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Two Unsung Gems On TCM This Week

Two films, made decades apart, that deserve to be better known are playing on Turner Classic Movies this week: King Vidor’s The Stranger’s Return (1933), which airs on Tuesday, and Bob Rafelson’s Mountains of the Moon (1990), on Friday. I’ve written about the Vidor film before, most recently when it screened at this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival. I first saw it decades ago, when William K. Everson showed a 16mm print, and fell in love with it then. It’s a surprisingly adult film for its time, and showcases Miriam Hopkins, Lionel Barrymore, and Franchot Tone in tailor-made roles, alongside a fine supporting cast. Vidor never mentioned it in his autobiography, and I always wondered if its commercial failure led him to make his next film (the ambitious Our Daily Bread) away from the studio system.

Still from 'The Stranger's Return:' Beulah Bondi catches Miriam Hopkins and Franchot Tone in a compromising position.

Still from ‘The Stranger’s Return:’ Beulah Bondi catches Miriam Hopkins and Franchot Tone in a compromising position.

The Stranger’s Return has been out of circulation in recent years because MGM didn’t renew its rights to the original story, by Phil Stong, the man who wrote State Fair. Its current owner, Warner Bros., recently cleared the rights, paving the way for TCM to bring it back. But another challenge presented itself: when I borrowed the 35mm vault print from MGM for a showing at the Denver Film Festival some time back, there was a jump cut in the final scene. This was not so easily resolved. A fire long ago at the George Eastman House destroyed the original camera negative, so we had to use the same 35mm print—possibly the only one extant. Fortunately, I was able to consult the original editor’s cutting continuity and learned that the missing footage was brief and didn’t affect or alter the conclusion of the story. I don’t know if that final scene has been restored in the version that will air on Tuesday, but I’ve got my fingers crossed. Incidentally, TCM blogger Jeremy Arnold did extensive research for his essay about the film and read an oral history with Vidor that’s quite revealing. I encourage you to read it HERE.

Iain Glenn (John Hanning Speke) and Patrick Bergin (Sir Richard Francis Burton) in a still from ‘Mountains of the Moon.’

Iain Glenn (John Hanning Speke) and Patrick Bergin (Sir Richard Francis Burton) in a still from ‘Mountains of the Moon.’

Mountains of the Moon completely disarmed me when I saw it twenty-four years ago, and I included it in my book Leonard Maltin’s 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen. It’s a sleeper that’s still waiting to be discovered.

Iain Glenn (John Hanning Speke) and Patrick Bergin (Sir Richard Francis Burton) in a still from ‘Mountains of the Moon.’
Iain Glenn (John Hanning Speke) and Patrick Bergin (Sir Richard Francis Burton) in a still from ‘Mountains of the Moon.’
Nothing in the portfolio of talented writer-director Bob Rafelson would lead anyone to expect a film as grand, or far-reaching in its ambitions, as this. A handsomely-mounted, epic saga, photographed by the great Roger Deakins, it turns back the clock to a time when the English-speaking world was captivated by daring explorers like Sir Richard Burton. At a time when travel was arduous and methods of communication primitive, he didn’t hesitate to leave Victorian England, and his wife, behind to embark on bold, dangerous expeditions. (He had many other talents and interests, including linguistics and a fascination with erotica that inspired him to translate the Kama Sutra.) This film focuses on his search for the source of the Nile River in the mid-1800s. Patrick Bergin, who should have springboarded to stardom on the strength of this performance, is a charismatic Burton, with Iain Glen equally well-cast as John Hanning Speke, the ambitious dilettante who accompanies him.

mountains-of-the-moon-posterHistorians have speculated about the relationship between these two disparate men—one a genuine adventurer, the other an opportunist—who eventually became bitter enemies. Each man also flirted with homosexual desire for the other, although to what degree, we’ll never know.

Because the screenplay for Mountains of the Moon is based in part on the men’s surviving journals, there are vivid, eye-filling details of their exploits in Africa. Their groundbreaking exploration of that continent is a major element of the film. It is also inspired by a biographical novel written by William Harrison, who collaborated with Rafelson on the script, so we cannot take everything we see as gospel truth. But what makes this film so special is that it manages to embrace the sweep of an epic with the compelling details of a highly personal story. It isn’t an old-fashioned “boys’ adventure” like King Solomon’s Mines, but a realistic drama about the hardships these men faced on their journeys, and the equally trying problems they had to confront upon their return.

It certainly captures the spirit of its time, when men like Burton defied the constraints of Victorian behavior and Speke sought personal gain in a way that seems curiously modern.

For more details, go to tcm.com, and don’t miss either of these exceptional films.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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