Since August was TCM’s annual Summer Under the Stars festival, that’s what occupied my time for the month. Though I missed out on quite a few stars, I still managed to watch 55 films. There’s so much variety and it’s a chance to become familiar with big and obscure names. It was wonderful to rediscover some old favorites and fall in love with new ones.
I narrowed my final list of favorites down to ten. Honorable mentions: Lucille Ball, Hedy Lamarr, Angie Dickinson, Robert Montgomery, and Jean Arthur.
Karl Malden – Day 5
- Baby Doll (1956)
- Gypsy (1962)
I’ve always appreciated how reliable Karl Malden was. I used to really love him and Summer Under the Stars reminded me why. He was noted for his versatility, and even though I was only able to catch two of his films, they offered a glimpse of his incredible range.
Baby Doll (1956) directed by Elia Kazan
This film was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency upon its release and responsible for scandalizing secular film critics. Hindsight makes me view this film in an entirely different light. The single erotic scene is actually subdued and much of the film isn’t as salacious as that condemned rating would have you believe. Karl Malden plays down-on-his-luck cotton gin owner Archie Lee, who’s married to a 19 year old girl named Baby Doll (Carroll Baker). They haven’t consummated the marriage yet, mostly because he repulses her. And Archie is repulsive but the Malden Touch keeps him humane. I felt torn between disgust and reluctant sympathy watching him.
Gypsy (1962) directed by Mervyn LeRoy
A biopic of burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee (Natalie Wood), adapted from her memoir and a stage show. Her exuberant and domineering stage mother Rose (Rosalind Russell) fights tooth and nail to make somebodies out of both her daughters, the youngest more talented than Gypsy. Herbie Sommers (Malden) is Rose’s business partner, a kind and generous man who wants to marry her. When Karl Malden is sweet, he’s really sweet.
Jean Harlow – Day 7
- Red Dust (1932)
- Wife vs Secretary (1936)
- Personal Property (1937)
Jean Harlow played vixens much of the time, but she was a skilled comedienne as well. She exuded both vulnerability and toughness almost effortlessly. Her characters are approachable women who just seem intimidating at first. And no matter how small she may have looked, she could easily hold her own in a fight.
Red Dust (1932) directed by Victor Fleming
One of the most famous pre codes ever, and I fully understand the hype. But as undeniable as the chemistry is between Jean Harlow and Clark Gable, I found myself drawn more to her sense of humor and toughness. Vantine is a prostitute with a heart of gold and wisecrack at the ready, and the film belongs to her.
Wife vs Secretary (1936) directed by Clarence Brown
The wife is Linda (Myrna Loy), happily married to Van Stanhope (Clark Gable). Whitey (Jean Harlow) is the “uncommonly attractive” secretary that Van has no interest in. They just have a great working relationship, which raises eyebrows and whispers. I love Jean in this because she’s not a vixen. She traded in her image as the sexy vamp to play an ordinary, ambitious working girl. It wasn’t the first time, she’s very funny and down to earth in other films, but here she’s a lot more sensitive.
Esther Williams – Day 8
- Thrill of a Romance (1945)
- The Hoodlum Saint (1946)
- Neptune’s Daughter (1949)
- Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949)
- Pagan Love Song (1950)
- Easy to Love (1953)
Despite her elaborate, stunning water ballets and gorgeous face, I was always left a little underwhelmed by Esther Williams. I didn’t really understand it. She was a mermaid! I love mermaids. But thanks to SUTS, I realized that life is too short to be indifferent to Esther Williams. She was an Olympic hopeful who became a movie star with swimming pools constructed solely for her films. Later in life she created her very own line of bathing suits. Bow down to the aquatic queen!
Thrill of a Romance (1945) directed by Richard Thorpe
Esther Williams’ films were primarily colorful escapism and I love them. There are no extravagant swimming routines in this one, but it’s a sweet little film with her frequent co-star, Van Johnson. She plays a swimming instructor named Cynthia, who marries wealthy businessman Robert after a brief courtship. Red flags are raised when he leaves her alone on their honeymoon to attend to business. Soon she meets Major Thomas Milvaine (Johnson), and regrets her marriage. It’s obvious she and Thomas belong together, and Robert getting out of the way can’t come soon enough. It’s also obvious why she and Van Johnson were paired together so often. Their movie formulas work, and they’re always lovely even if predictable. This one is my favorite.
Janet Gaynor – Day 12
- Street Angel (1928)
- Lucky Star (1929)
- State Fair (1931)
- Small Town Girl (1936)
- A Star is Born (1937)
- Three Loves Has Nancy (1938)
Cherubic faced Janet Gaynor captivated me earlier this year in The Young in Heart (1938). It was only the second film of hers that I’ve seen, the first being Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927). I was so excited to see more of her films and she’s become an instant favorite. There was something so natural and unaffected about her.
Lucky Star (1929) directed by Frank Borzage
The story of a WWI veteran, Timothy Osborn (Charles Farrell) who returns home in a wheelchair and resumes his friendship with a scrappy farm girl, Mary Tucker (Janet Gaynor). This is one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. It’s achingly stirring, depicting the gradual love between these two; from platonic to romantic. Timothy takes care of Mary. (He even washes her hair with eggs!) Her mother forbids the friendship because he’s disabled and she wants Mary to wed a jerk. I was deeply moved by Lucky Star, and I want it imprinted on my brain forever.
Three Loves Has Nancy (1938) directed by Richard Thorpe
Seeing Janet Gaynor in some tearjerkers made me pleasantly surprised when I watched this screwball comedy. With her thick Southern accent and scatterbrained tendencies, she was such a delight! To me, the film also takes jabs at sophisticated city types (Robert Montgomery). As a “simple” girl from the rural south, Nancy bewilders everyone she meets.
Cyd Charisse – Day 14
- Tension (1949)
- Brigadoon (1954)
- Party Girl (1958)
- Two Weeks in Another Town (1962)
Beautiful dynamite! Thankfully I’d already seen a handful of the films TCM aired on her day, but there were others I’d been meaning to seek out. I think she was really great in her non-dancing roles and I’m fairly impressed with what some see as “limited” acting ability. To me, Cyd worked well with what she had. Her performances might not have been Oscar worthy or exceptional by some standards, but I love her in everything.
Brigadoon (1954) directed by Vincente Minnelli
It would be easy to focus on Van Johnson, as he was my favorite in Brigadoon, playing an arrogant cynic exceptionally well. But that would deprive me of the chance to talk about Cyd’s sigh inducing Scottish accent. If you found yourself in an enchanted village that only materialized once every 100 years, Cyd Charisse is exactly the kind of girl you’d find there. She’s Fiona, a dreamy girl who falls in love with American tourist Tommy (Gene Kelly). It’s their balletic dances juxtaposed against the picturesque scenery that make this musical such an exquisite and ethereal movie watching experience.
Roddy McDowall – Day 15
- How Green Was My Valley (1941)
- Holiday in Mexico (1946)
- Lord Love a Duck (1966)
When I spent the day with Roddy McDowall, I got to see him in the three stages of his career: child, teenager, and adult. And each film was so drastically different from the other, not only genre wise, but in terms of style too. I just think he was ridiculously talented.
How Green Was My Valley (1941) directed by John Ford
A singularly elegiac film about a Welsh mining family as they adjust to social upheaval. The changing times are witnessed through the eyes of youngest son Huw (McDowall), who narrates the film as an older man leaving his village. Roddy McDowall’s performance is one of the film’s glorious high points. He was so young, but with a keen awareness. He was able to communicate sorrow in the most profound yet understated way.
James Edwards – Day 17
- The Member of the Wedding (1952)
- The Joe Louis Story (1953)
- The Phenix City Story (1955)
- Men in War (1957)
- Pork Chop Hill (1959)
- The Sandpiper (1965)
James Edwards was tremendous. And he never had a starring role in any of his films. He had my full attention even though the majority of his roles were confined to the background. Edwards isn’t compelling simply because he was one of the first successful black actors to break new ground for everyone else who followed. His opportunities were restricted but he wasn’t restricted from delivering memorable and sometimes intense performances. What I’ve seen in his brief film appearances is refreshingly free of stereotypes too.
The Member of the Wedding (1952) directed by Fred Zinnemann
A painful coming of age story that centers on twelve year old Frankie (Julie Harris), a tomboy on the fringes of popularity, who insists she’s getting out of her sleepy town by joining her brother and his new wife on their honeymoon. Berenice (Ethel Waters) is Frankie’s housekeeper, and her weary voice of reason. Frankie refuses to believe that she can’t leave with her brother. Although Julie Harris was twenty seven, she is convincing as a twelve year old. Ethel Waters, in what I believe was rare for the time, actually received top billing. Perhaps even rarer was the fact that Berenice had a more absorbing history than Frankie. She recounts her life and marriages, crushed hopes. James Edwards plays her foster brother Honey, who is itching to get away just like Frankie. I was wishing that he had more screen time. You can bet his character arc and journey would have proven to be just as engrossing, if not more so, than Frankie’s.
The Phenix City Story (1955) directed by Phil Karlson
A hard hitting expose of crime and corruption festering in a small town, in which the criminals are aided and abetted by an apathetic police force. James Edwards has a more crucial role in this, even if he doesn’t have many lines or appearances onscreen. The film is excellent, but the murder of a little black girl fades into the background, which is a little too chillingly relevant nowadays. Her death doesn’t even goad the district attorney into action; it’s the death of a young white boy that finally sets the gears into action. Edwards is able to shine during a significant scene in the film’s final act.
Humphrey Bogart – Day 20
- San Quentin (1937)
- Dead Reckoning (1947)
- Chain Lightning (1950)
It’s occurred to me that I’ve seen my fair share of Humphrey Bogart films (27), and I’ve also seen more of him this year overall. Although the three films I watched were for his costars (Ann Sheridan, Lizabeth Scott, Eleanor Parker), he’s always great. And something else I loved was seeing him at the start of his career in the 30s, when he usually played criminals, and later when he had become a much more established and respected actor.
Dead Reckoning (1947) directed by John Cromwell
This really had to be the Noirest of all noirs I’ve ever seen, what with the dialogue, brooding images, and sprawling web of people and events. Bogie is in top form as a WWII veteran who tries to uncover why his best friend, Johnny, has balked at receiving a war medal, and subsequently disappeared. He’s eventually led to his buddy’s former flame, Coral Chandler (Lizabeth Scott) who may or not be responsible for Johnny’s death.
Bette Davis – Day 21
- Housewife (1934)
- The Little Foxes (1941)
I’ve also seen my fair share of Bette Davis films this year. She’s someone I’ve always admired from a distance. I do find her intimidating, but watching more of her films has made me appreciate her in a new light. There’s the fact that she commanded the screen no matter the genre or her role, and that she was such a dedicated professional and one of those women who made life difficult for men simply because she didn’t kowtow to any of them.
The Little Foxes (1941) directed by William Wyler
This tale of greed in Southern aristocratic family the Giddens is directed with William Wyler’s usual impeccable flair. Although Bette Davis gives a towering performance, she doesn’t overshadow the rest of the cast, which includes Teresa Wright in a superb film debut, Herbert Marshall, Richard Carlson, and Dan Duryea. Regina Hubbard Giddens (Davis) is ruthless, a terrible person but a fascinating character. Bette Davis insisted on her makeup which made her look older. Wyler hated it, claiming that her face took on a mask like quality. It did, but that’s the essence of Regina as such a formidable character. Bette knew exactly what she was doing.
Van Johnson – Day 25
- Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)
- High Barbaree (1947)
- The Romance of Rosy Ridge (1947)
- The Bride Goes Wild (1948)
- Battleground (1949)
- Scene of the Crime (1949)
- Invitation (1952)
- Miracle in the Rain (1956)
Van Johnson was, quite possibly, the most underestimated actor of his time. As of right now, I’ve watched 19 of his films this year alone. They were all first time viewings for me. I’ve fallen deliriously in love with him. The reason I love Van as an actor is because he was able to play such an interesting assortment of characters in every genre. I’ve seen him in light comedies and musicals, crime drama, war films, and melodramas. Van was the quintessential boy next door, but that image belied serious talent.
Scene of the Crime (1949)
I chose this film because it was such a departure for Van, in which he plays a hardboiled detective. This is a gritty noir that doesn’t scale back on the violence. This is Van Johnson with an edge; he’s tougher and gloomier. I still love him with his sunny disposition, but he was clearly capable of so much more.
Miracle in the Rain (1956) directed by Rudolph Mate
I cried so much watching this film that I got a headache. Two lonely souls meet by chance in New York during a rainfall. She’s a mousy secretary taking care of her emotionally fragile mother, he’s a buoyant soldier on leave. Ruth Wood (Jane Wyman) leads a pretty dull existence, but once she meets Art Hugenon (Van Johnson), her life changes. If my expectations for men and romance were high before (thank you, Classic Hollywood), Art has definitely launched them permanently into outer space. This has to be Van Johnson’s most tender performance. He and Jane Wyman are a terrific team. Miracle in the Rain is so pure, a miraculous melodrama that dares to hope.
Summer has already evaporated even though it’s just the beginning of September. Summer Under the Stars may be over, but TCM assures us that these stars are indeed, ageless.