Saturday, May 2, 2020

Six Essential Films Never Shown on TCM's The Essentials

Tonight The Essentials returns to Turner Classic Movies with a new co-host, director Brad Bird. Some TCM fans have grumbled about this season's schedule, as a large number of the movies are already frequently shown on Turner Classic Movies. In fact, several of the movies airing this season on The Essentials have already aired on the show: Singin' in the Rain (three times on the show), Casablanca (twice on the show), The Red Shoes (once on the show), Lawrence of Arabia (twice on the show), Gunga Din (twice on the show), Dr. Strangelove (twice on the show), The Maltese Falcon (twice on the show), 2001: A Space Odyssey (twice on the show), Ball of Fire (twice on the show), City Lights (once on the show), An American in Paris (twice on the show), The Searchers (twice on the show), North by Northwest (twice on the show), Guys and Dolls (once on the show), and Out of the Past (twice on the show).

While there have been some movies that have been shown multiple times on The Essentials, there are other movies that I believe many, if most, classic film buffs would consider essential that have never aired on the show. What is more, some of these movies are owned by Warner Bros, so that they could be aired on Turner Classic Movies free of charge. Here are six movies that I consider essential that have never aired on The Essentials.

Island of Lost Souls (1932):  Island of Lost Souls is important as a pre-code horror movie that was met with censorship across the United States and elsewhere. Along with Scarface (1932), Red Headed Woman (1932), and Baby Face (1933), it was one of those movies that led to stricter enforcement of the Code. The film also features some of the best performances by Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi. Produced by Paramount, Island of Lost Souls is currently owned by Universal, so TCM would have to make a deal to show it, but it would be worth it.

The Wizard of Oz (1939): As shocking as it might seem, The Wizard of Oz has never aired on The Essentials, even though I doubt there are very many, if any, classic film buffs who would say that it is not an essential. Of course, TCM shows The Wizard of Oz regularly and, well before TCM even existed, it was shown yearly on the broadcast networks. There are some who believe that it is the most viewed movie of all time. Regardless, as one of the most essential classic movies, it really should air on The Essentials at least once. 

The Black Swan (1942): As far as I am concerned, The Black Swan is the greatest pirate movie of all time. I features some of the best scenes of ship to ship battles, as well as some great sword fights. As such I think it is the best of the swashbucklers of the Forties, making it essential viewing for fans of the genre and, to a lesser degree, classic film buffs at large.

The Naked City (1948): Several film noirs have aired on The Essentials over the years, but never The Naked City. That is a shame as it is one of the most influential noirs ever made. First, it is one of the earliest police procedurals ever made. Its influence can be seen on everything from the radio show and TV show Dragnet to CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Second, it was a shot in a documentary style that would influence both the French New Wave and the British kitchen sink dramas. While other police procedurals were released in the late Forties, arguably it was the one that had the most influence. It even inspired the critically acclaimed TV show Naked City.

Shane (1953): There can be no doubt that Shane is influential. It has been imitated numerous times. What is more, it was one of the earliest "adult Westerns." Its influence can then be seen not only on movies, but TV shows as well. Despite this, the film has never aired on The Essentials. I have suspect it may be because it was produced by Paramount, who I believe still owns the rights.

Forbidden Planet (1956): Aside from The Wizard of Oz, this is the movie that I am most shocked has not aired on The Essentials. It was produced by MGM. Since Warner Bros. owns the pre-1986 MGM library, TCM can then show it without being out a lot of money. Indeed, it is already shown regularly on Turner Classic Movies. Despite this, it has never aired on The Essentials. I find this surprising as it is one of the most influential sci-fi films of all time. It was one of the earliest sci-fi movies made for adults ever made, and it also broke new ground for special effects. What is more, it has had a lasting influence on everything from the TV series Star Trek to the movie Alien (1979). Indeed, I think one could argue that Forbidden Planet is more influential than either 2001: A Space Odyssey or Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The Late Great Gene Deitch

Gene Deitch, prolific animator and the creator of the classic television cartoon Tom Terrific, died on April 16 2020 at the age of 95.

Gene Deitch was born on August 8 1924 in Chicago, Illinois. He had an artistic bent even as a child. He would make his own newspapers using carbon paper, hectograph gelatin and mimeograph stencils, and also created his own comic strips. Gene Deitch grew up in Los Angeles. He attended Venice High School, after which he was drafted into the United States Army. He was trained as a pilot, but caught pneumonia and was subsequently given an honourable discharge. After his service he worked in the sales promotion department of CBS. While there, he sent some drawings to the jazz music magazine The Record Changer. The Record Changer published the drawings and would publish more. Gene Deitch's artwork in The Record Changer came to the attention of animation studio UPA, who hired him as an apprentice animator.

Following his apprenticeship at UPA, Gene Deitch went to work for the the Jam Handy Organization, making industrial films. He then returned to UPA as a production designer. He eventually became the creative director at UPA.  At UPA he worked on some of the early Mr. Magoo cartoons, as well as a series of animated commercials for Piels Beer featuring comedy team Bob and Ray. He directed an experimental UPA short, "Howdy Doody and His Magic Hat."

It was in 1957, following Paul Terry's sale of the studio to CBS in 1956, that Gene Deitch was hired as the creative director of Terrytoons. Mr. Deitch's biggest achievement at Terrytoons would be the creation of Tom Terrific, a series of cartoons featuring the character of that name. Tom Terrific was a young boy who owned a funnel-shaped "thinking cap." He was always accompanied by his dog, Manfred the Wonder Dog, who despite being called "the Wonder Dog" tended to be a bit lazy. Tom and Manfred usually faced their archenemy Crabby Appleton, as well as such opponents as Captain Kidney Bean, Isotope Feeny the Meany, and Mr. Instant the Instant Thing King. The Tom Terrific cartoons aired on Captain Kangaroo starting in 1962 and would be seen again in the Seventies on the show. While at Terrytoons, Gene Deitch also created such characters as Clint Clobber, Gaston Le Crayon, John Doormat, and Sidney the Elephant.

In 1955, overlapping with his tenure at Terrytoons, Gene Deitch wrote and illustrated the newspaper comic strip The Real-Great Adventures of Terr'ble Thompson!, Hero of History, which centred on an intelligent boy in fantastic adventures, not unlike Tom Terrific. The strip lasted until 1956.

While the characters Gene Deitch created for Terrytoons were starkly original and imaginative, except for Tom Terrific, he clashed with many of the old guard at the studio. Terrytoons then fired Mr. Deitch in 1959. He then set up his own studio. It was from 1960 to 1963 that he produced a series of "Popeye" animated television shorts for King Features Syndicate. He directed the Academy Award winning short "Munro" (1961). From 1961 to 1962 he produced a series of new "Tom and Jerry" shorts for MGM. From 1962 to 1964 he produced a series of "Krazy Kat" cartoons for King Features Syndicate.  Between 1965 and 1967 he produced a series of shorts featuring a character named Nudnik. Nudnik was a lovable loser, who could do absolutely nothing right. The first short, "Here's Nudnik" (1965), was nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film.

In the Sixties Gene Deitch also directed the animated featurette Alice of Wonderland in Paris (1966) and the animated television pilot Terr'ble Tessie. Like Tom Terrific before it, it was inspired by Gene Deitch's earlier comic strip, Terr'ble Thompson.

In 1969 Gene Deitch began working with Weston Woods Studios, as their leading animation director. For Weston Woods Studios, he adapted such works as Rosie's Walk, Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, and many others. He continued working with Weston Woods Studios until his retirement in 2008. Following his retirement, Gene Deitch would occasionally contribute to the animation history blog Cartoon Research.

Gene Deitch was one of the last important animators to work during the Golden Age of Animation. His work was also starkly modern. He took Terrytoons, an animation studio not known for the quality of its product for much of its history, and made it one of the most innovative animation studios of the late Fifties. After his stint at Terrytoons, he directed the Oscar winning short "Munro," which also featured a distinctly modernist work. Having emerged from UPA, much of Mr. Deitch's early work was highly stylized and very modern, but he was capable of other types of animation. His work at Weston Woods varied according to the children's book that he was adapting. The animation for Where the Wild Things are resembled the illustrations in that book, while the animation in Moon Man resembled the illustrations in that book. Gene Deitch was an innovator in animation and one possessed of considerable talent.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Brad Bird Joins The Essentials on TCM

In the last season of TCM's programme The Essentials acclaimed director Ava Duvernay co-hosted with Ben Mankiewicz. This season another esteemed director will co-host with Ben. Brad Bird is well known for his work in animation and as the director of such films as The Iron Giant (1999), The Incredibles (2004), and Ratatouille (2007). The Essentials returns to Turner Classic Movies on May 2 2020.

Here I have to say that I am a big fan of Brad Bird. The Iron Giant is possibly my favourite animated film of all time, while The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and The Incredibles 2 number among my favourites. What is more, it is fairly clear that Brad Bird is a classic movie buff. His films are filled with references to the classics, from a scene involving a tank in The Iron Giant that was clearly inspired by a scene in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) to a visual tribute in The Incredibles to the shot of the Consolidated Life of New York office in The Apartment to  Brief Encounter (1945) playing on a television set in Ratatouille. Indeed, I have always thought that The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and The Incredibles 2 feel more like movies made in the late Fifties to early Sixties than they do the Nineties, Naughts, and Teens.

As to Brad Bird's selections for The Essentials, I think the vast majority of TCM fans will be very happy with them. There are such classics as Singin' in the Rain (1952), The General (1926), Gunga Din (1939), A Hard Day's Night (1964), The Music Man (1962), Dr. Strangelove (1964), North by Northwest (1959), Out of the Past (1947), and many more. In fact, I love every single movie that is being shown on The Essentials with the exception of one (The Searchers, as someone of Cherokee blood I simply cannot stomach the movie).

Of course, the fact that I love every single movie being shown on this coming season of The Essentials presents bit of a problem for me. Since I love all of these movies but one, then it is obvious that I have seen every one of these movies. What is more, I think any classic film buff worth their salt would have seen the vast majority of these movies. For me it's not enough for The Essentials to show old favourites. The Essentials should also introduce me to films I have never seen before. One of the reasons I enjoyed Ava Duvernay's stint as host of The Essentials is that she showed movies I had heard of, but had not yet had the chance to see, movies like Claudine (1974),  Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976), and Daughters of the Dust (1992). Not only have I seen every single movie airing on The Essentials, but in most cases I have seen them so many times I lost count long ago (Singin' in the Rain, Casablanca, A Hard Day's Night, The Music Man, Dr. Strangelove, The Maltese Falcon, North by Northwest...).

Anyway, while I do wish that Brad Bird had chosen some more obscure classics for The Essentials, I am sure the vast majority of TCM fans will enjoy this coming season. While most classic film buffs have probably seen these films multiple times, there is no arguing that they aren't essential.