2014 TCM Film Festival: Hat Check Girl (1932)

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After each TCM Film Festival, I’ve had a film that I considered my “discovery” of the Fest. It helps that TCM has a Discovery section dedicated to lesser-known and rediscovered films, but even out of that group, there’s usually one I latch on to as the one that makes me grateful for the Fest and for going in blind to so many of the Discovery films. In previous years, it’s been Lonesome, Hoop-La, or This is the Night – almost always late ’20s, early ’30s films. This year I pegged Hat Check Girl as most likely to be that film because it was one of only a couple Discoveries from that era; turns out I was wrong and the delightful The Stranger’s Return turned out to be my discovery, but that doesn’t mean Hat Check Girl wasn’t quite enjoyable.

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Sally Eilers plays Gerry Marsh, a hat check girl who wants to stay clean and honest, but keeps being pressured by her boss to sell bootlegged liquor and be an escort at fancy parties. At one such party, she winds up staying late and taking up the host on his offer to stay in a neighboring apartment whose tenant (Buster) is out of town – only he comes back IN town while she’s sleeping in his bed. Yes, this is a Pre-Code. There’s a lot more plot, with Buster romancing Gerry and getting involved in a murder, and it kind of goes off the rails because of course in a 64-minute movie you want to throw in everything but the kitchen sink.

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Blindspotting: West Side Story and 42nd Street

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One of the reasons why you may not often hear as much about plot or character when discussing musicals is that they tend to use age old stories at their core. More often than not it’s all about those tunes and performances, so those familiar tales are used to provide a familiar landscape from which to launch the song and dance routines. As I sat down to catch up with a couple of classic musicals with well-worn structures – a re-telling of Romeo and Juliet set in the big city and a backstage look at the lead up to a performance’s premiere with a big break for a young ingenue – I wondered if either of these tales could be given new life via more than just their music and production numbers…While each brought moments of wonderful creativity and sparkling entertainment (in different amounts), the stories were, for the most part, still born.

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That’s not enough to dismiss either film though. In particular, West Side Story is a monument to production design and choreography. Just about every shot in the film is packed with colour from mixed pastels to bright primaries to everything in between in just the right combinations. As a series of stills it would make for an incredible photography exhibit. Of course, much of the secret to the film is its motion in the form of Jerome Robbins’ choreography (he’s also credited here as a co-director along with the master of many genres Robert Wise). It feels novel and exciting even 50 years down the road. It’s sharp and quick and powerful – in short, it’s incredibly physical. It’s an expression of the character’s youthful energy and their inability to find a place to put it, and so it ends up working perfectly during the confrontation and fight scenes where the dancing is essentially the fighting itself. If not every tune fully landed with me, the vast majority did and mostly kept me with the 2 and a half hour runtime. Mostly.

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Film on TV: March 16-21

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Kiss Me Deadly, playing on TCM on Saturday

Two birthday marathons on TCM this week – Akira Kurosawa on Tuesday (one of a multiple mini-marathons leading up to his centennial birthday on the 23rd) with heavy hitters The Bad Sleep Well, High and Low and Red Beard and some lesser-known ones; then Ginger Rogers on Wednesday, mostly concentrating on her pre-code stuff, including 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, as well as a bunch of other obscure ones that probably aren’t quite “good” in the strictest sense of the word. Other newly featured stuff includes Ealing’s The Lavender Hill Mob on Tuesday, Kiss Me Deadly and 12 Angry Men on Saturday, and the Billy Wilder-penned Midnight on Sunday.

I apologize for not getting this posted yesterday. I got distracted with other things, and then it got late, and then…OH, I FORGOT TO FINISH IT, OKAY? I’m sorry. There wasn’t really anything of interest on today anyway.

Tuesday, March 16

11:30am – TCM – The Lavender Hill Mob
Alec Guinness leads the Ealing Studios regulars in this delightful heist comedy, one of the greats among a bunch of great late ’40s, early ’50s Ealing films. Also look for a really young Audrey Hepburn in a walk-on (this is her first film, I believe).
1951 UK. Director: Charles Crichton. Starring: Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway, Sid James, Marjorie Fielding.
Newly Featured!

1:00pm – TCM – The Great Escape
I expected to mildly enjoy or at least get through this POW escape film. What happened was I was completely enthralled with every second of it, from failed escape attempts to planning the ultimate escape to the dangers of carrying it out. It’s like a heist film in reverse, and extremely enjoyable in pretty much every way.
1963 USA. Director: John Sturges. Starring: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasance, James Coburn, James Donald.
Must See

4:00pm – TCM – Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Musical tones and volcano images haunt Richard Dreyfuss, eventually leading to an encounter with some of the most strangely beuatiful and mysterious, yet apparently friendly, aliens ever put on film.
1977 USA. Director: Steven Spielberg. Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Francois Truffaut, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, Bob Balaban.

8:00pm – TCM – Akira Kurosawa centennial marathon
So, TCM’s playing Kurosawa films because it would be his 100th birthday on the 23rd of March. Predictably, I haven’t seen any of the offerings tonight, though, also predictably, I’m hoping to change that. Tonight, they’ve got The Bad Sleep Well followed by High and Low, and Red Beard, and then on into the morning with I Live in Fear and Scandal.

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42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933

Most musicals and comedies made during the 1930s were escapist fluff, meant to take audiences’ minds away from the troubles of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl for a couple of hours of music and laughter. Fred and Ginger’s dancing at RKO, Bing Crosby’s singing at Paramount, MGM’s Broadway Melody series, the screwball comedies of Hawks and Leo McCarey, the slapstick stylings of the Marx Brothers – all of them sparkling and calculated to ignore the economic woes of the world outside.

But Warner Bros. as a studio was known for making less glamorous, more hard-hitting films in the 1930s, building their reputation on gangster films and “ripped from the headlines” social commentary pictures. It’s probably not surprising, then, that musicals made at Warner Bros. would have a different tone than most contemporary musicals. Sure enough, both show business classic 42nd Street and lesser-known programmer Gold Diggers of 1933 (which would spawn two sequels) take the Depression itself as a major theme and plot point.

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Gold Diggers of 1933

42nd Street (1932)

42nd Street isn’t known as the granddaddy of backstage movies for nothing – it opens with word spreading around Broadway that famed director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) is putting on a show, continues through auditions and rehearsals, setbacks and last-minute casting changes, and finishes with the opening night extravaganza.

(Click through for the rest of the entry. The video below is a brief bit of amusement from Gold Diggers of 1933.)

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