Though she’s too nice to mention it, I’m sure the fact that our television is always tuned to Turner Classic Movies drives my wife crazy. Our dog Gracie may have a complaint as well as I leave it on to keep her company during the day. That she'll be able to tell the difference between James Cagney and Clark Gable certainly can’t hurt her. For my money, TCM is the reason cable television was invented – it runs classic films, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, showing anything between well-known movies to obscure gems for the Golden Age of Hollywood that you’re glad you stumbled upon. There aren’t any infomercials on in the middle of the night hawking make-up or telling you how to get the sexiest hair ever. No sir, all movies, all the time with no commercial interruption, along with informative commentary by hosts Robert Osborne and Ben Mankiewicz and rare shorts shown between the features. In short, my idea of heaven.
Starting February 1st and stretching three days into March, TCM will be running their annual 31 Days of Oscar celebration in which they’ll be showing 349 films, all of them having won or been nominated for an Oscar. To be sure, being recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences isn’t always a mark of quality (yes, Smokey and the Bandit was nominated for Best Film Editing and will be shown on February 7th) but it’s a pretty safe bet that if a film can make this claim, it must have something going for it.
Each year, TCM finds a new format with which to organize this massive slate of movies and this year they’ve opted to show them according to studio. For example, starting on February 1st and running through February 5th, the station will show nothing but films made by Warner Brothers Studios that have been deemed Oscar-worthy. Among them is the still-powerful social commentary I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), the classic Errol Flynn epic The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Gary Cooper’s Oscar-winning performance in Sergeant York (1941), Humphrey Bogart’s finest turn in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and James Cagney proclaiming he’s on top of the world in White Heat (1949). All told, 51 films will be screened during these first five days and that’s just from one studio alone.
During the 26 days that remain in this programing, films from major studios like MGM, Paramount, and Universal, as well as those produced by independent companies (Selznick-International, Samuel Goldwyn Pictures) will be shown. Obviously, there are far too many highlights to list here but suffice it to say, there’s at least one film being shown each day that’s worth your time. In an effort to help you navigate through this cornucopia of cinema, I’ll be posting periodic alerts in this space so that you might set your DVR to capture these delights and watch at your leisure. I’ll start at the bottom of this column with a list of the must-sees that are being screened February 1st. Or better yet, when you’re aimlessly flipping through the channels on your television and are about to complain that there simply isn’t anything on, save yourself some trouble and just go directly to TCM. Chances are you’ll be treated to a film that’s far better than 90% of the dreck being produced out there.
Note: All times listed here are for CST. For more information go to http://www.tcm.com .
Friday – February 1
Little Caesar (1930) – Edward G. Robinson skyrocketed to stardom in this film as Rico, a smalltime hood with dreams of grandeur. While the actor comes across as a genuine tough guy, he was uncomfortable firing guns. One scene required that he discharge his weapon straight at the camera. Unfortunately, he ruined take after take because he couldn't keep his eyes open. Director Mervyn LeRoy's solution? He used cellophane tape to keep the actor's eyes open. One of the many “social problem” films made by Warner Brothers, this addressed the crime epidemic that plagued the nation and, not surprisingly, features a climax that drives home the lesson that crime does not pay. (8:00 AM)
The Public Enemy (1931) – The studio’s next gangster classic helped make James Cagney a household name as his electric performance as hood Tom Powers was a distinctively different approach to a role of this sort. The film features the famous grapefruit scene with Mae Clarke, which the actor was reminded of constantly throughout his life. Seems that whenever he went out for dinner, a fellow diner would invariably have a grapefruit sent to his table. Ironically, this scene was not in the original script and it was staged by Cagney and Clarke as a practical joke for the crew. However, director William Wellman liked it so much he decided to use it. He wasn't the only one. Legend has it that Clarke's ex-husband went to the theater every day just to watch the scene and then leave. While this moment is a showstopper, the film's ending is just as effective as it provides a chilling finale that still packs a punch. (9:30 AM)
42nd Street (1933) – The musical that was a radical departure from genre standards as director Lloyd Bacon insisted that it deal with the social problems of the day, rather than simply gloss over them as so many films of this sort did. Sure, Ginger Rogers might be singing “We’re in the Money,” but the threat of unemployment and despair is as close as a bad show or the loss of financing as Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) leaves no stone unturned to keep the show he’s producing from going belly-up. This is not only an essential film in cinema history but a vital historical document chronicling the trials of the Great Depression as well. (11:00 AM)
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) – Errol Flynn is unforgettable in this rousing version of the Sherwood Forest legend. Paired with Olivia de Havilland, as Maid Marian, for the third time, this screen couple would go on to be one of the screen’s great romantic couples and it’s easy to see why here. Their chemistry is natural and electric and is perfectly balanced by the expertly choreographed action scenes that find Flynn and real-life competitive fencer Basil Rathbone crossing swords with a sense of urgency that’s beyond exciting. If you make the kids watch one movie over the course of this month, make sure it’s this one. They simply don’t get any better than this. (5:15 PM)
I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) – Yet another of the studio’s social pictures, this one exposed the harrowing and violent world of the chain gang, a correctional method that was still being used at the time to punish criminals of all sorts. Paul Muni stars as a WW I vet who can’t find work and ends up at the wrong place at the wrong time. Before you know it, he’s doing hard labor in the Deep South and looking for a way to get out and clear his name. The film was so powerful and successful that it led to the abolishment of the chain gang system in Georgia, where it was banned and it eventually led to the pardon of Robert Burns, upon whose experiences it was based. The film pulls no punches and it the final line in the movie fails to send a chill up your spine, you’re already dead. (9:15 PM)