I’ve never been a big lover of summer, for it maketh my Swedish blood boil and I have no opponent to strike with my Nordic hammer. Then again, this boiling is a great excuse for staying home from the cumbersome, dirty sand-covered beach jaunts of friends and family. To babysit the cat and watch endless movies under a cool blanket of AC, sitting in the Dracula darkness, the cool of the couch coffin, drinking the blood of drunken Coca-Cola kings…. that must be… glorious.
Alas Turner Classic Movies (TCM)–the life-blood of any cine-aesthete recluse–is given to frittering away valuable summer air time with post-code baseball movies, sappy family films, chaperoned AIP beach parties, guest programmers who can’t think outside the box, and ‘safe’ MGM musicals. You have to wait with your DVR poised like a patient cobra for the late night subversive prey that scuttles out only when the kids are safely asleep or nonexistent.
Stick with me, then, o patient cobra, and let’s see what we can see:
(PS – Their schedule is also rich with Friday Truffaut films, a day of Preston Sturges, a run of five Douglas Sirks, and other gems. But you know that already if you’re a TCM viewer. Here are some you may be about to overlook in haste, and perhaps fear.
10 PM – History is Made at Night (1937)
12 AM: La Parisienne (1957)
The first is a Borzage masterpiece with ***1/2 from Lenny and the incomparable Charles Boyer on full smolder as a un-Closeau-esque waiter; the second is considered one of Brigite Bardot’s best films, a light but smart romantic comedy, fully free of any sign of the leaden camera, dreary jet set luxury, and schoolboy leering that sunk so many of her other vehicles. She plays off Boyer as a handsome prince, and yes, of course we all know the French can’t do comedy, and yes, we know they can only be funny when trying to be serious. Yet… let’s give it a shot. It’s seldom seen: Lenny fails to even list it, and imdb has NO external reviews. Sacre bleu et mon dieu et pierrot le fou alours! I’ve not seen either film but I’ll be clearing my decks for them, making room on the DVR list, because right afterwards… two head films, back to back:
In Brain That Couldn’t Die, mad scientist Herb Evers argues passionately about science, then decapitates his wife (the sultry Virginia Leith) via an accidental car crash. Inspired, he keeps her head alive in a tray, then scouts the local strip clubs for a replacement body. Viva la Science! The film has a dour, talky tone and Evers, seems like he’s on drugs but Virginia as the titular head is super, especially as she enlists the aid of the hulking monster hidden in the laboratory closet. Her teeth lovely with long canines, her voice, raspy with sexy, beheaded cunning, whispers to the forlorn brute, “I am only a head, and you are whatever you are, but together we’re strong!” (which became my sign-off quote for years). Unsuitable for children, yet a children’s favorite. (from my very first ever film site, 1999’s Dr. Twilite’s Neighborhood).
It’s set in the Victorian era, based on a Wilkie Collins novel, but even if you’re no fan of all that stuffy decor and fashion you may still dig this, because Eleanor Parker plays a dual role and manages to out-radiate herself at every turn, even though there’s no effort at all to suggest she’s a ghost, she’s so stunning in her white cape that she’s terrifying, straight out of the anima dream unconscious. As one of the shifty villains, Sydney Greenstreet occupies the rich language of the film like he was to the era born, which he probably was. It’s like Gaslight with a larger cast of evil doers, a more sophisticated approach to heiress-swindling, and no less than three overwrought, deluded heroines caught in the webs arranged by patriarchal codes exploited by n’er do wells who know how to work the strands. TCM’s print is kind of blurry, you have to imagine how great it would look struck from a negative and put on blu-ray, but if your delicate feminist nerves can handle it, by jove, it’s a stay home from work and slack off must.
Ugh, silent films…. good in a theater with a responsive audience and live accompaniment; tedious slogs on TV with generally terrible, helicopter scores, grimy actors, and snail pacing. There are many exceptions of course, mainly the works of D.W. Griffith, Buster Keaton, and F.W. Murnau, who directed Phantom. Murnau is more like an underground filmmaker who hunts the kernel of humanity within nightmare dream logic, which he then, like a good German, destroys, then a snail paced slogger. TCM notes that in the plot “a store clerk risks his future to pursue his obsession with a beautiful, ghostly woman.” And dude, that sounds right up an alley, of some sort. Michael Atkinson notes:
“Phantom is as much an object lesson in Murnau’s subtle reinvention of visual expression as his more famous works, matter-of-factly using distant background action (through windows) to fuel the foreground and employing a vast variety of double exposures, warping perspectives, and even elaborately built set constructions to articulate the protagonist’s fevered confusion.”
Following on the ghostly heels of Phantom is another haunted morality tale, one of the best of all time: Ugetsu is breathtaking gorgeous (it looks like it was filmed by Karl Freund) and deeply moving, funny, exciting, intelligent, and profound anti-war satire and ghost story. It compares well with pre-code Universal horror films like The Mummy and The Black Cat as well as Duck Soup and a Buddhist brand of Christmas Carol. That should be enough to win you!
I just wrote about this masterpiece, re: slavery, creativity, and fear of irrelevance, in comparison with Cloud Atlas(Se: “Getting to Own You”), so am delighted to note its looming shadow has appeared over approaching August, for Ruggles is a true gem and only available on DVD as an expensive Warner Archive release (a bargain at any price!). It’s one of my all-time favorite films, as concise and touching a genius Charles Laughton vehicle/comedy/analysis of American freedoms as ever war and has lots of great drinking scenes!
Three-Cornered Moon is a weird pre-code saga starring Claudette Colbert as the ‘sensible’ sister in a rich household suddenly made poor by the stock market crash and forced to find work, which they resist, leaving Colbert to be a ruthless motivator of men. The family ‘protege’–a snobby young novelist– has it the worst, refusing offered jobs and missing interviews Colbert fights to get him, because his head cares only for his next pompous Fitzgeraldian chapter, She boots him out of the house but then another rich family takes him in! Oh, to be a bespectacled writer with attitude in the days of ‘proteges’ amongst the wealthy! I saw it at a summer Film Forum pre-code festival the summer after the dot.com-crash and not seen it since. I can’t remember why, but I’m anxious to see it again… I hope it’s no harbinger….
Speaking of proteges, The Hunger is one of Tony Scott’s first exercises in cigarette smoke filtered through blue gel spots and Venetian blind shadowing. As a lesbian vampire movie, though, it may put you to sleep, even as you half-heartedly admire it. David Bowie comes off well as the Danielle Ouimet to Catherine Deneuve’s Daphne Seyrig (now that’s an arcane reference only deep vampire lesbian enthusiasts will get), but it’s all laden with pouffy 80s hair and shoulder pads, more than any sane person can handle, then again…. what sane person would be up at 4:15 AM on a Sunday watching pretentious 80s lesbian vampire movies…. you? If you stoically endure there are some cool scenes near the end, or so I vaguely remember when I first saw it on VHS as an alienated teen in the mid 80s and fell asleep halfway through. I’ve avoided it ever since, waiting for just this moment. If it leaves you cold, hunt down the amazing Blue Underground blu-ray of Daughters of Darkness and leave the dated 80s far behind in favor of timeless 70s. Or just watch Dracula (1931) for the hundredth time and go back… to the 30s…. See? There you are… in the gold room, looking for a rich sponsor to put you up with room and board while you finish your novel! Who cares if she wants to bite you? As long as she has AC.