X Marks the Xmas Movie

It’s that Special Movie Time of the year again! Yesirree, ’tis the season of love and joy and happiness, when we gather together to give thanks with family and friends, and roast the turkey and bake the pumpkin pie and turn on the football game—hey, no, wait, waitaminit. Something’s mixed up here. Didn’t we just do that Turkey-and-Pie holiday? I’m afraid everything piles up so at year’s end that it gets a bit confusing. Let me take a breath and reconnoiter here…

Right, I’ve got it. I’ll start over, shall I? (Ahem—) It’s that Special Movie Time of year again! Yessir, when all is love and joy and happiness and we gather together with family and friends to celebrate something old, something new, something borrowed, something—no, NO, now hold on, just hold on thar! What’s with this borrowed stuff? Something’s off here. I’ve got the wrong festive occasion or something. Lemme take a time-out and double-check. Nothing borrowed or old about this. Unless you mean the movies…

Ok, ok, NOW I’ve got it. Let’s see, special movies, chestnuts and eggnog, holly and ivy and whatever, and it’s—Christmas Movie Time! (Whew!) Seems like, what, only a year ago we were gorging ourselves on Yuletide cinema, and now the season has rolled ’round again and it’s time to do it all over. Again. Watch movies, that is. If there’s a season, there’s a movie for it, especially at Christmas. So I’m gonna do what nearly every other movie blogger is now doing, and recommend a batch of Christmas movies. Think of it as something to read as you figure out how to wrap that weirdly shaped present (ever try to wrap a Tonka truck? I had that happy task once), while making sure the cat doesn’t climb the Christmas tree and knock it over (we had a cat do that once; water and pine needles spilled all over the carpet), nor eat the straw roof off the Nativity display (we had a cat do that, too. Cats and Christmas make such an interesting combination…).

So, without further ado-ing, herewith is my informal, off-the-top-of-my-head, catch-as-catch-can, in no particular order and with no particular favorite in mind, recommended trio of Christmas movies. After all, ’tis the season, so why not add a bit of cinematic seasoning to it?


Babe and Stan in Toyland

For those of a certain age (so certain that some of us don’t care to be more certain about it), holidays weren’t complete without the annual showing of Laurel and Hardy’s 1934 classic, March of the Wooden Soldiers. The film’s title was originally Babes in Toyland, loosely (quite loosely) based on Victor Herbert’s operetta of the same name, but it was retitled several times by producer Hal Roach, apparently to fool audiences into thinking it was a different film (any method to fill those seats). In the days way before home video, TV was the only place you could see this film; its yearly holiday showing lent it a special aura—rather like the dear-gone days of the highly anticipated annual spring viewing of The Wizard of Oz, before technology made the whole notion of ‘annual viewing’ obsolete. Being that March of the Wooden Soldiers is now on DVD, even colorized on DVD, and that it also streams from various Internet outlets, you can watch it whenever you wish, at any time of the year; but somehow that’s not quite the same. For every gain there is a loss…

The ramshackle plot basically is how Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee come to the rescue of Toy Land, saving it from the machinations of nefarious Silas Barnaby and the Bogey Men. Along with its Mother Goose characters, the film features Santa Claus ordering toys for his one-day-of-work every year, as well as Stannie delivering a Christmas present to Mr. Barnaby (in the middle of July), so the film does have a Christmasy feel, even if Barnaby’s gift turns out to be Ollie himself (all together now: “Good night, Ollie”…). An especial delight is Henry Brandon’s (billed as Henry Kleinbach) great turn as Mean Old Mr. Barnaby, playing his role to the hammy hilt in ripe 19th-century barn-storming style. Brandon was only in his early twenties when he made the film, which makes his performance as a wizened geezer all the more astonishing. In spite of a lavish production, the movie has an endearingly cheesy look in its sets, costumes (those mangy Bogey Men suits!), and special effects, such the headless wooden soldier whose real head can be seen bulging through his jacket—a sight that may be more disturbing to children than any number of bearskin-clad Bogey Men.

Mere quibbles, though. The film, one of a few to receive a deserved 100% rating on the Tomatometer, has something for everyone, young, old, and d’une certaine age: silly jokes, charmingly antique songs, games of Pee-Wee and Finger-Wiggle, and an oddly sophisticated humor. The undertones of some of its gags, such as Stannie in wedding-gown drag marrying Mr. Barnaby, keep the film still funny for today’s more jaded viewers. The main reason to watch, of course, is Laurel and Hardy. Who ever tires of Stan’s dim blinks or Ollie’s exasperated glances at the camera? Time certainly marches on, but our Boys remain ageless.

Maybe they should be keeping an eye on that cat…


Buffalo Gals Come Out Tonight

Perhaps only Frank Capra could have started a film with a conversation between Saint Joseph and God. The Capraesque premise of the director’s 1946 classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, that every individual life has worth, is right there in the movie’s opening: two major-league celestial figures examine the life of one lone man, George Bailey, who’s on the verge of suicide and needs a little extra-earthly help. The film goes on from there to unwind George’s life for us—and ‘unwind’ is exact: Capra unspools George’s history, from his childhood on, as a film playback. It’s fantasy done in the mode of cinéma vérité, a recap of events as if documented by Time itself.

Our heavenly hosts do more than discuss George; they present his life as a movie. When the grown-up George enters the narrative, the camera halts his face in freeze-frame (“What’d’ya stop it for?” one character asks) for the audience to study—the audience in this case being Clarence, the hapless little angel who has yet to earn his wings. “It’s a good face,” Clarence remarks approvingly, “I like it.” That the face, recognizably James Stewart’s (making his first film after his distinguished service in World War Two), is one we ourselves all like, reifies the story’s metatextual context as a filmed life: Stewart was not only being introduced as the adult George in the film, he was being re-introduced as a movie actor to post-wartime audiences, from whose theater screens he had been absent for four years. It must have been a very welcome face to see.

Capra not only plays with the unwinding of Time; he alters itFor its first two thirds, It’s A Wonderful Life is an extended flashback, in which we watch George’s past life unfold up to its ‘present’ time—Christmas Eve and George on the brink, almost literally, as he debates whether or not to launch himself off a bridge. Then Capra gives us in the last third in ‘alternate’ time: Life in Bedford Falls without George—in effect, what Bedford Falls would be if the filmed flashback had not happened, as if it had, in a sense, never been filmed, and the editors must perforce use different footage. That Capra’s sophisticated, ‘meta’ use of Time in his film does not jar us shows how he could absorb audiences into story and character. We’re not aware of watching the film as a film, but only of watching the life of one despairing individual; we’re as focused on George as are the heavenly hosts. One life does indeed matter.

Not a hit when it debuted in 1946, It’s A Wonderful Life resurfaced during late-night TV viewings in the 1970s, soon after Capra had published his autobiography (The Name Above The Title, 1971). Movie lovers embraced it immediately; it has that aspect, like first love, in that you can remember when you first saw it and how you reacted. Mine was during a late-night TV viewing, after having read Capra’s autobiography, and getting hooked right away (as another fan said to me, “that ending!”). Maybe over the years, after seeing it 23-plus times in a row, the film can become a bit of a surfeit instead of a feast (one can have too much of a good thing). But, like good memories or good friends, you can return to It’s a Wonderful Life time after time and always find something new. And that just might be the meaning of Timeless


Their Cheatin’ Hearts

Hearda The Cheaters? It’s one of those obscure, not-bad Hollywood Bs that’s fallen into that peculiar twilight realm known as Public Domain Limbo. The film deserves better; a low-budget, off-beat charmer from 1945, it was a popular TV Christmas item in the 1960s and ’70s. Gradually it slipped off the network radar (could that possibly be connected to the ascent of It’s A Wonderful Life?), but in the last few years it’s re-emerged as an Internet ‘discovery.’ The film’s no lost masterpiece; its situation is contrived, its rhythm is not quite right, the characters are one-note, and not all the actors are first-rate. But, like so many classic-era Hollywood Bs, it has its small pleasures. It’s sweet and silly and carries you along so smoothly, you’re not bothered by its bumps. Like the Little Girl With The Curl, when it’s good, it’s a lot of fun. And when it’s not, you can give yourself an excuse to head to the kitchen for a snack and another beer.

The story is a familiar one, about the rich, dysfunctional Pidgeon family whose encounter with a pair of outsiders changes them for the better. That plot’s been done before (My Man Godfrey, among others); the difference here is that it takes place at Christmastime—so the family’s reformation becomes a matter not of self-improvement but of moral choice. We watch how the nearly bankrupt Pidgeons await the demise of a rich uncle so as to inherit his fortune, only to discover the old buster has gone and left his dough to an unknown, impoverished actress (for entirely innocent reasons, I assure you). Meanwhile, the Pidgeons, for more calculating reasons, sponsor a “charity case” for the holidays (“we always have charity in the house at Christmas,” coos Mrs. Pidgeon), who turns out to be another down-on-his-luck actor named Marchand. Something of a rogue (an alternate title for the film), Marchand wavers in his affections between the scheming Pidgeons and the actress-heiress, whom the family plots to cheat out of her money. Comic complications ensue, of course, resultng in soul searches and changes of heart. It may not be original, but you’d be a Grinchy type indeed if, on viewing, you didn’t at least crack a smile.

Of extrinsic interest to the film is its rumored original casting. Per Wikipedia and IMBD, Paramount intended the film for Carole Lombard and John Barrymore; after their deaths, the studio sold the property to Poverty-Row Republic Pictures, where the leads eventually went to Ona Munson and Joseph Schildkraut. What might the film have been with Lombard and Barrymore can only be dreamed of; their presences hover round its edges like Christmas ghosts, particularly in Schildkraut’s performance as Marchand, which was obviously modeled on Barrymore. Schildkraut uses Barrymore’s gestures (a hand curled over his chest, for example), and his eyes burn into the screen in a hauntingly Barrymoreish fashion. (The Marchand character also has a Barrymore bio: he played Hamlet and Richard III, both stage successes for John, and he frequently tipples.) If Schildkraut doesn’t set the movie on fire, as Barrymore would have, he does bring an elegance and a courtly precision of speech and manner that’s all his own. And his recital of scenes from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is so dramatic, I found myself reciting its well-known lines with him.

Like Schildkraut, Munson as the actress lacks star power, but I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Munson was not a ‘personality’ performer; she would sink deep into her roles, so deep you don’t recognize her from film to film. (You would never link her plucky actress from The Cheaters to blowsy Belle Watling or hard-bitten Mother Gin Sling.) Unlike Lombard, Munson wasn’t a beauty; her mouth is too wide and her nose too long for standards of pulchritude. But her face is interesting, it’s mobile and alive and engaged with all that’s happening, which is better than mere prettiness. It’s a quality both physical and spiritual, when acting transcends contrivance and becomes a form of being.

Though not top-billed, Munson is the film’s heart; she brings a genuine sweetness, a goodness to her role, which is tougher to do than you’d think. The trick with Christmas movies is to make the expected transformation convincing enough so that you don’t roll your eyes or squirm. That the film pulls this off is largely due to Munson; you find yourself melting along with the transformed Pidgeons as you watch. Sure, The Cheaters ends with the predictable happy endings, scattered as freely as pine needles, but, as with all good Christmas movies, you bask in such constancy with pleasure. Which, when you come down to it, is how a Christmas movie should be.

Good night, Ollie. And Merry Christmas.


Bonus Clips: I can’t guarantee the constancy of these films remaining (free) on the Internet. But, if you have the chance, click here to watch March of the Wooden Soldiers (be warned: colorized); click here to watch It’s A Wonderful Life (ditto); and click here to watch The Cheaters (in original, glorious black-and-white).

Some sections of this article were originally published on Grand Old Movies’ Tumblr site, and have been reprinted here in slightly modified form.

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5 Comments

  1. Rick

     /  December 22, 2018

    My favorite of the films here is THE CHEATERS. I saw it into the 1970s and then, as you said, it seemingly disappeared from television. TCM finally showed it a few years back. I was slightly disappointed as it didn’t live up to my memories. But I still enjoyed it and, of course, Schildkraut was indeed excellent.

    Reply
    • I never saw The Cheaters until a couple of years ago online – interesting how the Internet seems to have taken over what was the territory of late-night TV before the rise of cable in the 1980s. The Cheaters seems to have discovered a second life on Youtube (and no doubt helped by being public domain).

      Reply
  2. I’ve only seen The Cheaters once while the other two movies I have never counted the viewings. Perhaps someday The Cheaters will join that list.

    Merry Christmas!

    Reply
    • I don’t know how many viewing The Cheaters will rate; it’s a nice film if not an extraordinary one. Its main interest, for me, is its purported original casting of Lombard and Barrymore. But it does have its moments. Merry Christmas also!

      Reply
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