A Christmas Story (1983)

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The premise is ludicrously simple. Ralphie wants a Red Rider BB Gun for Christmas. It’s his one aspiration. His sole desire in life. But of course, every conceivable adult simply dismisses him, their choice phrase being that mainstay of our modern lexicon, “You’ll shoot your eye out!”

Peter Billingsley remains an icon of the 1980s much in the same way Fred Savage would become one a few years down the road. In fact, it’s no surprise. Because their performances were of a very visual nature but it was the insights of their adult selves (in this case Jeane Shepherd) that lent a certain irony to everything they did in childhood.

Look at Bob Clark’s film and The Wonder Years and you see some very plain points of similarity. Most obviously the television series borrowed this narrative device liberally from its very conception. It lets its young protagonists’ imaginations run wild in colorful ways, but Ralphie did it first.

What proves to be most appealing about this perennial Christmas marathon favorite is the very fact that there is very little agenda and it functions mostly as numerous bits and pieces of anecdotal experiences related to us in a matter-of-fact fashion.

There are the infamous triple dog dares that lead to the inevitable pole licking at the school playground. There’s the ever notorious leg lamp, won in a contest, their proud father’s (Darren McGavin)  glorious victory exhibited for the whole neighborhood until their mother (Melinda Dillon) breaks it accidentally on purpose.

It’s the era of Little Orphan Annie on the radio, ovalteen, decoder rings, The Wizard of Oz, and Bing Crosby and The Andrew Sisters singing their greatest hits. Parents resorted to archaic forms of punishment, namely, mouths washed out by soap and the threat of bodily harm.

In the schoolyard, the roost is always ruled by the biggest bird until it comes out that the bird, in this case, one Scut Farkus is actually a chicken after an unfettered Ralphie begins whaling on the resident red-headed bully.

The infamous bunny suit from Aunt Clara donned by Ralphie on Christmas morning is one of the lasting images as is younger brother Randy wrapped up in puffy winter clothing, or watching a defeated Ralphie get slowly nudged down the slide by a griping Santa Claus at the local mall.

The now anachronistic Chop Suey Palace makes an appearance as does  Ralphie’s Old Man’s constant curse-laden crusade against the furnace. Each subsequent tale is contained as part of this familial lore, a bit murky and at the same time mythical. It turns out to be absurdly even darkly comical in its vignette-driven escapades but that provides much of the substance of its charm.

However, that very nature makes it difficult for me to become unequivocally attached to this picture. Because it’s not an exercise in pathos, though still being steeped in nostalgia and references to the mores of Middle America in some far off, bygone era. It evokes the period but does so with a somewhat trivializing sense of humor.

But what strikes me about the picture, specifically in the Christmas scenes is how the most memorable and, dare we say, “special moments” that we remember around the holidays are the ones with mishaps and circumstances that while derailing our perfect expectations, simultaneously become our most cherished memories. Because life at its best isn’t a cookie cutter experience. It’s full of all those misshapen weird outcomes that bulge out and disrupt life in ways that we can only look back on and laugh. Christmas was never meant to be perfect. Have you looked in the mirror lately? As humans, we are far from it.

That’s what this story sums up quite impeccably. It’s not so much a moral tale or a movie of themes but the scripting and setting get at the essence of a time and place where desiring a Red Rider BB Gun is enough. There doesn’t need to be more — at least not in childhood — that’s what adulthood is for. Even then a child-like perspective, especially during the holidays, is something to be desired.

4/5 Stars

Review: Holiday Affair (1949)

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Holiday Affair might be a bit of an oxymoron as far as Christmas movies go. It’s not too far off the truth to christen it an old-modern Christmas classic, at least depending on how you define your terms.

It’s a Christmas picture that has all but sailed under the radar since its original release in 1949 though it has, rather recently, gained some modest recognition around Christmastime. Given Robert Mitchum’s normal workload for RKO, it feels like an outlier in comparison with most of the dramatic or noirish crime fare he was usually expected to star in. And part of this might have been due to circumstance — circumstance that might also explain why this picture wasn’t such a big hit.

Mitchum was fresh off his famed drug bust for narcotics possession which ironically, far from killing his career, managed to project his image as a bad boy and a major box office draw. But Howard Hughes wanted to try and soften his image and the picture in the pipeline was Holiday Affair. It’s certainly not what we are normally accustomed to for a Mitchum vehicle. Contemporary audiences might have concluded the same.

In earlier iterations, the film was slated to star the intriguing cast of Montgomery Clift, James Stewart, and Teresa Wright. In fact, it’s interesting to note Wright could have been in the Christmas classic of two years prior, The Bishop’s Wife (1947) as well. Alas, she did not end up in either picture. Still, that should in no way dismiss what we actually received.

Although visibly quite young for the role of the widowed mother Mrs. Dennis, Janet Leigh makes it work due to a pluckiness and genuine chemistry that buoys her relationships with her on-screen son (Gordon Gebert) and both of her male counterparts (Mitchum and Wendell Corey).

What brings them all into the most curious of love triangles is a momentary interaction at the toy store. Connie Ennis is a comparative shopper a little too eager to purchase a model train and Steve Mason (Mitchum) is the employee on the other side of the counter.

Though he doesn’t say anything, he’s got her pegged. Sure enough, she comes back to return the gift but instead of reporting her he lets it slide — only asking her never to come to his department again. He subsequently gets fired and is back on the streets, biding his time in order to realize his dreams of becoming a shipbuilder in California.

Meanwhile, Connie doesn’t have an affluent lifestyle but perhaps more important than that, it’s a generally happy existence. Her husband was killed in the war, yes, but she and her son Timmy have a tight-knit relationship. They’re truly there for one another. It’s no fluke she constantly calls her pint-sized man of the house, Mr. Ennis. Because it’s true. He is the most important man in her life.

Although there is another man who is hoping for the privilege to become a part of their family. Carl (Corey) is a divorced lawyer who has long made his intentions plain to Connie. It’s just a matter of figuring out if she’s ready for marriage. And he seems like a good practical man to go through life with. Still, that isn’t everything.

Because Robert Mitchum is added to the equation and between both men, Timmy finds Steve a lot more fun and I think it’s reflected particularly well in the relaxed performance that Mitchum gives.

He’s surprisingly compelling in his scenes with the child because, again, he may have the image of a tough guy but when you watch him speak there’s no pretense. He’s not talking down to the kid. He nearly treats him as an equal or at least not in the condescending manner that adults often have. That’s the key.

The rest of the story, including the final act, doesn’t need spelling out. You probably already can gather some sense of what will unfold. But this film is a reminder that predictability isn’t king. Sure, it’s present but there are also a plethora of idiosyncratically enjoyable moments to be relished.

Among other things, they involve gaudy neckties, hobos, salt and pepper shakers, feeding orphan squirrels, and eating with the seals in the park. A delightfully ornery Henry ‘Harry’ Morgan provides a cameo at the Police Precinct that helps draw out some of the film’s more absurd digressions.

There’s a lovely marital toast and an equally awkward confession. But more than any of this there’s the realization of what family might be and what true happiness looks like during the holidays.

In an earlier moment, in typical Mitchum fashion, he taps the lady of the house on the shoulder and proceeds to kiss the surprised Connie before proclaiming “Merry Christmas.” End scene. Or on Christmas morning little Timmy springs in on his mother to wish her a “Merry Christmas” of his own. It’s these little trifles that make this a congenial outing for those craving a bit of nostalgic yuletide cheer.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

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From its opening motif of a man nitpicking the arrangement of reindeer in a shop window, Miracle on 34th Street skates away on a delightful journey that evokes both fanciful whimsy and a liberal amount of holiday sentimentality. However, it’s also one of the finest examples and greatest purveyors of holiday cheer ever and that’s in spite of an original theatrical release that Daryl Zanuck slated for the summer of 1947.

Still, all of this aside, the major heartbeat and the effervescence of the picture falls on the shoulders of that precocious gentleman Edmund Gwenn in the most iconic performance of his career. No matter your leanings, be it a sentimentalist or a pragmatic realist, at the very least, he makes you want to believe in Santa Claus. And what’s striking is how he embodies such a man.

Because we could get into a debate on whether he is the real thing or if he truly is delusional and thus, we would have to be alarmed by this entire ordeal. Yet the results speak for themselves as do the fruits of his labor which help to uplift an entire city.

It’s true that he lays down a trail of hints from the outset at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade about his origins. If you’re paying attention and know the score they are easy enough to notice. However, he’s never pompous in proclaiming his exploits.

What draws everyone to him is this genial charm that cannot be fabricated. It’s all him.  There is no shred of an egomaniac or a mentally disturbed person. In fact, he feels the complete antithesis of many of the adjectives we might toss out to describe the commercialized Christmas so prevalent today (and even back then).

Alfred, the young janitor, and a personal favorite expresses the sentiment aptly. “It’s all about, Make a buck. Make a buck. There are a lot of bad “isms” to choose from but arguably the worst is commercialism.”  And it’s Kris who helps to rail against that holiday status quo when he finds himself working as Macy’s floor Santa.  In fact, it almost feels like a necessity that all these things come to pass because not only are people forgetting about him but more importantly, they are forgetting the core tenets of the season.

There are several scenes in particular that put a heartbeat to a little bit of the magic that courses through this picture — a picture that director George Seaton dearly wanted to make as did John Payne. Because it exudes something so remarkable that has proved timeless in years since. Even Maureen O’Hara, though initially skeptical of returning to Hollywood from her oasis in Ireland, relented because she was taken by the story.

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As someone always interested in the periphery, one of my favorite moments involves Thelma Ritter. It’s only a small sequence but she plays a harried mother who wants to go home and soak her feet after struggling to find her son a toy fire engine. The joy is watching Santa put the color back into her face when he incredulously evokes the spirit of giving. She’s flabbergasted by this unprecedented piece of goodwill. It’s the calling card of a true Santa.

Then there’s the little Dutch girl who pleads with her foster mother to see Santa. And it’s pure magic, again, because they form a connection when Santa breaks out into her mother tongue and they’re able to sing a Christmas song together. There’s so much underlying context made beautiful by the fact that we have to read deeper to extract the meaning. Surely viewers knew this girl was a casualty of WWII but beyond that, the fact that Santa is able to cross this perceived language divide is in itself a near miracle.

As someone who does not speak Dutch, I’m not privy to the precise conversation but it’s easy to empathize because here Santa Claus has made someone on the outside feel known and loved. It’s telling these precise events strike a chord with young Susan (Natalie Wood) also.

Certainly, it’s about time to fill in the story’s nucleus and of course, sandwiched in between this broader narrative, involving so many people, is a very personal one. It really is a case study and it’s noted as such by Kris Kringle and his devoted follower Fred (John Payne). They fight a two-front war to work on the most obdurate, rational minds in New York, Doris (O’Hara) and her pragmatic little girl Susan (Wood) who has been trained up by the best.

Ironically, Kris’s war on commercialism very much subverts the longheld spirit of capitalism as we watch the foremost toy companies, namely Macy’s and Gimbel’s pitted against each other looking to outdo one another in the realms of helpfulness and good cheer.  It’s simultaneously hilarious and downright uplifting.

But there must be more because goodness very rarely moves forward wholly unimpeded. The antagonist in this scenario is a curmudgeon, insignificant company psychologist named Sawyer (Porter Hall in a particularly testy role) whose own misgivings about holiday cheer cause him to suggest Kris be put in a mental institution. The case of the holiday season begins when Santa is put on trial.

There is a logical conclusion with a respected judge (the character journeyman Gene Lockhart) presiding but don’t expect it because this is a story about miracles and a film about intangibles and a jolly old man spinning his spellbinding magic for the good of mankind.

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To the last knowing wink, it tests our faith in the man but even today it never seems like a picture to outright shirk reality. Instead, it’s more founded on cultivating all that is good and life-giving when you tone down the hard-edged pragmatics that leave no room for imagination or faith of any kind.

Because oftentimes, when those reservoirs are sucked completely dry, you are left with people who lack joy, contentment, charity, and goodwill for their fellow man. From such wastelands come the Mr. Sawyers. If you close yourself off completely to this season or this film, you might just feel yourself left a little empty inside.

More than anything else, Miracle on 34th Street is a story of childlike faith as this is much of what the season is supposed to be indicative of. The ultimate gifts of love, joy, and peace require an openness in order to receive them fully.

All there is left to do is to close with an excerpt of prose far more learned and impassioned than my own, penned to an inquisitive girl named Virginia. Because this film very well could be the proof behind the words:

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.

We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished…Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

5/5 Stars

A Christmas Tale (2008)

achristmastaleposterThe initial inclination for seeing Arnaud Desplechin’s sprawling family drama was the presence of the estimable Catherine Deneuve. And she’s truly wonderful giving a shining, nuanced performance that makes the audience respect her, sympathize with her, and even dislike her a little bit. But the same goes for her entire family. The best word to describe them is messy. Dysfunctional is too sterile. Messy fits what they are. If you think your family is bad around the holidays, the Vuillards have a lot of their own issues to cull through.

The inciting incident sends a shock wave through their already crumbling family unit. Their matriarch has been diagnosed with bone marrow cancer and must make the difficult decision of whether or not to risk treatment or go without. But Deneuve carries herself with that same quietly assured beauty that she’s had even since the days of Umbrellas of Cherbourg. In this capacity, she makes A Christmas Tale, far from a tearful, sobfest. She’s strong, distant, and you might even venture to say fearless.

And because of her strength, this story is not only about her own plight – it’s easy to downplay it because she is so resilient – but it frames the rest of the interconnecting relationships. It began when her first son passed away. The children who followed included Elizabeth (Anne Cosigny) who became the oldest and grew up to be a successful playwright. Junon’s middle child Henri (Mathieu Amalric) can best be described as the black sheep while the youngest, Ivan, was caught in the midst of the familial turmoil.

Because the issues go back at least five years before Junon gets her life-altering news. It was five years ago that Elizabeth paid Henri’s way out of an extended prison sentence (for a reason that is never explained) with the stipulation that she never has to see her brother again. Not at family gatherings, not for anything. And she gets her way for a time.

But with Junon’s news she and her husband Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) realize this is a crucial time to get their family back together because, above all, their matriarch needs a donor and due to her unique genetic makeup, a family member is her best bet.

Underlying these overt issues are numerous tensions that go beyond sibling grudges and sickness. Elizabeth’s own relationships have been fraught with unhappiness and her son Paul has been struggling through a bout of depression. Ivan and his wife (Chiarra Mastroianni) are seemingly happy with two young boys of her own. But old secrets about unrequited love get dredged up and Sylvia is looking for answers of her own. Although it’s a side note, it’s striking that Chiarra Mastroianni is Deneuve’s real-life daughter and in her eyes, I see the spitting image of her father, the icon, Marcello Mastroianni.

There’s also a lot of truth and honesty buried within A Christma Tale and in most competitions, it would win for the most melancholy of yuletide offerings. However, it’s important to note that its darkness is balanced out with romance, comedy, and a decent dose of apathy as well.

Still, the most troubling thing about A Christmas Tale is not the fact that it is extremely transparent, but the reality that the themes of Christmas have no bearing on its plot. We leave these characters different than they were before but whether they are better for it is up for debate.

The sentimentality of a It’s Wonderful Life crescendo would be overdone and fake in this context but some sort of reevaluation still seems necessary. Because without faith in anything — faith in their family is ludicrous — their world looks utterly hopeless. The two little grandsons wait in front of the nativity staying up to get a glimpse at Jesus (perhaps mistaken for Santa Claus) and their father calmly states they should go to bed because he’s never existed anyways. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with holding such beliefs.

Even the fact that Junon and her grown son Henri attend midnight mass is an interesting development. But during this season emblematic of hope and joy, it seems like the Vuillard’s can have very little of either one. Henri can be his mother’s savior for a time by extending her life for 1.7 years or whatever the probabilities suggest. But then what?

It’s this reason and not the family drama that ultimately makes A Christmas Tale a downer holiday story. Its denouement feels rather like a dead end more than fresh beginnings. Because Nietzche and coin flips are not the most satisfying ways to decipher the incomprehensibility of life – especially with death looming large during the holidays.

But that’s only one man’s opinion. That’s not to downplay all that is candid about this film in any way. If you are intrigued by the interpersonal relationships and entanglements of a family  — may be a lot like yours and mine — this film is an elightening exposé.

3.5/5 Stars

It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947)

220px-happened5avenueThe fact that Miracle on 34th Street and this film came out the same year seems to suggest that there was something special in the air of New York City that year. It was a magical place, specifically during the Christmas season with Santa Claus going on trial and winning, while tramps helped reform millionaires. Admittedly, It Happened on Fifth Avenue is one of those films that could easily come under fire for its implausible plot, its unabashed sentiment, and any number of other things.

But if you have any amount of Christmas cheer at all, it’s overwhelmingly difficult not to enjoy this cheering story for what it offers up in the areas of heartwarming comedy and holiday spirit. There’s even a bit of misty-eyed sentimentality that’s sure to weaken the callous heart that’s ready to be melted.

And the story finds its roots in some very real issues. One is the housing crisis following the end of World War II with GIs flooding back into the country with families to raise and no jobs and no homes to be had. The situation further aggravated by the wage gap. The rich just seem to get richer, buying up all the land and resources in town,  namely the notorious John O’Connor — the second richest man in the world by latest figures shouted by passing tour guides on sightseeing buses. Ironically, in such an environment the panhandling community is especially strong and foremost among their ranks is sophisticated tramp Aloyisius McKeever (Victor Moore).

He migrates as the crow flies to Winter palaces and Summer getaways belonging to those in the affluent sectors of society. He has set up a bit of a revolving timeshare but you could say it only goes one way. None of his benefactors seem to know they are being so charitable and Mr. MeKeever does his best not to draw attention to himself. Letting himself in through fence boards, sneaking down through manhole covers, and setting up an elaborate trigger system to turn off all lights at the moments notice. In this way, he manages to live a rather comfortable life undetected in the boarded up estate of the aforementioned magnate John O’Connor.

Although he’s a rather peculiar character, a conniver and a bit of an opportunist, it should not go unsaid that he does have a conscience — a moral code if you will — that makes him increasingly compelling. Aside from his quirky ways, Aloysius McKeever is quite generous even if it involves someone else’s capital. Soon his great home that he is “borrowing” is filled with a few GIs and families including the drifting Jim Bullock (Don DeFore) who was thrown out of his apartment after Mr. O’Connor bought the land. Now with a place to gather himself, Jim has the seed of an idea — retrofitting old army barracks into track housing for returning GIs. The only problem is they need real estate, real estate being snapped up by the one in the same John O’Connor. You’ve probably gotten tired of hearing his name by now.

All of this would be unrelated if it weren’t for a girl who ran away from finishing school, Trudy O’Connor (Gail Storm). Her last name says it all already, and when she flees to seek asylum at her father’s  winter estate, she’s surprised to find it occupied. It makes for a funny scenario but rapidly she settles into the community and simultaneously falls in love with Jim.

At this juncture, Trudy asks her father for perhaps the biggest favor of her life — that he would play it her way — masquerading as another vagrant so that he can meet her love and not sway him to marry Trudy with the imminent promise of great wealth. And that’s the next enjoyment of the film, watching stuffy old Mr. O’Connor forced to be a guest in his own home, bossed around by Aloysius. But he’s not the only one out of sorts, Trudy’s mother (Ann Harding) also comes to live with them as a cook and this creates yet another complicating layer of wistful romance.

In the process, everyone learns something. There is a newfound appreciation for people and life. What it means to make an honest day’s wages. What it means to live for more than money. What it means to truly love someone so much that you don’t want to live a day without them. Even what it means to live in a caring community that looks to bless each other and share resources in such a way that no one is in need. I would even wager a bet that this is less socialism and more of what the early Christians talked about in Acts.

The film is blessed by some lovable, wonderfully comic performances from a couple great Hollywood actors, most notably Victor Moore and Charles Ruggles who highlight the storyline’s oddities. Meanwhile, some of the younger stars have winning charm that would translate into several solid careers in the growing medium of television. For some ready made feel-good Christmas magic, look no further than 5th Avenue.

3.5/5 Stars

Remember the Night (1940)

remember_the_night_posterI find that many of the best Christmas movies aren’t really about Christmas at all — at least not in the conventional sense that we’re so used to. Not trees or presents or lights or even holiday sentiment although those might all be there.

The films that start to tease out the true meaning and impact of the Christmas season start by looking at people and their relationships with one another. Because, truth be told, we so often get distracted by the bright colors and shiny objects that get in our way.

That’s actually part of what Remember the Night is about. Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) is a woman who has a penchant for stealing jewelry. She’s not a kleptomaniac or wrong in the head, she’s just a poor, unspectacular woman with nothing to show for in life. She lives in a hotel. And so the minute she’s apprehended and prosecuted in the courtroom you would assume that it’s nothing out of the ordinary.

Except this is a romantic film starring the likes of Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck working from a script from Preston Sturges and under the guidance of Mitchel Leisen. So obviously that tips us off that love is in the air. Especially during the Christmas season, love is all around us — peace on earth and goodwill towards men.

Except when Lee’s trial is postponed by the astute district attorney on the other side of the table, it looks like she’s in for an abysmal holiday. She has no money, no place to go, and she’ll be spending her time behind bars (with a Christmas dinner of course). But John Sargent goes through a change of heart and his heart is fairly big when you get to know him. He ends up getting Lee out of jail for Christmas dinner as recompense and goes a step further still by inviting to take her back to her family home. They both hail from rural Indiana.

In this leg of the film, on the road, they begin to warm to each other. A certain amount of empathy sets in as they must flee pell-mell from some small town law enforcement after unlawfully milking a cow on private property. However, John also stands by his new companion when she returns to her childhood home — a place she ran away from at an early age — she’s not welcomed back.

And while it doesn’t tell the story of Christmas overtly, it’s at this point that Remeber the Night begins to make sense. Hence the title. At least in my mind. Because what night would you remember? The logical progression of thought would be the first Christmas — the moment where the biblical narrative notes that there was no room for the child in the inn and so he was forced to be housed in a lowly manger on that silent night.

If you look at John’s mother and aunt played so lovingly and nurturing by Beulah Bondi and Elizabeth Patterson, you get the sense that they were probably aware of that event. However, how they act is also a natural outpouring of their hospitable natures. They welcome Lee into their home, they welcome her like family, they go so far out of their way to make her comfortable. Certainly, this is only a backdrop for the broader more sentimental focal point of the film which we were expecting. The accused and the prosecutor begin falling in love, but they still have to return to the courtroom when their holiday is over.

But that’s what wonderful films do. They work above and beyond their plotline being displayed at face value. Sturges was always a spectacular screenwriter even before becoming a director and here he develops a tale that comes off less frenetic than many of his later works, but it’s also imbued with a great amount of feeling. But credit also goes to Leisen for tailoring the script to his leads.

And as it’s set during the holidays, that makes it into a timely movie for the Christmas season (and New Years). Because the bottom line is that it’s about love, but not just in the romantic sense. Love of family. Love of your fellow man (and woman). Love of other people so much so that you are willing to sacrifice and take on the penalty for your actions, deserved or not. If we strip down the impact of Christmas to its core elements that’s essentially what it is about as well. So remember this movie during the holidays and remember that night if you’re so inclined.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

4/5 Stars

A Christmas Carol (1951)

Scrooge_–_1951_UK_film_posterOftentimes during the holidays, we are quick to label someone a “Scrooge,” almost jokingly because it’s a moniker that’s somehow lost a great deal of its magnitude with overuse and the passage of time. However, if we look at this film, so wonderfully anchored by Alastair Sim, and even Charles Dickens original work from which it is derivative, we would adopt a much wider definition of the word “Scrooge.”

Surely it is the archetypal Christmas tale and one of the most widely adapted works. Off the top of my head, I can think of versions from 1938, ’51, ’70, ’84, and 2009, not to mention countless retellings by Disney, Mr. Magoo, the Muppets, and Bill Murray no less.

We all know at least a little of the legend of Ebenezer Scrooge, and we can come up with a rough composite of what he must be like. He’s money-grubbing, has no spirit, and hates Christmas. If you say any of this you would be, in fact, most heartily correct, but there’s so much more to his character and his story. It’s far more universal than perhaps I would even give it credit for.

The narrative is beautifully elongated with the device of the three specters represented by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future respectively. Of course, it takes the apparition of his long-deceased partner Jacob Marley to scare Ebenezer out of the status quo — out of exactly the kind of person we assume him to be. But the key is he wasn’t always about the “humbugs” and lack of charity towards the poor and needy.

We learn about his story more in depth by the illumination of the first ghost. Scrooge began, a relatively humble young man, but his sister Fan had great affection for him, and he found a young woman named Anne, who loved him in spite of his lowly status. Money did not define their happiness — in fact, they were happier without it. But the way of the world back then was, and still is now, the pursuit of happiness by way of money. In a sense, although Scrooge greatly admired his generous employer Fezziwig, he became scared by the ways of the world. Once joining forces with another ambitious gentleman Jacob Marley, the two of them pressed their advantages when necessary and expanded their assets exponentially. The sweet, savory call of money quickly seduced them and as a result hardened their hearts. You see in the moments where Scrooge loses his sister and breaks off his engagement, that they are so emotionally charged even in the present. He hasn’t quite found a way to alleviate the pain because not even money can satiate that hurt.

The ghost of Christmas present shows him the inside of the humble Cratchit home, bringing to mind his previous comments about prisons and workhouses — as one of their foremost supporters. But the Cratchits, and specifically young Tiny Tim give a humanity to the common man like he has never seen before. He realizes that he has failed miserably in doing one of the most basic things — loving his fellow man and taking care of the widows and orphans. Scrooge still clings to the most poisonous belief that he is too far gone and he cannot be redeemed. That’s why what the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows him scares him the most. The pictures he sees ahead of him are haunting and all too real, but it makes his opportunity at a second chance all the sweeter.

In truth, when Scrooge wakes up from his dream-filled slumber he’s giddy almost to the point of insanity, but Alastair Sim is so brilliant to play his part that way. His character change is so radical because his paradigm has been completely overturned. It shows in how he interacts with his world whether it’s his housekeeper, a lad on the street, his nephew, or even the long-suffering Bob Cratchit. Ebenezer Scrooge represents the hope of Christmas when mankind begins living for their fellow man instead of all the fortunes in the world that will only grow old and dusty. Thus, before calling someone “a Scrooge,” it is best to take note of what you’re saying and then get the whole story. People are a lot more complex than we often give them credit for. That becomes obvious even in this streamlined Christmas classic of only 86 minutes.

4/5 Stars

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

Cary_and_the_Bishop's_Wife_posterAlthough its theology probably isn’t sound, rather like It’s a Wonderful Life, The Bishop’s Wife nevertheless utilizes its central plotting device wonderfully.

Imagine if on a whim an angel came to your rescue, and then imagine that the angel is named Dudley and looks and acts like none other than Cary Grant. In this case, the person in need is a distraught Bishop named Henry Brougham (David Niven). He is right in the middle of a major undertaking to build a new cathedral, and his primary benefactor Mrs. Hamilton (Gladys Cooper) is being a thorn in his side. The building project has consumed all his time and efforts, causing him to neglect his radiant wife Julia (Loretta Young), their little daughter Debbie, and the people from their old parish.

Director Henry Koster crafts a whimsical and rather sentimental film much in the same mold as Harvey (1950) which came three years later. This time Dudley is the character who exists outside of worldly convention. He is constantly kind, always patient, never hurries, and is always helpful to everyone in need be it blind man or bishop. In truth, everyone adores him, because after all, he is an angel. Everyone, that is, except Henry who needs him most. Henry unwittingly asked for help and now he has an angel in his midst, but Dudley will not allow that to be revealed to anyone else. It’s an unnecessary detail, and besides, he has much more pressing matters like attending to Julia and assisting Henry with his work. To her, he is purely a radically pleasant and good-hearted individual. With such positives, there hardly needs to be any explanation, only wonderment.

He takes Julia through the old town she used to live in happily with Henry. They meet old friends like the blustering Professor Wutheridge (Monty Wooley), who Dudley also happens to give inspiration to. He makes little Debbie a ringer in a snowball fight, and he and Julia are joined by a chipper taxi driver (James Gleason) in an ice skating adventure. Even a check in on the humble cathedral at St. Vincent’s leads to an angelic rehearsal by the local boy’s choir. Meanwhile, Henry is absent attending to other matters.

Of course, he is as bitter and distressed as ever by his plight — his attention still skewed in the wrong directions. Even when Dudley goes to grumpy old Mrs. Hamilton and totally redeems her perspective in order to feed the hungry, Henry hardly seems pleased. His artifice, his tower is now even farther from being completed.

The final scenes of Bishop’s Wife are key because it’s in these moments where we see the change in Henry. Cary Grant might seem obviously miscast for this role, and in truth, it was originally supposed to go to Niven who was to play opposite the equally angelic Teresa Wright. But Grant’s debonair side is important for this final act because it makes sense when he makes a pass at Julia. It fits his screen persona as the suave bachelor, angel or not. You can debate whether he was actually in love with the beautiful mortal, or if he was just doing it to get a rise out of Henry. Whichever way you see it, for the first time Henry is driven to fight for his wife out of love and because of the human emotion that still pulses through his veins. Finally, he drops the peripheral and looks at what is central, his family and friends. Dudley, or Cary Grant, takes one final approving look and walks off in the snow. His work here is done. Peace on Earth and Goodwill towards men.

4/5 Stars

“We forget nobody, adult or child. All the stockings are filled, all that is, except one. And we have even forgotten to hang it up. The stocking for the child born in a manger. Its his birthday we’re celebrating. Don’t let us ever forget that. Let us ask ourselves what He would wish for most. And then, let each put in his share, loving kindness, warm hearts, and a stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shinning gifts that make peace on earth.”

~ Final Message given by Henry (David Niven)

Elf (2003)

220px-Elf_movie“The best way to spread Christmas Cheer is singing loud for all to hear.”

Elf is truly a Christmas miracle. It’s a relatively modern Christmas classic (a bit over 12 years old) that holds its own in a season usually dominated by old perennial favorites. Yet, again and again, it constantly excites, mesmerizes, and bedazzles in more ways than one.

Will Ferrell is the major treasure of Elf because, without his child-like wonderment and sincerity, this film could go downhill all too quickly. Buddy walks into female locker rooms, walks around New York in an Elf suit eating discarded gum, and calls his grown-up father “daddy” in a musical serenade, after all. But to his credit, Ferrell goes for it wholeheartedly completely engulfing himself in a magical realm that bewitches every other character who decides to join him. Everyone else walks in abject reality, but Buddy like Elwood P. Dowd (Harvey) or Dudley the angel (The Bishop’s Wife) exist outside of that and when they rub up against everyone else, they leave everyone, including the audience, changed.

From the outset, Elf comes right out of a storybook as Papa Elf (the venerable Bob Newhart) recounts how a human and his adopted son saved Christmas. Of course, it starts out as a sorry tale, because truth be told Buddy cannot figure out what his purpose in life is. What is he good at? What are his talents? For all the other elves it’s obvious: they make toys.

But when Buddy finally learns of his secret past he leaves his papa behind in a tearful goodbye, gains some sage advice from Santa (the equally venerable Ed Asner), and heads off on an iceberg to find his real father in the Big Apple.

There must be a catch, and there is a small one, Buddy’s father Walter Hobbes (James Caan) is on the naughty list. In fact, he’s a real Scrooge working slavishly day after day as a children’s book publisher. But you see Buddy doesn’t see people for their faults and that’s the secret of Ferrell’s success because his innocence and irrepressible will towards his fellow man is contagious. New York might be a culture shock and Hobbes as well as his young boy Michael are not too thrilled with Buddy’s arrival, but that’s because he’s so foreign – so nice. Ultimately, he becomes the best thing to happen in their life.

In truth, Buddy goes transforming New York systematically whether it’s the Hobbes’ home, Gimbel’s Department Store, or wherever his feet take him. And of course he finds love in his world-wearied coworker Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) and saves Christmas, but that’s nothing unexpected. It’s not the results, but how we get there that counts – all those quotable moments in between.

Too often I feel bludgeoned to death by all the new takes on the Christmas season annually jostling for my affection. But the beauty of Elf is that it pays its respects to the past, thereby solidifying its own timelessness in the present. It doesn’t have to be the next big thing, but it is something that I would gladly sit down and watch annually, because of its spirit and seasonal charm. We get nods to A Christmas Story and Ralphie, an homage to George Bailey on the Bedford Fall bridge, and even Miracle on 34th Street (Buddy working at the rival Gimbels).

The music never steals the show but it does accent some sequences nicely including the voices of Louis Prima, Stevie Wonder, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and so on. Each character fits well in director Jon Favreau’s narrative. The manager (Faizon Love) is a crack-up. The hired Santa (Artie Lange) is a thug. Peter Dinklage is an angry elf. James Caan is grumpy and cynical. Zooey Deschanel is pretty and cynical. Ed Asner is an endearing grouch. Bob Newhart has his usual stuttering charm. And Ferrell wraps it all up nicely with a pretty bow. Although it does completely sidestep the origins of the Christmas holiday, Elf does what it set out to do very well. It exudes Christmas spirit unabashedly.

“Christmas spirit is about believing, not seeing.” – Ed Asner as Santa

4/5 Stars

Review: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

5632c-wonderfullife4Every time I go through the emotional, romantic, heart-warming and at times uncomfortable roller coaster that is It’s a Wonderful Life, something new always seems to stick out to me.

It is always impressive for a film of this length that so much is packed into it. Within minutes we are fully enveloped in this story, and every sequence gives further insight into these characters. There is hardly ever a wasted moment because there is significance in each scene. Pointing us to the nature of George Bailey.

Furthermore, it is easy to forget the darkness that this film submerges itself in because it reaches such a jubilant crescendo. However, this is a story that covers the years including The Great Depression and World War II. Its protagonist sinks into a state of wretchedness complete with angry outbursts, negative feelings, and drunkenness. George Bailey loses all hope and his perspective is so completely distorted. For all intent and purposes, his life looks like it’s over, and it takes a frightening alternate reality to shake him out of his disillusionment. Put in this framework, it makes sense why it was a commercial flop when you juxtapose it with the big winner that year The Best Years of Our Lives. They both deal with post-war reality, but with very different lenses.

That’s the benefit of hindsight and a new context since we do not usually see It’s a Wonderful Life as a gloomy post-war tale, but a more positive parable that is universal in its impact. The first part of this story feels a bit like a Job story of hardship, and the second act is reminiscent to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but that’s the simplest of observations. There is a lot more to be parsed through.

The romance of George and Mary is what many of us aspire to and it causes us to really empathize with their young love that weathers the good and bad breaks they receive. It’s the fairy tale love story we want, with the rock hard reality we are used to in our own lives. Some favorite moments in their life together would be the splash they make during the Charleston dance off, singing Buffalo Gals together, smooching on the telephone together, sharing a makeshift honeymoon together, and embracing after George gets his new perspective on life.

There are a fair number of close-ups utilized in this film, but they are usually used at crucial points in the narrative, and they tell us a great deal about both George and Mary.

The first key moment comes during a freeze frame of grown up George with hands outstretched giving us our first look at the man we will be following from there on out. The next big moment occurs when George learns that Potter will gain control and the Building and Loan will be disbanded if he leaves. He realizes in an instant that he must give up his plans. Then, he waits excitedly for Harry with Uncle Billy and it is a happy moment, but George learns his younger brother might have another job. The camera follows his worried face as he goes to follow his new sister-in-law. Never thinking of himself, he realizes that Harry has a chance for better things and that leaves George still working the Building and Loan.

After their tiff, the scene where George and Mary are talking on the phone with Sam Wainwright is a solidifying moment in their relationship. There are so many underlying emotions and unspoken feelings that they are having trouble figuring out and reconciling. And yet there is that violent epiphany when their eyes link. The tears and anger are quickly traded for passionate kisses reflecting the often complicated facts of romance.

One of the final close-ups that hits home occurs when the now non-existent George stumbles away from the front door of his mother, who now has no concept of him. There is sweat on his brow (maybe from the 90 degree summer heatwave) and desperate bewilderment in his eyes. This is the lowest point he could have imagined. His own mother does not know who he is. His wife has grown old and lonely in an existence of exile. Stewart’s face is so expressive and earnest suggesting that George knows just how important human companionship is. Humanity was made to be in fellowship with each other. Lack of money means very little in comparison to our friendships and family ties. This is essentially what George finally comprehends and what Clarence reminds him. George understandably lost sight of his wife and his children and his friends. They were a gift not to be taken lightly.

Aside from these close-ups, it is also evident that a great deal of  effort was put into creating this world from the characters and their back stories to the town itself which was constructed on the RKO lot. Everything from the building facades, to stray dogs, and snow make the drama more atmospheric. It’s one of those films that reveals the beauty of using real props inhabited by seemingly real people. That’s why I sometimes am disillusioned by CGI. Although it can allow us to create amazing spectacles, oftentimes it creates a world that feels altogether fake and alien. It’s not relatable and it lacks the humanity that makes up our existence each and every day. In other words, it has very little of what makes It’s a Wonderful Life so compelling to me.

Perhaps there are more impressive or greater films, but there are few with greater heart and there is something to be said for that.

5/5 Stars