- The Washington Times - Friday, April 28, 2006

Turner Classic Movies may command a considerable share of midweek film appreciation time throughout May. Programming in the Tuesday-through-Thursday block will be dominated by two auspicious retrospectives. The most thorough recalls the career of Bette Davis, TCM’s Star of the Month. Her headstrong intensity defined the “woman’s film” in Hollywood for more than a decade — and influenced it beyond her best years. Miss Davis (1908-1989) had become the most dynamic feminine asset at Warner Bros. by 1935, when she won her first Academy Award for an inferior vehicle, “Dangerous.” Three years later, when she won her second, a richly deserving triumph for playing the arrogant Southern belle who redeems herself in William Wyler’s “Jezebel,” Miss Davis also was one of the studio’s most argumentative contract stars.

She rivaled James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart at inviting suspensions by rejecting roles regarded as stale or trifling. In fact, “Jezebel” was the reconciliation project that terminated one of her most detetermined revolts, underlined by a well-publicized exile in England.

The Davis filmography contains about 80 movies. TCM will show about three-fourths of them, beginning with a pair of 24-hour marathons devoted solely to her prolific output for Warner Bros. during the 1930s. That still will leave a substantial number from the 1930s to be accounted for on the third installment, May 17, although the Davis classics of the early 1940s will begin to make themselves felt with “The Letter” and “All This and Heaven Too.” A week later, the 1940s get the run of the show, so look for “Now, Voyager,” “The Little Foxes,” “The Great Lie,” “Old Acquaintance,” “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” “The Corn Is Green” and several others on May 24 and 25.

All four Wednesdays devoted to the Davis golden years at Warner Bros. will be 24-hour marathons. When they conclude, the second weekly edition of TCM’s second major retrospective, “Race in Hollywood: Black Images in Film,” will commence. Selected and introduced by historian Donald Bogle, “Black Images” has an 8 p.m. starting time on Tuesday and Thursday.

Also arranged more or less chronologically, Mr. Bogle’s series begins Tuesday with a recap of the silent period that includes D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” a 1927 remake of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “The Jazz Singer,” the Al Jolson sensation that made talking pictures inevitable. By the time the series ends, with a ninth installment on May 30 that includes showings of Carl Franklin’s “Devil in a Blue Dress” and Spike Lee’s “Get on the Bus,” Mr. Bogle will have traversed 80 years of cinematic and social history. Roughly speaking, he’ll begin when it was unusual for black performers to be cast as anything but extras and end when black directors had become prominent as black actors.

Taking a freshly tolerant and appreciative look at the work of vintage or obscure black performers in Hollywood movies, particularly in the decades when they were limited to menial or even insulting roles, became Mr. Bogle’s crusading area of expertise. He first chronicled this subject in 1973 in a volume that declined to be fazed by racial stereotypes: “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films.”

That volume was updated in 1989 and supplemented by other studies of a similar nature over the years, including a biography of Dorothy Dandridge, who may have precipitated a life’s work. She got Mr. Bogle’s enraptured attention in “Carmen Jones,” which he saw as an impressionable youth. The fascination was pretty widespread.

Mr. Bogle’s defense of many performers who were disparaged for being part of a segregated industry and heritage was bracing and overdue. He even confronted the most prejudicial relic of all and made a sound, generous case for Stepin Fetchit, the gangly, shuffling comedian of the 1930s who remained a knee-jerk target of progressive scorn during the civil rights decades. If you’re not sure what his mystique was all about, Mr. Bogle will be reviving John Ford’s “Judge Priest,” which preserves Will Rogers and Stepin Fetchit in their disconcerting but also sneaky-funny master-servant routine.

In a similar respect, if you’ve never encountered King Vidor’s early talkie with an all-black cast, “Hallelujah!” it can be seen Thursday at 8 p.m. on TCM. It will be followed by two movies that showcase the formidable Rex Ingram, as De Lawd in the film version of “The Green Pastures” and as Jim in MGM’s 1939 adaptation of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” with Mickey Rooney as Huck.

On subsequent installments, Mr. Bogle may help familiarize latecomers with Louise Beavers in “Imitation of Life,” Bill Robinson in “The Littlest Rebel,” Paul Robeson in “Show Boat,” Louis Armstrong in “Going Places” and “New Orleans,” Hattie McDaniel in “Show Boat” and “Gone With the Wind,” Ethel Waters in “Cabin in the Sky” and “The Member of the Wedding” and Ernest Anderson in “In This Our Life.”

The second feature directed by John Huston, “In This Our Life” is a title that links the Davis and Bogle retrospectives. Miss Davis was the star, playing one of her most heartless and depraved protagonists, derived from a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Ellen Glasgow. As a potential victim of her malice, a black law student, Mr. Anderson played with a restraint and authority that still exemplify film acting at its most adept. Unfortunately, his skill did not result in a professional breakthrough. His portrayal nevertheless admirably undercuts stereotyping in a racially provocative context.

Keeping a daily TCM schedule at hand is advisable because some of the programming is easy to overlook. For example, Sidney Poitier is represented officially in Mr. Bogle’s series by “A Patch of Blue,” “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” but he also can be seen in “Blackboard Jungle” (May 16) and “Edge of the City” (an early-bird booking at 4:30 a.m. on May 24).

Turner Classics has commissioned a new 90-minute tribute to Miss Davis called “Stardust,” which starts the series Wednesday at 8 p.m. It will be repeated at 11:30 p.m., between showings of “Dark Victory” and “Cabin in the Cotton.” The latter is the Bette Davis movie that first endeared her to my late mother, a teenager in 1932. She wanted to throttle the character but found the actress spellbinding.

TCM also is retrieving two compilations from earlier decades, “All About Bette” and “The Benevolent Volcano,” scheduled for later weeks. Between about 60 chances to rediscover Bette Davis and about 40 chances to rediscover four generations of black performers, the TCM audience should emerge much the wiser by the end of May.

SERIES: “Bette Davis” and “Race and Hollywood: Black Images in Film”

WHERE: Turner Classic Movies cable channel

WHEN: Throughout May, with “Bette Davis” scheduled for Wednesdays at 8 p.m. and “Black Images” for Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8 p.m.

WEB SITE: tcm.com

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