Tuesday, June 19, 2007

If I Were a TCM Guest Programmer...

Since I am both forgetful and lazy, I didn't enter the Turner Classic Movies Guest Programmer contest. In a way, it's for the best, since I'm kinda camera shy and would hate to be on television, even if it meant getting my movie choices shown on my favorite channel. But.... if I were going to be the TCM Guest Programmer, these are the movies I'd pick (and please note, these are not necessarily my all-time favorites -- though one is -- just four movies that I think deserve a wider audience and would make for a night of entertaining TV):

1.) The Strawberry Blonde (Raoul Walsh, 1941): This is one of the reasons I love the Golden Age of Hollywood. A movie that's simply entertaining, with Cagney, DeHavilland, Carson, and Hayworth all at the top of their game. Funny, romantic, wistful, true to the small and great ironies of life, insightful about human faults and vanities -- simply a well-made and well-told story. It's not an ambitious film like Citizen Kane or Gone with the Wind; it's not one of those accidental miracles that resulted in cultural immortality like Casablanca or The Wizard of Oz; it's not an iconic film for any of its four stars. And yet at the end of the day, I never get tired of this movie. Every time -- and I mean every time -- this movie is on television (it's not on DVD... grrrr) I sit and watch it. I think I've seen it close to seven or eight times, and I could watch it a dozen more. It's the epitome of classic studio era movie-making: Nothing spectacular or groundbreaking, simply a really, really good and entertaining movie. Utterly enjoyable.

2.) Waterloo Bridge (Mervyn LeRoy, 1940): I've never seen the pre-Code original of this one, though I've read many times that that 1931 film is superior. I can only guess it's because the earlier film doesn't refuse to mention the heroine's profession (the oldest one, in this case), and doesn't waste time on any of that dreamy 1940s romanticism. Apparently the older film is better because it's "modern," "grittier," more "sexually frank," more "open" in its subject matter and unwilling to sugarcoat the harsh realities of life. Okay, whatever. Give me lush romance, tragic heroines, candlelit dances, "Auld Lang Syne," and characters who can't bear to utter the scandalous word "prostitute," over some dreary early '30s social drama about a hooker with a heart of brass (and yes, I realize I'm being unfair to a movie I've never seen). I much prefer Vivien Leigh's tragic dancer Myra, whose heartbreak and fatalism lead her to a life of prostitution, than a pre-Code Myra who has always been a prostitute, but who falls in love with a naive boy and wants to change for his sake but knows it's too late, the set-up of so many "a prostitute makes nice" stories. Leigh's Myra is a strange bird, a young girl with no family and ambitions to dance, a beautiful girl who at the same time has a morose quality, an inkling of the possible futility of life, that gives her a deep, complex sadness. Robert Taylor, a man of action, a child of privilege who bounds through life with reckless abandon, and yet he's drawn to the sad, strangely mature, delicately beautiful girl. And of course, it's all heartbreak and ill-fate. I could write pages about this movie, and maybe someday I will. But at least I can share my love with the Chinese, who apparently love this movie, since it was one of the first American films they were able to see after the war ended. I'll just end by saying, there's a scene in this movie (at a candlelit restaurant) that is perhaps one of the most romantic ever put to screen. And yes, I'll stand by that overstatement!

3.) Libeled Lady (Jack Conway, 1936): I just really love William Powell and Myrna Loy together, and this is one of their best non-Thin Man movies. Jean Harlow gets to let fly some pretty good zingers. Spencer Tracy is playing one of my favorite 1930s movie types, the hard-boiled reporter who seems to only care about the paper and not his girl, but in the end we know he's just a big softy who's deep in love with his long-suffering lady. But it's Powell and Loy I watch for, and it's Powell and Loy I love. Their on-screen chemistry is so natural, so electric, so sexy and yet still so beguilingly normal, you feel like you're just watching two ordinary people in love, and who are so interesting you just can't take your eyes off them. This movie is more a comedy of errors than it is a true screwball comedy, but it often gets compared unfavorably to the classic screwballs of the era like My Man Godfrey or Bringing Up Baby as being a lightweight of the genre. That's too bad, because Libeled Lady has a pretty witty script, and is able to be funny without being zany (though Powell's battle with a walleye is slapstick at its best). The characters are more realistic than your average screwball denizen (though Harlow's brassy Gladys and Tracy's hard-nosed Haggerty are still somewhat ridiculous, this being, after all, a comedy). Having more down-to-earth characters means the film has some great quiet moments, especially between Loy and Powell, that are tender and touching.

4.) Gypsy (Mervyn LeRoy, 1962): I know we're supposed to complain about Rosalind Russell getting the part over Merman; I know we're supposed to think Mervyn LeRoy is an average director and the film doesn't have much visual flair, especially in comparison to the great Freed Unit MGM musicals; I know we're supposed to condemn the singing, since Roz couldn't do her own, and the dubbed voice by Lisa Kirk is only "okay" (and too deep), and Natalie Wood had a pretty enough voice but it was just too thin -- I know all this, and how Gypsy was the beginning of the end of the era of successful musicals in Hollywood. But, well, sometimes we watch a movie in our youth and it's a transcendent experience, and even if we know we should know better, we can't help loving it unreservedly, because it's a part of us, a singular artistic experience with transformative power. I was in my early teens, with a secret dream of going into show business, of "making it big," and Gypsy, an almost forbidden pleasure, watching it past midnight on a school night, spoke directly to my inner Rose. If there's one movie on this list that's a "movie that's important to me," Gypsy is it. I wish I could say my important-to-me movie was a great classic, something impressive, like The Rules of the Game, but it's not, it's a second-rate musical from a non-auteur, with a star -- Russell -- who many claim was wrong for the part. But movies that shape us, that grab hold of us and change us, are often not the movies we expect. At thirteen years old, in those dangerous hours past midnight, I had Gypsy.

So that's my night of movies in fantasy TCM-land. Anyone else willing to pick their four? Believe me, it's hard to limit yourself to just a quartet.


Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I like your choices. I think I'd go with four movies representing four decades of contemporary stories: "Safety Last" (1923), "I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang," (1932), "Hollywood Canteen" (1943?), and "The Country Girl" (1954). Not because they are necessarily favorites, but it would be interesting to compare contemporary views of different eras in a night of movies.

Nate said...

Nice choices, Derelict. Very classy. (Agree with you about The Strawberry Blonde!)

Going with your theme of films that deserve a wider audience, I'd choose the highly original English propaganda piece, The Boy with Green Hair, which tells an anti-war message from a child's perspective. Then there's The Innocents, that supremely elegant ghost story from one of England's most gifted directors, Jack Clayton. I'm also partial to The Swimmer, a strange (and sublime) allegory starring Burt Lancaster and a whole bunch of swimming pools. Finally, I'd pick Stars in My Crown, not just because Jacques Tourneur is an underrated director, but because it's one of the most deeply American films I can think of, and what better place to show it than on America's best cable television channel?

Maybe I'll get my act together and submit something next year.

The Derelict said...

Yeah, there's not really a theme going on with my choices except: "Movies I really really like." Heh. Jacqueline, I like your idea a lot (and I haven't seen The Country Girl in awhile, so I'd love to see that one again), and really, you had me at Hollywood Canteen! I love that movie in an irrational way. It's little more than a musical revue, but the love story between Joan Leslie and the soldier is so poignant, especially since the film was made in the midst of the war when no one knew the final outcome. Actually, I'd take your idea and narrow it down even more and focus on WWII-era movies made during the war, I'm thinking start with Mrs. Miniver, then showing a crazy short with Jimmy Cagney called "You, John Jones!" (where little Margaret O'Brien gets killed in evermore grisly ways), follow it with They Were Expendable, Hollywood Canteen, and round it out with the post-war Best Years of Our Lives.

Another "theme" I thought of doing was "NotFred and Ginger", four Ginger Rogers movies made without Fred: Stage Door, Vivacious Lady, Bachelor Mother, and Roxie Hart.

Nate, you utterly rule for mentioning the awesomeness of The Innocents -- that movie freaks me the eff out. The Boy with Green Hair is a strange one, and I'm not sure what to make of it. I feel like the thematic stuff is a little simplistic (oh, war is bad?! who knew!). But then there's that scene in the forest with the war orphans -- is it a dream? the boy's imagination? did it really happen and we're watching a movie that's crossed over into full-fledged fantasy? That scene is haunting.

I'm jealous that you've seen Stars in My Crown -- I've just started getting into Jacques Tourneur but the only movies available on netflix are the horror ones (I Walked with a Zombie, etc), and I'm kicking myself that I didn't record this when it was on TV a few weeks ago (I'm also a bit of a Joel McCrea fangirl, so I'm doubly kicking myself).

The Derelict said...

Also, Nate, you should totally enter next year! I'd certainly tune in to see what you picked.

Campaspe said...

I love The Strawberry Blonde, and the couple of times it has come up in my comments I discovered a lot of hard-core cinephiles who also love that one. It is very delicately balanced between melodrama and comedy and besides, it has Cagney AND Jack Carson, simply one of my favorite character actors.

Your choices make me wish you had entered and won. I didn't even know about the freaking contest and now I am in a bit of a sulk.

The Derelict said...

Ah, campaspe! You should enter if they ever do this again. I've actually read a few comments on the TCM message board that suggested that TCM have more "ordinary people" guest programmers on a regular basis, like once a month a non-famous person introduces his/her favorite movies. Just think of the awesomeness if some of our favorite bloggers got to pick the movies for a few months!

Speaking of Jack Carson, I just watched him in The Hard Way and was once again astounded by his talent. Carson is now in my top ten of favorite actors ever, I've just never seen him give a bad performance. Also, I just want to give him a big hug because I love him ;)