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By Jim Manago, Biographer (Shirley Booth, Huntz Hall, and Kay Aldridge)

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Best Part of the Holidays. . .

The Best Part of the holidays has been re-watching some really well-made films from so many years ago!

Holiday Inn (1942) - This entertaining film is saturated with thirteen Irving Berlin tunes. One of my favorite moments comes early on as the amazing Astaire and Virginia Dale number, "You're Easy to Dance With." It is the simplest though best dances ever filmed, being shot in almost one continuous take (with only two cuts). I just love it! 

Interestingly, although the film features the major holidays, it does not have anything for the lesser ones, such as St. Patrick's Day, Mother's Day, Father's Day, Labor Day and Halloween! I would have loved to see Marjorie Reynolds & Bing Crosby do a Halloween number!  

Here's my excerpt of my review which The Big Reel published back in December of 1983.  What I would add now is that I just love the fact that it's a film within a film and that we get to see actual film production techniques. Also, I just love that final scene when we pull back from inside the ballroom of the inn to be outside to the singing of "Let's Start the New Year Right." It is a truly wonderful moment that surely ends the film quite well.

HOLIDAY INN
by Jim Manago

One of my favorite films to view during holiday times is the Paramount 1942 film Holiday Inn. It was directed and produced by Mark Sandrich, one of those studio directors pretty forgotten today—perhaps his best films included the Astaire-Rogers vehicles The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935), and Holiday Inn. The film is saturated with 13 tunes by Irving Berlin, with a comical scenario based upon the idea of Berlin, and heavily laden with Bing Crosby’s and Fred Astaire’s star charm. 

First opening during the beginning of August, in a month lacking any holidays, Holiday Inn "offers a reason for celebration not printed in red ink” concludes the reviewer for The New York Times.

‘Lazybones’ Crosby leaves the difficult life of nightclub performer (the 365-day grind) to become a farmer. Realizing the physical routine is harsher than what he left, Crosby conceives of "Holiday Inn" while resting up in a sanitarium: a place of home cooking, relaxation, and entertainment—open holidays only. Thus, Crosby has some 350 days to “kick around in” as he says. Astaire, unsatisfied with his dance partner (actually she left him), tries to steal Crosby’s girl throughout the film’s remainder, but eventually fails.

The most notable song from the film, “White Christmas” is introduced by Crosby to co-star Marjorie Reynolds in a cozy New England farmhouse living room with a fireplace burning and snow falling outside. The song’s lyrics are “impressionistic” since they suggest a mood by sensory impressions of things happening at Christmas time. A “White Christmas,” “glistening treetops,” the sound of “sleigh bells in the snow” and the writing of Christmas cards are elements evocative of that warm atmosphere of Christmas. Holiday Inn will hold your interest even after this lovely tune is performed early in the film. The numbers for the other holidays are equally outstanding (they include “Let’s Start the New Year Right,” "Be Careful, It’s My Heart," "Abraham," "I Can’t Tell a Lie," "Easter Parade," "Say it With Firecrackers”).

Undoubtedly, Holiday Inn has to be examined as another example of Hollywood’s escapist films. This musical is among the Paramount Studio’s best accomplishments at the time. A film dealing with the holidays, particularly with songs for each holiday, was new to film musicals. Yes, the clich├ęd triangular love story does weaken the film somewhat. However, this type of film certainly entertained millions and kept the film industry alive even during a major war.

It’s really fascinating that such a light-hearted song-and-dance routine film could be made at this horrible time in world history with only a one-minute reference to the pressing problems of the real world. In the middle of the number “Song of Freedom” with Crosby singing, the stage curtains open to a screen showing a montage sequence of war preparations, factory operations, the President speaking, etc.

Though none of the war’s evils are shown, this brief sequence reminds the viewer that even though they are experiencing a fictional story, there exists a real responsibility of each viewer to our beloved nation to protect his freedom so that “all God’s people shall be free” (lyrics to song). Though some may consider the sequence an obvious propaganda intrusion, I believe it functions beyond that on a more legitimate level of instilling an intense pride for American values and acts as an exhortation for us to be sure to continue defending those values.

Holiday Inn, really a forgotten film, has been criticized for being episodic in narrative structure. However, despite any such alleged flaws, it is an enjoyable experience. A relaxing spirit pervades the film no doubt, and this is due to the angelic charm of Bing Crosby. The romantic conflict is even played for its comic possibilities, and it is never to be taken seriously. 

*****

Scrooge

This 1951 classic is no doubt the best version of Charles Dickens’ immortal story “A Christmas Carol.” It stands the test of time. Available in b&w and colorized versions.

Most portrayals of Charles Dickens’ miser Scrooge make him into an overly mean one-dimensional, cardboard character to the point that he is not fully human anymore. I recently sat through nearly a dozen versions of Dickens’ perennial holiday favorite, including the starring Seymour Hicks, Reginald Owen, Mr. Magoo, Albert Finney, George C. Scott, and so on. 

The best remains the 1951 British production. Here, Alastair Sim shines as Scrooge, accompanied by a superb supporting cast. No one has surpassed the actor’s brilliant interpretation of Scrooge. His portrayal makes Scrooge a very real and sympathetic person. You could feel for his frailties, and appreciate how unhappy he is, because of his hardened heart.

He is played as a three-dimensional, suffering human being, struggling with his greed, forced to find peace and serenity. When he awakes on Christmas morning after being visited by the spirits, you have a believable exhilaration.

What really matters most from Sim’s multi-layered dynamic portrayal is that Scrooge realizes that life is only meaningful when you live with faith, tolerance, and kindness. What is truly remarkable about these qualities is that the more you give of them, the more you have!

*****

It's A Wonderful Life

The 1946 slice of life classic looks better with each passing year. This inspirational film makes it known once and for all time that life, despite its trials, disappointments and sadness, is indeed worth living! 

Anytime is a good time to dust off your copy of this holiday masterpiece. Most certain is that you must own this one movie on DVD. 

In this endearing fantasy, George Bailey is on the verge of killing himself. However, his guardian angel shows him what a mistake that would be to give up living. The powerful but simple message that the movie so beautifully offers is that each person, like George Bailey, has a very special unique gift -- his very own life. Most importantly, that gift of life is meaningful only when it is shared with others.

Throughout his films, the Italian-American director and producer Frank Capra (1897-1991) presented us with a profoundly optimistic view of life. Capra once said that although he had a very humble peasant origin in Sicily with plenty of hardships, he vowed not to die a peasant. With It’s A Wonderful Life, Capra achieved royal status. 

Even though it was a box-office disappointment when first released, television has made it more and more popular each year. Some seventy years later, Capra’s moving expression of his belief in and love of humanity remains one of the best films of all time.

Twenty-five years ago, I contributed a video review to a weekly local paper. As I look back over all those years, re-read my review and watched this movie once again, I discovered that many things have changed in my life. However, It’s A Wonderful Life still remains the same. The acting by James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Henry Travers, and others is just as convincing as it seemed so many years ago. The dialogue and the scenes are unforgettable. 

Even after a lifetime of viewing this movie more than seventy-five times, I find it has become more relevant and enjoyable. I know undoubtedly that It’s A Wonderful Life will remain forever a brilliant life-affirming movie. Its uplifting and joyful finale (perhaps the best ever) is always refreshing in a world darkened by pessimism, cynicism, and insanity. 

It truly is a wonderful life! 


Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 25, 2016

"Can You Forgive The Pig-Headed Old Fool For Having No Eyes To See With Nor Ears To Hear With All These YEARS?"


One of my favorite moments that stays with me Christmas and throughout the year is found in the 1951 film Scrooge. I am speaking of the great Alastair Sim version. That film is so well-acted and moving. If I can confine my point to just one scene, then I would pick the very touching and tender moment when repentant Scrooge visits his nephew. The scene works so well in capturing Scrooge's change of heart, especially with the song "Barbara Allen" being sung, but effectively stopped mid-verse when Uncle Ebenezer walks in.
  
Scrooge asks his nephew's wife, "Can you forgive the pig-headed old fool for having no eyes to see with nor ears to hear with all these years?" The sense of exhilaration captured here is phenomenal! It just does not get any better than that!

Of course, many of the best scenes and dialogue were not from Dickens' original "A Christmas Carol" story. They were the wonderful brainchild of the now forgotten screenwriter/novelist Noel Langley. He was born on Christmas Day in 1911, and died on November 4, 1980. 

It's Langley that made several adjustments and additions to the Dickens story. Langley wrote in the cinematic style that Dickens also wrote in (of course Dickens was doing this before cinema was even invented). What Langley brought to the story blends well with Dickens' story and it helps to flesh out Scrooge and the other characters. I am sure that this is part of the reason why the 1951 adaptation of the Dickens story is so endearing.  

Langley's contribution lives on in the definitive version of Charles Dickens' immortal tale.  

*****

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Monday, December 19, 2016

"THE HOUSE WITHOUT A CHRISTMAS TREE" HAS HEART!

The following post by D. Manago contains spoilers…


The 1972 telefilm The House Without A Christmas Tree is a heart-warming 1940’s story that is realistic without being overly sentimental. Based on a story written by Gail Rock, the program offers exceptionally good acting despite the low budget. 
  
Jason Robards superbly portrays James Mills, a widowed father who never got over his wife’s death. This puts a serious strain on his relationship with his daughter Addie (Lisa Lucas). 

Addie longs for a Christmas tree. Her father has been refusing to get one for years, and this year is no different. Patient and firm pleas from her grandmother (Mildred Natwick) are to no avail.

Briefly, she wins a tree at school. One of my favorite moments is when James loses his cool, and lashes out at Addie when he sees the tree she brought home. It is only after Addie gives the tree to a poor family that her father changes his heart.

Lucas offers fine subtleties in her expressive eyes when she displays anger, disappointment, humiliation and surprise. In addition, there is Addie’s expression of revelation when her father presents her with the treetop star her late mother made, and Addie realizes that is where her art skills came from.

Yes, The House Without A Christmas Tree is a touching drama, and it has heart! Highly recommended!


***** 

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Thursday, December 1, 2016

Last night by my crackling fireplace, I enjoyed watching that truly charming 1945 gem, Christmas in Connecticut.  My cozy Connecticut farmhouse living room looks like the set from of Holiday Inn.   All that's missing is Bing Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds.  My chestnuts are cooking slowly in the cast-iron skillet.  Anyone that knows me, knows that I just love the nutty sweet aroma and  taste of chestnuts.   

Christmas in Connecticut is one of the few films that gets better each passing year. I have written before about the basics, such as the plot. Here’s some more thoughts on my favorite Christmas film of all time…


Christmas in Connecticut, produced by William Jacobs and directed by Peter Godfrey, comes from an original story by Aileen Hamilton (the screenplay by Lionel Houser and Adele Commandini).  The humorous film has many superb moments. For instance, there is the scene where Liz (Barbara Stanwyck) decorates the tree with the large glass balls.  She drops one after Dennis Morgan solemnly sings the traditional “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”  Morgan also delivers in fine tenor the lovely “The Wish That I Wish Tonight,” a song written especially for the film by Jack Scholl and M. K. Jerome.

There are a number of romantic and visually exquisite scenes, albeit brief but memorable, such as when the smitten Liz sits down and rocks in her rocking chair.  The music adds to the mood by contributing to the film’s funny and romantic moments.  So much more can be said about those wonderfully composed scenes…there's some great black & white cinematography!






Pictured above is Elizabeth Lane’s menu that Mr. Yardley sees in his publication. I tried to locate a recipe for Roast Goose Bernoise – it is apparently a fictitious food. Everyone online keeps offering Roast Goose Garbure Bearnaise as the film’s menu – however, that is not what is depicted in the magazine nor spoken of in the film.

Christmas in Connecticut gives us the flavor of 1940’s Christmas - at least the way filmmakers saw it.  In short, I just love the whole production from start to finish!  

Sydney Greenstreet said it best in the film’s last lines: “What A CHRISTMAS! What A CHRISTMAS!”
I must admit I was so absorbed by this film that I started writing this piece as if I was Elizabeth Lane.  If you've seen the film, you will know what I am talking about.  No, I do not have a crackling fireplace, nor a Connecticut farmhouse, nor an open fire where I can roast chestnuts.  But like Liz, I wish I had more of those niceties of life - but cannot afford them. Writing is an under-appreciated profession that pays zilch. I have so little materially, but still can find joy in the true and non-commercial spirit of the season!   

*****


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JOIN ME AGAIN SOON!