Sunday, December 20, 2009

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

It's that time of year again - the third annual Movietone News Christmas Movie post, and this time I thought that, rather than highlight just one or a few titles, I'd give my complete rundown of my favourite Christmas classics.

Gathered below are the essential ingredients for a magical cinematic Christmas. I would suggest that first you stop off for a glass of something warming at Harmonie House, before making your way through the snow to Robby's, where the finest seasonal fare is available all year round, and then settle down by a roaring fire to join me in any of the following.

I should stop here and point out that, for me, the season of goodwill is synonymous first and foremost with the Marx Brothers and Hammer Horror films, purely because of the joyous accident of my first encountering both at Christmastime. So if like me you are fortunate enough that your first glimpse of Santa instantly gets you thinking about Monkey Business or The Curse of Frankenstein, then do please join me here with the Brothers and here with Chris and Peter.

Now, in previous years I've chosen my favourite movie versions of Dickens's Christmas Carol: let me again draw your attention to R.W. Paul's version - a thing of true primitive beauty... (see here), and highlighted a true masterpiece of sleazy British horror tat (here).

Looking back over past posts, however, I find that I've never written anything about It's a Wonderful Life. Not that there's much left to be said, even so: everyone knows it, everyone knows what's great about it, everyone knows the story of how if was little-favoured at first but became cherished on tv because it fell into public domain.
All I can add is that it's worth noting just how much of it takes place before Clarence turns up: like all Capra films it is structured in his patented unequal-thirds: first long and lazy, second snappy and magnificent, third unduly hurried. That it is his style seems inarguable - it transcends mere screenwriting credit. Not sure if it's a good thing or not: sometimes it works very well, sometimes - Mr Smith for instance - I really do find myself feeling a little short-changed by the haste with which it pays off our initial investment and says goodnight. Nonetheless, Wonderful Life is an interesting watch indeed if you imagine you have no idea of just what kind of a turn it's going to take at the halfway mark. Are we genuinely engrossed in Bailey's story, or are we just looking for the things Clarence will exploit when he finally shows? My own feeling is that the first half does contain some truly beautiful moments: the dance floor opening into a swimming pool, the scenes by the old house, in particular. It is precisely because we do feel we are watching a perfectly charming and satisfying film in its own right in this section that the finale plays as magnificently as it does. Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!

Next, Jimmy Stewart takes us neatly to Bell, Book and Candle, a witchy comedy set in Greenwich Village, pairing Jimmy with Kim Novak for the second time in a year; and what a relief to see them having fun after Hitchcock's doomy, good-but-surely-not-as-great-as-they-all-claim Vertigo. This one feels a bit flabby like most late-fifties Hollywood, and certainly does not play as delightfully as Rene Clair's I Married a Witch, to which it looks back, or a really good episode of Bewitched, to which it looks forward. Where it scores over both however is in atmosphere, both witchy atmsophere and Christmassy atmosphere. It looks amazing, as does Novak, in beatnik fashions and frequently barefoot. But what is it with her and those drawn-on eyebrows? She looks like Mal Arnold in Blood Feast.
It also has a great support cast, including Elsa Lanchester as the obligatory dizzy witch, kind of like Samantha's Aunt Clara, and a bongo-playing Jack Lemmon, just on the brink of stardom.
Lemmon takes us to probably my favourite Christmas movie of all: The Apartment (which I discuss here). The combination of mordant, cynical observation and tremendous heart makes this one just about unique, with one of those all-time great movie endings on which Wilder so prided himself, and his films' customary attractions of flawless script and performances. He also has Fred MacMurray play a bastard for the second time: no other director saw beyond his lovable goofy exterior to show us what he might really be capable of. Jack as CC Baxter is the kind of role Fred might have played in the thirties; it brilliantly underlines the point that Mr Sheldrake is what Baxter might so easily turn into. But he doesn't, thanks to Shirley's radiant Miss Kubelik and Wilder's unwavering belief in the redemptive power of empathy and compromise.
Incredibly, I watched White Christmas for only the second time in my life this year. (I discussed my first encounter with it here).
No room for Wilder's cynicism here, not even Capra's hesitant social realism - but it's no great loss with this cast and these songs, such painterly Technicolor and Mary Wickes hanging about on the margins.
I always thought that Holiday Affair and I had a strictly private love affair: it's reassuring to see from the blogosphere that this unusually flab-free Howard Hughes delicacy is steadily growing in popularity and acclaim. With a bit of luck we could be in on the birth of a Wonderful Life-style renaissance, with future generations noting with glib condescension that there really was a time when nobody seemed much to care for it at at all. It certainly deserves it: it is that good. Yes it's basically cute, but there are some real surprises and great moments - like Robert Mitchum and Wendell Corey making antagonistic small-talk while Janet Leigh is out of the room, and the bombshell moment when Mitchum interrupts Christmas dinner to say that Leigh should leave her fiancee and marry him. The cast are great: Leigh was never prettier or more charming, Mitch is delightfully warm and laid back, Corey is, as ever, quietly faultless. In general, this is a sharper, infinitely more rewarding watch than any reference book currently allows.
And here is Janet to wish you all a cool yule:
.And, apropos of nothing much, other than the fact that it's my blog and I can basically do what I like, here's Fay Wray doing likewise:
.And finally, two films that are not explicitly Christmassy, but for some reason always seem to me suffused with a distinctly seasonal kind of magic. In some ways even more that the above, they suggest themselves to me as the perfect accompaniment to a Christmas afternoon. Coincidentally, they both star Joseph Cotten.
The Magnificent Ambersons (which I discuss in detail here) is many things. For one, it has always seemed to me by far Orson Welles's best film, studio interference notwithstanding. It is an immensely involving, moving and good-hearted meditation on the relentless march of time, and just the thing for pondering on with memories to the fore and familiar things all around. There is also, of course, that superb snowy sequence to underline the seasonal mood.
And then there's Portrait of Jennie. It's the essence of Hollywood at its most perfect: its every asset and its every excess; the most dazzling, absurd, delirious, intense and beautiful product ever of its golden age, when transcendence was achieved so simply they took it for cheap sentiment. None of this makes sense, and all of it distills emotion with the knowing mass-appeal of a Hallmark card. But was there ever a film more haunting, beautiful to look at, and moving, despite your every fibre screaming that it is sheer manipulative gibberish...?
Jennifer Jones, unconvincing but mesmerising, Ethel Barrymore, charm distilled, the great David Wayne, and Cecil Kellaway, the plain-clothes Santa. The visual texture. The music. That finale. That strange song...
Where I come from nobody knows and where I am going everything goes. The wind blows, the sea flows, nobody knows. And where I am going, nobody knows...
There has never been another film quite like it. If you haven't seen it, or haven't seen it lately, give it a try this Christmas.
.Well, that's it. Movietone News is shutting down now for Christmas. Thanks for all your support. See you next year.