Monday, December 31, 2007

New Year's Eve at "Holiday Inn" (1942)

“Holiday Inn” (1942) gives us a brief New Year’s Eve scene, which though released during the first year of our involvement in World War II, gives us no indication of any war theme or trouble brewing for the new year.

Except for the Independence Day scene where a musical montage shows us fighting men, factory war production, Douglas MacArthur, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, most of this film is blissfully unaware of the war overseas, or gas rationing, food ration stamps and points. Among the inn’s guests, there is conspicuously not a uniform in sight.

The film begins on Christmas Eve, in what is evidently the year 1940, and there are actually three Christmas Eves that occur before the conclusion. In the New Year’s Eve scenes, which must be as 1941 turns into 1942, there is not a mention of the catastrophic Pearl Harbor bombing with brought us into the war only some three weeks previously to the donning of paper hats.

But paper hats there are galore in Bing Crosby’s new Holiday Inn which celebrates its grand opening in this New Year’s Eve party. There are a few tuxedos among the guests, a few furs, but most of the men are dressed in suits, and among the women there are even knit tops with skirts, as if the more austere war years have indeed made their presence known even if not openly discussed in the movie. Fred Astaire, who makes a drunken arrival after being left by his dance partner and fiancée, looks overdressed in his top hat, white tie and tails. The similar absence of elegant Easter finery in the Easter sequence of this film was discussed last April in this entry.

The New Year’s Eve scene begins with newspaper clippings that tell of the opening of the Inn, and Bing and Marjorie Reynolds sing “Come to Holiday Inn” to a full house.

If the traffic noise affects you
Like a squeaky violin,
Kick your cares down the stairs
And come to Holiday Inn.

The Inn’s cook, Mamie, played by Louise Beavers wears an enormous chef’s hat, and when her poker-faced kids are not taking part in the floor show dressed as Father Time and Baby New Year, they are shadowing her wherever she goes. Miss Beavers in real life did not like to cook, despite playing cooks and servants throughout her film career, and very prudently married a man who was a chef.

Bing and Marjorie, along with Mamie and the kids, and a few hired waitresses, hide out in the kitchen, help themselves to some food, and sing “Kissing the Old Year Out.” They do not actually kiss the old year out, in fact, nobody does. We hear the shouts of Happy New Year from the other room, and Bing and Marjorie get back out onto the dance floor, where everybody is dancing and Fred shows up a little drunk and despondent. When he dances with Marjorie, he decides she is his new dance partner and his new love. Bing and Fred spend the rest of the movie stealing her away from each other.

The drunken dance number Fred Astaire performs with Marjorie Reynolds is quite stunning in its athleticism. To continually stumble, wobble, and nearly collapse but not quite would likely take more energy than to do the dance properly. He does fall spectacularly on the floor at the end, perhaps helped by what is reported as his having taken several drinks of bourbon before each take of this number to help him play it convincingly.

No one says, “Don’t you know there’s a war on?” Everybody says “Happy New Year!”

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Next Voice You Hear (1950)

“The Next Voice You Hear” (1950) has all the typical elements of a 1950s science fiction film. It gives us what are supposed to be typical average Americans becoming completely unnerved by an unexplained and unnatural phenomenon. There is a tense undercurrent running in their not-so-safe-as-they-think world. Then suddenly, they are visited upon by an unstoppable force. In this case, it happens to be the voice of God.

This quiet, fascinating movie has all the footprints of the backwash of World War II and the early days of the Cold War, when the worst trouble the world had ever seen quickly melted away into, not relief, but anxiety-driven competition with Communist bloc countries and nightmares over the atom bomb. The victory proclaimed at the end of the war was lessened by the realization of “what do we do now?” So, too, when God speaks through the radio, the people in this story have to decide is it real, and if so, what we do now?

James Whitmore and Nancy Davis had been in only a few films before they were paired as Joe and Mary Smith in this movie. They have an easy chemistry, at turns joking and teasing; at turns sweetly affectionate. They have a young son, and are expecting the birth of their second child any day. A couple of nice touches in this film include the way Whitmore lightly touches his wife’s face, stroking her with one finger behind her ear, repeated when he wants to comfort her, or just get her attention. Also, the way in which Miss Davis appears beautifully unglamorous, something about her pallid face more than her maternity top tells us not only is she pregnant but is really, really tired of it and just wants to have this baby. It is one of the few films of this period, I think, where the appearance of pregnancy is illustrated a bit more realistically than before.

Also, a note on the score by David Raksin, which we hear at the opening titles and at the end of the film. It is hymn-like, with elements that are both sobering and majestic, and yet there is a wistful, soaring quality to the music that is really very stirring and sweet. Mr. Raksin had also done the haunting score to “Laura” (1944).

The Smiths live in a Los Angeles suburb, in a very small house filled with furnishings that look they came from the box tops mom saves, or from trading stamps. Mr. Whitmore plays a common working man, who takes his lunch to the aircraft factory in a metal lunchbox and gripes about his bullying supervisor. The starter on his car is broken and floods the carburetor every morning. He works as hard as he can but never seems to get ahead, and he worries about his wife and the coming baby. He is a good guy with a bit of a temper, who gets flustered a bit, but clearly loves his family.

Miss Davis plays her typical housewife role with charming understatement. She is quite natural as a woman just as set in her rut as her husband is set in his, and a little desperate as to how to get out of it and not sure that she wants to. She has a way of studying her scene partners, and that goes a long way to create a bond with them for the audience. She exudes warmth in a role that might not otherwise have a lot of meat to it. One is astonished that she will one day, as the wife of Ronald Regan, become First Lady of the United States. Here she is so preoccupied with sneaking a restricted extra piece of bread and butter that we cannot envision her having State dinners in the White House.

There are a lot of quiet, introspective and insightful moments to this film, even when the fireworks start happening when God interrupts our regularly scheduled broadcast to talk on the radio. Even the fireworks are quiet, and we never actually hear the voice of God. The characters do in another room, but our attention is always focused somewhere else so we always miss it. The subtlety with which this film discusses God, possibly the most controversial subject in the history of mankind, is remarkable when we consider that William A. Wellman directed the film. Mr. Wellman brought us gritty gangster films in the 1930s, sexy screwball comedies, and films which pushed the envelope in pre-Code days.

At first Joe Smith thinks the voice of God is a hoax, and there is a funny bit when his wife asks it if sounded like Lionel Barrymore, a staple on radio as much as in the movies, famous for his Scrooge. She also suggests it might be an Orson Welles production, recalling “The War of the Worlds” broadcast of 1938.

God announces he will be with us for the next few days.

“Wouldn’t it be kind of funny if it really was God?” Mary Smith wonders aloud, and we are allowed another of several nice, slow close-ups. The use of silence to increase dramatic tension between characters reminds me a little of director William Wyler’s technique in his films.

The Smiths cannot be bothered fretting over God, though. They have lives to live. Things continually go wrong for Joe, taking over his sick son’s paper route for the day and getting chased by a dog, getting tickets from a traffic cop, getting bawled out at work.

Then another radio message from God seems to indicate the Creator is just as bewildered by them as they are about Him. Some still think it is a hoax, but they read in the newspaper that the voice is heard all over the country and in Europe. The FCC begins an investigation.

Tellingly for the era, there are no reports “from behind the Iron Curtain.” Their son asks Joe Smith how God is heard in France, and Joe responds, “I guess there’s enough people over there that understand English.” But the boy rejects this, deciding that if the voice is really God’s, He could do the impossible and speak to everybody in a way everybody could understand.

“If it’s God, I guess he could do anything.” Children accept the powers of superheroes without analyzing it too much. His dad is still having a problem rationalizing it. His buddies wonder if the Russians are pulling the hoax.

As the days pass, and the radio message from God occurs every night at 8:30, they begin to believe it is Him, and they get freaked. But they still have jobs to go to, even though they begin to await a terrible judgment and everybody washes his car in the neighborhood as if that’s going to set things right with the Lord. Mary has false labor after a panicky rush to the hospital, and wearily, and sheepishly mumbles after a long night, “Feel like such a fool leaving here as big as when I came in.” It is these continual reminders of normality that make the film so compelling, as if they counterbalance this new Twilight Zone world to which they must adjust.

God reminds them of His miracles, things as normal as rain and trees, and prods them to create miracles of their own, “miracles of understanding, and peace, and loving kindness.”

Yet some, like the Smith’s visiting Aunt Ethel, are convinced Judgment Day is at hand and they will be punished. The fear that has been building up over the days is now acute, and erupts, and they fight, and they drink, and they nearly come apart.

Joe Smith confronts his supervisor from work, also his neighbor. He is an atheist and berates Joe, “People silly enough to believe in God are silly enough to believe God’s talking on the radio.” It is a great leveling remark, and when Joe tells him he does not have a right to talk that way, he reminds Joe, and us, that he does.

Joe, Mary, and their son fear God plenty now, and fear the coming of the new baby, as Mary’s mother died in childbirth. They are all obsessed by danger. Eventually, they decide that they should not be afraid of life, and they should not be afraid of God. They still haven’t gotten around to not being afraid of the Russians yet or nuclear war, but one step at a time.

They pull themselves together to face whatever is their inevitable fate, and gather at a packed church where a radio, and not a minister, speaks to them from the pulpit. It seems to say that mass communication has become our new religion, but I suppose that is a topic for another time. Still, the idea is intriguing.

They are told by the announcer that all people of all religions are waiting for God’s message by radio, in churches, temples, synagogues, and mosques. Then his intro for the Almighty, “And the next voice you hear….” is met with silence.

We have another nerve-racking silent moment, and then the minister suddenly realizes that it’s the seventh day and God must be resting.

Show’s over, but the miracles continue as Mary goes into labor and delivers a baby daughter. Her big brother asks dad, “Our baby, what will she do when she’s afraid? She never heard the Voice.” They will just have to tell her about it, and Joe strokes the ear of his drugged up wife as she is wheeled out of the delivery room, to that swelling, sweet music. The film does not always measure up to the sum total of its parts, but it is an intriguing attempt to deal with a difficult subject without being too preachy or contriving a pat solution to our most basic impulse of belief and faith, and what happens when you’re called upon to evaluate all that.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

“Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944) contains a brief, and yet one of the most expressive of Christmas scenes ever to come out of Hollywood, when Judy Garland sings, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

The film of course covers a year in the life of the Smith family of St. Louis from 1903 to 1904. When the father accepts a new position in New York, the family must prepare to uproot their lives, the trauma of this reaching a climax late in the film as they plan for their last Christmas among friends and neighbors.

Judy Garland plays Esther, who upon returning from a Christmas Eve dance, receives a marriage proposal from The Boy Next Door, played by Tom Drake. What begins as a typically joyous scene when she delightedly accepts, soon turns sad as they both realize her family’s departure halfway across the country, their both being underage, and all the possibilities of future happiness that seemed certain a moment ago are now slipping away from them. It all seems hopeless.

Esther comes upon her little sister, played with the poker-faced panache only Margaret O’Brien can manage, and she tries to get the child back to bed, but “Tootie” is panicking as only a child can that Santa Claus will not know where to find them next year. Sitting framed together in the bedroom window, Judy tries to reassure her that, “He can find anybody he wants to find.” Of course, Esther is talking about her fiancé as much as Santa Claus. As Tootie doubtfully considers Santa’s abilities to find them, Esther looks across the yard at her beau’s house and wonders how they can be together.

The song, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” as sung by Judy Garland is a curiously plaintive tune, not a joyous carol, but a soft crooning of consolation. A kind of just do your best under the circumstances theme of comfort.

“Let your heart be light,
Next year, all our troubles will be out of sight.”

Though this film was made during World War II, it carefully omits any reference to modern troubles, except in this song. This is the only part of the film where we remember when it was made, and how this song affected so many parted loved ones during an awful time where all one could do for Christmas was just make the best of it.

“Next year, all our troubles will be miles away.”

Not quite, but we were getting closer in 1944.

Today we seem to be terribly consumed by creating the Best Christmas Ever, the Perfect Christmas. No matter how many tips on decorating or baking, or how many trips to the mall, it’s still not going to be a perfect Christmas. We are not capable of perfection, and so much that contributes to our happiness is beyond our control. The mere thought of the social pressures of this season drives some poor souls to desperation.

I prefer Judy’s quiet crooning to the teary-eyed little sister in her lap,

“Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.”

Judy sings about a merry “little” Christmas, not the Perfect Christmas.

For those suffering illness or loss, privation or misfortune, for those who endure separation from loved ones, for the service personnel far from home, for everyone whose Christmas is not going to be perfect and not going to the Best Christmas Ever, may I extend as well, the consoling message of Judy’s timeless song.

Both sisters sit in a pensive daze, as Christmas Eve turns into Christmas Day. Here is a wish for you to make the best of things, to be happy with what you have, and to hang on as we all “muddle through somehow.”

“So, have yourself a merry little Christmas, now.”

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1944 or 1948)

“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1944 or 1948?) is the first cartoon to depict the flying reindeer, with narration in simple rhyming couplets and colorful and typically exaggerated 1940s animation. A far cry from the pastel stop animation gloss of the Rankin/Bass classic of the 1960s, this is a simpler and more childlike Rudolph.

He is still bullied, but the differences in this story are amusing. Spindly-legged reindeer in the community sometimes walk on their hind legs, Rudolph’s mother wears a house dress, and when Santa has a near collision with a plane on a fog-bound Christmas Eve, he discovers Rudolph’s red nose accidentally when coming into Rudolph’s bedroom to fill Rudolph’s stocking. Rudolph of course saves the day, and is curiously given a medal by Santa labeled “Commander in Chief.” Whether this title allows him to live in the White House is not addressed.

Rudolph had been created by Robert L. May for the Montgomery Ward company retailers in 1939, a bit of merchandizing that took on a life of its own almost immediately. Mr. May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks wrote the tune, and it was recorded by many, including Gene Autry’s famous version in 1949.

There is some dispute as to exactly when director Max Fleischer, known for Popeye and Betty Boop, made this cartoon. Perhaps Mr. Autry knew what a hit Rudolph was going to be, but Mr. Fleischer and Mr. May might have been astonished at what place the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer would have in future American Christmases.

Monday, December 17, 2007

I'll Be Seeing You (1944)

“I’ll Be Seeing You” (1944) is an unusual holiday film, quite grim despite its sentimentality, and manages to be hopeful despite the dismal circumstances of the man and woman who meet on furlough and fall in love. It was one of the first films to deal with what today we would call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Joseph Cotten plays a soldier on furlough from a military hospital where he has been treated for wounds suffered in the South Pacific, and for what were then called neuropsychiatric issues. In World War I, it was called shell shock.

Ginger Rogers is on furlough from a local women’s prison, having been incarcerated three years ago for manslaughter when she fended off the sexual assault of her employer, and accidentally caused his death. She is halfway through her sentence, and is being granted a Christmas leave on a special program for inmates with good behavior.

We first see them wandering shyly through a train station. In contrast to the hectic bustle around them, both move slowly, as if dazed. She has been in prison since before the war, and the pace and energy of wartime society is new to her, with an urgency that intimidates her. She tries to buy candy and gum at the newsstand, and the man behind the counter sarcastically wonders aloud where she has been? Wartime shortages are new to her. The soldier is clearly anxious, and physically tired. Every move seems to cost him effort. He makes many mistakes doing simple things, like buying a magazine.

They meet on the train. Two other young servicemen join them, fast talking, both flirting with Ginger, loud and cheerful, and annoying. When they both leave momentarily to get food, the two older, quieter passengers strike up a halting conversation. Cotten’s character is obviously trying to tough out some kind of challenge by speaking to a strange woman, and Ginger’s character responds with patience and kindliness. Her prison years have left her nonjudgmental, and cautious, and introspective. Both actors carry the story well, as Mr. Cotten displays heartbreaking vulnerability and courage, and Miss Rogers shows she is adept at more than comedy or dancing with Fred Astaire with her quiet and understated performance.

Through the train windows we see the landscape of the American Southwest slip by. When she tells him she is disembarking at a nearby town to visit her uncle and aunt for Christmas, he invents a reason to get off at the same stop, and makes an awkward attempt to ask for her phone number. He is clearly not the predator that the other two young men in uniform were, and she allows him to contact her later. At this point, the audience has only a scant idea of the soldier’s psychiatric problems, and knows nothing of her past.

Tom Tully and Spring Byington play the uncle and aunt, and Miss Byington must win the prize in this role for most motherly person on the planet. Theirs is a warm and cozy kind of fantasy home for a person who has none. There is a decorated table top tree, a radio that plays Christmas music, and what in one scene that sounds like National Barn Dance. Dad stubbornly perseveres at a jigsaw puzzle set up in the living room. Shirley Temple is their teenage daughter. Miss Temple is probably one of the few child stars to ease gracefully into her teen years, the most awkward time in anyone’s life. She successfully plays a typical soldier-crazy, hepcat teen of her generation, likable if not a little exasperating at times. She is well-meaning, but throughout the film unthinkingly ostracizes Ginger with blundering comments and actions. Anytime anyone mentions words like prison or cell or criminal, her pain is acute.

The soldier is invited to have dinner at the uncle and aunt’s house, is teased by Miss Temple, and later in the film he is at ease with this family enough to tease her back like an older brother. But a long journey for the soldier must be traveled first, even though it happens in a short time.

In his dreary YMCA room, we see his loneliness and his fear at being alone. A voice over by Cotten speaking the soldier’s thoughts lets us in on his fear at having another panic attack, and he struggles with himself to keep his anxiety down, giving himself a pep talk. Later in the film, he experiences a panic attack in his room, and we go through the sensations with him, his rapid heartbeat, his aural and visual hallucinations, as he collapses on his bed, pouring sweat, and panicked that he will not come out of this dark terror without the help of orderlies and medication. He grips his shirt at his stomach, perhaps reliving the moment of his bayonet wound.

However, he comes out of his attack, in part through the memory of the sound of Miss Rogers’ voice calming him, and when he stands up, exhausted, his clothes soaked in perspiration, lifting his face to the bare ceiling light that had taunted him with fireballs a moment before, he is astonished and triumphant, whispering, “I made it” over and over. It is one of the most affecting scenes in the film.

Ginger’s troubles are less debilitating but less able to conquered. She is in a dark hole, too, and has no expectation of ever claiming a normal life again. She confesses to her aunt, “Coming out in the world and seeing everybody in uniform, everybody doing something. I just don’t belong. I don’t fit in. And dreams that I had for the future are just impossible.”

To which Ms. Byington replies, “Most dreams are, Mary. It’s the dreaming that counts.”

Ginger does not tell the soldier she is going back to prison after the holidays, for his sake as much as her own. She is sensitive to his anxiety and lack of confidence. When they go to a movie together, and it is a war picture, he can barely make himself look at the screen.

They take an outing in the country, and being from the east, he remarks how strange it is to celebrate Christmas in a Southwest desert. She replies, “I don’t know. This seems more like Christmas to me than the kind they have back east. I mean, this is more like the country where they celebrated the first Christmas.”

He must face a noisy New Year’s Eve party, and she must face running into people she knows there. Eventually, the vacation ends, Spring Byington takes the ornaments off the Christmas tree, and Ginger has to go back to prison, where she likely has another three years to serve. Her soldier finds out, and retreats briefly back into depression and feelings of betrayal, and they part. She is devastated when she discovers he knows.

Their 11th-hour reunion at the gates of the women’s prison is certainly an unlikely trysting place for a Hollywood film during the war and about Christmas. It is both sad, and yet hopeful as they renew their feelings for each other. The film’s title comes from one of the most popular and wistful songs of the era, evoking the longing of separated lovers. This is perhaps the only war film where the man must wait for the woman to come back, instead of the woman keeping the home fires burning waiting for the man. It is also, I think, except for various versions of “A Christmas Carol,” one of few Christmas films whose theme is redemption, the ultimate Christmas message.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Mortgage Crisis - George Bailey & Betty Boop

This is a re-posting for the "It's a Wonderful Life" blog-a-thon at Cinemathematics. It was originally posted in August.

Our recent crisis with the Countrywide mortgage situation (Is it okay to call it a crisis yet? Would it be un-American if I did so? Is Roger Babson in the house?) reminds me of what is actually my favorite aspect of “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946).

Commonly regarded as a Christmas movie, perhaps the Christmas movie of all Christmas movies, I’d like to beat the Christmas rush and discuss it now for a different reason. Although angels and family and the spirit of giving and sharing are all wonderful messages to this film, the lesson I like best is about George’s conscience.

Most of the film is not a Christmas miracle, but a flashback of the past decades of this man’s life, where we see that from boyhood he is chained by his conscience into doing the right thing, the noble thing, the self-sacrificing thing even though he really doesn’t want to do it. George, played memorably by James Stewart, is not a saint. He does his good deeds grudgingly, but he does them because he is a person for whom decency and integrity mean more than anything to him, even more than his freedom and personal happiness.

As an adult, George is tied down by his father’s Building and Loan association, a small, shaky business in a small town besieged by the Great Depression, a community held almost entirely in the pocket of the town’s miserly “boss,” Mr. Potter, played with his usual gusto by Lionel Barrymore.

When his father dies, George, rather than see his father’s bank customers and the entire town at the mercy of Mr. Potter, gives up his college plans and sticks with running the old Bailey Bros. Building and Loan because that is where he is needed. He gives his younger brother his college money, regretfully but with manful resignation, because he thinks it is for the greater good.

On the day George is married to Mary, played by Donna Reed, there is an economic crisis and a run on the bank. He gives up his honeymoon, and the money he saved for his honeymoon, to keep the old Building and Loan afloat because his customers need him. No government bail outs for poor George.

His customer’s needs are evidently small, for they are not taking out mortgages for “McMansions,” but for relatively modest boxes on a new suburban subdivision, as George describes it, “a couple of decent rooms and a bath.” Yet they are so proud to own their own homes, and can hardly believe the miracle of it. As Mr. Martini exclaims, “Me! Giuseppe Martini! I own my own house!”

No satellite dishes or plasma TVs, swimming pools or riding lawnmowers. Just a couple of decent rooms and a bath, all their own. The American Dream, or what used to be the American Dream. They get it, thanks to George.

George feels responsible for his community, and when the problem with the books occurs, his community in turn bails him out, and he is shown that the life he regrets was actually well spent. It’s a simple message, and sometimes it’s even true. It is for George. It is also rare that integrity is rewarded, because mostly honor must be its own reward. Perhaps that’s why it is so little seen today. It pays low dividends.

Here is a clip of the run on the bank scene. Unfortunately, it does not include those first frightening moments when George runs to the bank in the rain and we share his sick dread over the ominous scene of the bank closed on a normal business day, with the crowd gathered in a mob. That’s why they used to call periods of economic crisis “panics” because that’s that people did.

And while we’re on the subject of shaky banks and mortgages, for good measure let’s throw in a scene from “Betty Boop’s Ups and Downs” (1935), where Betty has a home mortgage crisis of her own. Her house becomes rapidly devalued in the Great Depression, and she loses her home. Some people feel our fates are ruled by the stars and planets, and that is the case in this silly cartoon as the entire Earth loses its value and the other planets bid on it in a bear market. Betty has no George Bailey to stand by her.

For other great blog posts on "It's a Wonderful Life" please see the blog-a-thon at Cinemathematics. http://cinemathematics.blogspot.com.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Not ready for Christmas?

Not ready for Christmas?

“A Christmas Carol” (1938) was released in time for Christmas, in mid-December 1938. A great deal of effort and planning by the studio was involved for this to happen. Oddly, most films we have come to regard as Christmas classics were never originally released to be shown in theaters at Christmastime.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) was released in January 1947, the month after Christmas.

“Christmas in Connecticut” (1945) came out in August of 1945, just as the war was ending and not reindeer in sight.

“White Christmas” (1954) came out in October.

“Holiday Inn” (1942) was released in August.

“Miracle on 34th Street” (1947) came out in not just in time for either Thanksgiving or Christmas, but in May.

Makes all those store gimmicks about “Christmas in July” seem not so stupid. That these films have become Christmas classics is due largely to more television, which bundles them all together at this time of year, than to the film industry.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Announcement

I'll be cutting back to twice per week posts, so we'll see you again on Thursday. In the meantime, I'd like to invite you to have a look at the Quoddy Head lighthouse on Passamaquoddy Bay in Maine over at my other blog, New England Travels.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

“Christmas in Connecticut” (1945) gives us a nostalgic wartime Christmas, but in curiously modern wrappings. Its charm is its coy look at exploitation, of the holiday, of the war effort, and of human nature. Never was cynicism presented so cheerfully.

Also, the movie is all about food. Food is discussed, eaten, and analyzed constantly, and this is a film which must be viewed with plenty of snacks on hand or you’ll go crazy.

Another feature is that this is one of the few films of the era that introduces two African-American actors in walk-on roles which are not stereotypes. One is a female delivery person, taking over a traditional man’s job as was typical in the war years, and one is a cook in Felix’s restaurant named Sam, who responds to Felix’s question about what does the word “catastrophe” mean, with a concise dictionary definition. Both characters are seen for only moments, but they are clearly in positions of responsibility and are intelligent. It should be noted if only because it is so rare in this period.

Barbara Stanwyck plays a magazine columnist who writes about food. She is the Martha Stewart of her day, a woman with a knack for planning the perfect party, preparing the perfect menu, and running a perfect home. The problem is she can’t do any of this. The recipes she writes about are actually the work of her friend restaurant owner Felix, played by S. Z. Sakall. Her home is a cramped city apartment, where we see her watching someone’s laundry flap outside the window on the line while she bangs away at her typewriter, scarfing a plate of sardines.

A sailor, played by Dennis Morgan, survives the sinking of his ship and is offered a hero’s homecoming by magazine owner Sydney Greenstreet, who insists Miss Stanwyck invite the sailor to her famous Connecticut farm for Christmas. A boost for circulation is his motive.

There is no farm. She lied. Fortunately, the delightfully dull and self-important architect played wonderfully by Reginald Gardiner, whose marriage proposals Miss Stanwyck keeps refusing, owns a Connecticut farm and he agrees to help out. The rest of the film is all screwball mistaken identities, with Stanwyck and Gardiner pretending to be married, Sakall pretending to be a visiting uncle, but who is really on hand to do the cooking, and the babies left by local women who work in the war plant to fill in for their child. Una O'Connor is delightful as the housekeeper.

All have something to gain. Stanwyck wants to keep her job, not wanting to let her boss know she lied to him and her magazine persona is a sham. Reginald Gardiner wants to really marry Stanwyck, and wants his own column with the magazine. Mr. Greenstreet wants his magazine, “Smart Housekeeping” to beat its competitors to the newsstand with a heartwarming Christmas story. It’s interesting that Gardiner’s farmhouse becomes like another character in the story, its picturesque colonial homey setting morphs into everyone’s ideal home. Greenstreet’s opulent mansion is a cold prison where he will be alone on the holidays, so he invites himself to spend Christmas with them. The sailor has never had a home of his own, so this is his ideal. It allows Stanwyck to experience a contented and orderly home life she can only invent in her writing.

Stanwyck tells Sakall that she would like to learn to cook someday, and he warns her off it, telling her that she will discover real cooking is not how she writes it. To keep her fantasy alive, she can’t risk making it real.

Her boss Greenstreet tells her, “You’re a fine American wife and mother,” and we know this is not true. She knows it too, and one of the funniest aspects of the movie is Stanwyck’s discomfort not only at accepting undeserving praise for what is really a self-serving adventure, but her hilarious panic at taking care of the baby. The first baby, a placid dark-haired girl she at first thought was a boy until the diaper was removed for bath time, is a real trooper. This baby is handed off, bathed, manhandled and takes it like a pro.

When the sailor asks if the baby talks yet, Stanwyck, baffled, looks into the baby’s face and uncertainly guesses, “No.” Then shrugs. Caring for the baby has reduced her to pathetic helplessness, and she appears nearly ill with anxiety. It is one of the many deft comic touches to this film of non-stop hurdles each character must face down.

Thrown into each other’s company, Miss Stanwyck and Mr. Morgan’s growing attraction to each other is irresistible in its forbidden context because she is supposed to be married, but because the audience knows she is not really married and not at all in love with the fussy Mr. Gardiner, it makes their flirtation okay. There is poignancy in their relationship too, because we see that they are both a bit lost and painfully unhappy with their private lives. This homey Christmas, as fake as tinsel, has given each a glimpse into the kind of life they would like but seems unattainable.

The deeper Stanwyck gets into the ruse, the more she enjoys her naughty flirtation with the sailor, the more unhappy she becomes. Finally she confesses her disgust and anger at the perfect magazine persona she has created, “She’s so smart, knows all the answers. Gets herself into a mess and hasn’t the moral courage to get herself out of it.”

When she and the sailor slip away from the town hall dance and war bond sale to be alone together and end up spending the night in jail, the pace of the movie quickens even more and the fireworks at the end emboldens her, and the rest of the Christmas guests, now transformed into a kind of grudging family, to get what they want.

When the sailor’s former nurse and fiancée shows up unexpectedly and asks if he lives here, Felix mumbles with resignation, “Everybody lives here.”

The movie successfully gets away with winking at self-serving human nature while celebrating the possibility of the best of human nature, including our resilience to adversity. It is funny that Sydney Greenstreet keeps referring to his employees as his possessions and calls the baby (or babies) The Smart Housekeeping Baby. Here we have an actual magazine ad for Mennen baby lotion using the images of Stanwyck, Morgan, and that sweet, good-natured baby from “Christmas in Connecticut” to sell a product. Art imitating life? Or just the American way?

Thursday, December 6, 2007

December 7th

Tomorrow being December 7th, we here in the United States mark a watershed period in our history. Perhaps younger people do not mark it at all anymore. But in a way, the anniversary remains even more relevant today than in the past four or five decades.

The film called “December 7th” (1943) is part documentary, part propaganda to explain and review the events of December 7th. The war was still going on when the film was released, and so this colors objectivity as well as limits what information the government could prudently release. It is an odd film, and gives us insight into an era and ourselves that is sometimes discomforting.

The film is divided into three segments. In the first segment, Walter Huston, playing the part of Uncle Sam on vacation in Hawaii, is confronted by his conscience, called Mr. C, played by Harry Davenport. Their scene is sharp, well-written, and is an allegory of what might have been the stream-of consciousness of the average American of the day.

Uncle Sam is fed up with the rat race and wants to take it easy, not do anything, not think about anything for a while, just enjoy his isolationist peace in a tropical paradise. He gloats to Mr. C, “You hop a Clipper in San Francisco and in less than 24 hours, you’re in paradise.”

We see the date on the newspaper lying on a table is December 6th, so we know something is about to happen and Uncle Sam does not.

Mr. C. is cynical, combative, and instigates a debate with the unwilling Uncle Sam. He ridicules Uncle Sam’s pride in the sugar cane and pineapple paradise of the Territory of Hawaii, and berates his bombastic pride, reminding him that it took human labor to build Hawaii’s modern agriculture and industry.

“You’re a great one to play ostrich when you want to,” Mr. C scoffs. Mr. C’s position is that most of the contract laborers are Japanese, that 37 percent of the Islands are Japanese. There is a montage of Honolulu businesses with Japanese names and signs in Japanese writing.

Uncle Sam’s position is so what? They are Americans, and a patriotic speech delivered by one Japanese-American underscores their loyalty and devotion to the United States, stressing “we were born here.” It is a remarkable speech, and even more remarkable that it even had to be made.

There are shots of Japanese-American children pledging allegiance to the flag in school assembly and singing a heartwarming and humbling version of “God Bless America.”

But nagging Mr. C is unconvinced. He reminds Uncle Sam that these are “hyphenated Americans” who also send their children to Japanese language schools and attend Shinto temples, which Mr. C refers to as their “so-called” religion. Phillip Ahn plays a brief role as a Shinto priest, affirming that they worship the Emperor and that all Japanese have a racial bond to honor their ancestors. It is a sneering Mr. C who smiles at Uncle Sam’s naiveté.

Mr. C goes on to imply that the Japanese-Americans are spies. He says to Uncle Sam, “You want peace, but you want it the easy way. You want to go on leading your life, but you don’t want to fight for it.”

This film is uncomfortably schizophrenic in a way that wartime society was schizophrenic, in the way that Americans enjoy perceiving their nation as the most free and equitable on earth, and yet are constantly suspicious about the value of their fellow Americans. Clearly we did not know what to think in the days following our entry into war, and if the government desired through this film to tell us what to think, they didn’t know what to say either.

The second part of the film shows the actual bombing of Pearl Harbor. There is a bit of newsreel footage used, but most of this segment is a re-creation, with some impressive cinematography by Gregg Toland, whose innovations on “Citizen Kane” (1941) and “The Best Years of Our lives” (1946) among other films marked him as a serious talent.

In the third part of this film, we see the ghosts of the men who died at Pearl Harbor. First we see photographs of actual servicemen and film footage of their parents, with a voice over narration by Dana Andrews, who plays the part of all of them. It is very affecting, to have these faces and families of Hispanic, African-American, white servicemen of different ethic and religious backgrounds all speaking their message from heaven with the same voice. Another unseen narrator questions the ghosts of these men and asks, “How did it happen that you all sound alike?” Dana Andrews answers, “We are all alike. We are all Americans.”

A noble sentiment, but there are no Japanese-American servicemen represented. Many Americans of Japanese ancestry would soon be fighting the Nazis in Italy, and we see in the film that Honolulu’s Japanese population joins the war effort and many young men join the service.

The film ends with Dana Andrews dressed as a sailor walking through what may be Arlington National Cemetery, guided by a vet from World War I. They debate about the future, and the World War II ghost is more hopeful, stating that there will never be another war when this one is over, because his sensible generation would set things right.

The World War I vet scoffs, because that was what he was told when he was sent to “make the world safe for democracy.”

But the World War II ghost insists that democracy is not the aim this time, but to make the world safe for any nation “who many choose to live under a democracy or any other name, just so long as they call a fair ball fair and a foul ball foul.”

Using baseball terminology may be typically American, but its continued use in the debate does little but cloud the issues. What is fair and what is foul is sometimes up for cultural interpretation, and it is difficult to reconcile ourselves to behavior which we call barbaric and another culture might call honorable. The World War I vet grimly insists that in 15 or 20 years there will be a new war, and new sections of the cemetery will be open for those servicemen.

The optimism of the World War II ghost becomes all the more painful to hear after that remark, since the World War I vet was right. There was another war 20 years later, and more after that.

Today we continue to struggle with diversity in our society and the prospect of hyphenated Americans. We continue to struggle with a desire to be isolationist and a desire to be involved overseas. We struggle again with the appalling shock of another surprise attack, and how is it even possible to come to terms with it? Perhaps it’s just not possible to put such an obscene event into calm perspective.

One can see that America had not come to terms with the bombing of Pearl Harbor during the 1940s, and that this film, though it illustrates that, probably did little to address it. When the war was over, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, like the terrible experiences of so many veterans, was put aside and allowed to fade with time, but was never really faced.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

End of the Movie Musical Era

It is an interesting paradox that just as movie musicals were coming into their own in terms of technology (Technicolor, VistaVision, etc.), and achieving an art form status, such as “An American in Paris” (1951), the era folded like a house of cards.

When “White Christmas” (1954) was released, Rosemary Clooney was predicted to have a successful career in movie musicals ahead of her, but instead that movie was the pinnacle of her film career, and she found her success instead in television, recording, and live performances. Vera-Ellen, an astonishingly talented dancer, would make only a couple more films before her career ended, in part due to personal circumstances, and in part due to film coming of age with more realistic styles and themes.

“Singin’ in the Rain” (1952) is lauded as the best movie musical ever made, and though Gene Kelly did some of his best work in the 1950s, the sand was running out of the hourglass. Fred Astaire’s career may have become reborn after his retirement, with films like “The Band Wagon” (1953) and “Funny Face” (1957), but it was also the era of “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951), “Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957), “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955) and “On the Waterfront” (1954).

Rather like a Fourth of July sparkler bursting forth its last white-hot light before abruptly puffing out and leaving only smoke and darkness, the era of Hollywood musicals was ostensibly over after the 1950s. Blockbuster musicals of the 1960s tended to be Broadway shows transferred to film, with big names for the box office.

“White Christmas” is reported to be one of the most-watched films of the Christmas season. I’m not sure how many people gather annually to watch “On the Waterfront,” as good as it was. Even poor old Blanche DuBois of “Streetcar Named Desire” remarked, “I don’t want realism. I want magic.”

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Mary Wickes

Mary Wickes played a series of busybodies, nurses, and nuns, with a quintessential no-nonsense comic flare that was as endearing as it was caustic.

Her film career took off when she brought her Broadway role of Nurse Preen in “The Man Who Came to Dinner” to Hollywood for the screen version in 1942, but after “White Christmas” (1954) where her portrayal of the inn’s housekeeper kept the art of screwball comedy alive in the ‘50s, Miss Wickes headed for what must have been greener pastures in television, where her career lasted several more decades, with a few more forays into films like “The Trouble With Angels” (1966) and “The Music Man” (1962).

Late in her life, it’s especially fun to see an old pro play off a new kid when Mary Wickes plays opposite Whoopi Goldberg in “Sister Act” (1992), and how she adds a deft downbeat of silliness to the character of Aunt March in the classic “Little Women” (1994). There is particular poignancy of her last role, where she voiced the crusty but with a heart of gold Laverne the gargoyle in Disney’s animated feature “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1996). This last film was released after Miss Wickes’ death.

The layers of sardonic meaning she could add to a simple line were her trademark, but she never became shrewish or unpleasant. She had more class in one pratfall than many other actors could achieve as glamorous stars.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Ten Things I Like about White Christmas (1954)

Ten things I like about “White Christmas” (1954):

1. Mary Wickes, for her wry delivery and her power smooching of Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby.

2. Barrie Chase as Doris, whose “Mutual, I’m sure” and “I sure wish it would happen to me,” crack me up no matter how many times I hear them. If she had not gone to dance with the likes of Fred Astaire, she could have been a great comedienne.

3. Newspaper headlines. Gotta love a film that shows plot exposition with newspaper headlines.

4. The moment when Dean Jagger is saluted by his men at his surprise party.

5. The Edith Head costumes of 1950s street wear. Notice at the house party for the cast nobody is wearing jeans, sweatpants, or “Hard Rock Café” T-shirts.

6. The way motifs are repeated and actors re-used. Patrons of the night club in Florida are the cast that later performs in the Vermont in. In one scene in Florida, if you look between where Bing and Danny are sitting, you’ll see Dick Stabile, who later plays the orchestra leader at the Carousel Club in New York. The girl’s “chiseling rat” landlord, played by Sig Ruman, is later the ex-serviceman in Vermont with the German accent, struggling to get his uniform on over his big belly.

7. The inn, a set remodeled from and meant to invoke the old “Holiday Inn” set. These are perhaps the only two country inns in New England that have an astonishing amount of space for an impromptu floor show the size of a Broadway musical.

8. The train scenes, especially the musical number “Snow” mentioned previously on this blog. I’ve never been on a train where people carried on like that, but I always hope to be someday.

9. The way the camera pans back at the end of the movie as the crowd sings “White Christmas” and the veterans visit each other’s tables. Usually a film ends focused on the principle characters, but here we see what the movie was about and who the movie was for: the survivors of the war lucky enough to be able to go on with their lives. Love the shot of the little girl being lifted into the arms of her daddy.

10. The way the film evokes personal Christmases past, the way you bring out an old heirloom ornament to hang on the tree. It’s a bit old and scruffy, but it wouldn’t be Christmas without it.