Monday, April 14, 2014

TCM celebrates 20 years of being more than just a channel full of old American movies only old white people like

T-800 River
(Photo source: The Branding Source)
Turner Classic Movies first launched on April 14, 1994 with Robert Osborne as its host, so the channel turns 20 years old today. I don't have cable anymore, but I was able to hold onto hours and hours of unwatched programming in my DVR (whattup, Pacquiao/Clottey fight), and I DVR'd so many movies off TCM it was as if I still had access to TCM long after I lost all those channels. I don't like really old things--especially old racist movies--and TCM airs a lot of old racist movies. Yet it remains one of my favorite channels because it does much more than air the usual old racist movies. (Most of its audience is also surprisingly young. Two-thirds of the channel's estimated 62 million viewers each month are ages 18 to 49, according to the New York Times' 2013 piece on TCM.)

During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Hispanic Heritage Month and Black History Month, TCM devotes hours of programming to works featuring actors of color (or made by filmmakers of color) and gets film historians of color to sit with Osborne and provide their input on those films. It's aired cult favorites and obscure gems like The Crimson Kimono and Killer of Sheep that I was dying to see and weren't available on DVD when they aired (before a manufactured-on-demand service like Warner Archive came along to rescue many of those titles from unavailability) or were difficult to get access to on Netflix because they'd get stamped with that dreaded "Very long wait" status. The channel frequently exposes you to marathons of works by filmmakers you wish you were more familiar with. TCM is like film school without the outrageous tuition fees.

I missed Spike's TCM night, but I assume his TCM segments were filled with lots of 'Do you know? Do you know? Do you know?'
Ted Turner's movie channel isn't the first basic cable channel to broadcast movies uncut, commercial-free and in their original aspect ratios, but as competitors like TCM's precursor AMC, IFC and FXM succumbed to censoring their movies and inserting commercials to stay afloat, TCM has stubbornly stuck to its principles of never laying a finger on its movies (if a movie from the '70s, '80s or '90s is full of profanities, TCM airs it only late at night). Instead of ads, TCM makes a profit through experiential marketing, or as the Times explains that lofty term, "a guided tour of New York movie sites and sights on a sightseeing bus, to be offered by TCM and On Location Tours three days a week, beginning on Thursday; an annual Hollywood film festival in April; a yearly TCM Classic Cruise in December; an auction of movie memorabilia, planned for November, in partnership with Bonhams; screenings of movies like Frankenstein and To Kill a Mockingbird in theaters around the country; and DVD collections sold online and by retailers." As Osborne told the Times, all those things are "anything we can do to keep the company making enough of a profit so we don’t have to have commercials, sell underarm deodorants and all that."

Isn't Osborne just the coolest host? He's the anti-Rex Reed, as in he knows what he's talking about and he isn't a racist douchebag. And when he interviews older movie stars or filmmakers, he's the anti-James Lipton, as in he's respectful to them without coming off as creepy and he doesn't do that stupid "I'd like you to respond as your character from blankety-blank" thing. It's amazing that Osborne's still the face of TCM, even though he's started cutting back on his on-air time due to his age and recent health problems. The day when he either completely retires or dies is going to be a very sad one for TCM. I'm grateful to TCM for the following 20 moments in the channel's history (16 of them are movies I first saw on TCM and the rest of them are either special programming events or activities outside the channel schedule).

Victoria Shaw and the fucking mack
The Crimson Kimono
Asian America loves it when a young Asian American actor gets to defy Hollywood's tendency to emasculate Asian guys and play the romantic lead on TV for once, whether it's John Cho hooking up with Gabrielle Union on FlashForward or currently, Steven Yeun romancing Lauren Cohan on The Walking Dead. But decades before Cho or Yeun, James Shigeta actually got the girl in Samuel Fuller's amazing 1959 noir The Crimson Kimono. As Philip W. Chung wrote in YOMYOMF, "Now Fuller wasn't perfect. His House of Bamboo (1955) was a typical white man in Asia action thriller, and in China Gate (1957), he couldn't resist putting Angie Dickinson in yellow face, but overall, his films were pretty progressive." And The Crimson Kimono is a great example of Fuller's progressiveness, as Shigeta's Nisei homicide detective Joe Kojaku falls for art expert Christine Downs (Victoria Shaw) while he and his partner (James Corbett) investigate a stripper's murder in Little Tokyo, a part of L.A. that receives a remarkably non-stereotypical treatment from Fuller's film. As Ryan Reft said in his piece on The Crimson Kimono for KCET, "Fuller attempts to distinguish Little Tokyo, but not in any exoticized way; these are just normal Americans going about their business." The Crimson Kimono is one of several Fuller films I was introduced to by TCM, and it's made me want to see more of his works.

Jason Bourne stole his moves from these Watts kids.
Killer of Sheep
A black-and-white 1977 gem that UCLA grad student Charles Burnett made about the working class in Watts, Killer of Sheep wasn't released theatrically until 2007 and is a landmark achievement in both African American cinema and indie cinema I was first exposed to through a TCM marathon of Burnett works hosted by Burnett and Osborne. Too many contemporary American films that are centered on communities of color are heavy on the speechifying or pandering and do more telling than showing. Killer of Sheep simply shows. At one point, Burnett's camera captures a little girl (dog mask-wearing Angela Burnett, the director's daughter) playing with her doll and clapping and mumble-singing along to Earth, Wind & Fire's "Reasons." The kid's off-key sing-along and a wordless slow dance between her parents to Dinah Washington's "This Bitter Earth" are examples of how Killer of Sheep establishes the film's setting and mood more effectively than any piece of lengthy dialogue or voiceover ever could. Another moment along those lines is the visual of kids leaping from rooftop to rooftop--hey, they're the first parkourers--and it's such a striking shot that it's no wonder Mos Def turned it into the cover of his 2009 album The Ecstatic.

Three Days of the Condor
I first caught Three Days of the Condor back-to-back with Marathon Man as part of a TCM night of '70s political thrillers, one of the channel's countless, cleverly programmed theme nights. Long before Robert Redford gave one of the best performances in a Marvel Studios blockbuster in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, he was attempting to outwit assassins hired by his own CIA employers to snuff him out in this enjoyable 1975 conspiracy thriller that heavily influenced the Russo brothers when they directed The Winter Soldier. While Chris Evans is joined in his crusade against HYDRA by a nicely diverse cast of allies (Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson and Cobie Smulders), Redford, the lone survivor of a CIA office massacre, has only his wits to keep him alive. The silliest part of Three Days of the Condor is that Redford's supposed to be playing a book nerd, and when you think "book nerd," you don't picture Redford. You picture sickly Steve Rogers before the super-soldier serum transformed him into Captain America. But it's a testament to Redford's skills as an actor that he makes you buy his character's nerdiness and inexperience in the field despite his movie-star looks.

Godzilla searches for a bathroom after eating so much Chipotle.
Godzilla (1954)
If your idea of Godzilla is that it's a cheesy and campy franchise, prepare to be surprised by how dark and suffused with post-Hiroshima/Nagasaki paranoia the first and most serious of the Toho Godzilla films really is. Monsters director Gareth Edwards' upcoming Godzilla remake is reportedly modeled after the 1954 Godzilla, so if you're turnt up by the recent Godzilla trailer footage, check out the 1954 film to get a taste of what Edwards intends to accomplish with his gritty remake. The version of the 1954 film I saw on TCM was the original Japanese version, so if you wind up with the version where Perry Mason is frequently seen interrupting Zilla's rampage, get the hell rid of it.

Dersu Uzala
My journalism teacher Conn Hallinan once recommended Dersu Uzala to me in class while we were discussing a capsule I wrote in the campus paper about the video release of one of my favorite films, Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. So when the 1975 Kurosawa film turned up on TCM 17 years after he first mentioned it to me, I finally saw it and was particularly impressed by the nail-biting sequence where Russian explorer Arseniev (Yuri Solomin) and his Siberian guide (Maksim Munzuk), the titular woodsman, battle both the harsh winter winds and their own physical exhaustion to build a straw hut in order to save themselves. It's one of my favorite sequences in a Kurosawa film.

Sophia Loren's striptease is a great argument for why Hollywood under the Hays Code sucked.
(Photo source: DVD Beaver)
Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
Like Kurosawa, Vittorio De Sica, the director of Bicycle Thieves, is another foreign filmmaker whose works I got to see on TCM. I don't think I've ever seen a film like De Sica's Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, a 1963 triptych of stories each set in a different part of Italy, with Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni starring as a different couple in each one. Loren's striptease towards the end of the film still sizzles despite its chasteness.

Why do the only good disaster movies--Juggernaut and A Night to Remember--both come from the U.K.?

Lord Love a Duck
Roddy McDowall is the least convincing high-schooler ever. When McDowall did Lord Love a Duck, he was 90210 years old.

That girl is Swope. Putney Swope
Featured during the "TCM Underground" block, director Robert Downey's signature work appeals to my anti-authoritarian side--it's the satirical tale of an ad agency's token black employee (Arnold Johnson) who winds up in charge and becomes famous for creating sexually explicit and profane ads--even though the film falls apart at the end and Downey's redubbing of his own lead actor sounds terrible. Johnson constantly bungled his lines, so Downey erased Johnson's voice from the soundtrack and inserted his own. He sounds less like an old black man and more like Cleavon Little when he imitated a white thug while pretending to take himself hostage in Blazing Saddles. The elder Downey's performance is a bizarre precursor to his actor son's portrayal of a white movie star pretending to be black in Tropic Thunder. But I agree with Hammer to Nail that the film is dead-on about how "people will be cruel and craven no matter what side of the power dynamic they occupy," which makes it as relevant now as it was in 1969.

The Carey Treatment
An Asian American surgeon played by an actual Asian in a film by Blake Edwards, who brought the world both Mickey Rooney in yellowface and buckteeth in Breakfast at Tiffany's and Peter Sellers in brownface in The Party? And this Asian character's not cooning it up big-time? How the hell is this possible? Then I remember that MGM booted Edwards from the final cut of this much-maligned but still-entertaining 1972 James Coburn whodunit. It explains why James Hong is portraying a normal human being.

Baby Face
Sure, old Hollywood is an era I don't want to spend too much time visiting because of its immense racism, but pre-Code films are always worth a look, especially when they air on TCM, just to see how much they were able to get away with in terms of sexually charged material. The Code was the Motion Picture Production Code, a set of censorship guidelines that was enforced in Hollywood from 1930 to 1968 by the organization that later became known as the MPAA. But the Code actually wasn't fully enforced until censor Joseph Breen was put in charge of it in 1934. An anti-Semitic Catholic, Breen undertook a crusade to purify the product of the Jewish movie moguls he considered his enemies and proceeded to wipe out, as Kim Morgan wrote, "the transgressions indulged in films ranging from scrappy Warner Bros. gangster pictures to glossy MGM melodramas: criminals getting away with it, sex before marriage, adultery, drug addiction, drunkenness, mockery of matrimony, and suggestion of nudity. (Check how many times Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell dress and undress in William Wellman's Night Nurse.)" One of those pre-Code films is another Stanwyck vehicle, the fascinating Baby Face, which is tame by today's standards (it elegantly cuts away to exterior shots of the title character's workplace and a rendition of "St. Louis Blues" whenever she does the nasty). But story-wise, it's still quite subversive for its hard-boiled look at a woman who uses sex to climb the corporate ladder. In Baby Face, Stanwyck is such a badass that she beds John Wayne off-screen and then dumps him.

The leader of planet Punanny
In The Shawshank Redemption, the prisoners lose their minds over Rita Hayworth's sexually charged performance in Gilda during prison movie night ("This is the part I really like. This is when she does that shit with her hair."), and when I first saw the 1946 noir on TCM, I felt like hollering at the TV screen like they did too. I wasn't prepared for how nutty the writing in Gilda is though, from the homoerotic dialogue between George Macready and Glenn Ford ("That is my idea of a friend," says Macready about the knife cane he carries around with him; "You must lead a gay life," responds Ford) to the nonsensical plot turns in the film's third act. The best audio commentary that attempts to make sense of Gilda has to be the Greg Proops Film Club episode about the film, in which the comedian, on stage at a Cinefamily screening of Gilda, wittily comments on Hayworth's sexiness ("She is from planet Punanny," a favorite saying of Proops' that he credits his late comedian friend Warren Thomas for coming up with) and the film's weirdness ("What about the world they live in? It's cigarettes and alcohol and tuxedos and fucking double-breasted jackets and everyone's in evening wear every second of the fucking movie. There's no daytime in this movie!").

Kiss Me Deadly
Another weird noir I first saw on TCM was Robert Aldrich's bleak 1955 take on Mike Hammer, and it wallows in weirdness, from the backwards-scrolling opening credits soundtracked by a young Cloris Leachman's orgasmic-sounding moans to the sci-fi MacGuffin of a nuclear bomb stored in a box. Ralph Meeker was good as Aldrich's sadistic version of Hammer (Aldrich and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides despised the fascism of Mickey Spillane's Hammer novels, hence their satirical portrayal of Hammer as a not-too-bright bully), but I like to imagine an alternate universe where Stacy Keach, who starred as a slightly nicer Hammer in both the '80s and '90s on TV, played Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly instead of Meeker. Keach, beloved by TV nerds for his role as the terrible dad on Titus, would have relished playing a Hammer who's freed from the restraints of network TV.

The Oscar
Tony Bennett was robbed at the Razzies for his overacting during this so-atrocious-it's-entertaining 1966 fiasco, which still isn't on DVD and can only be seen occasionally on TCM. Oh, wait--the Razzies weren't invented until 1981. But had the Razzies been around as early as the '60s, The Oscar would have swept the Razzies. If you ever wondered what Officer Lance on Arrow would sound like if he were constipated all the time, check out Stephen Boyd in The Oscar.

Quatermass and the Pit
Another film that's not on DVD but I was able to catch, thanks to TCM, is 1967's Quatermass and the Pit, which went out of print in America and hasn't been reissued here since then (meanwhile, it received the Blu-ray treatment in the U.K.). Like the two '60s Doctor Who feature films that starred Peter Cushing as the Doctor, Quatermass and the Pit, or as it's called in America, Five Million Years to Earth, is a remake of a BBC sci-fi serial, one of several serials featuring the character of Bernard Quatermass (pronounced "KWAY-ter-mass"), a heroic British professor who's played in the 1967 film by Andrew Keir. The low-budget thriller was produced by England's beloved Hammer horror film studio, and it's the only Hammer film I've been able to get into (if I ever have the patience for Victorian horror, maybe I'll marathon all those Hammer naked vampire flicks or Christopher Lee Draculas someday). Its clever concept of a Martian master plan of ethnic cleansing on Earth--scores of present-day humans are the descendants of cavemen who were abducted by Martians who implanted the cavemen and their descendants with telekinetic powers to eliminate all humans who are different from them--is quite creepy. It's also an amusing way to explain the roots of racism. Marvin Martian made you racist!

Slaughter's big squint-off
Dark of the Sun
As far as "white leads avenging the deaths of their black BFFs" action movies go, Dark of the Sun actually doesn't suck. It originally ended with Rod Taylor slicing the Nazi villain's heart out and eating it? I wish that scene stayed. Screw the MPAA. For once, I'd like an action flick to end with the lead eating his foe's flesh like at the end of "Wake Up and Smile."

The Turner Classic Movies Music label
Besides doing great deeds like airing movies uncut and in their widescreen aspect ratios, letting viewers see obscure works that are out of print and introducing classics to a new generation, TCM has ventured into the score album market. Through its partnerships with Rhino, and in more recent years, Film Score Monthly, the channel's soundtrack label has put out expanded reissues of tons of MGM, Warner Bros. and RKO film scores that never received a proper release because of either the running-time limitations of the LP and cassette formats or the fact that record labels weren't aware that there are actually people who like to listen to complete film scores outside the context of the films. I used to love receiving in the mail from Rhino those hefty CD compilations they did with TCM because they would frequently contain alternate edits of score cues, rehearsal material and outtakes like the audio of Victor/Victoria crew members busting their guts laughing while Robert Preston does a rehearsal of "The Shady Dame from Seville."

Bill Hader throws shade at the Transformers movies
Should Robert Osborne suddenly decide he'll call it a day like David Letterman did a couple of weeks ago, there are a couple of current TCM hosts who would be good as his successors. Weekend daytime host Ben Mankiewicz is as knowledgeable as Osborne (he's seen below interviewing Quincy Jones about one of my favorite scores that he wrote, the Italian Job score, at last week's TCM screening of The Italian Job in Hollywood). I especially like it when conservatives get riled up by anything Mankiewicz says (he's also involved with the left-leaning Young Turks channel on YouTube), like when he astutely compared right-wing talk radio to Andy Griffith's Lonesome Rhodes character during a wraparound segment for an airing of A Face in the Crowd. So he'd be an intriguing choice, but an even more intriguing choice than Mankiewicz would be film geek and former SNL funnyman Bill Hader, who hosts TCM's preteen-skewing Essentials Jr., though I doubt the channel would consider him for the weeknight hosting gig because he's a comedian who does impressions of Star Wars creatures dying. Hader won me over as a TCM host when he introduced The Thing from Another World with a brief mention of the theremin in sci-fi film scores like Dimitri Tiomkin's Thing score, and he said, "Transformers would be so much better with a theremin."

Elvis Mitchell gets the reclusive Bill Murray to talk for a half-hour
Under the Influence, in which Elvis Mitchell, the host of KCRW's The Treatment, would chat with actors and directors about movies and movie stars they admire, was produced for only one season on TCM in 2008. The Bill Murray episode is worth DVRing whenever TCM re-airs it (the Laurence Fishburne ep is worthwhile too). Mitchell was able to get Murray, a friend of his who, outside of his Letterman appearances, rarely does TV interviews, to open up during his show and give candid discussions about the constant feuding he saw between Dustin Hoffman and Sydney Pollack on the set of Tootsie, movie acting and comediennes he enjoys watching ("Elaine May is like the most attractive woman in the world").

Rin Tin Tin was furious about not landing a role in Neko Case's TCM programming pick, The Dogway Melody.
Neko Case's stint as a TCM guest programmer
She remains my favorite TCM guest programmer, simply because her block of programming featured the masterpiece that is The Dogway Melody.

Here are the other films I was first exposed to through TCM, and they range from great to terrible. Only three of them are flat-out terrible, and we know which one of them it is. Its title rhymes with "Tevin's rate."

Alfie (1966)
The Americanization of Emily
The Apartment
The Asphalt Jungle
Below the Belt
The Bridge on the River Kwai (Photo source: DVD Beaver)
Brother John
The Carpetbaggers
The Cincinnati Kid
The Dirty Dozen
Dr. No (the film's original version of "The James Bond Theme" can be heard during "AFOS Vault" on AFOS) (Photo source: DVD Beaver)
Easy Rider (Photo source: DVD Beaver)
Edge of the City
A Face in the Crowd
Father Goose
The Fog (1980)
The Freshman (1925)
Gaily, Gaily
Ganja & Hess (Photo source: DVD Beaver)
Grand Prix
Steve McQueen realizes he just pooped his pants.
The Great Escape
The Haunting (1963)
Heaven's Gate
High Noon
The Hospital
The Idolmaker
Junior Bonner
The Knack... And How to Get It (the film's main title theme can be heard during "AFOS Prime" on AFOS)
The Lion in Winter (1968)
The Liquidator
Little Darlings
Local Hero
The Magnificent Seven (Photo source: DVD Beaver)
The Man from Laramie
Manhattan (Photo source: DVD Beaver)
Marathon Man
My Brother's Wedding (Photo source: DVD Beaver)
My Family
My Favorite Year
The Naked City
The Naked Kiss (Photo source: DVD Beaver)
A Night at the Opera
Night Nurse (Photo source: DVD Beaver)
Odds Against Tomorrow
On the Town
The Outfit (Photo source: DVD Beaver)
The Parallax View
Somewhere, Bjork is jotting this down as an idea for a new hat to wear.
The Party (Photo source: DVD Beaver)
A Patch of Blue
Fuck the slapstick. Fran Jeffries' booty is the highlight of the first Pink Panther movie, no doubt.
The Pink Panther (1964) (Photo source: Poetic and Chic)
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
Prince of the City
The Producers (1968)
The Professionals ("You bastard." "Yes, sir. In my case, an accident of birth. But you, sir, you're a self-made man.")
The Reivers
Rollerball (1975)
The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (Photo source: Another Film Blog)
Salt & Pepper (Photo source: Forgotten Films)
The Satan Bug (Photo source: DVD Beaver)
Saturday Night Fever
Sherlock Jr.
Shock Corridor
The Slams
Some Like It Hot
Somebody Up There Likes Me
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
Sullivan's Travels
Take the Money and Run
Myrna Loy, the original Mrs. Hart to Hart before there was a Mr. and Mrs. Hart to Hart
The Thin Man (Photo source:
3:10 to Yuma (1957)
2001: A Space Odyssey
Underworld U.S.A.
Viva Las Vegas (Photo source: DVD Beaver)
What's New Pussycat?
White Heat

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