CHRISTMAS MOVIES Part I
More than forty years ago, when I returned from a decade in the Midwest to start teaching in New Jersey, I provided my students a service every year in late December, just prior to their departure on a nine-day Winter Break. It actually took a little doing, but I would assiduously find all media sources listing which holiday films would be showing during this extended week and write a lengthy list in chalk on the blackboard in the front of the room. That meant rushing to the store on a Wednesday night to get the newest issue of the weekly TV Guide for the following week's telecasts at the local stationery store and combing the area newspapers for lists of upcoming movie screenings. I would then spend some valuable class time touting the timelessness of some films on the list and the delightful schmaltz of others. I was reminded of those days recently when I saw a pig-tailed student of mine (let's call her Addy) invested in a holiday door-decorating contest. She was applying the finishing touches to a distorted image based on (not "off of") the popular Christmas movie Elf. I commented that I had seen Elf once a few years back, and Addy exclaimed in consternation, amazement, and not a little disappointment, "You've only seen Elf once???!!!" In point of fact, I have only seen Elf once, but I have seen dozens of other Christmas and holiday-season films (some of them, I say with no irony, religiously), and it's only right that I share my reservoir of knowledge about these films with you, my dear readers.
The options to see these films was limited. Cable television was in its infancy. There was no Turner Classic Movies. No Amazon Prime. No Hulu. No Netflix. And I wanted to make sure that my students checked out the 1951 version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (called Scrooge in the United States)(1951), starring the extraordinary Alastair Sim, who gives what must be called the defining performance of the curmudgeonly character. There have been many iterations of A Christmas Carol, starting in the silent era, through Reginald Owen's fine rendition, to the animated Mr. Magoo interpretation and the cracks at the role from acting heavyweights like George C. Scott and Albert Finney. There is, of course, A Muppet Christmas Carol too! But there is only one Alastair Sim. The low-budget but beautifully acted and directed 1951 film is not only the best version of the story, but it ranks with the best of all Dickens' film interpretations, and that is saying something.
Below: My favorite scene from the film:
Invariably, Channel 9 in New York would show the film on Christmas Eve at midnight and then again on Christmas Day afternoon. It was not uncommon for me to sit myself down twice and enjoy. I may have lost command of all the facts these many years later, so forgive me in advance, but as I recall, one year (I believe it was 1984), there was no listing for a showing of A Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve and I was aghast. You must remember that videocassette tapes were fairly new and copies of films on tape could cost as much as $75.00 (in 1984 dollars). People were just beginning to record shows for their personal libraries on videotape. I explained to my students that there must have been some grievous error. Channel 9 was showing Elvis in Blue Hawaii at midnight on Christmas Eve! Those who know me well have seen my response to such miscarriages of justice and insults to aesthetics before. After school on Wednesday, December 19, I called the Newark Star-Ledger and asked for the desk of the regular TV columnist. In my dotage, I can no longer remember his name (let's call him Bob). I told Bob that I had nothing against Elvis, but that showing Blue Hawaii rather than A Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve was a travesty that needed addressing immediately. He, of course, agreed, and set out to find the culprit. At least he said he did; I wasn't sure whether I would get a satisfactory response to my query. But I was working after school with my yearbook editor the next day when the phone rang. My editor was Nancy Madden, and of the roughly 10,000 students I have taught, Nancy is firmly ensconced in the top ten favorites of my career. But Nancy was a little shy when it came to celebrity, and when she picked up the phone in my class and heard the voice on the other end introduce himself as "Bob" from the Star-Ledger, Nancy immediately went into what can only be called a sitcom response akin to that of the great Jackie Gleason on The Honeymooners when he was left speechless.
I took the receiver and got the scoop from "Bob". Channel 9 regretted the error. Blue Hawaii was out, and Alastair Sims's Christmas Carol would be shown at midnight on Christmas Eve. I watched it proudly.
I acknowledge some confusion because around that time another holiday classic disappeared from the airwaves as well. Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946) was a picture I watched virtually every year. it didn't have the iconic status then that it bears today, but it was still a revered treasure for many. It used to screen on Channel 9 or 11, and at one point was purchased by NBC, Channel 4. But there was a year or two in the 1980s when it wasn't listed anywhere, and I had to tell my students to look for a videocassette copy. It turns out that this new cable network called Showtime had purchased the rights, and if you didn't subscribe (few did at the time), you were out of luck. This all seems fairly antediluvian and quaint now, as my current students have access to pretty much anything at any time. Capra's films have often been derided as overly sentimental, thus earning them the unflattering characterization "Capra-Corn". But the existential elements of It's a Wonderful Life drove it so perilously close to tragedy that it flopped at the box office in 1946--much too dark for the newly-returned soldiers and the incipient Baby Boom that followed. Gradually, it gathered momentum until it became a sentimental annual event on network television, not unlike The Wizard of Oz. I love Capra's films, despite the occasional lapse into the maudlin. Sometimes he goes too far. But he made a number of classic comedies and some fine dramas as well. When I was a sophomore or junior in college, I was the film critic for the college paper, and I was given the assignment of interviewing Frank Capra when he visited the university for a screening of a couple of his films. He was most generous with his time, affable and engaging. When I told him how much my brother Stephen admired his work, I handed him a fan letter my brother wrote to him. Not too long after, my brother received a letter from Capra in the mail, thanking him for his kind words. That's the kind of guy he was.
Below: The trailer for the newly remastered version of the film.
If I had a large chalkboard today, I would add the following Christmas "presents" as well:
The Bishop's Wife (1947) features my favorite Hollywood star of all time, the ineffable Cary Grant--the nonpareil. It took me a while to convince my family that this should be a holiday staple, but I suspect that it is now my family's favorite of all Christmas fare. Originally, Cary was set to play the David Niven role of the titular bishop, husband of the luminous Loretta Young, but he pushed for the "angel" role and gave an inspired performance. It is a magical movie in the classic studio fashion, with memorable character roles essayed skillfully by James Gleason and Monty Wooley among others.
Below: Ben Mankiewicz of TCM introduces the film by introducing Robert Osborne's introduction to the film. The late Robert Osborne hosted Turner screenings for two decades. His voice is a little shaky here, possibly due to a minor stroke, but no one knew Hollywood history any better or loved it more than Osborne.
Every year in my Cinema Studies class, I screen Ernst Lubitsch's sublime The Shop Around the Corner (1940). It is one of the greatest films ever, poignant and funny and human. Lubitsch's deft manipulation of the film medium compelled every other director to aspire to replicating what was known as "The Lubitsch touch". It was made as a labor of love in only four weeks for a cost of $500,000, and in many ways was a cinematic paean to the little shop owned by Lubitsch's father in Berlin. We love all the humble workers in the store and their ornery boss played by Frank Morgan. Yes, it can be examined critically as a study of capitalism and the plight of the worker, but most viewers attach themselves to the lives of the "little people" who work in the shop. Virtually the entire film takes place in that beautiful little shop. The movie stars James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, who "meet cute" as the RomCom equation fairly requires. They quarrel and bicker throughout, but we know they are meant for each other. The film has inspired a number of remakes: In the Good Old Summertime, and You've Got Mail on the screen and She Loves You on the stage, but only one was directed by Lubitsch.
I'm going to throw in a curveball here. I'm a big fan of the comic stylings of the legendary Bob Hope, and his film The Lemon Drop Kid (1951) turns some classic Damon Runyon stories into a delightful ninety-minute romp. The characters are all tough, New York lowlifes or gangsters or hangers-on---the colorful people Runyon loved to make come to life, inspiring shows like Guys and Dolls and this movie. Hope plays a racetrack tout, with the sobriquet The Lemon Drop Kid, who owes big bucks to a mob boss, Oxford Charlie, and has only a few days to meet his obligation or else he'll wind up at the bottom of the Hudson. He tries every form of trickery to steer clear of the gangsters, but invariably he winds up in trouble. Marilyn Maxwell plays Brainy Baxter, the Kid's maybe love interest, and at one point they sing a duet, introducing the holiday classic "Silver Bells". It's a piece of fluff as films go, but it's a delight. Hope is a charming coward with the occasional bad luck to have a heart. Part of the Kid's scam is to get all the tough guys to pretend to be sidewalk Santas collecting for a good cause. In the scene below, the irascible William Frawley dons Santa's duds and asks for donations. Soon, a real song breaks out and we watch the couple walk through the magical, snowflake world of New York City at Christmas.
Hope you get a chance to see these Christmas classics. Soon I'll add some more to the list.