The best thing on TV for me lately has been a Turner Classic Movies series of “celebrity” programmed nights.
Matt Gruening, the guy who created THE SIMPSONS chose a movie the other night made around 1941—BLUES IN THE NIGHT—the stars of which I didn’t know with a few exceptions like Lloyd Nolan playing the bad guy owner of the Jungle Nightclub (!) and Jack Carson doing a pretty weak job of pretending to play the trumpet.
It was set in the world of, supposedly, “jazz” purists in a small combo, led by a B-movie star I never saw before who wasn’t very good, playing a dedicated jazz artiste, who under the influence of an evil woman, turns his back on the pure jazz of his group—which sounded like a cross between mediocre Dixieland and popular music of the era, but earned them little money—to become a novelty song piano player for a successful big swing band (oh no!).
I can see why Gruening chose it, because it has some of the strangest surreal montages I ever saw in a movie, and because so many of the scenes are preposterous—like the final one with the band happily back together, traveling, and living in a boxcar on a train! “Jazz” playing “hoboes” in suits and ties and with instruments, along with the trumpet player’s singer wife in perfect make up and stylish dress, living and playing music in a boxcar!
Then last night the guest programmer was the opera star Renee Fleming who chose, among other flicks, SONG OF LOVE, a Katherine Hepburn vehicle, with Paul Henreid (Ingrid Bergman’s husband in CASABLANCA) and Robert Walker (the insane bad guy in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN) as, respectively, the composers Robert Schuman and Johannes Bhrams (with Hepburn as Clara Schumann).
It wasn’t terrific, but certainly was interesting, with Hepburn and Walker in the same flick. But Fleming also chose a movie in which Luis Rainer plays the wife of Johan Strauss, called THE GREAT WALTZ. If you don’t know Luis Rainer you should, a two-time Academy Award winner, still alive, she was one of the strangest stars Hollywood ever produced. Her gestures and invented mannerisms for different movie characters could seem to slide into over the top melodrama and yet at the same time, in the same gesture seem to be the most restrained and underplayed moment in film history!
She was unique. If you ever see her name in a flick, stop and watch, and you’ll see what I mean. Especially THE GREAT WALTZ where she plays the devoted and long suffering wife-of-a-genius with so much panache, her non-singing-or-playing role seems as operatic as the other leads who play and conduct and sing at full volume and full speed (some of the scenes of people waltzing make you finally understand why that dance music was so revolutionary, it turned Europeans into whirling dervishes getting high on what the movie portrays as the hypnotically addictive rhythm of spinning around a dance floor to a ¾ beat.
What a kick to see films rarely or never found on TV presented by talented creative people who aren’t afraid to stand behind their personal taste, no matter how quirky. I don’t know when it’s on exactly, I just stumbled on them on various nights, but it’s probably listed as “guest programmed” nights. Check it out.