December 23, 2008
I love some of the classic Christmas movies--the black and white antiques that remind us of simpler, more romantic times. I discovered a lost gem called Remember the Night, with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray a few weeks ago on Turner Classic Movies. The more I watched, the more I was drawn into this situation of a hardboiled shoplifter-babe getting a ride home to Indiana for Christmas with the D.A. who will be prosecuting her when they return to New York. I'm delighted it will be shown again tomorrow night at 11:15 and at 6:15 on Christmas morning.
This is decidedly not usual fare. As I watched the sophisticated romantic comedy unfold, I was impressed by its gritty characters bandying back-and-forth their witty repartee. I said to myself, this dialogue is so good and the situations and characters so odd it could have been written by Preston Sturges. But then, never having heard of the little film, I realized there were lots of good writers working in Tinseltown in those years. Imagine my joy at looking it up on Google later and learning that it was indeed Sturges' work, the very piece that launched him as a pioneer filmmaker who insisted on directing his own scripts.
I won't give away any more of the movie's plot in hopes you can make time to catch it on the tube yourself, except to say it features Beulah Bondi in one the most sympathetic roles she ever played, and a touchingly young oddball Sterling Holloway as a delightful, dear dimwit. The plot has little twists and an unexpected ending, but it is vintage stuff that will warm your heart and make you glad it's Christmas.
Bondi is also present in the ubiquitous Christmas offering It's A Wonderful Life, playing Jimmy Stewart's mother in the saga that the critics seem to have just discovered is a dark look at American life as it dealt with money matters in the days surrounding the Great Depression. I love everything about this picture except the delivery of that beautiful last line by one of the least talented child actors Hollywood has ever produced. Her linereading always makes me want to erase the whole thing and start over, but all I can do is just pretend it's being said sincerely, with a real child's wonder, rather than the singsong phoniness coming from that irritating little girl.
I love the really old versions of A Christmas Carol, in black and white. For the first time this year I caught the 1938 version with Reginald Owen, and it's a beaut. I have seen Alistair Sym do the role, and he's a scarier, less dimensional Scrooge. Interesting that Hollywood seemed have found the perfect Bob Cratchit in the genial Gene Lockhart who played the role to perfection in both films. In the Owen version his daughter June, later to be best known as Lassie's "mother" in the television series, plays one of his children. There is a collection of Scrooges to choose from. Of course there is Scrooged, with Bill Murray, and a dancing and singing Albert Finney in an English spinoff that seemed more a knockoff of Oliver! with one fun song, "Thank You Very Much!" But for the song, that whole movie just seemed hokey to me. You might get the impression that I'm a purist, and maybe I am, but I did especially love Reginald Owen film. My eyes were never dry when there was any member of the Cratchit family in the scene, and when Scrooge insists to the ghost of Christmas present that his nephew is truly in love.
Everybody has a favorite heartwarmer or two for this time of year. The Miracle on 34th Street works every time, with the moppet-sized Natalie Wood who doesn't believe in him until she meets the real Santa Claus; and Meet Me in St. Louis has Judy Garland singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" to Margaret O'Brien, for God's sake. The original The Bishop's Wife features some very beautiful people--Loretta Young as the wife in question, and Cary Grant as an extremely erudite and elegant angel--while the bishop is a kindly if benighted David Niven--all of whom are made better by their experience together at Christmas. There are lovely Christmas moments in both versions of Little Women, and we purists prefer the Katharine Hepburn one, even though we grew up watching the Technicolor version with June Allyson. The Man Who Came To Dinner will always have a place in my heart since I directed the play as my first outing with my own theatre company.
The Wizard of Oz is a lifetime favorite movie of mine, especially appropriate at Christmas although there is not a single reference to any holiday in it. It is a wacky tale about a little girl from Kansas who goes over the rainbow and meets a bunch of insane grownups who protect her from a wicked witch and her brigade of evil flying monkeys--surely I don't have to tell you this. Just rent it and get out the Kleenexes. There is no better time than Christmas to enjoy a good, happy cry and be glad you're alive.