Tomorrow – Monday (Sept 20) – is a big day on TCM, with great or interesting movies all day long, beginning with This Is the Army (1943) at 6:15am – a musical by the director of Casablanca, Michael Curtiz. Curtiz was very busy during WWII – directing four films in 1939, three each in 1940 and 1942 (including Casablanca) and two during every other year of the War. He’s not known for musicals, but in fact he directed a number of them in addition to this one, including one of my personal favorite films, White Christmas, as well as Yankee Doodle Dandy with James Cagney and King Creole with Elvis Presley. It’s a fairly impressive array of oddball musicals, and while This is the Army may be the least interesting of them, it’s still worth a look.
It’s followed (at 8:30am) by one of the greatest Westerns ever made, a classic of American cinema: John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946) with Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp. Not to be missed. Though if possible, try to see an actual print of the film in an actual movie theater first. UCLA (or possibly USC) has a particularly pristine print, which is shown pretty regularly at UCB, at the Pacific Film Archive. Try to see it.
Roger Ebert has a quite wonderful review of My Darling Clementine, one of the “Great Movies” for which he has posted reviews on his website:
Ford’s story reenacts the central morality play of the Western. Wyatt Earp becomes the town’s new marshal, there’s a showdown between law and anarchy, the law wins and the last shot features the new schoolmarm–who represents the arrival of civilization. Most Westerns put the emphasis on the showdown. “My Darling Clementine” builds up to the legendary gunfight at the OK Corral, but it is more about everyday things–haircuts, romance, friendship, poker and illness. (via rogerebert.com.)
The more Westerns you watch the more powerful My Darling Clementine appears. Likewise, the more you read about the history of the West the more interesting it becomes. The church dance and in particular the appearance in town of a Shakespearean actor become much more important, the gunfight less – a coda, which is pretty much as Ford presents it.
At 10:30am, a minor film, but fun: Topper (1937) with Cary Grant and Constance Bennett as a fun-loving couple who die in car crash and then haunt a stuffy, henpecked banker played by Roland Young. Based on a series of novels by Thorne Smith (which I read in battered Penguin editions when I was a kid), Topper was made into a TV series in the 1950s, with Leo G. Carroll doing a wonderful job in the title role.
Topper is followed, at 12:15pm, by Way Out West (1938) with Laurel & Hardy. It’s a pretty late outing for this classic comedy duo and by no means their best work, but still worth watching, short and sweet. (Laurel & Hardy films seem fairly common on TCM – there are a couple others showing this week.) After that, Basil Rathbone is Sherlock Holmes in Terror by Night (1946), with Nigel Bruce as his faithful companion, Dr. Watson. These two made a bunch of Sherlock Holmes films together, some based on the stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, others on original scripts. Like Topper and Way Out West, this is a minor film, but with genuine charm.
Taken together, these three represent a crucial but not much discussed category of films – solid, well-crafted genre pictures, not B movies but not big hits or well-remembered classics either – the sort of movies that filled the theaters all through the 30s and 40s, and filled the programming of local TV stations – and my weekends – when I was a kid. These movies aren’t often discussed in books or courses on American film – unlike My Darling Clementine – but they are central to a fuller understanding of film culture – both films and their viewing – in America in its heyday.
But if these films are not exactly classics or masterpieces, my last pick for the day certainly is: The Red Shoes (1948), showing at 7pm – another film, perhaps the best, from the team of Powell & Pressburger, who made A Matter of Life & Death, which showed a couple of weeks ago. 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.
I’m not going to watch it. I last saw The Red Shoes in a beautiful cinephile theater in Rome with an adoring audience that came out of the movie in stunned silence before bursting into extravagant Italian discussion. I’m not ready to diminish that memory by watching it on TV in my living room.
My pick as movie of the week last week was Ernst Lubitsch’s version of The Merry Widow, with Maurice Chevalier. This week, TCM is showing an earlier, silent version of the same story at 3am on Wednesday (Sept 22): The Merry Widow (1925), directed by the great Erich von Stroheim and starring that heartthrob of the silent screen, John Gilbert. I haven’t seen it – and I’m looking forward to catching it so soon after seeing Lubitsch’s. It’s followed (at 5:30am) by von Stroheim’s most famous film, Greed (1924).
Another movie I haven’t seen but am curious about is showing later on Wednesday, at 1pm: The North Star (1943) – about Ukrainian villagers fighting the Nazis, and starring Anne Baxter, Dana Andrews, Walter Huston and Walter Brennan. It’s a pretty impressive cast and I’m curious to see how the movie, made when the Soviet Union was still a heroic ally, not a Cold War nemesis, depicts the Russians. (Dana Andrews as a Ukrainian?!?)
TCM doesn’t show many foreign films, but Wednesday night has one of them (at 7pm), and it’s a big one: Rashomon (1950) – the film that brought Akira Kurosawa – and Japanese cinema – to the attention of Western audiences.
Wednesday night/Thursday morning (1:45am Sept 23) there’s a weird and unexpected surprise. Here’s the description TCM gives: ”Rocket scientists consider naming a space ship after Herman’s Hermits.” The film is Hold On! (1966). Not knowing anything about it but that, my guess would be that this is a 1960s teen flick featuring Herman’s Hermits, designed to cash in on the pop music scene and following on from the success of the Beatles films A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965). Significantly, it came out the same year as that other attempt to cash in on this phenomenon: the Monkees’ TV show. This movie may be a hoot or it may be wretched, but it is almost certain to have some camp appeal, as well as a modicum of film historical interest… If you’re looking for a subject for an article or essay on film, you could do a lot worse than to take this film on, in conjunction with the Beatles and Monkees material, and maybe think about about the space ship angle (1966 was the year the Apollo Program got off the ground).
Much of the rest of Thursday is taken up by a six-pack of Mickey Rooney films, beginning with what would be the first of the Andy Hardy / Hardy Family films, A Family Affair (1936), also starring Lionel Barrymore. This series would end up continuing for two decades, with 16 films, three with Judy Garland – including the star of the series, Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938).
Another important Western is showing late Thursday night (1am): The Man From Laramie (1955) with James Stewart and directed by Anthony Mann, a terrific Western director. Thinking about the past few weeks, it’s clear that one of the great strengths of the TCM holdings is the Western, and if this is a genre that engages you – and it should – then you’ll be able to pick up a decent film education in the genre without ever changing the dial.
Saturday morning at 6am (early morning!) is a childhood favorite, The Mouse That Roared (1959), a comedy with Peter Sellers playing a bumbling fellow from a tiny European backwater nation that decides to resuscitate its finances by going to war with the United States and losing – and getting some of that wonderful war reconstruction aid money. Hilarity, as they say, ensues- Sellers accidentally wins the war. Jean Seberg – best known for Godard’s Breathless – is the love interest.
The last movie on TCM during this week that I want to single out is a wonderful screwball comedy showing very late Saturday/very early Sunday (3am) – Nothing Sacred (1937) starring Carole Lombard and Fredric March and directed by William A. Wellman. Though less known these days than many of her contemporaries, Lombard was a huge star in the 1930s, one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood. She’s probably best known now for two comedic masterpieces, Twentieth Century (1934) and My Man Godfrey (1936). Tragically, she died in a plane crash in 1942, at the age of 33, but she left behind some of the best screwball comedies of the 30s – which is saying something indeed. While perhaps less known than the other two, Nothing Sacred is a knockout – with a script by the blacklist writer Ben Hecht – with help from Ring Lardner, Jr., Dorothy Parker (“Men seldom make passes…”) and Moss Hart, among others – and a musical score by Oscar Levant, who played Gene Kelley’s composer sidekick in An American in Paris.
This is a week full of pleasure, with some genuine masterpieces – My Darling Clementine, The Red Shoes and Rashomon – but my pick for film of the week would have to be Nothing Sacred. Few things in life are more guaranteed to give joy than the great screwball comedies of the 1930s.
Some other picks of the week:
- Look Back in Anger (1958) – Tues (Sept 21) at 6:30am – with Richard Burton and directed by Tony Richardson
- Irma La Douce (1963) – Tues (Sept 21) at 2:30pm – Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, directed by Billy Wilder
- That Hamilton Woman (1941) – Tues (Sept 21) at 6:45pm – Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh
- Sunset Boulevard (1950) – Wed (Sept 22) at 3pm – William Holden, directed by Billy Wilder
- The Sting (1973)– Fri (Sept 24) at 6:45pm – the classic with Robert Redford and Paul Newman – what could be better?