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On TCM Sep 8-11: Old Faves, Michael Curtiz, and Films for 9/11

A couple of favorites roll around again—which maybe shows that TCM’s programmers share my tastes, or perhaps just that their vaults are not as deep as they sometimes seem. On Thursday, 8 Sep at 3:30am TCM is showing the great Ealing Studios classic The Ladykillers (1955) starring Alec Guinness—and once again they’ve mislabeled this great black comedy as a “crime” picture. Then The Mouse That Roared (1959), with Peter Sellers and Jean Seberg, screens at 7am.

On Friday (at 5am), you can catch one of the great Spenser Tracy / Katharine Hepburn romantic comedies, Pat And Mike (1952). Hepburn is a multitalented athlete from an upper class background and Tracy is the fight promoter who takes her on as a client. At 10am, there’s a little known and seldom seen film from the great director, Nicholas Ray: Party Girl (1958), starring Cyd Charisse. At noon is a movie I’ve never heard of but am quite interested in: The Angel Wore Red (1960), directed by Nunnally Johnson and starring Dirk Bogarde and Ava Gardner as a priest and prostitute who fall in love during the Spanish Civil War. The synopsis makes it sound like sentimental rubbish, but I have a long-standing interest in the Spanish Civil War…

Michael Curtiz directed some terrific movies—including Captain Blood (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) with Errol Flynn, Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Mildred Pierce (1945), and most famously Casablanca (1942). He was nominated for the Best Director Oscar five times, twice in one year (1938), and won for Casablanca. But he made a lot of movies—173 of them in a career that started in Hungary in 1915 and ended with his last movie in 1961, only one year before his death—and some of them were bound to be less than terrific. The ones showing Friday evening are in this latter category. Yankee Doodle Dandy proved that Curtiz could do decent work in a musical, but I’ll See You in My Dreams (1951) and The Jazz Singer (1953) are at best mediocre, demonstrations that musicals require more than interesting female leads—Doris Day in the former and Peggy Lee in the latter—and competent direction to succeed. Fortunately, TCM has some other Curtiz films playing this week.

Saturday morning (Sep 10) starts with a decent, albeit minor example of Curtiz’s work: the “Philo Vance” murder mystery The Kennel Murder Case (1933), starring Mary Astor and William Powell. Interesting trivia: both these actors have a connection to one of San Francisco’s adopted sons, Dashiell Hammett. Mary Astor is best know for her work as the wide-eyed and seemingly sympathetic, but endlessly duplicitous Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon (1941), based on the novel of the same name by Hammett. Similarly, William Powell is best remembered as Nick Charles in the “Thin Man” series, also based on a Hammett novel. The “Philo Vance” mysteries were immensely popular in their day, with 12 novels, 15 movies (from 1929-47), and a radio serial. These days, though, they’re largely forgotten, while other mystery series from that era are still known and watched. Powell appeared as Vance in four of the films, but it’s his work in the six “Thin Man” movies (from 1934-47) that is remembered these days. Basil Rathbone played Vance in the fourth film in the series, but it is his other series from that period, the “Sherlock Holmes” movies he did with Nigel Bruce, that is still watched today.

TCM is showing more “Philo Vance” movies on subsequent Saturday mornings, so you’ll get a chance to find out what made them popular at the time. But if Curtiz’s “Philo Vance” mystery is basically of interest to film scholars or as a curiousity, the rest of Saturday offers at least two unqualified treasures: The Caine Mutiny (1954), directed by Edward Dmytryk and starring Humphrey Bogart and Van Johnson, and The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner (1962), the classic “angry young man” film directed by Tony Richardson.

For the 9/11 anniversary, TCM pulls out all the stops. Sunday (Sep 11) is classics from start to finish—including Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig in The Pride Of The Yankees (1942) at 4:45am; one of the first and greatest American musicals, 42nd Street (1933) at 7am; Woody Allen’s masterpiece Annie Hall (1977) at 1:15pm; perhaps the finest and most important of all “integrated musicals” at 3pm, On the Town (1949); Curtiz’s masterpiece Casablanca (1942) at 5pm; and one of Howard Hawks’ best, and one of the best Westerns, Red River (1948), with John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, at 11pm. It’s an amazing day of film, selected in part by TCM’s guest programmers, two responders to the Twin Towers attacks.

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More Star Specials on TCM – Grand Illusion, Red River, Cary Grant… and Dobie Gillis

After today’s Bogart marathon—all day today, 13 films and 1 documentary—TCM’s “Summer Under the Stars” with Jean Gabin on Thursday, Debbie Reynolds on Friday, Montgomery Clift on Saturday and then Cary Grant on Sunday. The program then continues for the remainder of the month (full schedule here).

With stars like that, and more than a dozen of their films each day, there’s no shortage of highlights. Here, though, are some of the highlights of the highlights:

Grand Illusion (1937) – directed by Jean Renoir, with Jean Gabin as a French prisoner in a WWI German camp, commanded by Erich von Stroheim – showing Thursday, Aug 18 at 7pm. One of the great classics of world cinema, Roger Ebert called it “a meditation on the collapse of the old order of European civilization.” It’s followed by another film by Jean Renoir and starring Jean Gabim, La Bete Humaine (1938), based on the novel by Emile Zola.

Singin’ In The Rain (1952) – directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, and starring Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds – showing Friday, Aug 19 at 11:15pm.  Kelly and O’Connor play a couple of song and dance men who are trying to make the transition from silent movies to sound. Reynolds is a club dancer and movie fan. A sparkling script by Betty Comdon and Adolph Green. Roger Ebert says Singin’ “is a transcendent experience, and no one who loves movies can afford to miss it.” Leonard Maltin called it “the greatest movie musical of all time.” Selected as one of top ten films of all times in the Sight & Sound critics’ poll.

And yet… And yet… You’ve probably already seen it, so maybe you should check out The Affairs of Dobie Gillis (1953) with Debbie Reynolds and Bobby Van, Hans Conreid (The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T) and Bob Fosse – showing first in the Debbie Reynolds marathon, at 3am. The film on which the TV series The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, featuring pop culture’s first beatnik, Maynard G. Krebs, was based.

Red River (1948) – directed by Howard Hawks and starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift in one of the greatest Westerns of all time – showing Saturday, Aug 20 at 10am.

Saturday, August 21, features 13 movies starring the incomparable Cary Grant, including many of his greatest. The top picks:

4:30am: I’m No Angel (1933) – with Mae West

6 am: My Favorite Wife (1940) – with Irene Dunne

12:30pm: The Philadelphia Story (1940) – directed by George Cukor, with Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart

2:30pm: North By Northwest (1959) – Alfred Hitchcock once said that Cary Grant was the only actor he ever loved. The two made four films together, and this is the last.  It might also be the least. It’s spectacular, with some amazing cinematography—including the wonderful shots at UN Plaza and the scene with the crop duster. But it also has Hitchcock’s weakest blonde, Eva Marie Saint—though perhaps she only seems weak in comparison to Grace Kelly, who’d been in Grant and Hitchcock’s previous outing together, the sparkling To Catch a Thief. Still, immensely satisfying.

7:15pm: Only Angels Have Wings (1939) – another one directed by Howard Hawks, and a personal favorite of mine – with Jean Arthur.

1:15am: Bringing Up Baby (1938) – an another by Howard Hawks, probably a personal favorite of just about everyone. The classic screwball comedy starring Grant as a mousy professor and Katharine Hepburn as a scatterbrain heiress. Clearly TCM wanted to finish their day of Cary Grant on a very high note.

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Humphrey Bogart on TCM Wednesday, August 17, 2011

All Bogie, all day Wednesday, August 17, from 3am PST until after midnight. And as with the day of Jimmy Stewart on the weekend, the day features some of the best the actor did—including the two movies that made him a star, High Sierra, at 11:45am, and The Maltese Falcon, at 5pm. Here are the highlights:

8 am PST: To Have And Have Not (1944) – Lauren Bacall‘s film debut in a movie directed by Howard Hawks with a script by William Faulkner from a novel by Hemingway. “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together – and blow.” It doesn’t get much better than that. Or does it…

9:45 am: The Big Sleep (1946) – Bogie and Bacall again, directed by Howard Hawks, with Faulkner on script duty again (with Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett) working from the great hardboiled detective novel by Raymond Chandler, and a score by Max Steiner. By the end of it, apparently no one involved in the movie could figure out exactly what happened in the story, but it doesn’t matter a bit. The erotic energy of Bogie and Bacall’s exchanges has to be seen to be believed. “I like that. I’d like more.” It really doesn’t get much better than this.

11:45 am: High Sierra (1941) and 1:30 pm: They Drive by Night (1940) – both directed by Raoul Walsh, two of the many taut, tightly directed and gritty films Walsh did for Warner Brothers in the 1930s and 1940s, including the last film in the original gangster cycle, White Heat (1949), starring James Cagney.

5 pm: The Maltese Falcon (1941) – John Huston’s directorial debut and the first of six movies he would do with his friend, Humphrey Bogart. Considered by many the first real film noir. Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett. “The stuff that dreams are made of.”

Some of Bogie’s best films are missing—Casablanca (1942), obviously, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and The African Queen (1951)—but some of the minor films during the day are worth checking out, most particularly Bullets Or Ballots (1936), a fine little gangster pic starring Edward G. Robinson and Joan Blondell.

In AFI’s 100 Years celebration, Humphrey Bogart was named the top male screen legend in American film history. Any of these highlighted films will show you why.

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Tomorrow (13 Aug 2011) on TCM: Jimmy Stewart and “The Shop Around the Corner”

All day tomorrow, Saturday, August 13, TCM is featuring the films of James Stewart—and it’s a terrific lineup, with some of Stewart’s most well-known films, and some of classic Hollywood’s best. Some of the highlights:

6am (PST): Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) – the Frank Capra classic about DC politics

11:30am: The Shop Around The Corner (1940) – a romantic comedy gem directed by Ernst Lubitsch, the film on which You’ve Got Mail was based

1:15pm: Bell, Book and Candle (1959) – Kim Novak, Jack Lemmon and Elsa Lanchester as Greenwich Village witches

5pm: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) – with John Wayne, directed by John Ford – “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

9pm: Anatomy Of A Murder (1959) – courtroom drama directed by Otto Preminger

Bell, Book and Candle is not going to be on too many lists of greatest or must see movies, but it is a fun little film I’ve loved since I saw it on TV as a young kid. There are a lot of movies like it for me—movies that showed on Channel 2 or 20 or 44 in big blocks on Saturdays and Sundays and that formed my love of classic Hollywood, of Abbott & Costello, Bing and Bob, Fred and Ginger and the rest.

Maybe Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner played on TV back then, but if it did I missed it. Of course, that just meant I got to see it for the first time on a reel screen in a decent print, and the film is indeed a gem. Not as sparkling as Lubitsch’s masterpieces, Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Ninotchka (1939), but still a treasure. Stewart had been starring in films for 5 years and this was his 21st, but he looks so fresh—perfect as the young shop clerk Alfred Kralik who lands a position at the Budapest shop of Matuschek and Company and falls in love with a woman he knows only through the letters they exchange.

Although Samson Raphaelson is credited as screenwriter, it seems likely that some of the credit should go to Lubitsch, who could have drawn on his experience growing up in pre-War Europe and with his father’s business as a draper for so much of the details of the film. I like that the film is set in Budapest, and that the to American ears odd-sounding Hungarian names are used for all the characters. It was filmed in Hollywood and most of the cast and crew were American, but it has a real European film—helped by the marvelous, marvelous performances of the Prussian-born Felix Bressart as Pirovitch, Kralik’s closest friend in the shop, and the Viennese Joseph Schildkraut as the slimy Vadas. Bressart also appeared in Lubitsch’s Ninotchka, as one of the Russians who Greta Garbo is sent to oversee.

Jimmy Stewart is one of the great stars of the classic Hollywood cinema—an all-rounder who did everything well. He made some of the best comedies (The Philadelphia Story, You Can’t Take It with You), terrific dramas and biopics (Anatomy of a Murder, The Glenn Miller Story), two of Hitchcock’s best (Vertigo and Rear Window), great Westerns (perhaps most of all Winchester ’73)—and of course that beloved holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. Jimmy Stewart once said that he wanted people to remember him “as someone who was good at his job.” We remember him as one of the greatest.

And if you don’t believe me, you can get visual proof on this Tumblr blog: fuck yeah, jimmy stewart.

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And one last bit of trivia… The song “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” was written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David for the movie, but wasn’t used. Gene Pitney recorded it the following year and it became a big hit for him.

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Upcoming Ray Harryhausen Movies on TCM (Aug-Oct 2011) – Mighty Joe Young and More

Last year, TCM featured a nice run of films by the great master of stop-motion animation spectacle, Ray Harryhausen, and I wrote a bit about him and the movies at that time. Over the next three months, beginning this Thursday (August 11, 2011) TCM is going to be showing some of his best—and some of his worst—films:

Aug 11: MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949)
Sep 6: THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953)
Sep 10: CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981)—the original, not the recent lousy remake
Oct 8: THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1973)
Oct 22: 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957) and EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS (1956)

Fittingly, the first of these movies, Mighty Joe Young (1949), is Harryhausen’s first feature film. In some ways, it can be seen—even dismissed—as little more than a retread of King Kong. It was written by Merian C. Cooper and Ruth Rose and directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack—all of whom had been key figures in the creation of King Kong. And it featured Kong‘s stop-motion animator, Willis O’Brien, as supervisor of special effects, though much of the actual effects work on Mighty Joe Young was apparently done by the 29-year-old Harryhausen, working under the man who had inspired his career with the pioneering—and still to me riveting—animation work in King Kong.

Mighty Joe Young was made to cash in on the continuing box office pull of Kong, which had been enormously successful on its original release in 1933 and continued to bring in money through theatrical reissues in 1938, 1942, and 1946. Despite Kong‘s continued popularity, though, Mighty Joe Young was not a box office success. It was, however, a technical and critical success: its special effects won an Oscar, a prize that Kong was denied, and those effects have been highly influential and much praised in the years since. It’s not a great film. The difference between it and Kong is palpable—there’s nothing in it to compare with the scene of Fay Wray being taught how to scream, to cite just one example. But in those award-winning special effects it is a great beginning to one of the great careers in animation and special effects.

(It was remade by Disney in 1998 with Bill Paxton and Charlize Theron, but the original’s performances and screenplay are weak enough that I don’t automatically hate and reject this remake as I do so many, and I recall enjoying it when it came out. It would be interesting to watch the original and remake back to back and compare. Both are available from Netflix, though not for streaming; you can stream the 1998 remake on YouTube, in tiny bite-sized pieces.)

After Mighty Joe Young, perhaps in part because of its poor performance at the box office, Harryhausen didn’t do any effects work for a few years, working instead as a producer, a role he continued to occupy throughout his career. His next film as a visual effects artist was The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)—the second film showing in this run—in which a nuclear test in the Arctic thaws out a giant dinosaur-like creature that then makes its way to New York and goes on a rampage in the streets of Manhattan (New York and Tokyo–the most monster-stomped cities in the world).

Beast is a significant film for a number of reasons—most of which should be fairly apparent even in that short description. It was the first of the giant mutant monster movies—setting the stage for Godzilla, the original of which came out the following year, and all his brethren. It is also a prime example of the subgenre of science fiction and monster movies that was so prominent, and culturally significant, during the 1950s—films having to do with anxiety over nuclear weapons and research, and more generally with the awesome perils in the promise of science that WWII had brought to the fore.

Beast was followed in the 1950s by such other mutant monster menace films as Them! and, obviously, Godzilla/Gojira (both 1954), Tarantula (1955), and The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), in which an Army officer is horribly injured by radiation from a bomb test, but recovers, only to turn into… a rampaging giant. (New York is given a break—he stomps Las Vegas, a city much more deserving of wholesale destruction.)

Beast is also significant as the film in which Harryhausen first used the technique of splitting the background and foreground of live action footage into two separate pieces of film, to allow for better integration of the animated material into the live action, greatly heightening the realism:

The background would be used as a miniature rear-screen with his models animated in front of it, rephotographed with an animation-capable camera to combine those two elements together, the foreground element matted out to leave a black space. Then the film was rewound, and everything except the foreground element matted out so that the foreground element would now photograph in the previously blacked out area. This created the effect that the animated model was “sandwiched” in between the two live action elements, right into the final live action scene. Many shots were embellished with additional elements painted on glass, also sandwiched in between the rear screen and camera, as O’Brien had done on his films. (via Wikipedia.)

Since this run of Harryhausen films starts with his first two feature films, it might seem fitting if it were to end with his last, Clash of the Titans (1981). Fortunately, Clash, which is not a great film, is buried in the middle of the bunch. Harryhausen is perhaps most remembered for—and these days most often seen through—his fantasy films, especially the Sinbad movies, the best of which, Golden Voyage, shows October 8. But this block of Harryhausen films ends with two from the other side of his career, the side that he kicked off with his second film and that dominated during the 1950s: science fiction.

In Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956), a misunderstanding results in US forces at a space exploration base firing on visiting aliens. Predictably, war ensues. 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) is the more interesting movie. On its return from an expedition to Venus, a US spaceship crashes into the Mediterranean. It was carrying the egg of a Venusian creature, the Ymir, which soon hatches and—you can guess it—grows to great size and eventually goes on a rampage.

Once again, rarely, the site for the rampage isn’t Tokyo or New York. It’s Rome that gets stomped here, and the final scene with the Ymir on the Colosseum is memorable.  The film has a lot of similarities to King Kong. Scientists bring the creature back to civilization, and it doesn’t seem innately violent, but rather is driven to go on its rampage by frightening or threatening encounters with humans. (If you recall, Kong breaks loose after being startled by too many camera flashbulbs.) In the end, it falls dead from a famous architectural monument, and one of the scientists stands over its body, reflecting sadly on why things came to this end.

There is a very good documentary on Ray Harryhausen and his work, The Harryhausen Chronicles, narrated by Leonard Nimoy.  It’s available on DVD from Netflix.

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On TCM Jul 25-31: A Joe E. Brown marathon and more singing cowboys

On Monday, July 25, at 7PM (PST) is The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) – a top notch Western that relies for its greatness on a superb scripting and acting rather than action and spectacle. Henry Fonda gives one of his best performances as a loner who gets caught up with a lynch mob. Directed by William Wellman. In the wee small hours, you can catch They Made Me a Fugitive (1947) – a film noir starring Trevor Howard. I haven’t seen it, but I like both noir and Howard so I am particularly interested.

When I think of TCM, I tend to think of “classic” movies – for obvious reasons. Classic film is typically defined as consisting of movies made during the period from the early 1930s and the advent of sound to the end of the traditional Hollywood studio system in the late 1960s. Many of the movies showing on Tuesday, July 26, fall outside this definition, but are worth considering anyway.

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Coming Up on TCM – July 18-24 – The Sheik, The Thing and Gidget

Here we are again, with some highlights and suggestions from the upcoming week of screenings on TCM.

Monday, July 18

A musical from Michael Curtiz, director of Casablanca and The Adventures of Robin Hood (and more than 100 other films in a career starting in 1912 in Hungary and continuing to 1961)  - Romance On The High Seas (1948), which is also Doris Day’s feature film debut. Later in the evening, catch Love Affair (1939) starring the marvelous Irene Dunne and directed by Leo McCarey, who later remade his own film as An Affair to Remember with Cary Grant, which featured memorably in Sleepless in Seattle.

Wednesday, July 20

A night of “Literary Romance” featuring film versions of Pride And Prejudice (1940), Madame Bovary (1949) directed by Vincente Minnelli, Anna Karenina (1935) starring Greta Garbo, Little Women (1949) – not the 1933 version directed by George Cukor and starring Katharine Hepburn – and Far From The Madding Crowd (1967). Madame Bovary is the standout film, but anything with Garbo is always going to be top of my “must see” list.

Thursday, July 21

One of the classics of the silent era, The Son of the Sheik (1926) – Rudolph Valentino’s last film.

Friday, July 22

Friday nights in July are devoted to the “Singing Cowboy.” Tonight has six of them – the first four starring Dick Foran and dating from 1936-37, the last two from the mid-1940s with Monte Hale. All of them come in at about an hour in length, and are prime examples of B movies. As mashups of two of the most popular genres of the 1930s and 40s – musicals and westerns – they are also interesting from an industrial and genre theory perspective.

Saturday, July 23

Or maybe it’s still Friday when it’s 3am.  Whatever, the film to see is The Milky Way (1936) starring the great comedian Harold Lloyd, a key source of inspiration to – among others – Jackie Chan.  The Milky Way was later remade as The Kid from Brooklyn with Danny Kaye – a film I loved as a child, but which can’t compare to the original.  Harold Lloyd films are still not nearly as well known and loved as they should be.

At a more decent hour (10:45am PST), catch Lord of the Flies (1963), Peter Brooks’ superb adaptation of the novel by Nobel Prize-winning author William Golding about a group of British schoolboys who get marooned on a desert island and try to construct a society for themselves, with disturbing results.

And a little later, there’s Fort Apache (1948), the first of John Ford’s “Cavalry Trilogy,” starring John Wayne and Henry Fonda. A superb and also interesting atypical Western. A key work in the John Ford canon, and very enjoyable.

Sunday, July 24

This is the big day for this week, with a host of great films. At 7am, there’s The Canterville Ghost (1944), with Charles Laughton as the titular ghost, a coward condemned to haunt his family castle until he can get someone to redeem his name. Robert Young is a WW2 GI who ends up stationed at the castle, and Margaret O’Brien – best known as Tootie from Meet Me in St. Louis – as Lady Jessica de Canterville, current owner of the castle. I love this movie – simple and charming, and based on a story by Oscar Wilde. That’s followed at 9am by the original Gidget (1959) with Sandra Dee.

Then at 1pm there’s Tony Randall in the smart and funny advertising satire Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957). And in the evening there are two films by one of my favorite directors, Howard Hawks. At 5pm is The Thing From Another World (1951) – about which I have written before. It’s followed by a lesser-seen Hawks movies, Land of the Pharaohs (1955). It’s a big goofy and not entirely typical of Hawks – not fully Hawksian – but still fun and worth a look.

At 11:15pm, catch Akira Kurosawa’s Sanjuro (1962). Toshiro Mifune more or less reprises his role as a scruffy, ill-tempered ronin (masterless samurai) from Yojimbo. But where that movie was dark, this one is light and regularly plays for laughs. Possibly Kurosawa’s funniest film. Possibly his only funny film, now that I come to think of it.

The day ends (at 1am) with one of the films that marked the end of the traditional Western as a genre, Sam Peckinpah’s Ride The High Country (1962).

Must Sees

The obvious must-see movies of the week are Son of the Sheik with Rudolph Valentino and The Milky Way with Harold Lloyd. Sheikh is important and regularly discussed, a landmark film. Milky Way is not one of the most important Harold Lloyd films, but he’s so great and his films just aren’t shown enough, so don’t miss it.

The other must-sees of the week are Sanjuro and Lord of the Flies, but you are more likely to have seen these two already.

TCM Monthly Schedule – Turner Classic Movies.

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What’s on TCM for the Holidays

The holidays are a busy time, even for under-employed coffee shop habitués like me. So rather than write weekly extended discussions of the more interesting upcoming films on the TCM (Turner Classic Movies) cable TV channel, I’ve created a separate page with my picks for the entire holiday season: particularly good or interesting or important – or just favorite – films, day by day, with very brief notes, hints to the pleasures they offer.

If you’re looking for a classic movie to watch, check out my list – TCM has scheduled some real treasures, both expected and unexpected, for the holidays. Unsurprisingly, the standout day in the schedule is New Year’s Eve – when TCM is showing Cary Grant all day and The Marx Brothers all night.

What a wonderful way to see out the year.

When it comes to specifically holiday movies – films thought of as “Christmas” movies – the TCM vaults hold some good ones and during December they’ll be showing

A Christmas Carol (1938) – earliest sound version of the Dickens story, and still my favorite film version.

Singin’ In The Rain (1952) – which I think of as a Christmas movie after watching it many times at the Castro Theatre over the holidays.

Meet Me In St. Louis (1944) – directed by Vincente Minnelli, with Judy Garland, who does a tearful rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”.

The Bishop’s Wife (1947) – One of my favorite Christmas movies. Cary Grant is… Well, I’m not supposed to tell. He plays Dudley, sent to help an over-worked bishop (David Niven).

The Shop Around The Corner (1940) – Ernst Lubitsch directs, James Stewart stars. The movie on which the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan film You’ve Got Mail was based, but so much better. A romantic comedy, set in Budapest during the holiday season.

The more obvious Christmas movies not showing on TCM during the holidays include:

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – George Bailey, “Buffalo Gals” and Zuzu’s petals.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947) – a department store Santa thinks he’s the real thing. Remade a few times, but the original will always be best.

White Christmas (1954) – Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye as a couple of song and dance men who end up at a ski lodge in Vermont, run by their old commander and about to go out of business because of the lack of snow. Isn’t that a weird way to synopsize the movie? Accurate though it is, it doesn’t exactly capture the point and the pleasures of the movie.

Holiday Inn (1942) – Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby

Sound of Music (1965) – another movie that is, as it were, a holiday film by adoption rather than birth.

Scrooged (1988) – an updated version of the Dickens story, with Bill Murray basically being Bill Murray, playing a TV executive who is putting on a Christmas special, but is a real “bah humbug” guy – until he gets visited by three spirits.

I feel like there are more classic holiday movies than that, some that I am forgetting – though it is a bit confusing since we grew up watching Christmas movies on TV alongside Christmas TV shows like “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” and they all tend to get lumped together as “holiday fare.”

And of course there are all the more recent holiday movies, like The Polar Express (wonderful), Elf (not so much), the Jim Carey Grinch (not at all) and the “Santa Clause” series with Tim Allen – which actually gave me some cheesy, supermarket egg nog pleasure, at least the first anyway.

In any case, I’ll try to alert you to showings of any of these movies, and hopefully write a bit about what I like about some of them.

And if you are in the mood to buy rather than rent/record, TCM has assembled four of its holiday movies – including two of the ones above that I particularly like, Shop Around the Corner and the 1938 Christmas Carol – into an omnibus DVD: TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Holiday (Christmas in Connecticut 1945 / A Christmas Carol 1938 / The Shop Around the Corner / It Happened on 5th Avenue)

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More Movie Magic: Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd on TCM Tomorrow

Starting at 5pm PT tomorrow, Wednesday, Nov. 17, TCM is featuring a masterclass in silent comedy, with films from the three geniuses of the form, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, including the films that represent perhaps the purest examples of the work of each.

First up is The Kid (1921), one of Chaplin’s masterpieces. In The Kid, Chaplin is a tramp who raises The Kid (Jackie Coogan) as his own, and then fights to keep him. This is followed at 6pm by The Pilgrim (1923). These two are the last films Chaplin made for First National, before moving to the studio he co-founded, United Artists.

The Chaplin films are followed by a pair of Buster Keaton films – One Week (1920) at 8:15pm and then at 8:45pm another masterpiece, Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928). Keaton is the weedy son of a tough steamboat captain, who falls in love with the daughter of his father’s rival. In the end, of course, Keaton saves his dad’s boat and the day – and wins the girl.

This exceptional night of films from one of the key moments in the history of cinema finishes with a movie by the least known of these comic geniuses, Harold Lloyd – probably his greatest, Safety Last! (1923). Lloyd plays a young man from a small town who goes to the big city and works to earn the money to marry his sweetheart, and endures a series of comic misadventures with his job at a department store.

I know you can get these movies on video or from NetFlix (and you can probably watch them on the interweb) – or even TiVo them to watch whenever, but it still seems so special to me to be able to watch The Kid, Steamboat Bill Jr. and Safety Last! – three of the greatest comedy films of all time – all in one evening. A moment.

Footnote: Lloyd’s work was a major influence on one of the greatest physical comedians of recent years, Jackie Chan, and Chan has paid homage to Lloyd in a number of his films and in particular to Safety Last in one of his best films, Project A.

For more…

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Ray Harryhausen – Monsters and Sinbad – on TCM

Update: See my discussion of Harryhausen movies showing on TCM August through October 2011 here.

Ray Harryhausen is a special effects artist who created some of the most compelling stop-motion animation in fantasy and adventure films of the 1960s and 1970s. He got his start working with Willis O’Brien, who pioneered the use of this kind of stop-motion animation in live action films in his work on the classic 1933 King Kong.

During the 1950s, Harryhausen developed his craft on some of the science fiction monster movies of that decade, including two favorites of mine: The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955). In Beast, an atomic bomb test thaws out a giant dinosaur who proceeds to attack New York City. (Why is it that these monsters never attack Montreal, say, or Bar Harbor, Maine?)

Beast came out a year before Godzilla and isn’t given enough credit for more or less initiating the whole contemporary cycle of “giant monster attacks” movies, of which Godzilla is the most famous exemplar. King Kong is of course the ur-instance of this genre, but Beast and Godzilla share the focus on the atomic bomb as their cause.

Read the rest of this entry »

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The Red Shoes – on TCM Nov. 16

The marvelous Powell & Pressburger film, The Red Shoes (1948), is showing on TCM at dawn tomorrow – 6am PT, Tuesday, November 16.

I’ve mentioned this movie a number of times over the past couple of months. And since I’ve been writing about lists and “must see” movies, I’ll say that there is no question that this movie would be on any list I might make – of favorites or “must sees”…

The Red Shoes, by Powell & Pressburger

As I wrote earlier, The Red Shoes tells the story of a young ballet dancer and the composer who falls in love with her and marries her. And it tells the story of a ballet about a magical pair of ballet shoes – the titular “red shoes.” The extended fantasy ballet sequence was something that hadn’t been seen in film before, and laid the way for similar sequences in later musicals, such as An American In Paris. Roger Ebert describes it as ”the most popular movie ever made about the ballet and one of the most enigmatic movies about anything…. voluptuous…and passionate.” Enigmatic, certainly, and at times quite dark, but also deeply moving and beautiful. You don’t have to like ballet to like it, but if you like the art of film, you’ll love it. Read the rest of this entry »

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A Marvelous Night of Movie Magic (Nov 9)

Tonight (Tuesday, Nov 9), TCM is showing a whole bushel of great movies…

At 5pm PT, there’s the brilliant cold war satire by Stanley Kubrick, Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964). You may have seen it before, but it never gets old – Peter Sellers in his dual role as the dim President Merkin Muffley and his wheelchair-bound scientific advisor (a loose parodic hybrid of Wernher von Braun and Dr. Edward Teller); and again as Group Captain Mandrake, trying to prevent Sterling Hayden’s deranged General Jack D. Ripper from initiating WWIII, out of fear that commies are sapping his precious bodily fluids; Slim Pickens as an air force captain riding his nuclear bomb like a bucking bronco…

That’s followed at 7pm by the Scottish director Bill Forsyth’s funny, smart, quirky and tender 1983 film, Local Hero. Peter Riegert (Animal House, Crossing Delancy) is a Texas oil company executive sent to a remote village in Scotland to negotiate the purchase of the entire village and surrounds for use as a refinery installation. He plays the role perfectly, a lost guy who finds himself halfway around the world. The quirky charms of the villagers, including a Nigerian priest, and the Russian fisherman who are regular visitors make for a remarkably heartwarming movie, and the mermaid subplot adds a magical twist that the movie earns, and doesn’t overplay. The soundtrack by Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits is very good. Watch for John Gordon Sinclair – star of Forsyth’s earlier, marvelous Gregory’s Girl (1981) – in a minor part.

Both these films by Forsyth would be on any long list of my favorites. Not perhaps on any “greatest” lists, but if you want something smart, funny and quirky – that is also tender and – yes – heartwarming, these are your films.

At 9pm, TCM is showing The Parallax View (1974), directed by Alan J. Pakula and starring Warren Beatty – a conspiracy theory movie about political assassination. It’s perfectly fine, and a good example of the kind of movies made in the immediate aftermath of the sea change in Hollywood around 1968, but it’s not special, not in a class with the other movies tonight.

The last wonderful movie of the evening and the one that is most likely to be new for many of you, at 11pm, is Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), another Ealing Studios black comedy starring Alec Guinness, like The Ladykillers. In this one, Guinness plays eight members of the D’Ascoyne family, including a young man, a doddering octogenarian, and a woman, who are knocked off, one by one, by the son of another member of the family, intent on revenge for their cruel treatment of his mother. I haven’t seen this movie since the early 1980s, when I saw it in a double-bill with Ladykillers at the UC Theater – and I’m really looking forward to watching it, and recording it to watch again with friends. It’s wonderful – not to be missed.

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Upcoming Bay Area Films of Interest

  • Roxie: Akira August 21, 2014 http://www.roxie.com/ai1ec_event/nippon-night-anime-world-2-aki ra/?instance_id=3561
  • The Home and the World | The Brilliance of Satyajit Ray August 20, 2014 at 7:00 pm – 8:30 pm PFA Theater
  • Man of Iron | Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinem a August 21, 2014 at 7:00 pm – 8:30 pm Digital Restoration!
  • Paths of Glory | Over the Top and into the Wire: WWI on Film August 22, 2014 at 7:00 pm – 8:30 pm PFA Theater
  • Princess Yang Kwei-Fei | Kenji Mizoguchi: A Cinema of Totality August 22, 2014 at 8:45 pm – 10:15 pm PFA Theater Imported Print!
  • Color Shift closes August 24, 2014 BAM/PFA Galleries
  • Deliverance | The Brilliance of Satyajit Ray August 23, 2014 at 6:30 pm – 8:00 pm PFA Theater
  • Zoolander | Rude Awakening: American Comedy, 1990–2010 August 23, 2014 at 8:15 pm – 9:45 pm PFA Theater
The 400 Blows

zerode

is an over-caffeinated and under-employed grad school dropout, aspiring leftwing intellectual and cultural studies academic, film buff and occasional reviewer, and former private detective. Raised in San Francisco on classic film, radical politics, burritos and soul music, then set loose upon the world. He spends his time in coffee shops with his laptop and headphones, caffeinating and trying to construct a post-whatever life.

 

What's in a name... The handle "zerode" is a contraction of Zéro de Conduite, the title of Jean Vigo's 1933 movie masterpiece about schoolboy rebellion.

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