Turner Classic Movie’s 31 Days of Oscar Festival comes to a close this weekend and they’ve saved some of the best for last. One of the finest westerns every made and what is considered the greatest comedy are being screened as is a Best Picture winner and a classic epic comedy. Clear your schedule, as there’s nothing but good viewing on tap over the next three days.
Red River – Howard Hawks’ classic western is an epic in every sense of the word. Sporting grand adventure, magnificent performances and bigger than life characters, it’s a film that sweeps you away and makes you wish you were a cowboy. John Wayne, in one of his finest performances is Thomas Dunson, a rancher who, because of financial difficulties, is forced to round up every steer he owns and take them from his Texas ranch to Kansas to sell them. His adopted son Garth (Montgomery Clift, in his film debut) helps him on the drive as does the crusty cook Groot (Walter Brennan) and a ragtag group of cowboys who are promised a share of the profits if they make it. It’s a journey fraught with peril, as they must contend with a difficult river crossing, a stampede and Dunson’s tyrannical rule, which eventually forces Garth to take over the drive and leave his patron behind. Screenwriter Borden Chase freely admitted that Mutiny on the Bounty was the inspiration for the film but its derivative nature is no matter in Hawks’ expert hands as he keeps this tale moving at a breakneck pace, guiding his veteran cast through their paces. Without question, the last five minutes of the film are ridiculous but no matter, this is great filmmaking that modern directors would do well to watch, study and emulate. Friday (9:15 PM)
Some Like it Hot – The first of three Billy Wilder films to be screened over the weekend, this audacious farce was considered risqué in its day as it was condemned by the Roman Catholic Legion of Decency and banned in Kansas as it the cross-dressing in the film was considered “too disturbing for Kansans.” Obviously, the movie has stood the test of time and is regarded as a transitional work in the comedy genre. The story is a simple one, as two broke musicians, Joe and Jerry (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) witness a mob slaying and join an all-girls band disguised as women to hide out. Hijinks ensue when Joe falls for a fellow musician, Sugar (Marilyn Monroe, in her finest role) and the gangsters end up tracking down the fugitive pair. It’s hard to believe that Jerry Lewis and Frank Sinatra were considered for the film as Curtis and Lemmon are so indelibly associated with it and work so well together. Curtis – always underrated – freely admitted to modeling his voice after Cary Grant’s later in the movie and the story goes that when the veteran actor saw the film, he said, “I don’t talk like that.” And while stories of Monroe’s difficulties during the production have become part of the film’s legend – it took her over 50 takes to say the line “Where’s the bourbon?” – there’s no question that she lights up the screen when she appears. Not to be missed and a good movie to share with young teens in an effort to get them interested in classic cinema – that is unless they live in Kansas. Saturday (12:15 PM)
The Fortune Cookie – The second Billy Wilder film of the day features the first pairing of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau and is a great example of the director’s style as he ably combines humor and pathos in equal measure. The story presents a moral quandary for the audience to consider as cameraman Harry Hinkle (Lemmon) is injured while standing on the sidelines of a Cleveland Browns’ football game when running back "Boom Boom" Jackson (Ron Rich) runs into him. Not seriously hurt, he makes his injuries seem more serious than they are at the urging of Willie (Walter Matthau), his crooked brother-in-law who tells him that if he plays his cards right, he could collect a big settlement – so big that he might be able to woo back his estranged wife Sandy (Judi West). Wilder masterfully combines the comedic moments with the serious ones, never allowing one element to dominate the other, making each as plausible as possible. Lemmon is good here but this is really Matthau’s show as he gives a droll performance, reveling in his character’s larcenous side. He took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, a rare achievement for a comedic turn but richly deserved. Saturday (2:30 PM)
The Apartment – The final Wilder feature earned the filmmaker three Oscars, one for directing, the other for screenwriting and the third for producing what was named the Best Picture of 1960. Again, Jack Lemmon stars, this time as C.C. Baxter, an office drone who seeks to climb the corporate ladder by allowing his supervisors to use his apartment for rendezvous with their mistresses. This seems the sure way to success, as his boss, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) uses Baxter’s apartment frequently to meet up with Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), an elevator operator that he secretly loves. More serious than comedic, the film does a great job of not casting judgment on its two leads allowing us to empathize with the problems that occur due to questionable decisions. Saturday (4:45 PM)
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World – I’m of the mind that most of the great comedies are approximately 90 minutes in length or less, simply because it’s so hard maintain any comedic momentum over a sustained period. This Stanley Kramer film is the exception that proves the rule as it runs over three hours, yet consistently delivers one big laugh after another. The movie opens with a manic car chase and tragic accident in which a thief (Jimmy Durante) tells a group of bystanders that he’s buried a treasure in a California park under a “big w.” The groups splinter off, each of them manically trying to get to the location first, yet leaving nothing but chaos in their wake. Kramer was able to convince many major comics of the day to take a major role or appear in a cameo and the film ends up being as much of a historical document as a classic Hollywood feature. Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney, Sid Caesar, Jonathan Winters (“That’s a girl’s bike!”), Dick Shawn and Phil Silvers star while Buster Keaton, Jerry Lewis, Don Knotts and others pop up for quick effective guest spots. Spencer Tracy also stars as the police officer assigned to stop this wild chase only to get caught up in it. It was well-known that Tracy was very ill during shooting and was treated as royalty by his co-stars, all of them going out of their way to try to get the screen legend to laugh during the nine days he was on the set filming. Sunday (11:15 AM)