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Film Noir, the OK Corral, Fred Astaire and the Pink Panther

On TCM in the coming week, Nov 1-7, 2010: some highlights from the schedule, with commentary

Phew. Halloween is over. Just returned from an exhausting trek with a friend and her kids along D Street in Petaluma—jammed sidewalks and houses that had really gone all out with haunted houses, masses of decorations, movies being shown on walls and in windows, sound effects and dry ice fog.

It’s been a busy time for movies as well, this past week, and while I got to see at least one film each with Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf-Man and the Mummy—plus the Creature from the Black Lagoon (which was on AMC a couple of days ago)—there were a couple of Halloween shows I missed. Was the Charlie Brown “Great Pumpkin” special on this week? Anyway, all those monster movies really made me nostalgic for the old “Creature Features” show, where I first saw so many of those films, and lots of science fiction as well. But now, after a week full of frights, we return to our regularly scheduled programming… for a week or two at least, after which the Christmas movies will probably start.

The month of November starts off on TCM with a sort of mini-survey of great, but lesser known genre directors of the post-war period, beginning at 4:15am on November 1:

Dark Passage (1947) directed by Delmar Daves;
White Heat (1949) by Raoul Walsh;
They Live by Night (1949), Nicholas Ray; and
Side Street (1950) by Anthony Mann.

The first three of these are justly considered classics. Walsh is best known for his crime pics; the other three worked in a variety of genres though Mann and Daves did what I think is their best work in Westerns. Ray’s best known film is Rebel Without a Cause with James Dean, but he also directed the famous (at least with film buffs) and somewhat perverse Western Johnny Guitar, with Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden. Yes, yes, I know—you’ve had enough of Westerns. Well, the holidays are more of a time for musicals so you should soon have me banging on at great length about that genre, which really is my favorite.

But the movies showing Monday morning are neither Westerns nor musicals. Besides being an intro to these lesser known but important directors, these films constitute a mini festival of another terrific and quintessentially American genre, film noir. They aren’t among the most powerful or best-known instances of the genre—films like Out of the Past or Double Indemnity—but they are excellent in their own right as well as examples of one of the more interesting and original of American film genres.  White Heat, starring James Cagney, is particularly interesting as a cross between the gangster cycle from the 1930s and film noir. Dark Passage is a chance to see Bogie and Bacall together, always a treat, in a film not directed by Howard Hawks—who introduced the world to them, and them to each other, in To Have and Have Not (1944).

Tuesday Nov 2 is Burt Lancaster day, with seven movies in a row starring that actor, starting at 3am. Two are particularly note-worthy:

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, and directed by John Sturges. Yet another version of this oft-told tale, which also served as the basis of John Ford’s masterful western, My Darling Clementine, with Henry Fonda, and the more recent Tombstone with Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.

Seven Days In May (1964), again with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. Directed by John Frankenheimer, who is probably best known for The Manchurian Candidate (1962), a political thriller about Korean War soldiers brainwashed to act as sleeper assassins. That film stars Frank Sinatra, and there have long been rumors that he squashed distribution and screening of it in the wake of JFK’s assassination. Frakenheimer also directed another controversial film, Seconds, starring Rock Hudson as a man who is given a new face and a new life and then must live a sort of closeted identity. The rumor here is that distribution of this movie was restricted because it cut far too close to the truth of Rock Hudson’s homosexuality, an open secret in Hollywood but unknown to the movie-going public.

Wednesday (Nov 3) is a real change of pace, with musicals playing much of the day. Two good, but not great or well-known ones are showing: Annie Get Your Gun (1950), with Betty Hutton and Howard Keel, and Blue Skies (1946). Annie Get Your Gun is a fairly early example of the sort of musical that would come to dominate from the 1950s on, “integrated musicals”—mostly based on Broadway shows, with settings outside the world of stage and theater, in which people burst into song in their normal surroundings (and in which this is treated as entirely normal rather than deranged behavior). This movie is based very loosely on the life of Annie Oakley, a female sharpshooter from the late 19th Century, and follows the stage musical about her written by Irving Berlin which is notable for having introduced the song, “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” For me, the other standout song in the musical is “Anything You Can Do”—which among other things has a nice feminist slant.

An example of the other main form of musical, the backstage musical, Blue Skies features Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire as two vaudeville stars in love with the same girl, and features the music of Irving Berlin—just like  Holiday Inn (1942), which also starred Astaire and Crosby as two song and dance men in love with the same girl, with songs by Berlin. Blue Skies is not a great musical, but it’s very good, and it has some great numbers—and it’s interesting for other reasons as well.

It was originally meant to be Astaire’s final film, and indeed was billed as “Astaire’s last picture”—but of course he went on to make a dozen more movies over the next two decades, including Royal Wedding, which I wrote about earlier. Some other trivia: Fred Astaire was brought in to replace the dancer originally meant for his part, while Judy Garland, who was originally cast in the role of the girl the two men love, bowed out due to illness. Two years later, Fred Astaire would take the part originally intended for Gene Kelly in Easter Parade—also starring Judy Garland. A funnily literal kind of “musical chairs.”

One of the standout musical numbers in the movie is “Puttin’ on the Ritz”:

The original lyrics to this song—which came out in 1929—seemed a bit racist, or at least controversial, by the time this movie was made, and Fred Astaire reportedly insisted that they be changed. Like other Astaire fans, I think, I feel a bit ambivalent about this musical number, and that great number in Royal Wedding where Astaire dances on the walls and ceiling of his hotel room. These numbers, while great in many respects, rely for that greatness to a certain extent on the special effects used to jazz up Astaire’s routines. I tend to feel that Astaire was a special effect in his own right, all by himself, and that it’s best to see him that way, without the distraction of other, lesser forms of movie magic.

Thursday (Nov 4) features a few movies worth singling out:

Fanny (1961) reunites Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier from Gigi (1958)—the musical based on the novel by Colette, that features the song “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” (and which I wrote about in an earlier post on TCM’s weekly schedule). They’re both interesting actors, and Fanny is based on a play by Marcel Pagnol, but I tend to think this film’s only real interest is in relation to the earlier pairing of Caron and Chevalier, which is a flawed but amusing musical. An amusical?

Alfie (1966) – with Michael Caine. Famous film, one of Caine’s most memorable performances and along with his thriller from the previous year, The Ipcress File, the movie that made him a big star. Not screened often enough and not to be missed. The title song was written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and is sung by Cher over the film’s closing credits, but it became a hit for British singer Cilla Black in a version released the same time as the film.

Downhill Racer (1969)—an interesting but seldom seen/screened film with Robert Redford that came out the same year as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Friday (Nov 5) has got three movies in a row starring Joel McCrae, produced over the course of a decade, all great movies, all very different, so an interesting way to explore the career of this actor:

The Most Dangerous Game (1932) at 11:30am—with Fay Wray of King Kong fame

Foreign Correspondent (1940) at 12:45pm—directed by Alfred Hitchcock

The Palm Beach Story (1942) at 3pm—with Claudette Colbert and directed by Preston Sturges

In the evening, you can watch one of those famous film epics, this one about World War II rather than Egypt or Rome: The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957), starring Alec Guinness (Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars, as well as a zillion other great performances) and directed by David Lean—who also did Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago.  Lean had a thing for epics about love and war.

But, perversely, the movie I am most looking forward to from TCM’s screenings this day is another WWII movie that is pretty much the exact opposite of Bridge on the River Kwai—a short, minor B movie, Joe Smith, American (1942), showing at 8:45am—”Nazi spies in search of government secrets kidnap a munitions worker.” One of the many, many films of this kind made during World War II: short—this one comes in at just over an hour—and quickly and cheaply produced, with this one apparently being made in three weeks, and with WWII as both the subject and object. Subject, obviously, in that these movies are about aspects of the war; object in that they all have more or less overt propagandistic aims, and produced quickly and cheaply as part of both wartime austerity and the need for lots and lots of distracting entertainment. These are not movies of moral or political ambiguity, or with depressing outcomes; they are clear about right and wrong, and the good guys come out on top in the end.

I watched another one of these films a few days ago that I had recorded off TCM earlier: The Avengers (1942) with a charming Hugh Williams as a British war correspondent in Norway who gets caught up in thwarting the Nazi occupation. The film features two better known co-stars, Deborah Kerr as the Norwegian love interest and the terrific English actor Ralph Richardson as a veteran reporter whose death covering the war acts as a spur for the main character. Like many of these movies, The Avengers features actual war footage, from newsreels and propaganda films, particularly of Nazis; the quality and style of these movies is such that the newsreel material tends to integrate pretty well.

I know I have been going on about this somewhat, but I want to stress that one of the things that interests me about movies like Joe Smith, American and The Avengers is that it is films like this that compromise the bulk of English-language filmgoing experience over the years. When we only watch Casablanca and It’s a Wonderful Life we don’t get an accurate picture of what movies were like, what they meant and how they meant it, during the golden era of Hollywood and the cinema. If all you want to do is watch great movies, stick with Casablanca; if you want to understand movies and what they mean and meant, then watching films like Joe Smith, American is useful.

In discussing this issue previously, I’ve singled out The Bowery Boys, and there’s another one of their films showing on TCM on Saturday morning (Nov 6): Loose In London (1953)—”The Bowery Boys take on British crooks when one of them thinks he’s inherited a title.” You don’t need to see every Bowery Boys movie by any means, but you should see a couple (though I’m not sure if this is one of the better ones). The one other thing on Saturday I want to highlight is the original Ocean’s Eleven (1960). It’s the Rat Pack: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop. You’ve heard about them, now see them in all their glory. I have to confess I’ve never seen this movie, and am mildly curious.

On Sunday (Nov 7) at 1pm, TCM is showing the second of the original “Pink Panther” movies, A Shot In The Dark (1964). Peter Sellers returns in the role of the bumbling Inspector Clouseau, first introduced in The Pink Panther (1963). Shot in the Dark introduces the two other recurring characters in the original series—Clouseau’s servant, Kato/Cato (Burt Kwouk), with whom Clouseau has highly destructive training bouts, and Commissioner Dreyfus (Herbert Lom) who is eventually driven mad by Clouseau’s many misadventures and sets out to kill him.

The Prime Time Feature on Sunday focuses on the work of the Austrian director Fritz Lang and includes his two greatest movies, both justifiably classics of world cinema: Metropolis (1927) at 5pm and M (1931)at 11:30pm.

Either of these would be an obvious and excellent choice for “must see” movie of the week, but as I have seen them both recently—Metropolis on the big screen twice in past few months—they are not what I would pick for myself. For me, the must see pick is something entirely different: “What’s it all about, Alfie?”

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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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