Three Christmas Movies

The Holly and the Ivy (1952, George More O’Ferrall)

A typical holiday family-crisis movie (see also: A Christmas Tale). Bulb-nosed Ralph Richardson (lead butler in The Fallen Idol) is a parson who doesn’t realize his whole family has come to resent him. They trade family secrets amongst themselves, then finally tell off the old man, causing him to proclaim that he’s wasted his life. Merry Christmas!

Ralph and Denholm:

Daughter Jenny (Celia Johnson, star of Brief Encounter) lives at home wishing she was free to marry her (apparently Christmas-hating) boyfriend David and move to South America. Daughter Margaret (Margaret Leighton of The Elusive Pimpernel and Under Capricorn) is a bitter drunk because her secret out-of-wedlock baby died earlier that year. She has towed along some relative named Richard (Hugh Williams of One of Our Aircraft is Missing) – never figured out what his deal was. Michael (a very young Denholm Elliott) is on leave from the military, meddling in his siblings’ affairs, and two aunts are around for comic relief and a teeny bit of wisdom: jolly Lydia and forbidding Bridget.

Celia and Margaret:

A Christmas Carol (1971, Richard Williams)

It’s just not Christmas until we watch some version of the Dickens story. This half-hour oscar-winner from renowned animator Williams (we just saw his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit) is pretty excellent, with complex and impressive character animation. He recast Marley and Ebenezer from the movie Scrooge, which we watched two years ago, and added narrator Michael Redgrave. Marley is horrifying here, his jaw hanging open while he speaks, his coat-tails like tentacles behind him, and Christmas Past is a white flickering flame.

We also love Scrooge’s blue socks and yellow slippers:

Santa Claus Is Coming Tonight (1974, Pierre Hebert)

Opens with live-action footage of Santa descending by helicopter, the bulk of the movie is animated. A lonely old man full of Christmas spirit decorates his house for Santa’s arrival, while elsewhere an identical man working as a department-store Santa gets fired for stealing. Santa comes to the old man’s house and they party all night, then when Santa wakes up the old man is (I think) dead. Strange.

Elf (2003, Jon Favreau)

A surprisingly sweet movie. Will Ferrell is an elf-adopted human in Santa’s workshop who goes to New York to find his real dad, James Caan, falling for toy store drone Zooey Deschanel on the way. Bob Newhart is lovable as Will’s elf stepfather. Everyone learns a little something about the spirit of Christmas, except Peter Dinklage. From the writer of the same year’s Haunted Mansion.

L’assassinat du Père Noël (1941, Christian-Jaque)

An unexpectedly excellent Christmas movie (Katy was suspicious of the title) that turned out far better than Good Sam. The movie expertly sets up a series of eccentric characters in a secluded mountain town, building suspense as Christmas draws near because two major characters wear the santa suit and we know from the title that one of them will die. But instead a third santa is killed, plus the local church’s prize jewel is stolen from the nativity exhibit, and the movie becomes a somewhat lighthearted murder-mystery.

It’s just not Christmas without a crazy cat lady:

Cornusse (Harry Baur, star of Raymond Bernard’s Les Miserables, tortured to death by the Gestapo a couple years after this movie) is a globe-maker whose daughter Catherine (Renee Faure, star of Bresson’s Les anges du peche) suffers from Disney Princess Syndrome. A Baron (Raymond Rouleau) returns to his castle after a decade-long tour of the world, stricken with leprosy. Villard (Robert Le Vigan of Duvivier’s remake of The Phantom Carriage) is an athiest schoolteacher planning his annual fireworks assault on the church during Christmas services. Mother Michel (Marie-Helene Daste – wife of Jean, appropriate since the teacher/student rapport was bringing Zero de Conduite to mind) is a crazy woman who wanders the town asking about her long-dead (and stuffed) cat.

Globe-maker and daughter:

Villard is trying to win Catherine’s heart, but he’s too ordinary for her – she pines after the mysterious baron. She sneaks off to his castle while her father Cornusse plays Santa throughout town. When Santa comes to the castle looking for the three kids of the groundskeeper (one of whom is sick in bed and grumping about Christmas), the Baron lets him fall asleep then takes the suit.

Great scene: Villard whirls about in celebration with the other pub denizens, the camera whirling with him, alternating with shots rotating around broken-hearted Catherine

But when Santa shows up murdered it’s neither of the men – a stranger. Turns out Jean Brochard (of Diabolique and I Vitelloni) hired the man to steal the diamond, then killed him and planned to flee town alone. Mystery solved, jewelry returned, and the Baron never had leprosy (he’s just antisocial) so he and Catherine live happily ever after.

Good Sam (1948, Leo McCarey)

This week Katy was envying cable TV for its Christmas movies and Leo McCarey marathons, so I grabbed us a Leo McCarey Christmas movie – his follow-up to The Bells of St. Mary’s, which we started watching and are having trouble finishing.

Good Gary holds the bus while deciding if he should see The Fugitive:

Good Gary Cooper (the year before he woodenly appeared in The Fountainhead) is married to Less Good Ann Sheridan (star of I Was a Male War Bride). She’s hoping to save for a house (they live in a rental), but Sam lends all their money to deadbeat friends, lends the car to a nearsighted neighbor (Clinton Sundberg), offers a bedroom to Ann’s post-traumatic brother, tries to save a suicidal coworker (Joan Lorring of The Verdict and The Big Night), makes friends with an insufferable mechanic (Matt Moore), pisses off his boss (Edmund Lowe) and gives an ex-neighbor (Todd Karns) the entire family savings to open a gas station.

Costumed Gary and Ann with grinning gas-station couple, and Ann’s brother at far right:

Cooper is a department-store salesman with a non-working wife and three kids – that he could afford a dream house is either movie magic or one of those mysterious 1940’s things. Plus, have I mentioned the family employs a maid/cook (Louise Beavers of Holiday Inn)?

Ann with Louise Beavers and the mechanic:

Things work out: the brother and the suicidal coworker fall for each other and move out, the mechanic’s wife is a realtor who finds their dream house, and the ex-neighbor sells his successful gas station and pays back Sam with interest. Nothing good comes of the nearsighted neighbor, I’m afraid. There’s some last-minute suspense when Sam is robbed of company charity funds and the house deal nearly falls through, but a banker decides to do the right thing (heh), thus happy ending.

Good Gary and Less Good Ann, insulting the neighbors for Christmas:

Cute movie, but more complex it might have been. For instance, it opens with a minister (Ray Collins: James Gettys in Citizen Kane) preaching selflessness and helping thy neighbor, but Ann comes to him later asking if he could convince Sam to perhaps be more selfish, or at least to think of his family’s comfort before helping strangers. Also, a regular occurrence is either Sam or Ann loudly insulting one of the people Sam has helped while the subject of their rage lurks awkwardly nearby.

Sun Valley Serenade (1941, H. Bruce Humberstone)

An attempted Christmas Movie with no real Christmas scenes. The story is just a pathetic thing to hang musical setpieces on, but they’re good ones, so we forgive it. A band’s pianist (ordinary John Payne) agrees to adopt an orphan as a publicity stunt but ends up with extremely smiley teenage norwegian girl Sonja Henie (who was nearly 30 when this was filmed). Supposedly he is dating the group’s new singer Lynn Bari (pin-up runner-up to Betty Grable), but his adopted daughter aims to marry him and succeeds at the end (ew).

Glenn Miller:

Payne and group – dig those shadows:

The good parts: Dorothy Dandridge sings “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” with two amazing dancers (the Nicholas Brothers) who do the splits a lot. Former Olympian Sonja Henie does some figure-skating, including an impressive-looking bit on reflective black ice. And (Katy’s favorite band leader) Glenn Miller’s orchestra gets to perform three full songs without any annoying plot interruptions. The photography on these is very good, always varying the view with some curious angles and sharp shadows. We’ll try to forget one musical number, “The Kiss Polka.”

Dandridge and Nicholas Bros:

This was Glenn Miller’s first big film, followed by Orchestra Wives the following year (also featuring the Nicholas Brothers – must watch this), followed by a fatal plane crash. Henie’s star was beginning to fall after a string of late-30’s hits. Upcoming comedian Milton Berle plays the band’s manager. Humberstone (heh) made some fifty movies, culminating in some Gordon Scott Tarzan flicks before he crept away to television.

Scrooge (1951, Brian Desmond Hurst)

An improvement on the poop-joke semi-improv version of A Christmas Carol (co-starring Jesus Christ) that we’d just watched at a local theater. This is kind of a weird adaptation, in that it adds new scenes that didn’t appear in the novel, as if we wouldn’t notice. Most of them are in the Christmas Past segment: Scrooge and Marley taking over Fezziwig’s company, Marley’s death and some stuff involving Scrooge’s sister and girlfriend.

Any Christmas Carol adaptation hinges on the performance of Scrooge, and Alastair Sim (of The Ruling Class, ugh) was such a great one that I’m figuring it’s the main reason this is considered to be the best film version of the story. It wasn’t the additional scenes or any showy camerawork (except the introduction of Christmas Future – that was pretty great) or special effects. But a very satisfying movie overall.

Alastair Sim and housekeeper on Christmas morning:

Director Hurst worked on Korda’s The Lion Has Wings (but not Thief of Bagdad) and screenwriter Noel Langley had been the principal writer on The Wizard of Oz. Mervyn Johns (The Sundowners, Day of the Triffids) was solid as Bob Cratchit and Michael Hordern was unassuming as Jacob Marley in flashback, but he was howlingly flamboyant as Marley’s ghost (later, Hordern was more appropriately cast in comedies, like Yellowbeard and The Bed Sitting Room).

Michael Hordern as the ghost:

Buy from Amazon:
Scrooge DVD

Scrooged (1988, Richard Donner)

First we watch a Christmas movie from the writer of the Lethal Weapon series, now here’s one from the director of the Lethal Weapon series. Next year we’ll have to simply watch Lethal Weapon, which the internet tells me begins with the song Jingle Bell Rock.

Funny how I can convince myself that something I loved when I was twelve is still worth renting. Sorry, Katy and Jimmy! This was lame, overlong, cheap-looking and not all that funny anymore. Eventually I’m gonna rewatch other beloved 80’s comedies like Big, Three Amigos, Midnight Run, The Money Pit, Innerspace, Real Men, Moon Over Parador, and Max Max Beyond Thunderdome, and I hope at least some of them hold up.

Bill Murray, in between Ghostbusters flicks, is just fine as the soulless corporate TV exec who gets schooled by various ghosts of christmas. Some funny bits involving a live TV special he is producing featuring Mary Lou Retton, Buddy Hackett and John Houseman (this is one of six movies Houseman did the year he died at age 86). As ghosts we’ve got New York Doll David “Poindexter” Johansen (just breaking into movies this year) and Carol Kane of Annie Hall and Transylvania 6-5000. These two are the life of the film, not Murray, love interest Karen Allen (some years after Raiders), or the future ghost played by a robed dude with muppets in his guts.

Robert Mitchum (almost 40 years after Holiday Affair!) had been biding his time for a decade on remakes, miniseries and horror flicks before appearing in this. John Glover as a hot young exec moving in on Murray’s job played the same sort of corporate go-getter role as the building owner in Gremlins 2. And Alfre Woodard has the Kermit The Frog role as Murray’s assistant.

Nothing says Christmas Spirit like Bobcat Goldthwait with a shotgun.
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Cameo by Anne Ramsey, the Oscar nominated (she was beaten by stupid Olympia Dukakis) title character from Throw Momma From The Train.
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Frozen homeless man, about whom Bill Murray somehow gives a shit. I think this is Logan Ramsey, Anne’s husband, who was in the Monkees movie Head 20 years earlier. (nope, CORRECTED in the comments)
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A Christmas Tale (2008, Arnaud Desplechin)

The large family house still stands, where once lived two parents, two sons and a daughter (now grown with children of their own), and one best friend who often visited. They’re all somewhat miserable now, especially the daughter, a playwright who never smiles. The family reconvenes for the first time in years (after one had been banished for a time) in the big house because of a life-threatening illness. Old problems re-emerge, along with some new ones, and there’s a secret love affair involving the best friend. BUT ENOUGH ABOUT THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, here’s the acclaimed new holiday picture from the director of the even-more-acclaimed Kings and Queen.

An IMDB review of K&Q calls Arnaud’s earlier 1996 drama “a rambling, shambling, thoroughly engaging 3 hour trip through the lives of a group of rambling, shambling, lost characters, made by a director looking to pour as much raw life into a film as possible and let the rest sort itself out. He has no interest in a well-knit story.” The same goes for this one, much to Katy’s frustration. This is roughly the same kind of movie as Happy Go Lucky, but instead of following the quirky life of one main character for two hours, we’ve got ten main characters for two and a half, so obviously we come away with less depth from anyone here than we did with Poppy in H-G-L – another Katy complaint. I liked the movie a fair bit. It’s an engrossing family sketch with great performances and no big scripted moments, fake-sounding climactic speeches or tidy resolutions, and the filmmaking was spot-on, tracking skillfully between a hundred different people and events (and featuring a hundred different music styles), cutting quickly without every becoming wearying or losing the threads of things. But then again, the Traumatic Family Drama isn’t really my bag, and while I’d happily watch this again over Rachel Getting Married (our last big family trauma film similarly featuring lots of shaky-cam cinematography), I’d even more happily forget both of ‘em and sit through another show of Happy-Go-Lucky (or, ahem, The Royal Tenenbaums).

Junon (Catherine Deneuve, last seen in A Talking Picture) is sick (not visibly), needs marrow transplant. Her jolly, supportive husband Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon of Same Old Song) rigorously calculates her chances of survival. Hot-tempered middle child Henri (star Jean-Do in Diving Bell and the Butterfly), eventual marrow donor, bounces around with his new girlfriend Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos, star of La Moustache and Read My Lips) joking around and getting people upset at him. Tormented oldest child Elizabeth (Anne Consigny, Jean-Do’s dictation assistant in Diving Bell) tries to protect her schizophrenic, suicidal teen son Paul, usually without the help of her husband Claude (Hippolyte Girardot, intrusive downstairs neighbor in Flight of the Red Balloon). Meek youngest child Ivan (filmmaker and regular Raoul Ruiz actor Melvil Poupaud) hangs out with wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni of Love Songs and Ready To Wear, daughter of C. Deneuve and Marcello M.) and their two kids, and best friend/cousin/painter Simon.

Whew. So having introduced the characters, here’s where I lay out their story arcs and intersections, but I can’t think of a whole lot of those. There’s some to-do about Paul, a potential marrow donor, and whether his mental state is up for it. Junon and Faunia go shopping. Sylvia sleeps with Simon, in one of the only forward plot developments.

Easier to list are things the movie brings up which are not fully explored (or only barely). The childhood death of a sibling (who also needed a marrow transplant). Why Liz went from tolerating her brother Henri to hating him. Ivan’s reaction to catching his wife in bed with his cousin. And so on… but maybe it’s all comprehensible in hindsight, removed from the kinetic hustle of the movie. Take Henri’s Jewish girlfriend Faunia: a veiled attack on his possibly antisemitic mother, with whom he’s had a bitter history, plus, as an outsider who has never met the family, a window for the audience into the family home, someone for whom old family frictions can be described without the movie having to resort to narration (although it does – main characters talk to the camera), her outsider nature reinforced by her Jewishness on Christmas eve (she goes home before the day). Hmmm, that actually wasn’t so hard.

Shot by Eric Gautier, an impressive Assayas and Resnais D.P. who also did Into The Wild and Gabrielle. References include Shakespeare, Emerson, Funny Face, The Ten Commandments, The New World, and Angela Bassett’s ass.

Holiday Inn (1942, Mark Sandrich)

Bing Crosby quits his NYC singing/dancing team with Fred Astaire (eight years after The Gay Divorcee, his head and hands still cartoonishly large) and moves to Connecticut (another CT christmas movie) to open the Holiday Inn, where he can goof off 350 days a year, and put on spectacular shows for each holiday with a custom-written song (incl. White Christmas, Easter Parade). When the girl (Charlotte NC native Virginia Dale) whom Fred stole from Bing leaves town to marry a millionaire instead, Fred invites himself to the Inn and tries to steal Bing’s new girl Marjorie Reynolds (later in Lang’s Ministry of Fear). Lots of singing and dancing ensues, Fred gets the girl and takes her off to Hollywood to make a film about the Holiday Inn (featuring the inn sets we’ve already seen, but with all the lighting now visible – it’s the most meta movie of 1942!). A few holidays later, Bing builds up the guts to ride down there and steal her back – plus V. Dale shows up again, so now everybody’s got a pretty girl, and happy holidays and remember to buy war bonds.

The movie obviously won best song for the bestselling single of all time White Christmas, but lost a writing award to 49th Parallel. Irving Berlin would return with Easter Parade in ’48, and White Christmas (which I didn’t like as much as Holiday Inn) in ’54. Sandrich would die four years later in the middle of filming another Berlin/Astaire/Crosby musical, Blue Skies.

Bing Crosby, in between Road movies, celebrating Lincoln’s birthday:
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Object of affection Marjorie Reynolds:
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Actual black person Louise Beavers appeared in Freaks a decade earlier, and would become one of the first black sitcom stars a decade later.
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