February Highlights on TCM
Oscar®-nominated films can give you an interesting window on American culture and how it has seen itself at different moments. It's interesting to look back and see what was considered important and popular during certain periods--like viewing a gallery of self-portraits of the movie business within the greater culture.
GEORGE STEVENS--Take the five George Stevens pictures included in "31 Days of Oscar®." Stevens started as a cameraman, and he began as a director of comedy shorts and features in the early '30s. Alice Adams (March 3, 2pm), made in 1935, was his first serious picture, an adaptation of a Booth Tarkington novel about a small-town Midwestern girl (Katharine Hepburn) who is interested in "advancing" herself. The heart of the picture lies in the grace notes and small, lyrical exchanges between Hepburn and the rich young man with whom she falls in love (Fred MacMurray), and the mortification she feels when her family embarrasses her during a dinner. Stevens' background in comedy played an important role in this movie--you can feel it in the slow unfolding of emotions, in scenes that are very close to what was once called "slow burn" comedy. Though the picture was based on a 1921 novel, the conflict in Alice Adams the movie was rooted in the Depression. It would have been less urgent in the '40s, when Stevens made Talk of the Town (February 15, 8am) and Woman of the Year (February 13, 2:45am). These pictures are quite different in tone from Alice Adams: they have a visual sheen and brilliance, and despite the fact that they're comedies, they're both weightier than the earlier picture. They were made during wartime, and while neither is about the war per se (Woman of the Year deals with it indirectly), you can feel the presence of something bigger happening outside the action in both pictures. Stevens joined the Army Signal Corps in 1943, and he came back from the war a changed man. He worked independently (as the studio system was coming apart), made fewer pictures but shot more footage with many cameras running at once, and chose material that addressed serious themes. A Place in the Sun (February 16, 8pm), an adaptation of the second half of Theodore Dreiser's 1925 novel An American Tragedy, also deals with social climbing, but from a far harsher perspective than in Alice Adams; and Giant (February 12, 6am), from Edna Ferber's sprawling best-seller, tracks the transformation of a Texas oil family and changing attitudes toward race from the '20s through the '50s. These were huge pictures, announced and promoted with a lot of fanfare and treated with a great deal of respect in their time, and their scope dwarfs that of Stevens' '30s and '40s movies (the same is true of Shane, not being shown this month). In the decades that followed, it became fashionable to look down on Stevens' "big" movies, but for me Giant was always a central film. I find myself coming back to Stevens' '50s movies, Giant in particular, and I'm moved every time by their extraordinary craftsmanship and their passionate commitment to building a better world.
by Martin Scorsese