Ah, February. Ah, TCM! I mostly watched the films in their 31 Days of Oscar festival. I had informally pledged to watch more black themed films in honor of black history month, but that didn’t work out. Total for this month was 32.
Lost Boundaries (1949)
dir: Alfred L. Werker
I actually watched this at the tail end of January but it didn’t make it onto last month’s list. A really interesting film about a real life black family that passed for white in New England. As an unfortunate sign of the times, white actors were cast, one of them being Audrey Hepburn’s first husband, Mel Ferrer, who was part Cuban and was thought to be passing by casting directors. Despite the time period, Lost Boundaries is a thoughtful reflection on this issue, dated perhaps, but no less powerful. It veers a little into soap opera, particularly as our tragic mulattos (the children who had no knowledge of their real black heritage) try to struggle with this “painful” truth.
Bonus: this beautiful little girl and her smile.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
dir: Mike Nichols
Elizabeth Taylor as a shrieking wife who emasculates her professor husband, played by her then real life one, Richard Burton. George and Martha embody dysfunction. Their grotesque pageantry is on display for all to see, and there’s nothing their two houseguests, Nick and Honey, can do but be drawn up into the madness. Elizabeth won her second Best Actress Oscar, much deserved. She’s a revelation. Any doubts I had about her ability (which vanished long before this) seem so unfounded now. Watching her in this film, I couldn’t help but think about her career; from child star to teenage starlet, and finally to serious leading woman. This film is a portrait of two married people constantly embarking on wanton paths of destruction.
The Wild Bunch (1969)
dir: Sam Peckinpah
Oh boy. I hate this movie. So why is it on this list? Because I could appreciate what director Sam Peckinpah set out to do. The film is notorious for its appalling level of violence. It caused so much controversy on its release. People either loved it or they abhorred it. Some people even got sick witnessing all that bloodshed onscreen. I might have been one of them if I’d been alive back then. This was the first time that this kind of graphic violence was shown at the movies. The production code prohibited such things. Peckinpah stated that The Wild Bunch was anti violence, because that’s not something you can make palatable, nor should you. People should see exactly what violence does and looks like, and be discouraged from cheering it on or wanting to participate in it. I mean, he’s preaching to the choir as far as I’m concerned. I don’t even like code sanctioned violence in black & white movies (or color ones, but it’s really less problematic in black & white). I actually felt squeamish seeing Van Heflin get beat up in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). Again, a black and white movie, fake punches, blood in grayscale.
So why exactly did I watch the film? William Holden. And you know, something strange happened. I felt indifferent towards his character. I hated the film so much that anything he said or did nearly bored me to tears. I love Bill so much. But I couldn’t love The Wild Bunch. Even without all the gruesome shootings, the story was uninteresting to me. I’m not a fan of westerns; My Darling Clementine, High Noon, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and The Good Dinosaur are my only exceptions. The Wild Bunch is about an aging group of outlaws who find the Old West vanishing around them. They’re not good guys (something else Peckinpah wanted to emphasize about westerns), but I just didn’t care or understand why I should root for them or what Old West was disappearing. This is not interesting to me. And that’s fine. Some movies just aren’t made for us. Some movies we don’t or can’t appreciate. Some movies make us suffer for William Holden. There’s one other movie of his that I dislike, Love Is a Many Splendored Thing (1955), but it was as if this was his way of saying: “Hey. Let me disappoint you one more time.”
There was one short lived instance of happiness in which Bill didn’t have that horrible mustache. My other favorite things were Edmond O’Brien’s totally convincing/hilarious turn as a wily old prospector (he was just 54!), and Robert Ryan and Edmond O’Brien riding off into the sunset together. Made me wish that the two of them had worked together during their noir peak in the late 40s and early 50s. I like watching movies where Eddie O survives Despite The Odds. And I love Robert Ryan. Also interesting: this film was released 30 years after Bill and Eddie made their screen debuts, at 21 and 24, respectively. Pretty amazing to see these two guys past their prime and remember that they had started out so young and fresh faced, and kept working steadily.
The Red Danube (1949)
dir: George Sidney
A postwar movie starring Walter Pidgeon, Ethel Barrymore, Angela Lansbury, Peter Lawford, Janet Leigh, and Louis Calhern. Pidgeon plays Colonel Nicobar, part of an Allied effort to repatriate Soviet citizens. He and his aides stay at a convent headed by a kind Mother Superior (Barrymore) where a young Soviet ballerina (Leigh) is in hiding. The film also discusses matters of faith, namely Nicobar’s lack of it in the face of war. He’s gently challenged by the Mother Superior, and in my view, the film does treat the issue earnestly. Nicobar isn’t demonized for his lack of beliefs and religious belief isn’t regarded as foolish. While I do love Janet Leigh, her Russian accent is a little awkward. Classic films always run into this problem, trying to make Americans sound foreign with these stilted voices. Aside from that, it’s a beautiful film with poetic grace.
I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932)
dir: Mervyn LeRoy
Films from the early 30s do narrative quite brilliantly. In just 75 minutes or less, a story with excellent characterization and tightly wound pacing emerges. I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang reminds me of Three on a Match (1932), both of which were directed by Mervyn LeRoy. They’re these gritty Warner Brothers movies dealing with sordid situations and people, and even with the brief running time, there’s a lot of story. This film stars the great Paul Muni as the titular fugitive, an innocent man who suffers the consequences of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Steve Allen is a World War One veteran who returns home restless. He doesn’t want his old factory job, he wants to build things. One thing leads to another and he finds himself wandering around the country looking for work. When he’s arrested and sent to prison to perform hard labor, he endures terrible working conditions and a number of injustices. What’s so striking is that he’s powerless to fight back. He’s basically a pre code male Cinderella. As a social film exposing corruption in the prison system, the film is still timely today. It skims over the issue of race, but the conversations happening today about prison reform had their origins so many years ago.
Random Harvest (1942)
dir: Mervyn LeRoy
Another Mervyn LeRoy picture (seriously love that guy, he was so prolific and is rarely talked about), also dealing with the struggles of a WWI vet. This time it’s England, where Charles Rainier (Ronald Colman) is recovering in an asylum following the war. An amnesiac, he escapes and meets a chorus girl, Paula (Greer Garson). Friendship soon blooms into romance. THIS IS A WEEPER. Ronald Colman’s performance is so heartbreaking in its subtlety; his hesitancy, his mannerisms, his helpless silent pleadings. What a handsome guy also. Greer Garson is a vision. I fell asleep watching this because I get tired in my old age around 9 pm. But while I roused myself awake, the shimmering dissolve onscreen revealed Greer Garson’s magical face and it was as if I was waking up and falling into a dream. My sleep disappeared as the mist did. Aren’t movies wonderful?
Days of Wine and Roses (1962)
dir: Blake Edwards
Starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick as a pair of married alcoholics. They don’t start out that way. She doesn’t drink at all when they begin dating. But then they start drinking together, and there’s nothing but pain and heartache for nearly two hours. This movie is a lot. It functions as a cautionary tale, but it’s also filled with empathy for these two. Jack Lemmon could do anything, including break my heart while descending to rock bottom.
It’s Always Fair Weather (1955)
dir: Stanley Donen
Three sailors return home after WWII and promise to meet up again in ten more years. The years pass and all three haven’t quite reached their dreams. The intervening years have changed them all, to the point that they don’t even like each other anymore. And all of this set to music! And there’s one particularly inventive dance involving trashcan lids. It’s a cynical movie, but it’s also entertaining and featuring the ever lovely Cyd Charisse.
It Happened Tomorrow (1944)
dir: Rene Clair
A really sweet, charming fantasy-comedy starring two of my favorites, Linda Darnell (princess) and Dick Powell. I never knew this movie existed or that they had worked together. Powell plays a journalist who acquires the ability to predict the next day’s news. Linda is the girl he falls in love with, the niece of a fraud magician (Jack Oakie) who pretends to predict the future. Linda Darnell did get good roles occasionally, but a lot of her film roles didn’t make use of her abundant talent. She and Powell have such great chemistry, it makes me wish they had worked together again. Also get to see her in a suit in this.
Key Largo (1948)
dir: John Huston
No hyperbole, but it’s literally taken me seven years to watch Key Largo. This was the fourth and final film Bogie and Bacall made together. Set in the Florida keys during a storm, the two are held in a hotel with other hostages by a notorious gangster played by Edward G. Robinson. As Rocco, Robinson is merciless and cruel. No one really gets a chance to play the hero, which is both realistic and sobering. Bogart’s so great in everything. The way he looks at Betty (!!!), it’s as if there aren’t any cameras around. This is definitely my second favorite pairing of theirs after Dark Passage (1947).
Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)
dir: John Frankenheimer
Despite his imposing athletic physique and tough guy grin, Burt Lancaster was at his best playing vulnerable men. He was a pro at wounded masculinity. As convict Robert Stroud, he takes care of birds while in solitary confinement, displaying a gentleness you wouldn’t expect. I love Burt in these quieter roles; they suited him so well. It’s such a well made film also starring Karl Malden and Edmond O’Brien.
The Band Wagon (1953)
dir: Vincente Minnelli
I just love MGM musicals. They make me so happy to be alive. Fred Astaire plays Tony Hunter, a washed up actor who appears in a Broadway musical for his comeback. I love so many of the numbers in this film (“That’s Entertainment”, “Triplets”, and “Dancing in the Dark”). Watching this for the first time was like a rite of passage. I finally got to see the “Girl Hunt Ballet” and WOW.
What kind of adjectives are there to describe Cyd Charisse?? Fred Astaire called her “beautiful dynamite.” She was a devastating supernova. I hate the word sexy, but that was Fred and Cyd. (Imagine, he was in his 50s, but it doesn’t matter does it? Of course not).
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
dir: Michael Curtiz
Sword fighting! Swashbuckling! Glory! Honor! Romance! Good triumphing over evil and corruption! Men in tights! Olivia de Havilland! I must confess, I’m not the biggest fan of Errol Flynn, but he’s so terrific in this. I understand his appeal even if he doesn’t do anything for me personally. And Olivia! Maid Marian is at first part of the oppressive class. But then she begins to soften and understand what Robin is fighting for. And she helps to save Robin after he’s been captured. Whatever romance these two led offscreen definitely bleeds into their onscreen chemistry. Basil Rathbone is also on hand as the reliable handsome cur. The score is amazing as is the rich technicolor. A marvel to behold. And Queen Olivia…swoon.
A Life in the Balance (1955)
dir: Harry Horner
Yet another movie just over an hour long that packs a lot of story. Ricardo Montalban heads a mostly Mexican cast in this crime thriller with Anne Bancroft and Lee Marvin. Montalban plays Arthur Gomez, a widowed father who is mistakenly accused of murder. This was one of Lee’s early roles, where he plays a violent killer with shades of Harry Powell
in him. He’s a religious zealot and a misogynist. Unfortunately the short length doesn’t delve any further into his character, who is frightening and fascinating. Lee’s performance is a little jarring in the climax; he’s chewing the scenery a lot. But it is an interesting early role that showcased some of that terrible and compelling violence he embodied later on.
The Slipper and the Rose (1976)
dir: Bryan Forbes
A musical adaptation of Cinderella featuring period costumes and powdered wigs! Not only was the music written and composed by my favorite songwriting duo, The Sherman Brothers, the script was too. Every single adaptation of Cinderella that I’ve seen has been something different. Even knowing the outcome doesn’t diminish how enjoyable each of them are. The same is true for this film, with its dry humor and cheeky songs. In true fairy tale fashion, the photography is dreamy and gauzy like, with wide shots of breathtaking scenery and architecture.