Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Quips and Quotations

The mind is like an iceberg, it floats with one-seventh of its bulk above water.

--Sigmund Freud

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.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


(I've decided to take a little break from this blog. In my absence, my good friend Marty Volare has agreed to recount for you one of his many romantic misadventures. See if you can read it without choking up. In fact, choke up enough, and Marty might just respond to your comments--KJ)

My name is Martin Dangerfield Volare, and the story I'm about to tell is one of love found and love lost, of love born and love died, of love opened and love closed, of love created and love destroyed, of love bloomed and love withered, of love premiered and love canceled, of love invented and love made obsolete, and of love brand-new right out of the box and love left out on the curb to be taken away with the rest of the trash. It is an old story, as old as the sun and the moon and the sea and the ground and the redwoods and the bones of dinosaurs, but also a story of continual renewal, as new as a baby's laugh, a puppy's bark, a kitten's meow, a chick's chirp, and a lamb's baa. For this tale I tell is not meant to depress but inspire, that though love may burn to a crisp like a marshmallow left too long over a fire at a Labor Day picnic on that last sweet, sultry night of summer, its' smoke will nonetheless rise gently above the Metropark and the trees and the birds and up, up toward the clouds and the heavens and the stars and the galaxies and the extraterrestrials beyond.

Her name was Sonya, and she worked as a barmaid at the Looking-Glass Cafe, where I sometimes go to escape and evade and avoid and elude the desperation and desolation of my lonely existence. Ah, how shall I describe Sonya? She was as lovely as the dawn, as beautiful as the dusk, and as sweet as a mango. And she had a nice smile. I was smitten.

Alas, difficulties loomed! For starters, she slept with this one guy. However, she told me he meant nothing to her and would probably break up with him soon as she got the air conditioning, driver's side power window, and CD player fixed on her Buick Enclave and so wouldn't have to borrow his Mustang all the time. That filled me with hope. She then revealed that she had a two-year old daughter. I asked if the guy she slept with was the father. She said she didn't think so. I was naturally relieved to hear that. Still, if me and Sonya were to get married, it would mean I would have to raise the daughter as my own. Would I be up to the challenges of parenthood? I needed to know the answer.

I found the answer, or thought I had found the answer, or hoped with the hope that gives all sentient beings sustenance that I had found the answer when I saw this flier shoved between one of my windshield wipers while leaving the laundromat. It read as follows:


Forecaster of Fate, Prophetess of the Paranormal, Seer of the Supernatural, Assessor of the Astral Plane

will predict your future for


Hurry! Limited time offer.

I know it now seems a bit desperate of me to go to a fortune teller to help solve a romantic dilemma, but at the time desperate blood pumped into and out of my desperate heart. I made up my mind to the see the seer.

Her simple clapboard house was located next to a payday lender in a part of town noted for its potholes, pawn shops, foreclosed property, and abandoned cars. I actually found it rather heartening that Madame Imelda should live in such a neighborhood. I like my psychics on the humble side. However, I may have overestimated her humility, for when I walked into her simple clapboard home I was greeted by a giant middle-aged lady dressed in gypsy garb and speaking in a foreign accent, mostly Hungarian, but with what sounded like a little Spanish and Scandinavian thrown in. I took her for a worldly woman.

"I am Madame Imelda" she intoned. "Mistress of Mysticism, Empress of Enchantment, and Diva of Divination! I know past, present, and future! I have access to those worlds beyond normal sight, sound, smell, touch, and thought! I speak with the spirits, hobnob with the hobgoblins, and play host to the ghosts! Now, what can I do for you?"

Awed, I lowered my head, pulled the flier out of my pocket, and handed it to her. She nodded, and led from the foyer into a room full of lit candles, burning incense, and lave lamps. Hanging on one wall was a black velvet painting of a wizard seated on a unicorn, his magic wand doubling as a riding crop. In the middle of the room was a small table with a crystal ball. I sat on one side, Madame Imelda on the other. She held out her hand, and I gave her the ten dollars. She turned away and beckoned,

"Daughter, Daughter, bring me my purse!"

From another room emerged a girl of about nine or ten wearing a Miley Cyrus T-shirt and carrying an oversized purse. Madame Imelda deposited my ten dollars into the purse and the tyke left. Madame Imelda then got down to the business of forecasting the future.

"You shall experience great happiness and great sadness!" she intoned as she peered into the crystal ball. "You shall climb great peaks and descend into deep valleys. You shall laugh and you shall cry. You shall know joy and you shall know heartbreak. That is your destiny. Now leave and tell all your friends about me. I'm here seven days a week, half a day on holidays. I accept credit cards."

Needless to say, I was a bit disappointed at this rather vague prediction. I began to wonder if Madame Imelda was on the level.

"Couldn't you be more specific?" I asked. "I wanted to know about my soon-to-be-girlfriend-soon-to-be-fiancee-soon-to-be-wife."

"Oh, it's specificity you seek? That will be $350. Daughter, daughter, bring me my purse!"


"Prophecy is not some low-hanging fruit that can be plucked from a tree. You have to go to the farmer's market and pay a little extra for it."

My anger rising, I blurted out, "A farmers market wouldn't try to cheat me like you are!"

The big woman stood up and yelled, "You dare impugn the integrity of Madame Imelda, Chief Executive of the Extrasensory?! Take leave of my prescient presence at once, you worm!"

Faced with such a torrent of sincerity, I had no choice but to apologize, yet so great was my shame, I couldn't even open my mouth. I turned and reluctantly headed toward the door.


I turned away from the door!

"Madame Imelda is nothing if not fair. Knowing the past, present, and future does that to a person. Ask me a question about this lady friend of yours, and if I get it right, you pay for a full reading."

That sounded reasonable, but what could I ask? Sonya's last name? No, it had to be something I already knew the answer to, just in case Madame Imelda answered falsely. It was Sonya's baby daughter that brought me here in the first place. I could ask something along those lines. The daughter's name, maybe? No, I didn't know that either. Wait, I could just ask the psychic if she even knew Sonya had a baby daughter.

"Tell me, Madame Imelda, who is the most important female in my future girlfriend/fiancee/wife's life?"

Madame Imelda sat down and peered into the crystal ball. In less than a second, she intoned, "Her mother is the most important person in her life!"

"Wrong. Not her mother."

"Not her mother? I'd like to think I'm the most important female in my daughter's life!"

"I said it's not her mother!" I could feel my anger almost returning.

"Her sister?"




"Best friend?"

My anger had now most assuredly returned. "Her daughter! Her baby daughter is the most important female in her life!"

"Oh, her baby daughter! You didn't tell me she had a baby daughter."

"You were already supposed to know that!"

Madame Imelda looked back into the crystal ball. "Ah, I see my mistake now. I was looking at the ball's northern hemisphere, when I really should have been looking at its' south. There's the baby, in plain sight. Daughter, daughter, bring me my purse!"

I left in disgust.

Driving home, I was at first despondent, but it didn't last long. Perhaps there was a lesson to be learned here. I had wanted easy assurance from a fortune teller that I wasn't making a mistake, but there are no shortcuts in romance. Love is a matter of faith. This thought put me in a good mood. The Madame Imeldas of the world weren't going to keep me from my soul mate. By the time I arrived at the Looking-Glass Cafe, I was so filled with joyful ardor I skipped right in the place. A couple guys at a pool table laughed at me, but what did I care? I was a paramour in paradise!

"Hiya, Marty," said Sonya from behind the bar. "You look like you're in a good mood."

"I am. I just exposed a fortune teller as a fake."

"Oh, yeah? What'd ya do that for?"

"I asked her a question about you, and she didn't know the answer."

"Oh, yeah? What'd ya ask?"

Smiling, I said, "Who is the most important female in your life?"

"Oh, that'd be my best friend Amy. She let me sleep on her couch this one time when I--"

Panicked, I said, "No, not your best friend Amy!"

"Well, I sometimes spend time with my kid sister."

"No, not your kid sister!"

"My grandmother? I like her. I hope you don't think it's my mother. Me and her just don't see eye to eye."

"It's you're daughter!," I blurted. "You're baby daughter should be the most important female in your life!"

"Oh, yeah. That's right. My daughter."

To make a long lament short, things never did work out between me and Sonya. She left the Looking-Glass Cafe not long after. I hear she's now at some bikers bar near Sandusky. The guy she sleeps with works grill.

And, in case you're wondering, I eventually did pay Madame Imelda her $350. It was only fair.

In Memoriam: Don Meredith 1938-2010

Dallas Cowboys quarterback. Sportscaster. Monday Night Football.

"Turn out the lights, the party's over..."