Wow, this month really got away from me, y'all. This may be a week or two late, but TCM still has a plethora of riches in the second half of March, so it's still worth it to point out some notable programming. After a bonanza of Top 1000 films in February for 31 Days of Oscar, this month is quite a bit heavier on lesser-known films, so you'll notice the Top 1000 is sparser than usual. I expect things to balance back out next month, but who can say not to some TCM obscurities? Not I!
1960 - directed by Wolf Rilla - starring George Sanders, Barbara Shelley, Martin Stephens - ranked #1851 by 676 users
Thanks to this film and 1961’s The Innocents, Martin Stephens will pretty much always have a reputation as a creepy-ass horror movie kid. That film is far more refined and literary than this one, but Village of the Damned is quite effective as B-movie horror. After an odd incident involving lost time, several women in the same village find themselves unexpectedly pregnant, and their progeny have eerily similar features and an uncanny ability to communicate with each other non-verbally. The inimitable George Sanders is on hand to figure out what’s going on, and stop it. It’s schlocky at times, but that’s part of the fun of these kinds of films, and one look at these kids’ eyes will have you looking askance at your own tow-headed children.
1948 - directed by John Ford - starring John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Shirley Temple - ranked #1634 by 498 users
A sort of combination western and war film, Fort Apache centers on a cavalry unit stationed in the west, not long after the Civil War. Henry Fonda comes in from the east as the new commander, determined to apply his modern understanding of discipline and military technique to the Indian territories. John Wayne is the subordinate officer who has years of experience working with the Native Americans, and this sets up a conflict as Wayne knows Fonda’s approaches are doomed. It’s a neat trick that the film makes you dislike Fonda’s character fairly quickly for his hard edges and inflexibility, and yet when those very same qualities set him up for failure in the climactic battle, you sympathize with him. Ford knows a little bit about leadership, and following the way good and misguided leaders are handled throughout his Cavalry trilogy (this film plus She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande) is great.
1939 - directed by George Cukor - starring Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell - ranked #1854 by 296 users
Today, the Bechdel Test is a common shorthand method to track the portrayal of women in films. A movie passes the test if it has two named women characters who talk to each other about something other than man. The gimmick of The Women is that no men appear on screen at all — but the tagline is “It’s all about men!”, so it’s a bit of a gimme-gotcha when it comes to the Bechdel Test. I think it does pass, just barely, but the film certainly makes no bones about being about a bunch of women who cattily compete over men, often the same men. The main story follows Norma Shearer’s Mary, whose husband Stephen leaves her for Joan Crawford’s Crystal, a gold-digging perfume salesgirl, but the real delight is the fantastically witty dialogue and interactions among all the supporting characters. These include Rosalind Russell, who proves her comedy chops for the first time, but also Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine, Mary Boland, and even famed gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. Though the film seems by and large to treat love and marriage as a farce, it’s actually fairly broadly representative of different viewpoints on marriage, and I find the whole thing not only hilarious but also refreshing and heartwarming.
1987 - directed by Gabriel Axel - starring Stéphane Audran, Bibi Andersson - ranked #1476 by 502 users
A newer film by TCM’s usual standards, but one that very much deserves to be here. A refugee woman takes a place helping to cook and keep house for a pair of deeply religious women in Denmark. After years, she requests that they let her cook them a feast, and in comes a deluge of exotic ingredients (many of them live animals) that the women don’t have any framework for dealing with. There’s a whole lot to unpack in this movie, especially from a Christian perspective. Both the austere simplicity of the sisters’ lives and the extravagant feasting of Babette’s are time-honored modes passed down through centuries of different Christian traditions, and seeing them clash like this is really powerful and enlightening. Even without coming to the film with a Christian background, the juxtaposition of two ways of life that are so different and yet seeing that the characters leading them have such mutual respect for each other makes for great, quiet cinema.
1951 - directed by William A. Wellman - starring Robert Taylor, Denise Darcel, Hope Emerson - ranked #11924 by 23 users
It is a CRIME that there are only 23 users who have ranked this film, an outright crime. Westerns are a staple of classic Hollywood, and they could often be formulaic and predictable. This one has many of the elements you expect from a classic era Western — Indian attacks, dangerous river crossings and cliff traversals — but it has one important and compelling difference: almost every major character is a woman. They’re all on their way west to marry men who are already working in California, and while they start with an escort of men, by the end it’s basically just the women and one dude dealing with all the trials and dangers of a wagon train. It’s a fairly unique perspective on the genre, and a very welcome one. If you’re a fan of westerns and haven’t seen this one yet, sit your butt down and do it. This is not to be missed.
Treasures from the Disney Vault - Mar 25, 8pm
I always like to highlight TCM’s regular Treasures from the Disney Vault programming, which takes place every other month or so. They devote the whole evening to vintage Disney films (mostly live-action or more obscure), TV specials, and cartoon shorts. This month they’re focusing on animal pictures, so we get adventure films like Charlie the Lonesome Cougar and Benji the Hunted along with True Life documentaries on The African Lion and more, plus there will be short films focused on animals scattered throughout in between the features. TCM’s programming is always thoughtful and cohesive, but this night in particular is a great example of programming you can just park in front of and enjoy all evening... with the kids!
1937 - directed by Gregory La Cava - starring Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Adolphe Menjou, Gail Patrick - ranked #1968 by 228 users
This film is in my own personal Top Twenty, so you know I’m coming at this with a lot of personal passion. For a film starring both Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers it still feels like it flies a bit under the radar for me, though I see it does pass my threshold for “hidden gems” on these posts, just barely. Kate is an aspiring stage actress who moves into a boarding house for aspiring (and working, but jobs are hard to come by) actresses, among whom Ginger is a only the most prominent of a who’s who of 1930s character actresses (along with youngsters like Lucille Ball and Ann Miller). Most of the movie is blazingly-written interactions among all these girls, with some of the wittiest dialogue you’ll find in any movie. There is a throughline plot that gets surprisingly dark, which is what elevates from the film from just a fun time to something more substantial.
1969 - directed by Paul Mazursky - starring Natalie Wood, Robert Culp, Elliott Gould, Dyan Cannon - ranked #4886 by 229 users
Taking advantage of the relaxed mores of the late 1960s, many New Hollywood films focused on sex in a far more frank way than films had been able to do under the Production Code. This one looks at a pair of married couples and friends who get into a swinging subculture and decide to swap partners to liven up their relationships. Interestingly, though the standards of propriety regarding stories and content that could be shown on screen had changed, a lot of the underlying morality had not yet, and this ends up being surprisingly conservative for the story its telling. It marks a quite fascinating middle ground in New Hollywood cinema, and portrays a very specific moment in time very clearly.
1940 - directed by Michael Curtiz - starring Errol Flynn, Brenda Marshall - ranked #2125 by 255 users
You can pretty much trace the beginning of English global domination to 1588 when Elizabeth I’s royal navy defeated the Spanish Armada. At that moment, a tiny island nation overcame one of Europe’s dominant powers, and the British Navy was a force to be reckoned after that. The Sea Hawk is basically about that transition, with a healthy dose of swashbuckling adventuring added in. Flynn is a captain of a sort of paramilitary fleet (uh, they’re kind of like pirates) who are loyal to England but aren’t GREAT at following the orders of the Crown (Elizabeth is the imperious Flora Robson). Turns out there’s a mole in the palace, so there are advantages to Flynn’s point of view. The film is grounded in historical and political intrigue but still maintains its sense of adventure, making it a must-see for anyone who is interested in this historical moment, but also fun for anyone who just likes to buckle some swashes.
1933 - directed by Dorothy Arzner - starring Katharine Hepburn, Colin Clive, Billie Burke - ranked #13439 by 22 users
We hear a lot these days about the paucity of women directors, and it’s true we’ve got a long way to go, but we’ve also come a long way, and it’s important to recognize the pioneers who were working in an even more male-dominated industry than we have today. Case in point: in 1930s Hollywood, there was one woman director. One. She was Dorothy Arzner, she made a bunch of excellent films within the studio system, and she did it by herself. And she also did it her way. Christopher Strong has a very androgynous feel to it, unusual for a time of glamour girls and hypermasculinity (obviously Marlene Dietrich is in this space, too, let’s not overlook that), with an early role for Katharine Hepburn as an aviatrix.
Jandy is especially drawn to classic, off-beat, and foreign film, but loves a good blockbuster action sequence, too. You can find her on Flickchart as faithx5. She also writes at The Frame, and co-hosts the occasional podcast Not at Odds at Row Three.