Holiday Inn (1942)

While Holiday Inn is certainly not my favorite Fred Astaire film, it does have several wonderful dances and many familiar Irving Berlin holiday-themed tunes, including “White Christmas.” It was directed by Mark Sandrich, who directed five of the Astaire-Rogers musicals at RKO: The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Shall We Dance (1937) and Carefree (1938).  Holiday Inn was the first of two films that Astaire would do with Bing Crosby, the other being Blue Skies (1946). Sandrich was to direct that movie as well, but died of a heart attack at age 44 just as production began.

PLOT SUMMARY

Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby and Virginia Dale are a song-and-dance performing on Christmas Eve.  Crosby and Dale are to be married, retire from show business and move to a farm, but Astaire has convinced her to ditch Crosby and keep dancing.  Crosby goes alone to the farm but after a year finds it harder than he thought and decides to convert it to an inn opened only on holidays: Holiday Inn.  Marjorie Reynolds, an aspiring dancer, meets Crosby and they start to fall in love.  Meanwhile Dale has left Astaire, who drowns his sorrow in a bottle of scotch and heads to Holiday Inn, where he dances drunkenly with Reynolds and decides she should be his new partner.  (As Crosby says, “Here we go again.”) After Crosby uses a clumsy trick to keep Reynolds from being seen by talent scouts, she leaves with Astaire for a career in Hollywood making a movie about Holiday Inn.  Crosby finally turns to the tables on Astaire, and Reynolds realizes that it is Crosby she loves, and the pair return to the real Holiday Inn.  Obviously you don’t enjoy this movie for a deep narrative but for the delightful musical numbers.

CHRISTMAS CONNECTION

Holiday Inn is one of many must-see Christmas classics, primarily because it was the film that introduced the all-time best secular Christmas song, “White Christmas.”  The film has scenes set on Christmas Eve during three different years in night clubs and a movie studio: the opening scene when the trio splits up, the following year when Crosby announces his plan for opening Holiday Inn, and the third year when Astaire and Marjorie Reynolds are filming the last scene of their movie.

CHARACTER ACTORS

Robert Homans, who plays Pop (the studio guard at the end of the film) appeared as the police sergeant in yesterday’s film, Beyond Tomorrow.  He had tiny roles in hundreds of films, often as policemen or guards, including Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), Dead End (1937), Stella Dallas (1937) and one of my favorite screwball comedies, Easy Living (1937) with Jean Arthur and Edward Arnold.

Irving Bacon, who plays Gus the hapless driver, will be the link to the next film on our list, Meet John Doe (1941),  and we will learn more about his long career in the commentary for that movie. We have already seen him as the exchange desk clerk  in Bachelor Mother (1939).

Walter Abel, who plays the agent Danny Reed, appeared in an interesting film Skylark (1941) with Claudette Colbert and Ray Milland, which was also directed by Mark Sandrich.

Louise Beavers was seldom allowed to get far beyond parts as housekeepers or maids, but she always brought dignity, wisdom and a grand sense of humor to her roles in such films as  Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948) and Shadow of the Thin Man (1941).  Her best role was in Imitation of Life (1934), where she moved far beyond the stereotype to a part of three-dimensional substance. We will see her again soon in Good Sam (1948).

Leon Belasco, who plays the flower shop owner, will reappear as a musician in It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947). He may be familiar as the dealer at Rick’s in Casablanca (1942) or a poolside waiter in My Favorite Wife (1940), but he appeared in hundreds of film and TV roles.

Julia Faye, who plays the guest at the inn on New Year’s Eve who insists on dancing with Bing Crosby, was born in my hometown, Richmond, Va. in 1892.  We will see her briefly in  Remember the Night (1940) as a member of the jury.  During her long career, she was best known as a silent film star and mistress of Cecil B. Demille, and she continued to appear in movies that he directed through The Ten Commandments (1956).

ASTAIRE CONNECTION

Karin Booth, who plays the hat check girl on New Year’s Eve, appeared in Ziegfeld Follies (1945), which included several Astaire dance numbers.

Brooks Benedict appeared in three Astaire films: Follow the Fleet (1936), The Story of Vernon & Irene Castle (1939) and The Sky’s the Limit (1943). We will see him again soon in Remember the Night (1940), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and The Lemon Drop Kid (1951).

Astaire and Crosby (whom Astaire called “Cros”) shared a long-time connection after this film, although they had appeared together 10 years earlier in a benefit performance for the Jewish Federation in New York on November 29, 1931.   They briefly did joint USO tours during World War II, appeared together in another Irving Berlin tune-fest (Blue Skies) and in 1975 recorded  a nostalgic LP, A Couple of Song and Dance Men.  The tracks from that record are included in the audio Fred Astaire: The Complete London Sessions available on Apple iTunes and Amazon.  Fred also appeared in 1975 on one of Crosby’s annual Christmas TV specials.

WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE

First and most of all: FRED ASTAIRE.  We specifically love the “Say It with Firecrackers” number for the Fourth of July and his comic dance routines on New Year’s Eve (“You’re Easy to Dance with”) and Washington’s Birthday (“I Can’t Tell a Lie”).  We all know how well Astaire could dance sober, but could anyone dance better drunk?  In his autobiography, Steps in Time, he recounts how to get in the mood he took two stiff shots of bourbon before the first take and another before each of the six succeeding takes.

WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM

Turner Classic Movies will show Holiday Inn twice in the coming weeks: December 8 at 8 p.m. and December 23 at 6 p.m. (EST).

The Lemon Drop Kid (1951)

This will be the third year we have had The Lemon Drop Kid (1951) on our holiday watch list.  It stayed off for many years because I am not a big fan of Bob Hope, probably because I first encountered him on his TV specials in the 1960s when his humor had become rather tired and tiresome.  I later learned to enjoy the early “Road” pictures with Bing Crosby, so we decided to give this a try.  Its main delight comes in elements beyond Bob Hope and the roguish, narcissistic character he portrays.  It has one of the most familiar array of character actors in our Christmas catalog, many of whom were on the verge of long, varied careers in TV and others at the end of long movie careers.  We have not seen the 1934 version of the Damon Runyon story, which apparently does not have a Christmas element, but we will try to watch it in 2019.

PLOT SUMMARY

The perpetually broke Lemon Drop Kid (who gain the moniker because of his favorite candy) is working the Florida race tracks touting different horses to dupes near the betting windows.  He convinces the girl friend of gangster Moose Moran to bet on a losing horse and now owes Moose $10,000.  Moose agrees not to kill Lemon Drop if he can come up with the ten grand by Christmas Eve.  Lemon Drop heads to his home turf, New York City, and tries to come up with the dough, settling on a nefarious con job: convincing his Times Square pals to wear Santa suits and collect donations to raise funds for a retirement home for Nellie Thursday and other “old dolls.”  Rival gangster Oxford Charlie gets wind of the scheme and snatches the dolls and the funds, letting everyone know that Lemon Drop was also scheming to abscond with the money.  Lemon Drop finds a way to squirm out of danger, regains everyone’s trust, and all ends happily on Christmas Eve.

CHRISTMAS CONNECTION

The Runyonesque denizens of Times Square, dressed in Santa suits ringing bells to collect donations in their kettles, create some funny scenes, culminating in the first film rendition of the classic Christmas song “Silver Bells.”

CHARACTER ACTORS

Pat Flaherty

Pat Flaherty, who plays Police Captain Swain who raids the casino at the film’s conclusion, appeared in yesterday’s film, Meet John Doe, where he played the rival newspaper spy trying to convince Gary Cooper to admit that he is a fake.  We will see him tomorrow in The Thin Man (1934) in a small role early in his long career.  Flaherty shows up again and again in small but key parts in some of the finest classics: a jail guard in Modern Times (1936), a member of the ground crew in Only Angels Have Wings (1939), again with Gary Cooper in Sergeant York (1941), and dozens more. My favorite appearances of his are as a bum on the dump with William Powell in My Man Godfrey (1936) and as the foreman of the salvage crew junking the unused war planes near the end of The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).

Brooks Benedict

We have already seen Brooks Benedict in Holiday Inn.  In The Lemon Drop Kid, he is seen leaving the Men’s Room after the cross-dressing Lemon Drop Kid ducks in with the purloined dough.

Lloyd Nolan

Lloyd Nolan, who plays Oxford Charlie, had hundreds of roles in movies in the 1940s and ’50s and then on TV through the mid-1980s. We saw him recently in the World War II film Bataan (1943) in an outstanding performance as a crazed corporal under fire during the Japanese invasion.

Jane Darwell

Jane Darwell made a long career out of playing kindly old ladies, often in Shirley Temple films (she appeared in five).  She could also be a busy-body, such as Mrs. Merriwether in Gone with the Wind (1939).  She won a well-deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as Ma Joad in John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940).

Fred Clark

Fred Clark, who plays Moose Moran, is another of the character actors who appeared in a host of films and TV series in the 1950s and 1960s. He had recurring roles in such classics as The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show in the early 1950s and then in The Beverly Hillbillies in the early ’60s. He played the producer Sheldrake in Sunset Boulevard (1950).

Jay C. Flippen

Another actor who bridged movies and TV was Jay C. Flippen, who plays Straight Flush Tony.  His craggy voice and gruff voice made him perfect for Westerns both on the big screen (Winchester ’73, Bend of the River and The Far Country) and on the small (Rawhide, The Virginian and Wanted: Dead or Alive).

William Frawly

William Frawley, who plays Gloomy Willie, won TV immortality as Fred Mertz in I Love Lucy, but before that he was a character actor with a long list of movie credits.  We will see him three more times in the Christmas cinema list: Miracle on 34th Street (1947), Lady on a Train (1945) and Good Sam (1948).

Ida Moore

Ida Moore, who plays Mrs. Feeney (the bird lady), will also show up in a charming role in Good Sam (1948) and in Double Dynamite (1951). She had distinctive small roles in such comedies as The Egg and I (1947) and its spin-off Ma and Pa Kettle (1949).

Tom Dugan

Tom Dugan, who plays  No Thumbs Charlie, had some wonderful small parts in several classic comedies. He was Bronski in Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942) and the Grand Central con man in The Major and the Minor (1942). He also appeared with Lloyd Nolan in Bataan (1943).  We will see him again in Lady on a Train (1945). He has a distinctive role as a cop chasing the sailors to Coney Island near the end of On the Town (1949).

ASTAIRE CONNECTION

Ida Moore appeared with Fred Astaire in Let’s Dance (1950).

Fred Clark played Griggs, Fred’s chief of staff in Daddy Long Legs (1955).

Tom Dugan appeared with Fred in The Belle of New York (1952). Dugan appeared on a vaudeville bill with Fred and Adele Astaire as part of the comic sketch team Dugan & (Babette) Raymond in Poli’s Theatre in Waterbury, CT, during the week of November 8, 1915.

Jay Flippen appeared with the Astaires on a benefit bill for the Young Folk’s League for Aid to Hebrew Infants at Manhattan’s Liberty Theatre (234 W. 42nd St.) on October 25, 1931.  Also on the bill were vaudeville headliners Irene Franklin and Sophie Tucker.

WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE

We’re suckers for any film with horses at race tracks, even if it is not Saratoga.  We also delight in any movie, especially Christmas movies, with scenes of Manhattan.  This film abounds in such scenes, highlighted by a wonderfully produced rendition of “Silver Bells” dancing and singing through Midtown, closing with a lovely aerial shot of snow falling on Central Park.  The production Barbara of the flower market number in My Fair Lady.  Finally, there is fine comic bit with a dachshund on the frozen sidewalks of New York, and Barbara loves dachshunds.

WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM

The Lemon Drop Kid is not scheduled on TCM this season, but it is available on DVD from Amazon.

The Thin Man (1934)

This has always been one of our favorite films.  We probably watch it at least twice every year, not only as a longstanding part of our Christmas cinema catalog but any time we want a fast-paced, witty film to lift our spirits.  Nick, Nora and Asta never grow old, and W.S. van Dyke’s direction is fresh and nearly perfect.  Every scene advances the plot, except for the Christmas morning scene with Nick in his pajamas shooting out balloons on the Christmas tree with his toy rifle and Nora stewing in her new fur coat. This improvised episode helps demonstrate the rich relationship between this husband wife that gives the whole Thin Man series its abiding interest.

PLOT SUMMARY

Clyde Wynant is planning to leave town to work on a new invention, not letting anyone know where he is going but promising his daughter to be home before Christmas in time for her wedding.  Before leaving he realizes that his mistress and someone else have been stealing money from him.  Three months later on Christmas Eve, retired detective Nick Charles and his rich wife, Nora, are in New York for the holidays when Wynant’s daughter asks Nick to find her missing father.  Two murders quickly follow: the mistress and a friend who was blackmailing her murderer.  The evidence points to the vengeful Wynant, but when a third body shows up Nick, working with the police, stages a post-Christmas dinner party to expose the real murderer.

CHRISTMAS CONNECTION

The main action of the movie opens on Christmas Eve, and there are extended scenes of decorating the tree while nursing a hangover, a boisterous Christmas Eve party in the hotel suite, and the hilarious Christmas morning with the array of gifts: Nick’s toy gun, Nora’s fur coat and Asta’s fireplug.

CHARACTER ACTORS

Pat Flaherty

Pat Flaherty, who is the link to yesterday’s film, The Lemon Drop Kid (1951), has a short, silent role as the young prize fighter at the Christmas Eve party in the Charles’s hotel suite.  Before his lengthy career as a character actor, Flaherty had served in the military in World War I, played minor-league baseball, and played professional football.  In 1929, before beginning his Hollywood career, he married Dorothea X. Fugazy, the daughter of a famed boxing promoter, so there was a bit of typecasting in this role.

Edward Brophy, who plays the small-time gangster Morelli, is the link to our next film,  It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947). We will learn more about him in tomorrow’s post about that film.

Maureen O’Sullivan

Maureen O’Sullivan, who plays the daughter, Dorothy Wynant, had already had her most famous role as Jane in Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) when she made The Thin Man (1934).  She had a long career including roles in the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races (1937) and Laurence Olivier’s Pride and Prejudice (1940).

Nat Pendleton

Nat Pendleton, who plays Lieutenant Gill, had a long Hollywood career, often as a bumbling policeman.  He appeared in It’s a Wonderful World (1939), strong man Eugene Sandow  in The Great Ziegfeld (1936) — also with William Powell and Myrna Loy) — and the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers (1932).

Minna Gombell

Minna Gombell, who plays Wynant’s first wife, Mimi, appeared in the original version of  The Lemon Drop Kid (1934), High Sierra (1941), and as queen of beggars in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). Perhaps her best known later role is as Mrs. Parrish in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).

Porter Hall

Porter Hall, who plays the lawyer Herbert Macaulay, will show up in two more films on our Christmas film list: Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943).  He also had roles in Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday (1940) and Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels (1941).

Harold Huber

Harold Huber, who plays the stool pigeon Nunheim, had roles in Beau Geste (1939), The Good Earth (1937) and  Reckless (1935), which also featured William Powell and Powell’s future fiancé, Jean Harlow.

Cesar Romero

Cesar Romero, who plays Chris Jorgenson, had a long Hollywood career, including two Shirley Temple films —  Wee Willie Winkie (1937) and The Little Princess (1939) —   and Ocean’s 11 (1960). His best known role was perhaps as The Joker in the Batman TV series.

Edward Ellis

Edward Ellis, who plays “the thin man” Clyde Wyant, appeared in such films as the dark tragedy I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) and the Shirley Temple musical Little Miss Broadway (1938)

Cyril Thornton, who plays the bookkeeper Tanner, was D.B. Norton’s butler in  Meet John Doe (1940).

Asta

Asta appeared in nearly a dozen films, including two Cary Grant screwball classics: The Awful Truth (1937) and Bringing Up Baby (1938). He also appeared briefly with William Powell in the Philo Vance mystery The Kennel Murder Case (1933).  And, of course, he was a key part of the whole six-film Thin Man series.

ASTAIRE CONNECTION

Cesar Romero was a dancer in New York early in his career, and appeared at a supper hour dance duringa ballroom benefit at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel for the Junior League on January 20, 1928.  Fred Astaire, along with many other Broadway stars (including George Gershwin), attended the benefit.

Harold Huber appeared in Astaire’s film Let’s Dance (1950).

WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE

William Powell, Myrna Loy and Asta!
Christmas in New York!
Wonderful cinematography by James Wong Howe.

WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM

Turner Classic Movies will show The Thin Man  on December 31 at 8:45 a.m., followed by the other five films in the series.  This has been a TCM tradition for several years.

It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947)

We added this little film to our Christmas cinema catalog about five years ago and fell in love with it right away.  It has several weak spots, and certainly doesn’t rank among the top-notch classics, but the characters and the situations are engaging, and the transformation of a mid-20th Century American Scrooge into a warm-hearted father and husband fits well with the season.

PLOT SUMMARY

Aloysius T. McKeever and his dog sneak into a Fifth Avenue mansion, while its rich owner, Michael O’Connor, spends the winter in Bubbling Springs, VA. McKeever invites a down-on-his-luck veteran, Jim Bullock, who has been evicted by the O’Connor interests, to stay in the mansion, and as the days progress more sweet-hearted young needy folks move in as well, including O’Connor’s daughter, Trudy, who has run away from an unhappy boarding school where she has been living since her father and mother divorced four years earlier.  Hiding her identity from McKeever, Bullock and the others, Trudy is tracked down by her father, but she convinces him to move into the mansion, disguising himself as an old bum.  Trudy also convinces her mother, Mary, to come to the mansion in disguise as well.  We learn that Trudy’s parents still love each other but that Michael’s focus on controlling other people’s lives and making money has turned his attention away from love.  Learning lessons in humility from McKeever, O’Connor finally consents to his daughter’s marriage and assists Jim and his friends, so all ends happily, with McKeever walking down Fifth Avenue on his way to spend the spring at O’Connor’s mansion in Virginia.

CHRISTMAS CONNECTION

The story begins in November and extends through Christmas and the New Year.  There is a tree decorating episode, and a warm-hearted Christmas Eve celebration.  The season’s spirit of transformation suffuses the story.

CHARACTER ACTORS

Edward Brophy

Edward Brophy, who plays one of the security guards who interrupts the Christmas Eve party, is the link to yesterday’s film, The Thin Man (1934), where he played the gangster Morelli.  We will see him in three more films this season: A Christmas Carol (1938), Larceny Inc. (1942) and Bundle of Joy (1956).

Ann Harding

Ann Harding, who plays Mary O’Connor, will be the link to tomorrow’s film, Christmas Eve (1947), so we will explore her career more in that film’s post.

Charlie Ruggles

Charlie Ruggles, who plays Michael O’Connor, was one of the funniest character actors in Hollywood, specializing in slightly pompous but endearing characters.  He played the March Hare in Alice in Wonderland (1933) and Egbert Floud in Ruggles of Red Gap (1935). He had a short-lived, eponymous TV series, The Ruggles, in 1949-50.  His best role was as big-game hunter Major Applegate in Bringing Up Baby (1938).

Gale Storm

Gale Storm, who plays Trudy O’Connor, had a variety of film roles in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but her greatest fame came in early TV comedies: My Little Margie (1952-55) and The Gale Storm Show (1956-60), the later co-starring Zasu Pitts.

Victor Moore

Victor Moore, who plays Aloysius T. McKeever, had a long show business career a headliner in vaudeville, a star on Broadway and a wonderful character actor in Hollywood.   (Look for more on him in the “Astaire Connections” section below.)

Allen Hale Jr

Alan Hale Jr., who plays buddy Whitey Temple, is best known as the Skipper in TV’s Gilligan’s Island.

Grant Mitchell

Grant Mitchell, who plays O’Connor’s assistant Farrow, will appear twice more in our holiday film list: Larceny Inc. (1944) and The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942). He had a long career as a character actor, appearing in such classics as Dinner at Eight (1933), The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Arsenic and Old Lace (1944).

Chester Clute

Chester Clute, who appears briefly as one of O’Connor’s aides, has already been on our Christmas cinema list in Bacheror Mother (1938). We will see him again in Larceny Inc. (1944), Lady on a Train (1942) and Remember the Night (1940).

Charles Lane

Charles Lane, who has a brief role as the landlord refusing to rent to the veteran families, had a long list of credits in movies and on TV, including some of the best Hollywood classics: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), Twentieth Century (1934) and Ball of Fire (1941).  We will see him again in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

ASTAIRE CONNECTION

This movie may have more substantial Astaire connections than any we have seen so far.

Victor Moore had one of his first headlining roles in vaudeville in 1905 at Proctor’s 23rd Street theatre, just a few blocks from the boarding house where the Astaires were living and two blocks from the Grand Opera House at Eighth Avenue and 23rd Street, where they were taking their first dance lessons.  Twenty years later, Moore would be the featured comedian in one of the Astaires’ biggest Broadway hits, George Gershwin’s Funny Face. A fellow member of the Lambs Club, Moore would appear with Astaire in the 1930 Lambs Gambol at the Metropolitan Opera House on April 27 and two years later at the Actors Dinner Club Ball on December 31, 1932.  Moore also appeared as Fred’s buddy in what many consider the finest Astaire-Rogers film, Swing Time (1936).

Charlie Ruggles appeared with the Astaires in their second Broadway revue, The Passing Show of 1918, and on a Shubert Sunday Concert bill at the Winter Garden theatre on October 16, 1918.

Grant Mitchell, appeared on three benefit bills with the Astaires: the Actors Equity Association on May 9, 1920, and May 1, 1921, and a Junior League Benefit on January 19, 1928. Mitchell also had a small role in Fred’s first movie, Dancing Lady (1933).

Abe Reynolds, who does a turn in It Happened on Fifth Avenue as Finkelstein the second-hand clothing merchant, is actually reprising his bit as the Jewish tailor in Swing Time (1936) in an extended scene with Victor Moore.

WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE

The scenes in New York, especially as Moore walks down Fifth Avenue near Central Park at the end of the film, pull at our heart-strings. While the movie can be a bit sappy, it also creates a warm little world that you are sad to leave, which for me is the mark of any successful story.

WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM

Turner Classic Movies will show It Happened on Fifth Avenue on December 9 at 8 p.m. and again on December 25 at 5:45 p.m. (ET).

 

Christmas Eve (1947)

Although this film has been in my collection for several years, this is the first time we have seen the film.  Based on the dark synopses that I had seen, I had hesitated to put the film in the Christmas rotation but still had hopes because of the leading cast members, so when some spots opened up because of the early Thanksgiving start to our holiday we finally watched this film by Edwin Marin, who also directed the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol, which we will be seeing later in the rotation.

Unfortunately, Christmas Eve was  not worth the wait, and it won’t stay on the watch list in future years.  There are many weaknesses in the film, primarily in the script, the direction and the portrayal of the key characters.  The lead actors — George Raft, George Brent and Randolph Scott — all come across as caricatures of roles that had previously brought them fame but that are only rough outlines in this film. Raft is a gangster with a few hints of Bogart from Casablanca. Brent is a sophisticated ladies’ man, and Scott is a slow-talking cowboy.  There are appearances from well-known character actors, but these are not only fleeting and wasted but interesting only in contrast to their more effective use in better scripts shot by better directors.

PLOT SUMMARY

Aunt Matilda’s nephew, Phillip, has enlisted a judge to declare his rich relative incompetent and give him control of her estate.  The eccentric old woman, who lives in a Fifth Avenue mansion, declares that she wants one of her three adopted sons to take control of her substantial funds, even though she has not seen them for years.  The judge agrees to wait until Christmas Eve, when Aunt Matilda is sure that her sons will return to aid her.  We meet the first son, Michael, who has been writing bad checks and is planning to marry a wealthy woman he does not love to recoup his losses.  The nephew blackmails him to stay away from New York.  The second son, Mario, runs a club in South America, having fled the United States because of a vague crime for which an FBI agent is pursuing him.  Mario’s girl friend has absconded with funds from an escaped Nazi war criminal, who abducts and tortures Mario to find the funds.  Attempting to escape, Mario kills the Nazi but not before the Nazi kills the girl friend.  It seems certain Mario, on the lam from Nazis and the FBI, will never make it back to Aunt Matilda.  With the aid of a detective, Matilda has located the third son, Jonathan, who rides in a rodeo.  He returns to New York, but on the way to his aunt’s he is picked up by a strange woman investigating a baby selling racket who wants Jonathan to pretend to be her husband.  Attacked by the baby racketeers, Jonathan escapes with three baby girls and takes them to Aunt Matilda’s mansion, where the nephew and the judge have been waiting.  Then unexpectedly Michael and Mario also arrive.  Phillip is revealed as a crook, and we learn that Matilda, far from being a doddering old woman, has known all along about the weaknesses of her adopted sons and the fraud of her nephew.  All ends well, however, as the sons and their new fiancés join Aunt Matilda for a Christmas Eve dinner.

CHRISTMAS CONNECTION

The film concludes on Christmas Eve, with snow-covered New York streets and a lavishly decorated tree and a sumptuous feast in Aunt Matilda’s mansion.

CHARACTER ACTORS

Ann Harding

Ann Harding, who plays Aunt Matilda, appeared as the estranged wife, Mary O’Connor, in yesterday’s film It Happened on Fifth Avenue.  Both films were made in the same year.  In Fifth Avenue, she plays a middle-aged woman trying to look young, and in Christmas Eve the 45-year-old actress plays an aged woman.  In the 1930s, she appeared in early film versions of two Philip Barry plays — Holiday (1930) and The Animal Kingdom (1932) — as well as an early version of Enchanted April (1935).  She had dozens of character roles on TV during the 1950s.

J. Farrell MacDonald

J. Farrell MacDonald, who plays a policeman, will be the link to tomorrow’s film, Preston Sturges’s The Miracle at Morgan’s Creek (1943).

Joan Blondell

Joan Blondell, who plays the girl friend of George Brent, appeared in well over 100 films, starting with a mix of Warner Brothers gangster films (The Public Enemy) and musicals (Footlight Parade) and ending her career with classics such as Grease (1978).

Dolores Moran

Dolores Moran, who plays the baby investigator, appeared as the exotic French wife in To Have and Have Not (1944).  She had a scandalous reputation in Hollywood and was the wife of Christmas Eve‘s producer, Benedict Bogeaus.

Reginald Denny

Reginald Denny, who plays the nephew, Phillip, appeared as Frank Crawley in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and as Simms the architect in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948).

Douglass Dumbrille

Douglass Dumbrille, who plays Dr. Bunyan the baby seller, had similar villainous roles in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and A Day at the Races (1937).

Clarence Kolb

Clarence Kolb, who plays Judge Alston, played the corrupt mayor in His Girl Friday (1940), Cornelius Vanderbilt in The Toast of the Town (1937) and a doddering party guest in After the Thin Man (1936).

Molly Lamont

Molly Lamont, who plays Michael’s brief rich fiancé,  plays as a similar role as Barbara Vance in The Awful Truth (1937).

Joe Litel

John Litel, who plays the FBI agent, will appear in Frank Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles (1961).  He had a continuing role as the governor in the Zorro TV series (1958-59).

Joe Sawyer

Joe Sawyer, who plays Aunt Matilda’s private detective, appeared in over 200 films and TV shows.  Among the classics on his film roster are Sergeant York (1941),  The Roaring Twenties (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and The Petrified Forest (1936).

ASTAIRE CONNECTION

Randolph Scott appeared with Fred Astaire in two RKO musicals: Roberta (1935) and Follow the Fleet (1936).

Clarence Kolb appeared in two Astaire films: The Sky’s the Limit (1943) and Carefree (1938).

John Litel appeared on a benefit bill with Fred and Adele Astaire for the Actors Equity Association on May 9, 1920.

Douglas Dumbrille appeared with Astaire at the Lambs Gambol on April 27, 1930, at the Metropolitan Opera House.

While George Raft never performed with Astaire, Fred knew him in the 1920s during their days in Manhattan. In his autobiography, Steps in Time, Astaire remembers Raft as “the neatest, fastest Charleston dancer ever …. He practically floored me with his footwork” in appearances at Texas Guinan’s nightclub during Prohibition.

WHY WE LOVE SORTA LIKE THIS MOVIE

Christmas Eve shows by contrast with other films on our list how important a solid script, quality direction and good acting are to creating an engaging film.  While the idea behind this movie is in some ways stronger (and less sappy) than films such as It Happened on Fifth Avenue, the confused story-line, the caricatured roles and the weak staging of scenes such as the engine room fight with George Raft turn what could be an interesting idea into a weakly realized film.  I am willing to suspend my disbelief in a character’s irrational choices when the story and the character pull me in, but not when the story is confused and the characters are weakly drawn.

My favorite part of the whole movie was recognizing the voice of Robert Dudley, who plays one of Aunt Matilda’s staff, as the actor who plays the delicious role of the Wienie King in Preston Sturges’s The Palm Beach Story (1942).  We will see (and hear) Dudley tomorrow in The Miracle at Morgan’s Creek and later this month in Lady on a Train.

WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM

Turner Classic Movies has not scheduled Christmas Eve for this season.  It is available on DVD for $14.95.  Don’t waste your money.

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943)

This is the first year we have included this film by Preston Sturges in our Christmas cinema rotation, not because we didn’t love this film but because we usually haven’t thought of it as a holiday film per se, since only the last section of the film occurs at Christmas.  When I first discovered Preston Sturges decades ago (I think Sullivan’s Travels was the first one I saw), I have watched and re-watched his whole filmography ever since.  For a decade he wrote and directed some of the best screwball comedies in Hollywood’s history, starting with The Great McGinty (1940) through Unfaithfully Yours (1948).  I’ll pretend that embarrassment The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949) didn’t happen.  Sturges wove wonderful satiric stories with witty dialogue and silly slapstick bits into movies that reward you on every viewing.  Few directors could be almost simultaneously cynical and idealistic, while giving both stars and character actors juicy dialogue and breakneck comic business.  All of those touches and the reliable members of his stock company are here in this film.

PLOT SUMMARY

Trudy Kockenlocker convinces Norval Jones to help her sneak to an all-night party for soldiers leaving their town of Morgan’s Creek for World War II. Norval, whose high blood pressure and tendency to see spots whenever stressed have made him ineligible for service, reluctantly agrees.  After the party Trudy wakes up to find herself married and pregnant, but she can’t remember her soldier husband’s name.  To prevent a scandal, she convinces Norval, who has always loved her, to marry her, and when she realizes how much he loves her, Trudy realizes she loves him as well. Now what to do about the first marriage, for which she has no certificate and used a fake name.  Norval comes up with a scheme to marry Trudy under a fake name, get a divorce, and then remarry Trudy with his real name, but at the Justice of the Peace the plan falls apart and Norval is arrested for a host of crimes.  He escapes from jail to go look for the first husband, but after taking money from the bank where he works, he is accused of bank robbery as well. In disgrace, Trudy’s family leaves town to await the birth of the child.  Norval returns just before Christmas, having been unable to find the first husband.  Trudy goes into labor and ends up having sextuplets.  The “miracle” of Morgan’s Creek ends up making international news. Trudy and Norval are now heroes, and all ends happily.

CHRISTMAS CONNECTION

The film begins just before Christmas and then proceeds in flashback to tell the story that led up to the “miracle.” The final action resumes during the holidays, and there are some funny scenes of Trudy’s father (WIlliam Demarest) decorating a limp Christmas tree.

CHARACTER ACTORS

J. Farrell MacDonald

J. Farrell MacDonald, who plays a county sheriff, provides the link to yesterday’s film, Christmas Eve, where he played a policeman.  We have already seen him once, as Sourpuss in Meet John Doe, and we will see him again toward the end of our Christmas cinema garland in It’s a Wonderful Life.

Jimmy Conlin

Jimmy Conlin, has a small role as the head of the town council at the end of the film.  He is the link to tomorrow’s movie, The Great Rupert (1950), so look for more about this wonderful actor then.

Eddie Bracken

Eddie Bracken plays Norval in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and had the lead in Preston Sturges’s next comedy, the even more irreverent Hail the Conquering Hero (1944).

Betty Hutton

Betty Hutton plays Trudy in this film. She was the star of several top-rated films in the 1950s, including Annie Get Your Gun (1950) and The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). She portrayed 1920s nightclub star Texas Guinan in Incendiary Blonde (1945) and had a brief TV series The Betty Hutton Show in 1959-60.

Diana Lynn

Diana Lynn plays sister Emmy in this film, reprising a similar role as the smart-aleck sister in Billy Wilder’s The Major and the Minor (1942). She played opposite Ronald Reagan in Bedtime for Bonzo (1951).

William Demarest

William Demarest, who plays Constance Kockenlocker, was a reliable member of Sturges’s stock company of comic character actors. This may be his best role in that extended series. Demarest began his career in vaudeville and ended appearing as Uncle Charley in TV’s My Three Sons 1965-72.

Porter Hall plays the justice of the peace and has already been seen in The Thin Man and will see seen once more in Miracle on 34th Street.

Nora Cecil

Nora Cecil, who plays one of the nurses, appeared in many fine comedies, including Easy Living (1937), I Married a Witch (1942), The Thin Man Goes Home (1944) and Hail the Conquering Hero (1944). We will see her again in Lady on a Train (1945).

Julius Tannen

Julius Tannen, who plays Mr. Rafferty, started as a vaudeville monologist and then had a long career in movies, especially as part of the Sturges’s stock company. In the classic Singin’ in the Rain, he played the man demonstrating early sound pictures.

Emory Parnell

Emory Parnell, who plays the banker, appeared in such classics as Mr. Lucky (1943), Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942) and The Major and the Minor (1942). We will see him again soon in Larceny Inc. (1942).

Victor Potel

Victor Potel, who played the newspaper editor, appeared in many Sturges’s comedies, such as The Palm Beach Story (1942), Sullivan’s Travels (1941), The Lady Eve (1941), Christmas in July (1940) and The Great McGinty (1940).

Georgia Caine

Georgia Caine, who plays Mrs. Johnson, played Eddie Bracken’s mother in Hail the Conquering Hero. We will see her soon in a very dark role as Barbara Stanwyck’s mother in Remember the Night.

ASTAIRE CONNECTION

Betty Hutton starred with Fred Astaire in the film Let’s Dance.

Victor Potel plays the second bartender in the wonderful “One More for the Road” number in The Sky’s the Limit (1943).

Jimmy Conlin appeared with Astaire in his film Second Chorus (1940).

The team of William Demarest and Estelle Collette appeared in vaudeville with the Astaires in 1915 (Providence, RI) and 1916 (Milwaukee). Demarest also appeared on the bill for a benefit sponsored by Flo Ziegfeld on December 7, 1930. He appeared on WEAF radio with Astaire in 1933.

Julius Tannen appeared on stage with Fred at a Lambs Gambol, the Ziegfeld Benefit (for which he was the master of ceremonies) and a New York American Christmas Relief Fund benefit in 1930.

Georgia Caine appeared with the Astaires on Broadway in Smiles. She was a student at the Claude Alviene school, where the Astaires first took dancing lessons after arriving in New York City in 1905.

WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE

When Preston Sturges hits the mark there is no one better. His blend of caprice, cynicism and clever dialogue in this film is especially good. The remarkable last 10 minutes showing the “miracle” that the whole film has been building can’t be beat.

WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM

Unfortunately Turner Classic Movies doesn’t have this film scheduled any time soon. It’s a very pricey DVD on Amazon, but it streams on Amazon Prime for $9.99.

The Great Rupert (1950)

We first saw this movie about five years ago and became enthralled by its earnest silliness blended with a warm-hearted Christmas message of hope and transformation.  The story involves a dancing squirrel (The Great Rupert), but what wins you are the lovely performances by a host of favorite character actors.  There are touches of “A Christmas Carol” in the redemption of a stingy character, and the lead family has a bit of the Cratchits.  Suspend your disbelief for a bit and enter into the spirit of the season.

A colorized version of the film has been released under the title A Christmas Wish: stay away from any such travesty.

PLOT SUMMARY

Animal trainer Joe Mahoney is down on his luck and has to give up his trained squirrel, Rupert, taking him  to live with his fellow squirrels.  Bullied by the New York squirrels (shades of Rudolph!) and a dog, Rupert returns to the poor apartment that he had shared with Joe and goes back to his comfortable nest in the rafters.  Meanwhile the Amendola family, down-on-their-luck vaudevillians, are looking for a cheap place to stay on Christmas Eve and rent the same basement apartment from the stingy Mr. Dingle, who owns the house and lives upstairs .  Dingle learns that a stock he thought was worthless will pay a lucrative weekly dividend, but not trusting banks, he stores the cash in the woodwork — intruding on Rupert’s nest.  Down to their last dollar, Mrs. Amendola prays for help, just as Rupert throws the cash out of his nest to rain down on her, and she concludes that it is an answered prayer.  As the weeks proceed, Dingle stashes the cash, Rupert disposes of it, and the Amendolas collect it, never realizing where the funds’ true source.  After a few silly luxuries, Mr. Amendola begins using the money to assist neighboring merchants, who begin succeeding and then repay Amendola’s kindnesses by making him a partner in their businesses.  The city, state and federal authorities begin to wonder where Amendola is getting the money and accuse him of theft or tax evasion.  There is a subplot about the rocky romantic relationship between the young Amendola daughter and the Dingle son.  The elder Dingle is faced with double disasters: the stock stops paying dividends and the house catches fire, destroying the cash stashed in the woodwork.  Amendola’s investments in kindness pay off, and he rebuilds the Dingle’s house and all ends well.  Rupert is rescued from the fire, and Joe Mahoney returns to take Rupert on tour where he wins fame as “The Great Rupert!”

CHRISTMAS CONNECTION

The story begins on Christmas Eve and features a meager Christmas celebration that turns joyous with the timely intervention of Rupert.

CHARACTER ACTORS

Jimmy Conlin

Jimmy Conlin, who plays Joe Mahoney, is the link to yesterday’s film, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943).  Conlin was one of the most reliable character actors for director Preston Sturges, appearing in all but two of his films. My favorite of Conlin’s roles is in The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (aka Mad Wednesday) (1947).

Frank Orth

Frank Orth, who plays Mr. Dingle, is the link to tomorrow’s film Double Dynamite (1951), so we will provide more detail about him in that commentary.

Jimmy Durante, who plays Mr. Amendola, will be seen later on the holiday watch list in  The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942). He appeared in dozens of films, including Little Miss Broadway (1938) with Shirley Temple.  A native New Yorker, his career took off in the 1920s in vaudeville, radio, night clubs and Broadway. You will get a sense of his wild comic patter mixed with piano playing and broken singing that had been his trademark style for 30 years when this film was made.

Terry Moore, who plays Rosalinda Amendola, had the lead in Mighty Joe Young (1949) and had earlier played the young Paula in Gaslight (1944). She was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Come Back Little Sheba (1952). Later in life, she claimed that she had been secretly married to billionaire Howard Hughes in 1949.

Tom Drake, who plays Pete Dingle, will be seen later on our holiday film list as John Truett in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944).

Sara Haden, who plays Mrs. Dingle, will be seen in The Bishop’s Wife (1947) and The Shop Around the Corner (1940). She appeared in two Shirley Temple movies:  Poor Little Rich Girl (1936) and Captain January (1936).

Frank Cady, who plays the IRS investigator, gained his greatest fame on TV as Sam Drucker in Green Acres and Petticoat Junction. Among his many movie roles was a part in Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954).

Torben Meyer, who plays Mr. Petrushka, the baker, was another reliable member of the Preston Sturges stock company, appearing in such films as Unfaithfully Yours (1948), The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947), Hail the Conquering Hero (1944). He played the doctor at the end of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943) and the purser in The Lady Eve (1941).  He also had a role as the head waiter in a charming film The Good Fairy (1935).

Don Beddoe, who plays the pharmacy owner, Mr. Haggerty, appeared in dozens of character roles in TV during the 1950s and 1960s. His movie roles include The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).

ASTAIRE CONNECTION

Jimmy Conlin appeared with Fred Astaire in the film Blue Skies (1946). Astaire intended to retire after that film, but he returned to do Easter Parade (1948) and continued to do wonderful films for another decade.

Jimmy Durante appeared on stage with Astaire for five different benefit concerts in the 1930s: the New York American Christmas and Relief Fund (12/21/1930), the Stage Relief Fund (3/26/1933), a tribute to Florenz Ziegfeld (4/21/1933) at the Ziegfeld Theatre before it was converted to a movie house, the Press Club Frolic (4/23/1933) and the Newspaper Women’s Club (6/2/1933).  The last took place just a month before Astaire left New York for Hollywood.

Torben Meyer appeared in two Astaire films: Yolanda and the Thief (1945) and Shall We Dance (1937).

Don Beddoe appeared with Astaire in The Band Wagon (1953).

Queenie Smith, who plays Mrs. Amendola, appeared with Astaire in the Actors Dinner Club benefit 10/9/1932.

Terry Moore plays Astaire’s niece in Daddy Long Legs (1955).

WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE

We love the glimpse it gives into Durante’s comic talents, the marvelous character actors with obscure connections to so many other favorite films, and the glimpses of Manhattan across the East River from the Brooklyn park where Rupert is abandoned and then reunited with Jimmy Conlin.

WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM

Turner Classic Movies will show The Great Rupert on December 24 at 9:30 a.m. (ET).

Double Dynamite (1951)

We first saw this film about a year ago when we were watching films from a lengthy catalog of screwball comedies.  This film was noted as a late representative of that genre, which flourished in the 1930s and early 1940s.  We weren’t overly impressed, but since it was set at Christmas we decided to give it a second try and added it to the 2018 holiday watch list.  It probably will not make the 2019 list — for reasons I’ll go into at the end of today’s post.  The film stars Jane Russell near the beginning of her film career, Groucho Marx approaching the end of his, and a scrawny Frank Sinatra still a few years shy of his break-out role in From Here to Eternity (1953). The film was actually shot three years before its 1951 release. There are two musical numbers, one a duet between Sinatra and Russell, and the other with Frank and Groucho.  Both songs are by Jule Styne (who did the music for Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, which we saw two weeks ago) and famed lyricist Sammy Cahn, who collaborated with Styne three years later for the Oscar winning song “Three Coins in a Fountain.”  The two also collaborated on the classic “Let It Snow” (1945) and “The Christmas Waltz” (1954).  Unfortunately, the two songs in this movie have nothing to do with Christmas.

PLOT SUMMARY

Johnny Dalton (Sinatra) is in love with his fellow bank teller “Mibs” Goodhue (Russell), but they can’t afford to get married on his meager salary.  Their buddy Emile Keck (Groucho), a waiter at their favorite restaurant, jokingly suggests that Johnny rob the bank.  On the way to work, Johnny interrupts two thugs beating up “Hot Horse” Harry, who runs a secret betting parlor.  To show his appreciation, Harry gives Johnny $1,000 and with hot tips on some races and parlays it into $60,000.  Johnny rushes back to the bank to learn that an audit has revealed $75,000 is missing and that the tellers are suspected.  Fearing that he will be blamed since he now has the unexplainable money from gambling, he enlists the help of Emile.  After some mix-ups, he learns that the audit is showing Mibs as the suspected embezzler, but Johnny proves that it’s a mistake, and the young couple is able to get married, even after the tax man collects a big portion of the winnings.

CHRISTMAS CONNECTION

The film begins on Christmas Eve and continues through Christmas.  There are a few Christmas trees, decorations at the bank, and a bell-ringing sidewalk Santa, who is actually a look-out for the illicit gambling parlor.  The film is set in southern California, so there are palm trees rather than snow. 

CHARACTER ACTORS

Frank Orth, who plays Mr. Kofer the landlord, also appeared as a landlord in yesterday’s film The Great Rupert (1950).  Orth had numerous fine character roles, but my favorite is as Duffy, the city editor, in His Girl Friday (1940). He had a long vaudeville career before coming to Hollywood. His wife, Ann Codee, appeared with Astaire on the bill of a “Monster Benefit” for unemployed actors at the Ziegfeld Theatre on 12/7/1930.

Charles Coleman, who plays the second Santa Claus, will be in tomorrow’s film, A Christmas Carol (1938), so we will wait till that blog post to look at his career.

Harry Hayden, who plays bank manager Mr. McKissack, had roles in hundreds of films and TV series, including  Incendiary Blonde (1945), The Thin Man Goes Home (1944), Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) and The Great McGinty (1940).  We will see him again soon in Larceny Inc. (1942).  He plays one of the radio announcers during the filibuster in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).

Fred Aldrich, who plays a policeman, will appear later in Lady on a Train (1945) and had a role in The Thin Man Goes Home (1944).

George Chandler, who plays the messenger delivering the fur coat, appeared in many classics, including It’s a Wonderful World (1939), Joy of Living (1938), Nothing Sacred (1937) and Footlight Parade (1933). He had an outstanding role as the son in the W.C. Fields short The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933).

Ida Moore, who plays the sewing room supervisor, has already been seen in The Lemon Drop Kid (1951) and will appear later in Good Sam (1947).

William Edmunds, who plays restaurant owner Mr. Baganucci, will be seen later in two Christmas classics starring Jimmy Stewart: as the waiter in The Shop Around the Corner (1940) and as Mr. Martini in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).  He was also a bartender in Casablanca (1942).

Nestor Paiva, who plays “Hot Horse” Harry, had many character roles in TV series in the 1950s and 1960s. His film credits include Young Man with a Horn (1950), Mighty Joe Young (1949), and Another Thin Man (1939).   He also played a store detective in Bachelor Mother (1939), which we saw earlier in the Christmas cinema catalog.

ASTAIRE CONNECTION

George Chandler appeared with Astaire in  Broadway Melody of 1940.

Fred Aldrich appeared with Astaire as a Times Square hot dog vendor in The Band Wagon (1953) and as a pilot in The Sky’s the Limit (1943).

Harry Hayden appeared with Astaire in Ziegfeld Follies (1945).

William Edmunds appeared with Fred and Adele Astaire in vaudeville at Philadelphia’s Broadway Theatre in February 1914.

WHY WE DON’T LOVE THIS MOVIE

We certainly don’t hate this movie: it does have Groucho, after all, but he’s not at his best, probably because he doesn’t have a proper stuffed-shirt foil for his wisecracks.  The plot is rather weak, and the film seems padded with thin comic business.  Finally, the Christmas connection is also superficial.  There is no Christmas spirit of hope and transformation. The film could just as well be set at any time of the year, and all that would be lost is the weak joke of the Santa Claus look-out.

WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM

Turner Classic Movies does not have this films scheduled in the coming months.  A DVD is available from Amazon.

A Christmas Carol (1938)

This is not our favorite film version of the classic Dickens tale, but it does have a few things to recommend it, primarily the fine group of character actors that populate it. It’s no wonder, since it was produced by Hollywood’s biggest studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.  MGM’s shiny production values are present everywhere, but that also yields the film’s weakness as an accurate representation of the original Dickens story.  Everything looks quite beautiful, far too beautiful for the grinding poverty  that Dickens portrays in his novella.  Annoying background music fills almost every scene.  The Cratchit family seems almost middle class, and even though we love Gene Lockhart, it doesn’t look as if this Bob Cratchit has missed many meals.

Several key scenes from the original story are omitted in this screenplay.  There is no reference to Belle, Scrooge’s lost fiancé, so we don’t see how the young Ebenezer gradually descended into his bitter greed. The terrifying scene in which the laundress, the charwoman and the undertaker sell the dead Scrooge’s effects is missing.  Scrooge’s transformation and accompanying laughter occur before the Spirit of Christmas Present departs.  The didactic scene with Ignorance and Want hiding under the gown of the spirit is completely omitted.

The screenplay unaccountably adds new elements.  In this version, Scrooge fires Cratchit on Christmas Eve because his clerk accidentally hit him with a snowball while playing on the street with some urchins.  With Cratchit fired, a new scene has to be contrived for the ending: Scrooge visits the Cratchit home bearing a turkey and gifts.  With the additions and subtractions and the MGM gloss, Scrooge comes across as just a mean boss who needed some counseling from the HR department, rather than a man who needed painful spiritual reformation to save his soul from eternal torment.

The film was directed by Edwin Marin, who also directed Christmas Eve (1947).  Lionel Barrymore was originally slated to play Ebenezer Scrooge, but a broken hip kept him from the film, so the role went to Reginald Owen.

PLOT SUMMARY

You know the drill: the miser is visited by three spirits and then becomes a generous soul filled with the Christmas spirit.

CHRISTMAS CONNECTION

Except for the Biblical narratives, this tale is the essential Christmas story of hope and transformation.

CHARACTER ACTORS

Charles Coleman (first charity solicitor) appeared as the second Santa Claus in yesterday’s film, Double Dynamite (1951), which was the last of over 200 films in which he appeared. We will see him again in Never Say Goodbye (1946). He specialized in butler roles in films such as Little Miss Broadway (1938) and Poor Little Rich Girl (1936).

Gene Lockhart (Bob Cratchit), whom we have already seen as the mayor in Meet John Doe (1940), will be the link to the next film, Miracle on 34th Street (1947), so we will talk more about his career then.

Kathleen Lockhart (Mrs. Cratchit) was Gene’s wife and performed together with him in vaudeville and on Broadway.  She appeared in the Bill Powell-Myrna Loy screwball comedy Love Crazy (1941).

June Lockhart (Belinda Cratchit) was the daughter of Gene and Kathleen. Her best known roles were on TV: the mother in Lassie and Lost in Space. A Christmas Carol was her first film. We will see her later as Lucille Ballard in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944).

Reginald Owen (Scrooge) appeared in smaller roles in many wonderful films, including The Great Ziegfeld (1936), Woman of the Year (1942) and The Canterville Ghost (1944).  Two films of his that are quite good are The Good Fairy (1935) with Margaret Sullavan and Ernst Lubitsch’s charming Cluny Brown (1946) with Charles Boyer and Jennifer Jones.

Leo G. Carroll (Marley’s Ghost) had a wide-ranging career in films and TV. He appeared twice with Laurence Olivier: as Joseph in Wuthering Heights (1939) and as Dr. Baker in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940). He appeared in five other Hitchcock films: Suspicion (1941), Spellbound (1945), The Paradine Case (1947), Strangers on a Train (1951) and North by Northwest (1959). On TV he had extended roles as the title character in Topper (1953-55) and Alexander Waverly in The Man from U.N.C.LE. (1964-68).

Ann Rutherford (Spirit of Christmas Past) appeared a year after this film as Scarlett’s sister in Gone with the Wind (1939). She later appeared with Vivien Leigh’s husband, Laurence Olivier, in Pride and Prejudice (1940).

Billy Bevan (street watch leader) played the bartender in my favorite screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby (1938).  He also had roles in Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941) and Cluny Brown (1946).

Matthew Boulton (second charity solicitor) appeared as one of the false policemen in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (19335).

Forrester Harvey (Fezziwig) had many wonderful roles in film such as Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), Captain Blood (1935) and Rebecca (1940).  He had a small role in Meet John Doe (1940).

ASTAIRE CONNECTION

Charles Coleman appeared as the valet in Astaire’s “Looking for a Needle in a Haystack” number in The Gay Divorcee (1934), as a doorman in  Carefree (1938) and as the policeman in Central Park at the end of the famed Astaire-Rogers roller-skating dance in Shall We Dance (1937).

Crauford Kent (tall business associate of Scrooge’s in the Spirit of Christmas Future sequence) appeared with Fred Astaire at the Actors Equity Association benefit on 5/9/1920 at the Metropolitan Opera House.

Matthew Boulton appeared as the ship’s officer in Astaire’s Shall We Dance (1937).

WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE

“Love” may not be the right word, but we will continue to watch this film every year.  It has many warm and charming moments, but it’s a good idea to read the original story by Dickens afterwards, to remove some of the MGM polish.  Then watch the more realistic 1951 version starring Alastair Sim.

WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM

Turner Classic Movies will show this version on December 24 at 10 p.m. (ET).

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

My admiration for this  film grows every year.  It obviously has long been a Christmas favorite, because of the lovely story of hope and transformation and its focus on Santa Claus, but on each viewing I relish more and more the excellence of the screenwriting and the directing by George Seaton, who won an Oscar for the screenplay. Seaton would win another Oscar for screenwriting for The Country Girl (1954), for which he would also be nominated for best director.  Miracle on 34th Street was also nominated for a best picture but was beaten out by Gentlemen’s Agreement.  Seaton turned the story of a young girl and her mother who are both skeptical of love and Santa Claus into a Broadway musical titled Here’s Love (1962) with music and lyrics by Meredith Wilson.  That show contained the holiday classic, “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.”

So what’s so great about this screenplay?  I think it is the tightness. There isn’t a wasted scene in the whole film, and the central characters are deftly established and quickly engage the viewer.  And is there any movie, especially any film in the Christmas classic category, that has a broader range of more clearly etched characters?  I can’t think of one, even though there is a lot of competition from Sturges, Capra and Lubitsch.

PLOT SUMMARY

A young divorced mother has raised her daughter to be skeptical about everything and be guided only by common sense, leaving no room for imagination, faith or love.  Into their world come an idealistic lawyer and a man who claims to be Santa Claus.  Kris Kringle takes the place of a drunk Santa for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and then becomes a miraculously effective Santa at the flagship store on 34th Street. Accused of being insane by a bitter store “psychiatrist,” Kris is sent to Bellevue mental hospital and is about to be committed, when the idealistic lawyer steps in. The case goes to court and is decided in Kris’s favor by the miraculous intervention of the U.S. Post Office.  Meanwhile both the mother and the daughter lose their skeptical common sense and start believing in love.

CHRISTMAS CONNECTION

The film starts on Thanksgiving Day with the iconic Macy’s Parade and ends on Christmas Day with the best gift of all.  What’s remarkable about the film, however, for all its focus on hope and transformation is that the Christ child is never mentioned.

CHARACTER ACTORS

Gene Lockhart

Gene Lockhart (Judge Harper) is the link to yesterday’s film, A Christmas Carol (1938), where he played a rather plump Bob Cratchit.  We also saw him earlier in Meet John Doe (1940).  He plays a fine bumbling sheriff in His Girl Friday (1940), but I think his role as the judge in this film may be his finest work.

Percy Helton (drunk Santa) will be the link to tomorrow’s film, White Christmas (1954). While I’ll save details about his career for tomorrow’s post, he has some special links to Fred Astaire, which I will discuss today (see below).

Edmund Gwenn (Kris Kringle) won a best supporting Oscar for this role.  Throughout his career he showed a deft comic touch but could also play roles with evil undertones.  He played the genial Mr. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice (1940), a scheming department manager in The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), and a would-be assassin in Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940).

Porter Hall (Granville Sawyer) has already been seen in The Thin Man (1934) and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943).

William Frawley (Charlie Halloran) has been seen earlier in The Lemon Drop Kid (1951). We will see him two more times: Good Sam (1948) and Lady on a Train (1945).

Jerome Cowan (District Attorney) had a number of distinctive character roles, including two films with Humphrey Bogart: Miles Archer in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Healy in High Sierra (1941.

Philip Tonge (Julian Shellhammer) will be seen in O. Henry’s Full House (1952). He also had a role in the film Elephant Walk (1954).

Jack Albertson (the postal employee who gets the idea to send the Santa letters to the courthouse) was best known for his TV role in Chico and the Man (1974-78). He also had an extended part in Mister Ed (1961-64). His best film role was in The Subject Was Roses (1968).

Robert Gist (window dresser) played  detective Hennessey in Strangers on a Train (1951);

Alvin Greenman (Alfred) played a doorman in the 1994 remake of Miracle on 34th Street with Richard Attenborough. Greenman’s career primarily shifted to behind the scenes, as he worked as a script supervisor on numerous TV shows and films.

Mae Marsh (a woman in the Santa line) had a long cinema career. She played lead roles for D.W. Griffith in Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916).  She also was a member of John Ford’s stock company of character actors, appearing as Muley’s wife in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Simpson’s sister in My Darling Clementine (1946), Mrs. Gates in Fort Apache (1948), and Father Paul’s mother in The Quiet Man (1952).  She also appeared for Ford in  Three Godfathers (1948) and The Searchers (1956).

Snub Pollard (one of the mail-bearing court officers) will be seen as Knuckles in Frank Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles (1961). He had a small role in Chaplin’s  Limelight (1952) and is the old man getting the umbrella at the end of Gene Kelly’s famed dance in Singin’ in the Rain (1952).

Thelma Ritter (Pete’s mother looking for the toy fire truck) made her debut as a distinctive character actor in this film.  She also had wonderful roles in  All About Eve (1950), Rear Window (1954) and The Mating Season (1951).

Mary Field (Dutch girl’s adopted mother) appeared in many fine comedies, including  Ball of Fire (1941), I Married a Witch (1942) and The Major and the Minor (1942).

Lela Bliss (Mrs. Shellhammer) was married to Harry Hayden, who we saw as the bank manager in Double Dynamite and will see again in Good Sam and O. Henry’s Full House. Together they ran an acting school and a small theater in Beverly Hills that included Veronica Lake, Marilyn Monroe, Debbie Reynolds and Betty White among its alumna.

Jane Green (the judge’s wife, Mrs. Harper) appeared in films such as 10th Avenue Angel (1948) and The Thin Man Goes Home (1944).

ASTAIRE CONNECTION

Percy Helton sponsored Fred Astaire for his membership in the Lambs Club.  Helton appeared on stage with Fred in the Actors Equity Association benefit on  5/9/1920 and the Lambs Gambol on 4/27/1930.  He appeared in one film with Fred, The Belle of New York (1952).

Jerome Cowan appeared with Astaire in Shall We Dance (1937).

Philip Tonge appeared on stage with Astaire in The Bunch and Judy in 1922 at Manhattan’s Globe Theatre. He also appeared with Astaire in the Actors Equity Association benefit on 5/9/1920 and the Lambs Gambol on 4/27/1930, which also included Percy Helton.

Robert Gist played Hal Benton, the stage manager, with Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon (1953).

Snub Pollard appeared with Astaire in Royal Wedding (1951).

Thelma Ritter appeared with Astaire in Daddy Long Legs (1955).

Jane Green played the mother superior in Yolanda and the Thief (1945) and appeared on stage with Astaire in the Apollo Theatre benefit on 12/21/1924.  (Note: This is not the famed Apollo in Harlem, but a Broadway theatre at 223 W. 42nd St.. which was demolished in 1996.)

Alfred Newman, who was the musical director for Miracle on 34th Street, was the musical director for one of Fred and Adele’s biggest Broadway hits, Funny Face (1927-28).   He also served as musical director for the Greenwich Village Orchestra, which appeared on the bill of the Apollo Theatre benefit on 12/21/1924.  He reconnected with Astaire in Hollywood as the music director for Daddy Long Legs (1955).

WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE

Christmas in New York!

Though the script for this film is so wonderful, some of the finest elements of Miracle come without words, in the facial expressions and mannerisms of the actors.  Look especially in the courtroom scene (with the glances of Frawley, Lockhart and Cowan) and the manic mannerisms of Porter Hall (echoed by his anxious secretary).  Credit both the fine character actors and George Seaton’s nuanced direction for all this.

WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM

AMC will be showing the film multiple times in the run-up to Christmas.