August man, am I right? Is it fall or is it still summer? TCM is not always the most reliable barometer of the split psyche, but there are a few niche-y rare pre-codes slithering through the margins. Even if you’re dirt poor, if you’re reading this you have access to the internet which means you can afford whatever cable package gives you Turner Classics, AND Tivo / DV-R – even if means you don’t eat that month, or any month. Together, we starve so classic cinema can sans commercials thrive.
I’m not going to point out the obvious stuff, like a great night of Elizabeth Taylor’s meatiest roles all back to back coming this weekend. I’m going to point out the stuff you may otherwise miss, and shouldn’t. Once again there shall be no approval of sanitized post-code patriarchal racist blandness that stifles the breath of creative thunder, no no no!
Even if like me you’re no more than a passing fancier of Olivier’s Richard III or Henry V (for me it’s mainly because of brave Sir Laurence’s penchant for awful bangs and effete ruffles) you should check out his Othello – for one thing, he’s older and more attuned to the era’s penchant for rugged naturalism (sideburns!); for or another its just a filmed version of the stage play which for some reason works better on some levels than his film films, that is if you hate Brechtian frills and semi-satiric pomp and procession. Othello is not even my favorite Shakespeare play, not by a damn sight, and yet this has become one of my favorite adaptations, I love the orange evening backdrop that hovers seemingly for hour after hour alone the marble column battlement setting for most of the journey. Olivier looks grand in his Moor’s make-up, and delivers a jaw-dropping, mind blowing mix of speed, coherence, alacrity and full-bodied Moorish what-for. Maggie Smith makes an oddly matron-like Desdemona, which makes her getting framed for adultery a lot easier to take, especially with handsome, Mephistophelian Frank Finlay as Iago. He’s hotter than she is, so a weird gay subtext comes rocketing out of nowhere, and when Larry gets going into his spittle-flecked “smote-a-dog-thus”-ness, you can’t help but marvel that you can understand every last damn word he uttereth, and Bam! Shakespeare rocks through your world like a reset button.
Here’s three WB pre-codes ruled by snappy Glenda Farrell, always a worth watching, even if forced to deal with the buzz-killing patriarchally smug Irish bluster of Pat O’ Brien. Ugh, aside from his ability to talk so fast your head spins what does he got? He’s the Jim Belushi of the 30s (with Cagney as John. In Number O’Brien’s a self-appointed know-it-all telephone repairman, but hey, Eugene Pallette is his boss and Allen Jenkins a two-bottle man – so bump a star. The Personality Kid chronicles the rise and fall of a shithead boxer, ushered to life by Pat O’Brien looking like he’s been in training for no hours. Notes the Times, “his various opponents in the film paw each other like long-lost brothers and some of the theoretically sleep-producing blows would hardly jar the script girl.” (more). Kansas City Princess has Glenda and Joan doing the usual amok gold-digger jive, which includes them posing as girl scouts. Hah! The Times notes, “(It) is muscular, loud and frantic, rather than impressively hilarious, and even for farce it never makes a great deal of sense.” Whatever. I’m taping them.
But wait! There’s more, and in these two Glenda actually steps into her own, in two LEAD ROLES, in each a shrewd reporter whose able to outsmart the men at every turn, and bravely go where shrunken head cops and dunderhead editors daren’t, but instead can only sneer and try to browbeat her unsuccessfully into towing the line! Go ahead and skip those top three if you want, but do NOT miss these two… or else thou art no feminist!
The first in the 1940s Torchy Blaine mystery series, Smart Blonde finds Glenda Ferrell in her masterful element as a crime-solving reporter who relies on her cop boyfriend (Barton McLane) to provide the back-up while she goes in daring directions to get the killer. The first of the series, Smart Blonde, is easily the best, barely and hour long and propelled by a serious, pulpy and well-written script straight of of a sordid, but literate, pulp crime novel. She’s basically the same character in Wax, though now supposed to fall for her shithead chief editor. When she’s not stealing bootleg liquor from coffins she’s following leads with tenacity, until, alas, she decides to marry Frank McHugh’s repulsively chauvinist senior editor and start darning socks, presumably. It’s a bit of a slap in the face considering, but hey, she never married Barton Maclaine and they were engaged all the way through the series. Maybe that’s the message of August and the message of Glenda Farrell, stay all the time in a suspended animation, always be about to surrender your summery sun to autumn’s cozy sweater.
Howard Hawks is the best director in my book, and lucky us he made a shitload of movies. In the pantheon of prolific geniuses he’s maybe second only to John Ford, and if you look at their filmographies, Ford made way more clunkers. Those who argue The Big Sky is one of Hawks’ clunkers tend to have not seen it. And who can blame them? It’s not on DVD, which is second in outrage only to Hawks’ 1936 masterpiece Ceiling Zero not being on DVD (or even ever on TCM). Alas, if this ever got restored (maybe put on blu-ray by Criterion? Hint Hint) like Red River we would be able to really appreciate the beauty of the Pacific Northwestern scenery. But instead of John Wayne we have Kirk Douglas and instead of Dean Martin we have Dewey Martin. And hey, it’s original mountain man, Arthur Hunnicutt in the Walter Brennan part (which he also nailed in Hawks’ El Dorado). The Big Sky is long and rambling but for Hawksophiles that’s part of the charm. It ends up trapped in one of those boring romance subplots as Dewey falls for a Pacific Northwest Indian princess, and there’s some weird discomfort hearing Hunnicutt’s narration talk about all the “goood trading” as he and his fellow traders win mass amounts of furs and animal skins from the Pacific Northwest Native Americans in exchange for vanity mirrors and other trinkets. But the trip up to see them is amazing, and there’s a great Hawksian moment with some bandits. Don’t miss.
SEPTEMBER 4 – 7:15 AM – The Wind (1928)
TCM is conducting a whole film history course in September, screening gallons of influential silent films from the likes of D.W. Griffith, Von Stroheim, and Cecil B. You can get into them or not but even if you are wary of the silent film’s strange rhythm )and intertitles that stick around so long you wonder if every one in the pre-sound era couldn’t read past a first grade level) you must take the needed downers to tune deeply into The Wind. Lillian Gish is the poor virginal girl who gets way less than she bargained for when she moves in with her far-off mail order husband. His homestead is in a land so windy she spends the bulk of the day sweeping sand out of the shack, and repelling her husband’s would-be rapist friends. The whole thing works well as a metaphor for virginity and the loss thereof; the terrible price paid when one moves into adulthood, the endless sacrifice and loss in exchange for nothing but maybe love. In a way, it’s the most sexually and emotionally ‘mature’ film of the lot. It’s the Repulsion of the silent era! Don’t miss it and right afterwards, rewatch Dogville! You’ve been warned!
FRIDAY – Sept. 6 – Dystopia Night Highlights
12:30 AM – Escape from New York
2:15 AM – Brazil
I wasn’t a huge fan of Escape when I first saw it but it’s the kind of thing you can watch like every year for the rest of your life and it never gets old. It’s always fascinating to see New York predicted as turning into a jail (the date for this future – 1997! Well, NYC was MY apocalypse that year, anyway…) and the masterful ease with which Kurt Russell strides around the city like he’s just arrived at a massive Halloween party and everyone’s left already except for a few weirdos over by the fire. That’s your cue to dig in… Brazil is always worth catching, regardless of the version (there are three edits of various lengths and emphases). It’s patient fusing of jet black dystopia slapstick and refracted fantasy makes it a kind of Walter Mitty meets Kafka’s The Trial. There’s enough grisly business that it kind of makes you feel bad for laughing, like the funniest comedian in the world is strangling you while you crack up, helplessly. Kind of like, well, you know… this whole damn summer…