NaBloPoMo 2015

What’s on TCM: December 2015

Frank Sinatra From Here to Eternity

Happy December, everyone! Ready to start watching your favorite classic holiday movies? If you are, you can count on lots of those coming up this month. On almost every Friday night this month, plus on weekends, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day, you’ll have lots of opportunities to watch lots of Christmas classics.

In honor of his 100th birthday, Frank Sinatra will be December’s Star of the Month. Every Tuesday night, TCM will be showing many of his movies, plus classic televised specials. On Monday nights this month, there will be a series of films that deal with various types of friendships between women; some are genuinely close friendships while others are more complicated.

December’s going to be a busy month, so let’s get started with the schedule.

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Underworld (1927)

Underworld 1927

After pulling off  a big robbery, gangster Bull Weed (George Bancroft) crosses paths with a homeless, alcoholic man he nicknames Rolls Royce (Clive Brook). Bull likes Rolls Royce’s style, so he decides to make him part of his gang. Bull is a pretty big shot gangster who thinks he’s untouchable. With Bull’s help, Rolls Royce gets his act together and ends up becoming a valuable part of Bull’s gang. Before alcoholism took over his life, Rolls had been a lawyer so he’s got lots of knowledge that’s very helpful for Bull’s many schemes.

Not only is Bull extremely proud of his criminal enterprise, he’s also very proud of his girlfriend Feathers (Evelyn Brent). Things start to get complicated when Rolls Royce and Feathers start to fall in love with each other. One night at a party attended by every major gangster in town, Bull finds out he’s not as untouchable as he thought. When he discovers a rival gangster trying to get Feathers’ attention, Bull kills him, is caught, and sentenced to death.

Although Rolls and Feathers are conflicted about whether or not they should accept this opportunity to be together, Rolls comes up with a plan to break Bull out of prison. Unfortunately, the plan goes horribly awry and Bull thinks he’s been double crossed. But Bull escapes and ends up getting into a big standoff with the police while Rolls and Feathers try to set the record straight with him.

You’d be hard pressed to find a classic gangster movie that wasn’t influenced in some way by Underworld. The story might not be particularly complex, but Underworld effectively set the tone for all the gangster movies that would become hugely popular just a few years later. When you watch it, you’ll inevitably see see moments that make you think of Little CaesarScarface, and The Public Enemy. With Josef Von Sternberg at the helm, Underworld is a bit more stylish than the classic Warner Brothers gangster classics, but it’s no less brilliant. All three leads give excellent performances that really light up the screen. On the whole, Underworld has aged very well. If you’re a big fan of gangster movies, this is an absolute must-see.

The Freshman (1925)

Harold Lloyd The Freshman

More than anything else, Harold Lamb (Harold Lloyd) dreams of being able to go away to college and be a big man on campus. He works hard to be able to go to Tate College,  but since he’s not the coolest guy in town, he decides to see a movie called “The College Hero” over and over again and takes notes on everything the main character does. Once his parents see some of the things Harold is planning to do, like doing a jig anytime he meets someone new, they know this isn’t going to end well.

Once Harold arrives at Tate College, his behavior does make him popular, but for all the wrong reasons. He quickly becomes a target for other students to pick on and Harold’s tendency to try to buy popularity doesn’t do him any favors. The only real friend he has is girl named Peggy (Jobyna Ralston), who he had met on the train to Tate and just happens to be his landlord’s daughter. She sincerely has a crush on Harold for the person he really is, not the person he tries to be.

Eventually, Harold realizes that if he really wants to be popular, he needs to get on the football team. Of course, Harold’s try-out is a complete disaster, but the coach admires his persistence and when one of the team’s most popular players suggest they make him the team’s water boy and let him think he’s a replacement, the coach goes along with it. Thinking he’s made the team, Harold tries taking another step up the social ladder by hosting the school’s Fall Frolic, but the night ends up being another disaster when his tailor isn’t able to have his suit ready on time. Since his suit is only held together with very loose stitches, the tailor has to secretly keep stitching him back up throughout the night. Then things get even worse when Harold and a popular student get into an argument over Peggy and Harold finds out how the other students really see him.

But when Tate College is playing in a big football game, Harold finally has a chance to earn the popularity he’s always wanted. The players on the other team are so strong, all of Tate’s players are forced out of the game because of injuries. Harold is eager to get in the game, but the coach hesitates until he has no other choice. After he finally gets in the game, Harold nearly loses the whole game, but he manages pull through in the end.

I absolutely despise football, but watching The Freshman is one of the rare occasions I will gladly watch something football-related and have a darn good time doing so. Harold Lloyd is an absolute genius and The Freshman is one of his best movies. He was so perfect at playing sincere, likable, but kind of dorky characters; he had it down to a fine art. Not only is Lloyd’s performance excellent, it’s full of absolutely hilarious jokes but still has a lot of heart to it. This is everything a good silent comedy should be. The Freshman is an absolute delight, plain and simple. If you’re just starting to get into silent films and are looking for some movies to help you get started exploring silent comedy, The Freshman is one I would very highly recommend.

A Throw of Dice (1929)

A Throw of Dice 1929

If there’s one thing cousins and rival kings Sohat (Himansu Rai) and Ranjit (Charu Roy) can’t resist, it’s gambling. While on a hunting trip together, the two kings are more interested in gambling with each other than they are in actually hunting. Unbeknownst to Ranjit, Sohat has conspired to kill Ranjit with a poisoned arrow during the trip so it will look like an accident and he’ll be able to take control over Ranjit’s kingdom. But they happen to be hunting close to where Kanwa (Sarada Gupta), a healer turned hermit, lives with his daughter Sunita (Seeta Devi) so Ranjit it taken there to recover. Meanwhile, Ranjit falls in love with Sunita, as does Sohat. Sunita loves Ranjit and isn’t interested in Sohat’s attempts to win her over. But Kanwa refuses to let his daughter marry Sunita because of his gambling habit and they plan to run away together.

After spending a blissful week together before their wedding, Sunita suddenly decides to leave Ranjit after she gets word that her father is dead and she’s presented with some evidence that suggests Ranjit had murdered him. As she leaves to head home, Sohan meets up with her and tries to make her think he’s trying to protect her from Ranjit while Ranjit has a friend of his try to catch up with her and explain the truth.

Once she’s convinced of Ranjit’s innocence, Sunita decides to go through with the wedding. But on the big day, Sohan arrives with the one thing that could put the wedding to a complete halt — some dice.

Even if you think a movie about two men vying for a woman’s affection sounds trite, A Throw of Dice is still very much worth seeing. Once you see it, it’s not the kind of movie you ever forget seeing. Its beautiful cinematography, beautiful costuming, and exquisite scenery make it stand out from other Hollywood productions that have similar plots. This film is absolutely stunning. It’s been compared to some of Cecil B. DeMille’s work because of its spectacular scenery and large crowd scenes, but there was no need to build sets for A Throw of Dice on a Hollywood soundstage when they could film it on location in India. It’s simply one of the most visually beautiful films I’ve ever seen. If you have any interest in film history, particularly in world cinema, this is a must see. Very few movies that were made in India during the silent era still exist intact today, so A Throw of Dice is a rare chance to see a silent film that was filmed in India and starred Indian actors.

The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)

Poor Little Rich Girl 1917

Gwendolyn (Mary Pickford) comes from a wealthy family and has all the privileges that come along with it, but she’d gladly trade it all to feel more loved by her parents. Her mother is too busy with social events to spend much time with her and her father is too busy with work and is currently busy dealing with a big financial crisis. The family’s servants are left to take care of Gwendolyn. She hardly gets to spend time with other children her own age and when she does, they’re usually the stuck up children of her mother’s snobby friends. She much prefers having fun with people like the plumber or the kids on the street, but every time she does, someone comes along to stop her fun. When it’s Gwendolyn’s birthday, she’s hardly welcome at her own birthday party; the guests are all friends of her parents.

One night, one of the family’s servants wants to go out, so she drugs Gwendolyn to get her to go to sleep. Only the servant gives her too much and she ends up getting close to death. While unconscious, Gwendolyn dreams she’s in the Garden of Lonely Children, where she meets a lot of characters based on the people she knows in real life. Meanwhile, her parents wait to find out whether or not their daughter will live and begin to re-evaluate their priorities in life.

Despite all of the amazing things Mary Pickford achieved during her career, she was hardly a larger than life person. She was just 5 feet tall and she found a way to make her stature work in her favor by playing children. The Poor Little Rich Girl is an excellent example of one of Pickford’s little girl roles. Between her short stature, signature hair curls, and some clever tricks, she actually is pretty believable as a child in Poor Little Rich Girl, even though she was in her mid-20s at the time she made the movie. These roles were a good chance for Pickford to play feisty, spunky, but very likable characters, which she did brilliantly. Even if you can tell when tricks were used to make Pickford appear smaller on screen (oversized sets, other actors who were considerably taller, placing taller people/large objects in the foreground), it’s hard not to be charmed by her, no matter how silly it may seem to have an adult playing a child.

The Blue Bird (1918)

The Blue Bird 1918

Mytyl (Tula Belle) and her brother Tyltyl (Robin Macdougall) are young children who don’t come from a wealthy father. They don’t have much and often spend their time watching the what the wealthier children are doing. However, they often fail to appreciate the simple things they already have. One day, their neighbor Berlingot (Edward Elkas) asks to borrow the childrens’ pet bird to cheer up her sick daughter, but the children refuse to.

Later that night as the children sleep, the fairy Berylune (Lillian Cook) appears to them in a dream in the form of Berlingot and tells them about the blue bird of happiness. The blue bird of happiness is a bird that’s the exact color of the sky, so it’s very difficult to find, but brings immense happiness to those who are able to find it. Berylune sends the children on a mission to find the blue bird of happiness, but first, she gives them a special hat with a diamond in it that allows them to see the spirits of their pets and other objects. The children quickly make friends with all these spirits and they all set off to find the blue bird.

Berylune brings the children and the other spirits to mystical places like the Palace of Night, where they’re reunited with their deceased grandparents, the Palace of Happiness, where they’re introduced to all the joys of life, and the Palace of the Future, where the souls of babies wait to be born. Along the way, the children keep trying to find the blue bird, but with no success. But when they wake up in the morning, the children suddenly have a much greater appreciation for everything they have and realize their pet bird is none other than the blue bird of happiness. When Berlingot stops by, the children insist she bring the bird to her daughter and it’s exactly the sick girl needs. She makes  a speedy recovery and when she comes to return the bird, it escapes and flies away. Rather than getting upset, Tyltyl asks the viewer to look for the blue bird of happiness in their own homes as that’s where it’s most likely to be found.

I wouldn’t say The Blue Bird was one of my favorite movies, but it was pleasant enough. It’s extremely imaginative and reminded me a lot of The Wizard of Oz, thematically speaking. I appreciated that Tula Belle and Robin Macdougall seemed like natural children and not overly-cloying and cutesy like many child actors could be. Many of the special effects were really well done, although the human actors portraying some of the spirits the children start to see like the dog and the cat might seem kind of bizarre Personally, I found the costume on the guy playing the spirit of the sugar loaf (yes, there is a person who gets to play the spirit of a sugar loaf) absolutely hilarious, but that may be because it’s been kind of a long day and I’m kind of easily amused. On the whole, I’m glad I saw it once, but I don’t think it’s the sort of movie I’ll go out of my way to see again.

Don Juan (1926)

Don Juan 1926As a young child, Don Juan (John Barrymore) is warned of one thing by his father — take all the love he can get from women, but be careful to not give them your love in return. Don Juan’s father Don Jose (also John Barrymore) knows a thing or two about being spurned by women, first when he finds out his wife is cheating on him, then he’s killed by a woman who stabs him. Don Juan takes his father’s advice to heart and after graduating college, he lives in Italy and establishes quite the reputation with women. At the time, Italy was being ruled by the Borgia family and Lucrezia Borgia (Estelle Taylor) has heard all about him. She personally invites Don Juan to a party she’s throwing and he goes, knowing what happens to people who defy the Borgias.

At the party, Don Juan is quite unimpressed with Lucrezia, but is instantly enamored with Adriana della Varnese (Mary Astor). Adriana is the kind of woman who makes him forget about all those warnings his father had given him about women. Lucrezia becomes extremely jealous and tries to get her to marry Count Donati (Montagu Love) and plots to kill her father. But then Don Juan get in the way of her scheme and officially wins Adriana’s affections. But Lucrezia isn’t willing to give up so easily and continues to threaten Adriana into marrying Donati. Even knowing how dangerous it can be to cross the Borgia family, Don Juan still refuses to marry Lucrezia and stops Adriana’s wedding. Lucrezia tries to have Don Juan locked up and put to death, but he stops at nothing to marry the woman he loves.

Although it doesn’t feature any spoken dialogue, Don Juan is significant for being the first commercially released feature film with a synchronized soundtrack and sound effects on Vitaphone. Don Juan was definitely meant to be a big prestige picture for Warner Brothers. Not only did it utilize the new Vitaphone technology, it starred John Barrymore, one of the biggest stars in the world at the time, and featured a lot of lavish sets and costumes, plus some exciting action scenes. It even does a good job of using first-person camera perspective in some shots. Warner Brothers clearly pulled out all the stops and it definitely shows. Although the story drags a little bit, it’s generally a very entertaining movie and an excellent action role for the great John Barrymore. It’s not hard to see how this one was a huge hit when it was released and it remains very likable today. (Also, don’t forget to keep an eye out for Myrna Loy in a small role!)

Back Stage (1919)

Back Stage 1919

Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle both play stagehands at a vaudeville house. Their jobs typically involve things like pasting up new posters, helping with the sets, and assisting the performers as necessary. The performers they encounter can be a very colorful, temperamental bunch of people and when a strongman (Charles A. Post) comes to perform, he’s no exception. The strongman has a very…shall we say demanding personality. His assistant is a lovely woman (Molly Malone) and when the stagehands see him being mean to her, they decide to teach him a lesson by sabotaging his equipment.

Furious, the strongman refuses to go on and so do all of the other performers. With a theater full of people waiting to see a show, the stagehands decide to put on the performers’ costumes and do the show themselves. Of course, the show is a complete disaster, but the stagehands try to carry on the best they can. Things get even worse when the strongman appears in the balcony with a gun and starts firing it. But Buster comes to the rescue and stops the shooting while the other stagehands help put a stop to the madness.

Back Stage is far from being one of the best movies Buster Keaton ever made, but it’s still a lot of fun, good for some laughs, and it’s a good example of what a good team Keaton and Abruckle were. One of the most noteworthy things about it is that is has some jokes that Keaton would go on to re-use to in other films to great success, particularly the very famous joke where the front of a house falls and the person standing in front of it survives because they were standing where the window was. It’s not the kind of movie I’d go out of my way for, but if you’re a big Keaton fan, it’s worth seeing if only for being a movie where you get to see early versions of such famous jokes.

Greed (1924)

Greed 1924As a young man, McTeague (Gibson Gowland) works as a miner and doesn’t come from a wealthy family. His mother would love for him to have a better life, so when a traveling dentist comes to town, she begs him to take McTegue along as an apprentice. The dentist agrees and before long, McTeague has his own dentistry office in San Francisco. He’s not rich, but getting by and he has a good friend in Marcus (Jean Hersholt). Marcus is in love with his cousin Trina (ZaSu Pitts) and he wants to marry her. But when she suddenly needs some dental work done one day, it would prove to be a fateful day for all involved.

Marcus brings Trina to see McTeague and while they wait, she decides to buy a lottery ticket, not really expecting to win. When McTeague meets Trina, he falls in love with her and Marcus tries to be supportive and gives him his blessing to start courting her. It’s hard for Marcus to put his feelings aside and it gets even more difficult when they decide to get married. As difficult as that is, it gets worse when Trina finds out her lottery ticket was a winner and she’s won $5,000. Marcus becomes extremely resentful toward McTeague for not only taking Trina away from him, but for taking that money away from him, too.

$5,000 is a life-altering amount of money (the movie is set around the turn of the last century) and it could do a lot to help a newlywed couple get started in life together. McTeague wants to get a small house so they can stop living in a small apartment in a boarding house, but Trina refuses to spend any of the money. She insists on doing everything as cheaply as humanly possible, even if it means living on days old meat and living in an apartment one of their neighbors was murdered in, so she can squirrel away more money that she never intends to spend. Trina’s penny pinching ways cause a lot of tension between her and McTeague and things only get worse when Marcus spitefully rats McTeague out for practicing dentistry without a license. The couple has to sell virtually all of their possessions and McTeague struggles to find more work. Trina refuses to even let him have a few cents for car fare for him to go look for work on a rainy day.

Eventually, McTeague leaves town to work as a fisherman and takes $450 Trina had saved in addition to her winnings since they’ve been married. Trina is left behind absolutely furious and when she has to have some of her fingers amputated, she’s forced to become a school janitor for extra money, still unwilling to spend any of her $5,000. She even withdraws  the money from the bank so McTeague can’t get to it and sleeps on it at night. When McTeague returns from his fishing excursion, he finds Trina and asks her for a little money so he can get something to eat, but she refuses. The next day, McTeague confronts Trina again, but this time he kills her in a fit of rage and takes her $5,000.

Since McTeague is now a wanted criminal, he has no other choice to leave town, so he does and gets back into the mining game. But it isn’t long before begins to worry the authorities are after him. He takes a few supplies and heads into Death Valley on his own with cops following not far behind. Among the authorities is Marcus, who would love nothing more than to see McTeague brought to justice.

Greed is a movie that certainly has a level of notoriety in film history. Director Erich Von Stroheim infamously spent two years filming 85 hours worth of footage for this movie. Filming the scenes in Death Valley alone took two months and Von Stroheim’s original cut of Greed was an astonishing 42 reels long (approximately 8 hours, but could be longer depending on the speed it was projected at.) Von Stroheim only screened his original cut once for about a dozen people before Irving Thalberg insisted it be cut down to a more manageable length. Von Stroheim cut it down to 24 reels and wanted it released as two separate movies, but that didn’t happen. Instead, Thalberg had it cut down to 10 reels. For years, Greed only existed in an extremely truncated form. The hours of footage that were part of Von Sternberg’s original cut are believed to be lost, but the movie has been restored to a 4-hour long version using still photos to fill in some of the missing gaps.

Now rightfully celebrated as being one of the finest films to be produced during the silent era, Greed was greeted to less enthusiasm after its original release. The restored version does a good job of giving us a better idea of what Von Stroheim’s original vision was. The length alone is something that will deter a lot of people from watching it and I know some people aren’t big fans of using still photos in place of lost footage, but it’s really the kind of movie every self-respecting silent film fan should watch at least once. Admittedly, I don’t have the most patience for 3+ hour long movies, but I love Greed. Since it’s been a few years since I last saw it in its entirety, I re-watched it again before writing this post and I’d almost forgotten how good it is. It may be slow paced, but it’s a very compelling look at the power greed can have over people. I know I would be absolutely thrilled if that lost footage ever turned up somewhere.

The Magician (1926)

The Magician 1926

Margaret Chauncey (Alice Terry) is a sculptor who is seriously injured when part of a sculpture she’s working on breaks off and falls on her. Since her spine is injured, the surgery necessary to treat her is very sensitive. Luckily, Doctor Arthur Burdon (Ivan Petrovich) is the one who performs the operation on Margaret and he’s well-known for being one of the best surgeons around. As he performs the operation on Margaret, the procedure is observed by several medical students, including Oliver Haddo (Paul Wegener), who has an interest in hypnotism and magic, in addition to medicine. Haddo is on the search for finding a way to create human life.

Margaret’s operation is a big success and Arthur and Margaret fall in love afterward. It isn’t long before they’re engaged. Meanwhile, Haddo uncovers the secret to creating life in a book and it requires a maiden’s blood. Haddo decides that Margaret is the one whose blood he wants to use to conduct his experiments with. He tries following Margaret and Arthur around, trying to get close to her. Even though she doesn’t like him at all, he uses hypnotism to put her under his spell. One day, he comes to see her at home and makes it seem like a statue has come to life. He asks her to come see him the following morning and even though she doesn’t want to go, she isn’t able to stop herself from going.

Just before Margaret and Arthur are to be married, Haddo uses his control over her to force her to marry him instead. He and Margaret’s uncle know she would not go with him on her own, so Arthur tracks them down in Monte Carlo, where Margaret is now quite the gambler under Haddo’s control. She gets in touch with Arthur to let him know she’s not there on her own accord and he helps her escape. But just when they think she is safe, Margaret suddenly disappears one day. Haddo has tracked her down and kidnaps her so he can continue with his experiments.

I wouldn’t call The Magician one of my favorite movies, but it’s another movie I’m surprised I don’t hear mentioned very often. Rex Ingram’s direction is great and John F. Seitz’s cinematography is fantastic. The scene where Haddo makes it appear as if Margaret’s statue has come to life is particularly effective, thanks to both Ingram’s direction and Seitz’s cinematography. Story-wise, The Magician is something of a cross between Frankenstein and I’m going to say The Barbarian, just because it’s the first movie that comes to mind for me when I think of movies about a man going to horrifying lengths to control a woman. Fortunately, The Magician isn’t offensive like The Barbarian and is actually a pretty good movie that deserves to get more credit for being a great example of silent horror. If you see this one on TCM, be sure to set your DVR for it because it’s absolutely worth seeing at least once.