New Year’s at the Movies — Hang on!

Happy New Year! with The Rogos from The Poseidon AdventureEverybody’s doing lists of what movies to watch on New Year’s Eve, and I’d venture to bet that almost none of the movies on those various lists are actually playing anywhere on TV tonight; these things tend not to synch up too well.  I certainly can’t improve upon what’s out there, but I’ll put in a good word for them and point to one of own my favorite NYE movies.

Thomas Conner on the Chicago Sun-Times website has a nice article all about New Year’s Eve movies, as does Kim Morgan on MSN.com.  The websites Russia's The Carnival Night MovieAbout.com (in, for some reason, their marriage area) has a good listing, and so does the Suite101 site, plus G4′s site has a listing of crappy NYE movies, too.  You’re going to find a lot of crossovers on the lists, naturally, as there are only a real solid handful of truly memorable very-end-of-the-year films, including, as I found out, this interesting little one from Russia called The Carnival Night which is a traditional favorite over there.

The cast of The Poseidon AdventureOver here, or at least here in my mind, the ultimate NYE movie is also probably the ultimate disaster movie, the original 1972 version of The Poseidon Adventure, a packed-to-the-gills spectacular which in the more than thirty-five years since its premiere has gone on to attain certifiable and justifiable cult status around the world.  Based on Paul Gallico’s novel, produced by Irwin Allen, directed by Ronald Neame, and with music by John Williams, The Poseidon Adventure is the perfectly overdone and perfectly delicious all-star escapade, especially ideal for this holiday night because its signature scene takes place at a New Year’s Eve party on board the cruise ship S.S. Poseidon. 

Even if you’re not into the histrionics, you might be fascinated (as I am) by the Hang on -- The Poseidon Starts to Capsize!oceanographic aspects of the plot, in which the huge wave that overturns the gigantic liner is attributed to a tsunami.  I prefer the rogue wave theory which was used in the recent remake, since tsunami waves aren’t the kind that get large enough to bowl over a boat, though they of course do enough damage just as they are.  Nevertheless, the capsizing sequence in the original TPA is still effective, with the scary blare of the whooping alarm, Shelley Winters screaming “Manny!” and everybody going ass over teakettle.  The capper is the shot of the guy falling to his death from an upside-down now-rooftop table into a huge window which used to be the ceiling but is now the floor.

The Luscious Stella Stevens from The Poseidon AdventureThere’s nothing I can say about this classic popcorn film that the incredibly well-informed and passionate super-fans of the movie haven’t already, on several terrific websites devoted to The Poseidon Adventure.  They’re all well worth a visit — The S. S. Poseidon Adventure Fan Site which is the repository of the Chris Davies TPA collection of behind-the-scenes materials, The Poseidon Adventure A Tribute site (but I can’t figure out how to make the midi of “The Morning After” stop playing when you load the page), and Poseidon Adventure.com “The World’s First Poseidon Adventure Website since 1996”.  All are interesting and fun, and you may have seen some of the folks behind these sites in the 2003 documentary from Fox Movie Channel called Cult Culture: The Poseidon Adventure.  Alas, it doesn’t seem to be on DVD and isn’t running on TV anywhere soon (though the actual movie will be on AMC on January 10th.)Belle and Manny Rosen from The Poseidon Adventure

So if you can’t figure out what to do tonight, zip on over to your local rental store and grab The Poseidon Adventure before somebody else does.  Accept no substitutes, remakes, sequels, or TV movies! 

Happy New Year!

Mark Hellinger: One in Eight Million Part III

After the success of The Roaring Twenties, (1939) Mark Hellinger was one of the fair-haired boys on the Warners’ lot. Prowling the sprawling studio lot in his somewhat outlandish standard dark shirt, white tie, and snap brim hat, his hair always slicked back, he looked like a darker, more genial version of his contemporary and fellow Warner Brothers employee, George Raft. In an average day, Hellinger would probably speak with a hundred people at the studio and in the bars, racetracks and restaurants he roamed through. Some would be powerful execs such as Jack Warner or Hal Wallis, who expected a great deal of the Associate Producer, if he ever wanted to become an Executive Producer. Others might well be messenger boys, stenographers, grips or carpenters, who expected little from this hot shot, though they were often surprised to learn that he was alert and apparently interested in how they experienced life. As he became more comfortable in the West Coast world, Hellinger’s restlessness also grew. [...MORE]

HITCHCOCK & The Art of the Trailer

Hitchcock's The BirdsWhile it seems surprising today that more directors aren’t heavily involved in the creative process of producing the trailer for their film, it was unusual for a director like Alfred Hitchcock NOT to use the opportunity for some shameless and highly entertaining self-promotion. In fact, audiences looked forward to these extensions of his personality with each new film and I’ve listed ten favorites examples of his sardonic wit and perverse glee on display in what is not your typical movie preview. 

FRENZY

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/index/?cid=105050 

For a movie so thoroughly disturbing and misogynistic, Hitch takes such a lighthearted approach to his film here that you might think it was a black comedy. Notice how he seems to relish the opportunity to play a possible murder suspect in a staged scene where he retrieves his necktie from a nude female corpse. He also parodies one of the movie’s more memorable murders by appearing in front of the Covent Gardens marketplace and discovering a leg sticking out of a barrel of potatoes – “I’ve heard of a leg of lamb…a leg of chicken, but never a leg of potatoes.”  

MARNIE

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/index/?cid=30416 

This is interesting for its opening interior studio shot of Hitchcock on a crane as it lowers him into a position to introduce his new movie. The running gag here is all about the use of the word SEX and in his repeated insistence that the film is about more than that, the trailer begs to differ with its voyeuristic treatment of Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery, both of them served up like hot appetizers.

Janet Leigh with HitchcockPSYCHO

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/index/?cid=66193 

This teaser trailer is justly famous and is fascinating for its informal tour of the Bates Motel and the Bates mansion, with Hitch casually poking around in Mrs. Bates’s bedroom! He also can’t resist annoying the censors with his appearance in Janet Leigh’s bathroom and his joke about the murder evidence being hidden in the toilet. (At the time, showing a toilet or hearing it flushed in a film could earn you a condemned rating from the Catholic Legion of Decency). 

REAR WINDOW

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/index/?cid=64870 

This is the re-release trailer which was created after the huge success of Hitchcock’s PSYCHO even though REAR WINDOW was originally released in 1954. “See it! If your nerves can stand it after PSYCHO!” the trailer proclaims. James Stewart appears here briefly, addressing the viewer directly after we’ve been introduced to some of his more colorful neighbors. You have to wonder if Hitchcock wrote the pulp fiction-like narration.  

ROPE

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/index/?cid=78242 

Probably the most unique trailer in the bunch, this one opens with a couple on a park bench saying goodbye to each other and we soon realize that the young man we are seeing is the murder victim in ROPE who is never developed onscreen as a character. It’s as if we’re seeing a lost or missing scene from the film.

Rope poster   

THE BIRDS

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/index/?cid=74071

A very droll lecture on birds by Hitch culminates with the director sitting down to a dinner of roast chicken while confessing that he feels much closer to the bipedal vertebrates after his research on them. Like the PSYCHO teaser, he can’t resist closing without a parting shock cut from the film, although the scene chosen – Tippi Hedren announcing “They’re here, they’re here” – may not have actually appeared in the completed film. 

THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/index/?cid=78821 

This trailer follows the same tongue-in-cheek black humor approach of the film and at first appears to be a cheerful travelogue on the beauties of a New England fall….until the narrator can no longer ignore the presence of a dead body in the middle of a bucolic setting. 

STRANGERS ON A TRAIN 

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/index/?cid=28965  

Compared to the movie previews Hitchcock made later this one is rather straightforward and conventional except for its front and center presentation of the film’s plot which was exceedingly perverse for 1951 and Robert Walker gives you the creeps in his few brief but well chosen scenes here.  

The Wrong ManTHE WRONG MAN

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/index/?cid=105063 

This is Hitchcock at his most sober and even though he narrates most of the trailer he avoids making any jokes about Henry Fonda’s grim fate…possibly because Hitchcock’s own paranoia about policemen and jails was based on a childhood fear and very real. 

MR. AND MRS. SMITH

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/index/?cid=58893 

An Alfred Hitchcock romantic comedy? This teaser trailer is unique in that it shows no clips from the film, using only stills, a few static cartoon panels with dialogue balloons and lively big band jazz behind the narrator. 

Paean to a poster

The Black CatWhen I was 12 or 13 years old, I had a bedroom hung with movie posters. These posters were reproductions of Thirties horror films: RKO's King Kong and Universal Studio's Dracula, Frankenstein and The Black Cat. I don't remember where I got these – as an avid sender-awayer, I had a lot of things come to me in the mail and these might just have been ordered out of the back of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, along with the "genuine 6' tall monster with glow-in-the-dark eyes" (turns out it was a poster, mwaaaa, that came with glow dot stickers) that I had to have. I spent many a night staring at these posters before I drifted off to sleep and they're just part of me now, in my blood, in my bones, swimming in my DNA. I'm pretty sure I'd seen all of these movies by then – Needham, Massachusetts' Channel 4 showed the Universal canon on weekends in a double feature format called "Classic Horror" (and later, as the horror hosted "Simon's Sanctorum"), so I got a quick intensive education in Depression and war era horror at a tender and impressionable age.

I think because Edgar Ulmer's The Black Cat lacked, despite the prominent casting of Boris Frankenstein Karloff and Bela Dracula Lugosi in what is quite probably their finest and most equal pairing, a proper monster the film held greater allure and mystery to me. I was enthralled by its aura of doom and of characters rushing to an ending preordained by their choices in the past. The movie is wholly inappropriate for children or even preteens – it's violent (a character is skinned alive, a barbaric act played in shadow but savage in the extreme), morbid (a dead woman is preserved, as if in aspic) and chockablock with potentially offensive elements (a Satanic ritual, no less). Of course, I loved it and I loved having the movie poster to admire from across the room.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: if movies are like dreams, then movie posters are dreams of dreams, bursting with representative symbolism that gives our subconscious a serious workout. Those seemingly free-flying heads of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi swam around in the periphery of my perception for years as I matured from a chubby, socially awkward but incisively funny little boy into an iconoclastic and quietly subversive young man. I'm glad my parents gave me free rein as a kid (the only movie I was forbidden to see was Willard, due to my father's abject fear of rats) and encouraged my decidedly Gothic sensibility. Right or wrong, it's who I am now and my personality has remained consistent. Looking at this poster again after 30 years gives me a warm, grateful feeling… grateful to my Mom and Dad, grateful to Universal Studios, to Edgar G. Ulmer, to Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. To the Greeks, a paean was an ode, a song of joy and exultation offered to the gods and in that joyous spirit I offer this humble celebration of the mail order ephemera that helped make me me.

Remembering Michael Kidd

Michael KiddThe news just came out that dancer/actor/choreographer/director Michael Kidd died this past Sunday, and it was sad to hear.  No one who is a fan of musical theater or movie musicals is without fond memories of Kidd’s prodigious talents, and many of us probably have favorite Kidd moments that we may not have even known we owed to him.  While perhaps not as much of a household name as Bob Fosse, Kidd’s contributions to the art of dance were many and he richly deserved his reputation as one of the dance world’s greatest talents.

A genuine kid from Brooklyn, Michael Kidd was born in 1915 and discovered his attraction for dance while still in high school, though he was unable to pursue the interest at that time.  He enrolled in college as an engineering student, but a couple of years into his studies he was fortunate to secure a scholarship to the School of American Ballet.  The world of engineering’s loss was show business’s gain; Michael’s natural talents soon brought him success in the modern ballet world, and it wasn’t long before his interests led him into theatrical choreography, where he won a Tony Award in 1947 for his first musical Finian’s Rainbow.  From that point on Michael Kidd owned Broadway choreography.  His string of musical theater hits over the years included the blockbusters Guys and Dolls in 1950, Can-Can in 1953, Li’l Abner in 1956, Destry Rides Again in 1959, Wildcat in 1960, Subways are for Sleeping in 1961, Here’s Love in 1963, Skyscraper in 1965, The Ray Bolger does a Kidd-flavor Flamenco in Where's Charley?Rothschilds in 1970, Cyrano in 1973, the revival of The Music Man in 1980, and The Goodbye Girl in 1993.

And of course Hollywood wanted him to choreograph, too.  In 1952 he worked at Warner Bros. on the movie adaptation of Ray Bolger’s stage hit Where’s Charley?, and in 1953 Kidd was hired by MGM to stage the dances and musical numbers for its classy insider musical The Band Wagon starring Fred Astaire and Jack Buchanan.  Kidd supervised the gangster-themed “Girl Hunt Ballet” and the comic terrible-toddler trio of “Triplets” and the rest of the brilliant numbers in what many consider the smartest musical ever made.  Next he went to Paramount to fashion musical sequences and dance numbers for the Danny Kaye ventriloquism comedy Knock on Wood in 1954, where he was particularly successful with the climactic comic ballet set to music by Kaye’s wife Sylvia Fine.Danny Kaye dances Kidd-style in Knock on Wood  Kidd’s next work for MGM was original choreography for 1954’s boisterous outdoorsy musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers with Howard Keel and Jane Powell, as well as talented dancers such as Russ Tamblyn, Tommy Rall, and Julie Newmar.  Kidd’s energetic sensitivities were a perfect match with the exuberant score and script, and his “Barn Dance” number may be his very best known movie work, a real crowd-pleaser, and perhaps most characteristic of his wonderful style.

Though most often behind the camera at that point since transitioning into choreography, Kidd was tapped by directors Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly to co-star in the post-War musical It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), a sometimes silly, sometimes sardonic, Seven Brides for Seven Brothersalways entertaining tale of three soldier buddies who reunite in NYC years after WWII and find out that their friendship hasn’t stood the test of time — or has it?  Michael Kidd is adorable as Angelo Valentine, and he more than holds his own against Gene Kelly and Dan Dailey as his cohorts.  Cyd Charisse and Michael Kidd, Danny Kaye and Norman Panama Knock on WoodDolores Gray co-star in this slick and fantastic musical, known especially for Kelly’s dance on roller skates and for Dolores Gray’s campy, vampy numbers.  I especially like the crazy energy of the dance by Gene, Michael and Dan where they tap with trash can lids on their feet.  It’s adorable and unbounded and just has to make you smile.  The whole movie is a cynical delight and one of my personal favorites.  Great skewering of television, too, and the cynical take on it is as contemporary as tomorrow.  Definitely catch this one if you haven't yet.   

Choreographer Kidd Works with Marlon BrandoIn 1955 Michael Kidd was hired by Samuel Goldwyn to re-create his choreography and stage all musical numbers for the lavish screen version of his Broadway triumph Guys and Dolls.  Kidd is credited with helping non-musical actor Marlon Brando develop a More Kidd with Brandocredible, effective and downright charming musical sense for his role as Sky Masterson, as well as help serious actress Jean Simmons become such a wonderful Sarah Brown.  Of course his work with the Kit Kat girls is solid, as are Sinatra's numbers, as well as the brilliant opening sequence that’s as theatrical and artificial as they come and yet completely works for the movie.     

Michael Kidd got the chance to actually direct a movie with 1958’s delightful and underrated Danny Kaye vehicle for MGM entitled Merry Merry Andrew Poster 1958Andrew, a circus-set tale for which Kidd also did all the choreography.  A beautiful, colorful and comical extravaganza, with an excellent chimpanzee as co-star to Kaye and the lovely Pier Angeli, Merry Andrew benefits from lots of outdoor on-location photography which is exciting and liberating to behold.  (As a Danny Kaye fan I think this movie deserves more credit than it gets, and I highly recommend that you watch it if you haven’t.)  Kidd’s Everything is Ticketyboo!lighthearted touch with the musical numbers is perfect, and particularly so on “Everything is Tickety-Boo” (performed on bicycles) and “Salud” which is a crazy Italian romp under the big top.  The next year Kidd worked again on the screen version of one of his hits, this time Li’l Abner from Paramount.

Kidd’s work was absent from the screen while he continued his breakneck Broadway schedule, but in 1968 he came back to Hollywood to work on the lavish musical Star! with Julie Andrews in the lead playing legendary British actress Gertrude Script for Merry Andrew, Director Michael KiddLawrence.  He was particularly praised for his inventive staging of one of Lawrence’s signature tunes “Jenny” from her 1940s Broadway hit Lady in the Dark.  In 1969 he was the choreographer for Gene Kelly’s screen adaptation of the Broadway smash Hello, Dolly! with Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau (notoriously mismatched) starring.  Coming at the tail end of the grand musicals era, it wasn't greeted with as much praise as it might have been years before, but seen in retrospect it's plenty good. 

More directing followed, mostly in TV, including a stint with All in the Family, along with several interesting movie roles including opposite Bruce Dern in the cynical Michael Ritchie-directed teen beauty pageant comedy Smile in 1975, and of course the Broadway work as discussed above.  Michael Kidd was a tireless worker and a brilliant stylist, and one who kept his creative spark alive every day of his long and prosperous career, and afterwards, too.  Since there is no Academy Award for Choreography, Michael Kidd had to wait until 1997 to finally receive an honorary Oscar for his lifetime body of work, a richly deserved tribute. Michael Kidd’s incredible legacy in the world of dance and entertainment is unforgettable, and as long as people are watching musicals and discovering the best of them, they’ll be remembering Michael Kidd, and saying “thank you” for his wonderful gifts to us all.

Thank you, Mr. Kidd.

“Santa Does Not Slay!”

Having just purchased the book Nightmare USA: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents by Stephen Thrower, I’ve decided to use it as a resource for seasonal entertainment. Out of town guests just descended on me and I’m sensing a post-Christmas funk, one that emanates an “I’ve-survived-the-holidays” feeling. Well… not everyone has been so lucky, as is clear from Thrower’s book. Some people just didn’t survive, especially if they lived in a sorority house. Here’s a look at what Nightmare USA has to say about some Christmas outings that have probably been overlooked – despite their seasonal targeting.

Silent Night, Bloody Night

Silent Night, Bloody Night
(aka: Death House, Night of the Dark Full Moon, Zora, 1972)

Plot excerpt: “1935: Wilfred Butler, the owner of a grand old house used as an asylum, dies in mysterious circumstances. The building stands empty for thirty-five years until the heir puts it on the market. This creates consternation among the town’s prominent figures, including Mayor Adams (Walter Abel), Charles Towman the proprietor of the local newspaper (John Carradine), Sheriff Mason (Walter Klavun), and – in a quirk that’s maybe the only laugh in the film – the switchboard operator, Tess Howard (Fran Stevens).”

Verdict excerpt: “…a painfully slow affair, plotted for maximum irritation, with a deferred mystery structure that will have you screaming with impatience after the first hour.”

You’d think the next title up would be Black Christmas (1974) by Bob Clark and starring Keir Dullea and Margot Kidder. But this film by the director of Porky’s (1982) and A Christmas Story (1983) is simply too mainstream to make the cut, so it is only referenced in passing. As Thrower writes in his Author’s Preface: “It was easy to dismiss the studio pictures and the foreign co-productions – I even set a rule against the classics. After all, was there really anything else to say about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre?”

So with that we go to another title: To All A Goodnight (1980)

To All A Goodnight

Plot excerpt: “It’s the Christmas holidays at Calvin College Finishing School for girls. A group of students arrange a private farewell party, adding a sleeping draught to the night-time milk of their house-mother Mrs. Jensen (Katherine Herrington), and inviting some boys to stay the night. But there’s a killer stalking the college, dressed as Santa Claus.”

Verdict excerpt: “Sad to say, actor-turned-director David Hess – who gave us one of the screen’s most electrifying killers as Krug in The Last House on the Left – fails to bring his personal intensity as a performer to his role behind the camera.”

And since we’re in the 1980’s that would bring us up to: Christmas Evil and Silent Night, Deadly Night. Although Thrower doesn’t give these thorough reviews of these, he does give these two a killer sidebar description:

“…the King of the Killer-Santa films! Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) beats the almost equally wonderful Christmas Evil (1980) by a reindeer’s neck thanks to its inspired promotional ballyhoo. Its original poster art depicted Santa climbing down a chimney on Christmas Eve, toting a bloody axe in place of the customary presents. The film was immediately attacked by Christian and Family groups in America: as Adam Rockoff has reported, demonstrators gave horror fans a Yuletide belly-laugh by toting placards which read “Deck the Halls with Holly, Not Blood” and “Santa Does Not Slay!”

Christmas Evil

Although Silent Night, Deadly Night tanked at the box-office, it clearly did enough business on video because it spawned many sequels. My guest tonight just told me that the second one even has a minute-long clip titled “Garbage Day” that has become a YouTube phenomenon that has sparked many irreverent imitators such as “Laundry Day” etc., and can be seen here:

A remake of Silent Night, Deadly Night, shot here in Colorado, might be released next year. Ah, the new year… Maybe instead of a Christmas-themed horror film I should set my sights on New Year’s Eve? Alas, if that were the case the only horror film that comes to mind is the tepid shlock of New Year’s Evil (1981). Thrower doesn’t have much to say about this one. Maybe he also avoids reviewing anything Ebert has touched?

A different kind of Christmas Story.

A Glimpse of the Culinary Adventures of Old Hollywood

“Santa Claus has the right idea: visit people once a year.” ~ Victor Borge
Don’t get me wrong. I love my family. However, the month of December, no matter one’s spiritual beliefs or family traditions, is fraught with such a heady mixture of anticipation, ephemeral hopes, memories of past joys and pain, and just plain effort, that the day after Christmas is almost welcome with its mixture of exhaustion and ennui.

December 26th marks a day to spend with family, a return to work, and in some shopaholics, prompts one more mad dash to the mall to return or cash in those material goods gleaned from the day before. Some of us, after visiting with family members, gladly count ourselves among the less hardy souls who find some solace in the week-long “limbo” that seems to occur after Christmas and before the New Year. [...MORE]

Wonder of wonders

Christmas glow

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I staged this Christmas picture of our children. Vayda and Little Victor seemed nonplussed by the urgency of being sat together on the floor of their bedroom with a heavy tangle of electric lights laid in their laps but they’re game kids and they trust us up to a point. We needed a December picture for the photo calendar we were making for the families and this felt like a classic. We plugged in the lights and it was instant magic. You hear a lot about “magic” at Christmas time and most of it is the cynical jargon of ad men but there’s truth there, too, buried beneath the tinsel and aerosol snow. I sent the photo to my fellow Movie Morlock, Jeff, who wrote back: “I can see the look of awe on your kids’ faces as they gaze upon the Christmas lights. That was me. Colored lights were like… magic.”

It’s easy to remember having a sense of childlike wonder but harder as you grow older to recapture it. It’s a question of focus, I think, and as adults we seem unable to focus on anything unless there’s a paycheck attached to it. We’re goal-oriented. We have children to feed and bills to pay, work to bang out, there’s commuting to think about, and then reality TV, of course, which bleeds away a little more of our time every year. We leave very little time for pretty lights. Kids have it all over us in this regard. Whatever they may lack in basic hand/eye coordination, diction or impulse control, children know how to prioritize. Plug in a colored light and you have their attention. Nothing else exists until that light goes out.

Not for nothing is Christmas a festival of light. The carols sing of sensual imperatives – “Do you see what I see?”, “Hark, the herald angels sing,” “Go Tell It on the Mountain” – making the holiday a celebration of perception and of sharing what we have seen and heard. While the oral tradition to which we owe our language has taken a beating in the modern age (OMG! LOL!), it lives on in any way that people communicate: in church sermons, in novels and poetry, in music… and at the movies. Movie storytelling is our cave painting, our tribal dance, our colored lights. Cinema brings us back to basics, to elemental wonder and awe. As a film writer I forget, in my pursuit of meaning and trivia, the magic that film brings into our lives by the simple virtue of its light.

In the coming new year, make time in your life for delight and wonder, for the kind of experience that humbles you, that reduces you to something elemental and awe-struck. If you’re not watching something that makes you look like the kids pictured above, why bother watching it at all?

Okay, sermon’s over. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Going A Christmas Carol-ing

Albert Finney in and as ScroogeAs Christmas day approaches — actually it’s here already in my time zone — what better time to take a look at some of the participants in the vast parade of Scrooge portrayers from over the years in movies and TV adaptations of Dickens’ immortal tale.  A Christmas Carol is a perennial favorite with audiences and with actors who love to don the ol’ stocking cap and make like a miser for a couple of hours.   

Dickens’ story made the transition into movies early, with a couple of silentReginald Owen as Scrooge in 1938 versions hitting early cinemas nearly a hundred years ago.  Probably the first famous and still-viewed ACC was the 1938 MGM rendition with Reginald Owen as Leo G. Carroll and Reginald OwenEbenezer Scrooge, along with jovial Gene Lockhart as Bob Crachit, with Lockhart’s real-life wife Katharine playing Mrs. C and his daughter June as one of their children.  Leo G. Carroll was Marley’s ghost in this effective version.   

In terms of theatrical Scrooges, probably 1951’s Alastair Sim takes top honors for his wonderful interpretation which continues to delight audiences Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge, 1951today.  This all-British version was especially praised for the time it spent on fleshing out Scrooge’s early life.  The 1970 musical version called simply Scrooge starring Albert Finney in the titleScrooge Lobby Card role has gained in reputation over the years, its Leslie Bricusse (1967’s Doctor Doolittle) score getting an Oscar nomination and producing at least one classic –“Thank You Very Much”.   

Television is always on the lookout for a good Christmas movie, and so Henry Winkler in An American Christmas Carolthere have been a plethora of Scrooges on the small screen, from Henry “The Fonz” Winkler playing an George C. Scott as Ebenezer ScroogeAmerican version of Scrooge in his An American Christmas Carol in 1979, to Rich Little doing W.C. Fields as Scrooge, to the excellent George C. Scott version in 1984.  In 1999 Star Trek The Next Generation’s Patrick Stewart adapted his one-man stage version of the Dickens classic into a TV movie where he played Scrooge, and a few years later actor Kelsey Grammer Patrick Stewart as Scroogealso did a new and different musical interpretation.   

The Muppets have done their version, as did theKelsey Grammer as Scrooge Flintstones, Disney characters, Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater on radio, Bill Murray with Scrooged, British actor Jim Dale for audio books, and so many others, plus practically every local theater group on the planet has brought the story to life.  A Christmas Carol does have something for everyone, it seems, from sentiment to spooky effects, to bitter regret and ultimate redemption and renewal.  Christmas only comes once a year, but you can bet a lump of coal that A Christmas Carol will come around many more times than that, but who’s complaining?  Happy Holidays.

CHRISTMAS IN JULY – My Yuletide Flick Pick

Christmas in July poster

For many people the holidays wouldn’t be complete without a viewing of “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “Miracle on 34th Street” or some version of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” whether it features Reginald Owen, Alastair Sims or Mr. Magoo. But there’s no reason why Preston Sturges’ CHRISTMAS IN JULY shouldn’t became a regular seasonal favorite as well. Granted, it doesn’t take place in December, contains no wintry, snow-covered landscapes or appearances by Santa Claus but like the Frank Capra and Charles Dickens favorites it conveys the spirit of Christmas, one of selfless giving and generosity to those less fortunate than you. It also reaffirms the importance of family and friends over the materialistic traps of the world but accomplishes it with wit and high style in a breathlessly paced sixty-seven minute rollercoaster ride.

 

Beginning with the frosty title credits and frenetic opening music we are immediately plunged into the middle of a conversation between a young couple on a rooftop, overlooking a nocturnal New York City. Betty (Ellen Drew) is trying to interest her fiancee Jimmy (Dick Powell) in an affordable plan to compartmentalize a one-bedroom apartment but he can only see increased financial worries if they marry and start a family while trying to support their elderly parents. Jimmy is convinced that the only way he’ll ever break out of the working class rut is to win the $25,000 cash prize (a LOT of money for 1940) in a slogan writing contest for a Coffee company. It doesn’t matter that Jimmy has a history of entering and losing contests like this. He’s convinced he HAS to win eventually even though Betty fears each rejection is another blow to Jimmy’s self-esteem.

Dick Powell in Christmas in JulySet in what appears to be an Irish tenement (every character seems to have a slight brogue), Jimmy and Betty are not much different from a lot of other young couples, struggling for better lives and perhaps overly optimistic of their chances for future happiness. But Jimmy’s burning desire to win and Betty’s unswerving loyalty to him is so touching that we are immediately hooked by this underdog couple. We want them to triumph over impossible odds.

And CHRISTMAS IN JULY sweeps us along in an exhilarating rush of events as Jimmy, who holds a lowly desk job at a coffee company, thinks he has won the grand prize in a rival coffee company’s contest. A fake telegram from Western Union sent by three co-workers sets in motion a scenario that results in Jimmy getting engaged, being quickly promoted to his own office and embarking on a monumental spending spree – all in the course of one day!

Like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Sturges’s film walks a tightrope between euphoria and despair, building incredible suspense as we wait for the terrible moment when Jimmy and Betty realize they’ve been the brunt of a practical joke that went haywire. Yet the sequences of Jimmy’s uninhibited spending spree that both delight and fill us with dread are also the core of the film, demonstrating Jimmy’s true character. Instead of thinking of himself, he becomes intoxicated by the opportunity to buy gifts for his hard-working mother, his future in-laws, and the less fortunate families in his neighborhood, telling Betty, “We better work up one side of the street and down the other, that way we won’t forget anybody.” When he and Betty arrive at the tenement with a caravan of cars bearing gifts, the resulting distribution of presents provides some of the most touching moments in the film – a wordless shot of a young girl receiving a doll – probably the first one she’s ever been given – and her response to it is one of those little cinematic moments in time that you never forget. Sturges also invests this sequence with unbridled social commentary as we see the breakdown of class and ethnic differences when the department store owner arrives with his managers to renounce Jimmy and take back the gifts. He shouts to the local Irish cop, “I want all of those people arrested” referring to Jimmy and his neighbors. “Who do you think you are, Hitler?” the cop responds and then defends Jimmy, stating “I know that kid since he was knee-high to a cockroach. What’s He supposed to have done?” A riot ensues as the haves try to take back their merchandise from the have-nots but what’s bracing about this climatic moment is to witness the solidarity of these tenement dwellers and their fierce loyalty to one of their own who is under attack by the “authorities.”

CHRISTMAS IN JULY is, in many ways, a breakthrough role for Dick Powell. No longer the boyish singer/dancer of such Warner Bros. musicals as “Gold Diggers of 1937” and “The Singing Marine” (1937) and not yet the tough, unshaven private eye of “Murder, My Sweet” (1944), Powell was in career limbo, struggling to redefine his screen persona when he made this. And you can see the beginnings of a new style emerging, one that balances his naive, all-American wholesomeness with bitter self-doubt and cynicism. Powell’s Jimmy MacDonald is just as memorable and iconic as James Stewart’s George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life” and hopefully CHRISTMAS IN JULY will one day become a Yuletide viewing favorite.Ellen Drew & Dick Powell

The film will break your heart…and mend it back again, repeatedly, before sailing out with the only ending that is believable and yet “happy” in the most realistic sense. And Sturges caps it all off with a zinger that incorporates Jimmy’s “winning” slogan for a new coffee ad campaign – “If you don’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee, it’s the bunk.”

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