SATURDAY, AUGUST 1, 2020 --
When this old world starts getting you down--And what part of the world isn't
getting you down just now?--you have two choices.
You could do what Gerry Goffin and Carole King suggested and go "Up on the Roof."
. It is
nice up there.
Or you could turn on Turner Classic Movies. No one has written a song about TCM yet, but maybe they should. Hour after after, day after day, week after week, it shows great (and not-so-great) films, uncut and in their original format. TCM is at least as much a refuge as the roof.
On TCM, Fred and Ginger are always dancing, Bogart is always outwitting the evil Major Strasser, Groucho is always fighting for Margaret Dumont's honor (which is more than she ever did) and Barbara Stanwyck is always befuddling and bewitching Henry Fonda as the Lady Eve.
Life's always good on TCM. Cagney always gets to tell Ma he made it to the top of the world. DeCaprio is forever the king of the world. DeNiro is always the King of Comedy. Bette Davis is eternally Queen Elizabeth. Everything is always as you remembered it in Bedford Falls. The Beatles always run down that street and George always takes a header. Dustin Hoffman is always walking there. And Kathyrn Hepburn is always kicking ass and wearing pants long before women were allowed to kick ass or wear pants.
As these endless months of pandemic have ground on and ground us down, it's always good to visit TCM. Maybe you'll find James Garner trying to Americanize Julie Andrews or Eliza getting her own back on Henry Higgins. (And it isn't always Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, either. Sometimes Wendy Hiller does Leslie Howard in.) If you don't guffaw during The Producers
or chuckle when Mr. Blandings' dream house goes awry surely you'll laugh when Slim Pickens rides the bomb down to oblivion or Keenan Wynn attacks a Coca-Cola machine.
I bring this up now because August is when TCM is its TCM-iest. For nearly two decades, its Summer Under The Stars marathons the films of 31 actors. Every day in the month of August, from 6am to 6am the next morning, TCM binges the film of a selected performer. Film after film, hour after hour, you'll see some of the actor's best or most interesting flicks.
As you can see by this year's daily schedule
, TCM isn't star-struck, either. For every day devoted to Rita Hayworth (Monday, August 3), there's a day devoted to Nina Foch, a less celebrated but no less talented actor (Saturday, August 15). For every super-nova like Cary Grant (Sunday, August 16), there is a steady presence like Paul Henreid (August 28). It's always a mixed bag and that is its strength.
We need this year's Summer Under the Stars more than ever before. The Coronavirus is literally killing us and come Labor Day the election cycle will kick into high gear. (Yeah, I know, there's a higher gear?) We can't go many places and there is precious little in the way of sports. So why not get lost in this blizzard of moving images?
If my count is right, this year's model includes 396 films. You can use them to travel. Visit Italy in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone,
a turgid, dissolute drama filmed at the tail end of the Hollywood on the Tiber period. You can fly down to Rio. Catch a thief on the French Riviera or catch a passel of them in Paris in Charade
. Visit an outpost in Morocco or ogle the scenery in Hawaii in From Here to Eternity
There's a lot of hokum and movie magic in there, of course. But there is unintended reality, too. Take Soylent Green
, for example. It's a dystopian nightmare and I personally can't bear Charlton Heston. But it was the brilliant Edward G. Robinson's last film. His stunningly beautiful death scene was literally his final bit of acting. He died just 12 days later.
I have pithy comments (and some not-so-pithy ones) about dozens of these films. But I also had a better idea. I asked JoeSentMe contributors to tell us about some of the films they find most fascinating. Their picks (as well as several of mine) are below. Plus our friend Fred Abatemarco has a longer take on two of his favorites here
. And Ralph Raffio covered three of this year's Summer Under the Stars choices in a piece he wrote last year
about public-domain films.
One useful last bit: In this era of endless streaming and everything-on-demand, there's no need to stick to TCM's August schedule. TCM's Web site
offers real-time access to both the channel's East and West Coast feeds. WatchTCM
offers virtually anything TCM has broadcast on demand for several additional weeks. The TCM app
is also a useful repository of great flicks.
Enjoy. I've got to climb down off the roof and back to the real world now.
SUNDAY, AUGUST 2, AT 8PM
Tony Randall is certainly best-known as fussbudget Felix in the original television version of The Odd Couple
. He was also a major force in American theater, as an actor, impresario and tireless champion of a national repertory company. But let us be honest: There would not have been a Tony Randall, at least in the public sense, if not for the three movies he made with Rock Hudson and Doris Day. Pillow Talk
(1959), Lover Come Back
(1961) and Send Me No Flowers
(1964) were all huge hits. As the co-star and comic foil, he played the edgy, pre-Felix neurotic friend of Day, the beautiful, just-past-an-ingenue sex symbol, and Hudson, the conniving, hunky sex symbol. All three flicks are frighteningly dated--Pillow Talk
revolves around a party line shared by the feuding Hudson and Day--and the sexual, um, tension is now wan rather than wonderful. Yet Randall's performance remains crisp, fresh and incredibly precise. He's a pleasure to watch. -- J.B.
Will Allen: Giant
SUNDAY, AUGUST 2, AT MIDNIGHT
is aptly named. There's a gigantic cast: stars Rock Hudson and never-more-lovely 23-year old Liz Taylor; Mercedes McCambridge; a young Dennis Hopper; Earl Holliman; Rod Taylor; Alexander Scourby; Sal Mineo; and Chill Wills. And, of course, James Dean in the last of his three movies. (He died in a car crash before filming ended.) Director George Stevens won the Academy Award for the 3-hour, 21-minute epic, which was nominated for nine other Oscars. It was real popular in Texas despite biting criticism of Texas mores of the day. Such as Hispanic bigotry, well portrayed when the Dennis Hopper character marries a Mexican woman and presents Hudson and Taylor a mixed-race grandson. The most powerful scene comes when aging patriarch Hudson encounters racist prejudice in a diner, sparking fisticuffs with the "Yellow Rose of Texas" playing in the background. It was a brave movie for its day, or for any day.
David Rowell: The Train
THURSDAY, AUGUST 6, AT 5:30PM
is a long and slow-moving movie, made in 1964 and set in August 1944, as the Allies advance on Paris. A German colonel wishes to take a collection of French art back to Germany, an unwilling group of French resistance fighters end up opposing the attempt. Resistance members redirect the transport train and rename stations so the onboard Germans think the train is headed to Germany. It is actually going on a huge loop around Paris. Clever idea, but things don't go according to anyone's plan. Loosely based on a true story, I did not find the plot very involving and the dramatic tension came and went haphazardly. Storytelling has changed a lot in the 56 years since 1964. While the train isn't as central a character as the movie title implies, train buffs will be delighted by the accuracy, with many appropriately chosen French locomotives, and some real (not CGI or miniature) explosions and crashes. (In 2010, Trains Magazine
called it the best-ever train movie.) Burt Lancaster does a good job of being Burt Lancaster in this movie, too. He doesn't speak for the final almost 30 minutes of the film even though he was the central focus of the plot and busy doing things. John Frankenheimer, who paired with Lancaster five times, directed.
From Here to Eternity
FRIDAY, AUGUST 7, AT 1:30AM
I was stunned when I first screened From Here to Eternity
on a wide-screen, wall-mounted TV. Every frame of this black-and-white masterpiece displays like a fine-art poster. (No surprise that it won an Oscar for Cinematography.) The 1953 adaptation of a James Jones novel is justly famous for its Hawaii locales, Frank Sinatra's Oscar-winning supporting performance and the scene with Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr rolling around in the sand and surf, the closest you'd get to movie sex in 1950s America. There's a very deep supporting cast (Montgomery Clift, Donna Reed, Ernest Borgnine, Jack Warden and Claude Akins), a frothy potboiler of a script and that stunning photography. But the second time through, forget it all and focus on Lancaster. He is simply, physically, objectively gorgeous. He seems sculpted, uniforms tailored to a fare-thee-well, the movements simultaneously precise and fluid. His chiseled face, barking voice and steely body dominate every scene he's in--and a few that he isn't. -- J.B.
Robert McGarvey: Bullitt
FRIDAY, AUGUST 14, AT 4:15PM
Bernal Heights, Potrero Hill, North Beach, Russian Hill. Have ten minutes to tour these San Francisco neighborhoods? Then you want the famed car chase scene in Bullitt
. Steve McQueen is at his affectless best as he plays police officer Bullitt. He even does some of the driving. (The rest is done by stunt driver Bud Ekins.) That scene alone is why I watch Bullitt
and don't ask me the plot, I don't remember it, but I love seeing the old, gritty Babylon by the Bay. The 1968 Mustang GT that McQueen drove sold for $3.4 million in a January auction
. I will tell you the one movie car chase I prefer is in The French Connection
where Gene Hackman in a 1971 LeMans duels a New York subway train
running on elevated tracks. That car was driven by stunt driver Bill Hickman who drove the car McQueen chased in Bullitt
. The chase in The French Connection
offers a wonderful tour of Brooklyn's Bensonhurst neighborhood and you will never see those streetscapes again.
Robert McGarvey: The Thin Man
THURSDAY, AUGUST 20, AT NOON
Nineteen-thirty-four was a bad year. As bad as 2020. Unemployment stayed above 20 percent. Hitler became Der Führer
. There wasn't much to laugh about. But there was The Thin Man
, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. It's a spectacular piece of fluff, based on a novel
by the great Dashiell Hammett, who drank himself to death. Nick Charles, the semi-retired PI lead character played by Powell, seems determined to do the same. His wife, Nora, a daughter of wealth, is happy to support him and join him as a partner in boozing and sleuthing. Our time may be a 1934 redux, so tune into The Thin Man
for a laugh. It's more than funny. though. The mystery/crime component sucks you in, too. Who did it and what did they do? And play a drinking game. Whenever Nick has a drink, have one with him. I promise: You won't keep up and you won't remember the plot, so you can do it all over again with a rewatch. Or try Another Thin Man
from 1939. It's the third of the six Nick and Nora flicks, but TCM is showing it immediately after the original at 2pm.
David Danto: Brainstorm
SATURDAY, AUGUST 22, AT 6AM
is more than a classic film. It's science fiction thriller, movie studio drama and the swan song of Natalie Wood (who drowned before the picture was completed) all wrapped-up into one. In simple terms, the plot involves a team of scientists who invent a human–computer interface that allows sensations to be recorded from a person's brain and converted to tape so others may experience them. The invention is then used in unintended ways--recording someone's death, recording sex acts, etc.--and then the government gets involved, hoping to co-opt the scientists' vision for military use. There's the classic movie trope: Scientists destroy their own invention to keep it out of the military's hands. They experience the afterlife and come back because love, of course, conquers all. Even though most of her scenes were already shot, the studio tried to use Wood's death as an excuse to collect insurance and help stave off a financial crisis. It's a lurid Hollywood back story
that is at least as entertaining as the movie.
North by Northwest
SATURDAY, AUGUST 29, AT 8PM
The 1959 Hitchcock classic is best known for a remarkable scene where Cary Grant is chased through a field by a crop duster and its dazzling climax atop Mount Rushmore. But check out the business travel bits: Cary Grant at the plush Oak Bar in New York's Plaza Hotel; Grant in a one-sided battle of wits with an officious front-desk clerk at Chicago's Ambassador Hotel; and Grant and Leo G. Carroll at Midway Airport (photo above)
when it was Chicago's busy hub. And don't miss the scenes on the 20th Century Limited
, the fabled New York-to-Chicago train. You'll wonder why you've never met anyone as gorgeous as Eva Marie Saint or Cary Grant on a flight. -- J.B.