Thursday, December 17, 2015

Star in the Night - 1945

Star in the Night (1945) is a short subject, about 20 minutes long, that has, thanks to showings by TCM, has enjoyed rediscovery by fans of classic films and has become for many as beloved a holiday classic as It’s a Wonderful Life or Christmas in Connecticut.  It is like one of the smaller presents under the tree—insignificant-looking, but sweet in its simplicity.

We covered The Trail of Robin Hood (1950) with Roy Rogers last week as an example of a movie with a Christmas theme that is an uncomplicated and innocent slice of holiday fare, and Star in the Night is similarly a movie with a Christmas theme that hits a minor chord among the giants of the season: Holiday Inn, White Christmas, etc.  Unlike the Roy Rogers Christmas tree caper, Star in the Night hints at a theme religious in nature, but with a decidedly secular wrapping.  We think we know the story, but it leaves us with a catch in the throat and a tear in the eye just the same.

We meet three saddle tramps, with gaudy, cheap presents strapped to the horns of their saddles, bemoaning that they threw away their pay in town trying to impress a pretty young salesgirl by buying so many things—which they have no use for.  Simple toys, a basket that looks like a cradle, a small tree, looking for all like carnival items.  They ride slowly at night across a desert scene, and in the far distance through the fog, they see a star, far brighter than the others, and hanging strangely close to the horizon. 

Before we can get too taken in by a Christmas star and Nativity theme, we are wrenched from a spiritual moment by J. Carrol Naish, who is atop a water tower hammering at a gaudy tin star with lights on it.  He obtained it from a movie house that went out of business, the Star Picture Palace, and he’s using it as an advertising sign for his auto court, which is what we now call motels.  They were a new idea back in the day, a cheap string of bungalows on the highway where people could stop and sleep for the night, get a bite to eat, not as fancy or expensive as a hotel.  Nobody expected much in the way of comfort, just eats and a bed.

Hitchhiker Donald Woods isn’t even expecting even that much.  He’s down and out, a hobo, and he asks Mr. Naish to allow him to come into the office and warm up, and perhaps give him a cup of coffee.  Naish scoffs at him, angry to have a bum try to play on his sympathies.  Naish is a businessman, not doing too well himself, and he’s already got his auto court filled with guests who are demanding, and downright rude.  He doesn’t need one more person to ask favors of him, especially a guy who can’t pay.

Woods is riveting in this role, he draws our attention and compassion in extraordinarily subtle acting and what I would expect to be brilliant directing by Don Siegel.  Woods in the background of many shots, just observing, a silent witness to the proceedings.  A B-movie actor who occasionally played minor roles in A-films, here Woods is compelling.  He speaks softly, and in his soothing voice and his dark, kindly eyes, there is a gentleness that is equally inspiring as it is remonstrative to Naish, and us.  He is open and guileless, yet seems to bring secrets with him. There is a Christ-like demeanor to his character, but he is not really the protagonist, or the narrator, or the Greek chorus that represents the theme or the conscience, nor does he really stand in for us.  He is a mystery, perhaps an angel, or could he really just be a guy with a three-day beard and no coat, who glances under the floppy brim of his battered fedora with such presence that we have difficulty taking him for who he is?  Because we don’t know who he is.

Who we are in the story is plain: we are Naish, the angry owner of the auto court who is sick of being pushed around.  We are his various guests:  the couple who want more blankets and refused to accept no for an answer; the guy, played by Irving Bacon, who’s mad because his shirts came back from the laundry all wrecked; and the woman who’s fit to be tied because she can’t sleep for the noise the bunch of rowdies in the next bungalow are making.  Later the rowdies reverently sing Christmas carols.

Then Anthony Caruso, who pops up as minor characters from time to time in movies, plays a Mexican immigrant with a sick wife.  He wants a room so she can lie down, but the auto court is full up.  Naish’s kindly wife, played by Rosina Galli, suggests the shed in back, and Naish blusters, but he lets his wife have her way.  The immigrants are led to the shed, and the woman is allowed to lie down in the hay.

She’s not sick.  She’s pregnant, and soon the husband panics because the baby’s suddenly coming.  Here.  Now.  What does he do?

He tells the others, and asks for help.

But this is a 20-minute short, and moreover, it has a distinct lesson to tell us.  There is no time wasted by the irritable other travelers.  They snap to attention, and, as so often happens in a crisis, they get to work to help someone who needs it.  They give the blankets, the shirts, the hot water, and the women go to the shed to comfort the woman and help deliver the baby.  They are immediate in their reaction, a blessed contradiction to our usual vacillating whims.

Naish, we are told by his wife, is really a softy, though we can’t believe it.  She tells Donald Woods that when she first met him, Naish was crying over an animal that he saw being mistreated.  She was so moved, she decided then and there he was the man for her.

Naish is none too happy about the Mexicans camping on him and sponging off him, but he is worried about the pregnant woman, and he gives Woods a free cup of coffee, and later on his coat.  He needs to help somehow.  Helping gives us a sense of control.

The baby is born, it’s a boy.  Relief washes over everybody as things seem to be okay.  Then the three cowboys come in.  We forgot about them.  They are, of course, the Magi bringing their presents (which suddenly are useful) to the baby in the shed. 

Naish, bewildered, looks around at his happy guests, and glances over to the shed where they kneel before the mother and baby.  His eyes squint and flicker as they catch the light of his cheap, shabby star with its many movie marquee light bulbs that pierce the foggy night.  He looks up at the star, and suddenly it hits him.  A look of humility, gratitude—and horror, wash over his face. 

He almost turned away the Christ child. 

The events of this night have been his test, and his gift, and his redemption.  Sometimes redemption is just a second chance to be a nice guy.  His eyes fill with tears.

 And so do ours. 

We may have a tacky tin star, but we don’t have any movie “stars”. The character actors will handle this one just fine, thank you.  Star in the Night won an Oscar for Best Short Subject.  It is currently an extra on the Christmas in Connecticut DVD.   Who would have thought something so short, so small, could be such a giant?

 Here it is:

"Lynch’s book is organized and well-written – and has plenty of amusing observations – but when it comes to describing Blyth’s movies, Lynch’s writing sparkles." - Ruth Kerr, Silver Screenings

"Jacqueline T. Lynch creates a poignant and thoroughly-researched mosaic of memories of a fine, upstanding human being who also happens to be a legendary entertainer." - Deborah Thomas, Java's Journey

"One of the great strengths of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is that Lynch not only gives an excellent overview of Blyth's career -- she offers detailed analyses of each of Blyth's roles -- but she puts them in the context of the larger issues of the day."- Amanda Garrett, Old Hollywood Films

"Jacqueline's book will hopefully cause many more people to take a look at this multitalented woman whose career encompassed just about every possible aspect of 20th Century entertainment." - Laura Grieve, Laura's Miscellaneous Musings

"Jacqueline T. Lynch’s Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is an extremely well researched undertaking that is a must for all Blyth fans." - Annette Bochenek, Hometowns to Hollywood

Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. 
by Jacqueline T. Lynch

The first book on the career of actress Ann Blyth. Multitalented and remarkably versatile, Blyth began on radio as a child, appeared on Broadway at the age of twelve in Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine, and enjoyed a long and diverse career in films, theatre, television, and concerts. A sensitive dramatic actress, the youngest at the time to be nominated for her role in Mildred Pierce (1945), she also displayed a gift for comedy, and was especially endeared to fans for her expressive and exquisite lyric soprano, which was showcased in many film and stage musicals. Still a popular guest at film festivals, lovely Ms. Blyth remains a treasure of the Hollywood's golden age.

The eBook and paperback are available from Amazon and CreateSpace, which is the printer.  You can also order it from my Etsy shop. It is also available at the Broadside Bookshop, 247 Main Street, Northampton, Massachusetts.

If you wish a signed copy, then email me at and I'll get back to you with the details.

My new syndicated column SILVER SCREEN, GOLDEN YEARS, on classic film is up at Go60  or check with your local paper.


Caftan Woman said...

It was December 2006 and I was channel surfing late at night and came upon "Star in the Night". It was an amazing combination of this touching short and the realization that, with no advance notice, TCM had come to my cable provider.

As a Donald Woods fan (I particularly love his voice), I want to thank you for your terrific look at his subtle performance in what has become a Christmas tradition.

Merry Christmas!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, CW. What a lovely intro to TCM! I love Donald Woods' voice too, his diction. I knew him first from his supporting role in WATCH ON THE RHINE. I hope to see more of his lesser known stuff.

Yvette said...

I'm off to visit family in the wilds of North Carolina, Jacqueline. I'll be away for a few weeks. In the meantime, I want to wish you and your family a VERY Merry Christmas and Happiest of New Years. God bless.

Will try and watch this 'short' tonight. Thanks for letting me know about it. Sounds just the thing. (If I finish my last minute packing in time, that is.) First time I'll be traveling during the holidays!!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

God Bless, Yvette. Have a swell Christmas with your family. Good luck with the packing. If you can manage to fit this little movie in, it'll be well worth it to have playing in your mind as you travel this holiday season.

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