Thursday, December 17, 2009

Hollywood Holiday

After about five months of doing Shadow of a Doubt, I started a second, more specialized blog about old movies called Ancient Celluloid. Unfortunately, I soon found two blogs a bit tough to handle, especially as my access to the Internet was limited to the computers at the library. After writing about just two movies (both of which I put in a lot of hard work), I decided to put Celluloid on hold until the day I'm online right in my own living room. Nevertheless, I do get the itch to write about old movies from time to time, so I've decided to give myself a Christmas present, and review some ancient yuletide celluloid right here in Shadow.

Now, Christmas movies come in two types. There are those where the holiday is front and center, like the various versions of A Christmas Carol, and there are those where the holiday is more of a backdrop, such as The Apartment. It should be no surprise that so many movies have Christmas scenes, even when the holiday's not integral to the plot. Film is a visual medium, and Christmas is nothing if not visual. You've got colored lights, and Nativity displays, and pine trees with ornaments, and overweight guys in red suits, and mistletoe in hallways, and hall decked with boughs of holly, and snow. Plenty of snow. A word about that last item. In most Christmas movies and Christmas TV specials there's usually a scene with a lot snow falling gently to the ground, presumably on Christmas Eve. Looks lovely, doesn't it? Well, for those of you who live in climates warmer than that of Greater Cleveland, what you're actually looking at is a SNOW STORM. Not a blizzard, in which high winds swirl the flakes around, but no matter. If that much snow actually fell on Christmas Eve as portrayed in the movies, no matter how gently the flakes hit the ground, there would be no visiting Grandma's the next day because you wouldn't make it out of the driveway.

Now, I've said these are old movies. I define the term "old movie" the way I've always defined it, as something made before the earliest time that I can remember, about 1967-68. Any movie made after 1968 is a contemporary film as far as I'm concerned. Of course, there may be some 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds reading this who may disagree with me. They may consider A Christmas Story (1983), National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989), The Santa Clause (1994), and Jingle All The Way (1996), old movies. That is their prerogative. They can describe them as old movies on their own blogs.

Let us begin...

Alcoholism, divorce, mental illness, materialism, psychobabble, politics, and courtroom theatrics. Yes, it's that old yuletide favorite, Miracle on 34th Street (1947). All about an old gentleman named Kris Kringle who believes he's Santa Claus (Kris Kringle is actually a synonym for Santa in some countries, though that's never made clear in the movie). It stars Maureen O'Hara, John Payne, and 10-year old Natalie Wood. About that last name. I'm usually not a big fan of old Hollywood child stars. Shirley Temple has been known to make me to run out of the room screaming. But I make an exception for Natalie. As a serious little girl who believes only in hard reality, she has the perfect deadpan expression while uttering such lines as, "Some people are giants, but they're abnormal." But the real star is Edmund Gwenn as Kris, even if he's cruelly denied top billing. It's a nuanced, ultimately realistic performance Gwenn gives, something I think is often overlooked in a film often described as a "fantasy". Watch him in the psych ward scene, when he struggles with his own disillusionment. Santa Claus has never been more human.

I said there's been various movie versions of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol . By far, the best of these is Scrooge (1951) (some copies do go by the name of Dickens' book, so let's just confuse the hell out of everybody. Bah, humbug.) Looking like a cross between Boris Karloff and Chris Elliot, Alastair Sim plays a slightly stooped, wholly neurotic Ebenezer. As he makes that long night's journey into day, just about every emotion registers on Sim's wonderfully bug-eyed face. This movie also has a great Gothic atmosphere about it. In fact, things get so spooky at times, you might mistake it for A Halloween Carol.

Babes in Toyland (1934) aka March of the Wooden Soldiers (some more holiday confusion for you.) Loosely based on Victor Herbert's operetta, and with a few of his songs, it takes place in Toyland where fairy tale and nursery rhymes characters make up the citizenry. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy play Stannie Dumm and Ollie Dee. Their sister is Little Bo Peep and their mother is the Old Woman Who Lives in a Shoe. The biggest employer in town is a workshop that supplies toys for Santa Claus (hence the Xmas angle.) Stan and Ollie make a 100 wooden soldiers 6 feet tall instead of 600 soldiers one foot tall, as was ordered. Santa laughs the whole thing off, but Stan and Ollie lose their jobs anyway. This is bad news for the Old Woman as the mortgage is due on her shoe. Evil banker Silas Barnaby (I wonder if he took TARP money) agree not to foreclose if he can have Bo Peep's hand in marriage. She reluctantly agrees, but Silas is tricked into marrying Stan instead (don't worry. It's never consummated.) Later on, Silas frames Bo Peep's boyfriend Tom, Tom, The Piper's Son for the murder of one of the Three Little Pigs. To complicate matters, Toyland is invaded by Boogeymen. Remember, though, it's just a fairy tale, and it all ends happily ever after. What I find interesting about this film is that Stan and Ollie, funny as ever, once again play innocents in a dark world, even if that dark world is in the guise of a childhood fantasy.

White Christmas (1954). Irving Berlin's popular song was first introduced in Holiday Inn (1942), sung by that film's star, Bing Crosby. I don't include it here since it takes place all year round and has songs that cover all the holidays, whereas this remake is more Xmas-centric. Again starring Der Bingle, he and Danny Kaye play WWII buddies/Broadway producers who want to help their commanding officer with his struggling inn. That's about all of the plot I can really remember. No matter. Crosby, Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and a dubbed Vera-Ellen sing a lot of great Irving Berlin tunes. And, of course, Bing superbly groans the title song.

Remember The Night (1940). Preston Sturges' last screenplay for another director, this comedy-drama goes where most Christmas movies fear to tread, namely January. Barbara Stanwyck is scheduled to go on trial for shoplifting. Assistant DA Fred MacMurray is afraid a jury besotted with the spirit of Christmas might acquit. So he has the trial postponed until after the holidays, when juries tend to be more Scrooge-like. Turns out MacMurray is besotted with the Christmas spirit himself. Not wanting to see Stanwyck spend the holidays behind bars, he offers to drop her off at her mother's house on his way home for Christmas. Stanwyck mother turns her away, however, so MacMurray ends up taking her to his own mother's house. The movie turns into a straight ahead romantic comedy at that point, as the DA and the defendant both fall in love. Once the holidays are past, the film gets dramatic again, with a bittersweet ending. Like I said, January. A couple of years later, MacMurray and Stanwyck would appear together in another movie. Something to do with insurance.

Christmas in Connecticut (1945). Barbara Stanwyck again, though in much lighter fare. She plays a popular magazine writer who writes both recipes, and articles about the joys of being a wife and mother and how to make the perfect home, none of which turns out to be true. She's single without a child, lives in a small apartment, and gets all her recipes from a friend who owns a restaurant. As a kind of WWII publicity stunt, her publisher (who's unaware of all the mendacity) arranges for a survivor of a torpedoed Naval ship to have Christmas dinner at her nonexistent home in the country. Naturally, she has to fake home, husband, child, and homemaking skills. To make matters worse, she and the sailor fall in love at first sight. In an era when every other film seemed to be a romantic comedy, this one oh-so-slightly misses the mark. There's a lot of funny stuff as the deceptions pile up, and Stanwyck is always worth watching (if you only know her from TV's The Big Valley then you don't know much.) The problem is with her love interest, played by Dennis Morgan. He's kind of a bland character, and, as complications ensue, seems like a bit of an afterthought. In fact, Stanwyck's most memorable scenes are with Sydney Greenstreet, who plays the publisher. Maybe they should have gotten together. It could have been a nice May-December romance.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940). Directed by Ernst Lubitsch, who excelled at romantic comedy, I can't say enough good things about this film. In 1930s Budapest, James Stewart, "aw, shucks" persona intact, and a very funny Margaret Sullavan are pen-pals who fall in love via the Hungarian Post Office. Unbeknownst to either one, they also work in the title location, where they both hate each other. Obviously, that won't stand. It's a romantic comedy, remember? It's also, in its' own way, a very good workplace comedy, with all kinds of recognizable types such as the devious suck-up, the obsequious employee always worried about crossing the boss, and the brash, ambitious youth at the bottom of the ladder. Then there's Frank Morgan (The Wizard of Oz, remember?) as the basically decent but insecure boss who, thanks to the aforementioned suck-up, comes to loathe his best employee, Stewart. Two great Christmas Eve scenes toward the end. A lonely Morgan invites a newly hired errand boy out to a grand feast, and Stewart and Sullavan finally correspond directly.

The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942). A subdued Bette Davis gets top billing in this, but she's really just playing a secondary character. Monty Woolley is the title character, main character, and, for just this one film, star. Woolley hilariously plays sharp-tongued journalist and radio personality Sheridan Whiteside, a character based on Alexander Woollcott, famous in his day but now less well-known than the play and movie he inspired. But what he inspired! Whiteside slips and injures himself while attending a dinner at a small town industrialist's house, and stays right through Christmas. To fully appreciate the Kaufman and Hart dialogue, it helps if you have some knowledge of 1930s pop culture (which, fortunately, I do) but, even without it, Woolley's crack comic timing remains timeless. On top of all that you get a Christmas morning visit from Jimmy Durante, playing a character supposedly based on Harpo Marx, though, frankly, he reminds me more of, well, Jimmy Durante. Not a bad substitute. And this may be the only Christmas-themed movie with a character based on Lizzie Bordon.

The Bishop's Wife (1947). Angel Cary Grant comes to Earth to teach Bishop David Niven the true meaning of Christmas, which is to neglect neither the poor, nor his drop dead gorgeous wife, appropriately played by Loretta Young. The film concentrates more on the latter, as the angel spends so much time with the wife that a romance threatens to develop. It must be hard enough competing with Cary Grant, but a supernatural Cary Grant? The expression on Niven's face throughout most of this aptly registers his dilemma. Monty Woolley, light-years removed from Sheridan Whiteside, is in good form as a washed up professor who's also helped by the angel.

The Apartment (1960). Billy Wilder's masterpiece, and one of the finest movies ever. Jack Lemmon gives his best performance as an office drone who moves up the corporate ladder by lending the keys to his apartment to various superiors who want to use the place to cheat on their wives. Going by just that sentence, Lemmon seems kind of creepy, huh? Really, he's not. He's actually a desperately lonely guy, and a bit of a pushover, who yearns for a different kind of life. Someone who IS a creep is Fred MacMurray as Lemmon's boss. Having strung along an emotionally fragile Shirley MacLaine (another great performance), he leaves her alone in Lemmon's apartment on Christmas Eve, where she attempts suicide. Lemmon comes home in time to prevent a tragedy, with the help of Jack Kruschen as the perplexed doctor who lives next door. The scenes between Lemmon and MacLaine, which go from comedy to drama and back again at the turn of a dime, are among the best captured on film. You're not going to want to leave this apartment.

Now, we come to the most praised, the most revered, the most lauded, the most glorified, the most exhalted, and the most beloved Christmas movie of all time, It's a Wonderful Life (1946).

I think it's a bit overrated.

I'll give you a couple of seconds to get off the floor.

Allow me to explain.

It's certainly not the actors. Jimmy Stewart. Donna Reed. Thomas Mitchell. Henry Travers. Lionel Barrymore. I'll give Frank Capra this, he knew how to cast 'em. The problem I have is the story, and the moral of that story.

All kinds of troubles befall George Bailey on Christmas Eve. Standing on a bridge looking down at the river below, it looks like he might commit suicide. An angel named Clarence shows up, and keeps George from suicide by jumping in the river himself. Afterwards, the angel grants George's wish that he was never born. At that point, we might expect George to disintegrate right before our eyes. Instead, everything else changes. Nice people become rotten, happy people become sad, sane people go crazy, small town Bedford Falls becomes big city Pottersville, a navy transport sinks to the bottom, and Donna Reed wears glasses. Horrified by all this, George asks to be reborn. He also gets that wish granted, and heads back home to find his living room crammed with people willing to help him out of his jam. Moral of the story: One man can make a difference.

Now, here's my problem: George Bailey seems to be the ONLY man that can make a difference. Nobody else in that town (with the possible exception of Mr. Potter) seems to have any thing in the way of free will. They have no control of their lives or even their own personalities. As Kansas would say, all they are are dust in the wind. Determinism. All victims of much larger forces beyond their comprehension, in this particular case a wish granted by an angel. And about that angel, suppose he had unborn anybody else (other than Mr. Potter) who lived in that town? That one bartender, maybe. The one played by Sheldon Leonard. What might Bedford Falls look like had that one bartender never been born? I don't know. I guess it depends on how well his replacement makes a Tom Collins.

Had Jimmy Stewart never been born, and someone else had played George Bailey, I don't think the movie would be nearly as watchable as it is now, so maybe he's the one that made the difference.

6 comments:

  1. Great list Kirk, I can't think of any I would add or subtract. maybe Robin and the Seven Hoods, Crosby and the Rat Pack combine to save Christmas. Edmund Gwenn was wonderful as Kris though my favorite role of his was as Captain Wiles in The Trouble with Harry. A very young Shirley MacLaine and John Forsyth also starred in this Hitchcock macabre comedy romance.

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  2. I forgot all about Robin and the Seven Hoods. Didn't that movie end with Frank, Dean, and Sammy all dressed like Salvation Army Santas?

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  3. That's my recollection as well. I'm not sure if it's good enough to make your list though.

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  4. Nah, it was good enough. The list wasn't necessarily the best Xmas movies of all time, just ones I've seen and remember well enough to write something about. I remember Robin and the Seven Hoods more as a gangster musical (with Frank singing "My kind of town, Chicago is...") than as a Christmas film, but it's been a couple of years since I saw it last. I know I found Peter Falk very funny in it as a rival gangster. And I believe Bing got the girl in the end.

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