. She is considered to be the first Chinese-American movie star and also the first Chinese-American actress to gain international recognition. During the course of a long career she starred in silent film, sound film, stage, radio and television.
Born Wong Liu Tsong in Los Angeles to second-generation Chinese-American parents on January 3, 1905, Wong became mesmerized by the movies and began her film career at an early age, making her uncredited debut in the 1919 drama, The Red Lantern. One of the films she starred in, The Toll of the Sea (Metro, 1922), written by Frances Marion, was one of the first films made in color. In Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad (UA, 1924) she played a treacherous Mongol slave. The role not only boosted her to international stardom, but also made her something of a fashion icon, as her costumes in the film were copied for wear by women all around the globe.
As the ‘20s progressed she became frustrated by the stereotypical roles she was offered and left for Europe. She spent the first half of the 1930s shuttling between the U.S. and Europe for stage and film work. In 1935 she was considered for a role she coveted, that of the Chinese peasant O-Lan in MGM’s adaptation of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, but the role ultimately went to Austrian actress Luise Rainer. Wong spent the next year touring China where she studied Chinese culture and visited her family’s ancestral village. Returning to the U.S. she signed on with Paramount for a series of B-pictures that portrayed Asian-Americans in a positive light. She was loaned to Warner Bros. for the unusual mystery, When Were You Born? (1938) where she played astrology expert Mei Lei Ming. Suspected of murder after telling one of her fellow passengers on a ship that he will die, she uses her skills in astrology to catch the real murderer. Although it’s not showing this evening, the movie appears on TCM from time to time and we will let you know the next time it’s scheduled.
During World War II she appeared on behalf of and donated money to United China Relief, including the proceeds from a cookbook she wrote in 1942 titled New Chinese Recipes, one of the first Chinese cookbooks published. She also made the propaganda films Bombs Over Burma and Lady From Chungking in 1942 for Poverty Row studio PRC, donating her salary to United China Relief. After the war she invested heavily in real estate, owning a number of properties in Hollywood. She also starred in a television series for the DuMont Television Network titled The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, playing a Chinese art dealer whose career involves her in detective work and international intrigue. She also did several guest shots on series such as Adventures in Paradise, The Barbara Stanwyck Show, and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp.
She was scheduled to play the role of Madame Liang in the film production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song, but was unable to take the role due to ill health. On February 3, 1961, she died of a heart attack as she slept at her home in Santa Monica. She was only 56 years of age. Her death occurred only two days after her final screen performance on The Barbara Stanwyck Show.
Overlooked and unjustly neglected for years, a re-examination of her life and career took shape as the centennial of her birth approached, with comprehensive retrospectives of her films being held at both the Museum of Modern Art and the American Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. Two major biographies were published: Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong (1905–1961), by Anthony Chan (the first major work on the star) and Anna May Wong: From Laundryman's Daughter to Hollywood Legend by Graham Russell Hodges. Philip Leibfried and Chei Mi Lane authored an exhaustive examination of Wong's career, Anna May Wong: A Complete Guide to Her Film, Stage, Radio and Television Work. All are available at Amazon.
The evening devoted to Wong kicks off at 8:00 pm with Paramount’s 1931 crime drama, Daughter of the Dragon. Wong is a Chinese princess who gets caught between the ruthless warlord Fu Manchu (Warner Oland) and Scotland Yard detective Ah Kee (Sessue Hayakawa). After being mortally wounded in a gun battle, Fu Manchu summons his daughter, dancer Princess Ling Moy (Wong) and makes her swear to avenge him. A true Hollywood rarity, featuring two Asian-American stars, and well worth seeing.
At 9:30 pm Wong stars with Marlene Dietrich, Clive Brook and Warner Oland in Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (Paramount, 1932). Set in 1931 during the Chinese Civil War, Dietrich is the notorious “Shanghai Lily,” the long-lost love of Captain Donald Harvey (Brook). Meeting on a train they rekindle their love but Harvey is appalled by Lily’s new trade while he was away. Wong is Hui Fei, like Lily, a “coaster” (a woman who, while not a professional prostitute, lives by her wits).
Piccadilly (British Int’l, 1929), following at 11:00 pm, finds Wong as Shosho, an ambitious scullery maid working in the kitchen of a London dance club. One night the club’s owner, Valentine Wilmot (Jameson Thomas) sees her dancing on a table in the kitchen and as immediately smitten. He makes her the star of the club, replacing the team of Mabel and Vic (Gilda Gray and Cyril Ritchard) on stage and Mable in his bed. Mabel, understandably, wants revenge. Leonard Maltin calls this “Slick, oozing with atmosphere, but supremely silly, this silent film is redeemed by Wong, who is an unforgettable presence in her all-time best part.” Look for Charles Laughton in a memorable part as an irate diner and Ray Milland as one of the club’s patrons.
Finally, at 1:00 am Wong has a minor role as Loo Song in MGM’s Mr. Wu, starring Lon Chaney as both Mr. Wu and his grandfather in this 1927 drama about a Chinese patriarch who goes bonkers when his daughter, Nang Ping (Renee Adoree) falls in love with young Englishman Basil Gregory (Ralph Forbes)
March 4: In addition to the evening honoring Anna May Wong, another unjustly forgotten star, Josephine Baker, is the focus of a double feature beginning at 2:00 am. First up is The French Way from 1945, a light piece of fluff that takes place during World War II. Parisian neighbors M. Dalban (Saturnin Fabre) and Mme. Ancelot (Gabrielle Dorziat) are still feuding over his claim in his biography of Napoleon that her great-great-grandmother did not sleep with the Emperor! Their underage children Claire (Micheline Presle) and Bernard (Georges Marchal) are in love, but cannot marry due to their parents' opposition. Dalban enlists beautiful cabaret star Zazou to divert Bernard's attention. But Zazou has her own ideas about young love and takes charge. The film was made in 1939, during the “phony war,” but not released until 1945. Not having seen it I can’t really comment, but from the synopsis it looks as if the only thing the film has going for it is the fact that it is so rare. That alone is enough to make me watch, aside from my huge crush on Ms. Baker.
At 4:15 am Baker stars with Jean Gabin in Zouzou (1934). Leonard Maltin describes it as 42nd Street meets Footlight Parade French-style. Baker is a Creole laundress raised in the circus along with her foster brother, Jean (Jean Gabin). Now in Paris, he’s a music hall electrician, and she's a laundress who delivers clean underwear to the hall. Two passions drive her – a longing to star on the stage, and her love for Jean, who disappoints her when he falls for her best friend, Claire (Yvette Lebon). To help Zouzou achieve her dream, Jean schemes to get the show's star out of town and for the theater manager to see Zouzou perform. When Jean is later accused of murder, and Zouzou needs money to mount his defense, she pleads to go on stage. She becomes an overnight sensation, but is it in time to save her beloved Jean? Tune in and find out. I saw this many years ago at a Baker revival and not only was entranced by the star but also by Gabin’s performance. Zouzou was the first picture to star a Black actress in the lead role.
March 11: A double feature from director Eric Rohmer begins at 2:00 am with his 1972 drama, Love in the Afternoon. It’s followed at 3:45 am by Claire’s Knee (1970), starring Jean-Claude Brialy as a thirtyish diplomat about to be married, who takes a holiday at French resort and finds himself infatuated with two teenaged sisters, Claire and Laura, particularly the sight of Claire’s knee on a ladder. Though it sounds somewhat strange it is a delightful comedy, with outstanding performances from Brialy as Jerome and Batrice Romand as Laura.
March 8: The seldom shown silent epic Tide of Empire (MGM, 1929) kicks things off at 6:00 am. Starring Renee Adoree and George Duryea (Tom Keene), it’s about about gold seekers and bandits disrupting the lives of peaceful Spanish ranchers in old California.
At 7:30 comes the musical Children of Pleasure (MGM, 1930), starring Lawrence Gray as a songwriter who overlooks the faithful attentions of his constant pal Pat (Judith Wood) in favor of a glitzy playgirl (Wynne Gibson). He wins the playgirl, only to discover the night before their wedding that she has no interest whatsoever in remaining faithful.
Beauty For Sale (MGM, 1933) follows at 8:45 am, a soaper about a high-society beautician (Madge Evans) who thinks she’s landed the man of her dreams Otto Kruger) only to discover that he has no intention of divorcing his wife. Don’t worry, it all works out in the end. Reason to watch: Una Merkel as Madge’s gold digging roommate.
Finally, there’s Laughing Boy (MGM, 1934) a tawdry tale of a young Navajo (Ramon Novarro) who defies tribal custom to marry outcast Slim Girl (Lupe Velez) to his later grief. 1934 must have been some year for the American Indian, as Warner Bros. released their socially conscious film, Massacre, starring Richard Barthelmess, earlier in the year.
March 8: Ann Harding gets a surprise when she travels to Malaysia to be with fiancee Melvyn Douglas in Prestige (RKO, 1932), at 6:45 am. Later, at 8:00 am MGM argues both sides of the Prohibition argument in The Wet Parade (1932).
PSYCHOTRONICA AND THE B HIVE
March 7: In a salute to actress Anne Jeffreys, TCM is airing 1945’s Dick Tracy, at 8:00 pm. Anne is Tess Trueheart, who stands by her man Tracy (Morgan Conway) as he goes up against villain Splitface (Mike Mazurki). Lots of fun. Later, at 10:45, Anne stars with Lawrence Tierney in Monogram’s Dillinger, also from 1945.
March 9: At 2:00 am, three Yankee kids, accused of a murder they had nothing to do with, are hunted by a sheriff in 1953 Georgia in Macon County Line (1974), a surprise hit from producer Max Bear, Jr. (Jethro in The Beverly Hillbillies) and AIP. Following at 3:45 am is the inevitable sequel – of sorts – Return to Macon County (AIP, 1975), featuring none of the original stars, or plot. This time out, two late ‘50s Georgia guys want to take their hot rod to California for a drag race. On the way they pick up a pretty waitress who gets them into trouble. Starring Don Johnson and Nick Nolte (his film debut).
March 12: A morning of classic horror films, starting with White Zombie (1932) at 6:00 am and ending with Mad Love (1935) at 2:45 am. Best bets are The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) at 7:15 am (read our essay on it here) and Freaks (1932) at 8:30 am.
March 14: A trio of classic MGM Tarzan films begins with Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939) at 6:00 am, followed by Tarzan’s Secret Treasure (1941) at 7:30 am and Tarzan’s New York Adventure(1942) at 9:00 am. The latter was the last of the Tarzan films made by MGM, much to the relief of Maureen O’Sullivan, who was tired of the chimps playing Cheetah taking a bite out of her. The franchise moved over to RKO and producer Sol Lesser for cheaper – and funnier – sequels.
BAD MOVIE ALERT!
March 14: At 6:30 pm comes a film considered to be the worst of the Tarzan series until Bo Derek came along – MGM’s 1959 remake of Tarzan the Ape Man. Produced by Al Zimbalist, the man who gave us Robot Monster and Cat Women of the Moon (both in 3D, yet), this atrocity stars ex-UCLA basketball player Denny Miller in his debut as Tarzan. (He was paid $175 a week.) The film features endless footage from the original, Tarzan and His Mate, and King Solomon’s Mines. That the footage from the 1930’s Tarzans is in B&W and the rest of the film is in color didn’t faze Zimbalist at all. He just had it tinted. When we watch Tarzan fighting the crocodile we can see clearly that it’s Weissmuller (from Tarzan and His Mate). Also watch for the burning village, Tarzan fighting a stuffed animal, and the spider on top of the mountain. By the way, Jane’s dad shoots Cheetah early on, killing him, and the “pygmies” are from a L.A. high school. To quote critic Michael Weldon, “A laugh riot.”