Essential: MADAME CURIE (1943)

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Madame Curie was an inspiring figure, and her life became the basis for an inspiring MGM film in 1943. I consider it the best Hollywood film of the year. It was nominated in seven major categories, including Best Picture, and was totally shut out. A real injustice. The winner in ’43 was CASABLANCA, which had been released in 1942. For some unknown reason, forces were conspiring against Metro’s classy biopic. Perhaps spotlighting it here can bring some long overdue praise its way.

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In addition to the nomination for best picture, both leads (Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon) were nominated. Additional noms were garnered for Cedric Gibbons’ fantastic art direction; Joe Ruttenberg’s striking cinematography; Herb Stothart’s music; and Doug Shearer’s sound. Again, it amazes me they didn’t win in any one of these categories; all were deserving. I’d even say May Whitty should have had a supporting actress nomination. She’s wonderful as Marie Curie’s mother-in-law, providing just the right touch of maternal devotion and encouragement, even if she and her husband (Henry Travers) haven’t the first clue about radioactive experiments.

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It comes as a surprise the film is not scheduled this year as part of TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar. Not sure how often it’s been broadcast in previous years, but it should have a guaranteed slot each February. Perhaps the accomplishments of Garson and Pidgeon in this film are overshadowed by their previous hit, MRS. MINIVER. And perhaps the director, who worked with Garson in RANDOM HARVEST, is associated with his other prestigious efforts at Metro. Whatever the reason, it is MADAME CURIE that should receive a newer appreciation.

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I won’t cover the plot, except to say the studio does play up the romantic elements of the relationship in the first third of the movie. However, after they are married and Whitty’s character dies, the focus switches from domestic goings on to the more professional goals the couple had, as well as their many tribulations. In particular, they spent many years isolating certain elements in their experiments to prove the existence of radium.

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The Warner home video I watched includes the original 124-minute print, which is what TCM usually shows. Some of the more scientific scenes were cut when the studio re-released the film. It benefits from having the science material included, because what’s occurring in their experiments is highly symbolic of the kind of relationship that Marie and Pierre had. Seeing them work in the shed they converted into their laboratory gives us a vivid sense of who they are as people, where they are determined to prove theories and help ensure the curative powers of radium can benefit society. So in that regard, they are very heroic.

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The Warner DVD includes a nifty bonus feature called ‘Romance of Radium.’ This is a 1937 short film the studio about the Curies. It was directed by Jacques Tourneur and runs about ten minutes. It uses lesser known actors, and it focuses more on the science; as well as the dangerous aspects of working directly with radium. As a companion piece to the feature film made six years later, it is invaluable. ‘Romance of Radium’ was also nominated for an Oscar, for Best Short Subject Film the year it was released. And for some inexplicable reason, it is not airing this year on TCM either.

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MADAME CURIE is directed by Mervyn LeRoy.

Essential: AMOS (1985)

Elizabeth Montgomery made some terrific TV movies. And without a doubt, AMOS is one of the best. Though she had already proven her ability to play dramatic roles in stories about Lizzie Borden and Belle Starr, it’s still a shock to see her take on the role of a nurse who abuses elderly patients.

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The patients are played by Ray Walston, Pat Morita, Dorothy McGuire and Kirk Douglas. Douglas stars as the title character, and his company produced the film. He was on a personal mission to raise awareness about elderly abuse. He gives a very thoughtful performance as a man who butts heads with the evil nurse and refuses to be her victim.

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Nurse Daisy Daws enjoys mistreating the patients entrusted to her care, and we can be sure she’s been doing it a long time. She has staff and outsiders, including the local sheriff, manipulated to see things her way. She fools an inspector who shows up once a year, because she finds out in advance that he’s coming– so she passes with flying colors. But one day Amos decides to speak up and tell the inspector he and his friends are not treated well. His comments are not taken seriously by the inspector; and the other patients do not back him up, since they’re afraid Daisy will retaliate. One patient was recently killed in his sleep.

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What makes the story stand out, aside from scenes that are written and performed to jolt the viewer, is how human the characters are. We learn a considerable deal about Amos’ background. He was a baseball coach (and often uses baseball metaphors); he slept with a lot of women in his younger days but loved his wife; his son died; and his grandson who lives far away is his only connection to the outside world. We learn about McGuire’s character, too; she and Amos gradually fall in love. The romantic scenes between them give us a tender respite from the violence Liz’s character inflicts on them.

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The story makes comments about people who run institutions with an iron hand. Also, it makes a statement about treating senior citizens with dignity. In the end, when it looks like Nurse Daisy is going to kill Amos, the two characters reach an impasse. The only way Amos can win is to take his own life and leave evidence that implicates Daisy. If he waited for her to kill him, she would cover her tracks. He intends to finish the last inning on his terms. Not only will he bring her down, he will give his friends a chance to live their last days in a way he cannot. It’s a film that leaves you thinking after it ends.

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AMOS is directed by Michael Turchner and can be watched on YouTube.


This movie originally aired on television when I was in high school. I remember how much of an impression it made on me. It’s a story about courage and beating the odds; a theme found in some of the best TV movies from the 1980s.

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At this point Liz Montgomery had already played an axe murderess, a western outlaw, a blind woman, and other challenging dramatic roles. But this time the challenge was even more daunting– she was portraying Abigail Foster, a woman who had been in a coma for two decades then woke up one day in a mostly vegetative state.

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In the first few scenes she is a teenage cheerleader in the sixties, dating the quarterback. She’s an all-American girl with her whole life ahead of her. But a virus causes Abigail to collapse one day and something happens to her brain, rendering her comatose. When she finally regains consciousness twenty years later everything’s changed. Despite these circumstances her mother (Dorothy McGuire) is convinced Abigail can enjoy life as it was meant to be lived.

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The mother believes new drugs and therapies will enable Abigail to become a fully functioning person. And gradually, this is what happens. Not sure how realistic the story is from a medical standpoint, but it makes for compelling drama. Liz’s character faces enormous odds and by the time the movie ends, she has overcome much of the adversity she faces.

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An interesting twist the writers have added is that while Abigail was comatose her sister (Karen Grassle) married the football quarterback. So during the recovery phase, she is involved in a bit of a triangle with the sister and the guy who is now Abigail’s brother-in-law. Soapy elements aside, the drama manages to maintain its sense of balance and keeps the focus on the main character’s journey. Especially what it is like to readjust to a world that went on without her. On that level alone, it’s a great “what if this happened to someone” scenario.

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Liz’s acting skill comes through when she has to demonstrate involuntary muscle reflexives. Also when the character learns to communicate again. In the same way she used powerful facial expressions in the Lizzie Borden movie, she conveys a lot with her eyes in this story. Particularly during the parts where she is taking in her “new” surroundings and looking at how much it means to her mother and sister for her to either recover or die. One scene where the sister begs her to give up and let them be free of her as a burden is very memorable. And there’s another great scene when Abigail has become coherent, looks into a mirror and realizes she is no longer a teen.

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To prevent things from getting too serious, the scriptwriters sprinkle the scenes with light touches. It’s amusing to see a woman now in her late 30s thinking she’s still 18 (since in her mind she hadn’t really matured). During one sequence she goes back to high school, but classes in 1985 are a lot different than classes were in 1965. There’s a brief Samantha Stephens moment when she makes a humorous face while encountering her first Commodore 64 computer.

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Eventually Abigail reaches the point where she would have been had the coma not happened. Losing the old boyfriend to her sister turns out to have its advantages when a handsome gym teacher (James Naughton) falls for her and she gets a chance at an adult romance.

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This is not the best film Liz Montgomery ever made, but as an actress, it was probably one of her more challenging ones. The casting is perfect. She and Dorothy McGuire do seem like mother and daughter; and Karen Grassle resembles them enough to be convincing as the sister. Their scenes give us character-driven moments that provide a sense of intimacy and realism. They don’t go overboard with what could easily have been an outlandish situation. It’s done simply, showing us the struggles and triumphs that occur within one family as they very literally deal with a generation gap.

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BETWEEN THE DARKNESS AND THE DAWN is directed by Peter Levin and can be found on DVD.

Essential: BELLE STARR (1980)

Some films don’t make much of an impression. Watch them and they spend a few days in your short-term memory but are soon forgotten. The 1980 production of BELLE STARR is not that kind of film. It stays in your long-term memory, because of Elizabeth Montgomery’s fantastic performance.

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Previously Fox made a feature in 1941 with Gene Tierney playing the famed outlaw. Jane Russell also took a turn in RKO’s MONTANA BELLE. But Liz Montgomery’s interpretation is much grittier; and it is clearly a continuation of the roles she took to distance herself from the Samantha Stephens image of Bewitched. As Belle she’s a woman who likes danger. She rides with Cole Younger, the James Brothers and other gunmen. And when she aims her rifle she means it.

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Interestingly this version was produced by Hanna-Barbera, a company known for animation projects. There’s extensive outdoor filming, and the attention to period detail is outstanding. Cliff Potts, who costarred in an earlier film with Liz, is cast as Cole; and it is revealed that he is the father of Belle’s youngest child, which historians would probably dispute. In fact there are several liberties taken with actual details of the main characters’ lives, but I think the general sense these were kindred spirits who marauded and reveled together is fairly accurate.

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There’s a feminist angle to this story I enjoyed very much. The Belle in this picture sees the prim and proper townswomen for the hypocrites they are. Ironically, she is forced to entrust the care of her daughter to one of the stuck-up women who intends to turn the girl against her. Belle’s motives are always pure with her daughter. And she’s more of a woman than those snobs will ever be.

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Belle’s relationship with an older son is depicted in a more incestuous way. Again, not sure if historians would agree with some of the liberties taken…but it gives Liz plenty of juicy material to play. There are two particularly effective scenes. One is when locals burn Belle’s farm to the ground in an attempt to drive her from their community. She carefully surveys the damage and knows what must be done.

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Then there’s the final scene where Belle’s dramatic death is depicted. After encountering trouble on a robbery, she returns to the farm to find her son. As she dismounts, ties her horse and goes inside the house, she is unable to find him. She is still looking for the boy moments later when an unknown assailant is heard approaching off-camera, shoots and kills Belle. It is left ambiguous who her murderer might be. Did her son shoot her?  It’s a powerful ending for a woman whose life of crime comes to a sudden end.

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BELLE STARR is directed by John Alonzo and can be found on DVD.



This month I’ve chosen to highlight Elizabeth Montgomery. Though she made feature films, Liz enjoyed far greater success on television. Of course, she is most remembered for playing Samantha Stephens on the long-running sitcom Bewitched. And when the program ended, she decided the best way to deal with typecasting was to take an axe to it.


In the mid-1970s Liz left comedy behind, determined to reinvent herself in more serious dramatic roles. Though she didn’t know it back then, genealogical studies later proved she was related to Lizzie Borden. One guesses she wanted to play Lizzie for a less personal reason– because the part would be shocking and something her fans (and critics) would not expect. Rendering a masterful performance from start to finish, it is impressive the way she captures the spirit of the real Lizzie Borden.


Lizzie was a troubled woman. She was exonerated by a Massachusetts court in 1893, nearly a year after the gruesome double murders of her father Andrew and stepmother Abby Borden. William Bast’s script uses information from the actual case, though some dramatic license is taken. The telefilm is divided into several segments– presenting the discovery of the bodies; followed by the investigation, inquest, trial and subsequent acquittal.

We first glimpse Lizzie the day the killings take place, when she is disoriented. The film’s direction and cinematography keep us disoriented as viewers; where we are confused like Lizzie and involved in her coverup. It’s a great way to start the story, and as the investigation into the deaths of her father and stepmother are launched, she seems to emerge quickly as the main suspect, but the police gather mostly circumstantial evidence. The washed handle of the murder weapon, plus a burned dress that couldn’t have had any blood stains on it complicates matters. Much eyewitness testimony is contradictory, including comments from a dimwitted Irish maid (Fionnula Flanagan).


Lizzie’s sister (Katherine Helmond) returns from a trip, and she believes in Lizzie’s innocence. One thing I especially like about the film, besides its gradual build to the courtroom scenes, is how the deaths affect people who know Lizzie as well as others in the community who don’t know her at all. This includes two lawyers that will argue the case (Don Porter and Ed Flanders). In some ways, the main character is made to sit back and watch them all debate her guilt, before the trial even begins.

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Of course once the trial gets underway, she is never called to the stand. So she must remain seated and look on as testimony is given for her and against her. There are lengthy scenes where the others have considerably more dialogue, and all we get from Lizzie are cryptic looks and a countenance shielding the horrible truth of what she’s done. Liz Montgomery does so much with her facial expressions in these scenes, it’s remarkable.

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The flashback scene of how the killings took place is saved till the end, when they all reassemble in court after a verdict has been reached. We learn exactly how she did it, including how she didn’t get blood on her dress. The death scenes are harrowing to watch and suggest a lot of violence. As the foreman reads the jury’s decision, it is learned the jury has found Lizzie NOT GUILTY. Although we know the history of the case today, the not guilty verdict is still powerful. It should be said this story is not about a woman getting away with anything (she was forced to move). Instead, it is about a woman that people still felt sympathetic towards, despite the likelihood she was a cold-blooded killer.


It is to the actress’ credit how much we feel sorry for the main character, instead of feeling sorry for her victims. The film doesn’t seem as if it’s been written to manipulate us that way. But Liz Montgomery’s performance is imbued with a strange tenderness and the idea that Lizzie must’ve been victimized at the hands of those she killed in retaliation. I’ve never watched something where a killer was so obviously guilty, but yet it somehow seemed fair she was acquitted. I wanted her to go off and be in peace. Perhaps because there was a different type of justice involved. Or maybe because Liz Montgomery had cast a spell on me.

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THE LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN is directed by Paul Wendkos and can be found on DVD.