Cable documentaries look at a trio of Hollywood legends

Turner turns spotlight on Grant, Chaplin, DeMille

January 12, 2004|By Hal Boedeker | Hal Boedeker,ORLANDO SENTINEL

They never shared a marquee in life, but they're linked in death as coming attractions from Turner Classic Movies. Cary Grant, Charlie Chaplin and director Cecil B. DeMille will be profiled in major documentaries during the next six months.

Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin appears in March, along with 11 of the actor-director's films and 36 of his short films. Time critic Richard Schickel directed and wrote Charlie and conducted interviews with Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Johnny Depp, Marcel Marceau, Claire Bloom and Robert Downey Jr. Schickel also worked extensively with actress Geraldine Chaplin, his subject's daughter.

Cecil B. DeMille: An American Epic arrives in April and examines the Hollywood pioneer who made The Ten Commandments and The Greatest Show on Earth. Charlton Heston, Angela Lansbury and Steven Spielberg offer their insights in the film produced by Kevin Brownlow and Patrick Stanbury.

"Ninety years ago this very moment he was making the first feature film shot in Hollywood, and he was still here working in the dawn of the wide-screen era well into the modern age of cinema," Stanbury says.

Cary Grant: A Class Apart premieres in June and salutes the dashing star of Notorious, The Philadelphia Story and North by Northwest. Filmmaker Robert Trachtenberg interviews Eva Marie Saint, Martin Landau and Peter Bogdanovich as well as Grant's widow, Barbara, and ex-wife Betsy Drake.

The film explores Grant's drug use and rumors of his relationship with actor Randolph Scott. Drake inadvertently introduced Grant to LSD.

"The big thing to understand is that when he did it, it was completely legal," Trachtenberg says. "When it was outlawed in the early '60s, he stopped."

Understanding Grant's troubles is relevant to his story and art, Trachtenberg says.

"He had a terrible childhood: poverty, his mother was committed to an insane asylum by his father," the filmmaker says. "When Cary was 9 years old, he came home from school one day and she was gone. They told him she had gone to the seaside for a vacation. And that was it. He didn't know she was alive until 20-some-odd years later."

The three documentaries represent Turner Classic Movies' strategy of offering a few meaningful new works each year. The commercial-free cable channel is indispensable for movie lovers and students of film history. It's one place on TV where viewers can find an affectionate but smart assessment of cinema's past.

Schickel decried what he sees as "willful ignorance" among younger people about film history, particularly movies that are silent or black and white. His message to them: "This stuff is great. It has universal appeal. If you look at it, you will be won over."

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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