Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Archival Revival: Hollywood Holiday

(First posted on 12/17/2009)

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 is normally portrayed in 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 that think is often overlooked in a film often described as a "fantasy". Watch him in the psych ward scene, where 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 prints 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 covering 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 treats a newly hired errand boy 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 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 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 films 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 exalted, 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 kill himself. An angel named Clarence shows up, and keeps George from suicide by jumping in the river himself. Afterwards, Clarence grants George's wish that he had never been 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. 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.

15 comments:

  1. at the risk of sounding like scrooge reincarnated, i loathe "it's a wonderful life." LOATHE it. i'm the one in the audience screaming for george to go ahead and jump. sappy, sappy, sappy.
    bah humbug, i say. :)

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  2. @standing--Wow, standing! You're even more turned off by that movie than I am!

    I don't mind a little sentimentality in a movie as long as it's honest sentimentality. But, outside of Stewart's own performance, which ALMOST redeems the thing, there's nothing honest about that movie. Everything goes so wrong for George Bailey in a single day that he contemplates suicide, yet, that very same night, everything goes so right that he's the "luckiest" man in town? Who the hell has a day with such extremes? And should we believe a man is worth saving from suicide ONLY if he makes a difference? That George is a decent person not out to hurt anybody should be reason enough to try to talk him out of killing himself in my opinion.

    So, if you're thinking of commiting suicide, and the angel sees that you're absence would make no noticiable difference, should the angel then say, "Hey, buddy, not only won't I keep you from offing yourself, I'll push you off the bridge if you like".

    And will someone please explaing why Donna Reed is wearing glasses in the George Baily-less world? In his absence, did she do a lot reading in the dark or something?

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  3. you've hit the nail on the head, kirk. a total lack of honesty. as full disclosure, i have had 2 days, years apart, when everything i thought i had and knew was shown to be gone and wrong. so i know whereof i speak. and no, it wasn't all fixed the next day. bridges looked damn good. be that as it may, i have to say, i do believe we all make a difference. what that difference is, we may never know. maybe just by being an example of what NOT to do? *grin*

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  4. Don't have time to read this right now, but I will. Also, I've been musing over your Elizabeth Edwards post and have quite a bit to say about it. Later.

    Merry Christmas anyway.

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  5. Kirk, of your list I can only remember seeing the original Alaister Sim A CHRISTMAS CAROL and L&H's MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS, which were shown locally every year on Christmas Day when I was a kid.

    The other films were around but I just never got into them. I just never found that "Christmas magic" I guess.

    You're also right about snowfall in Christmas movies. As someone who grew up in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains we'd greet a Christmas Day snow forecast with dread. One year I spent nearly all of Christmas Day digging cars out of snowbanks when we got a whopping two feet of snow. No White Christmas for us in the Der Bingle sense...it was just a whole buncha hard work!

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  6. @Kass--The Elizabeth Edwards post is a bit of dud, commentwise. Even Dreamfarm Girl's been silent, and she's the one that inspired me to write the essay in the first place! So anything you have to say is welcome, Kass, even if you just plan to rake me over the coals. I will say right here that I wanted to honor Edwards for something other than her highly sensationalized misfortune. Thanks for the comment you left on this post, even if you didn't actually read it. Trust me, I'm not picky.

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  7. @El Postino--Good to hear from you again. If by "Christmas magic" you mean the Hollywoodized holiday hard-sell that we've come to expect in Xmas movies and TV specials, the movies I list that best fit that description are It's a Wonderful Life (no surprise there), White Christmas, and The Bishop's Wife. Oddly enough, Shop Around the Corner lays it on pretty thick toward the end, too. I say "oddly enough" because it's not really a Christmas movie per se, but a sophisticated romantic comedy that just winds up it's story in that time of year. I think the holiday is just too visually striking for director Lubitsch to film it any other way. Christmas is meant as an ironic counterpoint to the action in both The Man Who Came to Dinner and The Apartment. Remember the Night lays on the holiday magic pretty thick for much of that movie, but does so out of necessity, as it's about how people can swept up in the Christmas spirit, only to have to face difficult decisions afterwards. Christmas in Conneticut want it both ways. It tries to satirize the holiday, while leaving the viewer with a warm yuletide feeling. Close but no cigar. Miracle on 34th Street DOES manage to satirize the holiday while generating some real warmth, making it a rather remarkable film.

    One last thing word about snow in movies. I was watching a lesser known Christmas film (starring Robert Mitchum!) in which the characters walked out of a building into what looked like a raging blizzard, and no one even seemed to notice! People will overlook an awful lot at Christmas time.

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  8. @standing--You've heard the saying, "First, do no harm". I'm sure you've also heard "Do unto others as they would do unto you." Just following those two dictums I think makes quite the difference.

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  9. "One last thing word about snow in movies"

    I was sipping the egg nog when I wrote that line.

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  10. The original Shop Around the Corner was a gem, but I liked You've Got Mail too. I can watch The Christmas Story over and over, but I have to agree with you and Standing about It's A Wonderful Life. I've only seen it once. That was enough.

    I'm still composing the Elizabeth Edwards post in my head. I don't think what you had to say was duddy. It was a good post. It certainly made me think, but not along the lines you would expect.

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  11. @Kass--Haven't yet gotten around to seeing YOU'VE GOT MAIL, but I think A CHRISTMAS STORY (filmed in my home town) is one of the funniest movies ever made. If they ran a 24-hour marathon in the middle of July, I'd probably watch.

    Looking forward to your composition, on whatever line it runs.

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  12. I'm quite late to the comments...

    I though I was the only person who detested It's A Wonderful Life ( I didn't like Titanic either and when she dropped the necklace in the ocean I wanted to toss her in after it ) every time I hear someone blah blah blah on an on about how great this movie is when all I want to do is help George jump off the bridge.
    When you make so many stupid mistakes what do you think will happen George !
    And I always wondered why he was the only savior to this crummy town. No one ever took charge of their own life... every one was whinny.

    I enjoy some of the movies you mentioned, Scrooge, The Man Who Came To Dinner and Miracle On 34th Street lead the list.

    A favorite Christmas movies we watch every year is The Muppet Christmas Christmas Carole.
    I am so weird...

    cheers, parsnip

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  13. Better late than never, as the wise man once said.

    One reason I have it in for IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE is I think that, as a whole, movies of the 1930s and 1940s are a lot more sophisticated than people my age or younger give them credit for. But you would never know that if you're only knowledge of that era in film comes from WONDERFUL LIFE.

    As for Titanic, if you don't mind the slightly inferior special effects and the absence of Kate Winslet (the latter bothers me more than the former) a much better movie about the famous shipwreck is A NIGHT TO REMEMBER made in 1957.

    Thanks for commenting, angry.

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  14. what an interesting tale of Dick Clark..

    I feel a little bad about not knowing much about him
    -Sy

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  15. @SY--I don't beleve Dick Clark ever made any Christmas movies, but your point is well taken.

    Welcome to my blog, Sy.

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