TCM Top Four & Work Wednesday

John's Modern Cabins on Route 66 in Missouri, USA. Copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images; all rights reserved.

Time Slipped Away From Me
Springtime in Missouri

With Easter and my birthday over the weekend, I didn’t have much time to dedicate to this weekly look ahead. Instead, I thought I’d test out something I’m considering doing for summer, when all of us would much rather be outside anyhow—just picking the top, top, toppest films on the schedule! It’s hard to winnow the wheat from the wheat…well, the bacon from the bacon, since I’m celiac….but someone has to do it. Guess it’s me. 😉

The nice thing about this format is that it gives me more time and room to write about these in depth.

Update  I must have skipped over Friday’s schedule entirely, because there are two very good movies on in prime time if you want some great stay-in fare! Whip up a romantic, delicious dinner, then enjoy two of the best films ever about mothers who care a bit too much for their daughters: Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce and Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas. The drama begins at 8PM—they’re both marvellous films with great acting. I’m a fan of both films, but especially love Mildred. A doozy, as Mom would say.

Also, at 2:15AM is the delightful and funny Bachelor Mother, starring Ginger Rogers and a rather flustered David Niven (who can blame him?). Sorry about that! But now you know. 😉

Wife vs. Secretary ’36
Thursday, April 25, 10AM

I’m surprised to see this being given only 2.5 stars out of four—but then, thinking about the film, it’s Jean Harlow’s performance that really stands out (considering her costars are Clark Gable and Myrna Loy, that should say something). Still, this is a favourite of mine. Powerful publisher Gable and wife Loy are very happily married, though family and friends think Gable’s hard-working, efficient secretary Harlow poses a danger to the nuptial bliss. It is when Gable and Whitey jet to Havana—purely for business—in order to nail down a big acquisition that trouble erupts. The one who stops the marriage from breaking up may surprise those who’ve never seen this. In addition to the three main stars, we also get to see Jimmy Stewart and May Robson, but again…it’s Harlow who is best here.

Though I very much enjoy Wife vs. Secretary, it’s not a It Happened One Night or Stagecoach. But it is an example of what the studio system and Golden Age-era Hollywood could do and often did: produce fine movies that were entertaining, not insulting, and worth seeing. We often hear that today’s Hollywood isn’t so bad, that there was a lot of schlock produced in the Golden Age…but Golden Age “schlock” (which Wife vs. Secretary is not, at least not entirely) was still very often clever and fun to watch, compared to what we get today. (For more on my thoughts regarding today’s Hollywood, pop on over here.)

TCM made it hard for me to pick just one on Friday—VERY hard. It came down to three, then two…I’ll give you one and mention the others!

The Women ’39
1:45AM Friday, April 26

We know 1939 was Hollywood’s best year; they’d never done better, and I assure you, they’ll never top it. George Cukor’s The Women is an example of why: a great cast working on a clever, thoughtful script (adapted from a play written by Clare Booth Luce, to boot!) that’s beautifully  filmed and tightly produced. There’s humour, there’s wit, there’s real emotion and

Devil's Den Waterfall, WV. Copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images; all rights reserved

Devil’s Den in West Virginia. It doesn’t look the least bit devilish to me!

connection to the characters…and it’s not “politically correct” in the least, which is a good thing, because then it would be bland and flat like the ill-advised recent remake.

The Women is a man-free film—at least onscreen, because not one fella crosses through the frame. It’s all females—and how! Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Roz Russell, Marjorie Main, Joan Fontaine, Paulette Goddard, Mary Boland, Ruth Hussey, Hedda Hopper, Butterfly McQueen…The fabulous must have simply oozed off the set. The story, in case you’ve somehow missed this gem, is simple: After learning her husband has strayed (with a déclassé shopgirl, no less), Norma Shearer’s girlfriends talk her into divorcing him. This involves a trip to Vegas, typical female backstabbing (being a woman, I’m familiar with this sort of thing…) and hair-pulling, competition between women, and all manner of hijinks and drama—but it is oh-so-delicious.

All of the performances are superb, but especially Shearer’s (particularly when she talks to her young daughter about the divorce—you feel it) and Crawford’s (the witchiest witch of a woman you ever did see). Goddard’s role, though brief, is a standout too, at least in my mind…and Russell and Main are always a treat to watch. Do not miss this. And if you’ve seen the remake, just…erase it from your mind. I don’t care how much alcohol it takes, because it’s taking up valuable room in your brain. The original rises well above it on every level.

Also worth watching: Ginger Rogers in the ever-so-slightly-soapy but still marvellous Kitty Foyle (1940) at 10PM; Stanwyck and Cooper in another of my very favourites, Ball Of Fire (1941) at 4:15AM.

The Snake Pit ’48
12:30PM Monday, April 29

New LIfe. Tombstone with lichen in PA. Copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images; all rights reserved

New Life

Sometimes, it seems to me that Bette Davis gets all of the credit for her willingness to abandon beauty for her roles—but Olivia de Havilland did this quite frequently indeed in her movies: Gone With The WindThe Heiress, and this film, The Snake Pit. Olivia is one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen, so it must have been a bit of work for the makeup folks to make her look even mildly wan and dull—though they could never do anything to hide her luminous eyes and truly beautiful, winsome smile.

She excels in the complicated role of a mentally anguished, unstable young women in the 1940s—the time during which this was filmed being important (the treatments you’ll see in the film were still being used as late as the 1970s). Her character, Virginia, begins to manifest delusion, paranoia, and extreme anxiety, which eventually turn into a complete mental collapse, not even able to recognize her husband. It is at the mental hospital where the story really begins—the other patients, the doctors, the treatments, and Virginia’s hope that this disease she simply cannot understand, like we can pneumonia or a cold, will be corrected so she can return to her normal life.

It is the intelligently, sensitively-written script and de Havilland’s mastery of her craft that make this such a wonderful movie; her performance is brilliant, and should have won her an Oscar. Those with mental illness are not mocked, not even a little bit; their humanity, broken as it is, shines through thanks to the other actors in the film. As Virginia’s mental stability waxes and wanes, we ride with her, hoping that the doctors of her institution can at last find the key to her health.

Some say the shock value is gone now in 2013; I disagree, notably because we still don’t have a solid understanding of how the mind works (consider, for instance, warnings over the past few years that both anti-depressants and drugs like Ritalin cause permanent changes and damage to the brain), and no doubt in sixty or seventy years our progeny will look upon today’s treatments and be just as horrified as we are knowing that Virginia undergoes electroshock and immersion “therapies”. As you know, I’ve seen this Copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images; all rights reservedfilm several times, and it still elicits winces from me.

But there’s always hope for the ill, and that includes those with mental distresses. The Snake Pit, while giving us a very close, honest look at such afflictions, holds out hope, too—because while we don’t understand what makes the brain go haywire, we don’t really understand what can “suddenly” make it better, either; thus real hope for a cure is literally always around the corner.

Also worth watching: High Society (’56) is on at 2:30PM today.

Double Indemnity ’44
3:30PM Sunday, April 7

Billy Wilder’s resume is full of American classics: Double Indemnity is one of them, and perhaps his masterpiece. Based on a James M. Cain novella that was based on the real life case of Ruth Snyder and Henry Judd GrayDouble Indemnity somehow managed to avoid winning any Oscars—if ever we needed proof that the Academy doesn’t always know what it is doing, there you have it, even in the 40s!

Everybody is looking for a mark of some sort in this best of film noir: Fred MacMurray as insurance salesman Walter Neff; Edward G. Robinson as scam-detecting claims investigator Barton Keyes; suspicious stepdaughter Lola; and especially Barbara Stanwyck as the alluring but venomous, calculating Phyllis Dietrichson. This film has a weird love triangle of sorts, or maybe it’s a push-pull story—bare eros burning far too brightly between Walter and Phyllis versus old-fashioned buddy phileo between Walter and Barton.

Had Walter chosen his friend instead of lust, though, we wouldn’t have a noir.

Instead, he’s hooked by the bait set out by the married woman unsatisfied by her husband and seeking an out. Irredeemably on the line, Walter joins Phyllis in planning the murder of her wealthy husband—his client!—so she can collect $100,000 on a insurance policy’s double indemnity clause.

If you’ve not seen this, you might be able to guess what happens, and how things go off the rails (or, to continue with my fishing analogy, into the deep end). And Wilder makes it delicious. Snappy banter, fine photography, and especially the performances of leads Stanwyck, MacMurray, and Robinson make this tale of greed, lust, and murder as fresh today as it was during WWII.

Stanwyck, who was a heavy hitter in Hollywood, had never played a girl as bad as this; more importantly, though, Fred MacMurray had always been the affable fella-next-door, doing lighthearted comedies. Most of my generation probably remember him from reruns of My Three Sons—and a further cry from that character is probably not in MacMurray’s repertoire than that of Walter Neff, so I think on first viewing, our reaction to his unnerving turn here is probably similar to our grandparents’. As for myself, I was quite taken aback by it—held in thrall, even—when I first saw Double Indemnity at the Redford years ago.

Silly as it sounds, much has been made—since 1944—of Phyllis’ awful blonde wig. But here’s the thing: Firstly, it fits in with her character’s fools’ gold (gold-digger?) nature; she’s actually a bit trashy, and the only real thing about her is her wicked selfishness. It’s part of her veneer, covering up the reality; when Lola reveals her suspicions about Phyllis, even though we find it hard to believe, it fits.

Moreover, everyone seems to think a femme fatale has to be drop-dead gorgeous—but looks don’t have everything to do with it. It’s a seductiveness tinged with danger that men can’t resist, often in spite of physical shortcomings; for instance, Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlett O’Hara was not nearly as pretty as Vivien Leigh’s. Without the wig, we might have had more bombshell Stanwyck than femme fatale Stanwyck, oddly alluring and magnetic despite her weird hair. Yes, it’s a ridiculous wig—but if you think about it, it works.

At any rate, this is one of the best films Hollywood has ever released. Enjoy it. And enjoy your week!

Poster Boy. Copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images; all rights reserved.

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