Bell, Book and Candle (1958)

This is the third film starring James Stewart on our holiday watch list; the others were It’s a Wonderful Life and The Shop Around the Corner. That ties him with Barbara Stanwyck, who appeared in Christmas in Connecticut, Meet John Doe and Remember the Night.  It’s also the second film featuring Jack Lemmon, though he is just a supporting player here, unlike his wonderful starring role in The Apartment.

Bell, Book and Candle is a nice little film, though a bit shaky in its casting: Jimmy Stewart is too old for the romantic lead, and Kim Novak seems far too languorous and breathy.  It’s a well constructed script, based on a stage play by John van Druten. When performed on Broadway in 1950-51, it starred Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer, who were married at the time.

PLOT SUMMARY

Gillian Holroyd (Novak), a lovely young witch who runs a boutique in Manhattan, is bored on Christmas Eve and wants to meet someone new.  She is mildly attracted to her upstairs neighbor, publisher Shep Henderson (Stewart), but when she realizes that he is engaged to a former college nemesis (Janice Rule), Gil casts a love spell on Shep and they begin a passionate love affair on Christmas.  Gil eventually reveals to Shep that she is a witch, and Shep while not believing her at first eventually goes to a rival witch (Hermione Gingold) to break the spell.  After the break, Gil realizes that she has fallen in love with Shep and as a result has lost her powers.  When Shep learns of this, he also realizes that he is honestly in love, and all ends well.

CHRISTMAS CONNECTION

The story begins on Christmas Eve, and there are many scenes of snow-covered sidewalks and streets in Manhattan. The film concludes in the spring, but the themes of reversal and redemption necessary to make it a Christmas film are there.

CHARACTER ACTORS

Ernie Kovacs (Sidney Redlitch) was known primarily for his innovative TV comedy, but this was his second film.  The first was Operation Mad Ball (1957), also directed by Richard Quine and starring Jack Lemmon.   Kovacs was married to Edie Adams, whom we saw in a small dramatic role in The Apartment.  He died in an auto accident in 1962, cutting short a brief but brilliant career.

Hermione Gingold (Biance de Passe) was best known for her role in Gigi (1958), but she also appeared in Around the World in 80 Days (1956), The Music Man (1962) and A Little Night Music (1977). She also appeared in several Broadway productions, including one with my favorite title: Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad (1963).

Elsa Lanchester (Queenie) has already been seen in The Bishop’s Wife, and we will see her soon in Come to the Stable.

Janice Rule (Merle) had supporting roles in many TV series during the 1950s and early 1960s, including The Twilight Zone, Checkmate and Route 66. Her best film roles came in Welcome to Hard Times (1967), The Ambushers (1967) and The Swimmer (1968).  She was married to actor Ben Gazzara from 1961 to 1982. Ironically, since she plays Kim Novak’s rival in this film, Rule played the role of Madge in Picnic on Broadway, while Novak took that role in the movie version.

Howard McNear (Andy White, Shep’s co-publisher) was seen previously in Bundle of Joy and is best known for his role as Floyd the barber in TV’s The Andy Griffith Show.

ASTAIRE CONNECTION

So far this is the only film for which I cannot find any direct connection to Fred Astaire.  It does feature a delightful scene atop the Flat Iron building on 23rd Street just a few blocks from where Fred, his mother and sister lived when they first moved to Manhattan in 1905, but that’s it.

WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE

Snow, Manhattan, the Flat Iron building, Jack Lemmon, and a clever, touching script.  Oh, and Pyewacket, of course!  (By the way, this is the only film in our holiday watch list that includes a cat, except for a brief scene in The Thin Man when Asta surprises a cat in the Thin Man’s shop.)

WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM

Turner Classic Movies will show Bell, Book and Candle on January 23 at 2:30 a.m.

Come to the Stable (1949)

This film has been one that we have had on the waiting list for several years, and we finally got around to adding it to the holiday watch list this Christmas because we had more openings what with the longer Advent season.  We’re glad we did. It is a charming film focused on faith, with some interesting elements connecting it to other holiday films.

The most obvious connection is to The Bishop’s Wife, which also starred Loretta Young and was also directed by Henry Koster.  Two other character actors (Elsa Lanchester and Regis Toomey) also appeared in both films.

Another interesting point we saw is how much of a role World War II plays in this film.  The nuns (Loretta Young and Celeste Holm) have made a faithful promise to build a children’s hospital in the United States, after the USA saved their French hospital during the liberation of Europe.  The gambler (Thomas Gomez) miraculously donates the land for the hospital when he learns of the nuns’ connection to France, because his son had died in Europe during the war.  The musician (Hugh Marlowe), who at first seems pleasant enough but then becomes Scrooge-like, finally joins in the miraculous redemptions, when he also recognizes his WWII connection to the nuns.

How many of the films we have seen on our Christmas watch list have some central connections to World War II?  It’s a Wonderful Life, Holiday Affair, White Christmas, Christmas in Connecticut and Never Say Goodbye all make some reference. With the war more than 75 years distant from us today, we may forget until we ponder these films how WWII reaffirmed so broadly the values of faith, family and community that are central to Christmas.  Perhaps that is why there were so many fine Christmas films made in the late 1940s.

PLOT SUMMARY

Two nuns from France have come to the United States to fulfill a promise they made to build a children’s hospital after the U.S. troops preserved a French hospital during a World War II battle.  With no land, no money and no support from the church authorities, they seem to face impossible challenges, but at each step their simple faith miraculously finds the buried charitable spirit in everyone they encounter and brings their dream to fruition.

CHRISTMAS CONNECTION

The Christmas connection is seen first in an amusing Nativity scene at the beginning of the film.  Though there is plenty of snow early on, Christmastime is less the setting and more the thematic spirit.

CHARACTER ACTORS

Celeste Holm (Sister Scholastica) is best known for her supporting roles in All About Eve (1950) and High Society (1956). I recall her fondly also as the Fairy Godmother in the 1965 TV production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, which included Ginger Rogers, Walter Pidgeon, Lesley Ann Warren and Pat Carroll in the cast.

Hugh Marlowe (Mr. Mason) played Celeste Holm’s husband in All About Eve (1950). He had other distinctive roles in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Twelve O’clock High (1949), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Monkey Business (1952).

Elsa Lanchester (Amelia Potts) is making her third appearance on our holiday watch list, the others being The Bishop’s Wife and Bell, Book and Candle.

Thomas Gomez (Luigi Rossi) is best known for his role as a gangster’s henchman in Key Largo (1948). He also appeared in Captain from Castile (1947) and numerous TV series in the 1960s.

Basil Ruysdael (the Bishop) appeared as a dean in People Will Talk (1951) and played a bishop again in The Last Hurrah (1958).

Dooley Wilson (Anthony James) is, of course, best known as Sam the piano player  in Casablanca (1942).

Regis Toomey (Monsignor) also appeared in The Bishop’s Wife and Meet John Doe.

Mike Mazurki (Sam) previously appeared in Pocketful of Miracles.

Walter Baldwin (Mr. Jarman) appeared as the father in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and had an extended role as Grandpa Miller in TV’s Petticoat Junction.

Robert Foulk (policeman) previously appeared previously in The Lemon Drop Kid (1951). He had a small role as a customs officer in Gentleman Prefer Blondes (1953) but is better known for his roles as Ed Davis in TV’s Father Knows Best (1954-57) and as Mr. Wheeler in Green Acres (1966-71).

Louis Jean Heydt (Al) was seen previously in The Miracle at Morgan’s Creek (1943). He had interesting key roles in The Great McGinty (1940) and The Big Sleep (1946).

Nolan Leary (station master) was seen previously in Fitzwilly (1967). He had roles in White Heat (1949) and High Noon (1952), was one of the rotating judges in Perry Mason (1957-63), and also played a judge on Lassie (1957-63).

Gordon Gebert (Willie Matthews, one of the children in the Nativity scene) made his screen debut in this film and was next seen as Timmy in Holiday Affair (1949).

Marion Martin (Rossi’s manicurist) is probably most familiar as the platinum blonde Evangeline in His Girl Friday (1940), but her other roles include Boom Town (1940), Tales of Manhattan (1942), The Big Street (1942), Lady of Burlesque (1943) and Angel on My Shoulder (1946).

ASTAIRE CONNECTION

Nolan Leary appeared with Astaire in The Barkleys of Broadway (1949).

WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE

We were surprised how much we enjoyed this movie.  There were some brief interesting scenes in Manhattan, and some wild jeep driving by the nuns, but I think it is ultimately the large number of surprising appearances by character actors that endeared the movie to us.

WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM

The film is not currently scheduled on Turner Classic Movies, but it often appears in December.

The Great Mr. Nobody (1941)

This was a last minute addition to our holiday watch list, when we learned that it had a reference to our favorite holiday drink, Tom & Jerrys.

We’re glad we added it because it is a pleasant little movie with many familiar character actors, but we probably won’t be including it in future Christmas cinema garlands.  The plot is just too thin and disjointed.  It bears some resemblance to Good Sam and perhaps even It’s a Wonderful Life, as it focuses on a perfectly good man who forgoes his own dreams to help others who are down and out.  Eddie Albert’s character (Dreamy Smith) just does not have the complexities of Sam Clayton and George Bailey and never faces a “dark night of the soul” as they do.  Similar to It’s a Wonderful Life, it takes the intervention of a strong woman (in this case the lovely Joan Leslie) to save him.

PLOT SUMMARY

Dreamy Smith (Eddie Albert) has a dream of quitting his job in the classified ad section of a New York newspaper to become partners with his roommate (Alan Hale) on a sailing ship.  But every time he comes close to fulfilling his dream some mishap or someone in trouble gets in the way.  He gets taken advantage of by everyone, including his boss, who steals his clever ideas. Despite being pushed by his girl friend (Joan Leslie), he never seems to stand up for himself.  Finally fortified by some alcohol, he stands up to his boss but is fired.  That’s when Mary intervenes, and Dreamy is ultimately recognized as a quiet hero for all of the people he has helped.

CHRISTMAS CONNECTION

The film concludes on Christmas Eve, but the holiday connection is fairly thin.

CHARACTER ACTORS

Eddie Albert (Dreamy Smith) was best known for his starring role as Oliver Douglas in TV’s Green Acres, but he had many fine supporting film roles, such as Brother Rat (1938), Roman Holiday (1953), The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956), The Sun Also Rises (1957) and The Longest Day (1962).

Joan Leslie (Mary Clover) had some wonderful roles in the early 1940s, including Velma in High Sierra (1941), Gracie Williams in Sergeant York (1941), Mary Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and Connie Reed in Two Guys from Milwaukee (1946).

Alan Hale (“Skipper” Martin) is best remembered as the side kick of Errol Flynn in several pictures, including The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940). His other notable roles include It Happened One Night (1934), Imitation of Life (1934) and The Strawberry Blonde (1941).  He was the father of Alan Hale Jr., who played the Skipper in TV’s Gilligan’s Island.

John Litel (John Wade) has appeared previously in Christmas Eve and Pocketful of Miracles.

Dickie Moore (“Limpy” Barnes) was a popular child actor, appearing in such films as Blonde Venus (1932), Oliver Twist (1933) and as Dickie in many of the Our Gang shorts in the 1930s.

William Benedict (Jig) had hundreds of character roles, often in newspaper offices, including Libeled Lady (1936), Theodora Goes Wild (1936) and Meet John Doe (1940).  He played Cary Grant’s caddy in Bringing Up Baby (1938).

George Irving (Dr. Carlisle) is most familiar as Mr. Peabody in Bringing Up Baby (1938), but he also had notable roles in A Night at the Opera (1935), Sergeant York (1941) and Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942).

Paul Hurst (Michael O’Connor) started appearing in silent films in 1913 and later had roles in notable films, such as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938), Gone with the Wind (1939) and The Ox-Bow Incident (1943).

Charles Halton (Mr. Bixby) has been seen previously as the detective in The Shop Around the Corner and the bank examiner in It’s a Wonderful Life.

ASTAIRE CONNECTION

Joan Leslie danced with Fred Astaire in The Sky’s the Limit (1943).

William Benedict appeared with Astaire in Second Chorus (1940).

Paul Hurst appeared with Astaire in The Sky’s the Limit (1943).

WHY WE LOVE LIKE THIS MOVIE

There are many familiar faces but no standout performances.  It was along wait till the last five minutes of the film to see the Tom & Jerrys being ladled out of a large punch bowl into special mugs.  This makes the fifth film in our list to mention the holiday drink; the others were Beyond Tomorrow, The Cheaters, The Apartment and Never Say Goodbye.

WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM

The film is occasionally shown on Turner Classic Movies but is not currently scheduled in the coming months.

2018-19 Wrap Up

Now that Epiphany has arrived, the wonderfully long holiday season has come to a close for 2018-19.  As always, Barbara and I have enjoyed watching our favorite Christmas films and adding some new ones to the watch list.  I have enjoyed posting my thoughts about them on this new blog and especially concentrating on the many fine character actors who helped bring these stories to life on the screen.

As a final post for this theme, let me pull together some different categories.

BEST FILM

It is hard to choose between The Apartment and It’s a Wonderful Life.  As pure film, I lean toward Billy Wilder’s satire of 1950s corporate America, but I have a solid place in my heart for Frank Capra’s masterpiece.  So …. let’s split the difference: Best Film — The Apartment; Best Christmas Film — It’s a Wonderful Life.

WORST FILM

Choosing the worst film on the list is much easier.  All Mine to Give is all but unwatchable, followed in a close second by Bundle of Joy, which at least had some instructive value in demonstrating how not to do comedy when compared to its original, Bachelor Mother.

BEST LEAD ACTORS

Barbara Stanwyck and Jimmy Stewart take the prizes here not only with the most appearances on our watch-list (three each) but with the best performances.  Stanwyck perfected the balance between the hard-bitten sophisticate and the vulnerable romantic in all three of her films: Remember the Night, Meet John Doe and Christmas in Connecticut.  Stewart has more varied characterizations in his three films (The Shop Around the Corner, It’s a Wonderful Life and Bell, Book and Candle), but the sensitivity of his Shop performance and the range and complexity of George Bailey make him worthy of the top prize.  Let me not forget Cary Grant, who also made three appearances on the garland: The Bishop’s Wife, Holiday and In Name Only.  All three performances were great, but Grant did far better films that are not on the Christmas list.

BEST CHARACTER ACTORS

Choosing among so many character actors is even harder.  A trio appeared in five different films, (Cyril Ring, Chester Clute and Fred Kelsey), but their roles were fleeting and nearly anonymous, but let’s give them some credit just for quantity.

My three favorites made far fewer appearances, but they created memorable, distinctive personalities that were essential to their films, so I’ll give this trio a share of the prize.

S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakal had wonderful roles in Never Say Goodbye and Christmas in Connecticut that helped make both films so delightfully amusing.

Charles Coburn shows himself to be a master of subtle comedy in Bachelor Mother and proves to be effectively stiff in the melodrama In Name Only.  Without him neither film would be as effective.

Similarly, James Gleason creates subtle, multilayered characters in his two appearances: Meet John Doe and The Bishop’s Wife.

NEW FILMS: Keepers & Throw Aways

We added 10 new films to our holiday watchlist, but we will probably keep only two for next year. Another three we will likely never watch again. The definite throw-aways are All Mine to Give, Bundle of Joy and Christmas Eve. The keepers are Larceny Inc. (definitely) and In Name Only, and possibly Come to the Stable, The Cheaters and Fitzwilly.  Although we enjoyed Lady on a Train and The Great Mr. Nobody, we weren’t intrigued enough to want to see them again any time soon.

2019 WATCH LIST

I’m already thinking about how we will organize next year’s Christmas cinema.  It will be a shorter list than this year, since in 2019 Thanksgiving will be late (November 28).  Right now I’m thinking of a hodgepodge of themes, such as films set in department stores, films with intervening ghosts and spirits, films set in Manhattan, etc.  And instead of a daily blog, I am contemplating a weekly post and a short compilation of clips capturing each theme to be posted on YouTube.  We’ll see what happens.

In any event: Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

 

 

When Harry Met Sally… (1989)

We almost always end our holiday film watching with this delightful comedy, because it is the “newest” movie on our cinema garland. Can you believe it’s 30 years old?  It’s also one of only six color films on our list: the others are Comfort & Joy (which usually starts the garland), White Christmas, and a few first-timers this year: Fitzwilly, Bundle of Joy and Pocketful of Miracles.

This year, as we organized our watch list around character actors, it is again appropriate to end with When Harry Met Sally … since it has no character links to any of the other films on the list but still has several nice supporting performances.

Even though it is a “modern” film, this is still a good, old-fashioned movie.  There is a reverence for old films (the repeated references to Casablanca, for example, and even one to The Lady Vanishes) and for classic jazz. The charming “documentary” clips of other loving couples who recall how they fell in love also cement the old-fashioned feeling.  It is a solid, clever script that features the best performances ever by Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal.

PLOT SUMMARY

Harry and Sally first meet traveling from Chicago to New York in 1977.  They hate each other.  They accidentally meet again five years later and annoy each other.  And five years after that they fatefully meet again and slowly become good friends, fall in love, then out of love, and then on New Year’s Eve fall in love for good.

CHRISTMAS CONNECTION

There are some lovely Christmas scenes in Manhattan, including the Rockefeller Center tree, and the film concludes on New Year’s Eve.  The themes are love and surprising reversals, which certainly connect to the essence of Christmas.

CHARACTER ACTORS

Carrie Fisher (Marie) was the daughter of Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, who starred in Bundle of Joy. Carrie was best known as Princess Leia in the early Star Wars films, but she also appeared in Shampoo (1975) and The Blues Brothers (1980).

Bruno Kirby (Jess) played the young Clemenza in The Godfather: Part II (1974).

Estelle Reiner (café customer) was the mother of director Rob Reiner. She appeared in the Mel Brooks-Anne Bancroft re-make of To Be or Not to Be (1983).  She was a respected jazz singer on radio as a teenager and in clubs in Los Angeles in the 1960s.

ASTAIRE CONNECTION

I couldn’t find a single direct connection to Fred Astaire, but the spirit is there, and the sound track includes “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” the classic Gershwin tune that Astaire and Rogers sing and skate to in Central Park in Shall We Dance.

WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE

Beyond the classic love story between Harry and Sally, this is also a love letter to Manhattan, with scenes shot all around that wonderful town.

WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM

Look for it to be scheduled later this year on Turner Classic Movies or other channels, as the film celebrates its 30th anniversary.