Thursday, November 15, 2007

Guest Who's Coming To Dinner

TCM's Guest Programmer Month Marathon

Groening scores my top rating

This has been a great month for programming on Turner Classic Movies. Every weekday they're screening vintage film series like The Thin Man, The Saint, The Falcon, The Lone Wolf, Boston Blackie, Mexican Spitfire, Philo Vance, Dr. Kildare, The East End Kids/Bowery Boys, Booth Tarkington's Penrod and Sam, so on. And each weeknight starting at 8 p.m., they have a celebrity guest programmer who shows four of his or her favorite films as part of Guest Programmer Month.

Some have played it safe by selecting the obvious (for example, Donald Trump hedged his bets by picking the mainstream classics Citizen Kane, Gone with the Wind and The African Queen); some were very film school erudite (Gore Vidal's picks - Bette Davis in The Letter, the 1935 A Midsummer Night's Dream and That Hamilton Woman - were excellent, but TCM host Robert Osborne had to cut Vidal off when his comments veered towards giving a film seminar); some were surprising - Rose McGowen and Cybil Shephard's picks were unexpectedly great coming from actresses not known for being cineastes (though both married into film auteurism, McGowen via director Robert Rodriquez and Cybil via director Peter Bogdanovich), with Rose displaying a love of Robert Mitchum (Night of the Hunter, Out of the Past) and Cybil partial to Cary Grant (Notorious, His Girl Friday), Cybil even making the astute comment that "the back of Cary's head in Notorious is fabulous, even before you get to see that great face!"; and then there were the neglected gems uncovered by the oddball film fanatics whose tastes so closely mirror their personalities, from Neil LaBute's brooding cynicism (Ace in the Hole, This Sporting Life, The 400 Blows) to mystery author James Elroy's B-crime film noirs that time forgot (Stakeout on Dope Street, Murder By Contract, The Lineup, Armored Car Robbery). But the best of the programmers so far has been Matt Groening.

Matt Groening
Anyone who's seen The Simpsons' plethora of film references and spoofs or who's read his "Guilty Pleasures" article for Film Comment knows that Groening is a total film buff, a cineaste who as a kid would hang out all day in Portland's Broadway film district watching movies until his eyes were sore. He actually sat through three consecutive screenings of John Lennon's How I Won the War, which entailed suffering through its double-bill companion picture I Love You Alice B. Tolklas twice - now that's dedication!

For his November 14th night in the programmer's chair, Groening picked four goodies: Blues in the Night, Laurel and Hardy's Way Out West, Charlie Chaplin's overlooked The Circus and Paul Muni's classic I Was a Fugitive on a Chain Gang.

Blues in the Night
(Anatole Litvak, 1941, 88 minutes, b&w)
Doh! I should have taped this one because it's not commercially available on VHS or DVD. On paper it didn't look essential, but the minute I saw it featured Jack Carson - my all-time favorite character actor - I was hooked. But the best parts of this film were the crazily surreal montage sequences directed by Don Siegel, who would go on to direct gritty action films like Dirty Harry (1971). Groening commented that he first saw this film on TV at 2:30 a.m. one night, somewhere around the halfway point, in the middle of a montage sequence. Having no frame of reference as to what the film was about, he stuck with it. He told Robert Osborne that it's that kind of film" one you can tune in to at any point and find something of interest to make you stick with it.

Here's the trailer:

Leading man Richard Whorf, a kind of poor man's Robert Taylor, has one of the great character names: bandleader "Jigger Pine." Other cast notables include Ann Sheridan lookalike Betty Field as the femme fatale, perky Priscilla Lane as the equally greatly-named character "Character" Powell, and Dead End/East Side Kids regular Billy Halop - who surely possessed one of the most annoying voices in cinema history. Listening to him made me realize where Jerry Lewis got his annoyingly nasal retard voice. (Halop eventually ended his long career playing Burt Munson on All in the Family.) Director Elia Kazan also appears in this film as Nickie Haroyen, years before he became a writer-director-producer and Reds squealer of renown.

One IMDB usr commented "Everybody's heard of this movie because of the famous title song [composed by Harold Arlen with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, and winner of the 1941Academy Award for Best Original Song), but almost nobody's ever seen it." That's spot on; it's a definite one-of-a-kind that defies genre-typecasting, so if it comes on TV again, don't miss it!

Way Out West
(JamesW. Horne, 1937, 65 minutes, b&w)

Why this Laurel & Hardy out of all their canon? Because this was the one wherein Groening first heard "Doh!" - the frustrated groan that would later became synonymous with Homer Simpson. It was uttered a half-dozen times in Way Out West by character actor James Findlayson (pictured right) - and I think at least once by Oliver Hardy himself. Groening also credited Oliver Hardy's dainty finger mannerisms with being the source of Homer's similar fingerings and it's not too far of a stretch to see Hardy's influence on evil hand-twiddler Mr. Burns.

Added perks: Stan and Ollie perform a great soft-shoe shuffle dance...

...and the soundtrack includes musical numbers by the Avalon Boys, featuring Chill Wills as Stan's deep voice. Some of the incidental music was composed by Irving Berlin.

The Circus
(Charlie Chaplin, 1928, 69 minutes, silent, b&w)

Speaking of James Findlayson, I'm pretty sure I saw him make a cameo - with hair - as a sideshow extra in this underrated Chaplin film. The Mirror Maze scene is brilliant and anticipates a similar sequence in Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai (1947) by almost 20 years:

I couldn't stay up for Chain Gang, but it's a great one.

Staying Tuned...
Upcoming highlights include former Spy editor Graydon Carter presenting the film from whence his former magazine got its name, The Philadelphia Story (November 18), Tracey Ulman screening Britfilm curios Kes and Withnail and I - as well as comedic classics Born Yesterday and I'm All Right Jack on November 17, and former DEVO frontman Mark Mothersbaugh, who on November 29 will present Inherit the Wind, Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd, Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits and Hot Rods To Hell.


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