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Five Favorite Christmas Films…with a few extras

I was recently asked about my five favorite Christmas films by Robert Horvat of If It Happened Yesterday, It’s History and The History of the Byzantine Empire. So without further ado, here are my top go-to Christmas favorites.

Actually, there is some further ado. I realized as I was making the list that I came to my favorite Christmas films somewhat late. Apparently I didn’t watch Christmas movies as a kid? Anyway, they all are from 1939 to 1945. The war years seem to be a sweet spot for me and Christmas films.

Remember the Night (1940) – John Sargent (Fred MacMurray) is the upright Assistant DA whose specialty is prosecuting woman because he can appear gentle and therefore not alienate a sympathetic jury. But when Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) steals a diamond bracelet and is caught just before Christmas, he manages to get the trial postponed. Feeling guilty because she now has to spend Christmas in prison, he pays her bail and offers to drive her to her home in Indiana. But she ends up staying at his family home and for the first time experiences what a loving family can be like

That description sounds syrupy, but it’s actually a funny script that is both touching and ironic. Written by Preston Sturges, he said it had a little bit “of schmaltz, a good dose of schmerz and just enough schmutz.” Sturges’ idea was that love made Lee honest and John crooked. Lee is a street-smart, petty thief and con artist who appears confident, but is really longing for stability and love. We discover that her mother always thought she would come to no good and Lee is living out her expectations. Meanwhile John’s mother (played by Beulah Bondi) always expected him to succeed, which he does, though falling in love with Lee makes him want to break the law to help her.

The ending is not your typical happy ending; there is room for several interpretations, but it is still completely satisfying. Also in the film is Sterling Holloway.

Bachelor Mother (1939) – I love nearly everything Ginger Rogers appeared in in the 1930s. Bachelor Mother was made near the end of her collaboration with Fred Astaire at RKO and was a hit for her. Polly Parrish is out of work in New York when she sees a woman leave a baby on the steps of an orphanage. She picks the baby up, but is then mistaken for the baby’s mother. When she denies this, they go to her former employers at the John B. Merlin and Son department store. Thinking that her abandonment of the baby is related to losing her job, John B. Merlin’s son, David (David Niven), insists that she keep her baby and only then will he give her job back.

She agrees out of desperation and soon David falls in love. Adding to the fun is David’s father (Charles Coburn), who assumes the baby is his grandchild and wants to raise the child himself since David and Polly don’t seem willing to do the right thing, as he imagines it. Ginger Rogers always excelled at these kinds of roles: a working girl, tough and yet sweet, not above a little conniving, but essentially honest. Pure delight.

Holiday Inn (1942) – Holiday Inn is one of two films that Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire made together and they are a fantastic duo of contrasting styles and camaraderie. They even get a song about their contrasting styles. Crosby sings of how he’ll woo the girl through singing, while Astaire says that he’ll sweep her off her feet with dancing. In a fun bit of joshing, Crosby tries to dance and Astaire tries a little singing; neither with any success. They remain throughout the film, semi-friendly rivals for the affections of not one, but two girls.

Jim Hardy (Crosby) and Ted Hanover (Astaire) have a joint act, but when Hardy loses his girl to Ted, he decides to relax and enjoy life and buy a farm. The farm isn’t as relaxing as he’d hoped, so he turns his farm into an Inn. The idea is that he’ll put on a show every holiday: Christmas, Washington’s Birthday, Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving, Easter, The 4th of July, etc. But inevitably, he and Ted end up fighting over another woman, sabotaging each other at every turn, in between some fantastic songs and dances, all written by Irving Berlin. Fred Astaire dances with firecrackers, the song “White Christmas” is introduced for the first time by Crosby, Astaire dances while drunk, Crosby sings “Easter Parade.”

Christmas in Connecticut (1945) Another great Christmas film starring Barbara Stanwyck! Elizabeth Lane (Stanwyck) writes a column about her farm in Connecticut, her husband and baby and all the wonderful food she cooks, which is followed faithfully by female readers around the country. The only hitch is that none of it’s true. She can’t even cook and gets her recipes from a friend, Felix (S.Z. Sakall) who owns a restaurant.

But when a sailor (Dennis Morgan) miraculously survives having his ship torpedoed, the magazine’s owner, Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet) has the idea for a publicity stunt where they’ll invite the sailor to her farm and give him a taste of the ideal American domesticity. Of course, she has to then scramble to find a farm, a husband and even a baby so she doesn’t lose her job. She also brings Felix along to cook for her. But when the sailor arrives, she finds herself attracted and mayhem ensues.

The incredible cast also includes Una O’Connor and Reginald Gardiner.

Shop Around the Corner (1940) – One of my favorite Ernst Lubitsch films, this is the film that also first made me really like Jimmy Stewart. Two co-workers at a leathergoods shop in Budapest, Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) and Klara Novak (Margaret Sullivan), do not get along with each other, but what they don’t realize is that they are secret pen palls. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it was remade several times as the musical In The Good Old Summertime and Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail.

It’s a completely charming story with a bit of a dark side involving a side plot with a suicide attempt, infidelity and loneliness. Alfred Kralik and co-worker Pirovitch (Felix Bressart) discuss how much money you need to support a family. Alfred and Klara, in their letter writing, are reaching out for something beyond the mundane of work, as they discuss everything from philosophy, poetry and culture. Ironically, they bond intellectually and it is only when they meet in person that it becomes difficult to navigate through their attraction to each other, which manifests itself as dislike and arguments. The film also stars Frank Morgan of Wizard of Oz fame.

Other favorites:

The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (1966) – Here’s one Christmas film I always watched faithfully as a child. Dr. Suess’ book is faithfully adapted as an animated TV film narrated by Boris Karloff and to me, Boris Karloff will always be the Grinch, no matter how many of his iconic horror films I see. The remake with Jim Carrey has nothing on the original, which still makes me smile endlessly.

Larceny Inc. (1942) – Edward G. Robinson became famous playing brutal gangsters, but he also made many comedic gangster films. One of these is Larceny Inc., where he is just out of prison and wants to turn over a new leaf. But he needs money to buy the dog racing track that will enable to be both honest and rich and the bank won’t give him a loan, so he decides that he must commit one more crime. He buys a luggage shop that is right next door to the bank and begins tunneling in the shop’s basement. But despite all his attempts, his luggage shop is a financial success and he begins to make friends with his shop owner neighbors. Most of the story takes place during Christmas time and we even get to see him dressed as Santa!

An Affair to Remember (1957) – And I have to mention this one, which Nora Ephron used for inspiration in her film Sleepless in Seattle. It’s been called sappy, syrupy and hopelessly coincidental, but I love it and always cry at the end (just like Rosie O’Donnell and Meg Ryan – the ending takes place on Christmas day). It is tremendously helped by the sparkling chemistry and dialogue between Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. The film is actually a remake of Love Affair, which Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, another superior film.

Ahhh! After completing this post I realized that I forgot about The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), directed and written by Preston Sturges. A hilarious screwball comedy about a young woman in a small town in America who parties, gets drunk, marries and can’t remember who she married. But she’s pregnant and the film is about her family’s reaction, the town’s reaction and the attempts of her suitor to help her. Starring Betty Hutton, Eddie Bracken and William Demarest.

 
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Posted by on December 9, 2015 in Movies

 

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Re-watching Vertigo – Questions, Questions

0913Q_VertigoPoster_30pEver since watching Vertigo for the first time several weeks ago (my original review can be found here), I knew I wanted to see it again now that I knew the twist. I was especially curious about the first half of the film. I wanted to see what I could pick up since I knew that Madeleine is really Judy, who is playing Madeleine.

This time I watched it with my grandmother, who first saw it when it was released in 1958, just before my mom was born. She’s always loved Alfred Hitchcock’s movies and each year would see his latest film. Vertigo, though, was not her favorite. She found it a bit slow and rather creepy. We had a great time discussing it, though.

What was most interesting is how the focus of the story seemed to change on a second viewing. The first time, it is all about Scottie (James Stewart). We are seeing things as he is seeing them (at least in the first half) and are as confused as he is. Kim Novak’s Madeleine is an enigma to us, aloof, unknowable, almost not of the world (which I think is partially why Scottie is fascinated by her – he is not as attracted to the more down-to-earth Judy). But on a second viewing it suddenly became about her. Now that I knew it was Judy Barton playing Madeleine Elster, I was wondering what she was thinking.

vertigo-pic-4When did she fall in love (as soon as she met him, in his apartment?), was she really unconscious after jumping into San Francisco Bay (that must have been fun – you’d have to pay me a lot of money to deliberately jump into a bay and hope the man following me doesn’t take his time about rescuing me)? How much is she hewing to a script prepared by Gavin Elster? Was that really what the real Madeleine was like, almost other-worldly? When she drove to Scottie’s house to give him a thank-you-note, was that done with the knowledge of Elster or did she just do that because she liked Scottie and wanted to see him again?

I’m thinking that every move she made had to be planned by Elster. He needed Scottie to be there when Madeleine supposedly jumps off the bell tower. Did Elster really plan for Scottie to fall in love? That doesn’t seem like the kind of thing one could plan. But it also doesn’t seem like there was much that Judy did (as Madeleine) that wasn’t calculated, presumably by Elster. On viewing it again, I can’t really think of any moments in the first half where I thought, “ah, that is really Judy coming through.” Perhaps the moment when she is standing on his doorstep and making eyes at Scottie while he reads her letter has a bit of the real Judy, but she stays in character pretty much the entire time. What is genuinely Judy was the emotion.

And I was wondering, did Elster make up his plan as soon as he heard about Scottie in the paper, and how he had acrophobia? If you really think about it, it’s a ridiculous plan, but that’s is not really the point of the film. Hitchcock film’s don’t always make the most logical sense. Vertigo is telling a psychological and human story; it’s all about the characters, not the minutiae of the plot. Hitchcock would never make a mystery writer.

kim-novak-in-vertigo-1958In shifting my viewpoint from Scottie to Judy, it suddenly became her tragedy more than his. She’s the one who gets trapped, first by Elster and then by her love of Scottie. My grandmother and I were musing that you could create a movie series called “Ten Stupid Things Women Do” and choose ten movies to illustrate. I’m sure Vertigo would fit in there somewhere.

And I wonder, was she Gavin Elster’s mistress? Scottie accuses her of it at the end and asks her what Elster gave her after he ditched her. She says money. Is that a tacit confession to his accusations, or does she just mean that she got money for doing her job? How did she ever get involved with Elster and agree to his plan?  As a curious side-note, there is a twisted Pygmalion element to Vertigo. Elster teaching Judy how to be Madeleine must have looked a bit like a darker version of Shaw’s play…and then Scottie tries his hand at it in the second half of the film.

Elster is the real villain, actually a successful villain, who creates an alternate reality that entraps Judy and Scottie and then leaves on his merry way to Europe, having killed his wife. Maybe after Judy dies, the police will figure everything out, though I doubt they’ll ever catch Elster. The authorities are going to be awfully perplexed when another body shows up on the roof of the same mission, dressed in the same clothes and looking exactly like the other women, with the same man present in the tower.

I think that’s partially what I liked about Vertigo. There’s so much scope for imagination. So many films are complete unto themselves, but I like a movie that leaves room for speculation and imagination about the past or future or motivations of the characters. And Vertigo is practically bursting with scope for speculation.

 
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Posted by on April 17, 2015 in Drama, Movie Thoughts, Romance

 

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Winchester ’73 (1950) – Anthony Mann directs James Stewart

Winchester 73 Poster (1)After seeing James Stewart in Vertigo, I became interested to see him in some of his other movies, specifically his Westerns, since those were the only movies of his at my small local library that I had not already seen him in. The first one I watched was Winchester ’73, directed by Anthony Mann, the first of five Westerns that the two men made together.

Winchester ’73 is hailed as an important film in the history of Westerns. Anthony Mann brought a new ethos to the Western, with more violence and moral ambiguity to his heroes. I haven’t seen a lot of Westerns, before 1950 or after, so I don’t know if I was fully able to appreciate what Mann did.

The story opens with Lin McAdam (James Stewart) and “High-Spade” Frankie Wilson (Millard Mitchell) coming to Dodge City in 1876. They are hunting an outlaw who goes under the name Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally) and have been hunting him for years. However, at Dodge City Wyatt Earp (Will Geer) is sheriff and no guns are allowed. When Lin sees Dutch Henry in a bar, both men reflexively draw, but without their guns, it’s just reflex and they can do nothing but exchange glowers at the bar while Earp looks on, telling them they can settle their quarrel after they leave Dodge City.

They do compete against each other in a shooting contest, where the winner receives a “one in a thousand” Winchester rifle (President Grant has the first one made), a gun so perfect that all the men are practically drooling over it. After an extremely close contest that reveals that Lin and Dutch Henry have been taught to shoot by the same man, Lin takes home the prize and accuses Dutch Henry of having shot a man in the back. But Dutch Henry nearly kills Lin in his hotel room and makes off with the rifle, though he leaves town so quickly that neither he nor his men have their other guns or any ammunition. Lin and High-Spade set off after them.

James Stewart and Millard Mitchell look at the "one in a thousand" Winchester Rifle

James Stewart and Millard Mitchell look at the “one in a thousand” Winchester rifle

What follows are a series of vignettes as the rifle is passed from person to person, with the common threads being the rifle and Lin chasing Dutch Henry and always seemingly just beyond the grasp of his own rifle. The gun goes from Dutch Henry to an Indian Trader who is selling guns to a Native American named Young Bull (played improbably by a very young Rock Hudson), who loses it while fighting the US Cavalry, and so on.

Another common thread besides the Winchester and Lin’s hunt for Dutch Henry is the character of Lola Manners (Shelley Winters), a dance hall girl who wants to settle down and is engaged to the cowardly Steve Miller (Charles Drake), though she  likes Lin when she meets him. She gets entangled both with Lin’s story and with the various vignettes involving the Winchester. She is accidentally closer to both the Winchester and Dutch Henry much more than Lin is until the end.

Winchester ’73 is Anthony Mann’s first Western and what is fun about it is that he seems to cover the entire genre in one film. All the cliches are present: revenge, shootouts, Indians attacking the cavalry (the portrayal of Native Americans is not this movie’s strong suit), cheating at cards, holdups, dance hall girls, outlaws. It’s like a summary of the Western.

A big theme is how the Winchester rifle is associated with manhood. Almost all the men seem to equate their manhood with possessing the Winchester rifle and even guns in general. When Dutch Henry and his men leave Dodge City without their guns, his men complain that they feel naked. Practically every man who sees the rifle covets it and are never willing to part with it under any circumstances, killing each other to get it and leaving a trail of bodies in the rifle’s wake. Even Lola’s cowardly fiance, who runs away when they are attacked by Young Bull, is not willing to part with the rifle when the gleefully amoral and murderous outlaw Waco Johnny Dean (marvelously played by Dan Duryea) wants it.

Dan Duryea is not getting the best of James Stewart

Dan Duryea is not getting the best of James Stewart

There are two men who seem to have a different standard of manhood: Wyatt Earp (who keeps the peace in Dodge City and does carry a gun, but only uses it to keep the peace) and Sergeant Wilkes of the US Cavalry (Jay C. Flippen) who is not too proud to admit ignorance or take advice from Lin in defending against Young Bull or to give the Winchester rifle away instead of keeping it for himself. But these two men are the exception, examples of men who do not seem to need to prove anything to anyone and simply do their job.

And of course Lola is not interested in the rifle. She knows how to shoot when she has to and is quite calm under fire, but when her fiance is threatened because he won’t give up the rifle, she urges him to let it go. He does not listen to her, perhaps partly to prove himself in her eyes after he let her down previously.

James Stewart is not actually in the film a huge amount; a lot of time is spent with the Winchester rifle. But Lin is ever present in spirit, single-minded, obsessively focused on catching up with and killing Dutch Henry. He is not so much the hero as the protagonist since he’s not trying to do good so much as exact revenge, a morally dubious aim in life. What really warms his character up is High-Spade, who has ridden with him for years. He asks Lin if he’s thought about what he will do after he’s killed Dutch Henry, concerned that Lin has been hunting him so long that he’s beginning to like it. The warm friendship between them, especially when Lin acknowledges that “he’s rich” in having a friend like High-Spade, goes a long way in keeping Stewart likable.

It’s a great film, not real long (only 92 min.) with a wonderful cast, no dull moments and an interesting take on the West. It a film to see, even if you don’t usually like Westerns.

 
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Posted by on April 13, 2015 in Westerns

 

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