Friday, December 10, 2010

Just a Little Christmas

Have standard Christmas classics lost their luster for you? Perhaps you’re tired of heavy holiday fare and seek just a little Christmas cheer. Come a’caroling with us as we deck the Bijou halls with films you might not think of for their celebrations of yuletide spirit, and help Bijou writer Victoria Balloon (Angel, 2nd Class) earn her wings!

There are so many wonderful classic films that have become part of our holiday traditions that it just doesn’t seem like December until we’ve heard Bing Crosby sing White Christmas (1954) or watched Jimmy Stewart run down Main Street past the Bijou Theater in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). But there are other films—films not specifically about Christmas, but set around this time of year—that are equally charming and give us the added fun of sneaking a peek at Christmas traditions of the past as preserved on film.

The most visual sign of the season is the Christmas tree. The best tree decorating scene on film would have to be the one featuring Cary Grant as Dudley in The Bishop’s Wife (1947). Of course, Dudley was an angel (with help from special effects masters Harry Redmond and John Fulton); when mortals decorated trees in classic films, they generally didn’t get started until Christmas Eve.

Today we expect genetically perfect specimens of blue spruce, Fraser firs and white pine; failing that, we buy artificial trees. The Christmas trees of yesteryear look downright anemic by today’s standards. We get a great glimpse of these trees in Trail of Robin Hood (1950) when Roy Rogers helps retired cowboy actor Jack Holt deal with a band of Christmas tree rustlers.

This delightful color film has every Republic Studio contract cowboy worth their spurs (Rex Allen, Monte Hale, Ray “Crash” Corrigan and Tom Keene are only a few) on hand to deal with henchman Splinters McGonigle (Gordon Jones) and J. Corwin Aldridge (Emory Parnell) as they try to corner the market on Christmas trees.

When upper-class widow Jane Wyman falls in love with much younger gardener/handyman Rock Hudson in All That Heaven Allows (1955), “blue spruce” becomes a romantically charged phrase.

Will Wyman follow her heart, or will she allow the gossip of neighbors and the disapproval of her children to come between her and Hudson? With the melodramatic flair of director Douglas Sirk and a moody score by Frank Skinner, this one is a tissue-grabber!

What trees lacked in greenery was made up for in garlands. Ropes of tinsel, strands of popcorn, and something we hardly ever see anymore—“icicles.” The originals were made of heavy lead foil and imported from Germany. Some people placed each icicle carefully; others literally threw them at the tree. (Dudley had his own technique.)

Lead icicles were phased-out by the 1960s as the effects of lead became known. Their replacements—thin, Mylar icicles—though shiny, lacked the weight of lead foil and were notorious for sticking to everything from static electricity. Instead of removing them one by one, acetate icicles were left on trees and thrown away. With the rise of artificial trees, icicles were messy and impractical. But in the 1930s and 40s almost every tree in film had them, and the results were stunning.

Ornaments seem rather sparse on cinematic Christmas trees. This may be because so many of the colored glass balls, or “kugels,” came from central Europe. World War I had destroyed some of the manufacturing facilities in Czechoslovakia; as the 1930s progressed and Germany extended its hold throughout Europe, obtaining hand-blown glass from Lauscha became increasingly difficult. In addition, Americans feeling the effects of the Depression and dealing with war-time economics didn’t always have the means for elaborate decoration.

Poverty at the holidays and how material wealth can change people are a heartwarming combination in The Great Rupert/A Christmas Wish (1950). A vaudeville performer has lovingly trained Rupert the Squirrel to be part of his act, but no one thinks a squirrel is exciting enough to be on stage. In an instance of poignant pet parting (rivaled only by Holly Golightly’s dumping of Cat eleven years later in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) the performer must leave Rupert to fend for himself. In the house of a miserly man Rupert finds money hidden in the walls, and on the day before Christmas he donates it to the family in the squalid apartment below. Producer George Pal was a stop-motion pioneer with his “Puppetoon” films and a mentor to Ray Harryhausen. Jimmy Durante is a wonderful ham, but it’s Rupert dancing in a kilt that steals the show.

On Christmas Eve tree vendors, anxious to get rid of stock, would auction off or give away trees; catching the free Christmas tree is how Francie (Peggy Ann Garner) and her brother Neely (Ted Donaldson) brought home a tree of their own. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) is Elia Kazan’s debut as a feature film director. Starring Dorothy McGuire as mother Katie Nolan and Joan Blondell as her feisty sister, the film is a heartwarming, sometimes bittersweet look at one family’s life in a Brooklyn neighborhood of the early 20th century.

With smaller tabletop versions and the fact that trees were fresher, using candles on a tree didn’t seem quite so dangerous… Still, seeing burning candles on Bing Crosby’s tree in Holiday Inn (1942) might cause a gasp or two among modern viewers.

When Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale) jilts Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby) for Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire), Jim leaves show business in New York and retires to Holiday Inn—a little place of his own where he only has to put on fifteen shows a year. Inexperienced but talented Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds) asks Jim for a job, and the two fall in love. But when Ted, also spurned by Lila, appears at the Inn drunk and dances with Linda, it’s up to Jim to keep them apart—by any means necessary! With all of Irving Berlin’s wonderful holiday tunes, it’s a great romp through the calendar year. The confused turkey on the November calendar page is a wry take on then-current events.

Nowadays the focus of the holiday is on spending time at home with family, but on-screen going out was much more common, particularly on Christmas Eve. While church services were certainly attended, so were children’s plays and society dances.

Shirley temple, iconic child star of the 1930s, made two wonderful holiday films. In Bright Eyes (1934) Mary Blake (Lois Wilson) works as a maid to support her daughter Shirley after her husband is killed in a plane crash. His best friend Loop Merritt (James Dunn) and the pilots at the aviator club have a party on Christmas Day for little Shirley, and she entertains them with her rendition of On the Good Ship Lollipop. Temple works her role as a cheerful orphan that melts hearts and brings couples together.

Temple perfects her role as a cheerful orphan that melts hearts and brings couples together in Heidi (1937). Dumped on the doorstep of gruff but kindly Grandfather Adolph Kramer (Jean Hersholt) by selfish Aunt Dete (Mady Christians), Heidi loves her Alpine life with Grandfather. When Aunt Dete sees a financial opportunity, she kidnaps the little girl and takes her to be the playmate of rich but ailing Klara Sesemann (Marcia Mae Jones), leaving Grandfather Kramer to search the streets of Frankfurt on Christmas Eve for his granddaughter. Temple’s heartrending cries of “Grandfather!” during the climactic chase scenes are sure to bring a lump to your throat.

Dances in particular provided a plot point for Christmas capers. In Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938) Andy has too many dates for Christmas Eve. To earn money to buy a car, he agrees to take Cynthia Potter (Lana Turner in her “Sweater Girl” role) to the country club dance, but his best girl Polly Benedict (Ann Rutherford) unexpectedly returns home. Meanwhile, Besty Booth (Judy Garland) next door has her own ideas about Christmas Eve! Garland’s musical numbers showcase her lovely voice in her first Andy Hardy film (she made three). In today’s Internet age of communications, using a ham radio to send a message is an interesting subplot.

Electric lights as seen in Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938) may seem like a safer choice than candles, but the old bulbs could get just as hot, and electrical shorts were common.

The opposite problem occurs in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) when the Smith sisters both lose their dates for the dance—Rose (Lucille Bremer) to visiting New York girl Lucille Ballard (June Lockhart), and Ester (Judy Garland) to basketball (!) when John Truitt (Tom Drake) becomes so involved in a game he forgets to pick up his tuxedo. In her first color film since The Wizard of Oz (1938), Garland’s talent and beauty shine in director Vincente Minnelli’s Year in the Life tale of a turn of the century St. Louis family. Garland didn’t want to play the role of another love-sick teen, but we are so glad that she did.

If people went out, then people were also working, and being employed at Christmas could be tough. The Shop Around the Corner (1940) is a delightful film about the employees of a luggage shop in Budapest, Hungary. With a sparkling MGM cast, the film weaves together the love-hate relationship of Alfred Kralik (Jimmy Stewart) and Klara Novak (Margaret Sullivan) with the personal troubles of employer Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan) during the holiday rush. Based on director Ernst Lubitsch’s experiences working in his father's Berlin clothing shop as a youth, the story’s theme of anonymous romantic pen-pals who dislike each other in real life has made this one of the most remade films—first as In the Good Old Summertime (1949) and then as You’ve Got Mail (1998), with television versions in between.

Holiday festivities on film were well-lubricated with spirited libations. While sloppy drunkenness was never portrayed as acceptable, a certain amount of induced cheer was indulged in, if not expected.

Director W.S. Van Dyke’s filming of Nick and Nora Charles’ Christmas party in The Thin Man (1934) presents a hotel room full of inebriated revelers ranging from the belligerent and boisterous to the silly and sad. This stylish murder mystery set in New York City brings Dashiell Hammett’s novel to the big screen. When a former client disappears and is charged with murder, retired detective Nick Charles is drawn into the case whether he likes it or not. This isn’t the first time William Powell and Myrna Loy were paired together, but their roles as Nick and Nora are their most memorable. With shows like CSI, the use of the fluoroscope and the clues surrounding a mysterious corpse seems downright quaint; the final scene, with all the suspects gathered at a dinner party, is a classic movie moment.

The office party scene from Desk Set (1957) is the penultimate example of a holiday pastime that is no more. Katherine Hepburn is Bunny Watson, head of a television research department, and Spencer Tracy is efficiency expert Richard Sumner. When Sumner researches the goings-on of the research department, Bunny gets suspicious; with all the time Bunny and Sumner spend together, Bunny’s lukewarm love-interest Mike Cutler (Gig Young) gets suspicious! This is Tracy and Hepburn at their best, while Joan Blondell sparkles. At this time the fear of computers in the workplace was very real. A great film for the Internet age!

The office party scene is fun to watch if for no other reason than it portrays so many acts considered worthy of lawsuits or termination today. Presented as a lighthearted, innocent event, in reality the company party could easily (and no doubt often did) get out of hand. Spouses were not always invited; with alcohol free-flowing, stereotypical tales of trysts in mail-room closets were hardly uncommon.

Which leads us to another film tradition not limited to the holidays—the request for a “Bromo.” Touted as a cure for headaches, nerves, upset stomach as well as a hangover remedy, Bromo–Seltzer was available at soda fountains and drugstores. Sold in a distinctive cobalt blue bottle, it was named after the sodium bromide it originally contained and its fizzy effect in water. Bromides are a class of tranquilizer that undoubtedly soothe a hangover, but are also toxic. Today’s Bromo-Seltzer does not contain bromides, but sodium bicarbonate.

Alka-Seltzer was also a popular remedy. The 1951 television commercial featuring Speedy sledding down a hill bringing fast relief to holiday revelers suffering from "overindulgence,” and “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz/Oh what a relief it is” are iconic media campaigns; even today, Alka-Seltzer Morning Relief promises that “hangover relief is on the way.”

(While we do not condone overindulgence, it is worth noting that, like everything else, cocktail serving sizes have gotten larger over the years. With a 2 oz. drink, Nick might well have had five martinis over the course of an afternoon while Nora did her shopping and still be standing; with today’s 4-6 oz. drinks, he would be hospitalized.)

However, there are some holiday traditions that haven’t changed, such as the way the spirit of the season has the power to change hardened hearts, or how the least among us are sometimes the richest.

Frank Capra’s films always cheer for the common man. In Meet John Doe (1941) Gary Cooper plays the quintessential everyman, drifter John Willoughby, who gets caught up in a scheme invented by reporter Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) to boost newspaper sales. If Willoughby will say he’s the downtrodden John Doe who wrote how he was so discouraged he would jump off a building on Christmas Eve, the paper will pay him a tidy sum. What starts as a publicity gimmick becomes a movement of good will and hope; but soon political boss D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold) wants to use both Willoughby and the people’s John Doe societies for his own ends, employing strikingly familiar smear tactics. Cooper’s understated acting and Stanwyck’s emotions both strike the right notes; Capra’s stories always bring a tear to the eye, and this one is no exception.

Capra's Liberty Films had optioned the story for It Happened on 5th Avenue (1945), but sold it to producer-director Roy Del Ruth. In this film the everyman is drifter Aloysious T. McKeever—better known as “Mac” (Victor Moore)—who each winter stays at the mansion of Michael O'Connor, the world’s second richest man (Charles Ruggles). Veteran Jim Bullock (Don DeFore) loses his apartment when it is demolished to make way for one of O'Connor’s projects, and Mac invites him to spend the winter at the mansion. When O'Connor’s daughter Trudy (Gale Storm) unexpectedly returns home, the two men assume she’s a thief; she’s so charmed by the pair she conceals her identity and quickly falls in love with Jim. Trudy calls O’Connor home, asking him to conceal his identity as well, and O’Connor soon realizes that while he has more than enough material wealth to share, he is still not as rich as Mac when it comes to generosity and kindness.

The spirit of the season is the promise of redemption and a time to give others a second chance. Pairing the upstanding and unsuspecting with the less-than-saintly is one way Hollywood celebrates Good Will toward Men—and ensures that Christmas Eve is no Silent Night.

Directed by Mitchell Leisen and written by Preston Sturges, Remember the Night (1940) has Fred MacMurray as assistant DA John Sargent and Barbara Stanwyck as street-wise, third offense shoplifter Lee Leander. Because it’s difficult to get a conviction at the holidays, Sargent postpones Leander’s trial until after Christmas, then has a change of heart about leaving her in jail. He agrees to take her home for Christmas, but after witnessing the bitter meeting between Lee and her mother, Sargent takes her home to his own family. Surrounded by the warm environment of the country celebrations, the two fall in love. How will this impact Lee’s upcoming trial and Sargent’s career? With his trademark attention to detail, Leisen sets are as interesting as the action as he presents a typical American tree and Christmas Eve barn dance. This is the first pairing of MacMurray and Stanwyck, who went on to make four films together.

They don’t come any less saintly than Humphrey Bogart, Aldo Ray, and Peter Ustinov as three Devil’s Island convicts who escape from prison in We're No Angels (1955). As the trio waits out Christmas Eve for a chance to get off the island, they find themselves drawn into the lives of a merchant and his family. The convicts decide to stay on as handymen and give the family a little “help,” and though their efforts aren’t always genteel, their hearts are in the right place. Basil Rathbone brings his wonderful brand of bad to his role as the selfish uncle, but it’s the little snake we never see that steals our hearts.

Director Frank Tashlin was one of the few directors who began as an animator and transitioned to live-action; his skillful use of color and the wide screen is apparent in Susan Slept Here (1954) Struggling screenwriter Mark Christopher (Dick Powell) is given the perfect research subject for his script on juvenile delinquency—seventeen year old Susan Landis (Debbie Reynolds), who’s been arrested for hitting a sailor. Christopher wants nothing to do with the feisty teen or she him, but it’s Christmas Eve;

Christopher agrees to take Susan in rather than let her spend Christmas in jail. But Susan is more than Christopher can handle, and when Christopher’s girlfriend Isabella (Anne Francis) discovers Susan, the whole situation becomes more than he can handle. This is Powell’s last big-screen appearance before he turned his efforts to television and directing. Reynolds’ beauty and small stature make us forget that she is also adept at physical comedy; her mimicry of Isabella is spot on!

You’ll have a splendid chance to celebrate Christmas in Tinseltown this holiday season because these and so many other wonderful films are playing on Turner Classic Movies. Check out their Monthly Schedule for the times in your area. Should you miss them on television or just want them for your very own, most of these wonderful films are available for purchase at Movies Unlimited.

As a special holiday treat, today we are simulposting with our friends over at MovieFanFare. There Victoria Balloon continues her look at alternatives to the usual array of festive movie fare with a look at more contemporary movies you might not think of for their celebrations of the yuletide spirit. We think you’ll agree with all of us here at the Bijou that Victoria has now won her wings as Angel 1st Class.


Jeff Overturf said...

"We're No Angels" is one of my favorite unsung Christmas treats. Thanks for mentioning it.

Dani in NC said...

I saw "It Happened on 5th Avenue" several months ago and really enjoyed it. At this time of year, I enjoy watching movies that happen to take place around the holidays but aren't centered on a Christmas theme.