So I’m turning this week to, what for me is, a fool-proof anti-depressant: Turner Classic Movies (link to schedule). *To the best of my knowledge all of the recommended films are also available on DVD.
As I lost myself in the schedule of up-coming films my irritability and depression evaporated so I plan to use the last blog of each month to preview the best of TCM’s up-coming selections. There is such an abundance of great classic films each month that there isn’t enough room to write about them all—and I’ve seen them all, multiple times—really I have! Several are easily worth an annual visit. In choosing the films for each month, I’ve chosen to go with the ones that may not be as well known.
NUMBER ONE PICK FOR APRIL
April 4, 10:00 PM EDT
Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn made four movies together and three of them are classics—Holiday, Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story; I love them all; that said, to my mind, Holiday, the least celebrated of the three, is the finest and one of my half-dozen favorite movies of all time. I discover something new every time I watch it. The film, elegantly directed by George Cukor, is a serious comedy of manners based on a hit Broadway play by Phillip Barry, remains as timely as if it were written this year.
When describing a comedy it might seem peculiar to invoke scripture, but underneath Holiday’s sparkling surface there‘s a serious meditation on Mark 8: 36, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
Hepburn plays Linda Seton, the misfit daughter of a widowed Wall Street tycoon; think of Goldman-Sachs (“The rich we always have with us”); the family is definitely part of the 1%; her ambitious older sister, Julia, is a 1930’s iteration of Ivanka Trump; their alcoholic brother Ned completes the family. Lew Ayres gives a stunning performance as Ned—his response to his sister Linda’s questions about why he drinks and how it feels are as persuasive, heart-breaking and compassionate an account of the rationale of an addict as I know. In one of Hepburn’s most touching moments, she remembers her mother and suggests that she was suffocated by the joyless atmosphere of the house.
Johnny Case, Julia’s new fiancée, (Cary Grant), enters the Seton residence and discovers an airless edifice that is more a mausoleum than a home.
After Julia introduces Linda to Johnny, Linda exclaims: “Life walked into the house this morning.” The remainder of the film is about the battle for that life, as well as Linda’s and Ned’s, as they confront the manipulations and seductions of a soul-sucking philosophy of greed and power that still works its wiles today.
I spoil nothing when I tell you that toward the end of the film, Johnny breaks his engagement with Julia, “I suppose the fact is I love feeling free inside even better than I love you, Julia.” (In this statement, Cary Grant defines the heart and soul (the archetypal essence) of the characters he would play for the next thirty years. Moments later, Linda, free to be with Johnny exclaims, “Stop me, someone. Please try and stop me.” (In this moment Katharine Hepburn, too, defines the heart and soul (the archetypal essence) of the characters she would play for the next fifty years.
In the midst of the dark days of the Great Depression and rising tides of war in Europe, Hepburn and Grant radiantly embody the hope and optimism of the free and the brave even in the most difficult times. I don’t watch and re-watch films for nostalgia’s sake. I watch them because they inspire and renew me. Do not miss this extraordinary film.
April 6, (4:15 AM EDT)
Best record it on your DVR or see if TCM is making it available on demand
Lili is a re-telling of the timeless fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast. In this version Beauty is a plain, exceedingly naïve, French orphan. The Beast is Paul, an embittered, self-pitying veteran whose war injuries put an end to his career as a dancer and have reduced him to running a puppet show in a seedy, third-rate, traveling carnival. Lili is befriended by Paul’s puppets— a cowardly giant named Golo, Reynard, a sly, larcenous fox, Marguerite, a vain aging, ballerina and their ringleader a brash, friendly boy named Carrot Top. (For those of you interested in the study of archetypes, pay close attention to the puppets—each expresses an archetypal element of Paul’s wounded soul.)
When the puppets begin to speak, Lili, in her naiveté, believes they are real. Carnival-goers gather round to listen to Lili’s impromptu conversations with the puppets. Paul hires Lili to be part of his act without disclosing that he is the voice behind the puppets, and the act becomes a success.
Leslie Caron, a French ballet dancer who Gene Kelly had discovered and cast as his leading lady in An American in Paris, plays Lili. The credibility of the entire film depends on her performance and she is totally captivating.
The studio apparently had little faith in the film; it debuted with little fanfare in a single New York theatre with a 539 seat capacity. The New York Times film critic gave Lili, and in particular Ms. Caron a rave review. Word of mouth spread and Lili played at that small one-screen theatre for nearly two years. The film garnered six Oscar nominations including one for Ms. Caron, her first, in the category of Best Actress.
The movie is often described as a musical, but there is, in fact only one song in it, the lovely, Hi Lili, Hi-lo.
Lili is a hymn to the healing power of love and Caron is as close as we may ever see to “Grace” personified. The movie is a pure joy. Suspend your disbelief and let yourself be enchanted.
SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943)
April 2 (6:00 PM EDT)
If your taste runs to suspense, I recommend one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best lesser known films, Shadow of a Doubt which Hitchcock often cited as his favorite. The screenplay is by esteemed American playwright Thornton Wilder. The locale is similar to Grover’s Corners (the setting of Wilder’s classic Our Town), a small, sleepy American town populated by what today’s pundits and politicians like to call “everyday people” (someone please tell me what that means).
The film’s heroine, Charlie (Teresa Wright), a young woman nicknamed for her favorite uncle, is excited by the news that her namesake, (Joseph Cotten), is coming to town for a visit. It’s not long before Uncle Charlie’s peculiar behavior leads his niece to suspect he is hiding from the police and may, in fact, be the serial killer the tabloids have dubbed, the “Merry Widow Murderer”. Played out against this peaceful setting where “nothing ever happens”, Hitchcock crafts a “hold your breath, edge of your seat” thriller. Wright and Cotten are two of the best and most under-stated actors of the 1940’s and they are superb here.
Hitchcock’s casting of warm, instantly likeable brunette ingénue, Teresa Wright, is a departure from his usual preference in leading ladies—aloof, icy, unapproachable blonde goddesses like Kim Novak, Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint and Tippi Hedren.
Some film buffs have dubbed Shadow of a Doubt as the director’s first masterpiece. Whether or not this is true, it’s Hitchcock at his wittiest, subtlest, best.
PRESTON STURGES DOUBLE BILL
THE LADY EVE (1941), THE PALM BEACH STORY (1942)
In my opinion no director ever made more consistently funny adult comedies than Preston Sturges; only Howard Hawks came close (more about Hawks in May.)
The Lady Eve screens Monday April 11 at 8:00 PM EDT; The Palm Beach Story screens Sunday April 30 at 6:15 EDT. It makes no sense to describe the lunatic plots of these films. The former stars Barbara Stanwyck and a hilariously virginal Henry Fonda; the latter stars Claudette Colbert and the under-appreciated, Joel McCrea. Sturges’ comedies are not so much about the battle between the sexes as they are about their bizarre mating rituals.
In the seduction scene in The Lady Eve watch out for Henry Fonda’s line “I guess you could say my life is about snakes” and Barbara Stanwyck’s deadpan response. The Palm Beach Story introduces the weenie king early on and goes from there. Be prepared to pause and re-wind; these comedies are fast and furious and the actors deliver the dialogue at machine gun pace. In The Palm Beach Story marvel at how long and fast Mary Astor talks without taking a breath. I don’t imagine that Houdini in his prime could stay under water that long. Think of me. I’ll be laughing with you.
GOLD-DIGGERS OF 1933
Tuesday, April 4, 8:00 PM EDT
This sequel to 42nd Street (Wednesday, April 26, 9:30 AM EDT) is the best of Warner Brothers, pre-code (pre-censorship) depression era musicals. The plot of these musicals is always the same: A Broadway show is in rehearsal, the producers are short on cash and if somebody doesn’t find a wealthy backer, the show will close before the performers get paid. The dialogue is filled with clichés, but that’s okay because this is where the clichés originated. The chorines—Ginger Rogers, Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon and lead-footed tap dancer Ruby Keeler (I swear they slow down the tempo of the music before she dances) are the stars of these films. (The men are mostly background.) These women, with the exception of perennial ingénue, Ruby Keeler, have been around; their dialogue is a little racy and their costumes a bit scanty. Busby Berkeley’s revolutionary and delirious cinematic choreography suggests the visions of a sex-obsessed adolescent who has swallowed hallucinogens and taken a toy kaleidoscope with him on his trip.
Eighty-four years after their debut, the big production numbers are still a marvel. The film opens with Ginger Rogers (before Fred Astaire) singing We’re in the Money. Look out for the chorus that she sings in “pig-Latin” which was all the rage. Rogers is bedecked, as are the dozens of chorus girls who surround her, with strategically placed, oversized silver dollars. If the phrase “mind-boggling” didn’t exist before this film released, it would have had to be invented. The film ends with Joan Blondell’s haunting performance of the depression era anthem, Remember My Forgotten Man. Today, the realities of factory closings in the rust belt, empty coal mines in Appalachia and the rising death rates (many from suicide and drug abuse) among middle-aged white men in the US, are an unhappy reminder that this song has lost none of its timeliness, pathos and power.
Saturday, April 15, 8:00 PM EDT
James Stewart is magnificent as Elwood P. Dowd, an eccentric bachelor, whose best friend is the invisible rabbit, Harvey. This may not be to everyone’s taste. I find it irresistible. Harvey was one of my father’s favorite films and he introduced me to it; I was privileged to see James Stewart and Helen Hayes on stage in an unforgettable Broadway revival. The film is adapted from the Pulitzer Prize winning play by, Mary Chase. , Ms. Chase was the next-door neighbor to Tommy DiIullo, my best friend in grade school—Tommy and I were playing Tarzan when I fell out of a tree into Ms. Chase’s yard and broke both of my arms. She found me (actually her dogs found me), called my parents, watched over me until they arrived, and visited me regularly during my recovery. It’s not easy to be a ten-year-old boy with two broken arms.
Ms. Chase’s skewed vision of the world is unique and her ear for dialogue is faultless. Watch out for his befuddled sister Veta Louise’s question, “Well, then, who is in the bathtub?” Broadway great, Josephine Hull, plays Veta Louise and won an Oscar for her performance.
Finally, I recommend three of the best dramas from the middle of the last century:The Best Years of Our Lives, A Place in the Sun and From Here to Eternity. (It feels really strange to “write middle of the last century”. I was alive then, you know!)
THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946)
Friday, April 7, 10:15 PM EDT
William Wyler, a superb visual story teller and the director of this film, was nominated for a record 16 Academy Awards for Best Director and won three —including for this film. In my view, this is his masterpiece. Set in the days following the end of World War II, the film is one of many which followed the difficulties that veterans had in adjusting to civilian life. Frederic March and Harold Russell won the Best Actor and Best Supporting Oscar respectively for their work. Russell, a veteran who lost both hands in a training camp explosion, was not a professional actor, although you would never guess that based on the subtle nuances of his performance.
What sets this film apart is the equal time given to the challenges that the women in these men’s lives face in getting used to their return. Compare the depictions of these women to independence of Hepburn, Colbert and Stanwyck in the pre-war films. In the films that followed the War the roles of women became increasingly more confining. Myrna Loy plays March’s wife, Milly, and her impeccable performance gives the film its center. (Loy’s portrayal of Nora Charles in the 1930’s series of Thin Man movies earned her the nickname “Hollywood’s perfect wife.”) Milly’s mixed feelings of relief at her husband’s return and fear that her world is closing in her are communicated entirely by Loy’s body language and facial expression; there’s no suggestion of this interior conflict in the dialogue. Note the scene where Loy looks down the long hallway and sees that her husband is home. Here’s a link to the scene.
Myrna Loy was never nominated for an Oscar; my guess is that she made it look too real and easy to be called acting.
A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951)
April 28, 3:30 PM EDT
George Stevens directs nineteen-year old Elizabeth Taylor in her first adult role and the result is dazzling. Stevens deservedly won the Best Director Oscar for his work on this film. Taylor’s never been more beautiful than in this movie; it’s her acting, however that’s the revelation.
One of Taylor’s primary archetypes, apparent, even at this age, is “earth-mother.” It’s a characteristic of her best performances: Leslie in Giant (also directed by Stevens), Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Montgomery Clift co-stars as Taylor’s poor but ambitious boyfriend. Shelley Winters is unforgettable as Clift’s pregnant, working class girl-friend Clift who threatens blackmail if he leaves her for Taylor.
FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953)
Saturday, April 8, 3:45 AM EDT
Fred Zinnemann directed this adaptation James Jones’ explosive and controversial best-selling novel set in Hawaii during the months leading up to World War II. The film and the director both won Oscars. The cast is sensational: Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift and Deborah Kerr were all nominated for Oscars. Donna Reed and Frank Sinatra won Best Supporting Oscars. This film revived Sinatra’s career and propelled him to leading man status. Again, pay attention to the way the women are portrayed before World War II in comparison to how they are portrayed in The Best Years of Our Lives.
Is that really Donna Reed—the archetypally wholesome suburban 1950’s mom we so fondly think of from the Donna Reed Show?
Quote: “My dissident brand of feminism is grounded in my own childhood experience as a fractious against the suffocating conformism of the 1950’s, when Americans exhausted by two decades of economic instability and war, reverted to a Victorian cult of domesticity that limited young girls aspirations and confined them (in my jaundiced view) to a simpering, saccharine femininity.” – Camille Paglia, Time Magazine, April 3, 2017