Ammonite has been available to stream for a month or so now and you might have been wondering when it is due to be released on DVD. The date proposed is Monday 14 June. I would expect the initial price to be £15-£18, but someone might reduce the price – if we are lucky!
RADAR MEN FROM THE MOON (1952) Saturday 1 May 11.35-12noon Talking Pictures (Ch 81)
TP proudly presents episode 1 of its new 12-chapter serial: Commander Cody, Sky Marshal of the Universe, has to stop the evil Retik invading Earth! Alas, it is a later serial and not one of the best, although the flying scenes (re-used from King of the Rocket Men) are well-staged.
CITIZEN KANE (1941) Saturday 1 May 2.30-4.30pm BBC 2
Please refer to Thursday’s notes; today’s showing is preceded by a Talking Pictures segment on Orson Welles.
FLYING BLIND (2012) Saturday 1 May 11.55pm-1.25am BBC 1
Showing as a tribute to the late Helen McCrory – and she is very good as an engineer involved in defence work who has an affair with an Arab student. It was on the 2013 questionnaire, but didn’t earn enough votes. You might like to take a look now.
ALIVE AND KICKING (1958) Sunday 2 May 10.05am-12.05pm Channel 55
Today, we will set up a good, old-fashioned double bill! First on is a prototype (sort of) for our big success The Hundred Year Old Man . . . (2015-16 season, 89%), as three elderly ladies (Sybil Thorndyke, Kathleen Harrison and Estelle Winwood – what a trio!) escape from a home and set up in business. It is all quite charming and also marked the film debut of Richard Harris. Kathleen Harrison herself lived to be 103 and was one of the great character actors of British cinema.
TRAIN OF EVENTS (1949) Sunday 2 May 12.05-2.00pm Channel 55
There was a spate of portmanteau dramas in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Whilst Kathleen Harrison popped up in Trio (1950), her frequent co-star Jack Warner is in this one (as is a young Peter Finch). The Euston to Liverpool express is about to jump the rails – cue multiple flashbacks from some of the people on board.
ROBIN HOOD (1963) Monday 3 May 6.50-9.00pm Channel 33
Such was the excitement over Kevin Costner (and the Bryan Adams song that spent 24 weeks in the UK Top Twenty), this version of the legend was largely overlooked. A great pity because this one looks the more authentic of the two, has good action scenes and a distinguished group of actors. Patrick Bergin plays the title character.
TULIP FEVER (2016) Monday 3 May 10.00-11.35pm BBC 2 P
We were tracking Tulip Fever as a potential LRFS booking, but it seemed to have production difficulties and disappeared into film limbo. It is set in 17th- century Amsterdam and concerns the wife of a wealthy businessman who falls in love with the artist engaged to paint her portrait. On balance the film disappoints, but a fine cast that includes Alicia Vikander, Christoph Waltz and Judi Dench should be enough compensation to give it a whirl.
THE GHOST OF ST MICHAEL’S (1941) Tuesday 4 May 10.30am-12.10pm Talking Pictures (Channel 81)
St Michael’s turned out to be the penultimate Will Hay classic. It was his final collaboration with regular director Marcel Varnel and in this one he and his pupils encounter Nazi spies after their evacuation to a haunted Scottish castle.
DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS (1954) Tuesday 4 May 3.55-6.00pm TP (Channel 81)
Prior to modern cinema, this was a rare instance of a sequel – in this case, to 20th Century-Fox’s Biblical epic The Robe, which had introduced audiences to CinemaScope and been a huge financial success. The studio assigned some of its best contract players to it and Delmer Daves was a good director, so it is an entertaining, professional piece of work even though we cannot claim that it is the participants’ best.
HACKSAW RIDGE (2016) Wednesday 5 May 9.00-11.50pm Channel 32
Based on a true story, Andrew Garfield stars as Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector during the Second World War who enrolled as a medic and displayed exceptional bravery (he received the Medal of Honor). If you are familiar with Mel Gibson’s work as a director, then you will know that Hacksaw Ridge is not for the faint of heart – but it is brilliant film-making.
THE BELLS OF ST MARY’S (1945) Thursday 6 May 3.40-6.15pm Film Four
We have come up with a ‘Safe or Risk’ double bill for today! Separately or together, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope were enormously popular during the 1940s; here, a solo Mr Crosby reprises his Oscar-winning turn as Father O’Malley. Ingrid Bergman co-stars (as a nun of course) and the schmaltz is very much front and centre.
CITIZEN KANE (1941) Thursday 6 May 8.00-10.00pm BBC 4
RKO Radio took the risks and famously allowed Orson Welles to play with his new train set – and the result was a film that has frequently been cited as the best ever made, in subsequent decades. It remains an astonishing piece of work. We ran it in our 1991-92 season and members awarded it 79%, giving it 7th place for that season. Bye Bye Blues had 81% - do you remember that one? You are a tough audience to please! Still at least we were able to see it. Back in the day, an outraged William Randolph Hearst was putting pressure on the industry to the extent that, apparently, Louis B. Mayer offered $800,000 to have the negative and prints destroyed.
Tonight, it is followed by Mark Cousins’ absorbing documentary The Eyes of Orson Welles.
JOURNEY TO THE FAR SIDE OF THE SUN (1943) Friday 7 May 4.00-6.00pm Channel 68
The lasting legacy of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson is, of course, in television and Supermarionation series such as Thunderbirds. Their live-action work, particularly in the cinema, is relatively scarce. They wrote and produced this sci-fi drama, however, and it is held in quite high regard. Roy Thinnes (architect David Vincent in the TV series The Invaders) is the astronaut who discovers a hidden planet that seems to duplicate everything on Earth (the original title was Doppelgänger). The special effects were nominated for an Oscar; hopefully, this gave some comfort to the Andersons, as they had recently declined an invitation to work on a Stanley Kubrick project . . .
VAMPIRE CIRCUS (1971) Friday 7 May 9.00-10.45pm Talking Pictures (Channel 81)
Rank Distributors were very pleased with the end product – and it was indeed one of the best latter-day Hammer productions. Not only does it tick all the (oblong) boxes – central Europe, plague, sharpened incisors and a brightly-coloured finale – it also has a headier, more surreal atmosphere than usual. Adrienne Corri adds some pep as the ‘gypsy woman’.
RANDOM WORDS AND RANDOM MEMORIES
IT’S OSCAR NIGHT!
Now that the results of the 93rd Academy Awards are in, it seemed like a timely moment to reflect on past ceremonies. Everyone has an opinion, of course: films that we felt should have won and didn’t (and vice versa) and the same with actors and directors. For sure, there have been many instances of Hollywood playing it safe (and respectable). For example, between 1951 and 1971, twelve of the winners were epics or musicals and only three (Tom Jones, In the Heat of the Night and especially Midnight Cowboy) might be said to have been controversial choices. Hitchcock never won Best Director and you would not need many fingers to count the number of women who have won in that category (two, including this year’s). Richard Burton and Deborah Kerr were overlooked time and time again; Henry Fonda had to wait until the very end of his distinguished career; yet Paul Lukas won for Watch on the Rhine (1943), his only nomination. In 1952, the only nomination Singin’ in the Rain received in any of the major categories was Jean Hagen for Best Supporting Actress (she did not win). The western Cimarron won Best Picture in 1931, but it was another 60 years before we saw another one earn the top prize – Dances with Wolves in 1990 and then Unforgiven in 1992.
The first winner – the only silent film to do so – was Wings (1927); it still holds up well and is available on disc. Likewise, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) remains one of the great antiwar films and the other abiding memory from the earliest years would be Charles Laughton’s performance as Henry VIII. I have long thought that cinema’s greatest year was 1939. There were so many good films, but there was only going to be one winner of course – GWTW. It won several awards and they included one for Hattie McDaniel, the first black actor to win (and it was to be 1963 before Sidney Poitier won for Lilies of the Field).
Three is quite a popular number: Walter Brennan won three in five years for supporting roles, Daniel Day Lewis has three statuettes and, with this year’s success, so does Frances McDormand. And, regarding the biggest winners, there is a triple tie on 11 for Best Film (Ben-Hur, Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King). Whilst it is conceivable that, one day, a director might catch John Ford (four wins plus two for wartime shorts), with the expanded category for Best Film, it is highly unlikely that one film will win so many awards again. Hopefully, if it does happen, we will be able to watch a decent show with Best Film announced last once again – I don’t think this year’s ceremony earned too many plaudits.
Finally, if you see a statuette for sale in a shop window proceed with caution. I believe that it is only legal if it was issued before 1950 (Price Guide: the one for GWTW sold for $1.5 million some years ago).
There are very few premieres for us this week, but the BBC has extensive coverage of the snooker, so we will have to be patient for a little while. The 93rd Academy Awards ceremony takes place in the early hours of Monday morning (UK time) – and it will be a big surprise if Nomadland does not win for best film, actress and director.
JULIA (1977) Saturday 24 April 6.50-9.10pm Talking Pictures (Channel 81)
Julia is a film that isn’t shown very often which is a great pity (I doubt that I have seen it more than once since making one of many visits to the Commodore cinema in 1978). It recounts the 1930s friendship between writer Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda) and her friend Julia (Vanessa Redgrave), who is organising resistance to the Nazis. Nominated for 11 Oscars, it won three (including one for Ms Redgrave) and it marked the feature film debut of Meryl Streep.
THE EXCEPTION (2016) Saturday 24 April 9.00-11.15pm Channel 33
By a coincidence, we have a second drama this evening that has an interesting, Jewish story to tell. A soldier who is ordered to watch over the exiled Kaiser Wilhelm falls in love with a young housemaid. The upcoming British actor Lily James and the late Christopher Plummer register strongly; it isn’t as good as Julia, but has enough to commend it.
THE HISTORY OF MR POLLY (1948) Sunday 25 April 11.45am-1.45pm TP (Channel 81)
This adaptation of the HG Wells novel still amuses 70 years after it was made. John Mills is very good indeed as the draper in an unhappy marriage, who finds himself in various scrapes. At times, it is reminiscent of Henry Fielding but transposed to a Victorian setting.
THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT (1956) Sunday 25 April 3.30-5.30pm Talking Pictures (Channel 81)
I think it is fair to say that this is a film that would not be made in 2021, owing to Jayne Mansfield’s outrageous parody of her own physical self, as press agent Tom Ewell tries to make her a singing star at the behest of her gangster boyfriend. Director Frank Tashlin was renowned for his sight gags and he makes this a winning combination of a major studio satirical comedy and the new threat to teenage America, namely rock ‘n’ roll. Nearly all the 1956-59 films that featured the new craze were short, b/w and cashing in. Tashlin helped to bring the music into the mainstream by giving free rein (in colour and widescreen) to Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, Fats Domino and others.
STURDAY NIGHT OUT (1963) Monday 26 April 9.00-10.55pm TP (Channel 81)
All credit to TP for bringing us another rare, largely forgotten, film. The plot is a slender one – five merchant seamen on a day out in London – but it has a good mix of actors (Bernard Lee, Nigel Green, Heather Sears and Francesca Annis) and a good feeling for time and place. It is director Robert Hart-Davis’ most accessible film; for sure, Gonks Go Beat (on DVD) would not qualify! Virtually unknown then and now, his films often had imaginative camera placement and movement, but were mostly exploitation. Two of his horror films, Corruption (1968) and The Fiend (1971) are quite bonkers, but have their admirers.
THE BALLAD OF LEFTY BROWN (2017) Monday 26 April 11.10pm-1.20am Channel 32
It was never more than a long shot for a LRFS booking and it does not have the kudos of the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018). However, they both contain insightful variations on western themes; in this case, it is the sidekick (Bill Pullman) who takes centre stage when his partner (Peter Fonda) is murdered. Thus, at one fell swoop, the director (Jared Moshe) upended several hundred B-westerns.
THE EMBEZZLER (1954) Tuesday 27 April 6.30-8.00pm Talking Pictures (Channel 81)
The Embezzler is a very modest production in which a bank clerk facing retirement contemplates a change in lifestyle. Between 1938 and 1958, Charles Frank appeared in over a hundred British films as a supporting actor; he must have been thrilled to have had a leading role at long last!
THE KID (2019) Tuesday 27 April 9.00-11.05pm Film Four P
Please don’t expect a great deal from yet another take on the Billy the Kid story, but at least it is a new film and has Ethan Hawke (Maudie) in the cast. My heart does sink, though, whenever I see the word ‘reimagining’ and I suspect that, dramatically, it is on a par with Buster Crabbe’s ‘inhabiting’ of the character in the 1940s.
DON’T TALK TO STRANGE MEN (1962) Wednesday 28 April 9.05-10.25pm TP (Channel 81)
Although it did not receive the same critical attention, or cause quite the same fuss, as Hammer’s Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (1960), it carries the same social message and builds up a fair measure of tension. The comfort settings (village pubs, red telephone boxes and nice, sensible parents) are used well and the film is worth a look.
THE CRYING GAME (1992) Wednesday 28 April 11.10pm-1.25am Film Four
Eventually, The Crying Game was recognised as one of the best, most original, films of the early 1990s – but it was American audiences who discovered it first. Neil Jordan won an Oscar for the screenplay and its astute blend of romance, politics of the day and domestic terrorism made it a welcome addition to the film society and art house circuit.
THE BLUE DAHLIA (1946) Thursday 29 April 1.15-3.20pm Film Four
There were several splendid thrillers in the mid-forties from novels by Raymond Chandler (or James M. Cain) and starring the likes of Bogart and Dick Powell. Here, Alan Ladd dons the raincoat (it was his final teaming with Veronica Lake) as Johnny Morrison, fresh from military service, who discovers that his unfaithful wife has been murdered. If it is a notch below the likes of The Big Sleep, it is probably because director George Marshall worked almost exclusively with lighter material.
SAVAGE (2018) Thursday 29 April 11.15pm-1.30am Film Four P
We are short on premières this week, so you might consider recording this Chinese action film about a cop who is after a gang of bullion thieves. Please note, though, it is a film that is light on philosophical asides and heavy on heart-stopping thrills and moments of violence.
WARN THAT MAN (1943) Friday 30 April 3.20-5.00pm Talking Pictures (Channel 81)
To all extent and purposes this was an early prototype for The Eagle Has Landed (1976) in that the plot is built around an attempt to kidnap Winston Churchill. It makes you wonder how the wartime audience reacted! At the time he made this, Gordon Harker was known best for his Inspector Hornsleigh characterisation.
RONNIE’S (2020) Friday 30 April 10.00-11.45pm BBC 4
If you lived in London fifty years ago and/or are a jazz fan, then this documentary is for you. The film has some revealing interviews and some great archive footage.
RANDOM WORDS AND RANDOM MEMORIES
DISCOVERING THE WESTERN
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned the fact that Sky Arts was showing a documentary/discussion called Discovering Westerns on Film. It was enjoyable and, if you have an interest in the genre or just film in general, and want to have an idea as to which ones are held in high regard, I would recommend catching a repeat transmission. We have highlighted about 65% of them in our weekly listings, so there are not too many surprises and most of the titles would be familiar to you. Did I agree entirely with their choices and order of merit? No, of course not . . .
As much as I have always admired Gary Cooper as an actor, it is appropriate that only one of his films (High Noon) should make a Top 25, although his ‘Quaker western’ Friendly Persuasion is excellent and better than some of those selected. However, not a single film with either Randolph Scott or Joel McCrea was a genuine surprise - particularly since they appeared together in Guns in the Afternoon (aka Ride the High Country) and it would make my Top Five. Nor would I have chosen Winchester ’73 as the best of the James Stewart/Anthony Mann partnership. It is interesting, too, that they also chose not to include a comedy western or a modern western such as Lonely Are the Brave or (a personal favourite) the superb Bad Day at Black Rock. What should not come as a surprise to anyone, are the three chosen as representative of Clint Eastwood’s contribution to the genre or the fact that one third of the titles feature John Wayne.
Allowing for some substitutions with films that one might feel are of equal merit (or marginally better), their list is, overall, a decent one and uncontroversial. There were just three occasions when I found myself shouting ‘surely not’:
1.JOHNNY GUITAR (1954). To be fair, it was adored by French critics 60 years ago, made the ‘best of’ lists of both Christopher Frayling and Phil Hardy and in the context of doing something different with the conventions of the genre . . . no, I can’t, not a Republic western starring Joan Crawford and made all the more garish by their Trucolor process. Mind you, it does contain one of the best lines in any western, courtesy of Sterling Hayden: “I never shake hands with a left-handed draw”.
2.GUNFIGHT AT THE OK CORRAL (1957). It is entertaining, but overblown from the moment Frankie Laine starts singing the title song. It isn’t even the best film about Wyatt Earp (the one that is, makes the list as well – thankfully); I would go as far as to say that Tombstone (1993) is also better.
3.THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER (1965). Don’t get me wrong, I like the film and I must have seen it twenty times since its TV debut clashed with The War Wagon Saturday, 23 December 1972. (There was a lot of agonising that day – no VCR recorders, of course.) It just isn’t Top Twenty – and if it is, where are The Comancheros and North to Alaska?
The Baftas ceremony was enjoyable and, as predicted, the awards were made across a broader spectrum. The Oscars will be next! Confession time – I have thrown caution to the wind and added to my DVD collection this week. All happen to be westerns – two rare John Ford silent films (Straight Shooting, his first feature from 1917, and Hell Bent from 1918); three 1940s B-westerns with James Warren ( who had a very short career!) and The Hangman (1959); the latter is one of only two Robert Taylor westerns I have not seen and I decided it was time!
HOUSE OF BAMBOO (1955) Saturday 17 April 3.55-6.00pm Talking Pictures (Channel 81)
And here we are again with another cult director! Samuel Fuller’s forte was gritty, b/w war films (he had received the Bronze Star, Silver Star and a Purple Heart during the Second World War); however, House of Bamboo sees him working in colour and CinemaScope (and note the clever use of the latter in the robbery sequence). Robert Stack is in Tokyo looking for the men who robbed a munitions train; Robert Ryan and Cameron Mitchell are also on top form.
HEAVEN CAN WAIT (1943) Saturday 17 April 6.45-9.00pm TP (Channel 81)
In contrast, Ernst Lubitsch was an A-list director, famed for his delicate ‘golden touch’ and who, for about a dozen years, could do little wrong. This was his last great film from those years – a witty satire with playboy Don Ameche negotiating with the Devil (Laird Cregar) prior to his entry into Hades. It was one of only two films that Lubitsch shot in colour and it looks superb.
FIRST MAN (2018) Saturday 17 April 9.00-11.45pm Channel 4 P
Damien Chazelle followed his successes Whiplash and La La Land with a different kind of project – a serious nuts-and-bolts look at the first Moon landing. Ryan Gosling is excellent as Neil Armstrong and The Crown’s Claire Foy received a lot of plaudits for her performance as his wife Janet.
WESTWORLD (1973) Sunday 18 April 12.01-1.25am BBC 1
If you enjoyed the updated series on satellite TV, you might like to take in the original. It is very good – Yul Brynner is perfect casting as the robot gunslinger whose safety protocols malfunction, leading to a worrying time for those indulging in their fantasies.
AGAINST THE WIND (1947) Sunday 18 April 7.00-9.00pm TP (Channel 81)
Ealing made the occasional decent drama to complement its famous comedies, but they couldn’t quite get them to the same level. This tale of Allied saboteurs on a mission in Belgium has the required authentic atmosphere and the cast (Robert Beatty, Simone Signoret and Jack Warner) to make it work and worth your time; it just doesn’t outshine more recent treatments for the cinema and for television.
THE BLACK SHIELD OF FALWORTH (1954) Monday 19 April 11.00am-1.05pm Film Four
This is a jolly romp, set in medieval England, in which Tony Curtis is training to be a knight in (plastic) armour and his then wife Janet Leigh starts – reluctantly - to admire him from afar. Our hero’s delivery of the line “yonder lies the castle of my fodda” has kept wags in employment down the years, but is it really any sillier than Russell Crowe’s accent in the mega-budget – and ‘seriously authentic’ – Robin Hood?
HEAVEN CAN WAIT (1943) Monday 19 April 3.00-5.25pm TP (Channel 81)
If you did not have time to watch it on Saturday, here is another opportunity.
GRAN TORINO (2008) Monday 19 April 9.00-11.25pm Channel 25
Clint Eastwood directs and also dons his acting shoes again as Walt Kowalski, a curmudgeonly, ‘white and proud’ ex-soldier and retired auto worker who befriends an Asian refugee. Clint just about keeps the right side of the line in making Walt a sympathetic character and his views understandable but not acceptable.
WHO KILLED THE CAT? (1966) Tuesday 20 April 2.10-3.55pm TP (Channel 81)
I am surprised that this extremely modest ‘whodunnit’ from B-director Montgomery Tully is still around! My personal archive lists it as no. 174 which means I saw it probably in early 1976. Three elderly ladies are under threat because they stand in the way of the inheritance of a boarding house. Interestingly, Who Killed Teddy Bear (1965) occupies slot no. 184; this is American and so the sleaze quotient is higher. There must have been something about late-night programming back then!
LORD JIM (1965) Tuesday 20 April 4.10-7.15pm Channel 41
In 1965, Peter O’Toole was a big star and this adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel was a major release. He plays a sailor accused of cowardice who, as a consequence, wanders through South East Asia looking for a way in which to redeem himself. The film may be 20 minutes too long, but the photography and supporting cast (including James Mason, Curt Jurgens and Eli Wallach) are outstanding.
IN THE LINE OF FIRE (1993) Wednesday 21 April 9.00-11.40pm Channel 33
Clint Eastwood forsook the director’s chores, on this occasion, and Wolfgang Petersen did a great job – it is one of Eastwood’s best star vehicles. He plays a Secret Service agent still troubled by his inability to save JFK, who finds that history might be about to repeat itself. John Malkovich is superb as the would-be assassin and Ennio Morricone contributes an effective score.
THE PRIDE AND THE PASSION (1957) Thursday 22 April 4.20-7.05pm Channel 41
This historical epic has not been on a Freeview channel for several years. Based on CS Forester’s The Gun, it is the story of an English officer (Cary Grant) moving an enormous cannon to attack a French fortress during the Peninsular War. Frank Sinatra and Sophia Loren also star. On balance, most students of film would say that Stanley Kramer was a better producer than director – and yet, his best ones (as a director) made bold social statements and made for superior entertainment.
THE MAN WITH THE IRON HEART (2017) Thursday 22 April 10.00-11.55pm BBC 4
Whereas Operation Daybreak (1975) centred on the Czech resistance’s assassination of Nazi ‘golden boy’ Reinhard Heydrich, tonight’s drama employs a dual focus and begins with the domestic life of perhaps the most notorious of Hitler’s henchmen. These scenes are very effective. Apparently, the original title (and the one used in some European countries) was HHhH - an acronym for Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich ("Himmler's brain is called Heydrich").
YOUNG AND INNOCENT (1937) Friday 23 April 1.20-3.00pm Talking Pictures (Channel 81)
Whilst it is not quite in the same class as the Fritz Lang masterpiece You Only Live Once (also a 1937 release), with which it shares some themes, this is still classic Hitchcock, albeit one of his lesser ones. Derrick de Marney is accused of murder and is on the run; the delightful Nova Pilbeam believes he is innocent and helps him. It contains one of Hitchcock’s most celebrated technical achievements: a crane/dolly shot that ends in a close-up of the murderer’s eye.
NOTE: the director’s Notorious follows immediately (and contains a reworking of the technical shot described above).
PHILOMENA (2013) Friday 23 April 11.35pm-1.10am BBC 1
Philomena was hugely popular in Lyme and deservedly so. Judi Dench is, of course, excellent as the elderly Irish woman searching for the child who was taken from her many years before. Steve Coogan is also very good as the journalist who helps her in her quest and it came as no surprise that he was so brilliant in Stan & Ollie.
RANDOM WORDS AND RANDOM MEMORIES
SOME RANDOM HOBOES
I had forgotten that the on-screen foreword to Emperor of the North included a dedication to the hoboes who were crisscrossing the United States during the Great Depression. Earlier the same evening (11 April), Nomadland was winning three major awards at the Baftas. It brought to mind some other notable films that deal with the same themes.
The pre-Covid season at the Marine included Sullivan’s Travels (1941), a brilliant and ageless satire from Preston Sturges. Joel McCrea plays a film director who, with 10 cents in his pocket, sets out to experience the “real world” that is out there, beyond the confines of Hollywood. David Carradine delivered his best performance in Bound for Glory (1976), the biopic of dustbowl balladeer Woody Guthrie. Songs such as Hard Travelin’ and I Ain’t Got No Home became (pun not intended) a moving chronicle of those times. The marvellous Beggars of Life (1928), which I saw at the Bridport Palace – with live music – in September 2018, was one of the last great silent movies. Louise Brooks is on the run and dressed as a boy and Wallace Beery plays Oklahoma Red, the tough hobo with a streak of kindness.
This does not mean to say, of course, that all the stories were in deadly earnest, as they could just as easily lend themselves to comedy. At the beginning of the short Night Owls (1930), Stan and Ollie are sleeping on a park bench and in One Good Turn (1931) they are desperate enough to ask widow Mary Carr for a handout. (Ollie: “I wonder if we could trouble you for a slice of buttered toast?” Stan: “And while you’re at it, could you slap a piece of ham on it?”) The French classic Boudu, Saved From Drowning (1932) is still very funny and better than the American remake Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), although Nick Nolte, Richard Dreyfuss and Bette Midler are certainly game enough. We could, of course, write a book on ‘the tramp on film’ – and, specifically with reference to Charlie Chaplin, that has been done many times. I am sure it would strike you as ridiculous to suggest that Chaplin is undervalued (after all, his image is the most famous, and recognised, in the history of cinema), but the pendulum swung some time ago towards the technical virtuosity of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd and even, for a brief dalliance, Harry Langdon. Charlie, though, was equally adept at humour and pathos – consider, for a moment, the opening to City Lights and the ending. I have watched a lot of films over the years and I would be hard pressed to name another scene from anywhere that captures pure emotion so perfectly, as that final sequence.
As for the hobo on television . . . I must end by reminding you all of The Littlest Hobo. It was a Canadian TV series that ran for 48 episodes between 1963 and 1965 and the central character was a German shepherd dog. The actor/dog was called London and it was a shame they did not do canine Oscars. There had been a low-budget film in 1958 and the TV series was revived during the 1980s. London starred in them all, so I think it is fair to say there must have been some sons or grandsons in there somewhere!
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