January 31st, 2013

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TCM's 'studio'us approach to its necessary evil

For many fans of Turner Classic Movies, the month of February (and the first two or three days of March) are a perfect time to focus on other chores...like washing dishes, as Carole Lombard and William Powell are doing in "My Man Godfrey." That's because the channel's "31 Days Of Oscar" presentation removes a large part of what people love about TCM -- the search for the obscure, programmers from the 1930s or '40s forgotten by virtually everyone, or a birthday tribute to a performer or director who's fallen into the mists of history. It's as if your favorite alternative or college radio station suddenly ditched its format for 31 days to play Aretha Franklin's "Respect," and the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" or other chestnuts. (And honestly, for a change of pace, wouldn't you prefer to hear Devo's hilarious take on "Satisfaction"?)

To be fair, many of the people at TCM may feel some sympathy with these viewers. The relatively few number of movies that meet the cut (either winners of, or nominees for, an Academy Award) restrict its programmers a great deal, although there are some relatively forgotten films that do qualify. But the promotion wins TCM points with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, very good for aiding its recognition. For all intents and purposes, it's a necessary evil.

So TCM tries to show some imagination each year with the 31 days. In 2012, travel was the theme (film settings from New York and Los Angeles to outer space); this year, they are running part of one or several days saluting every studio, beginning Friday with Warners. A nice approach, although the devolving of the studio system, beginning in the 1950s, minimized much of what made one studio's product different from the others.

Warners product will run through part of Feb. 5, more or less in chronological order (which means plenty of pre-Code stuff during the day Friday!), although the classic "I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang" won't be aired until 10:15 p.m. (Eastern) Friday. At 7 p.m. Saturday is a new, one-hour production, "Tales From The Warner Brothers Lot," which should be of interest to anyone who admires what came out of this once-pugnacious studio. That'll be followed by a few from the '40s: "Casablanca," "The Maltese Falcon" and "Mildred Pierce."

Following Warners are tributes to Allied Artists and Seven Arts (which Warners later incorporated), before Universal gets the spotlight on Feb. 6 and 7 (with a side trip to some European studios during daytime on the 7th). Curiously, "Godfrey" is not part of the Universal salute; the only Lombard film featured during the 31 days won't come until March 1. More on that later.

Feb. 8 to 10 looks at Twentieth Century-Fox (and even a bit of early Fox with "Sunrise" and "Berkeley Square"), including "The Rains Came" (1939), with Tyrone Power and Myrna Loy (in what may be her best dramatic performance) at 9:30 a.m. Feb. 8, followed by "The Grapes Of Wrath."

The spotlight shifts to RKO from Feb. 11 to 13, featuring four Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films on Feb. 11, an Orson Welles doubleheader on Feb. 12 ("The Magnificent Ambersons" at 6:15 p.m., "Citizen Kane" at 8) and "The Farmer's Daughter" at 10 a.m. Feb. 13 (just in case you missed it last night as TCM concluded its Loretta Young "Star of the Month" tribute)

On Valentine's Day, TCM shows its love for Selznick International Pictures...but you won't find "Nothing Sacred" or "Made For Each Other" there (neither received any Oscar nominations). But you will find two consecutive Best Picture winners -- 1939's "Gone With The Wind" at 8 p.m., 1940's "Rebecca" at midnight.

The Culver City lion then roars for nearly five days, from Feb. 15 to 19, as MGM's glittering Oscar history is profiled. Feb. 15 begins with the lovely Anita Page and Bessie Love in "The Broadway Melody" (1929), then goes throughout the '30s -- including "When Ladies Meet" and "Mutiny On The Bounty" -- into the early '40s. (The 1962 "Bounty" will air Feb. 18.) The studio's classic musical period will be among those movies featured on Feb. 16 and 17.

Then it's on to Paramount from Feb. 19 to 21, and if the logo looks a bit fuzzy, it's appropriate; much of its pre-1948 product is now owned by Universal, which has made relatively little of it available to TCM. As a result, while the channel will show three days of Paramount in prime time (including Ernst Lubitsch's "The Love Parade" at midnight Feb. 19 and "The Smiling Lieutenant" at 4 a.m.), daytime programming will largely consist of tributes to assorted producers, including Cinerama on Feb. 20.

In contrast, Columbia Pictures -- which has had good relations with TCM -- gets three and a half days of treatment, beginning Feb. 22 with plenty of romantic/screwball comedy, such as "The Awful Truth" at 8 a.m., the 1938 "Holiday" remake at 9:45 and "Theodora Goes Wild" at 11:30. "On The Waterfront" airs at 8 p.m. Feb. 23, while Feb. 24 is dedicated to epics such as "The Bridge On The River Kwai," "Lawrence Of Arabia" and "Gandhi."

Remember Touchstone Pictures, the company Disney created for more sophisticated/adult fare, and how it dominated the industry in the late 1980s? Largely forgotten today, it will be honored in prime time Feb. 25 with the TCM premiere of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" at 8 p.m. and "The Color Of Money" at 2:45 a.m.

Daytime Feb. 26 is dedicated to Hal Roach Studios, which received a number of Oscar nominations. Constance Bennett fans can see her in "Godfrey" imitator "Merrily We Live" at 1:30 p.m., "Topper" at 3:15 and "Topper Takes A Trip" at 5. (The Bennett-less "Topper Returns" concludes the ghostly triumvirate at 6:30.) Then, for prime time and into daytime Feb. 27...

...gems from the Samuel Goldwyn Company, including two sides of Barbara Stanwyck -- dramatic ("Stella Dallas" at 6:15 a.m. Feb. 27) and comedic ("Ball Of Fire" at 8:15). That's followed Feb. 27 and 28 with London Film Productions, Ealing Studios, Otto Preminger and Embassy Pictures.

March 1 to 3 are dedicated to United Artists, and finally a Lombard film -- "To Be Or Not To Be" at 9 a.m. Feb. 1. (It was nominated for Best Score.) Another superlative black comedy, Charles Chaplin's "Monsieur Verdoux," airs at 8 that evening. Get (Billy) Wilder on March 2 with "Some Like It Hot" (1:15 p.m.), "The Fortune Cookie" (3:30) and "The Apartment" (5:45). March 3 highlights include "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" at 12:15, "The Pink Panther" at 3 and "Annie Hall" at 8. Then, the following morning, it's back to the TCM we know and love.

And while Lombard is relatively absent, there isn't much TCM can do about that. Columbia's "Twentieth Century" received no Oscar nominations, and neither did any of her Paramount films. "They Knew What They Wanted" did get a nomination for William Gargan, but it can't go in the RKO section because of legal tie-ups with the Sidney Howard estate.

So give TCM credit for making the most of what some film fans deem a bad situation, and be thankful for August, when the channel more than compensates with its "Summer Under The Stars."
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