Every year for some years since I was sick on Christmas and spent the day with Stephanie lying in bed watching TCM, I’ve tried to do a little Film Festival that day to go with Chinese Food. The problem is I don’t like most Christmas movies. I don’t even really celebrate Christmas except as a secular American Holiday.
So I’ve been collecting Christmas Movies that didn’t suck. This is my current list:
We’re no Angels (1955) – Humphrey Bogart, Aldo Ray, and Peter Ustinov playing opposite Leo G. Carroll (who is, indeed, over a barrel) are ex cons who decide to “help” a family at Christmas by committing murder. There’s some really amusing black humor in this, though it’s otherwise a weak throwaway for Bogart. Bogart also stood up for Joan Bennett in the co-star role. Bennett’s husband shot her agent Jennings Lang on suspicion they were having an affair. Jack Warner wanted to ditch her but Bogart wouldn’t hear of it. She was later in “Dark Shadows”
Remember the Night (1940) – Okay this one’s a soppy romance, but it’s also a really interesting performance because it’s a comedy by Preston Sturges, but it’s the same casting as Double Indemnity, Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck. And well…it’s a comedy, it has to end well. The Bard said so.
Life with Father (1947) – Some autobiographical sketches from Clarence Day Jr., better known as a suffrage cartoonist, about his father. Lindsay and Crouse (librettos for Anything Goes, Sound of Music, and production for Arsenic and Old Lace) turned it into a long running Broadway play that came to the silver screen with William Powell and Irene Dunne, and a supporting cast that includes Liz Taylor, it’s just hilarious. Stephanie says the main character is *me* so what’s not to love. Oh and it’s not really a Christmas movie, I just first saw it at Christmas. But it fits the theme.
Meet me in St. Louis (1944) – Judy Garland and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Hugh Martin’s original lyrics were “Have yourself a merry little Christmas / It may be your last/ Next year we may all be living in the past / Have yourself a merry little Christmas / Pop that champagne cork / Next year we may all be living in New York,” but that was deemed too depressing. Apparently Martin also originally wrote “if the Lord allows” rather than “if the fates allow,” but let’s bear in mind that 1944 wasn’t 2004 and the studio was smart enough to know that Americans didn’t particularly want religion in their Christmas. Yeah. We were a *secular* nation back then.
The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942) – a George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart Production, lampooning their “friend” Alec Woolcott. Woolcott was a character from the days of the Algonquin Roundtable and the literary web of Harold Ross, Jane Grant (founders of the New Yorker) James Thurber, E.B. White, et. al., and if you don’t know who he is or what Wit’s End was, I don’t have space to tell you here. He was a nationally famous drama critic (think Siskel *and* Ebert, only more famous) who revitalized the Marx Brothers. This is Woolcott writ big. Woolcott actually played the role in the West Coast Stage Productin, but Monty Wooley played it on Broadway, and was uncharacteristically tapped to play it in the Movie, even though he was not a particularly big name. He was supported by Ann Sheridan and Bette Davis. Jimmy Durante cameos as Harpo Marx (“Banjo”). An excellent choice.
Holiday Inn (1942) Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire in the original version of “White Christmas” which actually introduces the song. There’s an appearance of Louise Beavers, the archetypical Mammy in a role you wouldn’t see on screen now, but was breakthrough at the time. This is the least contrived, most honest version of the story.
White Christmas (1954) Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye try to recreate Holiday Inn, in color. It’s got some heart and some great moments, but it doesn’t quite have the charm of Holiday Inn. Kaye is a better actor in some regards than Astaire, but he’s not as great an entertainer. It’s a little more contrived and gratuitious, and features a big Hurrah to the armed forces (the Korean War had just ended).
Meet John Doe (1941) Barbara Stanwyck again, this time with Gary Cooper. This is actually kind of a dark comedy drama that has a faint undertone of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, though it’s a little nicer. It’s Frank Capra so it’s good. It also, along with Citizen Kane gives an idea where our political dialog was in the later years of the Roosevelt Administration before Pearl Harbor. That said, it’s got a saccharine Christ reference at the end and has a sappy undertone that’s very orthodox.