Well, hell, the month of June is almost halfway over already, but there’s still enough happening wherever Turner Classic Movies shows up on your cable or digital satellite system to take a belated stab at looking at some highlights. For instance, there's a 100th-birthday celebration for Billy Wilder scheduled on June 22 that will definitely be of interest to Wilder scholars as well as more casual fans of the great writer-director. But more on that later. There are plenty of other gems to keep us all occupied until then, and for several days after too.
The rather wonderful network has its “Leading Ladies” programming running Monday nights this month, a 50-film tribute celebrating the likes of Lana Turner, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, Grace Kelly and several others—a tidy little repackaging, in other words, of TCM standards like The Postman Always Rings Twice, Jezebel, Mildred Pierce, Bringing Up Baby and other titles, all well and good, but none too rare in the channel’s rotation. The series is also conveniently tied to a new book entitled Leading Ladies: The 50 Most Unforgettable Actresses of the Studio Era, with a foreword by TCM’s Robert Osborne and an introduction by esteemed critic Molly Haskell.
TCM gets more interesting in June the further traveled off the rails you get. In the unlikely event that the only Charlie Chaplin you’ve been exposed to was courtesy of Sir Richard Attenborough, first of all, tsk-tsk,tsk, and second of all, the channel’s “Silent Sunday Nights” series has the actor-director’s classic The Gold Rush (1925) on tap for this coming Sunday night, June 18. I prefer Chaplin’s sublime City Lights to this one, but The Gold Rush really should be on the list of movies you’ve seen before you die, so use this screening as a chance to get a leg up on the Grim Reaper while laughing, and perhaps even sniffling the evening away. (Yes, this is the one where the Tramp cooks his own boot and eats it.) But there is another silent movie on tap this month that is worth exceptional note. Once a renowned art director for the legendary and massive Ufa Studios, Paul Leni also directed the influential 1924 anthology film Waxworks (Das Wachsfigurenkabinett) under the Ufa umbrella, detailing the crimes of some of history’s most notorious murderers and monsters. Soon after Waxworks was released, Leni came to America under the patronage of Carl Laemmle and Universal Studios and began a short-lived career directing high-profile films for the studio, the first of which, The Cat and the Canary (1927) gets the “Silent Movie Series” spotlight on June 25. Writer Bret Wood, on the TCM Web site, calls The Cat and the Canary “one of the finest examples of what has come to be known as the ‘old dark house’ film, a forerunner to the modern horror movie” and goes on to say:
“In films of this subgenre, a group of people are menaced by one or more shadowy figures within the confines of a gloomy mansion. Unrelenting horror was not fashionable, and the mounting suspense is occasionally spritzed with comic relief, to calm the nerves of the more delicate viewers. As chilling as they often are, the films ultimately bow to convention and negate the supernatural premises that made them so fascinating. In what might be termed the ‘Scooby-Doo Device,’ these silent thrillers almost always revealed -- in the final moments -- that the monstrous stalker is not a supernatural being at all, but a man-made hoax. Tod Browning's London After Midnight (1927) and Roland West's The Bat (1926) are two of the best-known examples.
The supernatural barrier would be broken by Browning's Dracula in 1931. Derived from a stage play (as most "old dark house" films were), Dracula followed the formula of the innocent maiden being menaced by an otherworldly ghoul, but refused to rip the mask off the villain in the final reel. This horror film was revolutionized but, as an unfortunate consequence, the more traditional "old dark house" films were rendered quaint and old-fashioned.”
Leni was, not surprisingly, given his background in art direction and set design, a supremely confident as a director developing his own personal visual style, but he would only direct three more films, including the Conrad Veidt chiller The Man Who Laughs (a title well known to horror fans who grew up reading Famous Monsters of Filmland), before dying of blood poisoning in 1929. His output, however relatively small or truncated by disease, is worthy of more than just the passing familiarity with which most film fans, particular those of the horror genre, have with it. On Sunday, June 25, Turner Classic Movies is giving us all a chance to rectify that vague sense of Leni’s contributions to early cinema history-- The Cat and the Canary is as much of a can’t-miss as anything the channel has offered in months.
For those without access to the stunning Criterion DVD of Jean Renoir’s masterwork The Rules of the Game (1939), Turner Classic Movies offers it on Friday, June 16, at 11:00 p.m. PST as part of their “TCM Imports” series, on a double feature with Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937) which follows at 1:00 a.m. PST. And on successive Friday nights in the same series, June 23 and June 30, you can see Sergei Eisenstein’s dense and ambitious Ivan the Terrible Part 1 and Ivan the Terrible Part 2.
This month’s selection of “Cult Movies” on TCM is about as eclectic a mix as you can get from the Turner programmers. 13-year-old Skippy Homeier recreates his Broadway performance as an Aryan youth introduced to, and bristling against some good old-fashioned American family values in director Leslie Benton’s film version of Tomorrow, the World! (Friday, June 16, 3:00 a.m.), also starring Fredric March and Agnes Moorehead. Abbott and Costello raid the Universal vaults two more times on June 18 with Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951) at 11:00 p.m., followed by Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955) at 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, June 21 you can catch the admittedly unspectacular Howard Hughes production The Las Vegas Story (1952). The film, directed by Robert Stevenson and featuring Victor Mature, Jane Russell and Vincent Price, has some good musical numbers, but is probably more interesting for the history of its production and its role in the history of Hollywood vs. the House Un-American Activities Committee, as described on the TCM Web site by writer John M. Miller, than its value as a piece of storytelling. You can also get up early Saturday morning, June 24 (6:30 a.m. PST), for one of my all-time favorites, Vincent Price in the colorful, campy and unapologetically gory The Abominable Doctor Phibes, in which the titular doctor (of musicology!) invites the plagues of Egypt (which he himself administers) upon the nine surgeons he holds responsible for the death of his wife. Directed by Robert Fuest, a frequent contributor to TV’s The Avengers, this is a top-drawer, droll and delicious British horror comedy which nonetheless cared the shit out of me when I was 11 and still does manage a chill or two mixed in with the black, black comedy. Finally, the month tops off with Humphrey Bogart in a screwball comedy about the movies-- Stand-in (1937), directed by Tay Garnett. This little number is an unknown quantity to me, and one that I don’t want to let slip by. There’s another juicy article, this one by writer Brian Cady, that should fill in the blanks on this fascinating-sounding title. Co-starring Leslie Howard and Joan Blondell, Stand-in shows June 30 at 3:15 a.m. PST.
Finally, two major directors are the focus of the white-hot spotlight this month on Turner Classic Movies. Twenty-two films from director Anthony Mann are spread out over the Tuesday nights of the month. So if you’re depending on me for to be your sole guiding light (a mistake!), that means that just tonight you (and I) missed The Great Flamarion (1945), Desperate (1947), the first of Mann’s celebrated series of film noir classics, Side Street (1950), Sing Your Way Home (1945), He Walked by Night (1948), a crime thriller with a distinct documentary edge that, though officially directed by Alfred Werker, is typically credited by film scholars to Mann, and Frances Langford as The Bamboo Blonde (1946).
But that means there’s still two Tuesdays left in June to soak in the vision of this director, who started out creating some of the bleakest of film noirs, then moved to his most popular incarnation as the director of a series of equally bleak psychological westerns starring the likes of James Stewart, Gary Cooper and Robert Taylor in the 1950s. The latter is featured on June 20 in one of the director’s early westerns, Devil’s Doorway (1950); that same Tuesday TCM offers Mann’s masterpiece Man of the West (1958), just as fundamental and exploratory a look at the Western mythology as its rather sweeping and yet specific title suggests; Glenn Ford and Maria Schell in Cimarron (1960); The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964); and The Black Book (1949).
And on June 27 TCM brings out the big guns, the Anthony Mann/James Stewart collaborations. Personally, I would have traded the broader strokes of The Far Country (1955) for the more precise characterizations and spectacular visuals of Bend of the River, the Anthony Mann masterpiece not on Turner’s bill, for some reason. However, there is the sublime progression of Winchester ‘73 (1950) and the rage of The Naked Spur to distract from that particular (and rather large) void. Not to mention Thunder Bay (1953) and the last Mann/Stewart western (of a sort), 1957’s Night Passage, the directorial reins of which were handed over from Mann to director James Neilson after Mann and Stewart disagreed about the quality of the script (guess which one disliked it). The next two Tuesdays are a virtual film school in powerful, yet unassuming directorial style, courtesy of the films of Anthony Mann and TCM—I hope we can all manage to match as many of these pictures as we can. Most of them are familiar ones in the Turner rotation, but to have them all in a bunch for once, the better for comparing and contrasting and simmering in Mann’s bitter, brutal sensibility, is a rare treat indeed.
Finally, I imagine it’s probably never occurred to anyone to ask, either casually or academically, but what do directors Volker Schlondorff (The Tin Drum) and Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous) have in common? On the surface of it, it wouldn’t appear to be much. But it turns out they both have a vested and close to obsessive interest in and appreciation of the films of Billy Wilder. Several years ago Crowe published his extensive book of interviews with the director, detailing his own stubborn efforts to ingratiate himself to Wilder and gain his confidence as well as their lengthy, fascinating talks. Now director Schlondorff’s documentary, Billy Wilder Speaks, edited down to feature length from a three-part German TV series, is ready to reveal its makers own interests in and obsessions with Wilder’s work. The documentary will bow on Turner Classic Movies on June 22, the day Wilder would have celebrated his 100th birthday, and it should be fascinating to those familiar with Crowe’s book to contrast the approaches of these two radically dissimilar students to the legacy and the presence of the master Wilder. Schlondorff’s documentary is part of a mini-retrospective of Wilder’s films programmed all day on June 22 to celebrate the director’s birthday-- it kicks off the series at 5:00 p.m. PST, and it will show again at 8:00 p.m., immediately after Double Indemnity (1944) a 6:30 p.m. Ray Milland’s Oscar-winning performance in The Lost Weekend (1945) screens at 10:00 p.m., followed by Sabrina (1954) at midnight, A Foreign Affair (1948) at 2:00 a.m., Sunset Boulevard at 4:00 a.m., and a real treat at dawn—the astringently wonderful, weird and rarely seen The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), showing at 6:00 a.m. Friday morning, June 23. Happy birthday, Billy Wilder!