Christmas in Connecticut (1945): Yuletide Cheer and The War’s End is Here

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Christmas in Connecticut functions as a fine way to cap off 1945, a year full of jubilation and relief for the American public. The war was finally over! Given this context, the setup might feel familiar. A sailor who was shipwrecked out at sea in the Pacific was rescued. Now he’s seeing the war from the sidelines in a hospital.

Because in the mind of the viewer the war is already won, it feels like a relief. Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) is an American hero, and all he has to worry about are building his strength and getting to know the pretty southern belle nursing him back to full health. Still, with the holidays approaching, he can’t help yearning for a little bit of good old-fashioned Americana, the down-home comfort and hospitality he’s missed out on overseas.

A letter of request gets sent on his behalf and the old battle-ax, famed magazine publisher, Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet) catches wind of it. The idea is to serve up the soldier a meal in the home of famed columnist Elizabeth Lane, known for her idyllic farm, snow-covered nostalgia, and domestic tips and tricks. (The character was based on real-life Gladys Taber of Family Circle Magazine who actually lived on a farm in Connecticut)

As he could use a bit of comfort and home cooking himself, Yardley thinks it’s a fine suggestion, and he’s prepared to invite himself and the soldier out to the country for the holidays. He has no thought that it might be an inconvenience.

But of course, this is hardly the problem. It’s worse than that. Elizabeth Lane does not exist, at least not as vividly as she does on the pages of Yardley’s magazine captivating nationwide audiences coast to coast.

In truth, she lives in a drafty apartment overlooking the outside laundry as she knocks away at her typewriter eating sardines for breakfast. Because she’s no cook nor a wife with a baby and a farm. She’s more of a city girl living off a diet of independence and mink coats. Of course, no one knows about the sham aside from her and her editor.

What makes it worse is the fact Mr. Yardley is a very principled fellow and a stickler for printing the truth. If he ever caught wind of this charade, it would be the end. So to take stock of the damage, her boss is about to show up on her doorstep (one which she doesn’t have) for Christmas eve with an unwitting soldier who believes in what she comes to represent.

Barbara Stanwyck dons this kind of part with ease as the street-wise lifestyle columnist. She rides out the comedy with her usual aplomb, but she can play romance and the sentimental in a manner that doesn’t totally rob them of their import.

Men vying for her affection will be an ongoing theme throughout the picture and why not because Barbara Stanwyck is the picture of self-confident beauty with an undisputed vivacity.

The film is salvaged — from solely a narrative perspective — when she impulsively accepts the routine marriage proposal from her suitor, the wealthy businessman John Sloan. He’s been trying to get her hand in marriage for a time. This time she acquiesces and accepts. Might as well have some stability.

However, it’s also the decision leading the shambles around her to all slide into place. It gets to the point where they might have a fighting chance making the impression stick at least for a weekend. John will be her husband because he is, isn’t he? They’ll conveniently use his farm. Check. Uncle Felix (S.Z. Sakall) will come along to cook the meals. Now there’s just the issue of the baby…

They assemble everything to make a go at the charade. They call out a judge to perform the marriage before their arrivals show up. There’s one hitch. Jefferson shows up early! It’s a scramble to pull everything together but the game is on whether they like it or not!

Morgan is an old star I always find to be a bit blah if generally genial. Thankfully, the film is replete with a formidable supporting cast to round out the holiday household. Not least among them Sydney Greenstreet (in a rather uncharacteristic role), then S.Z. Sakall, and Una O’Connor.

Felix and Norah go to war in the kitchen with their equally pertinacious attitudes. After all, Sakall is the king of the kitchen and catastrophe while subsequently becoming the film’s most lovable secret weapon when the story gets convoluted and a savior is called to bring it back around.

The many scenarios are easy to list off: bathing the baby with company on hand, flipping flap jacks at the behest of Mr. Yardley, putting the cow to bed, and the most calamitous of all, the baby swallowing a watch! It’s the actual unraveling of the scenes which become most delightful because Stanwyck rides them out with her typical flair for situational comedy.

A major turning point comes at a festive dance where love blooms though it does give a strange impression to outsiders looking in. The “married” Mrs. Sloan looks to have taken a shining for the tall man in uniform and the feelings are mutual. But that’s quite out of the question. Think of the scandal. This would never do totally dousing the prevailing happiness brought on by the cessation of war.

Still, they take a magical sleigh ride together. Because one of them knows they are unattached and Morgan’s character is just naive and self-effacing enough for us to believe he would never have presumptuous intentions.

However, everything must come to a head as this is tantamount to Murphy’s law in cinema. In this movie, it’s thanks to a miscommunication and a kidnapped baby. One of the highlights of the movie is observing the subtle antagonism of Sakall toward Greenstreet. He mutters “Fat Man” which might be a fairly blatant reference to his incorrigible part in The Maltese Falcon.

However, they also go at it in the kitchen because Sakall is the glue and the matchmaker — everything required to hold the story together and see it to the desired ending. It means stopping Yardley in his tracks. In fact, these scenes are only topped by Stanwyck laying into the Fat Man of her own accord and then falling for Dennis Morgan as it’s meant to be. They really are 1 and 2 on the film’s greatest attractions.

In a movie such as this with snow, sleighs, a warm hearth, and friends and family, not to mention the end of WWII, what would the ending be without our protagonists wrapped up in each other’s arms? If you’re like wartime audiences with generous spirits, it’s excusable to find Christmas in Connecticut to be agreeable holiday entertainment as the mood strikes you.

3.5/5 Stars

Cover Up (1949): A Christmas Crime B Movie

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Cover Up is one of the dime a dozen noir titles you have to really dig around for. It’s actually not really a prototypical film noir at all. However, if you’re a fan of forgotten unadorned small-town whodunits, it might just grab you.

Its main assets are in the script department and the presence of a couple old pros like Dennis O’Keefe and William Bendix. They practically eat crime for breakfast, lunch, and dinner so to see them in another one hardly stretches the imagination. Still, they’re as capable as ever and though the context might be pedestrian — a small Midwestern town with a murder mystery — it’s how we get to the reveal that matters most.

Take, for instance, the first time they meet at the sheriff’s office. O’Keefe is trying to file his report, and the sheriff keeps on getting distracted, telling him he should smoke less, get a pipe, etc. Meanwhile, he fumbles around wrapping Christmas presents. The quirks make the scene that much enjoyable, though we’ve doubtlessly seen the exposition umpteen times before.

One feather in its cap as far as fleshing out an atmosphere starts with a simple detail like setting the action during Christmas. Shane Black is one to use this technique, but it immediately adds another layer to any story because it’s instantly recognizable, instantly relatable to almost every one of us. It also makes a fine contrast with any of the criminal elements.

Because it’s safe to say two of the things most diametrically opposed to murder are the Midwest and Christmas. At least until now. The out of town bus arrives at the local depot and we have our meet-cute over a towering stack of tumbling presents.

Sam Donovan (Dennis O’keefe) offers his services to the radiant Anita Weatherby and she reluctantly concedes. Barbara Britton is only one effulgent face among the plethora of post-war beauties, perfectly epitomizing the traditional values of the time, but she fits this role capably.

In fact, it cannot be summed up better than the moment Donovan comes a calling on the girl at her parents’ home. There’s nothing more quaint and somehow innocent than courting culture involving the entire family in cozy drawing rooms.

Donovan remains an insurance investigator by day poking around about a purported suicide based on an insurance claim. He has other ideas about the cause of death, but seeing as the gun has disappeared and all the locals are quite reticent, little progress can be made. Not unlike Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) in The Killers, he’s trying to get to the bottom of it for his company.

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Soon it becomes obvious to him this was not simply a suicide as marked in the books, even a passing mention of a double indemnity clause suggests some form of foul play. But again, this is more The Thin Man Goes Home than it is any pernicious strain of crime flick. The token example is the sheriff’s office, which seems more in line with Barney Fife than Sam Spade.

Tired by the dead ends and the seeming evasiveness of the local authorities, Donovan nevertheless, spends his evenings in the company of the beautiful girl. They go to the movie house where they get gawked at by an inquisitive little boy who’s already seen the picture multiple times.

The next dramatic development is the death of a beloved member of the community, Dr. Giroux, and this year, the Christmas tree lighting normally carried out by him is a little dimmer. The murder weapon also looks to be a German Luger — with at least two different owners having one of the guns in their possession. The town’s own sheriff and Anita’s own father Mr. Weatherby. It starts to make her spine shiver because she’s deathly afraid Donovan’s digging will lead directly to her loved ones. She is split between protecting her family and her new man.

Thematically, Cover Up plays a bit like It’s a Wonderful Life except the two men dueling for the soul of the town are off-screen enigmas. We never know them intimately and of course, murder is at the seat of it all. The fact this humble movie would attempt such themes is to its credit, but since these characters are never witnessed in the flesh, we have little interest in them.

It is the characters in front of us with the most relevance. So while it can’t quite manage to keep up the steam, for what it is, Cover Up is a minor Christmas delight, especially for the Dennis O’Keefe and William Bendix faithful.

3/5 Stars

Holiday Inn (1942): White Christmas and Blackface

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Let me put this out in the open. Christmas movies are some of the most difficult films to regard subjectively because the majority of them are either tied to our childhood and fond memories, which are as much a part of the experience, or the alternative; they were not a part of our traditions at all. White Christmas (1954) is a personal movie for me — one that I have known intimately for years — where all the lines and songs play like old friends.

Holiday Inn, not so much. It plays well on paper and I am usually a subscriber to the original always being the best. However, even in a highly subjective, not-so impartial way, it’s hard for me to go out on a limb for it. The one glistening asset it does maintain — fluffy and welcoming as Christmas itself — is the introduction of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” for the first time.

It’s slipped inauspiciously into the film within a quiet interlude, not a huge stage extravaganza, as Bing croons with Marjorie Reynolds sitting by his side. The little ditty, of course, would go from being just another Irving Berlin tune to the highest-grossing Christmas single of all-time.

It’s staying power never ceases to amaze because the yearning, the vocals, everything about it taps into something deep and resonant as the season itself. There’s one word for it: hope. It’s an expectancy in what is coming.

In music terms, it meant gold or rather platinum. Either way, it’s still with us today. If this was the only reason to see Holiday Inn, it would probably be worth it just to get a glimpse at history. So there we have it.

The picture sets would actually be reused 12 years later with White Christmas and we have a similar dynamic between Bing Crosby and his costar. There’s even an eerily similar dressing room scene in both. However, as much as I love Danny Kaye, a man of many talents, comedic and otherwise, he was still the second banana. He was really good at his role, but he’s the number two man.

Fred Astaire’s no supporting act. Because Bing Crosby might have been a hot commodity in the 1940s, but even if Astaire wasn’t quite as big as he had been even a couple years before with Ginger Rogers, he was still Fred Astaire. You do not lose his past histories and former glories in the blink of an eye. So the dynamic, if anything, is that of equal footing. It becomes a duel between the crooner and the virtuoso man on taps. It’s fitting their very personas are built into the plot.

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Bing wins out with “White Christmas” while Astaire gets a few jabs in himself. The drunk dance is the film’s best and the height of jocularity. According to legend, Astaire had some bourbon to get into the scene. It’s the age-old maxim, you have to be really good at what you do to make it look so bad — Astaire obliges by stumbling and bumbling his way around with perfectly choreographed precision.

Unfortunately, Holiday Inn, in all its seasonal gaiety, stops stone-cold with blackface. I knew it was coming, and it still repulsed me, effectively souring everything that comes in its stead. It isn’t made any better by the fact it functions as part of the plot — used as a disguise. It happens because Fred Astaire always ends up stealing his buddy Bing’s woman — leaving him heartbroken.

He already lost Lila (Virginia Dale), who wound up running off with a millionaire, so he’s not about to lose the effulgent starlet (Marjorie Reynolds) who found herself at his humble countryside establishment. Jim (Crosby)  even finds a very sneaky way to make sure she doesn’t make it to a floor show with Ted (Astaire)  in front of some Hollywood agents. She one-ups him when she gets wind of it and so Fred is forced into an “impromptu” firecracker solo.

The ending has a ball poking fun at the meta elements in this storyline. Linda is now a rising Hollywood starlet harboring hurt from a lost love — the usual hokum — as her director describes to her on set. This is the part she’s meant to play. Of course, we know she’s living it; there’s no need to act.

However, what better place for a refrain of “White Christmas” than a movie set. Because someone is waiting in the wings. Bing Crosby with his pipe, his tinkling of the bells, his whistling, and of course, his velvety voice. He ruins the take for the imaginary movie, but he makes the real movie that much better.

Holiday Inn is passable if only as a showcase for two of the greatest talents of the generation in Astaire and Crosby. They carry it valiantly with their song, dance, and ladlefuls of charisma. Thank goodness, as the plot and just about everything else, is thin.

3/5 Stars

The Holly and The Ivy (1952): More Than a Christmas Tune

holly and the ivy.jpgGrowing up in a household indebted to British everything, you get accustomed to certain things. Numerous everyday knickknacks and antiques imported from The U.K. Muesli Cereal in the pantry with copious amounts of English Breakfast Tea. Beatrix Potter, P.G. Wodehouse, and Postman Pat become household favorites.

Particularly at Christmastime, this meant, no, not figgy pudding, but British Christmas Carols on record. Some of my personal favorites are probably “Sussex Carol,” “Ding Dong Merrily,” “Past Three O’Clock,” and of course, “The Holly and The Ivy.”

This is where the film gets its namesake as it follows the Gregory family during the holidays. It’s that time of year with everyone convening for Christmas at a vicarage in the cozy town of Wyndham, nestled in Norfolk.

It sounds like a delightful experience, and it gains even more prominent meaning for a lonely old matron — airy and grandiose of tone — as she’s grateful for the letter from her brother-in-law confirming she will not have to spend the holidays alone. Cue the swelling music.

At this point, if you assured me The Holly and The Ivy wasn’t a sentimental movie I probably would have disregarded you. This is before the rug is literally pulled out from under us. For now, we still have a ways to go.

Quite by chance, during the pilgrimage aboard a train, she bumps into the other aunt, the acerbic and proud Aunt Lydia a world-class misanthrope. Despite they’re differences, they do well to cancel each other out. You can only imagine what might happen if you put them with others.

Sure enough, there’s a philandering young soldier who is caught by his superior with a girl and winds up in a whole lot of hot water. However, by some curious circumstance, he’s able to worm his way out and get leave to see his family for Christmas. This rapscallion is, of course, Michael Gregory (Denholm Elliot). It is his father who runs the local vicarage in Wyndham.

Jenny Gregory (Celia Johnson) is the devoted daughter who runs her father’s home and takes care of all his affairs. She feels this is her duty while he is still working and his other sister lives away in London all but detached from the rest of her family. The main complication is the man Jenny loves is about to realize his lifelong dream of working in South America. It will be five long years and though Jenny is dying to go with him, her hands are tied.

When we finally meet Reverend Martin Gregory (Ralph Richardson), it becomes apparent he’s a bit absent-minded and quite the chatterbox. He goes on and on about his fascination with the Incas and their ingenuity in using Guano (bird droppings). He, of course, knows nothing about his daughter’s situation because no one has told him anything and so he remains oblivious going off to view the nativity play at his church (a fine precursor to Charlie Brown’s Christmas).

This is one of the great tragedies running through the story. The reverend himself bemoans the fact parsons are set apart and isolated because of their vocation. There is an inherent awkwardness going out into the world as a man of the cloth. People don’t want you around. It makes them feel uncomfortable and yet in the same breath, they hold you to a different standard because you are meant to represent religious piety for all.

But there is also an undercurrent in his home. His children never tell him how they are really doing. They equivocate and keep things hidden in order to not upset him or receive his scorn. Because that is how they see him. He is a killjoy, someone put in their life to chide them and scold them for every one of their individual sins. The fear is if he actually knew what his children were like, he would be unbearable. It certainly is a problem in conservative environments where exteriors don’t mesh with interior issues.

It comes to a head when the sister Margaret straggles in late to the festivities. They made up a lie about why she wouldn’t be able to come and yet the real truth is she did not want to see her father. But the wounds and the hesitance run deeper still. She is an alcoholic and something else happened to her. Those who love her, note she crackles like ice — a frozen ice queen out of a Hans Christian Andersen story.

Reverend Gregory has reason to be dismayed that Christmas in merry ol’ England is now ruled by the boars and the retail traders who have gotten hold of the season. He laments, “It’s all eating and drinking and giving each other nicknacks…No one remembers Jesus Christ.” It teeters along the precipice of righteous indignation.

Because he looks at the same people and sees how little use they seem to have for him even when he sees, what he deems to be, great need. He’s there to marry and bury them only. His church is only an architectural center, not a spiritual one. This right is reserved for the local movie house with all its enticing bells and whistles.

While he might have a point, he is just as implicated in the problem; he has exasperated society. The case study is found in his family. We see it in so many cases. The religious figure is measured by a separate set of principles and yet because of what we place on them, they feel distant and unreachable. They make us feel dirty and ashamed of our improprieties.

David blasts his father telling him, “You can’t be told the truth. That’s the trouble!” It’s films such as these that make me realize how difficult it would be to be a religious leader. Likewise, it’s just as difficult to have to live life alongside them — at least in a case like this.

Where “every conversation goes back to the creation of the world” and our only way to keep up appearances is lies and concealment — a life of false pretenses just in time for the holidays. The holidays only serve to magnify the tensions brooding for so long.

Because sons find the faith and fairy stories antiquated. Fathers are vexed that everything must be seen and touched in this generation before it can be believed (Can you touch the wind?)

The beauty of the exploration is in how both sides are given some credence. How can parsons expect to be told the truth when one can’t even talk to them like ordinary human beings? How can common, everyday people who make mistakes be free from guilt and shame when the most common judgments are full of condemnation?

While not of the same technical prowess, it nevertheless reminded me of Ordet another film based on a stage play with deep recesses of spirituality. There are a myriad of relationships undone by doubts and perceived areas of incompatibility. In fact, it falls somewhere between Ordet and Calvary because it has a dose of empathy for both the parson and his family.

The miracles revealed are ultimately conversational and sweet, reviving family relationships and salvaging the season through reconciliation. Wounds and secrets so long harbored and festering are finally allowed into the light. The extraordinary thing is, far from sowing more discord, the honesty gives way to the first true peace they’ve had for years.

My only qualm is I rather am curious to hear Ralph Richardson’s sermon. Like David Niven in The Bishop’s Wife, there’s a sense it might have been something magical and deeply impactful to behold. More powerful still, his words live on in the imagination.

The ending comes rapidly but it is reassuring to get one final image of the church with the newly minted couple destined to be together — most everything restored. Because filling in the ending, especially under such jocund circumstances, is often one of the greatest gifts that can be extended to the audience.

4/5 Stars

A Christmas Carol (1938) and The Meaning of Humbug

achristmascarol1938In viewing the 1951 version of the Christmas classic, I took particular interest in the name of our protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge, attempting to redeem it for the masses. For this picture, I was curious in considering another integral term in our lexicon: Humbug.

The term is so ubiquitous and elicits such an explicit connotation, one surmises it loses much of its inherent meaning. What is humbug exactly? To put it simply: hypocrisy. And it’s telling coming from the lips of Scrooge.

It suggests, in his contorted world, he believes himself to be the only honest soul in Britain because he is not taken in by this pipe dream of Christmas. Of celebrating when you have nothing and giving when it probably won’t do any good anyway. He cannot understand how joyous his nephew manages to be, despite being no better than a pauper. In fact, Scrooge holds scorn for just about everyone.

There are actually some prominent revisions to the traditional story that generally succeed in adhering to the tone this picture is searching out. An opening connection is made between Scrooge’s merry nephew Fred and the Cratchit boys. They have quite a time of it sliding across the ice together — even crippled Tiny Tim — riding on the young man’s back.

Fred finally makes it to the offices of Scrooge and Marley paying his yuletide greetings to the jovial yet flighty Bob Cratchit (Gene Lockhart). Years in the service of Mr. Scrooge have taught him to always keep on his toes and never push the envelope. Because Scrooge is the sort of man who invests his money in such eminent institutions as the local prisons.

For him, charity is, again, humbug. Altruism is all a put-on to make people feel good and make the world out to be a nicer play than it is. Of course, he would never tell you that. The only way to get at this conclusion is by the most roundabout manner.

It’s true this version of A Christmas Carol works in swift, impressionistic strokes of the past. Before we know it, Scrooge has awoken at night and begins his fateful journey. The narrative zips along telling his story through the visitations of Jacob Marley (Leo G. Carol) and the three Christmas spirits. First, he’s being fetched from school by his ebullient little sister for Christmas away from his boarding school.

Then, he’s back at the old warehouse where he worked for the generous soul Fezziwig and first met his curmudgeonly partner Marley. The church chapel is full of the merry intonations of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” not to mention a few furtive slides on the ice by Fred and his lovely fiancee. Of course, there is the final vision as well featuring a world with Tiny Tim (the marker of wide-eyed innocence) dead and gone.

Because it never attempts to go into the gothic depths of despair (nor does it have ample time), there is not the same rapturous payoff, but then again it manages to be quite cheery from beginning to end. Cratchit loses his job only to go home to his family, arms stacked high with food and happy as ever. Why he even levels a snowball at his good master on accident, resulting in his dismissal.

Promoted from his minor spot, Scrooge’s nephew adds dollops of his own charm to the mix supplying a few good slides across the icy streets. All parties involved contribute to the holiday cheerfulness such that even Scrooge seems unable to douse the gaiety, although there is hardly enough screentime for him to manage the task.

When I was in middle school, I once saw the eminent Hal Landon Jr. in his own stage interpretation of Scrooge, his most famous feat being his somersault on the bed to put on his hat. Meanwhile, Alistair Sim manages to be giddy with delirious delight as the utter despair of Christmas Yet to Come is stripped away from him fortuitously. Upon hearing Lionel Barrymore was meant to star and performed the role countless times on the radio, I am even more curious to hear him. Thanks be we have Mr. Potter.

Reginald Owen is a sterling Scrooge in his own right, even a yuletide archetype of the old crusty miser. Though a respectable performance, it’s no doubt overshadowed by Sim’s, among others, for the simple fact it feels conventional. There’s little wrong with this and the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol is nothing if not sentimental and streamlined for annual holiday viewing with the whole family. There’s time yet for other entries to sink into the depths of woe in order to reach the zenith of Christmas cheer. The final word is to not live a humbug life. Christmas is meant for so much more. Where jaded cynicism is replaced with radical generosity and even child-like faith.

3.5/5 Stars

Christmas in July (1940)

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“If you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee – it’s the bunk” – Maxford Coffee House Slogan

Christmas in July is one of Preston Sturgeses earliest efforts where he both scripted and directed the material. He was fed up with how others had handled his handiwork. Obviously they must not have directed it in the zany scattershot way they should have. He would all but rectify that oversight in the early 1940s with his string of successes.

We are privy to a rooftop romance between Jimmy MacDonald (Dick Powell) and his best gal Betty Casey (Ellen Drew) as they take up a light squabble over modern living and radio sweepstakes. The man is intent on winning the grand prize of $25,000 for the Maxford House Slogan Competition. He hangs attentively around the radio to get the verdict. He, his girlfriend, and millions of other Americans.

But a snafu arises when the jury is hung in their decision-making process by an obdurate Mr. Bildocker (William Demarest). The radio announcer has no choice but postpone the annoucment. Not only does it annoy the public by leaving them hanging on a meat hook, it leaves space for a practical joke to go horribly awry.

You see, Jimmy is adamant that his slogan will be the kicker and he’s not shy about telling everyone about it. First, his girlfriend, then his mother, and finally any coworker who will listen. Three wiseguys in the office overhear his spouting and pull the gag to end all gags. All it takes are a few slips of paper, some paste, and an unused telegram slip. It’s a pretty horrible joke. You can probably envision it already.

In fact, I could just see it unfolding like the emperor’s new clothes and yet it’s more good-natured and innocent. He sees the note, reads it, and proceeds to stand on top of his desk to share his good fortune and tell his colleagues to gather around. It’s a sequence full of canned laughter as the floor manager comes by to see what the ruckus is about.

Jimmy and Betty are glowing and positively floating down the corridors together. They must be dreaming. He quite innocently wanders into the Maxford offices inquiring about his winnings and walks out again as nice as you please with a check for $25, 000. Next, comes the department store jewelry case and every other department they have.

Seeing the astonishing check in his possession, the store all of a sudden gets very generous and soon he’s being given everything on credit. Buying new fangled whizzbang contraptions like the all-in-one Davenola. Diamond rings and fur coats for his girl follow, and gifts for everyone else in his family and the adjoining neighbors. The street in his old neighborhood is pure bedlam with the passing out of toys to all the kiddies and free caraousel rides and confections. They’ve never had it so good. There has never been such a respite before.

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As an audience we are in on quite a big secret. We know the bubble must burst some time. Our greatest fear is that it will completely devastate MacDonald. He’s the kind of man who requires the approbation of others to believe that his ideas are any good and that can be dangerous.

For all the madness, there is a very sincere consideration of the American Dream in this picture, not to mention what people deem to be truly important in their lives. His Manager, far from being a mere boob, has some suprisingly sagacious knowledge to dispel:

“Mr. MacDonald. I’m not a failure. I’m a success. You see, ambition is all right if it works. But no system could be right where only half of 1% were successes and all the rest were failures – that wouldn’t be right. I’m not a failure. I’m a success. And so are you, if you earn your own living and pay your bills and look the world in the eye. I hope you win your $25,000, Mr. MacDonald. But if you shouldn’t happen to, don’t worry about it. Now get the heck back to your desk and try to improve your arithmetic.”

Thankfully, the picture is loaded end to end with character parts. It’s positively swimming in them. Though he never worked with Dick Powell and Ellen Drew again, who coincidentally have a fine genial chemistry, many of the smaller bit players became mainstays of Sturgeses stock company. Aside from William Demarest (who gets the final comic punchline as per usual), you will see many other familiar faces if you’re acquainted with the director’s canon. In other words, Sullivan’s Travels (1941) Et Al.

There’s this innate sense that he’s stuffed this particular script with any number of inside jokes and he mastered the art of humorous character naming, only adding to this swirling cauldron of mayhem born out of one simple gimmick.

Hanging his hat on a slogan like, “If you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee – it’s the bunk” is seemingly a foolhardy task and yet he all but pulls it off. I must confess that I couldn’t get my head around the statement for a while because it seems that “bunk” used in its informal and archaic etymology as “nonsense” isn’t as common today But it reflects Sturges perfectly.

If there is a modern heir apparent to Preston Sturges I am still in the dark. The closest might be the Coen Brothers and yet their work has never undone me in the same ways. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places. You also had a contemporary in Frank Capra who was well-versed in populous fare but though he had close collaborators, he rarely wrote his material or had the same unorthodox pizazz of Sturges.

Billy Wilder proved capable of much the same as Sturges, both as writer and director, but even he worked often with writing partners. His work was injected with a cynicism even foreign to Sturges in all of his idiosyncratic, zinging panache. Each is worthy of an examination due in part to their differences. However, Preston Sturges  was really one of the first high profile screenwriters, preceding so many modern success stories. He gave the formerly uninspired and restricted post a newfound respect at a time when that was all but unheard of.

One part of me speculates whether his humor is dated and another part asks why we don’t have films quite like this anymore? Part of the answer might be because of television. The kind of hijinks and episodes that Sturges seemed to showcase often got translated into I Love Lucy episodes and numerous other sitcom tropes that would gain traction over the years.

Still, there’s little doubt that something deeply satisfying is afoot — a film that zips along at an hour and seven minutes yet leaves us feeling like a whole boatload has happened in that same amount of time. Because it’s true. There are dour notes. Moments of wistfulness even, but paired with all that is frenetic and wonkers, you find Preston Sturges coming out on the other side with a comedic trifle that speaks to a great many things about American life, however superficially. Because remember, the punchlines are just as important as the lessons.

3.5/5 Stars

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

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

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One thing that can be said of Meet Me in St. Louis is that it captures the milieu of an era while simultaneously being quintessential Vincente Minnelli. Every man, woman, and child is dressed to the tee and enraptured by love and the grand promises of the World Fair full of dancing the Hoochie-Coochie with their special Tootsie Wootsies.  It’s cheerfully opulent in such a fashion that some might consider it almost garish and others will deem it the height of turn-of-the-century elegance.

There’s no doubt that the director had one of the most phenomenal palettes of any filmmaker from any time period. Certainly, this extends to the mise en scene and the costumes adorning his stars — pulled right out of Sears Roebuck circa 1900. But the other crucial aspect is that Minnelli seems to handle his talent with kid gloves or at least he creates an environment for them to flourish.

Of course, front and center of the Technicolor extravaganza is Judy Garland who would marry her director the following year and you get the sense that she had fallen in love with how beautiful he was able to make her on film. It’s true that she’s a striking sight to behold, only magnified by the world she traipses through, surrounded by her kin and singing to her heart’s content.

Still, if the set design is such a grand expression of the film’s potency and visual appeal, it’s necessary to point out again that this is far from a Judy Garland show; there is an ensemble component even if she’s the scene-stealer.

Margaret O’Brien is a riot because she plays little Tootie in the most ingratiatingly precocious way possible. Though it must be admitted she has a bit of a morbid side too. We meet her on an ice wagon telling a man how she’s going to give her doll a nice funeral and later on, of course, she takes the heads off all the snow people.

However, there’s also a whole Halloween interlude starring Tootie and their sister Agnes that feels more like a ghoulish Guy Fawkes day than its modern incarnation of door-to-door candy grabbing. Maybe Halloween has gotten tamer than we give it credit for. Put up against the film’s more mirthful moments, it comes off a tad alarming.

But then again, the story continually goes back to its roots in the centrality of the family unit. Its very integrity is in jeopardy of being disrupted when Father (Leon Ames) drops the news that they will be moving to New York from St. Louis. It comes off horrifically. It’s imperative to remember that in order for those heights to be so gay there must be a steady stream of romantic heartbreaks and personal roadblocks which the picture gladly provides.

There’s a lovely scene staged around the piano between Mr. and Mrs. Adams (Ames and Mary Astor) where like in so many other instances song becomes the perfect expression of the current mood. Based on where the camera is situated, the stairwell in the back is visible and you see the shadows of figures before they inch back into the frame and subsequently back into the family room. It’s a visual representation of the family staying rooted together even after a spat — constantly retracting — then contracting back together in continuous motion.

Without question, the well-remembered “The Trolley Song” is a giddy number that outshines any of the others but that’s because it is the summation of romantic euphoria that Esther (Garland) is feeling for her beau (Tom Drake). Meanwhile, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” though hauntingly melodious, is quite easy for me to rip out of the context of this film.

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Meet Me in St. Louis has never been a yuletide film for me in a similar fashion to how Holiday Inn (1942) is not so much attached to “White Christmas” or holiday cheer as the Michael Curtiz picture from 1954. Perhaps its influence isn’t as deeply rooted in my childhood recollections as some of its contemporaries. But then again, Meet Me in St Louis evokes Christmas in the same way that some of the cinematic adaptations of Little Woman (1933, 1949, or 1994) conjure up the season in the context of family. Perhaps that’s how it should be.

In its day, the film was a smash hit only to be outshined by that prior behemoth from David Selznick Gone with the Wind (1939) and it’s easy to draw up parallels if not simply visually speaking. Both films boast breathtaking imagery and extraordinary color photography for the era that even today can rightfully be considered landmark stuff. Still, that doesn’t mean that everything else has improved with age. Make the concessions where you will and the film can be a good-natured classic or even a Christmas perennial favorite. In my estimation its middling in both categories. Still, that can’t completely detract from its finer attributes. Namely Minnelli’s striking color scheme which remains second to none.

4/5 Stars