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On TCM Oct 4-10: Tony Curtis, Musicals, Science Fiction, Garbo

As I’m sure you’ve already heard, Tony Curtis died a few days ago, on September 29. TCM is devoting Sunday, October 10, to a memorial to this wonderful actor. They’re showing a dozen of his movies, including some of his greatest: The Defiant Ones (1958), with Sidney Poitier, and Operation Petticoat (1959), directed by Blake Edwards and starring Cary Grant.  Okay, the latter is probably not really one of his “greatest”—except maybe to me—but it’s a charming comedy and if you haven’t seen it, you’re in for a treat. The Defiant Ones is a more generally accepted “great”—a gritty film, directed by Stanley Kramer, with one of the best performances of Curtis’ career.

If possible, you should round out your own Tony Curtis tribute by watching Some Like It Hot (1959), the brilliant comic masterpiece, “one of the funniest pictures ever made” (Phillip French), co-starring Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe and directed by Billy Wilder.

Well, I said that despite all my attention to Westerns, I actually prefer other genres, particularly the musical. And, as if to help me prove my claim, TCM is showing a batch of musicals on Monday morning (Oct 4): Kiss Me Kate (1953), The Eddy Duchin Story (1956), Pal Joey (1957), and Bye Bye Birdie (1963). These were all directed by George Sidney and are part of a full morning devoted to that director. They aren’t great musicals—TCM’s catalog is a bit thin when it comes to musicals—but they are not without interest—in particular, the first and last.

Kiss Me Kate (1953) is a “backstage musical”—a musical about putting on a musical, generally a stage musical. (Singin’ in the Rain is a sort of backstage musical film about the making of a musical film.) In this case, it’s about a theatre company putting on a stage musical version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. That musical version of “Shrew” doesn’t really exist, but the movie is a filmed version of a stage musical:

Kiss Me, Kate is a musical with music and lyrics by Cole Porter. It is structured as a play within a play, where the interior play is a musical version of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. The original production starred Alfred Drake, Patricia Morison, Lisa Kirk and Harold Lang….

Kiss Me, Kate was a response to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! and other integrated musicals, and it proved to be his biggest hit and the only one of his shows to run for more than 1,000 performances on Broadway. It won the first Tony Award presented for Best Musical, in 1949. (via Wikipedia.)

In an “integrated musical,” the songs and production numbers are incorporated into the narrative – people burst into song and dance wherever they happen to be, as if this were natural – as opposed to performing on stage, which is how musical numbers are generally shown in backstage musicals such as Kiss Me, Kate. Classic integrated musicals include, in addition to Oklahoma!, On the Town (1949) and An American in Paris (1951) – both starring Gene Kelly and produced by Arthur Freed. Also starring Kelly and produced by Freed, Singin’ in the Rain (1952) is generally considered an integrated musical, but has elements of backstage musical about it, and it can be argued that the film is working consciously on—commenting on—the distinction.

Sometimes mentioned as another subgenre of the musicals, the “backyard musical” – as epitomized by Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney films such as Babes in Arms (1939) – is really a kind of backstage musical in which the musical is put on in a more ad hoc situation – kids getting together to “put on a show” in the barn or backyard.

As befits a musical written by Cole Porter, there are some sparkling, witty songs in Kiss Me, Kate – including “Too Darn Hot” and “So in Love.” The song “I Hate Men” always gets a big audience response when this film shows at the Castro Theatre, as it has done a number of times. My favorite song, though, is “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” – which is sung by a couple of lovable gangsters… Here it is being done by Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, stars of the TV version of The Odd Couple.

I’ve written about Bye Bye Birdie (1963) previously, albeit briefly – a hoot of a movie starring Ann-Margaret and Dick Van Dyke – a comedic loose retelling of Elvis fandom’s response to him joining the Army.

Monday evening features a TCM Spotlight on “Critics Picks” which includes two must-see movies: Touch Of Evil (1958), a terrific Orson Welles movie starring Charlton Heston with a cameo by Marlene Dietrich that I think is her last screen appearance, and I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932), a grim “pre-Code” classic that is important to both the gangster and film noir genres.

On Tuesday night (Oct 5) at 11:15pm you might want to check out …Tick…Tick…Tick (1970), starring Jim Brown, who had a distinguished career as a football player before going on to do a number of films, including some blaxploitation classics that established him as something of a black cultural icon. This one seems to be kind of forgotten—I’d never heard of it before—and it sounds like it doesn’t fit entirely within the blaxploitation genre, but it may be worth watching for any fan of that genre.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the the less-well known screwball gem Nothing Sacred and the marvelous Carole Lombard. Lucky us: on Wednesday (Oct 6), TCM is featuring a “Birthday Tribute” to Lombard, with seven of her films, including a real masterpiece: Twentieth Century (1934), directed by Howard Hawks (and you know how I feel about him). If you can only watch one other film from this tribute, it should probably be Fools For Scandal (1938). As I said previously, few things in life give as much pleasure as the comedies of the 1930s.

And talk about embarrassment of riches! After that day of Carole Lombard, TCM is showing a selection of some of the greatest movies of all time on Wednesday night: Citizen Kane (1941), Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), The Third Man (1949)—directed by Carol Reed and starring Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles—and the two final films of the great Max OphülsThe Earrings of Madame De… (1954) and Lola Montes (1955). Reviewing Earrings as one of his “great movies,” Roger Ebert wrote of Ophüls:

His films are one of the great pleasures of the cinema. ”Madame de…” is equaled by ”La Ronde” (1950) and ”Lola Montes” (1955) as movies whose surfaces are a voluptuous pleasure to watch, regardless of whether you choose to plunge into their depths.

I’m not really sure what to say about an evening line-up like that. It’s almost too much. Except for Lola Montes, all are reviewed by Roger Ebert for his series of “great movies”: Citizen Kane, The Seventh Sea, Earrings and The Third Man. Among other things, three of these movies have truly amazing b&w cinematography. However, gushing aside, none of these movies should really be seen on the little screen for the first time—so if you haven’t seen them already, and think you have any chance of seeing them in a proper movie theater, don’t watch them here.

TCM really is working to help me dispel any sense that the Western is the only genre to which I’m devoted. They started the week with a selection of musicals—which I love—followed it with some great screwball from Carole Lombard, and on Thursday (Oct 7) the “Prime Time Feature” is devoted to a selection of films from another of my favorite genres, science fiction. Their “Adventures in Space” features two of the classics of the genre, Forbidden Planet (1956) at 5pm (a bit early for prime time…) and Alien (1979). Not a classic, but something you’re more likely not to have already seen is From The Earth To The Moon (1958), starring Joseph Cotten (from The Third Man), Debra Paget and George Sanders, showing at 1:15am.

Since we’re talking about Forbidden Planet, I want to mention that on Monday night/Tuesday morning at 2:30am TCM is showing MGM Parade Show #28 (1955), in which one of the film’s stars, Walter Pidgeon, interviews one of the most memorable of the film’s many attractions, Robby the Robot.

Alien (1979) was the second film directed by Ridley Scott and it made his reputation. He followed it with another science fiction classic, Blade Runner (1982), based on a novel by Philip K. Dick and starring Harrison Ford. It’s an extraordinary pair of films: both very successful—eventually—and extraordinarily influential. Blade Runner became a touch point in cultural criticism, and Alien spawned a whole franchise, which is notable among other things for having a sequel—Aliens (1986), directed by James Cameron—that is an excellent movie in its own right, one of the very few exceptions to the rule that movie sequels suck.

Weirdly, Scott hasn’t done a science fiction film since those two. Despite lots of commercial success (read, filthy lucre) and three Oscar nominations, I would argue he hasn’t done anything as good since then. Both films are among Ebert’s “great movies,” but none of Scott’s other work. You’d think he’d be tempted to revisit the genre for the success and acclaim it brought him.

Friday night features another collection of horror films from Hammer. Not Dracula films, with which that studio is most strongly associated, but some lesser know movies, among which the standout might be The Gorgon (1964), with both of the Hammer Horror stalwarts, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Perhaps because I grew up watching Creature Features and going to see double-bills of classic movies at rep cinema houses like Berkeley’s UC Theater, I think horror movies are best watched in pairs; four in a row might be a bit much, but a chance to see a big chunk of Hammer Horror, late on a Friday night, is not to be missed.

However, the real gem on Friday is earlier in the day (8:30am) and of a very different character: Queen Christina (1933), with Greta Garbo. For me, it is a toss-up which is greater—this or Garbo’s later masterpiece, Ninotchka (1939). Both… Well, I love these movies to distraction. In Queen Christina, Garbo plays the Queen of Sweden (a real historical figure) during the time of the Thirty Years’ War. Proud and lonely. Out riding one day, incognito and dressed as a young man, she chances upon the Spanish envoy Antonio, played by John Gilbert. The two strike up a friendship that turns to passion. Antonio is vastly relieved to discover that this person he has fallen for is in fact a woman rather than a young man, though he only discovers the full truth of her identity after their night together. The two fall in love, but ultimately Christina must choose between her love and her throne.

Queen Christina was the subject of one of the better volumes of the generally excellent BFI Film Classics series of short books of critical commentary (here). It’s a movie worthy of careful study, but I find that the heart of it—Garbo’s performance—defies analysis. One of the most acute discussions of Garbo is by the French philosopher and cultural theorist, Roland Barthes, in “The Face of Garbo” (collected in Mythologies) where he writes specifically on Queen Christina:

Garbo still belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human image as one would in a philtre, when the face represented a kind of absolute state of the flesh, which could be neither reached nor renounced.

Comparing Garbo to Hepburn, he concluded “Garbo’s singularity was of the order of the concept, that of Audrey Hepburn is of the order of the substance. The face of Garbo is an Idea, that of Hepburn an Event.”

Queen Christina features two of the biggest stars of the silent screen in talking roles—John Gilbert starring alongside Garbo, in his second-to-last screen appearance and one of only a handful from the talkies. Garbo and Gilbert had made three silent films together and also had a very public relationship for a time, though ultimately Garbo left Gilbert. It’s instructive to see these two silent greats side by side. For me, Gilbert and his acting style don’t really work. They seem anachronistic here, dreadfully so at times, while whatever it was about Garbo—her face, that Idea that “plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy”—still works absolutely, then as it does now.

Gilbert’s performances in his few talkies were so out of step with the times that his ardent wooing in an earlier sound film, His Glorious Night (1929), was laughed off the screen by audiences—an event recreated, wonderfully, in Singin’ in the Rain, where Gene Kelly plays a character that seems in part based on Gilbert, but who makes the transition to talkies successfully—by singing and dancing.

Weirdly (though perhaps it was planned), a bit later in the day on Friday TCM is showing the musical remake/retelling of Ninotchka, Silk Stockings (1957). Actually, it’s not so weird: both Queen Christina and Silk Stockings were directed by Rouben Mamoulian and are being shown as part of a selection of five movies from this director.

Silk Stockings stars Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. I love musicals and adore Fred Astaire, but I’ve never really warmed to this movie. I suppose in part precisely because it is a remake of Ninotchka, for which I have so much affection. There’s another one of these pairs of great movie + disappointing musical remake: The Philadelphia Story (1940) with Katherine Hepburn, James Stewart and Cary Grant, was remade as High Society (1956), with Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. Both of these pairs are proof of another rule of movies that—like sequels—remakes usually suck. It’s a hard thing to say about movies with such sparkling casts, but both Silk Stockings and High Society seem like pale imitations of the films they remake. They don’t suck, but don’t come close to measuring up to the antecedents. Then again, how could they?

As a side note, in The Philadelphia Story, there’s quite a famous scene in which the reporter played by James Stewart, Macaulay Connor, woos Katherine Hepburn as Tracy Lord, telling her that there’s

A magnificence that comes out of your eyes, in your voice, in the way you stand there, in the way you walk. You’re lit from within, Tracy. You’ve got fires banked down in you, hearth-fires and holocausts.

I’ve never much cared for this. It doesn’t really seem to me to capture precisely what is so engaging, so magnificent about Hepburn/Tracy Lord, “holocausts” in particular striking a wrong note. And it seems a bit over the top, a bit much in this movie, even for a writer of fiction like Connor. It might work better, I think, if applied to Garbo, and as dialogue it seems more suited to the stilted Gilbert than the lithe, lanky Stewart.

Friday’s going to be a busy day for me (or my TiVo thing). Prior to the run of Rouben Mamoulian films, TCM is showing a selection of three minor movies by Howard Hawks (again, you know how I feel about him): The Criminal Code (1931), Barbary Coast (1935) and Come And Get It (1936).

Saturday (Oct 9) has got two must see movies: The Public Enemy (1931) at 11am; and Grand Hotel (1932) at 1am.  (They’re also showing Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train (1951) and Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) with Humphrey Bogart, but you hardly need me to tell you about these.)

The Public Enemy was one of the films whose scandalous qualities contributed to the climate that led to the notorious Production Code a few years later. It features a knock-out performance by James Cagney—who’s never been a better gangster, and never been bettered as a gangster by anyone really. And it’s one of the key films, archetypal, in the gangster genre/cycle that was so big in the early 1930s. Like that classic from another genre that I wrote about a few days ago, The Thing, it was designated by the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected for preservation by the National Film Registry. Grand Hotel stars Greta Garbo and is the source of her so often quoted line, “I vant to be alone.” What more could you need to know?

On a week with so many masterpieces—with Citizen Kane, Alien, Ingrid Bergman, Hitchcock and Howard Hawks—it’s impossible to pick a single movie of the week, but nonetheless: Queen Christina. Sublime.

For more…

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zerode by nick chapman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Oh - and hello to Jason Isaacs.

The 400 Blows


is an over-caffeinated and under-employed grad school dropout, aspiring leftwing intellectual and cultural studies academic, cinéaste, and former poet. 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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