Introduction

Like many people, one of our many holiday rituals is watching Christmas movies, such as White Christmas, The Miracle on 34th Street, and It’s a Wonderful Life. In the late 1980s, I started collecting classic films on videotapes and eventually DVDs. As technologies changed, I began recording films from Turner Classic Movies and multiple online sources. A treasured section of this ever-growing cinema collection contains more than 50 holiday films. Every year my wife, Barbara, and I start watching these films through Advent to Christmas then New Year’s Day and Epiphany. Along with decorating the house, preparing the holiday feasts and streaming our seasonal iTunes playlists, watching these classic movies has become a standard feature of our extended holiday celebration.

Each year we try to add some “new” films to the list: not something from the Hallmark Channel, mind you, but some old movie that is new to us, and among those oddities we have frequently discovered remarkable films that we return to year after year.

Let me explain a bit about our holiday cinema catalog. Only nine of the 45 films were shot in color, and only five were made after 1960. More than half were released before 1950. While our list contains obvious classics, such as The Bishop’s Wife and Christmas in Connecticut, several have only the barest of holiday connections. For example, is The Thin Man (1934) a Christmas movie? Yes, because in the midst of discovering who killed the thin man, there is a delightful scene of Nick and Nora Charles lounging around the Christmas tree after opening gifts.

Continue reading “Introduction”

Why Character Actors for Christmas?

One of the delights we take in repeatedly watching classic movies is recognizing character actors who appear again and again in our favorite films. The studio system in the golden age of Hollywood churned out hundreds of films every year, enabling minor actors to make a good living by appearing in a dozen or more movies each year. One of my favorites, Pat Flaherty, appeared in more than 200 films during his active professional career from 1934 to 1955. In 1939 alone he appeared in 16 different movies. Directors such as Preston Sturges and Frank Capra were known for using the same character actors film after film creating a repertory company of sorts.

Even though these character actors might appear for only a minute or two in a movie, they flesh out the film’s story and add layers of interest behind the stars. Unnamed extras might fill out a crowd scene, but an accomplished character actor brings much more. Their wonderful faces, distinctive voices and intriguing manners contributes essential elements to the world created by the film. Otherwise it’s all just three or four leading actors performing in front of scenery. Canadian writer Robertson Davies calls such characters “fifth business” (in his novel by the same name):

Those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the Recognition or the dénouement, were called the Fifth Business in drama and opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business.

There is perhaps an incarnational aspect to the importance of character actors in creating a successful film. Only when a film is filled with interesting characters, in close-ups and in deep focus, does it create a fully realized and captivating story. In this season when we tell again the story of how God began transforming the world by becoming a child born in a stable, we remember that the story includes many more people than Jesus, Mary and Joseph. There are shepherds, angels, magi, and more. Let us honor the character actors.

Astaire Connections

Since my retirement in 2013 and substantial renovations to the basement of our home, I have been researching and writing a book on the life of Fred Astaire in New York City to be called Young Man of Manhattan.  In the book, I will be exploring how Astaire and the city changed from 1905, when the five-year-old Fred came to the city by train with his mother and sister, until 1933, when he and his wife went to Hollywood by airplane to begin his film career.  In the years between, Astaire learned how to dance, toured vaudeville in a juvenile act with his sister, grew into prominent jazz dancers, and eventually big-time Broadway stars.  At the same time, New York was transforming itself with new transportation technologies (subways and Hudson River tunnels), new skyscrapers, new publications (Variety and The New Yorker), and new music (ragtime, jazz).

Among the things I’m exploring are the many different actors, musicians and others with whom Astaire worked in New York: there were literally thousands of people he performed with in vaudeville and on Broadway before he began his third career in the movies.

As a sort of holiday sidebar to my Young Man of Manhattan research and writing, if I see an Astaire connection in any of the films on our Christmas watch-list, I will point them out. Fred himself appears in only one of the films, the classic Holiday Inn (1942), but many of the character actors I will be highlighting appeared with Astaire on Broadway or in vaudeville and still others appeared in the 31 films he made.

After the holidays, I will continue to post my progress on the Astaire book.

Earlier this year The Passing Show, the newsletter of the Shubert Archives, published my article “Steps in Shubert Time: Fred Astaire in the Archives.”

 

 

 

Comfort and Joy (1984)

We often start our holiday film viewing with this quirky little comedy by director Bill Forsyth, whose best known film is probably Local Hero (1983). Even though Comfort and Joy is one of the outlier films (i.e., with no character actor connection to the other movies on our watch list) we will start with it again this year because its original attraction was the soundtrack by Mark Knopfler, who has recently released a new album and scheduled a concert tour in 2019.

PLOT SUMMARY

Scottish disc jockey Alan “Dickie” Bird is a local celebrity whose private life has come unraveled when his kleptomaniac girl friend suddenly leaves him.  Looking for some new direction, he stumbles into a Glasgow “ice cream war” between competing ice cream truck companies (Mr. McCool vs. Mr. Bunny), who vandalize each other’s trucks and even Dickie’s precious red BMW sports car.  Caught up in the madness, Dickie mediates the feud and eventually suggests a cooperative business: ice cream fritters.

CHRISTMAS CONNECTION

The film begins with a scene in a department store bustling with holiday shoppers, and it ends on Christmas day with Dickie Bird at the radio station spinning records and tales for his loyal audience.

CHARACTER ACTORS

While none of the actors appear in other films on our holiday watch list, this film is filled with charming characters from the radio station manager to the psychoanalyst to members of the warring ice cream gangs.

WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE

The sound track by Mark Knopfler is jazzy and clever, with an allusion to The Godfather that fits the film’s satire.  One track on the soundtrack album is called “A Fistful of Ice Cream” echoing an old Clint Eastwood western. Comfort and Joy also includes repeated brief cuts from Knopfler’s Love Over Gold album by Dire Straits, and for aficionados a quick quote from one of the lyrics.  (Barbara wants to ask Mark Knopfler, should we ever meet him in a bar, if he also wrote Mr. Bunny’s ice cream truck tune.) But mostly we just love this charming, funny and wistful story with its amusing characters.

WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM

Sorry to say, but I can’t seem to find this movie on Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc.  You can purchase used VHS tapes via Amazon.  Be careful! The DVD available on Amazon is non-USA format, and there is a 2003 made-for-TV movie by the same name that is available in loads of places, but it has no connection (other than title) to Bill Forsyth’s film.  You can see a short clip on YouTube and also listen to a track from the album with some sample scenes from the film.

Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962)

We usually save this hour-long made-for-TV animated film for later in the season, but we needed a shorter film for Saturday night and chose this one because of an obscure connection to the first film in our cinema garland, which we will watch on Sunday night (All Mine to Give).  There are several things to recommend Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. First of all, Mr. Magoo!  The near-sighted cartoon character from the 1950s has always been one of my favorites.  I believe this was the first nationally broadcast Christmas cartoon: December 18, 1962.  Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Charlie Brown, and the Grinch would come several years later. Even though this version truncates and twists Dickens’s tale a bit, it is still an effective version. Add some of the best voices in the industry and Jule Styne’s music and Bob Merrill’s lyrics, and you’ve got some surprising depth.

PLOT SUMMARY

The film is framed by the trope that Mr. J. Quincy Magoo is starring in a Broadway musical version of Dickens’s classic story.  Magoo rushes to the theatre, his near-sightedness causing numerous comic mishaps, and the play finally begins.  There are a few changes in the plot (Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, is completely omitted) and much more is made of Ebenezer’s lost love, Belle. The biggest change is perhaps in the order of the ghosts’ appearances. Unlike the novella and most movie versions, the Ghost of Christmas Present is the first spirit to visit Scrooge, perhaps to give an earlier glimpse of the Cratchit family and Tiny Tim.

CHRISTMAS CONNECTION

Can any secular story be more connected to Christmas than this narrative that shows how honoring the season’s spirit requires more than one day but transforming our lives and the lives of others every day?

CHARACTER ACTORS

While no live actors appear in this animated film, there are many notable voice actors. Royal Dano, who gives voice to Jacob Marley’s ghost, appears in the next film on our watch list, All Mine to Give. Jim Backus, best known perhaps for his role as Thurston Howell III in TV’s Gilligan’s Island (1964-67), plays Magoo, as he had since the character’s debut in 1949. Among the other actors are Morey Amsterdam, who had started appearing in The Dick van Dyke Show in 1961, and Jack Cassidy (as Bob Cratchit), who appeared frequently on TV in the 1960s and 1970s.

WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE

Beyond Mr. Magoo and the story (including the cartoon glimpses of Broadway), we love the songs by Jule Styne (music) and Bob Merrill (lyrics).  Three years earlier Styne collaborated with Stephen Sondheim on Gypsy (1959) and then one year after Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, Styne and Merrill hit Broadway gold again with Funny Face (1963).  Of the six original songs in the film, two are quite sad (“Alone in the World” and “Winter Was Warm”) and two are rousing comic numbers (“It’s Great to Be Back on Broadway” and “We’re Despicable”).  In retrospect, it’s rather amazing to see such musical substance in a TV cartoon.

WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM

Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol doesn’t appear to be scheduled on any cable channels yet for 2018, but I’ll post updates if any are found. It is available on-demand from Xfinity for $7.99 or Amazon Prime for $4.99. The DVD is available from Target, Walmart, Amazon, etc. for $6.69.  Clips from the film are available on YouTube.

All Mine to Give (1957)

We added this film to the holiday watch list this year, and it’s the first of our garland of movies, as it has a character connection to the next film on the list (Bachelor Mother) and to the last (It’s a Wonderful Life).  Frankly we were disappointed in the film, and it probably will not make the cut for next year’s viewing.

PLOT SUMMARY

Set in Wisconsin in the 1850s, the film begins in a bleak, snow-covered landscape with a young boy pulling a sled holding his younger sister.  In flashback, he recalls the story of his Scottish parents coming to Wisconsin, their repeated tragic setbacks, a few small joys, the support of neighbors, and the birth of their six children.  The father (Cameron Mitchell) dies of diphtheria, and shortly after the mother (Glynis Johns) dies of typhoid, leaving six orphan children.  On her death bed, the mother gave the eldest son the task of finding homes for each of his siblings, and the last section of the film shows each of the children being taken to their new homes: thus the alternative title of the film, The Day They Gave Babies Away, which was the title of the book that inspired the film.

CHRISTMAS CONNECTION

While the children are performing in a Christmas Eve pageant when they receive word that their mother is dying of typhoid.  They rush home in their costumes.  As neighbors are enjoying their feasts, Robbie, the eldest son, offers each of his brothers and sisters to a different family, thinking that no one will refuse on Christmas Day.

CHARACTER ACTORS

Royal Dano

Royal Dano, who was the voice of Jacob Marley in Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, appears in this movie as Howard Tyler, one of the kindly townsfolk. He appeared in dozens of one-off roles in TV shows in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s .  He played the disciple Peter in Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (1961).

Ellen Corby

Ellen Corby, who plays Mrs. Raiden in a brief spot in this movie, will be seen again in Pocketful of Miracles and It’s a Wonderful Life (both directed by Frank Capra). She is best known for her Emmy-winning role as Grandma Esther in The Waltons, but she had a long career as a character actor in movies in the ’40s and ’50s and then in TV in the ’60s and ’70s.  Of her many roles, one of my favorites is Miss McCardle, Humphrey Bogart’s sour-faced secretary, in Sabrina (1954).

Other notable actors in All Mine to Give include Glynis Johns (best known as Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins), Cameron Mitchell (look for him as the gangster Karl Rojeck in one of my favorite comedies—My Favorite Year), and Jon Provost (who went on to play Timmy Martin in TV’s Lassie).  Reta Shaw plays the only fully negative character in All Mine to Give, the self-righteous neighbor Mrs. Runyon.  Shaw’s face may be familiar through in roles in two Disney films, (Pollyanna and Mary Poppins) and loads of TV series, including recurring roles in Bewitched and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Alan Hale Jr., who plays Tom Cullen, was best known as the Skipper in TV’s Gilligan’s Island, which connects him to Jim Backus in Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol.  Finally, Ernest Truex, who plays Dr. Delbert, provides the character connection to the next film up, Bachelor Mother.  Look for more about him in the post for that film.

ASTAIRE CONNECTION

Ernest Truex also provides one of two connections to Fred Astaire in this film.  In the 1920s, Truex appeared on two benefit concert bills with Astaire for the Actors Equity Association.  They were fellow members of The Lambs Club and appeared together at The Lambs Spring Gambol in 1925.

The other Astaire connection in All Mine to Give is famed film composer Max Steiner.  Before heading to Hollywood, Steiner did the orchestrations for one of Astaire’s big Broadway hits, Lady, Be Good! (1924).  Steiner and Astaire reconnected in Hollywood, as Steiner was head of RKO’s music department and musical director for many of the first Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals.

WHY WE LOVE  THIS MOVIE

We don’t mind a sad film, even at Christmas time, but this film just didn’t engage us.  There were occasional bright spots, and we enjoyed seeing familiar actors in unusual settings, but the movie didn’t hold together, perhaps because it tried to include too many different folks. As a result, we never felt a strong connection to anyone.  I’m afraid it won’t reappear on our holiday film schedule in future years.

WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM

All Mine to Give is scheduled for Turner Classic Movies on December 23 at 4 p.m. (EST).

Bachelor Mother (1939)

With touches of screwball comedy, this 1939 film has long been one of our favorites.  Starring Ginger Rogers and David Niven, it was the first film that Rogers made after completing her series of RKO musicals with Fred Astaire.  In her sometimes petulant autobiography, My Story, Rogers writes that she resisted being cast in the film at first because she thought the story was shallow.  Fortunately, producer Pandro Berman, who was responsible for all of the Astaire-Rogers films at RKO, pushed her to take it.  As directed by Garson Kanin, the film layers nice touches of cynicism and satire onto a romantic story, showcasing the deft comic talents of Rogers, Niven and a host of wonderful character actors.

PLOT SUMMARY

It’s the last day of holiday shopping at the department store where Ginger Rogers works, and she has just gotten her termination notice, since she was a seasonal worker.  Out looking for a job during her lunch break, she sees a woman leave a baby on the doorstep of an orphanage.  Picking the child up, she is mistaken by the staff as the mother.  Protesting vehemently that she is not the mother, she rushes back to work but is traced to the department store, where the owner’s playboy son (David Niven) insists that she admit the child is hers, offering her a job and higher salary to help the “unwed mother.” Rogers reluctantly agrees and soon grows attached to the baby. Niven begins falling for Rogers after a New Year’s Eve party, but when his father (Charles Coburn) mistakes the baby for his grandson, Niven denies being the father in an ironic parallel to Rogers’s earlier attitude.  When Coburn threatens to take his “grandson” from Rogers, she attempts to flee with the child, only to be stopped by Niven when he realizes that he loves both Rogers and the baby and proposes marriage.

CHRISTMAS CONNECTION

This first-rate romantic comedy begins on Christmas Eve and continues through New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.  The Christmas theme of transformation runs throughout the film, as the lives of Rogers, Niven and Coburn are changed by the baby.

CHARACTER ACTORS

Beyond the story and the deft performances of Ginger Rogers and David Niven, this film belongs to the many character actors who add wonderful comic touches to nearly every scene.

Ernest Truex

Start with Ernest Truex (the link to yesterday’s film, All Mine to Give), who plays the investigator from the orphanage who tracks Rogers back to the department store. Before coming to Hollywood in 1933, Truex had been a popular comic actor on Broadway and in London.  He continued to appear on Broadway through the early 1960s, while creating a long list of distinctive characters in films and TV.  My favorites are his role as the poetry-writing reporter Bensinger in Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday (1940) and the advertising executive in Preston Sturges’s Christmas in July (1940).

Charles Coburn, who plays the owner of the department store, is one of our favorite character actors.  He provides the link to the next film on our watch list, In Name Only (1939), so we will save more details about his wonderful work for tomorrow’s post.

Frank Albertson

Other character actors who make appearances in this film include Frank Albertson (the obnoxious stock clerk).  We will see him as Sam Wainwright in It’s a Wonderful Life.

Irving Bacon, the employee on the store’s exchange desk in this film, will be seen in three more Christmas movies on our holiday list: Meet John Doe (1940), Holiday Inn (1942) and Good Sam (1948).

Chester Clute, who plays the competitive parent in the park, will also appear three more times on our cinema watch list: Remember the Night (1940), Larceny Inc. (1942) and It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947).

E.E. Clive

E.E. Clive, who plays the butler for Coburn and Niven, made a career out of playing distinct English characters in films such as The Little Princess (1939) and Pride and Prejudice (1940).

ASTAIRE CONNECTION

There are bunches of connections in Bachelor Mother to Fred Astaire’s career beyond the obvious link to Ginger Rogers.  David Niven was a lifelong friend of Astaire’s, who hosted the American Film Institute tribute to Astaire in 1981 and narrated the 13-part radio biography The Fred Astaire Story broadcast on the BBC in 1975.  (Thanks to the gracious folks at the Paley Center in New York, I had the chance to listen to the whole 13 hours of audiotapes, which provided some invaluable details in my research project.)

Uncredited in Bachelor Mother is Hermes Pan, who choreographed two big dance scenes for Rogers: the dance contest at the Pink Slipper early in the movie and the New Year’s Eve night club dancing.  Pan was the choreographer for all of the RKO Astaire-Rogers films.  He would work out all the routines with Astaire, taking Rogers’s part, and then he would teach Rogers the routines before full-scale rehearsals would start. Pan would continue to work with Astaire through the remainder of Fred’s dancing until the early 1960s. An informative biography, Hermes Pan: The Man Who Danced with Fred Astaire, was published in 2012.

Roy Webb, who did the musical score for Bachelor Mother, not only composed music for some of the late Astaire-Rogers musicals at RKO (such as Carefree and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle), he was the music director for the Actors Equity Association benefit in 1920 where Fred appeared with his sister, Adele.

E.E. Clive, the butler, appeared as the customs inspector in the first big Astaire-Rogers film, The Gay Divorcee (1934).  Another character actor in Bachelor Mother, Gerald Oliver Smith (who plays HR director Hennessy), appeared on Broadway with Astaire in Lady, Be Good! (1924).  He is probably best remembered by classic film devotees as the pickpocketed Englishman in Casablanca.

WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE

We are big fans of screwball comedies, so this film is one of our favorites, with its ironic reversals, bits of physical comedy, and clever dialogue. It’s one of several Christmas classics set in department stores: the others include Good Sam (1948) Holiday Affair (1949) and, of course, Miracle on 34th Street (1947).  You can probably add The Shop Around the Corner (1940) to that list as well, even though the setting is not a big American department store.

We also love the New York City setting.  We will focus a later post on the Manhattan connections in many of the films on our holiday watch list.  Bachelor Mother includes the department store, a classic small apartment house, a city park, an Eighth Avenue dance club (The Pink Slipper) and a swank night club, plus a glimpse of Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

This year I particularly noticed the expressive comic acting and director Garson Kanin’s effective use of camera angles.  In the opening scene in the department store, we see the written termination notice for Ginger Rogers, before the camera pans up to show her face and her pained reaction.  Throughout the film as much is conveyed by the reactive expressions of Rogers, Niven, Coburn and the other character actors as by their words.  Watch the puzzled, double-takes of Rogers and Niven as they slowly realize that Coburn believes the baby is his grandson.  Then look for E.E. Clive’s befuddled face as a spoon keeps disappearing from the New Year’s Day luncheon table back at the Fifth Avenue mansion.  Such touches as these make this a film that holds up wonderfully on repeated viewings, so it will always remain on our Christmas list.

Note: Bundle of Joy (1956) is a musical remake, which we have always resisted watching because we love Bachelor Mother so much, but we may finally watch it this year.

WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM

Turner Classic Movies recognizes Bachelor Mother as a true Christmas classic by showing it twice in the next month: December 19 at 8 p.m. and December 25 at Noon (EST).

In Name Only (1939)

In Name Only is new to our holiday watch list, but we decided to include it after watching the film last  year during one of our Cary Grant binges and realized that it has a few Christmas scenes. On several levels this is an unusual movie. Two of the finest romantic comedy stars from the 1930s (Carole Lombard and Cary Grant) appear in a nearly tragic melodrama, and both show their acting range. Another fine group of character actors add to the interest.

PLOT SUMMARY

Cary Grant is stuck in a loveless marriage with Kay Francis, when he meets a vibrant widow, Carole Lombard.  We learn that Francis married Grant only because of his wealth and position and has carefully manipulated everyone, even his father (Charles Coburn), into believing that she is a patient, long-suffering wife.  Francis pretends to agree to give Grant a divorce, but months later when Grant learns that she will never let him go, he sinks into despair. In the last scene, despair turns to hope, when Francis’s malicious plans are overheard by Grant’s parents.

CHRISTMAS CONNECTION

The film’s dénouement begins on Christmas Eve with a drooping tree and then one of the bitterest surprise parties you can imagine. The film continues through Christmas Day with Grant drinking himself into a stupor in a seedy hotel.   But hope triumphs, at the last minute, after much travail.

CHARACTER ACTORS

Charles Coburn, who plays Cary Grant’s father, is the connection from yesterday’s film, Bachelor Mother.  Coburn was a fine comic actor with a résumé of great films, such as The Lady Eve, The More the Merrier (for which he received an Oscar as best supporting actor) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  My favorite role of his, in which he also plays a department store owner as he did in Bachelor Mother, is The Devil and Miss Jones (1941).  Coburn worked on Broadway from 1901 to 1937, acting, directing and producing plays with his wife, Ivah Wills, with whom he formed a touring repertory company that performed Shakespeare, Greek tragedies, and French comedies.  After her death in 1937, Coburn moved to Hollywood.

Helen Vinson (who plays Kay Francis’s catty best friend, Suzanne)  will be seen in tomorrow’s film Beyond Tomorrow (1940), so I’ll wait till then to talk about her career.

Nella Walker (who plays Grant’s mother) had roles in such grand films as  Stella Dallas (1937), Kitty Foyle (1940) and Sabrina (1954).

Grady Sutton (who appears briefly as Suzanne’s escort in a scene on the train) appeared as a character actor in hundreds of films and TV shows.  He played Carole Lombard’s brief fiancé in My Man Godfrey (1936). Look for him later in the holiday watch list in White Christmas (1954), dancing with Rosemary Clooney at the engagement party at the General’s Columbia Inn in Vermont.

Another brief but important role is played by Maurice Moscovich as Dr. Muller.   You may remember him as Mr. Jaeckel, one of the residents of the Jewish ghetto, in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940).

ASTAIRE CONNECTION

Charles Coburn was a fellow member of The Lambs Club, and along with Fred (and dozens of other stars who moved from New York to Hollywood in the 1930s), he was known by those club members who remained in Manhattan as the “Lost Sheep” or “Coast Cousins.”

George Rosener (who plays the seedy hotel doctor) appeared on a Shubert Sunday Concert bill with the Astaires on September 15, 1918, during the run of their second Broadway show, The Passing Show of 1918.

Frank Mills (who plays the bartender on Christmas Eve) appeared in several Astaire films.  He was a waiter in the opening scene of The Gay Divorcee (1934) and again as a waiter in the Lido in Top Hat (1935), as well as one of the gambler’s stooges in Swing Time (1936).  He’s also a soldier with Astaire in You’ll Never Get Rich (1941). We will see him again soon as the park bum in Holiday Affair (1949).

WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE

Cary Grant and Carole Lombard are two of our favorite actors, and seeing them together is a joy, even if the story is terribly sad.  Ultimately it is a fine, well-acted film, so we will probably keep it in future Christmas cinema rotations, especially since it adds a contrasting touch of sadness to the mostly upbeat films on the list.

WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM

Turner Classic Movies will be showing the film on Wednesday, December 19, at 2 p.m. (EST).

Beyond Tomorrow (1940)

We ran across this quirky movie about eight years ago and have kept it on the Christmas cinema catalog ever since. It was produced by Lee Garmes, who had far greater fame as a cinematographer with credits such as Scarface (1932), Shanghai Express (1932) and Gone with the Wind (1939), though he did not receive credit for his work on that classic film.  Dealing with life and death and life-after-death issues, the story is a strange mix of sappiness and bizarre theology, but the central, engaging theme is hope in redemption and transformation.

PLOT SUMMARY

Two aging engineers (cynical Harry Carey and gracious C. Aubrey Smith) are still working late on Christmas Eve when jovial partner (Charles Winninger) bursts into their shared home with stacks of holiday packages.   What looked to be a boring evening is changed for the lonely old men when two lonely young people appear on their doorstep:  a down-on-his-luck singing cowboy (Richard Carlson) and a compassionate nurse (Jean Parker).  By the end of the evening all have formed a warm friendship, and Carlson and Parker are falling in love.  The group’s happiness continues for weeks, until the three engineers are killed in an airplane crash.  They reappear in their home as ghosts watching over their young friends while waiting to learn what happens next in their life after death.  Carlson lands a spot on a radio broadcast and catches the eye of a wicked Broadway star (Helen Vinson), who ensnares the naïve young man and entices him with a role in her next show.  While the ghosts are worrying about the future of their young friends, lightning and thunder summon the cynical Carey, who has an unexplained scandal in his past, to a dark smoky place (Hell?).  The gracious, courtly Smith is welcomed to Heaven by his deceased son, who explains that mother is waiting for them in a perfect recreation of the favorite period in their life.  The jovial Winninger remains, following the troubled young lovers and trying to get Carlson back with Parker. When a voice beckons Winninger to Heaven, he decides to stay in the world to help his friends, apparently giving up his one chance for paradise.  Carlson and Vinson are shot by her drunk former husband, and when Carlson dies on the operating table, his ghost meets Winninger, who explains how he had tried to help Carlson make better choices.  Heaven welcomes Winninger again (with the voice saying that Winninger’s mother had been hounding everyone in Heaven to give her son a second chance).  Winninger in turn intercedes for Carlson, who is restored to life and love with Parker.  Finally, Harry Carey emerges from his dark place (so was it Purgatory instead of Hell?) having shed his cynical bitterness, and he ascends to Heaven walking arm in arm with Winninger up steep steps.  Whew!

CHRISTMAS CONNECTION

The film begins on Christmas Eve and has one of the sweetest celebrations you’ll find in any film, with even the cynical Harry Carey being warmed by good fellowship and carols and a special drink  (see below). The film joins a long tradition of another type of Christmas spirits, starting with Dickens and, several years after this film, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)and The Bishop’s Wife (1948). You can also add a squirrel to the special holiday helpers tradition with The Great Rupert (1950), which we will be seeing in about two weeks.

CHARACTER ACTORS

Helen Vinson, who played the catty, adulterous Suzanne in yesterday’s film, In Name  Only, plays another bad girl in this movie as the devious Broadway star who ensnares Richard Carlson. Vinson seemed to specialize in faded femme fatale roles in such films as The Kennel Murder Case (1933) and The Thin Man Goes Home (1944), but early in her career she played a sympathetic role opposite Paul Muni in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932).

Robert Homans, the police sergeant in the park on Christmas Eve, will be the link to the next film, Holiday Inn (1942), so look for more about him tomorrow.

Rod LaRocque plays Phil Hubert, the producer.  We will see him soon in Meet John Doe (1941) as Ted Sheldon, the swarmy nephew of the evil mastermind D.B. Norton.

 

Harry Carey, who plays the cynical partner, had roles in hundreds of films starting in the silent era. He appeared in many westerns directed by John Ford, but my favorite among his many parts is as the Vice President in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).

C. Aubrey Smith is another ubiquitous character actor who appeared in such classics as Rebecca (1940), Wee Willie Winkie (1937) and Tarzan the Ape Man (1932).

The Russian actress Maria Ouspenskaya is probably best known as the gypsy fortune teller Maleva in The Wolf Man (1941).  Before immigrating to the United States in 1922, she studied with Stanislavski in Moscow.  Appearing on Broadway for a decade, she ran an acting school in New York, before moving to Hollywood for roles that would help fund her school.

Advertisement from Theatre Magazine, April 1931

 

Jean Parker, who plays the love interest in Beyond Tomorrow, appeared in a similarly sweet and innocent role in the under-appreciated comedy The Ghost Goes West (1935).

Alex Melesh, who plays the servant Joseph in Beyond Tomorrow, plays a waiter in Warsaw in another under-appreciated film, Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942) with Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers.

ASTAIRE CONNECTION

Charles Winninger appeared a half dozen times with Fred Astaire on concert benefit stages from 1920 to 1933 and was also a fellow member of the Lambs Club. He  originated the role of Captain Andy in Show Boat (1927) on Broadway and reprised it in the 1936 film version with Irene Dunne. His best role is as Dr. Enoch Downer in Nothing Sacred (1937), starring Frederic March and Carole Lombard.  His brother-in-law, Cyril Ring, plays a small part in Beyond Tomorrow (the man who reports no hope for the airplane crash victims).  Winninger’s wife, Blanche Ring, also appeared with the Astaires in their Broadway benefit concerts.

Frank Tours, the music director for Beyond Tomorrow, had been the orchestra director in Astaire’s first Broadway show, Over the Top (1917), and the music director for his biggest Broadway flop, Smiles (1930).

WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE

Beyond the character actors and the quirky storyline, the biggest takeaway from this film is the reference to the warm holiday drink, Tom and Jerry, which is poured out at the Christmas Eve party by Charles Winninger.  I had never heard of this drink until this movie.  (There will be another offhand reference in a far better film that we’ll see in several weeks, but I’ll keep you guessing as to what that is.) I looked up the recipe, and it has become a nice, warm alternative to eggnog during our December evenings.  Enjoy!

WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM

Turner Classic Movies will be showing Beyond Tomorrow on December 1 at 8 p.m. and on December 24 at 6 a.m. (EST).

Note: This film, similar to a few others in our Christmas catalog, once was in the public domain, and poor prints of the film were shown on TV and distributed on VHS for years.  The version that TCM shows is from a restoration done in 2005.

Meet John Doe (1941)

Though a mostly dark and troubling movie, this first of three films by Frank Capra appearing on this year’s holiday watch list has long been one of my favorites.  I adore Barbara Stanwyck, who also appears three times in our Christmas cinema catalog in indispensable films: Remember the Night (1939) and Christmas in Connecticut (1945) are the other two.  Gary Cooper does a magnificent job as the shy, tongue-tied tramp who becomes a national hero and is exposed as a fake and then gains a confident voice. He stars in Good Sam (1948) later in the holiday watch list.  There are many echoes of Capra’s other Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) in this masterful film, which layers a large group of fine character actors onto its meaningful story.

PLOT SUMMARY

Fired from her newspaper job, Barbara Stanwyck writes one last column, a fake letter from an unemployed man named John Doe who threatens to commit suicide by jumping from the top of city hall on Christmas Eve.  The fake letter causes a sensation, and Stanwyck convinces the corporate baron who now owns the paper with political ambitions to find someone to pretend to be the John Doe who wrote the letter.  Gary Cooper, an unemployed baseball player, agrees to the charade and soon becomes a national sensation reading speeches written by Stanwyck about the nation’s problems.  The John Doe Movement becomes a juggernaut, funded by the corporate baron (Edward Arnold), who plans to use it to be elected president.  Cooper threatens to reveal the manipulation, but before he can Arnold exposes him as the fraud.  Months later, the depressed and defeated Cooper aims to commit suicide, as the fake letter had promised, to resurrect the John Doe Movement.

CHRISTMAS CONNECTION

The closing portion of the movie takes place on Christmas Eve, as John Doe’s friends and enemies all try to stop him from committing suicide by jumping from the top of city hall at midnight on a snowy Christmas Eve.

CHARACTER ACTORS

Irving Bacon

Irving Bacon, who plays Beany, provides the link to yesterday’s movie, Holiday Inn, where he played Gus the driver. We have already seen him in Bachelor Mother (1939) and will see him again in Good Sam (1948), also with Gary Cooper.

Pat Flaherty provides the link to tomorrow’s movie, The Lemon Drop Kid (1951), so we will explore him in more detail then.

Rod La Rocque

Rod La Rocque, who played the Broadway producer in Beyond Tomorrow (1940), appears here as Ted Sheldon, the nephew of D.B. Norton.

Edward Arnold

Edward Arnold, who plays baron D.B. Norton, was a favorite player of malevolent roles for Frank Capra, appearing in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and You Can’t Take It With You (1938).

Regis Toomey

Regis Toomey, who plays Bert, one of the John Doe Movement followers, had roles in numerous classic films including The Big Sleep (1946) and His Girl Friday (1940). We will see him in coming weeks in Come to the Stable (1949) and The Bishop’s Wife (1948).

J. Farrell MacDonald

J. Farrell MacDonald, who plays Sourpuss, will be seen later on our holiday watch list in Christmas Eve (1947), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) as the owner of the tree hit by Jimmy Stewart.

Cyril Thornton, who plays D.B. Norton’s Butler, will show up in The Thin Man (1934) as Tanner the accountant.

Gene Lockhart

Gene Lockhart, who plays the mayor, will play Bob Cratchit in the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol and will also appear as the judge in Miracle on 34th Street (1947).

James Gleason

James Gleason, who plays Henry, the new editor of the Bulletin, will appear in The Bishop’s Wife (1948) as the cab driver, Sylvester.  He also appeared in Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). One of his best roles was as boxing manager Max Corkle in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941).  Gleason had worked on Broadway after World War I as an actor, director, and playwright.  With the coming of sound films, he moved to Hollywood, where he co-wrote the screenplay for the first film musical, The Broadway Melody (1929).

Walter Brennan

Walter Brennan, who plays the Colonel, won three  Best Supporting Actor Oscars. Meet John Doe is one of four movies he did with Gary Cooper: Sergeant York (1941), The Pride of the Yankees, (1942) and The Westerner (1940).

Sterling Holloway

Sterling Holloway, who plays Dan the cook in the diner who recognizes John Doe, will appear in Remember the Night (1940), also with Barbara Stanwyck. His distinctive voice made him a favorite cartoon voice artist, including roles as the Cheshire Cat in Alice and Wonderland (1951) and Winnie the Pooh.

Warren Hymer

Warren Hymer, who plays Angelface, appeared with Gary Cooper as Kid Mulligan in the Lubitsch comedy Blackbeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) and as a body guard in Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936).

Charles Wilson

Charles Wilson, who has a small part as Dawson, appeared as the newspaper editor in Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) .

Edward McWade

Edward McWade, who plays Joe the newspaper layout technician early in the film, appears in Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) and as a stage doorman in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942).

Harry Holman

Harry Holman, who plays the mayor of Millville, will be seen as the high school principal in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). For Capra, he also played the auto camp manager in It Happened One Night (1934).

Ann Doran

Ann Doran, who plays Regis Toomey’s wife, appeared in several Capra films: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), You Can’t Take It with You (1938) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936).  She had a small role in His Girl Friday (1940), but her most notable role was as James Dean’s mother in Rebel Without a Cause (1955).

ASTAIRE CONNECTION

Walter Brennan appeared with Astaire in The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939).

Gene Lockhart appeared with Astaire at the Actors Dinner Club Ball at the Waldorf-Astoria on December 31, 1932.

Edward McWade appeared with Astaire as the army induction doctor in You’ll Never Get Rich (1941).

James Gleason was a fellow member of The Lambs Club and appeared with Astaire in the club’s 1925 Spring Gambol at the Metropolitan Opera House.

WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE

Each time I watch this film there are three scenes that absolutely blow me away.

First is James Gleason’s drunken scene with Gary Cooper that starts the film’s final sequence.  Gleason mixes the comic business of repeatedly trying to light a broken cigarette while he explains to Cooper the John Doe conspiracy and his love for American democracy.  It is one of three long, serious monologues at the end of the film, but Capra’s layering it with small comic touches is one of his techniques that make me admire his filmmaking so much.

The crowd scene at the rainy stadium where we see how Cooper is betrayed by those who were trying to use him and shunned by his former supporters and friends is both painful to watch but an admirable piece of filmmaking.  Capra, who is a master of intimate scenes, shows himself capable of creating powerful crowd segments as well.  The rain-soaked mass of humanity reminds me of the downpour in the run-on-the-bank scene in It’s a Wonderful Life.

There’s another weather echo with It’s a Wonderful Life in Meet John Doe’s closing scene atop the snowy City Hall, connecting with the snowy bridge suicide attempt in It’s a Wonderful Life.  I will talk more about Capra and snow at the end of this series of blog posts, but for now let me just say how remarkable this scene is.  The quiet, resigned but confident voice of Gary Cooper, the anguished cries of Barbara Stanwyck, and the pleading apologies of Ann Doran and Regis Toomey make this one of the most powerful closings of any film on our Christmas cinema watch list.  And I always love the cocky American confidence of James Gleason’s prophetic last line: “There you are Norton … the people.  Try and lick that!”

WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM

Turner Classic Movies December 8 at noon and December 24 at 1:30 a.m. (EST).