25 December 2011

Merry Christmas! And Over-Looked Christmas Classics.

I hope everyone has enjoyed this Christmas Day, which is only the first day of the real Christmas season--there are eleven more, don't forget!

My family is engrossed in watching The Muppet Christmas Carol, which we all agree is our favorite version of the classic tale: Not only is it remarkably faithful to the story and spirit of Dickens' novella, but it also has Muppets! I've heard many of my friends share this sentiment, so while some may discount a film's sincerity and gravity if it has comical puppets, in reality, the Muppets deliver a timeless message of redemption in a palatable format that even small children can enjoy. There is often a misconception that A Christmas Carol is about the joy of some magical Christmas cheer, but it actually conveys sin, repentance, forgiveness, and grace, as well as learning not only to love others but to receive love (and even to love oneself). Not only that, but the lessons learned at Christmas are intended to transform us and change our lives throughout the entire year. Yes, Michael Caine and Kermit the Frog co-starred in one of the most Christian movies ever made. Christmas truly is a magical time of year.

So The Muppet Christmas Carol is well-liked, but it got me thinking about other over-looked or under-rated Christmas movies.

1. The dueling Christmas Carols: The 1951 Alistair Sim production is generally considered to be the definitive all-human version of the story, but while I was talking to my father this year, I insisted that I recalled seeing an even older (1930s) movie that featured possibly Lionel Barrymore or a similar character actor as Scrooge. A quick visit to IMDB revealed that MGM had done A Christmas Carol in 1938, and Lionel Barrymore (who performed the role on a radio broadcast special every year) was intended to be the star, but illness took him out of the picture and he personally selected Reginald Owen as his replacement. Owen was even made up to resemble Barrymore, so my confusion was understandable. My guess is that I saw it on AMC or TCM during the 1990s, so my memory is a bit fuzzy, but I know that I enjoyed it. The general complaint is that this film doesn't follow the source material as faithfully as it could, but what it lacks in textual authenticity it more than makes up for with production values (Victorian atmosphere, sets personally designed by set master Cedric Gibbons) and a gallery of fabulous character actors from Hollywood's golden age. Owen was a solid Ebenezer Scrooge; the Cratchits were warmly portrayed by real-life couple Gene and Kathleen Lockhart (with real-life daughter June as their on-screen daughter as well). Leo G. Carroll, a veteran of hard-boiled gangster-type movies, looked utterly convincing and natural wearing Marley's chains and grim countenance. The only one of the three Christmas spirits that stands out in my mind is Ann Rutherford, pretty-pretty and fully capable (a seasoned actress at age 17--you may also know her as Andy Hardy's Polly Benedict and the youngest O'Hara sister in Gone With the Wind) as the Spirit of Christmas Past, but I'm sure the other two spirits were great and I just don't remember them. Terry Kilburn was a bit too syrupy as Tiny Tim, but... it's Tiny Tim, which is as legitimate an opportunity as any for a young thespian to turn up the saccharine pathos. All in all, this Christmas Carol is worth a look as a companion to the British Sim and American Muppetastic renditions.
2. Little Women (1933): Tall, gangly New England tomboy Katharine Hepburn was born to play tall, gangly New England tomboy Jo March. The perfect confluence of director (George Cukor), performers (an utterly enviable cast of classic players), and source material (Alcott's proto-feminist tale of girls becoming women) make this the definitive and essential Little Women. While some would argue (and I would somewhat agree) that it's not really a Christmas movie overall, I always associate it with Christmas because it opens with a famous setup involving (spoiler, but have you really never read or even seen Little Women??) the March brood giving their Christmas feast and gifts to a needy family. Performances are excellent all-around, but standouts of the cast include Spring Byington (usually a ditzy mother in screwball comedies, but here delivering a beautiful turn as Marmee), young Joan Bennett as Amy, Paul Lukas as the usually-boring Professor Bhaer, and the incomparable Edna Mae Oliver as a pitch-perfect Aunt March. Frances Dee and Jean Parker are visually right and very competent in the more thankless roles of Meg and Beth. Ultimately, the messages of Little Women are the importance of family and the joy of finding and fulfilling one's true place in the universe. Even though (spoiler) Beth dies, after viewing this movie, one sustains a lingering feeling of peaceful satisfaction: "God's in His Heaven, and all's right with the world."
3. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944): As with Little Women, Meet Me in St. Louis is not a Christmas movie in the strictest sense. However, its climax, the emotional heart and most memorable scene in the film, takes place at Christmas, and this is the scene that gave the world "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", so, you know, game over. Another coming-of-age tale, Meet Me in St. Louis is light on real plot, but heavy on atmosphere and an emphasis on family and idealized 1900-ish Americana. In the aforementioned climax, Judy Garland as an older sister comforts Margaret O'Brien as they come to terms with the fact that, with their family's upcoming move to support their father's burgeoning career, it will be their last Christmas in the lovely Victorian house that has been their home all their lives. Judy sings "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" as both a reflection on the past ("Here we are as in olden days, happy golden days of yore") and a hopeful look toward the future ("Through the years, we all will be together..."). The underlying theme of this gorgeous classic musical is the inevitable passage of time, emphasizing that it can be embraced rather than feared. The presence of three generations under one roof lends poignance to this theme. The direction by Vincente Minnelli highlights the beauty and incredible talent of his soon-to-be wife Garland, but instead of overshadowing the other performers, the incandescent Judy illuminated them with a special leave to shine in their own roles. O'Brien manages to be palatable in a role that could have been irritating if handled less skillfully; little Joan Carroll (talented in her own right) and pretty but boring Miss Lucille Bremer rounded out the family as the less interesting sisters, but they fit in smoothly with the ensemble and looked well in period costume. The very great Mary Astor (a mere 3 years after an Oscar-winning turn in The Great Lie and a portrayal of the most fatale femme in film noir in The Maltese Falcon) deserves specific mention for creating a magnificent portrait of motherhood in what could have easily been a throwaway supporting role. Finally, Marjorie Main (as the family's housekeeper) and Harry Davenport (as the sprightly, good-natured grandfather) enliven proceedings as recognizable and gifted character actors. See this movie at Christmas or any other time of the year!
4. Bachelor Mother (1939): This is a sadly and unjustly neglected screwball comedy from Hollywood's golden age. It starred one of the industry's brightest and most multitalented actresses, Ginger Rogers, who clearly didn't need Fred Astaire to make a movie--a good script and good director (Garson Kanin) were all Rogers required to create magic. Bachelor Mother portrays the fate of Polly Parrish, who has been hired as a department store clerk to help with the Christmas rush and ends up stuck with a baby when she agrees to hold it for a few minutes and the shopper never returns. Good-hearted Polly has no choice but to care for the infant while she tries to figure out to whom it belongs. Polly is immediately presumed to be an unwed mother, and in addition to providing fodder for the amusing situation comedy, the misunderstanding allows for breaking multiple Hayes Code-era taboos regarding depiction of risque out-of-wedlock birth and implicit class struggles. Cue Charles Coburn as the crusty-but-benevolent department store tycoon and David Niven as his formerly shiftless son. Cue Rogers' unique ability to combine rampant absurdity with down-to-earth working-class charm. Cue a happy ending that is satisfactory but doesn't feel forced or falsely sentimental. Cue pure (if lighthearted) cinematic delight!
5. Christmas in Connecticut (1945): Barbara Stanwyck was always competent and watchable. Christmas in Connecticut is less well-known than, say, Double Indemnity, and fans of that heavy noir drama may be surprised to see Miss Stanwyck handling comedy with a deft and delightful touch. This post-war flick has Stanwyck as the Martha Stewart of her day, a homemaking-expert columnist for a major women's magazine. As it turns out, Stanwyck's Elizabeth is actually a glamorous city slicker who has never cooked or sewed a day in her life, and she just invents material for her column. Her bluff is called when her boss shows up at her (borrowed) vacation home with a war hero in tow, bent on providing him with a real down-home American Christmas experience. The ending (Elizabeth ends up with the war hero, etc.) may be a bit predictable, but getting there is all the fun, as poor Elizabeth must figure out how to handle her reckoning day, so to speak. Mix it up with a decent script, good humor, and (yet again) a fabulous cast of supporting players (including Sydney Greenstreet, Reginald Gardener, S.Z. Sakall, and Una O'Connor), and the end product is everything one could hope. There is even something of a proper post-World-War-II respect for strong women and their expanding roles in society. In fact, I'd like to watch it again, so I hope I can track down this little feel-good gem via Netflix or some other source.

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