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Some of this week’s TV schedules have been taken over by the FA Cup Final and preliminaries for the Eurovision Song Contest, but I think that there are enough films to keep everyone ticking over! Not a film as such, but can I also draw your attention to an Arena special: Delia Derbyshire – the Myths and the Legendary Tapes (Sunday, 16 May at 9.00pm on BBC 4). A while ago, I wrote a piece on TV themes and referred to the work of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop – and the creator of the Doctor Who theme was a true pioneering genius of electronic music.
BANK HOLIDAY (1938) Saturday 15 May 12.15-2.05pm Talking Pictures (Channel 81)
Director Carol Reed’s first sizeable hit shows good characterisation and an adept use of naturalistic settings, as it takes the audience on a day trip to Brighton. It also dares to mix the (slightly) posh and the working class. Margaret Lockwood and Kathleen Harrison are fine, but so is Wilfred Lawson. His fondness for the bottle limited his career somewhat, but there are still several gems on his CV including The Long Voyage Home (1940), Becket and Tom Jones (both 1963).
A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL (1966) Saturday 15 May 5.25-7.40pm Channel 41
Aside from those directed by Sergio Leone, the three best spaghetti westerns, more often than not, are deemed to be The Big Gundown (1966), The Big Silence (1967) and this one, originally titled ¿Quien sabe? The story takes place during the Mexican Revolution and, in the hands of Gian Maria Volonte and Klaus Kinski, certainly holds the attention, but Italian westerns were renowned for their look (and sound), not their letters. And, in this instance, Luis Bacalov (and Ennio Morricone) composed the score and the art director, Sergio Canevari, had worked on the classic Battle of Algiers. Viewer caution: it isn’t clear which version is being transmitted; the longest is most likely lost; the 102m version would be fine (and matches the time slot); the truncated UK print would disappoint!
STRAWBERRY ROAN (1944) Sunday 16 May 11.45am-1.25pm Talking Pictures (Channel 81)
This is a rare British film, based on a then popular novel, in which William Hartnell is a farmer who falls for a dancer and marries her. She cannot, however, shake off her city ways. The director, Maurice Elvey, had a prolific career, but is equally unknown to modern viewers. I had the privilege of travelling up to London, a few years ago, for a showing of his rediscovered The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918) and it was quite an event!
SWORD OF TRUST (2019) Sunday 16 May 11.10pm-1.00am Film Four P
What a great time, politically, to unveil the final film of writer-director Lynn Shelton! A woman decides to sell her grandfather’s Civil War sword; it also happens that he believed it to be proof that the Secessionists had triumphed. Perhaps she will find some conspiracy theorists willing to pay a hefty sum in order to own such an important artefact . . .
LAST OF THE COMANCHES (1952) Monday 17 May 11.15am-1.00pm Channel 41
A while ago, we listed the rather splendid Humphrey Bogart war film Sahara (1943); I mentioned that it was remade as a western – and here it is! Broderick Crawford is the cavalry sergeant attempting to get some stagecoach passengers and his men (including Lloyd Bridges, who was in both films) out of danger. Whilst it isn’t High Noon or Shane, the cast gives it everything, the colour photography and location filming are very good, and the action and suspense are building from the opening credits. Early on, look out for a brief appearance by Steve Forrest, billed under his real name of William Andrews.
THE IMITATION GAME (2014) Monday 17 May 6.45-9.00pm Film Four
Members will be very familiar with The Imitation Game, but it is really good and always worth seeing again. Benedict Cumberbatch is superb as a pre-banknote Alan Turing, to whom the country owes a huge debt.
DARK COMMAND (1940) Tuesday 18 May 11.00am-12.55pm Film Four
After John Wayne returned to his home studio following a hugely successful loan-out to Walter Wanger for Stagecoach, Republic decided to throw caution to the winds. They reteamed him with Claire Trevor, hired Raoul Walsh to direct, brought in Walter Pidgeon from MGM, used Roy Rogers as the wayward younger brother and still found room for George “Gabby” Hayes to take care of the comedy! The difference in budget allocation was considerable, therefore - $400,000 as opposed to $35,000 for a 3 Mesquiteers western. This also meant that their A-productions could be a little heavy on plot – in this case, election of a marshal, romance/marriage, local politics, pro-South guerrilla raids and a little dentistry. Whatever, it is very entertaining and Republic’s Second Unit directors knew how to put over exhilarating stunts and action sequences. The source novel was W.R. Burnett’s A Texas Iliad, so we ought not to be surprised by the revelation that William Shakespeare might have hailed from the Lone Star state.
AMERICAN WOMAN (2018) Tuesday 18 May 9.00-11.15pm Film Four P
Almost immediately, the critical consensus was that we had a career-best performance from Sienna Miller. She plays a single mother (and grandmother), fiercely independent, whose life begins to fall apart when her daughter disappears. Even so, she takes on the responsibility of raising her grandson and the audience is willing her to succeed.
THE SINGER NOT THE SONG (1960) Wednesday 19 May 2.45-5.30pm Talking Pictures (Ch 81)
Well – the film isn’t very good (Paris-presse declared ‘il faut le voir pour le croire’), but if you enjoy something outrageous it might just interest you (as it did me many years ago). Filmed in Spain, it has Dirk Bogarde as a Mexican bandit in very tight leather trousers and John Mills as the village’s Catholic priest. With Mylène Demongeot’s presence creating a potential love triangle, the church services are put under some strain. Bogarde did not want to work alongside John Mills and could be awkward in such circumstances, which surely did not help the cause!
WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005) Wednesday 19 May 9.00-11.15pm Film Four
Steven Spielberg is too good a director not to do justice to the HG Wells novel. The first half is particularly strong and there are some great set-pieces, especially the initial onslaught and at the ferry crossing. It is less effective in the final section and I still prefer the 1953 original; even so, it is still so much better than the recent, dire, BBC adaptation. Mr Spielberg pays a deft tribute to the original at the very end – the grandparents are played by Gene Barry and Ann Robinson.
DECISION BEFORE DAWN (1951) Thursday 20 May 4.45-7.10pm Channel 41
This is a wartime spy drama with an intriguing difference – Oskar Werner is a German POW who agrees to work for the Americans, in the belief that it might help to shorten the war. Richard Basehart is his usual sturdy self and the German locations are a big plus.
PARIS, TEXAS (1984) Thursday 20 May 11.15pm-2.05am Film Four
Paris, Texas became one of the best-reviewed films of the 1980s. Director Wim Wenders brings an analytical, unprejudiced eye to the proceedings. Harry Dean Stanton (you might remember his delightful cameo in The Straight Story) is the drifter who tries to reconnect with his son, ex-wife and his brother. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and many other top prizes, and is probably still Wenders’ most acclaimed film. The Ry Cooder soundtrack is a real bonus, too!
THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956) Friday 21 May 2.30-4.55pm Film Four
Hitchcock decided to remake his own 1934 thriller; it was the only time he did so and it was not a wise move. It is difficult to fault either James Stewart or Doris Day and the plot retains some tension (their son is kidnapped, so that they will not spill the beans on an assassination attempt), but the extra 40 minutes, colour and VistaVision don’t improve the original. Que sera, sera, I suppose . . .
TESTAMENT OF YOUTH (2014) Friday 21 May 11.20pm-1.20am BBC 2
Testament had a good reception on release and deservedly so. Alicia Vikander (she is a busy actor!) plays writer Vera Brittain, who volunteered as a nurse and experienced the horrors of the Western front. It is performed with sensitivity and filmed with some skill by James Kent, here making his big-screen debut. There are lots of very good films that do not reach the absolute pinnacle of achievement (how could they all?) and this is one of them.
RANDOM WORDS AND RANDOM MEMORIES
Johnny Crawford passed away on 29 April, aged 75 and Lee Aaker on 1 April; both were known primarily as child actors. Although Crawford impressed at rodeos later in life his main claim to fame was playing the son of Chuck Connors in the TV series The Rifleman; similarly, Lee Aaker was in The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, had a few film appearances in the 1950s (The Atomic City and Hondo for example), but very little thereafter and eventually worked as a carpenter.
Of course, some child actors did go on to exceed their earlier efforts in adult life. Natalie Wood and Elizabeth Taylor spring immediately to mind; Anna Paquin has built a decent career after her sensational start in The Piano (1993); Jodie Foster, as well as acting, has become a director of some note. Roddy McDowall, apart from a hiatus in the mid-1950s, was in demand continuously for a period of sixty years. And even Jackie Coogan, who starred alongside Charlie Chaplin in The Kid (1921) and who, by all accounts, had earned $4,000,000 by the 1930s, managed to keep busy in minor films (Sex Kittens Go to College) before re-inventing himself as Uncle Fester in The Addams Family on television.
However, even the greatest child star of them all, Shirley Temple, had called it a day when barely into her twenties – although 1920s star Baby Peggy (b. 1918) topped this by some distance. She made over 50 films between 1921 and 1924 before her days of stardom came quickly to an end. She passed away in 2020, aged 101. The most successful child actor in the 1930s, apart from Shirley Temple, has to be Freddie Bartholomew (1924-1992). He made some very successful costume dramas, including David Copperfield and Anna Karenina (both 1935) and Captains Courageous (1937, opposite Spencer Tracy), but only made eight films after 1941. And, it has to be said, despite modern education methods and, presumably, better planning and more sophisticated talent agencies, sustaining a career appears not to have become any easier: Macaulay Culkin soon faded after the huge success of Home Alone (1990). Perhaps in the UK young actors are more grounded and willing to engage with their responsibilities – both Emma Watson and Daniel Radcliffe became fine ambassadors for their profession.
Thankfully, we still have some actors willing to be interviewed and to share their memories of working during Hollywood’s golden years: Claude Jarman Jr who became a star overnight after his debut in The Yearling (1946) opposite Gregory Peck makes a very good interviewee. Mickey Kuhn, who is, I think, the last surviving actor who appeared in GWTW, must have some fascinating stories about that film and the subsequent decade.
Finally, a reminder of how much fortunes can differ. Philippe de Lacy was found in a shell hole in France just before the 1918 armistice, by a Red Cross nurse, and taken to the US (his mother and five siblings had been killed). His ten years as an actor included Peter Pan (1924) and Mother Machree (1927). Bobby Driscoll won a special Oscar in 1949 (aged 12) for The Window and followed this with Treasure Island (1951) and voice work for Disney’s Peter Pan (1953); he was taking heroin by the age of sixteen, died alone in an abandoned tenement aged thirty-one and is buried in a pauper’s grave on Hart Island.
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