Running across The Gilded Lily (1935) in the TCM listings (Sun., Dec. 5 at 2 p.m. ET) this week made me think about all the movies that just seem to fall through the cracks for one reason or another. The Gilded Lily is one such film. Its director, Wesley Ruggles (brother of Paramount comedian Charlie Ruggles), was once considered a fairly major director, but he lacked a notable signature and so lacked staying power. Claudette Colbert was a big star for years, but she’s not someone who got snatched up by the nostalgia craze of the 1960s and 70s. I have no idea why. The same is true of co-star Fred MacMurray, though he became so identified with the My Three Sons TV series and his Disney movies that his earlier work was eclipsed. What little treasures are we missing out on because of this?
I only vaguely remember The Gilded Lily at this point (ask me again after Sunday), so I can’t make any real claim for its status as a little treasure. I remember liking it when I saw it at the age of 19, but then I liked a lot of things at 19 that—well, don’t look all that swell today. (I refer only to things in the arts—just so no one thinks I am being ungallant as concerns old girlfriends and the like.) But there are other movies of roughly the same caliber of production that occur to me just don’t get a break—and they’re not necessarily all that old, though a lot of them are. These are good movies that just lack some ingredient or other to push them into the realm of that which is revived on a regular basis.
To settle this in my own mind, I wandered over to the DVD shelves and gave the titles the once over—bearing in mind some of the titles there are not commercially available and some are even from VHS transfers—and realized there are scads of good movies I just don’t think about on a regular basis. They may not be great movies by any stretch of the imagination, but the history of movies isn’t just written in “great” movies. It’s also comprised of lesser titles and nearly forgotten titles—and they really ought to be taken out and looked at every so often in order to have a real sense of the movies. Plus, let’s be honest, these movies are probably feeling lonely and unloved.
I know it’s hard enough to actually have a working knowledge of the so-called great movies. Realistically, there’s only so much time that even the most enthusiastic cineaste has at his or her disposal and we’re at a point in history where there are 100 years of movies to wade through. If you want to get into real antiquity, it’s over 100 years. Considering the sheer number of titles produced every year, that’s a hell of a lot of movies—even if you stick to the big name filmmakers and stars. So I suppose it’s only reasonable that these smaller movies get lost along the way. That doesn’t make it any less unfortunate. After all, it’d be nice if most movie fans saw another Claudette Colbert picture besides It Happened One Night (1934), and really Fred MacMurray could stand rescuing from that dark night of the soul that was Disney live-action movies.
The odd thing about this is that a lot of these titles that have become esoterica were actually more available and apt to be bumped into back in the days prior to specialized movie channels and home video. TV stations used to buy packages of movies put together by the owners of the titles—and in order to maximize the profitability of their holdings less desirable titles would be used to pad out any given package. MCA (now Universal) wasn’t about to sell you the best of their Paramount holdings in one easy serving. If they mixed in obscure titles like The Phantom President (1932) or Private Worlds (1935) or, yes, The Gilded Lily, they could expand the number of packages. It was simply good business. Nobody in his or her right mind was going to actually ask for Honeymoon in Bali (1939), but they would take it as part of a package. Hey, it’d fill a two hour time slot on the Late Show.
Today that market has gone and the game has changed. Nothing against—and, in fact, everything for—Turner Classic Movies, but they tend to deal from the deck of their own holdings. If it’s in the TCM library, it’s more likely to show up than if it has to come from an outside source. And since they know that the millionth showing of Mildred Pierce (1945) or the nine millionth showing of Casablanca (1942) will draw more viewers than the 15th showing of The Last Flight (1931), you’re going to see a lot more standard fare. It no longer behooves them to trot out the more obscure titles, though thankfully they still do—just not as frequently.
Similarly, TCM is more selective about what they’ll pick up from outside. I was pleased to see TCM book The Gilded Lily (which appears to be one title of a Claudette Colbert no-frills set they’re putting out in conjunction with Universal), but I was delighted to the point of “all freaking right!” (though I didn’t say “freaking”) to see that Rouben Mamoulian’s City Streets (1931) is in their January listings. Never heard of it? I’m not exactly surprised. It’s the odd film out from Mamoulian’s Paramount early talkies—Applause (1929) and Love Me Tonight (1932) having been brought out through Kino and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932) having become a Warner Bros. property held in the Turner library. Forty years ago it was part of the Mamoulian retrospective that toured colleges. Since then, showings have been rare. Hopefully, it, too, is slated for some kind of DVD release.
Looking over my own library, I noticed—in no order (probably because my library is in no order)—Murder at the Vanities (1934), Waikiki Wedding (1937), Guilty as Hell (1932), Once in a Lifetime (1932), Two in a Crowd (1936). The Royal Family of Broadway (1930), Four Hours to Kill! (1935), The Big Broadcast (1932), Mr. Dynamite (1935), By Candlelight (1934), Murder, He Says (1945), You’ll Find Out (1940) The Jungle Princess (1936), Night of Terror (1933), The Last Warning (1938), First Love (1939), It’s in the Bag (1945), Crazy House (1943), Where There’s Life (1947), The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939), and on and on. Great movies? A few of them are at least borderline, but for the most part, no, but they’re all good. And yet they remain mostly unknown outside of the area of the most hardcore fandom. Five of them are on DVD, the others aren’t—well, not legally and not often in good copies.
There are glaring omissions in more recent titles as well. Exempting the great films that are still poorly represented, when is the last time you saw Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987) or That Man from Rio (1964)? Are you even familiar with these titles or have they already fallen through the cracks of cinematic consciousness? It’s hard to tell. It’s equally hard to tell when or if these titles will become available, though TCM has run That Man from Rio. Ever hear of Seaside Swingers (1965)? It was a U.S. retitling of a Brit film called Every Day’s a Holiday that attempted to turn Freddie and the Dreamers into movie stars—bizarrely by making them supporting characters. It didn’t, but it’s a movie of some considerable charm, and though it’s on DVD in the UK, it hasn’t been available in the US since a VHS pan-and-scan many years ago. (Typically, the UK DVD doesn’t tell you if it’s pan-and-scan or letterbox or anamorphic. I may blow 20 bucks and find out.)
So what am I suggesting? Well, I’m not sure exactly. I am saying look past the standard classics once in a while, move out of your comfort range and try something less familiar. Look into those unfamiliar titles that show up on TCM. If you’re also a reader of my “Weekly Reeler,” I try to keep track of when the really unusual titles pop up on TCM. Myself, I’ve long planned to try Henry Koster’s First Love with Deanna Durbin as an Asheville Film Society title. I’m also considering Frank Tuttle’s Waikiki Wedding with Bing Crosby and A. Edward Sutherland’s Mississippi (1935) with W.C. Fields and Crosby. But this is all contingent on the kind of turnout or lack thereof they generate if they’re sprinkled in with more familiar titles and accepted classics. We’ll see.