Posted by Moira Finnie on December 24, 2008
This year, some might wish more longingly for one fewer excursion in search of something perfect for that special someone or for reasons to be rushing around. Whenever the charged emotions and high expectations overwhelm me at the holidays, I find myself looking for some forms of escape, which, of course, may sometimes be a movie.
There’s a part of me that craves the films of my youth at Christmas, even though not all of them have anything to do with the holiday. This entry in our Movie Morlocks blogathon generally falls under the heading of Movies I Loved as a Kid (and still do). Intellectually, I can see that each of these films acknowledges that there are similar themes in each person’s life of paradise lost, found, and rediscovered, as well as the mysterious serendipitous events that connect us and and occasionally give us a glimpse of a deeper understanding of the ebb and flow of life. Having seen more in real life–especially this last year–I can also cherish my visceral, wholly instinctive reaction to these stories and the feelings that they evoke as they unspool on film. Perhaps you can too :
Mighty Joe Young (1949) is indelibly imprinted on my memory’s hard drive. This film, which used to be broadcast every year at the holidays, is a less ambitious successor to King Kong (1933) with many members of the original team lending a hand, including director Ernest B. Schoedsack, writer and producer Merian C. Cooper, and creator of the original Kong models, Special Effects master, Willis O’Brien. Interestingly, the legendary Ray Harryhausen was “first technician” on this movie, and, as he wrote in his autobiography, Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life, he saw “Joe as young, mischievous and unaware of his own strength”. I think that Harryhausen, O’Brien and the other special effects men did a great job of making Mighty Joe a more expressive, sensitive, and less adult creature than Kong was in the 1930s pre-code production.
To me, Joe was very cuddly, and, when he was forced to perform in that crazy nightclub with the lions behind glass around the bar and the drunken bums throwing giant coins at his head, my sympathies were entirely with the big ape. (Btw, how many palms in the movie’s city administration and at the humane society were greased to allow that cockamamie club to open?).
Unlike Kong (or the sadly uninspired 1933 follow-up to the big monkey movie, Son of Kong), Joe seems child-like and enraptured by his friend, the girl played by his piano-playing childhood companion, Terry Moore, especially when she plays “Beautiful Dreamer.” I think that the presence of Moore as the very young and, in retrospect, woefully naive heroine of this piece added to the story’s appeal. Even now, when seeing a very young Ben Johnson venturing off his horse and into some tentative love scenes with Moore is more interesting to me, it is Terry Moore‘s sweet relationship with the ape that is the real love story here. Another reason why this film also continues to enchant me may be that the scene at the burning orphanage, which is the emotional high point of the film. It is still terrible and wonderful as all good fairy tales should be, but now I can appreciate even more the skill involved in this red-tinted sequence, (who knew it was red when seen on an old black and white set back in the ’60s?), and still find the suspense harrowing throughout the scene as Joe makes up his mind about helping the orphans or leaving on the next boat to Africa. Even the coda at the end, showing a home movie of Moore, Johnson and Joe happily ensconced back in a bucolic Africa seems an anti-climax after the melodrama that preceded it. Strangely, after two movies in which that entrepreneurial con man Robert Armstrong has encountered two very large mammals and insisted on shipping them back to New York City for further exploitation, the showman at the end of the film still seems unable to grasp his real responsibility for the cataclysmic consequences of of his actions. His failure to reflect on the results is most amusing but of course, the show must go on.
Heidi (1937): Johanna Spyri’s classic children’s story, set in the Swiss Alps, about an orphaned little girl, (is there really any other kind in these movies?) who is dumped on her misanthropic grandfather’s mountain doorstep is given a powerful adaptation under the direction of Alan Dwan. The cast of this film is headed by the consummate heartbreaker, Shirley Temple, at the height of her powers. The grandfather, played in an endearingly gruff fashion by Jean Hersholt, slowly thaws under the penetrating gaze of Shirley‘s resolute determination to love him. Just as we think that things couldn’t get better for Shirley and Grandfather Jean, the girl is snatched away by an inexplicably evil relative, who sells the child into the household of Marcia Mae Jones, a rich lame girl in the big city, where Shirley is expected to act as her companion. While the pair eventually become friends, Heidi’s distress over her loss of her grandfather and her longing to return to her mountain aerie is given short shrift by almost all the adults, especially Mary Nash, who is, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest villains in all of filmdom as the insecure Fraulein Rottenmeier, particularly when she smashes a snow globe that Shirley has received for Christmas. (Btw, Nash would live to torment Temple another day, in The Little Princess, another highpoint of the child actress’ remarkable career.). The emotional high point of this movie comes at Christmas, with Jean Hersholt wandering the streets on Christmas calling the name of his Heidi plaintively. As Grandfather is abused, arrested and misunderstood, the movie wrings your heart strings for all its worth until the inevitable reunion of the pair is achieved. If you can resist this movie’s power to move and entertain, it won’t be for want of trying.
Sequoia (1934): This beautifully made MGM movie, released just before Christmas in 1934, appears to be forgotten, though its broadcast in a fine print on TCM recently bodes well for future scheduling (I hope). Based on a novel by Vance Hoyt called “Malibu”, it tells the story of an orphaned baby puma and a fawn who are found by the daughter of a writer, (Jean Parker, a natural and lovely actress, fresh from George Cukor’s Little Women), while living in seclusion in the woods with her father (Samuel S. Hinds). Co-directed by Chester M. Franklin and Edwin L. Marin, this beguiling movie, with only a minimum of sentiment, blends photographic beauty and the emotional poetry inherent in the drama of a strange friendship between the deer and the mountain lion as they grow up. The film is at its least contrived and most compelling when the humans are off screen. When the two creatures, as adults, and natural enemies, share a cool drink in the winter woods it is quite magical, even if you try to figure out how the animal trainers and cinematographer Chester Lyons achieved this feat. Throughout the film the two unlikely friends gently acknowledge their affection for one another as Gato, the puma and Malibu, the gentle deer meet periodically, often when they are dodging the poor examples of mankind who stalke them. Most dramatically of course, the meeting of the animals is in marked contrast to the behavior of these human beings, particularly an evil hunter played by character actor Paul Hurst, who is perfectly loathsome and gets his just desserts, thanks to the teamwork of puma and deer.
One other film that might make your Christmas a bit brighter is also one of the quietest movies of the bunch. The Snowman (1982) has enchanted me since I first saw it in a small theater while in college. Based on a beloved book by Raymond Briggs, in a little more than 20 largely wordless minutes, the movie, directed by Dianne Jackson and created by a team of animators, originally appeared on BBC 4. It features a pencil drawn animation that conveys a hand made sensitivity while remaining true to Briggs‘ own artistic style. It is the story of a snow man who comes to life at midnight on Christmas Eve, much to the amazement of the solitary boy who made him. The orchestral score by Howard Blake contributes to the power of this video as well. Of course, since then, CGI animation has become increasingly sophisticated, as seen in The Polar Express (2004). That more recent film may be more dazzling in its pyrotechnical achievements, but for a blend of magic and majesty about the holiday and nature, I’ll settle for the small scale transitory beauty that can be seen in The Snowman, beginning here.
Btw, Raymond Briggs‘ other Christmas themed book, Father Christmas (1986) has also been animated, and can be seen starting here. Perhaps The Snowman, (along with the varied antics of the Wallace and Gromit series), are among the favorite “modern” animated films that you may find yourself returning to each year as well.
Finally, I know that it isn’t an original thought or an uncommon choice when considering films that help me to cut through the Holiday tinsel to the heart of the season, but there is one more sequence in a studio era product that I’ve never quite grown tired of, even though there is an element of acknowledged tenderness and regret to it. Hollywood lore has it that when Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane first showed the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to Judy Garland for Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), the singer was appalled at such downbeat lyrics as “Have yourself a merry little Christmas / It may be your last / Next year we may all be living in the past” and “Faithful friends who were dear to us / Will be near to us no more”. In the midst of war, social upheaval and all the crowded business of living, the words, at the behest of the star were amended slightly, as you can see below and at the clip of Judy singing to Margaret O’Brien found below:
With all the changes in our lives in the past year, these bittersweet lyrics might just fit our life more than in many times past. Please accept my hope that you and all you love have that “merry little Christmas now” no matter what holiday you celebrate. Cheers.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
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