It’s that time of the week again, isn’t it? The weather has at last returned to a semblance of summer, so I’ll forgo the introduction and get right down to business. So far as new photos, I’ve some classic cars (of course!) and a peek at a lovely memorial in an Ohio cemetery.
Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ 1925
Last week, TCM aired the famous Charlton Heston version of Lew Wallace’s extraordinarily popular novel; this week, though, it’s the second film version (the first came in 1907) starring Ramon Novarro, Thursday’s star. More than one person has said that the chariot race in this version actually outdoes the later Technicolor one so far as excitement—I’ve never seen this version in its entirety, and look forward to comparing the two films!
The 1925 Ben-Hur cost MGM four million dollars to make, a record at the time, and putting it on a level (financially speaking) with modern blockbusters. In the end, it grossed just shy of ten million dollars—but the studio remained in the red even so as a result of high production and distribution costs.
Ben-Hur is one of my favourite tales—one of injustice, retaliation, cruelty, hatred…and moments of serendipity that change individuals, and in so doing, the world. For it is a story of love—real, all-encompassing love, not Hollywood-style “love”—and forgiveness as well. Wallace did well in running the story of (justifiably) bitter and vengeful Judah Ben-Hur alongside that of Jesus Christ, Who was killed despite committing no crime at all, and never sought to vindicate Himself. It’s difficult to honestly watch any of the film versions and not see ourselves in Judah’s very human response to his travails and that of his family, even as we look to Christ and wish to be more like He is; few of the main characters in the film are left unaffected by this Man, including Judah Ben-Hur himself (and you’ll recall that Christ was referred to as the “Lion of the tribe of Judah” in the Bible, because He is from the line of Jacob’s son Judah).
I suppose that literary device is far too simple for some, but sometimes, simple is the most elegant solution of all—and the success of each Ben-Hur film, the timelessness, appeal to men of all faiths and no faith, and draw of the story itself, speak to its effectiveness. I look forward to seeing the silent version in its entirety—Oh! And you won’t have to be up ’til 2AM to do so; this version is only 129 minutes long. 😉 (I can’t begin watching the Heston version after 8PM, because to walk away in the middle of that epic is just plain wrong, my friend. WRONG.) Navarro (as Judah) and Francis Bushman as his enemy Messala are said to give the best performances of their careers in a silent that has some early two-colour Technicolor to enjoy.
Also worth watching Thursday: The Prisoner of Zenda ’22, 6AM; Scaramouche ’23, 8AM; The Cat And The Fiddle ’34, 6:15PM (operetta with a fine cast, including Jeanette MacDonald); Mata Hari ’31, 12:30AM (Garbo!)
The Magnificent Seven 1960
Good story, excitement, terrific cast of actors playing solid characters, and Elmer Bernstein’s spirited score—what more can you ask for? An endorsement? Well: Akira Kurosawa, who directed the film upon which this is based, “Seven Samurai”, so liked “Magnificent Seven” that he sent a ceremonial sword to director John Sturges. Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen are the big fellas, but their fellow actors turn in truly performances as well—Eli Wallach, Horst Buchholz, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, and Brad Dexter. This is a film one can watch over and over again—good writing, acting, and directing tends to never get old. Enjoy.
Also worth watching Friday: Somebody Up There Likes Me ’56, 6AM
The Postman Always Rings Twice 1946
Saturday is dedicated to bombshell Lana Turner. While (like everyone else) I agree she’s a stunning beauty and a good actress, I’m not always enamoured of the vehicles she chose, particularly after 1950. Everything just became too soapy and almost seemed to seek Drama!; the latter tack especially I’m not at all fond of (though the Erasure album by the same name, I’m all for). Really, so many of them seemed to depend upon her looks, not giving the woman much to work with—she spent much of her career playing paper dolls. What a shame.
Happily, today TCM is airing some of Lana’s earlier work, and this melt-your-television steamy noir is probably her best film, and also one of the best femme fatale roles she took on. It’s also proof that actors needn’t disrobe, much less show any, um, “action”, for a film’s romance to sizzle. Keep a pitcher of cool cocktails or iced tea nearby—you’ll need it.
Unsurprisingly, her alluring gorgeousness is used to purr the plot forward; a drifter (James Garfield) rolls into the diner owned by Turner’s husband and ends up with a job—but Cora (Turner), frustrated and bored, becomes a side benefit rather quickly; the couple end up running away together, then return because they have no money. And this is when things really take a turn: Cora decides she and her lover kill her husband for the insurance money.
(Astoundingly, the men in these noirs are so consumed by lust they never seem to see the problem, present or future, with such solutions. Fellas, if your lady love suggests killing somebody so you can be together…think it through. Think it through all the way.)
It’s interesting to listen and read people talking about the film, and the number of them pulling for the murderous lovers to succeed—to kill a good and innocent man, to defraud; this is especially true because when talking about Postman, people often stop and say something to the effect of “Of course, they want to murder him for the insurance money, and that’s wrong, but…” Such is the power of film, particularly (though not always) if it’s well-written, well-directed, and well-acted. ‘Tis a powerful medium.
Also worth watching Saturday: They Won’t Forget ’37, 6AM (with Claude Rains); Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde ’41, 9AM (Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman also star); Johnny Eager ’42, 11AM; Ziegfeld Girl ’41, 5:30PM (melodrama galore, but oh, is this fun to watch—James Stewart, Hedy Lamarr, Judy Garland, Jackie Cooper, Eve Arden, Edward Everett Horton also star); Imitation Of Life ’59, 8PM (soapy, soapy, SOAPY—but good fun nonetheless); The Three Musketeers ’48, 3:30AM
Mister Roberts 1955
12:30AM Sunday (late night)
What a shame this is on so late in the evening—but then, that’s why God made DVRs, yes? Though he longs for action, naval officer Henry Fonda is stuck aboard a cargo ship with a bear of a captain (James Cagney) whose goal seems to be making everyone’s life miserable—and, of course, to preserve the life of his palm tree. Fortunately, Fonda has friends in the ship’s thoughtful physician (William Powell) and the screwball Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon, who won an Oscar for his performance).
Well-written with truly bravura performances from all four leads, this is another film that never gets old. In addition to being very funny, Mister Roberts…well, it’s very human. As a viewer, we find ourselves easily slipping into shipboard life, rooting for the men and snarking about and laughing at their ridiculously cantankerous captain; it’s as if we become part of the crew ourselves. This is hideously cliché, but Mister Roberts has plenty of heart to go with the laughs. A marvellous film, and one not to be missed—it’s quite underrated, and one that deserves broader attention.
Also worth watching Sunday: The Male Animal ’42, 7:45AM (very funny); The Return of Frank James ’40, 11:30AM; The Wrong Man ’56, 3:15PM; The Grapes Of Wrath ’40, 8PM
Just About Everything
Yes, I said “just about everything”. That’s not a movie title, that’s an edict: It’s Bette Davis day! *the people rejoice* Bette Davis was one actress who knew how to pick plenty of good projects, and just as importantly, act well.
I don’t know how the kids at TCM pick which movies to show, but we’ve a good lineup to enjoy. As in “call in sick good”—there are a few I’ve not seen before, but I’m guessing they’re good (and have heard goo things about The Girl from 10th Avenue). I’m just going to list them, with very favourites highlighted. Then we’ll all watch them. Right? Right! Heck, just come on over. I’ll have goodies to eat and we can embroider pillowcases and give Ben the brushing of his life.
- 6AM Parachute Jumper 1933 One of those I’ve not yet seen; just a bit of candy also starring Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
- 7:30AM The Girl from 10th Avenue 1935 Working-girl Bette helps a newly-jilted alcoholic attorney *insert lawyer jokes here* recover his civility, only to have the jilter decide she wants her lawyer back. No doubt Bette won’t have any of this! Ian Hunter, Colin Clive also star.
- 9AM Dangerous 1935 This time Bette’s the drunkard, a former grand actress to boot; a young fan does his best to reform her and return her to her former glory. Franchot Tone also stars; Bette won an Oscar for her performance.
- 10:30AM The Petrified Forest 1936 Such a cast: Leslie Howard, young Bogey, Genevive Tobin star alongside Bette in this classic about civilization versus brute force.
- 12PM Jezebel 1938 High-tempered belles, Yankee usurpers stealing Southern men, a ball, jealousy, duels—this just about has everything. Costars: Henry Fonda, George Brent, Margaret Lindsay, Donald Crisp, Fay Bainter.
- 2PM The Letter 1940 Excellent drama—one of Davis’ great performances, playing a woman who has killed her lover, claiming self-defense, abusing her adoring husband’s (gloriously-voiced Herbert Marshall) trust all the while.
- 3:45PM Now, Voyager 1942 This star-crossed romance is a film I love more every time I see it; like Casablanca, it’s a film that could not be made in our era, when complete self-gratification no matter the consequence to others is held above all other causes. It’s made all the more affecting by the transformation of Bette’s character from a repressed, dowdy spinster held fast in the grip of her controlling mother to a glamourous-looking woman who falls for a married man (Paul Henreid—and though I despise cigarettes, if a man lit two at once and handed one to me, I’d have to smoke it. I would). They know they must part…and then Henreid’s daughter, much like Bette’s earlier incarnation, makes an appearance. Just a marvellous, beautiful film: it’s wonderfully photographed, the acting and script are superb, and Max Steiner’s just about flawless, borderline rapturous score heightens the poignance of this romance that puts just about everything made today to shame. Claude Rains, Bonita Granville, and Mary Wickes also star.
- 5:45PM Watch On The Rhine 1943 Last week, Joan Crawford went up against the Nazis in Above Suspicion; this week, it’s Bette’s turn, but she faces off against the bastards in Washington, not Europe. Bette’s costar Paul Lukas won an Oscar for his performance in the film; Beulah Bondi also stars.
- 9:15PM Dark Victory 1939 A really wonderful performance from Bette, unusual from some of her others in that—rather like Now, Voyager—the actress displays a softer side. Perhaps that’s what makes it a standout. Diagnosed with a brain tumor, the spoiled and capricious heiress understandably undergoes a change in perspective—even falling in love with her kindly surgeon (George Brent, so who can blame her?); her best friend (Geraldine Fitzgerald) loves him as well, but loves Bette more. As others have noted, the only really out-of-place thing in Dark Victory is Bogey’s turn as a disgruntled stablemaster. Ronald Reagan and Henry Travers also star in your second guaranteed tear-jerker of the day (Voyager being the first—I know some will point to Petrified Forest, but that, despite being terrific, doesn’t really draw tears the way these two do).
- 11:15PM The Man Who Came to Dinner 1941 Hilariously funny spin with Bette, romantic rival Ann Sheridan, Monty Woolley, Billie Burke, Jimmy Durante, Mary Wickes that will make up for any earlier weeping, I guarantee it. To be honest, Woolley rules the show (as he should, he’s brilliant!) recreating his Broadway role as a biting radio commentator who falls on the steps of his hosts’ home and decides to stay ’til he’s recovered—and he wreaks all sorts of havoc in the meantime, particularly for his beleaguered hosts and his nurse (Mary Wickes, very funny and just plain wonderful as always). He pits assistant Bette against bombshell actress and man-eater Sheridan when the former falls for a local reporter; he gives all sorts of advice (ahem) to the kids, and draws a menagerie of animals Noah would have been impressed by. The film wraps up with a truly madcap finale, just as we expect from comedies of this era. Enjoy!