Out of the Past

It’s interesting to note that my two favorite film noirs of the 1940s — Double Indemnity (1944) and Out of the Past (1947) — also have the two best femme fatales (Barbara Stanwyck and Jane Greer). Which one is the deadliest? If both were in the room, I would say keep your eye out for Greer. She’s much better at convincing those around her that she couldn’t possibly be doing what you think she is doing.

In Out of the Past, Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) describes Kathie Moffat (Greer) as “a bit cold around the heart.” Jeff knows he is being conned, and that he is going to have to pay big time for it, but he can’t help himself (just like Walter Neff in Double Indemnity).

This was Mitchum’s first starring role, and he wasn’t the first choice. Both John Garfield and Dick Powell turned down the part. This is arguably Mitchum’s best role and a perfect launching pad for his career. Kirk Douglas plays Whit Sterling, who sends Jeff to look for Kathie, his mistress. Daniel Mainwaring (using the pen name Geoffrey Homes) wrote the screenplay based on his novel, Build My Gallows High.

Director Jacques Tourneur expertly guides the viewer through the various plot twists and double dealings. Tourneur is best known for his previous collaboration with Val Lewton on the atmospheric horror films Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), though Out of the Past is probably his finest film. He came by his talent naturally. His father was Maurice Tourneur, a well-respected Hollywood silent film director.

Here’s a trivia question for you. When the film was remade in 1984 as Against All Odds, what part did Jane Greer play? She was cast as the mother of her original character.

Out of the Past
(1947; directed by Jacques Tourneur; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Warner Archive Collection
List Price: $21.99 (Blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95 (DVD)

Wednesday, December 9 at 8:30 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

North By Northwest

Roger Thornhill should have known he was in trouble when he walked through the lobby, and the hotel’s music system played “It’s a Most Unusual Day.” Of rather, we should have known. He may not know it, but we do — he lives inside a Hitchcock film, so we can expect a healthy dose of sly humor and calculated thrills. If you’ve never seen it, don’t miss this one. I would pick North by Northwest (1959) as the third best Hitchcock film (after Vertigo and Psycho).

As an advertising executive, Thornhill (Cary Grant) deals in public perceptions and appearances. His job is to make real life seem more than it really is. It’s a fitting profession for someone who is less than he seems. Thornhill is bored with life and his predictable role in it. That’s about to change when he becomes entangled in a case of mistaken identity. He will be steadily stripped of his identity and forced to assume the role of another man. Along the way, he’ll encounter a mysterious woman (Eva Marie Saint), a suave-but-sinister villain (James Mason), and a larger-than-life monument (Mount Rushmore). And once again, we have a terrific musical score from Bernard Herrmann.

The most famous part of the movie is the stark sequence in which Cary Grant is chased by a crop duster. In a 1962 interview with Françoise Truffaut, Hitchcock explained how he got the idea:

I found I was faced with the old cliché situation: the man who is put on the spot, probably to be shot. Now, how is this usually done? A dark night at a narrow intersection of the city. The waiting victim standing in a pool of light under the street lamp. The cobbles are ‘washed with the recent rains.’ A close-up of a black cat slinking along against the wall of a house. A shot of a window, with a furtive face pulling back the curtain to look out. The slow approach of a black limousine, et cetera, et cetera. Now, what was the antithesis of a scene like this? No darkness, no pool of light, no mysterious figures in windows. Just nothing. Just bright sunshine and a blank, open countryside with barely a house or tree in which any lurking menaces could hide.

Here’s an interesting bit of trivia. Jessie Royce Landis, who portrays Grant’s mother in the film, was either 10 months younger or seven years older than Grant (she may have lied about her age).

North by Northwest
(1959; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $34.99 (Blu-ray), $19.95 (DVD)

Wednesday, December 9 at 12:15 a.m. eastern (late Tue. night) on Turner Classic Movies
Tuesday, December 22 at 5:30 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

They Were Expendable

John Ford always seemed to pull for the little guy. And if he wasn’t pulling for the little guy, he was pulling for individuals who take setbacks with a stoic sense of honor and common decency, as well as a sense of humor and self-deprecation. The heroism and unselfishness of Dr. Mudd despite being wrongly accused in The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), the sailors’ good will and comradeship despite their hard lives in The Long Voyage Home (1940), the optimism and practical wisdom of Mayor Skeffington despite the darkening political landscape in The Last Hurrah (1958), the gallantry and idealism of the confederate army despite their inevitable defeat in The Horse Soldiers (1959), and the dignity and patience of the Indians despite their gross mistreatment in Cheyenne Autumn (1964) — Ford often views human nature through the prism of the noble failure.

In a 1955 interview, writer Jean Mitry asked Ford if he deliberately chose stories that thrust a small group of people by chance into dramatic or tragic circumstances. Ford replied:

On purpose? It seems so to me. It enables me to make individuals aware of each other by bringing them face to face with something bigger than themselves. The situation, the tragic moment, forces men to reveal themselves, and to become aware of what they truly are. The device allows me to find the exceptional in the commonplace. I also like to find the humor in the midst of tragedy, for tragedy is never wholly tragic.

Another example of honor in defeat is Ford’s They Were Expendable (1945). It’s based on the true story of John Bulkeley, who helped develop the PT boat for naval combat in World War II. The backdrop is the attack on Pearl Harbor and the bravery of the American forces in what was their worst military defeat up until that time. Robert Montgomery plays Lt. John Brickley (changed from “Bulkeley” for the film), John Wayne plays Lt. Rusty Ryan (Brickley’s friend), and Donna Reed plays Lt. Sandy Davis (the love interest). As in all of Ford’s films, the characters are never lost in the sweep of history. The characterizations are strengthened through the accumulation of personal details — a subtle gesture, a casual look, or an act of kindness that forges a bond between two characters.

They Were Expendable is one of my favorite World War II films. Another is Air Force (1943), directed by Howard Hawks. Apart from having a similar plot (the attempt to recover militarily after an initial defeat in the Pacific), both films are top-notch character studies. They’re also seeped in the feel-good (even propagandistic) wartime ethos that urges us to set aside our differences and join together to overcome a common enemy.

Here’s an interesting bit of trivia. Ward Bond was injured in an automobile accident just before production began on this film. To explain the crutches Bond needed to move around, Ford added a scene in which Bond’s character is wounded.

They Were Expendable
(1945; directed by John Ford; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Monday, December 7 at 11:45 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

David Copperfield

The novels of Charles Dickens should be ripe for film adaptation. The plucky heroes, sentimental plots, and rich background characters would be instantly recognizable if translated to the screen properly. That’s the problem. What film could possibly live up to the novels, which often run a thousand pages or more? (Dickens was usually paid according to the number of words published.)

After decades of mixed results, three film adaptations stand out from the rest: David Copperfield (1935; directed by George Cukor), Great Expectations (1946; directed by David Lean), and Oliver Twist (1948; directed by David Lean). While the two Lean films stress the darker side of Dickens, the Cukor effort is pure Hollywood — in the good sense of the phrase. It’s impossible now to re-read the novel without imagining Edna May Oliver as the irrepressible Betsey Trotwood, Roland Young as the slimy Uriah Heep, Lennox Pawle as the off-in-a-cloud Mr. Dick, and Freddie Bartholomew as the stalwart young David Copperfield.

Most inspired of all was the casting of W.C. Fields as Mr. Micawber. Cukor recounts his impression of Fields to interviewer Gavin Lambert:

He was charming to work with, his suggestions and adlibs were always in character. There was a scene in which he had to sit at a desk writing, and he asked me if he could have a cup of tea on the desk. When he got agitated, he dipped his pen into the teacup instead of the inkwell. Another time he was sitting on a high stool and asked for a wastepaper basket so he could get his feet stuck in it. Physically he wasn’t quite right, wasn’t bald as Dickens describes Micawber — but his spirit was perfect.

Some critics have complained that Cukor’s David Copperfield is less than the sum of its parts — that the film doesn’t rise above its carefully conceived set pieces and vignettes. I disagree. While the film loses some momentum once the main character becomes a man (Frank Lawton was less than optimally cast as the adult David), that’s equally true of the novel and other film or television adaptations of the book. Dickens was better at portraying childhood hopes and fears than the mature aspirations of those same children as adults.

David Copperfield
(1935; directed by George Cukor; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.98

Wednesday, December 2 at 7:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Sunday, December 13 at 6:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Thing

Just who was responsible for The Thing from Another World (1951)? If you look at the credits, you can see it was directed by Christian Nyby. But if you ask any Howard Hawks fan, you’ll probably be told it’s pure Hawks. The promotional materials of the time have Hawks’ name in big letters above the title and Nyby’s name below in small print. This ambiguity poses a problem for anyone compiling a Hawks filmography. Some writers include The Thing along with the films Hawks directed, while others — playing it safe — leave it out.

In a discussion with the audience at the 1970 Chicago Film Festival, Hawks was asked if he had directed parts of The Thing. This was his response:

Christian Nyby was my cutter, one of the finest cutters in the business, and I thought he deserved a chance to direct. After he directed a few days, he said, ‘Look, it’s an awful lot different cutting a film somebody gives you and making a film to cut. Will you come down and give me some help?’ I helped him some, but I didn’t come in and direct part of it. I just would say, ‘I think you’re attacking this scene wrong.’

Why are we so sure this is a Hawks film? After all, he didn’t direct or produce any other science fiction films. For Hawks, one-of-a-kind projects were not unusual. Gentleman Prefer Blondes was his only musical, and Scarface was his only gangster film. Hawks liked to work in a wide range of genres, yet his films are remarkably similar in theme and structure. In this case, the isolated group is a collection of military men and scientists stationed in the Arctic region. The external threat is an alien. And the Hawksian woman, who can hold her own with the men without losing her femininity, is a secretary to one of the scientists. There’s also the usual camaraderie, group banter, and overlapping dialogue that make a Hawks film so enjoyable.

While it may be a minor Hawks film, The Thing is one of the better science fiction films of the 1950s. Like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Forbidden Planet (1956), and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), it deals with larger issues than whether we can survive an alien invasion. Each of these films also explores what it means to be a human being.

The Thing from Another World
(1951; directed by Christian Nyby; produced by Howard Hawks; cable & dvd)
Turner Home Entertainment
List Price: $19.95

Saturday, November 28 at 6:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Bringing Up Baby

I had a difficult time compiling my Top 20 Screwball Comedies list. The biggest challenge was where to put Bringing Up Baby (1938). In the end, I gave it the number two spot, right behind Duck Soup (1933). Andrew Sarris referred to Bringing Up Baby as the screwiest of the screwball comedies. In an article titled “The World of Howard Hawks,” which appeared in the July and August 1963 issue of Films and Filming, Sarris wrote:

Even Hawks has never equaled the rocketing pace of this demented farce in which Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn made Barrymore and Lombard in Twentieth Century seem as feverish as Victoria and Albert. The film passes beyond the customary lunacy of the period into a bestial Walpurgisnacht during which man, dog, and leopard pursue each other over the Connecticut countryside until the behavior patterns of men and animals become indistinguishable.

Sometimes it can be instructive to analyze the structure of a comedy, and this one is ripe for that kind of analysis. The world of Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant) is dead or dying — dinosaurs, fossils, and museums. Huxley is almost as lifeless. He has no sense that life could be more than it already is. The world of Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) is just the opposite. It’s full of possibilities. In her world, the animals are very much alive. Her life is unpredictable because she’s willing to fail. And wouldn’t you know it, she fails a lot. This isn’t just an unlikely couple. This is a clash of world views. Neither world is complete unto itself, hence the need for a happy ending to merge the best qualities of both.

In the end — no matter the structure — either the dialogue, gags, and characters are funny, or they aren’t. Bringing Up Baby excels in all three. Hawks had a gift for drawing relaxed, seemingly improvised performances from his actors, especially in the comedies. Everything feels effortless and natural, even though almost all of it was carefully planned. Along with the fast pacing, there’s a rhythm to the dialogue that’s both realistic and engaging. Here’s an example:

Susan: You mean you want me to go home?
David: Yes.
Susan: You mean you don’t want me to help you any more?
David: No.
Susan: After all the fun we’ve had?
David: Yes.
Susan: And after all the things I’ve done for you?
David: That’s what I mean.

The two-disc special edition DVD of Bringing Up Baby features a digitally remastered print, as well as a commentary by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, whose comedy What’s Up, Doc? (1972) was inspired by the film. The second disc includes The Men Who Made the Movies: Howard Hawks (1973), a first-rate documentary from Richard Schickel that mixes relevant clips from Hawks’ films with an extended interview with the director.

Bringing Up Baby
(1938; directed by Howard Hawks; cable & dvd)
Turner Home Entertainment
List Price: $26.95

Friday, November 27 at 8:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Thin Man

The Thin Man (1934) is the first of six comic detective films featuring William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles. There have been many recurring romantic pairings over the years (Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, for example), though this may be the most successful pairing involving the same set of characters.

In this first film, the Thin Man is a murder suspect, not the hero, which is why the second film was titled After the Thin Man (1936). By the third film, the distinction was lost, and the name became associated with Nick Charles. A similar misunderstanding occurred with the Frankenstein movies. Frankenstein was the scientist, not the scientist’s creation. The public had associated the name with the monster, and Hollywood wasn’t about to argue the point.

The Thin Man series benefits from dialogue and situations that showcase the urbane talents of Powell and Loy. Unfortunately, the later scripts aren’t nearly as rewarding. Though they’re still worth watching, the quality dropped after the second film.

Here are examples of dialogue from the first film that illustrate the couple’s offbeat relationship:

Nora: Waiter, will you serve the nuts? I mean, will you serve the guests the nuts?

Nick: How’d you like Grant’s tomb?
Nora: It’s lovely. I’m having a copy made for you.

Nora: Pretty girl.
Nick: Yes. She’s a very nice type.
Nora: You got types?
Nick: Only you, darling. Lanky brunettes with wicked jaws.

Nick: Oh, it’s alright, Joe. It’s alright. It’s my dog. And, uh, my wife.
Nora: Well you might have mentioned me first on the billing.

Canine star Asta is another reason for the popular success of the series. The same dog (real name Skippy) played prominent roles in two of the best screwball comedies: as Mr. Smith in The Awful Truth (1937) and George in Bringing Up Baby (1938). Several dogs played the part of Asta over the course of the Thin Man series, which lasted until 1947. Whether they were Skippy’s offspring or Skippy look-alikes is still unknown.

The Thin Man
(1934; directed by W.S. Van Dyke; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95 (also available in The Complete Thin Man Collection for $59.95)

Tuesday, November 10 at 12:30 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Thursday, December 31 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

2001: A Space Odyssey

If the measure of a classic film is its ability to withstand the erosions of time, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) would have to be regarded as the best science fiction film of all time. Though we have moved beyond it chronologically, its predictive value still seems valid.

The decades-old special effects also hold up well. By comparison, George Lukas felt the need to repeatedly update the special effects and storyline in Star Wars (1977), despite the fact it was released nine years later. Science fiction films are especially prone to becoming dated. Both Woman on the Moon (1929) and Things to Come (1936) boldly depict a future that now seems forever bound to a distant past.

One of the reasons 2001 endures is Kubrick’s obsession with getting it right. When there’s an explosion in space, you don’t hear the sound of the explosion. That’s less dramatic, but completely accurate — there’s no air in space to carry the sound. Kubrick and writer Arthur C. Clarke even poke fun at their quest for authenticity. One scene shows the lengthy instructions needed to successfully operate a zero-gravity toilet.

Kubrick did find a technical flaw just before the film was released. It would have been too costly to correct, so the mistake remains. During the flight to the moon, Dr. Floyd drinks food through a straw, in what we understand to be a weightless environment. If you look closely, you can see the food drop when he stops sucking on the straw. Since there’s no gravity, the food shouldn’t be falling back.

Another reason this movie seems contemporary is the remarkably detailed spacecraft and docking facilities. This is the first modern science fiction film in terms of the care and expense devoted to making space travel appear as lifelike as possible. It also didn’t hurt that the movie was shot in 65mm (Super Panavision 70), which provides nearly four times the resolution of a standard 35mm film.

A third contributing factor is the open-ended plot. The conclusion of the film is open to so many different interpretations, you’ll find a variety of websites claiming to “explain 2001.” Even if you accept the most plausible plotline (aliens monitor our technological advances and then help mankind to take the next evolutionary step), there is still a strong element of mystery.

The film combines an obsessive attention to detail with a poetic sense of greater possibilities. That the two can coexist is a testament to Kubrick and Clarke’s creative talents and their willingness to take a great leap of faith in the power of this extraordinary medium.

2001: A Space Odyssey
(1968; directed by Stanley Kubrick; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95 (DVD), $29.99 (Blu-ray)

Tuesday, November 10 at 2:15 a.m. eastern (late Mon. night) on Turner Classic Movies
Saturday, December 26 at 2:15 a.p. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Grand Illusion

What can I say to convince you to see Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937), if you haven’t already seen it? (If you have already seen it, you won’t need convincing). This quote from Orson Welles should do it, “If I had to save only one film in the world it would be Grand Illusion.” On The Dick Cavett Show, Cavett once asked Welles what his favorite films were. Welles answered, “Grand Illusion and something else.” The story goes that large numbers of people tried to track down this other film, they thought was titled Something Else.

Grand Illusion is a truly great film. It’s enriched by Renoir’s sincere compassion for humanity. It has outstanding moments of comedy and tenderness. There’s wartime intrigue and even a hint of romance (not easy for a story that centers around an escape from a prisoner-of-war camp). The title unlocks some of the thematic layers in the film. There’s the illusion the aristocracy will be able to return to their former roles after WWI. There’s also the illusion that the equalities of war will remain completely intact after the war. Renoir embraced the democratic movement that swept away the autocracy, but at the same time, he was nostalgic for the manners, decorum, and traditions that would be lost. Renoir’s best films view human behavior as complex and even contradictory. Employing improvisation even in a tightly structured film such as this one, he strived for a realism that still felt natural and spontaneous.

This film is also notable for its appearance by silent film director Erich von Stroheim, whose realistic style influenced Renoir and motivated him to become a filmmaker. It wasn’t until late in the production schedule that Renoir learned he would be able to cast Stroheim in the part of Captain von Rauffenstein. In his autobiography, titled My Life and My Films, Renoir explained how Stroheim affected both the role and the film:

His part, which at first was a very minor one, had been greatly enlarged because I was afraid that, confronted by the weighty personalities of Gabin and Fresnay, he would look like a lightweight. In art, as in life, it is all a question of balance; and the problem is to keep both sides of the scales level. That is why I took liberties with von Stroheim’s uniform, which was quite out of keeping with my realistic principles at that time. His uniform is authentic, but with a flamboyance quite unsuited to the commander of a POW camp in the First War. I needed this theatrical façade to counterbalance the impressive simplicity of the Frenchmen. There are instances of stylization in La Grande Illusion, despite its strictly realistic appearance, which takes us into the realm of fantasy, and these breaks in illusion I owe largely to Stroheim. I am profoundly grateful to him. I am incapable of doing good work unless it contains an element of the fairy-tale.

Ultimately, what makes Grand Illusion a powerful film is its optimistic message that differences can be bridged through goodwill and understanding. It isn’t a pro-war film because it doesn’t glorify war, and it’s not even an anti-war film, though Renoir in 1937 paradoxically declared himself to be both a pacifist and strongly opposed to Hitler’s aggression (a paradox he addressed in one of his first Hollywood films, This Land Is Mine). For Renoir, war is simply the ideal theatrical stage to show how men can overcome their differences in class, language, race, education, and politics.

Grand Illusion
(1937; directed by Jean Renoir; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (out-of-print DVD)
Lions Gate
List Price: $29.99 (Blu-ray)

Thursday, November 5 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Singin' in the Rain

Is there anyone into classic films who doesn’t like Singin’ in the Rain (1952)? Given that 19-year-old Debbie Reynolds had never danced before, and the script had to be written around a group of songs with little in common, it’s a wonder (and a tribute to those involved) that this would turn out to be the greatest Hollywood musical.

Reynolds received six months of intensive dance training before the production began. She had already shown her singing ability and plucky appeal in her previous films (most notably in Two Weeks with Love, where she sang “Abba Dabba Honeymoon” with Carleton Carpenter).

Famed creative team Betty Comden and Adolph Green were given the near impossible task of crafting a storyline around a diverse selection of tunes from the 1920s and 1930s. Two songs, “Fit as a Fiddle” and “Moses Supposes,” were new to this production. “Make ‘Em Laugh” was adapted from Cole Porter’s “Be a Clown,” which Gene Kelly performed in The Pirate (1948). The others were part of a catalogue of songs, acquired by MGM, that had been written by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown.

Singin’ in the Rain is filled with references to other films. The story centers around the period from 1927 through 1929 when the industry transitioned from silent films to “talkies.” There are allusions to particular films from that period. For example, the fictional film the characters are producing (titled The Dueling Cavalier) is based on an actual film, titled The Cavalier (1928). Like its fictional counterpart, it began as a silent film but was hastily transformed into a sound film, largely through the addition of poorly dubbed musical numbers. And in the Hollywood premiere sequence, the character Zelda Zanders, known as the “Zip Girl,” is meant to evoke the real-life Clara Bow, known as the “It Girl.”

Just as they borrowed songs and plot devices from earlier movies, co-directors Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly scavenged the back lot for suitable props from previous MGM movies. Debbie Reynolds’ car is Andy’s old jalopy from the Andy Hardy series. And the mansion where Gene Kelly lives is decorated with furniture and fixtures from Flesh and the Devil (1926).

The movie references extend to the musical numbers and film-within-a-film scenes. The “Gotta Dance” number echoes previous MGM musicals, including Words and Music (1948), The Pirate, Summer Stock (1950), and An American in Paris (1951). Gene Kelly’s musketeer movie at the beginning of the story recalls his earlier film, The Three Musketeers. And when Kelly brings Reynolds onto an empty sound stage and turns on the lights, it mimics his earlier film, Summer Stock.

While the movie references are fun for film buffs, the real joy comes from the memorable songs, exuberant dance numbers, and snappy dialogue. If you haven’t seen it, you’ll be amazed to find how good a movie musical can be. Even if you don’t like movie musicals, you’ll probably like this one. Nothing else comes close.

Singin’ in the Rain
(1952; directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.98 (Blu-ray), $19.95 (DVD)

Thursday, November 5 at 6:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Friday, November 20 at 10:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Duck Soup

Marx Brothers fans usually fall into two camps: those who think Duck Soup (1933) is their best film, and those who think A Night at the Opera (1935) is their best film. The strongest argument in favor of A Night at the Opera is the stateroom scene. It’s the funniest sequence the Marx Brothers ever created. I’m in the Duck Soup camp. I think the slow portions of A Night at the Opera tend to drag it down a bit. And while no single sequence in Duck Soup quite matches the stateroom scene, it’s more consistently entertaining.

Much of the credit has to go to Duck Soup’s writers. Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby worked together on the story, and Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin provided additional dialogue. It also didn’t hurt to have Groucho (Rufus T. Firefly), Chico (Chicolini), and Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Teasdale) to deliver the lines. Here are some examples:

Rufus T. Firefly: Not that I care, but where is your husband?
Mrs. Teasdale: Why, he’s dead.
Rufus T. Firefly: I bet he’s just using that as an excuse.
Mrs. Teasdale: I was with him to the very end.
Rufus T. Firefly: No wonder he passed away.
Mrs. Teasdale: I held him in my arms and kissed him.
Rufus T. Firefly: Oh, I see, then it was murder. Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first.

Mrs. Teasdale: Notables from every country are gathered here in your honor. This is a gala day for you.
Rufus T. Firefly: Well, a gal a day is enough for me. I don’t think I could handle any more.

Rufus T. Firefly: Now, what is it that has four pairs of pants, lives in Philadelphia, and it never rains but it pours?
Chicolini: Atsa good one. I give you three guesses.
Rufus T. Firefly: Now let me see. Has four pair of pants, lives in Philadelphia… Is it male or female?
Chicolini: No, I no think so.
Rufus T. Firefly: Is he dead?
Chicolini: Who?
Rufus T. Firefly: I don’t know. I give up.
Chicolini: I give up, too.

Prosecutor: Chicolini, when were you born?
Chicolini: I don’t-a remember. I was just a little baby.

Prosecutor: Something must be done! War would mean a prohibitive increase in our taxes.
Chicolini: Hey, I got an uncle lives in Taxes.
Prosecutor: No, I’m talking about taxes — money, dollars!
Chicolini: Dollars! There’s-a where my uncle lives! Dollars, Taxes!

Duck Soup benefits by having a first-class director at the helm. Leo McCarey had directed many of the best Laurel and Hardy silent comedies. His previous sound comedies, especially Let’s Go Native (1930) and The Kid from Spain (1932), show an inventive and improvisational style that would blend well with the Marx Brothers. Unfortunately, Duck Soup was a flop at the box office. As a result, it was their last film at Paramount. MGM gave them another chance, though their freewheeling approach would prove to be at odds with the MGM factory system. Their comedies following A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races are pale imitations of their earlier classic films.

Duck Soup
(1933; directed by Leo McCarey; cable & dvd)
Universal Studios
List price: $19.98

Monday, November 2 at 11:30 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Thursday, December 31 at 6:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies


Seventy-four years after its release, how do we sort out the merits of a movie like Camille (1936)? Strictly in terms of Garbo’s performance, it may be her finest sound film. Yet with all her films (with the exception of Lubitsch’s atypical Ninotchka), there was always something that kept the whole from being better than the sum of the parts. In this case, the flaw is Robert Taylor. Granted, the part calls for an actor who can appear young and inexperienced, but that doesn’t mean the part should actually be played by a young and inexperienced actor.

George Cukor, who Clark Gable is supposed to have ejected from Gone with the Wind (1939) because he was a “woman’s director,” was the ideal choice from the stable of MGM directors. His previous adaptations of Little Women (1933) and David Copperfield (1935) show a remarkable talent for transforming classic novels into flesh-and-blood movies with enough warmth and intelligence to balance out the overt sentimentality.

What makes Camille fascinating isn’t Cukor’s transformational directing style but Garbo’s transformational persona. Back in the 1970s, TV-host Dick Cavett would often ask his guests who knew Garbo in her prime, whether the magic was there when you encountered her in person. The answer was just as elusive as Garbo’s personality. Some said you did see the magic; others said it was reserved exclusively for the silver screen.

There is no other actor or actress who rises above the craft in the same way that Garbo does. She appears not to be acting, but simply to be truly alive. If you’ve never seen a Garbo film, this all may sound rather strange, but she was able to achieve something — whatever you might to call it — that actors and actresses are continually striving for. She was unable to sustain it for long, similar to how a jazz musician or athlete might be in the zone for a fleeting second or two. Camille has more than its share of these kinds of moments and is well worth watching just to see Garbo sparkle and shine.

(1936; directed by George Cukor; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Sunday, November 1 at 6:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies


One of the more unusual Hollywood studio films from the 1930s is Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). It’s often dismissed as an exploitation film or a cheap attempt at sensationalism. In fact, it’s neither. Browning, best known for having directed Dracula the year before, had run away to join the circus when he was 16 years old. He worked as a talker (popularly, though incorrectly, known as a circus “barker”). He also worked as “The Living Corpse” and performed as a clown with Ringling Brothers.

Browning chose real-life circus freaks for many of the roles in the film, not so much to exploit or sensationalize their presence, but to portray them as he had experienced them — as ordinary people with mostly ordinary lives. By contrast, the other characters in the film are portrayed as greedy, arrogant, and intolerant. They’re the real freaks. From this point of view, Freaks is the opposite of an exploitation film. Andrew Sarris has argued it’s “one of the most compassionate films ever made.”

As entertainment, Freaks has its ups and downs. The circus freaks aren’t always convincing. They’re amateur actors, after all. Unfortunately, some of the professional actors aren’t much better. Former silent star Olga Baclanova has a heavy Russian accent that tends to get in the way.

On the plus side is Browning’s skill in weaving suspense and horror elements into the narrative. He does this without undercutting his central thesis that the freaks are better adjusted and more tightly bonded in friendship than the outsiders. As a former circus talker, Browning knows audiences want to stare at the freaks, even as they want to turn away in disgust. He uses these contradictory emotions to build to an exciting finish. A scene where the freaks sincerely accept an outsider as “one of us” evokes similar mixed emotions, both for the character in the film and vicariously for the audience.

This film isn’t for everyone. If you can move beyond the sub-par acting and shock-horror overlay, you’ll find a serious exploration of what it means to be a kind and generous person, no matter which cards life has dealt for you.

(1932; directed by Tod Browning; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Thursday, October 29 at 7:45 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Monday, January 25 at 2:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Third Man

We talk about the great directors, yet it’s always a group effort. It takes a strong director to steer the many divergent elements in the same direction. When the process works, all the elements fit together so the result is equal to more than the sum of the parts. The Third Man (1949) is a film where everything meshes — the script, acting, camera placement, lighting, music. It’s probably the best British film made after World War II, as well as the best film noir made in Europe.

Because each of the elements is so exceptional, director Carol Reed is rarely given the credit that’s due. He pushed to have the zither music in the movie. He also argued for the final shot being held much longer than writer Graham Greene or producer David O. Selznick thought appropriate. Selznick wanted to use studio interiors for the production, but Reed preferred the actual war-torn streets of Vienna as a backdrop. The camera and lighting compositions with their odd angles and surreal effects contribute significantly to the atmosphere of the story. The overall look combines the moody darkness of a film noir with the starkness of a you-are-there documentary.

Graham Greene’s script was developed specifically for this project. He also wrote it as a short story, but only to work out the ideas. In his book Ways of Escape, Greene explained, “The reader will notice many differences between the story and the film, and he should not imagine these changes were forced on an unwilling author: as likely as not they were suggested by the author. The film in fact is better than the story because it is in this case the finished state of the story.”

As good as Greene’s script is, the most famous lines from the film were written by Orson Welles. Onscreen for a comparatively short time, Welles’ performance as Harry Lime stands out as one of his best roles. Here are two nuggets from Welles’ self-penned dialogue, where Lime explains to Rollo Martins (played by Joseph Cotten) that it’s a dog-eat-dog world:

Martins: Have you ever seen any of your victims?
Lime: You know, I never feel comfortable on these sort of things. Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax — the only way you can save money nowadays.

Lime: Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love — they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

Avoid the poor quality prints that were struck when the film temporarily lapsed into the public domain. The discs from Criterion and Lions Gate are the best way to see it — other than in a movie theater, of course. I haven’t seen the print that TCM shows occasionally, though that network is usually conscientious in trying to obtain the best available print.

The Third Man
(1949; directed by Carol Reed; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray, out of print), $39.95 (DVD, out of print)
Lions Gate — StudioCanal Collection
List Price: $39.99 (Blu-ray)

Tuesday, October 27 at 4:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Next Page »