Tag Archives: Barbara Stanwyck

Happy and fraught holidaze movies

In writing, I always wish people “Happy Holidaze,” not out of sensitivity to non-Christians but out of sarcasm about the frantic (and often drunken) efforts to be merry and to cater to the multiple neuroses (holiday ones and other ones) of family and friends. The date 25 December seems more a continuation of the rebirth of the sun after the winter solstice than a date with any credible historical tie to Jesus, and any religious meaning of Christmas was long ago swamped by commercial machinations to sell “the right” presents and be bummed out if not receiving “the right” ones. Although I suspect that even Charles Dickens might say “Bah, humbug” about the Christmas industries of today, I enjoy an English tradition of eating goose and plum pudding on 25 December. I avoid the pre-Christmas shopping frenzy by buying Christmas presents during the summer (which makes me want to put Preston Sturges’s minor (64-minute) movie “Christmas in July” (1940) starring Dick Powell inflating and deflating on my list of movies…).

Another compelling reason for my title is to include “Home for the Holidays” (1995, directed by Jodie Foster, her second directorial outing) on my list. I was puzzled that it had not appeared on any of the lists here that I’ve seen (proliferating in number). In the decade since it was released, I managed to forget that it was set on the Thanksgiving weekend instead of at Christmas. Another warrant for the plural “holidays” is that the word needs to be plural since the season of celebrations (an family gatherings) includes Thanksgiving, New Year’s Eve, Boxing Day (in Canada and the UK), along with the historically spurious tradition of Kwanza and the promotion of Chanukah as a Christmas for Jews, as well as gift-gifting celebration of el dia de las tres reyes (the day of the three kings, 6 January).

Moreover, the focus of many “Christmas movies” is on the run-up to Christmas (e.g., “Miracle on 34th Street,” which features the Thanksgiving Macy’s Day Parade, and “Love Actually”) or on Christmas Eve (e.g., “It’s A Wonderful Life,” Twas the Night Before Christmas,” “The Shop around the Corner,” “Joyeux Nöel,” and more than half of A Christmas Carol).

I really don’t have anything original to say about the inevitable inclusions:

A very young Natalie Wood and Edmund Gwenn as a Macy’s Santa with a real beard are engaging in Miracle on 34th Street (1947, directed by George Seaton). Do I ever need to see it again? No.

Ditto for Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). I enjoy Beulah Bondi (in everything in which I’ve seen her) and Henry Travers (usually), and grew up watching “The Donna Reed Show” (albeit for Paul Peterson more than for her). I’m a Gloria Grahame and James Stewart fan and an admirer of the work of cinematographer Joseph Biroc (here and elsewhere). If the movie was less ubiquitous, I might be able to manage some enthusiasm for it… (But, in passing, let me recommend “Movie Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” with Annette Benning’s Gloria Grahame passing in it and no Christmas angle).

There has to be a version of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. I think that “Scrooge (1951, directed by Brian Desmond Hurst) with Alastair Sim in the title role is probably the best one. The 1937 high-gloss MGM version (that had been designed for Lionel Barrymore, who read the book on the radio every year) is mercifully short (70 minutes) and the one I’ve most recently seen. Directed by Edwin L. Marin with Terry Kilburn as Scrooge, it seems to me to transform Scrooge too quickly. Also the Cratchit home is far-removed from “Dickensian” poverty, even in its genteel form. George C. Scott was typecast in a more recent and not bad “Scrooge.”

The 1983 sitcom TV movie of Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) and his BB gun, Jean Shephard’s own adaptation of his “A Christmas Story” doesn’t much move me, though many other people adore it.

And for an earlier generation (Baby Boomers) the live tv broadcast (captured on kinoscope) of Menotti’s inspiring back-to-Bethlehem “Amahl and the Night Visitors” remains inscribed in some brain cells.

Some other upbeat golden oldies

As in “Wonderful Life,” there is an angel (Cary Grant) involved in sorting out the marriage of a(n Anglican) bishop (played by David Niven) trying to build a cathedral and his wife (Loretta Young) in The Bishop’s Wife (1947, directed by Henry Koster). It, too has been overplayed.

Once was enough for another Loretta Young Christmas movie, Come to the Stable, also directed bye Henry Koster two years earlier (1945). In it, Young and Celeste Holm play French nuns (with another building project, a children’s hospital in New England). Elsa Lanchester is (as usual) a treat, and Dooley Wilson sort of adumbrates Sidney Poitier helping innocent nuns in “Lilies of the Field,” but Loretta Young sets my teeth on edge, as does being set in a town named “Bethlehem” (Connecticut).

I don’t remember The Bells of St. Mary (1945, directed by Leo McCarey) very well, though I remember that that Ingrid Bergman was still very beautiful hidden in a habit and that Bing Crosby had his usual charm (reprising the easy-going Father O’Malley part that somehow won him an Oscar in “Going My Way”), as they try to save the slum school at which they teach by different fund-raising approaches. Lots of cute urchins along with the cute, chaste couple.

I prefer Barbara Stanwyck in another classic Connecticut Christmas movie (romantic comedy), creatively titled Christmas in Connecticut (1945, directed by Peter Godfrey). Stanwyck plays a sort of Martha Stewart of the pre-television WWII era who can write convincing advice about domestic matters, but can’t cook and is not at all the rural persona of her columns. Her editor (a sly Sidney Greenstreet) thinks that it would be good publicity for her to make Christmas dinner for a war hero (Dennis Morgan) on leave. Complications are many (centering on a borrowed baby and borrowed chef) and the ending predictable, but it’s a genial screwball comedy.

Stanwyck’s other Christmas movie also involves her character passing as something she is not and has a predictable happy ending. Although her costar in Remember the Night (1940, directed by Mitchell Leisen from a script by Preston Sturges) was Fred MacMurray, there is little to hint at their incendiary later pairing in “Double Indemnity.” I guess she is a sort of femme fatale in “Remember,” though a petty crook rather than a seductress murderer/murder-recruiter. She’s been arrested (a third offense) for shoplifting and is being prosecuted by Fred MacMurray, who feels sorry for her having to spend Christmas in jail and (only in movies!) takes her home to Mama (Beulah Bondi again) and a family quite unlike her own. She melts everyone’s heart, though her prosecutor’s was none too frozen before the sojourn.

Stanwyck’s Christmas movies involve quite a bit of duplicity, but she is redeemed in both of them. I’m more into movies about dysfunctional families than ones portraying lovey-dovey families (prototypically the Cratchits in A Christmas Carol), though this does not preclude transformation of bitter (etc.) losers.

Dysfunctional people have to navigate family holidays, too

One of my favorite Christmas movies is Three Godfathers, directed by John Ford with John Wayne and Pedro Armendériz. I had not realized that the story of three robbers who find a dying woman and undertake to save her newborn son had been filmed before, and by William Wyler at that. The 1929 Hell’s Heroes has the basic plot in a mere 68 minutes, and appears to have been shot on location, which was very difficult with the new very unwieldy sound cameras then. The head bank robber who finds a woman about to give birth by a dynamited empty spring was played by the always gruff Charles Bickford. (There were also 1916 and 1936 versions, IMDB tells me.) The Ford version is the best with Monument Valley filmed in gorgeous color, but the Wyler one bears checking out. It’s shorter and a bit less sentimental.

We’re No Angels” (1955. directed by veteran Michal Curtiz) also involves a trio of bad guy (escapees from Devil’s Island) overcome by Christmas spirit: Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov, and Aldo Ray helping out the family of Joan Bennett and Leo G. Carroll, while being pursued by the ever curish Basil Rathbone. I enjoyed it, though no one would mistake it for a great film.

Christmas aspects are not what I remember about  “The Lion in Winter” (1968), but for a warring family gathering — with the succession to the English throne as the prize —, it’s right up there! With memorable performances by Peter O’Toole as Henry II and Katharine Hepburn as his very estranged (usually imprisoned) wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (and a young Anthony Hopkins as the future Richard the Lion-hearted). I don’t remember anything about “Die Hard,” though I only rated it 5/10 stars on iMDB.

101 Reykjavik (2000, directed by Baltasar Kormekur) features an Icelandic slacker who lives with his mother. Her Spanish flamenco teacher Lola (Victoria Abril) moves in with them for Christmas. While his mother is away on New Year’s Eve, he seduces and (it turns out) impregnates his mother’s lover. And everyone lives happily ever after, raising their new product?

Although it was made for tv (HBO), I saw The Christmas Wife (1988, directed by David Hugh Jones) in a theater (the Kabuki). In it Jason Robards plays a recent widower whose son has chosen to make the first Christmas without his beloved wife also the first one without the company of the descendant two generations at the family cabin. Instead of going to join them, John hires a companion for the day, a nervous Julie Harris (or is that redundant?). The movie is decidedly not heartwarming, but Robards and Harris are formidable.

xmas wife.jpg
I really like the theme music for piano from Billy Wilder’s Oscar-winning The Apartment (and used to play it on the piano). Fred MacMurray is closer to his “Double Indemnity” than to his “Remember the Night” character in it, and Shirley MacLaine pours on the charm to a prototypically manic and confused Jack Lemmon. I find “The Apartment” considerably nastier than Wilder’s commercial flop Kiss Me, Stupid, which was condemned for immorality that isn’t there.

For drunken and catastrophic Christmas celebrations, the one in Schlöndorff’s Coup de Grâce has to be a serious contender. It is an object lesson in what can go wrong.

Things go pretty badly wrong with a junkie mother in Holiday Heart though Ving Rhames as a drag queen (!) makes things somewhat better.

A lot goes wrong for the newlyweds in George Roy Hill’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s genial comedy about impotence and insufferably condescending in-laws, Period of Adjustment, with Jim Hutton and Jane Fonda both more than a little overwrought (showing male and female hysteria).

I’ve already noted that I learned that a reason Home for the Holidays is not on other people’s list of “best Christmas movies,” is that it is set at Thanksgiving. It begins with Holly Hunter having a really bad day, of which losing her job is only a part. She is already dazed before getting joining her relatives. Her parents are an overbearing Anne Bancroft and a complaining, passive-aggressive (or perhaps just out-of-it?) Charles Durning. Robert Downey, Jr. steals the movie as Hunter’s high-energy (manic?) gay brother, who has brought  Dylan McDermott, a seeming new lover home. Geraldine Chaplin is on hand as a wacky aunt, and Steve Guttenberg as a conventional foil (brother-in-law). Plus Clair Danes (Hunter’s daughter) and David Straithern (wandering in directly from parts as a derelict in John Sayles movies

Geraldine Page played Sook, the somewhat simple-minded, holiday-fruitcake-obssessed elderly cousin of Truman Capote in The Thanksgiving Visitor (1967) and A Christmas Memory (1969). Capote narrated both elegies for his frail childhood friend, Frank Perry directed both (and two other Capote stories that were combined to form “Trilogy”). The late, great Conrad Hall shot the latter. Page won an Emmy for the former, one of the oustanding works from ABC’s “Stage 67” that should be released on DVD (the best of all is the version of Katherine Anne Porter’s “Noon Wine” starring Olivia de Haviland and Jason Robards, Jr. and directed by Sam Peckinpah.) Those who have not seen Page might enjoy the longer 1997 tv movie “A Christmas Memory” with Patty Duke and Piper Laurie. The sweet relationship is dysfunctional for the ten-year-old boy, devoted as he and Sook are to each other.

or just act out around Christmas:
as in Christopher Plummer’s bank-robber in “The Silent Partner” (from a screenplay by Curtis Hanson of “LA Confidential fame”) shot in Toronto, and the comic squatters in the squishier (more sentimental) “, but still entertainingIt Happened on Fifth Avenue.” And the puppet-master rich guys who orcchestrate the “Trading Places” of  Dan Ackryod and Eddie Murphy in John Landis’s 1985 comedy. Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 “The Shop around the Corner” ends on Christmas Eve, with Christmas sales at the department store where James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan work important to the plot. Plus there are Thanksgiving dinner in the heist movie “The Lookout” (2007), starring Joseph Gordon-Levit and Jeff Daniels. Other run-up to Christmas movies include the 2003 anima “Tokyo Godfathers,”“Christmas without Snow” starring John Houseman and Michael Larned, “Fracture” (also from 2007, starring Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling), Tery Zwigoff’s quirky “Art School Confidential” (2006, starring Mad Minghella and John Malkovich), the bland “The Object of My Affection,” (1998, starring Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston) Woody Allen’s acclaimed “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986, with Michael Caine, Diane Wiest, and Mia Farrow), and the farcical “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” (1986, starring Bette Midler and Richard Dreyfuss).

Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan” (1990) is set in December, with highly decorated Manhattan backdrops and a band of yuppies (plus one, Tom Townsend, played by Edward Clements). It’s not really a Christmas movie, but I like it, OK? And Stillman’s “Last Days of Disco” and “Barcelona” even more. Both deserve to be better known IMO.

A movie that fully justifies the “daze[d]” part of “holidaze” is the 1971 “Wake in Fright,” directed by Ted Kotcheff, in which a teacher (Gary Bond) at a remote Australian outback one-room schoolhouse does not make it back to Sydney and is plied with beer (and, eventually, whisky) by the many swaggering drunkards of Bundanyabba (the mining town of Broken Hill, NSW). It is a “horror movie” in which hell is other people.

And a more conventional thriller/horror movie with a very tense Thanksgiving dinner is “Deadfall” in which Eric Bana holds a family headed by Sissy Spaceck and Kris Kristofferson hostage while demanding dinner be served as normal.

Other contenders:

I haven’t seen “Absurd Person Singular” or “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving” or “Jul i skomakergata.” I also don’t remember the perennial (once upon a time) “The Spirit of Christmas” at all clearly, nor “White Christmas” (the movie, that is; the song is indelibly inscribed in my brain, alas), nor “Holiday Inn” (don’t even remember the title song that Bing Crosby crooned from/in it) very well. I saw “Charlie Brown’s Christmas” multiple times (add it to the overplayed pile). I don’t remember the Christmas angles of “L.A. Confidential” (even though I rewatched it recently), “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” “Night of the Hunter,” or “The Boys of St. Vincent.” What I do remember of these movies does not involve a lot of cheer, Christmas or any other kind. And I was bored by the flow of profanity and attempts to shock the audience in “Badder Santa,” which is a conventional upbeat Christmas redemption movie under a coat of vomit.

I think that John Huston’s reach at literature often exceeded his grasp, but his final movie, a luminous 1987 adaptation of James Joyce’s “The Dead,” starring Huston’s daughter Anjelica is very satisfying and more than a little triste, though not a “Christmas movie,” for all its snow-falling.

The first episode of one of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Decalogue) (and one the best) centers on what turns out to have been a fatal Christmas present, but I decided that doesn’t make it a “Christmas movie.” The third, “Christmas Eve” is boring and pointless — qualifying as “Christmas” but not among “best.”

The Gift of the Magi” is probably the weakest of the omnibus “O. Henry’s Full House,” though based on Mr. Porter’s most famous story.

I do remember “Home Alone,” which has some inspired moments of comic mayhem.

Battleground was ruined for me by the Christmas Day ecumenical sermon (so also fails the “best” test). Maybe Sam Fuller’s (1951) “The Steel Helmet” can qualify as a poignant Buddhist Christmas movie? Most of it takes place in a Buddhist temple. No noticeable “Christmas spirit” in it, however.

Although there is a family (couple) plot within “Joyeux Nöel” (2005, directed by Christian Carion) the movie about an impromptu ceasefire in the trenches in 1914 is more about Christmas (über alles) than about World War I with all the soldiers (except for one German Jewish officer) — Scottish, German, and French — apparently being Roman Catholic (and the German Jewish officer is moved by the mass and the music sung by the couple.

. I think that “Love Actually” (2003) is hit and miss with more hits (especially Emma Thomson, Hugh Grant, Andrew Lincoln, Thomas Sangster, Laura Linney and Rodrigo Santoro; Joni Mitchell’s older “Both Sides Now” and the Beach Boys “God Only Knows”) than misses (Heike Makatsch, Martin Freeman and Joanna Page. It includes Chiristmas trees and other decorations, gift-shopping, gift disappointment, and a Christmas pageant, but skips from a tumultuous Christmas Eve to a month later, skipping Chistmas Day.

What I call the Chicagorican (a Puerto Rican family back home in Humboldt Park) Christmas movie, Nothing Like the Holidays (2008), also has too many characters and a scattergun plastering of stories (most of them not comic even with John Leguizamo and Debra Messing in the cast). I think it has some striking moments in addition to being the established in the US Latino Christmas movie.

I think that “Un conte de Noël” (A Christmas Tale, 2008) is too long, and that its opening is too cute, though it delivers a rather astringent gathering with the banished son (Mathieu Amalric) allowed to return and act out some more to the considerable irritation of the sister (Anne Consigny) who had him banished. Even less compelling a French Yuletide dysfunctional characters is “La Bûche” (1999), despite its showcasing the great Emmanuelle Béart.

And “The Ref” with burglar Dennis Leary mediating the bickering couple of Kevin Spacey and Judy David on Christmas Eve, directed by Ted Demme? Haven’t seen it. Nor have I seen Robert Downey Jr. and Andrew McCarthy in “Less Than Zero” (1987), “The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t,” “Mr.Magoo’s Christmas Carol” or “Muppet Christmas Carol.”

And Thanksgiving bonus features: Planes, Trains, and Airplanes a comedy carried by John Candy (who was already carrying plenty of weight…), “The House of Yes,” Ang Lee’s even edgier “Ice Storm,” and Arthur Penn’s “Alice’s Restaurant” with Arlo Griffith expanding upon his lengthy song.

©2018, Stephen O.  Murray