The Front Row
Four Rarities from the TCM Festival
The festival this weekend features classics of wild comedy and bold politics.
May 7, 2021
Among the TCM Festival’s best offerings is “Nichols and May: Take Two,” an installment in PBS’s “American Masters” series devoted to Elaine May and Mike Nichols.Photograph Courtesy Turner Classic Movies
This year’s edition of the TCM Festival, which runs Friday through Monday, is being held online: in lieu of public screenings, the movies will be broadcast on the TCM channel (along with a sidebar on HBO Max), and many films will also be on the TCM app and the Watch TCM site for anywhere from seven to thirty days. The channel is a round-the-clock trove of Hollywood classics and some international gems, too. (The festival’s final offerings are by Jean-Luc Godard and Chantal Akerman.) Many of its selections are already available to stream at other venues, but some of its very best are otherwise hard to find. Here are four of my favorites.
“The Fortune Cookie” (1966)
Jack Lemmon and Judi West in “The Fortune Cookie.”Photograph from MGM / Courtesy Turner Classic Movies
Watching movies is an experiment in selectivity. Only the very greatest can be watched in their entirety; the rest, even the near-great, require viewers to filter out aspects that are off, or oblivious, or merely distracting from the films’ vital essences. So it is with Billy Wilder’s comedy of law and its abuses, from 1966, which is built around a core strong enough to make up for its off-key adornments and conventional script devices. It’s the story of a Cleveland-based TV cameraman named Harry Hinkle (Jack Lemmon) who, while covering a Cleveland Browns pro-football game for CBS, gets crashed into on the sidelines by a star punt returner named Luther (Boom Boom) Jackson (played by Ron Rich). Harry’s knocked unconscious and carted off by an ambulance, but his injuries prove minor. He’s ready to check out of the hospital and get back to his life and work—until his brother-in-law, Willie Gingrich (Walter Matthau), a shyster lawyer nicknamed Whiplash Willie, intervenes and prods him to feign severe injury in order to sue the network, the team, and the stadium, for a million dollars in damages.
The story (written by Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond) is decked out with Wilder’s familiar, somewhat facile cynicism regarding marriage, love, and a legal system that allows itself to be gamed. It’s also rooted in an oddly patronizing liberalism. (Boom Boom, who’s a Black man, tries to compensate for having apparently injured Harry so grievously by obsequiously caring for him at home.) But the core of the story is Harry’s own grudging participation in the fraud, which requires fooling the private detectives hired by insurance-company lawyers to surveil him. Harry starts using a wheelchair, withdraws from work, and tailors even his most private behavior to the needs of his deceit. (Much of the comedy arises from a cat-and-mouse game with the private detectives, who have Harry’s apartment under surveillance.) All the other characters and their frenetic, comedic, blundering, or sentimental action function as props for the turmoil that ravages both Harry’s outer and inner lives. The best line in the movie belongs to a doctor, hired by the insurance company, performing high-tech tests on Harry to verify his claims of injury: “Fascinating, isn’t it, the way we can now corroborate subjective symptoms.” It is, indeed—and the device that does it best, even better than the newfangled medical gizmos at the doctor’s disposal, is the movie camera. The subjectivity at the center of Wilder’s film—the gap between Harry’s experience and his behavior, between his being and his seeming—is an abyss of terror that exemplifies the demands of bureaucratic modernity, and which no amount of comedy can mask with cheer.
“The Whistle at Eaton Falls” (1951)
Anne Francis and Carleton Carpenter in “The Whistle at Eaton Falls.”Photograph from Everett / Courtesy Turner Classic Movies
The rarest film in the batch is one of a handful of features produced by Louis de Rochemont, a pioneer of newsreels in the nineteen-thirties who then turned his attention to producing dramatic features with a documentary basis, such as “The Whistle at Eaton Falls,” from 1951. Rooted in real locations and stories, it chronicles the economic difficulties of a plastics factory that’s the main employer in a small New Hampshire town. Unusually for Hollywood, especially at a time of McCarthy-era suspicions and inquisitions, the story is centered on the labor union that represents the factory’s workers—and looks favorably on its efforts to protect them. The company, Doubleday Plastics, is in economic crisis; its benevolent but hard-pressed owner (Donald McKee) will be forced to lay off half the workers, in order to install new, high-speed equipment that will make the company solvent and enable him to hire them back. When the owner dies suddenly, his widow, Helen (Dorothy Gish), is inspired to hire Brad Adams (Lloyd Bridges), a factory worker and the union president, to take his place—both because he understands the business and because he can sell the emergency layoff plan to the rank and file. Brad takes the job, vowing not to allow any layoffs at all—but the company’s financial troubles are relentless and the factory is threatened with a total shutdown unless he goes through with the original plan, which puts him at odds with the union and with his longtime friends in it.
The movie is directed by Robert Siodmak, himself a pioneer of documentary-based drama. (He started his career in Germany with “People on Sunday,” using nonprofessional actors. “Eaton Falls” is also filled with nonprofessionals.) Siodmak had already made the classic film noir “Criss Cross” in astoundingly nuanced locations in Los Angeles. In “Eaton Falls,” he renders the tranquil and rustic New Hampshire locations as highly textured and ominously labyrinthine, with tangled interconnections of power as a teeming metropolis. There’s a union buster, a female executive who’s secretly involved with him, a hotheaded labor militant, and a female union leader (Lenore Lonergan) whose steadfast fervor proves decisive. Remarkably, Siodmak also pays close attention to the particulars of industrial design, examining with fascination the factory’s machines in relation both to the intricacies of manufacturing and the delights of ornament. (Carleton Carpenter plays a worker by day and an artist by night who figures out how to combine his efforts.) The movie also involves corporate chicanery, the particulars of financial negotiations, the strategies of sales managers, the peculiarities of military procurement bids, and the banalities on which fortunes pivot—in this case, the plastic channel selector of television sets. For all its built-in optimism (Hollywood is still Hollywood), the movie’s happy ending hangs by a thread, and a closing voice-over offers cautionary ironies regarding the future of American labor in an environment where management’s upper hand is built into the system.
“Nichols and May: Take Two” (1996)
This installment in the PBS “American Masters” series is devoted to Mike Nichols and Elaine May—to the partnership that made them famous as improvising comedians. It shows how their act, which involved ingenious and daring tightrope walks through the psychological and social minefields of the nineteen-fifties and early sixties, propelled them from Chicago’s Second City group and night clubs to Broadway and national television. The documentary, directed by Phillip Schopper, has an exemplary simplicity: although it briefly brings in talking heads—such notables as Steve Martin, Jules Feiffer, Arthur Penn, Tom Brokaw, and the duo’s manager, Jack Rollins—for tidbits of contextualizing recollections and analyses (there are, unfortunately, no remarks from any female commentators), and a handful of onscreen archival graphics (such as newspaper clippings), the film is dominated by clips of Nichols and May in performance together (even in TV commercials). Schopper lets the clips run at great length, not cutting the heroes off with voice-overs or blotting them out with illustrations, and in doing conveys his own awed fascination with their extended verbal inventiveness. The movie is a celebration of the art of Nichols and May, and it does far more than a conventional biographical or historical documentary would do: it inspires, arouses admiration and also a desire for more of the duo, together and apart. (I’m impatient to read Mark Harris’s recently published biography of Nichols and also Carrie Courogen’s forthcoming biography of May, and I’d highly recommend the volume “Nichols and May: Interviews
,” edited by Robert Kapsis, which is mainly focussed on the separate directorial careers that they pursued after breaking up their act.)
VIDEO FROM THE NEW YORKER
“So This Is Paris” (1926)
Lilyan Tashman and George Beranger in “So This Is Paris.”Photograph from PhotoFest / Courtesy Turner Classic Movies
Though best known for his relentlessly inventive and audacious comedies (romantic and allusively erotic) of the nineteen-thirties and forties (such as “Trouble in Paradise,” “The Shop Around the Corner,” and “To Be or Not to Be”), the director Ernst Lubitsch began his directorial career in Germany, in 1914, deep in the silent-film era. When he came to Hollywood, in 1923, he launched a series of silent proto-screwball comedies, of which “So This Is Paris,” from 1926, is an exemplar of symbolic sexual extravagance and liberating energy. It’s the story of two couples in the title city: the music-hall dancers Maurice and Georgette Lallé (George Beranger and Lilyan Tashman), who live across the street from the Girauds, Paul (Monte Blue), a doctor, and Suzanne (Patsy Ruth Miller), who doesn’t work. (The great Myrna Loy, then only a year into her Hollywood career, has a brief supporting role as the Lallés’s maid.) Suzanne’s daily leisure is the spark of the action: reading a steamy novel about a woman’s passionate affair with a sheik, she glances out the window and sees, in the Lallé’s apartment, Maurice, dressed as a sheik, bare-chested and muscular, and she is aroused on sight—and all the more so when he appears to be rhythmically pleasuring someone just out of view. (Unbeknownst to Suzanne, he’s actually leaning forward to eat spoonfuls of boiled egg.) Soon thereafter, Paul and Georgette meet—and rekindle a long-ago romance. Meanwhile, circumstances also bring Suzanne and Maurice together.
The action is driven by a wild series of misunderstandings and misadventures, ruses and accidents, both tumultuously large-scale and shiveringly intimate, all of which pivot on the sex drive and the social efforts to fulfill it, to thwart it, to conceal it, to legitimize it. Lubitsch fills the action with visual double entendres, as when Paul sticks a thermometer into Suzanne’s mouth, or when Paul’s cane ends up in the possession of Maurice and it gets passed back and forth as a vertical mark of phallic power (and crops up in Paul’s terrified dream, coming to life through animation and ending up in his own mouth). But when Paul and Suzanne take the bold chance of sneaking off together (under pretexts too delicious to spoil) to the grand public festivities of an artists’ ball, Lubitsch films a colossal riot of jazz dance with an overwhelming and sumptuous verve. The extended and variegated sequence—showing crowds of flapper-like women doing the Charleston and shimmying with hands in the air, of rhythmic formations of dancers presaging the art of Busby Berkeley, of double and triple exposures and rotating and prismatized images of revellers replete with feathered gowns and extravagant headdresses, on a darkened stage, amid flashing and roving spotlights—is filled with Lubitsch’s own evident glee in capturing the mightiest roar of the roaring twenties, the envy of a Gatsby. (He’s a master of silent musical sequences, as shown in the 1917 comedy “The Oyster Princess
.”) Yet amid the erotic ecstasy of this energetic discharge and the loopy comedy of drunken disorder that follows, Lubitsch introduces an element of mistaken identity that adds (with a twist of newfangled mass media) a searing vein of comedically masked romantic tragedy, one that—though it began with the banal stimulations of pulp fiction—rises to the inventive exaltations of a Mozart opera.
P.S. Patsy Ruth Miller, who plays Suzanne, wrote a terrific memoir
that I discussed in 2016, when this movie was revived at Film Forum.
The New Yorker Movie Club
Sign up for The New Yorker’s Movie Club Newsletter to get reviews of the current cinema, movie listings for the weekend ahead, and more.
© 2021 Condé Nast. All rights reserved. Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our User Agreement
and Your California Privacy Rights. The New Yorker
may earn a portion of sales from products that are purchased through our site as part of our Affiliate Partnerships with retailers. The material on this site may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used, except with the prior written permission of Condé Nast. Ad Choices