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Turner Classic Movies: Oscar-Winning Christmas + Blake Edwards & Lilli Palmer

Turner Classic Movies' Christmas 2010 daytime programming includes George Cukor's version of Little Women (1933), Edwin L. Marin's version of A Christmas Carol (1938), and William Wyler's version of Ben-Hur (1959).

Starring Katharine Hepburn, Joan Bennett, Frances Dee, and Jean Parker as the titular characters, Little Women was nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award for the period 1932–1933 (from Aug. 1932 to Dec. 1933).

Katharine Hepburn was bypassed for the Best Actress award, probably because she received more votes for her performance as a rising Broadway actress in Lowell Sherman's Morning Glory, which eventually earned her her first Academy Award statuette. (Actors couldn't – and still can't – be nominated more than once in the same category in the same year; the nickname Oscar would become better known later in the decade.)

Heresy, perhaps, but in this poster's opinion Mervyn LeRoy's 1949 color version of Little Women, starring June Allyson in the old Hepburn role, is both less syrupy and more enjoyable. Having said that, the best big-screen adaptation remains Gillian Armstrong's 1994 effort starring a – however miscast – Winona Ryder.

Although the 1938 A Christmas Carol has its admirers, the most prestigious version of Charles Dickens' classic novel remains the British-made Scrooge (1951), directed by Brian Desmond Hurst and starring Alastair Sim in the title role.

As for Ben-Hur 1959 … Well, William Wyler was a great director (These Three, The Letter, The Little Foxes), but this multi-Oscared semi-biblical epic pales in comparison to Fred Niblo's more concise, less pretentious, and (mercifully) dialogue-less 1925 version starring Ramon Novarro – who, though hardly a flawless Ben-Hur, was eons better than Best Actor Oscar winner Charlton Heston.

Turner Classic Movies' Christmas Day gets meatier once it becomes Christmas Evening.

That's when Best Actress Oscar co-winner Katharine Hepburn (shared with Barbra Streisand for William Wyler's Funny Girl) spars with Best Actor Oscar nominee Peter O'Toole in Anthony Harvey's New York Film Critics Circle Best Picture winner The Lion in Winter (1968). Hepburn plays Eleanor of Aquitaine; O'Toole is her – to put it mildly – estranged husband, Henry II, the same role he had played (quite theatrically) four years earlier in Peter Glenville's Becket.

The Lion in Winter will be followed by Mike Nichols' co-masterpiece (along with The Graduate), Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), in which Oscar winners Elizabeth Taylor (Best Actress) and Sandy Dennis (Best Supporting Actress), and Oscar nominees Richard Burton and George Segal (the former as a lead; the latter in the supporting category) get splashed, laugh, cry, and yell at each other. And then yell at each other some more in this brilliant adaptation of Edward Albee's play about highly dysfunctional heterosexuals.

Next, Best Actress Oscar nominee Elizabeth Taylor tries to understand why Best Actor Oscar nominee Paul Newman won't have sex with her in Richard Brooks' miserably bowdlerized version of Tennessee Williams' play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). Considering how fuzzy the homosexuality of Newman's character plays out in Brooks' film, it's no wonder Taylor is at a loss to understand what the hell is going on inside her husband's head.

Despite its Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay (Brooks and James Poe) nominations, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof isn't one of the better adaptations of a Tennessee Williams play. On the positive side, Madeleine Sherwood (The Flying Nun) and Jack Carson provide solid support.

Burl Ives, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar that year for William Wyler's The Big Country, plays Newman's Big Daddy. By the way, that's just a family nickname; there's nothing kinky about their relationship.

More heavy-duty – but less steamy – family drama follows on Turner Classic Movies, courtesy of Robert Redford's Best Picture Oscar winner Ordinary People (1980). Best Actress nominee Mary Tyler Moore is good as the cold mom, but Donald Sutherland as the caring father and Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Timothy Hutton as the troubled young son – notwithstanding his “supporting” Oscar, Hutton is the film's actual lead – carry the movie.

Ordinary People gets maudlin at times and it isn't nearly as insightful as it believes itself to be, but the performances and director Redford's unobtrusive handling of the material make it well worth a look.

Turner Classic Movies' schedule (PT): Dec. 25

5:00 PM The Lion in Winter (1968). Cast: Peter O'Toole. Katharine Hepburn. Anthony Hopkins. Jane Merrow. John Castle. Dir.: Anthony Harvey. Color. 134 mins.

7:30 PM Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Cast: Elizabeth Taylor. Richard Burton. George Segal. Sandy Dennis. Dir.: Mike Nichols. B&W. 131 mins.

10:00 PM Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). Cast: Elizabeth Taylor. Paul Newman. Burl Ives. Jack Carson. Madeleine Sherwood. Dir.: Richard Brooks. Color. 108 mins.

12:00 AM Ordinary People (1980). Cast: Donald Sutherland. Mary Tyler Moore. Timothy Hutton. Judd Hirsch. Elizabeth McGovern. Dir.: Robert Redford. Color. 124 mins.

Dec. 26 update: Some good and/or unusual offerings tonight on Turner Classic Movies.

Silent Sundays will feature the 1925 version of The Wizard of Oz. Directed by and starring silent film comedian Larry Semon (as the Scarecrow and a couple of other characters), this lesser-known movie version of L. Frank Baum's novel features Dorothy Dwan in the role that would become associated with Judy Garland – especially in the minds of some gay men, a mystery that remains as unfathomable as the casting of Billie Burke as Good Witch Glinda in MGM's opulent 1939 release.

Really, why Judy's Dorothy as a gay icon? Why Dorothy to begin with?

Countless other gay icon possibilities range from Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face to Norma Shearer in Let Us Be Gay; from Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs to Tyrone Power in The Mark of Zorro; from (gay actor) Ramon Novarro in Ben-Hur (or any of his other movies) to Frances Dee in Blood Money (or The Gay Deception or I Walked with a Zombie); from Toto to Asta. This Judy/Dorothy deal is truly a baffling mystery.

Moving on, Albert Lamorisse's Academy Award-winning short The Red Balloon (1956) will follow The Wizard of Oz, and then TCM will present Vittorio De Sica's Special Academy Award recipient Bicycle Thieves (1948), considered by some one of the greatest movies ever made.

Curiously, one of the most bizarre commentaries about De Sica's movie was written by right-winger who listed Bicycle Thieves as one of the greatest “conservative” movies ever made. The movie was labeled “conservative” because, according to the writer, De Sica's socially conscious drama about the indignity of poverty, of class distinctions, of our human-fucks-up-human world is actually about a man's inalienable right to own and keep material things (i.e., the lead character's – eventually stolen – bike).

Back to reality and sanity … Non-professional actors Lamberto Maggiorani and Enzo Staiola are flawless as father and son struggling to eke out a living in post-World War II Italy. In fact, they make most overpaid, pampered Hollywood performers – then and now – look like inept amateurs.

If you haven't watched Bicycle Thieves, you must. And if you've already have, well, it's always worth another look.

Directed by veteran Maurice Elvey (The Wandering Jew, The Clairvoyant) – directing movies since 1913 – the British-made Beware of Pity (1946) boasts a cast that includes Cedric Hardwicke, Gladys Cooper, and that most underrated of actresses, Lilli Palmer.

How can it not be recommendable? The plot, as per Turner Classic Movies: “A paraplegic mistakes a man's pity for love.” Wow!

Turner Classic Movies' schedule (PT): Dec. 26

9:00 PM The Wizard of Oz (1925). Cast: Larry Semon. Bryant Washburn. Dorothy Dwan. Virginia Pearson. Oliver Hardy. Charles Murray. Mary Carr. Frank Alexander. Josef Swickard. Otto Lederer. Spencer Bell. Dir.: Larry Semon. B&W. 72 mins.

10:15 PM The Red Balloon (1956). Cast: Pascal Lamorisse. Sabine Lamorisse. Dir.: Albert Lamorisse. Color. 34 mins.

11:00 PM Bicycle Thieves (1948). Cast: Lamberto Maggiorani. Enzo Staiola. Lianella Carell. Elena Altieri. Dir.: Vittorio De Sica. B&W. 89 mins.

1:00 AM Beware of Pity (1946). Cast: Lilli Palmer. Albert Lieven. Cedric Hardwicke. Gladys Cooper. Linden Travers. Ernest Thesiger. Emrys Jones. Ralph Truman. David Ward. Anthony Dawson. Dir.: Maurice Elvey. B&W. 103 mins.

Dec. 27 update: Blake Edwards, who died this past Dec. 15 at the age of 88, will be celebrated by Turner Classic Movies on Monday evening with the presentation of five of his best-known efforts: Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), Days of Wine and Roses (1962), The Pink Panther (1964), Victor Victoria (1982), and Operation Petticoat (1959).

Apart from The Pink PantherPeter Sellers was brilliantly cast in Dr. Strangelove and Being There, but his slapstick comedy antics can be problematic – the other four movies are highly recommended. Although they're hardly masterpieces, each film provides excellent opportunities for their mostly first-rate performers.

Best Actress Academy Award nominee Audrey Hepburn (instead of Marilyn Monroe) is delightful as a free-spirited call girl in Breakfast at Tiffany's, a disgracefully bowdlerized but still entertaining version of Truman Capote's novel. Just avoid thinking of Hepburn's Holly Golightly as a “call girl” or as anyone remotely associated with sex and the movie (excepting the Mickey Rooney bits) should be enjoyable enough. As a plus, Patricia Neal provides more than able support.

Days of Wine and Roses gave Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick the best dramatic roles of their careers to date. Lemmon and Remick, both of whom were Oscar nominated, play a married couple who slowly discover they do have one important thing in common: they're alcoholics.

Starring Edwards' Oscar-nominated wife Julie Andrews and James Garner, Victor Victoria offers witty dialogue, hilarious performances (Oscar nominees Robert Preston and Lesley Ann Warren, plus Alex Karras), some classy musical numbers, and a much welcome subversive take on gender and sexuality that is quite rare in American movies, especially those produced by the major studios.

Ernst Lubitsch would have approved – though Lubitsch would also have left the inane slapstick scenes featuring a Peter Sellers-like character on the cutting-room floor.

Among the actresses who previously tackled the Victor/Victoria role(s) were Renate Müller in Reinhold Schünzel's 1933 German original, Viktor and Viktoria, and charming Jessie Matthews in Victor Saville's otherwise uninspired, British-made First a Girl (1935).

The least-remembered of the Turner Classic Movies' five Blake Edwards efforts, Operation Petticoat was actually a huge hit upon its release. Both Cary Grant and Tony Curtis are in top form as they sail their pink submarine through perilous, female-infested waters during World War II.

Coincidentally, that same year Curtis (sort of) impersonated Grant in Billy Wilder's classic comedy Some Like It Hot.

Turner Classic Movies' schedule (PT): Dec. 27

5:00 PM Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961). Cast: Audrey Hepburn. George Peppard. Patricia Neal. Buddy Ebsen. Mickey Rooney. Alan Reed. Martin Balsam. John McGiver. José Luis de Vilallonga. Stanley Adams. Elvia Allman. Orangey the Cat. Beverly Powers. Dorothy Whitney. Dir.: Blake Edwards. B&W. 115 mins.

7:00 PM Days of Wine and Roses (1962). Cast: Jack Lemmon. Lee Remick. Charles Bickford. Jack Klugman. Dir.: Blake Edwards. B&W. 117 mins.

9:00 PM The Pink Panther (1964). Cast: Peter Sellers. Capucine. David Niven. Claudia Cardinale. Robert Wagner. Fran Jeffries. Brenda De Banzie. John Le Mesurier. James Lanphier. Meri Welles. Dir.: Blake Edwards. Color. 115 mins.

11:00 PM Victor Victoria (1982). Cast: Julie Andrews. James Garner. Robert Preston. Lesley Ann Warren. Alex Karras. John Rhys-Davies. Graham Stark. Peter Arne. Malcolm Jamieson. Herb Tanney. Michael Robbins. Joanna Dickens. Dir.: Blake Edwards. Color. 134 mins.

1:30 AM Operation Petticoat (1959). Cast: Cary Grant. Tony Curtis. Joan O'Brien. Dina Merrill. Dir.: Blake Edwards. Color. 121 mins.

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