TCM Discoveries: The Great Dictator

Chaplin Great Dictator

I’ve been an avid viewer of Turner Classic Movies for about 10 years now, so to say that TCM is responsible for introducing me to a few good movies is putting it mildly. Thanks to TCM, I’ve been introduced to cult classics like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, pre-code essentials like Gold Diggers of 1933 and Red Dust, masterpieces of international cinema like 8½, plus countless American classics. TCM has consistently been such an incredible way for me to discover movies that when I came up with the idea of my annual Blogging Under the Stars event in 2011, the entire point was to discourage myself from watching the same movies I’ve seen a dozen times and discover new things instead (and every year has been a big success in that respect.)

When Nitrate Diva announced her TCM Discoveries Blogathon, where all participants write about one special movie they discovered because of Turner Classic Movies, I instantly knew the movie I wanted to write about. Out of the hundreds of amazing movies I’ve discovered over the past decade, there’s one movie that stands out from the rest because of the huge influence it had in shaping my taste in movies and putting me on the path to being the movie nerd I am today. That movie would be Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.

Sophia Petrillo Picture It

Picture it! Ferris State University, February 2005, semi-early on some Saturday morning.

At the time, two of my favorite things to do on a Saturday morning were watch The Soup on E! and laugh at really bad infomercials. This particular Saturday morning, I woke up a little earlier than usual for no apparent reason. The Soup wasn’t on yet so I flipped through the channels looking for infomercials to make fun of, but I was getting a little tired of watching the same infomercials over and over again. Then I remembered that TCM was having their annual 31 Days of Oscar programming event so I figured I’d see what they were playing. Whatever it was, it had to be better than watching people fail at cooking yet again.

I turned on TCM in time for The Great Dictator. I’d heard of the movie and knew it was considered one of the all-time great film comedies, so I figured I’d keep watching. I’d never seen any Charlie Chaplin movie before, but I knew he was a legend, so I was certainly intrigued to see one of his movies. It didn’t take long for me to understand his appeal. Not only was the movie absolutely hilarious and extremely daring for its time, but watching him move was absolutely hypnotic; I couldn’t take my eyes away from the screen. The famous globe dance scene was one of the most fascinating things I’d ever watched.

Chaplin Globe Great Dictator

When the movie was over, I was hooked. I spent a considerable part of the day reading about Chaplin on the Internet, learning all I could about his life and his career. Although The Great Dictator isn’t a silent movie, I credit it with being the movie that got me interested in silent film because it made me want to see any Chaplin silent I could get my hands on. As I saw more of his silent films and learned more about the film industry during Chaplin’s heyday, the more I wanted to see movies starring other legends of silent comedy like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd as well as movies starring some of Chaplin’s contemporaries like Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. (On a related note, a couple of months later in April 2005, TCM had this month-long spotlight called April Fools, during which they played a ton of movies by people like Chaplin and Keaton. As someone who was newly interested in those types of film comedians, that spotlight was pure gold and remains one of my favorite months ever on TCM.)

I hesitate to call The Great Dictator my gateway drug into becoming a classic film fan because it was far from being the first classic film I’d ever seen or liked and I clearly had enough of an interest in them to know February is Oscar month on TCM. But it was the movie that made me realize that classic films were my favorite types of films. From then on, I started watching TCM very regularly, making a point to look through their monthly schedules and make notes of anything that sounded interesting so I wouldn’t forget to watch or record any movie that intrigued me.

Thanks to Charlie Chaplin and The Great Dictator, I was not only introduced to silent film, it pushed me into the online classic film community, where, over the years, I’ve met so many wonderful people and made so many good friends. The fact that, essentially, all of this ended up happening because I was tired of watching infomercials one Saturday morning is pretty wild to me.

The Nitrate Diva TCM Discoveries Blogathon

Visit The Nitrate Diva to read about other bloggers’ favorite TCM discoveries as part of TCM’s #LetsMovie celebration.

Brannigan (1975)

John Wayne Brannigan Chicago police lieutenant Jim Brannigan (John Wayne) is assigned to go to London so he can collect gangster Ben Larkin (John Vernon), who is being extradited back to the United States. When Brannigan arrives, he meets with officer Jennifer Thatcher (Judy Geeson), who is supposed to help him with Larkin. But a man like Larkin is bound to have a few enemies and Brannigan arrives in London just in time to find out that Larkin has been kidnapped.

There’s some question whether or not he’s really been kidnapped, but eventually the authorities are convinced and Brannigan has to work with Jennifer, Larkin’s lawyer Mel (Mel Ferrer), and Commander Swann (Richard Attenborough), the British police commander who doesn’t fully grasp Brannigan’s style of police work, to find him. But Larkin knows Brannigan has come to town to pick him up and has ordered a hit on him, so in addition to trying to find Larkin, Brannigan has to avoid the person who’s out to get him.

I liked Brannigan a lot more than I expected to. In fact, I’d say it’s one of my favorite movie discoveries so far this month and since I’m not a big Western fan, I really didn’t think I’d end up saying that about John Wayne day. So I guess it’s a good thing I decided to check out one of his non-Western films. Brannigan is a lot of fun in the unique way that 1970s cop movies can be. With all the great action scenes, the musical score, the fashions, the cars, and lots of awesome tough-sounding dialogue, it’s hard not to be entertained by it. John Wayne was so perfect for roles like Brannigan because he was such a great tough guy, even late in his career. He got to do some great action-packed scenes, punch some people, and deliver some awesome lines. I couldn’t help but love the big brawl scene that had “Let the Sun Shine” playing in the background. Or the moment near the end where Brannigan comes bursting in to confront Larkin. Those moments embody pretty much everything that I like about 1970s cop movies. Not to mention that I totally love that poster.

In the grand scheme of his career, it may not be one of John Wayne’s best movies, but considering this came very late in his career, it’s nice to see that he was able to end his career on a better note than a lot of other actors did.

Cedric Gibbons and Grand Hotel (1932): One of Oscar’s Biggest Oversights

Grand Hotel 1932 LobbyGrand Hotel (1932) is best remembered for being the movie to popularize all-star casts. Before Grand Hotel, the only movies that featured so many big stars together were “revue” type movies like The Hollywood Revue of 1929 and Show of Shows, which were popular in the early days of talkies and featured many of a studio’s top stars in a series of skits and musical numbers. While most other movies had just one male lead and one female lead, Grand Hotel took five of the biggest movie stars working at the time — Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, John and Lionel Barrymore, and Wallace Beery — and put each of them in a leading role.

However, there is one other person who should be mentioned along with Garbo, Crawford, Beery, and the Barrymores as being a major star of the movie: art director Cedric Gibbons. The exquisite Art Deco style sets he designed for Grand Hotel refuse to be relegated to the background.

Grand Hotel 1932 Lobby Desk

Grand Hotel is also noteworthy for being the only movie to win a Best Picture Academy Award without being nominated in any other categories — no nominations for writing, direction, or even acting. Despite the sheer magnitude of Grand Hotel‘s stars, it’s easy to see how they failed to get nominated in acting categories. Grand Hotel doesn’t have just one male or one female lead to choose from and categories for Supporting Actor/Actress wouldn’t be introduced until the 1936 Academy Awards.  However, it’s not nearly as easy to understand how Cedric Gibbons wasn’t nominated for Best Art Direction, which is one of the biggest Oscar oversights I can think of.

Cedric Gibbons was MGM’s top art director for most of its peak years. He started working at MGM in the 1920s and stayed there until he retired in 1956. Name a big hit MGM movie from the 1930s through the mid-1950s and it’s very likely Cedric Gibbons had a hand in it. He is credited as the art director for The Wizard of Oz, The Thin Man, Ziegfeld GirlMeet Me in St. Louis, Gaslight, On the Town, The Great Ziegfeld, The Good Earth, The Women, The Philadelphia Story, National Velvet, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Marie Antoinette, and Forbidden Planet, just to name a very select few. He even designed one of the most widely recognizable symbols of Hollywood: the Academy Award statuette. But for all of his contributions to film, Gibbons’ work for Grand Hotel is undoubtedly one of the crowning achievements of his career.

Grand Hotel 1932 Exterior ShotEven with Garbo, Crawford, Beery, and two Barrymores to contend with, Gibbons’ sets stand out so much, they become a character unto themselves. Some people might even argue the sets outshine the actors. Although the sets are extravagant, there’s nothing about them that feels artificial. After all, this is a movie set in the finest hotel in Berlin, the sets need to exude an aura of luxury and represent the epitome of early 1930s glamour. But the sets are so believable as a lavish hotel, it’s very easy to forget Grand Hotel was filmed on a Hollywood soundstage and not on location.

Cedric Gibbons’ Grand Hotel sets demonstrate what an integral part art direction plays in creating Hollywood fantasy. This is a movie about characters going through difficult times in their lives, so it’s not a movie people watch and think, “I want to be just like them.” However, the sets are so breathtaking, people do look at them and think, “I want to go there!” If you’re a lover of Art Deco style, you’ll desperately want to believe this was a real hotel you could go visit. The hotel may not be real, but you’ll wish the sets had been preserved and put in a museum somewhere. These were movie sets that went far beyond being sets and were works of art.


31 Days of Oscar 2015 Blogathon

For more Oscar related articles, stay tuned to Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled, and Paula’s Cinema Club all month long!


The Power of an Original Song

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head

How many of you had “Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head” pop into your head just by looking at this picture?

For me, one of the most exciting Academy Award categories is Best Original Song.  The union of film and music can be a truly magical thing.  Few things can take an already great movie and make it even better than adding the right song at just the right moment.  If done right, an outstanding original song can be one of the best assets a movie can have.

In many cases, songs written for movies go on to become hits in their own rights.  Remember how you couldn’t go anywhere in 1997 without hearing “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic?  In a few cases, songs written for movies have transcended “hit” status and gone on to become some of the most popular songs ever written.  If it weren’t for The Wizard  of Oz and Buck Privates, we wouldn’t have the songs “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B.”

Sometimes a song becomes more fondly remembered than the movie it was written for.  Thank God It’s Friday is hardly a celebrated film, but its song “Last Dance” won a Best Original Song Oscar and became a classic disco hit.

But most importantly, the right original song can become a symbol for a movie.  After all, what would a James Bond movie be without a great theme song like “Nobody Does it Better” or “Live and Let Die?”  In just a few minutes, a song can evoke the mood of a scene, sum up the tone of the movie, or represent a character’s attitude.

Some of the best original movie songs don’t even need a few minutes to accomplish those things — they become so strongly associated with their movies that listeners can make the connection in a matter of seconds.  Allow me to demonstrate.  I’ve compiled clips from 20 of my favorite Best Original Song winners and nominees, each under twenty seconds long, and they get progressively shorter until the last clip is just one word.  But if you’ve seen the movies these songs were written for, even the shortest clips will be enough to bring an image from the movie to mind.

A few bars of “Moon River” is all it takes to conjure up the image of Audrey Hepburn standing in front of Tiffany’s with her black dress and pastry.  Seven seconds of “I Will Wait For You” brought me back to Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo’s poignant farewell at a train station in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.  The entire essence of Pinocchio can be summed up with just the words, “When you wish upon a star.”  I didn’t even need Bing Crosby or Judy Garland to finish their lines to be reminded of Holiday Inn or The Wizard of Oz.  That is just how potent the right combination of music and film can be.

31 Days of Oscar Blogathon

Thanks to Outspoken and Freckled, Paula’s Cinema Club, and Once Upon a Screen for once again hosting the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon! Be sure to pay them a visit and check out some of the other contributions!

Dead Ringer (1964)

Bette Davis Dead RingerIn their youth, twin sisters Edith and Margaret (Bette Davis in a dual role) were both in love with Frank DeLorca.  Even though Frank had been pursing Edith first, Edith’s relationship with Frank comes to an end when Margaret announces that she’s pregnant with Frank’s baby and they are to be married.  Edith doesn’t see Margaret again until eighteen years later when they are reunited at Frank’s funeral.

After the burial, Edith visits Margaret at her home and all of Edith’s past resentment comes rushing back to her.  Frank had come from a very wealthy family so while he and Margaret were living in the lap of luxury, Edith was struggling to make the cocktail lounge she owns financially solvent. To make things even worse, she finds out that Margaret was never really pregnant all those years before.  With so many financial problems hanging over her head, Edith plans to get Margaret to come over, kill her, and switch clothes with Margaret so it looks like Edith committed suicide and Edith can assume Margaret’s identity.

Even though Edith has no problem physically passing as Margaret, she struggles to cover up the differences in their behaviors.  But as Edith spends more and more time living Margaret’s life, she discovers that Margaret had a few skeletons in her closet — specifically one named Tony Collins (Peter Lawford).  And with police sergeant Jim Hobbson (Karl Malden), who had been dating Edith, getting involved, can Edith keep up the act?

I’ve always thought Dead Ringer was one of Bette Davis’ more under-appreciated movies.  What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is generally thought to be Bette’s last significant movie, but she made a few gems after that and Dead Ringer is one of them.  It has its moments of pure camp; the scene where Margaret offers Edith money and Edith yells, “You haven’t got that much!” before knocking the checkbook out of her hands and shoving her into a chair is the stuff Bette Davis drag queen impersonator dreams are made of.  And you have to admit that the whole concept of getting to see Bette Davis duke it out with herself on screen is pretty campy in and of itself.

But on the whole, Dead Ringer is actually a very interesting thriller.  Bette has a field day in this movie; she’s great in both roles. The story has plenty of suspense and twists to keep you wanting more.  I love its supporting cast; Karl Malden is good and even though I don’t generally care much about Peter Lawford, I loved how wonderfully sleazy he was in this.  The musical score by André Previn serves as the icing on the cake.  Dead Ringer also features some fine direction from Bette’s Now, Voyager and Deception co-star Paul Henreid.

A word of warning: If you have never seen Dead Ringer, do yourself a favor and do NOT watch the trailer first! It’s one of those trailers that gives away absolutely everything.

Dueling Divas Blogathon 2013

Thanks to Lara from Backlots for hosting the third annual Dueling Divas Blogathon! Head on over to Backlots to read more contributions.

My Favorite Pre-Code Journalists

As you will see with this weekend’s Journalism in Classic Film Blogathon (hosted by Comet Over Hollywood and Lindsay’s Movie Musings), there are plenty of great movies that feature memorable journalists.  Citizen Kane, His Girl Friday, All the President’s Men, just to name a few.  But for me, my favorite reporters in movies were all from the pre-code era.

Clark Gable It Happened One NightClark Gable as Peter Warne in It Happened One Night

Now Peter Warne is a reporter who will go to any length to get a good story.  And you gotta admit, he put up with a lot of nonsense from Ellie on their trip together.  But when it comes down to it, Peter isn’t a greedy man.  After falling in love with Ellie, he just wants to publish his story so he can have the money to marry her.  And even when it looks like she’s left him to go back to Westley, he still doesn’t care about the huge reward.  All he wants cares about is getting his expenses reimbursed.

Joan Crawford in Dance, Fools, DanceJoan Crawford as Bonnie Jordan in Dance, Fools, Dance

Bonnie Jordan may be just a rookie reporter, but she also goes the extra mile for her job.  When one of her fellow reporters is killed while investigating gangster Jake Luva (played by Clark Gable), her editor sends her to find out who is responsible for his death.  So Bonnie takes a job dancing in Jake’s nightclub so she can get close to him.  Of course, she ends up biting more than she can chew and even though she gets her story, she decides being a reporter just isn’t right for her after all.  But you’ve certainly got to give her credit for giving it her all.

Glenda Farrell in Mystery of the Wax MuseumGlenda Farrell as Florence Dempsey in Mystery of the Wax Museum

You can always count on Glenda Farrell to bring plenty of sass to her characters and Mystery of the Wax Museum is no exception.  Not only is Florence sassy, she can dig up stories on slow news days and is smart enough to figure out what’s really happening at the wax museum.  Every newspaper needs a Florence Dempsey type on their staff.

James Cagney in Picture SnatcherJames Cagney as Danny Keane in Picture Snatcher

Gotta love Danny Keane.  After giving up being a gangster, he decides to pursue his lifelong dream of being a newspaper reporter.  He doesn’t work at the best paper in town, but he makes the most of the opportunity.  Danny is clever, resourceful, and not afraid to break the rules, so he excels at getting some hard-to-get pictures for the paper.  Even though he’s not the most ethical journalist, he’s not cold and ruthless, either.  When he goes too far on the job and ends up hurting the girl he’s fallen in love with, he feels just awful about it.

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For more contributions to the Journalism in Classic Film Blogathon, head on over to Comet Over Hollywood or Lindsay’s Movie Musings.

Five Reasons Why I Love Bette Davis

Bette Davis

1.  She was talented.

Enough said.

2.  Who needs glamour when you can have realism?

When Bette Davis first signed with Warner Brothers, the executives at Warner’s had no idea what to do with her.  Bette said of her early days at Warner’s, “I was known as the little brown wren.  Who’d want to get me at the end of the picture?” They bleached her hair and tried forcing her into the mold of a glamour girl, which Bette absolutely despised.  She wanted to act, not just look pretty and she fought against the studio to be able to do that.Bette Davis

But in 1934, Bette finally found her niche when she gladly took on a role few other actresses would dare to touch — the completely unsympathetic Mildred in Of Human Bondage.  The total lack of vanity Bette showed in Of Human Bondage was a revelation and marked the first of many times Bette would choose realism over glamour.  For 1939’s The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Bette removed her eyebrows and shaved her hairline back two inches.  While making Marked Woman in 1937, Bette stormed off the set when the studio make-up department gave her a few measly bandages to wear after her character was severely beaten.  She went to her own doctor to be bandaged more realistically and refused to shoot the scene any other way.  And then there was Baby Jane Hudson in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, a role that only could have been played by someone willing to put aside every last shred of vanity.

3.  She knew what she wanted and wasn’t afraid to fight for it.

Bette Davis

Bette Davis was notoriously difficult to work with.  But did Bette care?  Nope!  When someone said Bette was once known for being difficult, Bette declared, “At one time?! I’ve been known as difficult for fifty years practically! What do you mean ‘at one time?!’ No, I’ve been difficult for fifty years. And it’s always to make it the best film I can make it!”

In 1936, Bette was fed up with being given sub-par scripts and so-so directors at Warner Brothers and decided to go to court over it.  She intentionally broke her contract and went to England, where a trial was held over stipulations of her contract Bette felt were unfair.   Of the trial, Bette said, “I knew that if I continued to appear in any more mediocre pictures, I would have no career left worth fighting for.”  Bette lost the trial, but she still made her point — the quality of her movies improved after that.  Olivia de Havilland later went to court over some of the same things Bette did and won her case.

4. I respect her work ethic and ambition.

Bette Davis On Set

During her life, Bette commented that she when she died, they were going to write “She did it the hard way” on her gravestone.  That phrase is, indeed, written on her gravestone and it is the most accurate thing that could be written on it.  Bette absolutely thrived on working hard.  She lived by the words, “Attempt the impossible to improve your work.”  On the subject of working, Bette also said…

  • “It has been my experience that one cannot, in any shape or form, depend on human relations for lasting reward. It is only work that truly satisfies.”
  • “My passions were all gathered together like fingers that made a fist. Drive is considered aggression today; I knew it then as purpose.”
  • “I will not retire while I’ve still got my legs and my make-up box.”

5.  She always had something witty to say.

Interviews with Bette Davis are often just as entertaining as her films because she was such a witty woman.  I can’t help but love anyone who says, “That’s me, an old kazoo with some sparklers.”

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Don’t miss the 2013 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon hosted by Jill of Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence and Michael of Scribe Hard on Film! Lots of great posts are being contributed every day this month, so be sure to check back often!