Christmas According to the Movies

‘Tis the season when bloggers everywhere trot out their “best of” cinematic lists for the closing year. To those I’d like to add mine, except that it’s not exactly an objective catalog of bests but an admittedly personal line-up of favorite Christmas movies. They also fit into neat subgenres. In no particular order, they are:

Christmas in Connecticut (1945) – Romantic Comedy

Barbara Stanwyck was one of the most talented and versatile actresses of Hollywood’s “Golden Age.” Whether working in drama or comedy, she always dazzled and delighted audiences. Christmas in Connecticut is one of her warmest comedies, made right at the end of World War II.

Stanwyck plays a food columnist for a glossy New York housekeeping magazine who doesn’t know the first thing about cooking. The only other person in on her secret is her friend Felix, a true gourmet cook, owner of a local restaurant, and the supplier of all of Stanwyck’s recipes. When her publisher (Sydney Greenstreet) orders her to play Christmas hostess to a war hero (Dennis Morgan) at her mythical Connecticut farm, potential exposure as a fraud threatens her career. Naturally, over the course of the movie Stanwyck falls in love and manages to save her job.

Christmas message: Insofar as there is one, I suppose it’s “Go with whatever happens and have faith that everything will work out in the end.”

Die Hard (1988) – Action

Not exactly a Christmas movie. In fact, not at all a Christmas movie, though the story does take place at a corporate party just before the holiday.

Bruce Willis is a New York cop who has flown to Los Angeles to try to patch up his unraveling marriage to an ambitious woman (Bonnie Bedelia) who left him to pursue her career. Although she knows he’s coming, he surprises her by arriving early at her office party. Neither knows that international thieves led by Alan Rickman will hit the party and take the employees hostage while they rob the company safe. What Rickman and his colleagues don’t know is that Willis is at the party, too. Armed resistance to their plans ensues.

Entertaining and endlessly suspenseful, this movie is one of my guilty pleasures. It also is highly quotable: Now I have a machine gun, Ho! Ho! Ho! and of course, Yippee-kie-yay, motherf*cker! Not exactly “Merry Christmas,” but definitely memorable.

Christmas message: Be resolute and whatever you do, don’t let the bad guys win.

A Christmas Carol (2009) – Drama

The umpteenth movie version of Dickens’ minor literary classic, this one was produced by Disney and stars Jim Carrey as Ebenezer Scrooge. Now, I’ll state up front that I really don’t like Carrey at all. His humor is not my cuppa; I prefer clever repartee and unexpected witticisms a la Woody Allen’s early comedies.

Having said that, in this version of A Christmas Carol Carrey reined in his tendency to mug for the camera and gave a moving performance as the man who gets a second chance at redemption on Christmas Eve with the help of Three Wise Ghosts. Filmed in realistic-looking animation, this movie’s appearance is impressively rendered as well as family-oriented eye candy. A wonderful achievement.

Christmas message: Even the most damned soul can turn his life around if he opens his heart to the true spirit of Christmas.

A Christmas Story (1984) – Comedy

All Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) wants for Christmas is a Red Ryder BB gun, but his parents (Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon) worry that he’s not old enough for such a potentially dangerous present. Filled with warm nostalgia, this story set in a 1940s Chicago suburb is based on the boyhood memoirs of humorist Jean Shepherd. Not a huge success when it was released, A Christmas Story became an annual favorite once it made its way onto television. Everyone who has seen it has favorite moments: the bunny suit, the leg lamp, the tongue stuck to the icy telephone pole, the Chinese restaurant, and of course, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.” Hilarious no matter how many times you see it.

Christmas message: Never quit hoping that Santa Claus will give you what you want for Christmas. Or something like that.

The Nativity Story (2006) – Drama

The story of Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) and Joseph (Oscar Isaac) as told primarily from Mary’s point of view. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight), this beautifully photographed depiction of events leading up to Jesus’ birth unfolds gradually and is reverent without being cloying or sentimental. Hardwicke treats her characters realistically and with gentle humor, and has captured daily life in a Galileean village as the inhabitants likely experienced it. This includes the ways in which oppressive Roman rule regularly terrorizes Nazareth’s inhabitants. Equally bad is the Jewish puppet-king of the Romans, Herod (Ciaran Hinds), whose paranoid jealousy compels him to violently confront an ancient prophecy. Probably the best movie of its kind ever made.

Christmas message: Are you kidding?

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – Drama

This is another movie that made no noise at all when it was released. Its appearance on 1960s television via syndication gave it new life, and over the years it has become a perennial favorite. Directed by Frank Capra and starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, and Lionel Barrymore, It’s a Wonderful Life really is less about Christmas than it is about just that, life. Specifically, it concerns the citizens of small-town America between about 1910 and World War II.

The central figure is George Bailey (Stewart), an ambitious young man who from boyhood wanted to travel, “build things,” and make something of himself, but instead became saddled with operating his family’s building and loan association. Now married with four kids, he faces a major crisis on Christmas Eve when some of the company’s money goes missing. Panicked, he contemplates suicide but is rescued with the help of his guardian angel, who shows him how empty the lives of others would be if he never had been born.

I’m not a weeper, but that powerful line from Harry Bailey – “To my big brother, George, the richest man in town” – gets me every time.

Christmas message: Multiple messages, really: All life has value even when it seems that it doesn’t. Our lives impact others’ in ways we don’t always know. The wealthiest man, or woman, is the one who has the love of friends and family.

SILENT MOVIES: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

Deeply moving and in places surprisingly funny, Sunrise was released in 1927 at the end of the silent era, and is widely considered one of the greatest films ever made.

A farmer (George O’Brien) is having an extramarital affair with a woman from the nearby city (Margaret Livingston). Stylish and sophisticated, she seduces him into agreeing to kill his wife (Janet Gaynor) in order to run away with her.  He finds, however, that when the moment arrives, he cannot bring himself to murder. Terrified, his wife flees from him but the now remorseful man, desperate to make amends, follows her to the city. Once there, the wounded couple heal one another and rediscover the love they thought they had lost.

The characters have no names but are known simply as The Man, The Wife, and The Woman From the City. This, explained director F.W. Murnau in the opening titles, was because the story and those who populate it are universal. Not that they are static or uninteresting, though; on the contrary, these characters are imbued with a complexity, warmth and humor that make them stand out despite their status as archetypes.

Friedrich Wilhelm (“F. W.”) Murnau already was a world-renowned director when he shot Sunrise. He had come out of the German Expressionist movement that flourished during the years just prior to World War I, and was famous for having directed The Last Laugh and Faust, both starring German character actor Emil Jannings. But today he’s remembered primarily for Nosferatu (1922)one of the first vampire movies and arguably the most influential. Lured to Hollywood in 1926, he shot Sunrise for Fox Studios a year later.

Murnau brought with him to America a visual language from the Expressionist movement that was new to Hollywood at that time but which we now take for granted: double-exposures, matte shots, jarring camera angles, dissolves, and the use of light and darkness not only to create mood but also for allegorical effect.

For instance, The Woman From the City, seductress and emotional vampire, dresses entirely in black and lurks within shadows as she stalks the other characters, most notably in the early scenes where she interacts with The Man. In contrast, when the story shifts to good times between The Man and The Wife, the scenes unfold in cheerful, bright sunshine and ebullient interiors. Darkness returns in the final act as the couple endure a violent storm that temporarily separates them and The Man, believing his wife to be truly dead, is overwhelmed by grief. Light reemerges with the dawn as The Wife opens her eyes to find her husband at her bedside. Defeated, The Woman From the City leaves the village on the back of a wagon, taking darkness with her.

Sunrise won three of the very first Academy Awards in 1929: Best Actress for Janet Gaynor; Best Cinematography for Charles Rosher and Karl Struss; and Best Picture in the “Best Unique and Artistic Production” category, now defunct. (Wings won for Outstanding Picture.) In those days the Academy’s acting awards were bestowed for actors’ entire bodies of work for that year, so in addition to Sunrise, Gaynor got her Oscar based on performances in Street Angel and Seventh Heaven

Although F.W. Murnau went on to make a few more movies for Fox, all were commercial and artistic flops. He died in a car accident upon the Pacific Coast Highway in 1931 at the age of forty-two.

Sunrise was inducted into the National Film Registry in 1989, and currently is no. 82 on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Movies of All Time.

The Last of Sheila

One of the best and most overlooked movies of the `70s, The Last of Sheila (1973) also is among the cleverest mysteries ever written — with good reason, since the screenwriters were Anthony Perkins (yes, that Anthony Perkins) and Stephen Sondheim.  Despite the fact that it starred James Mason, Raquel Welch, James Coburn, Richard Benjamin, and Dyan Cannon, all major box office draws at the time, with Herbert Ross (Footloose, Steel Magnolias, and a lot of others) as director, it didn’t make much of a splash with the public.

I love it, both for its writing and its acting.  The script is replete with snarky witticisms, Hollywood references, and genuinely unanticipated twists and turns, and, as one character tells the others, you can figure out the mystery’s solution “if you’re smart enough.”  That’s what this movie is: a thinking person’s murder mystery.

Here’s the story (not a logline but a teaser summary):

A movie producer whose wife was killed a year earlier in a hit-and-run incident arranges for a some of his frenemies to join him for a week of game-playing (similar to a scavenger hunt) on his yacht off the French Riviera.  Among them are an agent who ratted out her friends and colleagues to HUAC in the `50s; a pedophile director; a vavavoom movie star and her “manager” husband; and a struggling screenwriter (is there any other kind?) and his mousy but wealthy wife.  Things go swimmingly enough until one of the characters is murdered.  And that’s when things get really interesting.

Here’s the scene about ten minutes in where the producer (James Coburn) explains the game’s rules to the others:

This movie blew me away when it was released, and I couldn’t understand why more people didn’t go to see it.  I also fail to comprehend why it took so long for it to show up on DVD; as of this writing, it’s still not on BluRay.

SILENT MOVIES: The Passion of Joan of Arc

Yesterday, I mentioned in my post about Louise Brooks that film scholars consider Pandora’s Box to be (arguably) one of the three best of the silent era.  Each was revolutionary in its own way, and all have had incalculable influences on subsequent filmmakers.  This one is the second of the trio.

Joan of Arc movies largely have been unsuccessful with both critics and audiences.  One reason for this is that the story itself is so vast and complicated, that it’s impossible to boil it down to a two-hour format without losing its essence.  Another problem is that directors almost always have chosen beautiful, or at least attractive, women to play the role.  (Having undertaken a lot of research in preparation for my novel about Joan, An Army of Angels, I’m about 99.9% sure that she didn’t look anything like Ingrid Bergman.)

However, one film based on the French heroine’s life stands apart from the others, and it was made 86 years ago.

Shot in France at the end of the silent era and directed by a Danish veteran of the Swedish film industry, Carl Theodor Dreyer, the film was a critical success and immediately hailed as a masterpiece.  Audiences, however, rejected it, having expected to see a cast-of-thousands, heroic epic.  What they got was something no one anticipated.

Dreyer eschewed action-filled battle scenes and instead chose to limit Joan’s story to the trial that condemned her.  As film critic Roger Ebert observed in his Great Movies essay, this is a film about faces.  Rather than wide shots we see closeups; the perplexed outrage of the judges, and Joan’s long-suffering, sometimes stoic peasant’s face.  The drama focuses on the contest of wills between the politically and theologically powerful on the one hand, and the simple, unyielding stance of one guided by her own convictions.  It is a breathtaking depiction of an actual event.  (The trial transcripts formed the basis of the screenplay.)

The director chose as his lead a stage actress from the Comédie Française, Renee Maria Falconetti (usually referred to simply as Falconetti).  Initially unsure that she was right for the part, Dreyer soon realized that she possessed the plain but charismatic face he was looking for as well as an inner light, and she more than rose to the occasion.  Her Joan is equal parts defiant and mindful of her judges’ authority, utterly convinced that she is led by God, and determined to do what she must.  It is one of the most compelling, and natural, performances in screen history–and since Falconetti never made another movie after The Passion, it is the only cinematic role for which she is associated.

The movie is available on DVD; I suggest you get the Criterion Collection version with Richard Einhorn’s wonderful Voices of Light musical soundtrack.  Here’s A.O. Scott’s brief take on the film, courtesy of YouTube.  It features a snippet from the VoL score.

SILENT MOVIES: Louise Brooks, The Quintessential Flapper

[Edited and reposted from my Facebook page.]

I love movies. Current releases, Hollywood classics, foreign movies, and really old, silent movies.

If you haven’t made a habit of watching pre-sound films, you might not know the name Louise Brooks.  She was one of the most beautiful women of the 20th century, intellectually brilliant, sexually uninhibited, pleasure-loving, strong-willed, non-conformist, and a marvelous dancer.  Unsurprisingly, she was a Scorpio.

Louise Brooks started a very promising career in the Hollywood studio system that might have rivaled that of Garbo or Dietrich, but just as her star began to rise, she threw it all away on a self-destructive, rebellious whim of the kind that only a young person (she was twenty-two) can muster, in order to star in a German film for the Austrian director G.W. Pabst.  As it turned out, however, the movie they made, Pandora’s Box, is widely considered one of the three best films of the silent era, and one of the greatest ever.  It also gave Brooks cinematic immortality, something for which she seemingly was destined.

Her acting style was as natural as any in today’s movies, and that in an era when the accepted technique was exaggerated and stilted in ways that seem to us almost laughable.  If you’ve never seen her performance as Lulu, the prostitute whose artless selfishness destroys the men in her life, you owe it to yourself to do so.  Pandora’s Box is available on DVD.

Oh, and if you haven’t crossed paths with her memoir, Lulu in Hollywood, try to track down a copy.  Her wit and sharp intelligence shine through every page.

Here’s a brief documentary about her from the `70s, made soon after her death, badly chopped up on YouTube but still watchable.  Other videos featuring Louise Brooks are available on YouTube as well.

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