This Week on Turner Classic Movies - 8/4 - 8/10

This Week on Turner Classic Movies - 8/4 - 8/10

August is devoted to Turner Classic Movie’s Summer Under the Stars festival in which every day – that’s a 24-hour day - is devoted to a single star.  So, it’s a feast or famine situation.  If you love the actor or actress being focused on, then you’re in hog heaven for the entire day and evening.  If not…well there’s always the DVD player to rely on. This week is an unusually good one as not only are some of Hollywood’s greatest stars featured but so are some truly great films that need to be seen for either the first or fiftieth time. Set your DVR accordingly.

Blog PhotoTuesday – August 5 – Having just finished Victoria Wilson’s massive biography A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True 1907-1940 (1056 pages with volume two yet to come!) I was thrilled to see a day devoted to “the greatest actress never to win an Oscar.”  The roster of films on tap provide a great overview of Stanwyck’s career, with features ranging from two made in 1931 (Illicit and Night Nurse, featuring a young Clark Gable) to one of her final feature films, There’s Always Tomorrow (1956).  I’ve always contended that the actress is watchable in even her worst films, as you never catch her acting on screen, each moment she’s in grounded by a sense of sincerity that made her that sort of star filmgoers could relate to.  In addition to Meet John Doe, the second collaboration between Stanwyck and Gary Cooper, Ball of Fire (1942) is also being shown at 7:00 pm.  A comic remake of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cooper stars as a straitlaced professor writing an encyclopedia with seven other colleagues who have their bachelor existence turned upside down when nightclub dancer Sugarpuss O’Shea (Stanwyck) is dropped in their midst.  The circumstances are irrelevant – what makes the film work is Cooper’s subtle comic performance and Stanwyck’s sexy turn which, when put in conflict with one another results in sparks between the two that’s palpable.  With a script by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett you know you're in good hands.  Again, you can’t really go wrong with anything Stanwyck’s in, but these two should not be missed and serve as the perfect vehicles through which to introduce a new generation to this marvelous actress.

Blog PhotoWednesday – August 6 – Regrettably, Paul Muni is mostly forgotten by modern filmgoers and that’s a shame as it could be argued that he was the first Method Actor to grace the screen with a direct line being drawn from his performances to those of Marlon Brando, who cited him as an influence, and Robert De Niro's.  The slate of films set to screen this day is the perfect summation of his career, containing his greatest triumphs as well as some interesting misfires in which you can see the actor trying to stretch himself in films that weren’t entirely successful.  The first film of note, Bordertown (1935) airs at 8:00 am and features Muni as an ambitious young man who unwittingly gets involved with his boss’ wife (Bette Davis).  With a brisk pace and some interesting but logical plot twists, this thriller delivers far more than you’d expect.  This is followed at 10:00 am with The Good Earth, MGM’s epic adaptation of Pearl Buck’s bestselling novel about a Chinese farming couple who must not only contend with natural disasters but growing enmity between them.  The scope of this film is a precursor to Gone with the Wind and is grounded by fine turns by Muni and Oscar-winner Luise Rainer.  

Blog PhotoAt 7:00 pm, the first film in a one-two punch that’s rarely been matched in Hollywood history is shown, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932).  Based on a true story, Muni stars as a down-and-out World War I veteran who’s wrongly convicted of a crime and sentenced to do time on a chain gang in the south.  Brutal, raw and unwavering in its depiction of the cruel treatment the prisoners in question endured, this film led to reform of the penal system in many Southern states.  Muni is heartbreaking and his final line of dialogue never fails to send a chill up my spine.  The actor couldn’t be more different in his follow-up feature, Scarface (1932) that airs at 8:30 pm.  As gangster Tony Camonte, Muni creates, a vicious, animalistic character (he studied apes a the New York City Zoo to give the character a primitive style of walking) that stops at nothing to get to the top of New York’s underworld.  Scandalous when it was first made (producer Howard Hughes argued with censors for over a year before the film was released), this is a shocking social indictment that still packs a punch, not only for its violence but the less than subtle incestuous feelings Tony displays for his sister (Ann Dvorak).

Blog PhotoThursday – August 7 – James Stewart’s film career was so extensive that his greatest movies or performances aren’t included in the 24 hours devoted to him. Be that as it may, there’s still some very good films being shown to honor the actor from Indiana, Pennsylvania including Vivacious Lady (1938) at 8:30 am in which he stars as straight-laced professor who falls and marries a nightclub singer (Ginger Rogers) and must break the news to his conservative parents.  Though the film nearly overstays its welcome, the chemistry between the two stars saves it, as do performances by the strong supporting cast including Beulah Bondi, Jack Carson, and Charles Coburn.  While there’s charm to spare here, it can’t compare to The Shop Around the Corner showing at 11:00pm.  This Ernst Lubitsch classic features Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as co-workers who can’t stand each other who, unwittingly have fallen in love with one another as pen pals. While the love story is sweet, the subplots involving the owner of the store (Frank Morgan) where they work as well as the other employees make this a special movie as each have a poignant backstory, made believable by its strong cast.    

Blog PhotoSaturday – August 9 – There was a certain sense of casual elegance about William Powell that was instantly appealing and rarely matched on screen.  This is on full display in Libeled Lady (1936) at noon, which features the actor as an ex-newspaper man who’s convinced by his former boss (Spencer Tracy) to help him dig up some dirt on an heiress (Myrna Loy) who threatens to sue the publication.  Throw Jean Harlow in as Tracy’s fiancée and you’ve got a Studio Era classic that moves quickly and delivers laughs galore.  Of course, Powell and Loy are at their best as Nick and Nora Charles, the husband-and-wife detective team who would be featured in six films. The first two, The Thin Man (1934) and After the Thin Man (1936) are being shown starting at 7:00 pm; you’d be hard-pressed to find anything half as entertaining showing at the same time.

Blog PhotoSunday – August 10 – Carole Lombard had it all – she could do comedy or drama, was sexy without trying and commanded viewer's attention each time she was on the screen.  She’s at her sassiest in Virtue (1932), a snappy, 69-minute feature starting at 5:00 am that finds the actress as a streetwalker who falls for a taxi driver (Pat O’Brien) who doesn’t like women. The back-and-forth between the two stars crackles while the sexual double entendres are a comic delight.  Starting at 11:30 am, Twentieth Century (1934) finds Lombard as a Broadway star going toe-to-toe with John Barrymore as her mentor who tries to get her to come back to him over the course of a train trip.  The Great Profile’s hammy approach brings his character alive to great comic effect while the pace director Howard Hawks maintains makes it hard for viewers to catch their breath.  Beginning at 3:00 pm, Lombard gives a more serious turn in Made for Each Other (1939) as part of a young married couple (James Stewart is her husband) that must deal with the various trials and tribulations most newlyweds face.  Delightful as always, this film shows the great versatility the actress, who we lost too soon, was capable of.  

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