Posted by Susan Doll on December 23, 2013
I’m not a holiday type of person, because bad things tend to happen to me on holidays. Even Labor Day makes me anxious. Despite my anti-holiday attitude, I do like to watch Christmas movies. This month TCM has been celebrating the season by showing a variety of Christmas movies, including titles that rarely make the lists of holiday classics. The Grinch in me leans toward those holiday-themed movies in which Christmas provides an ironic, tragic, unusual, or unique backdrop to the narrative, and a few of those have landed in the TCM line-up. I can’t recommend these films for cheerful family viewing, but take them off the shelf and dust them off if you are alone and up late over the holidays.
LADY IN THE LAKE. Based on Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled detective novel, Lady in the Lake is famous for the way director Robert Montgomery tried to interpret Chandler’s first-person narrative style. Montgomery also stars as the main character, Philip Marlowe, but the audience rarely sees him onscreen. Instead, subjective camera and extensive point of view shots are used to represent Marlowe’s visual perspective. Though an interesting experiment, Montgomery’s gimmick denies viewers the chance to see and therefore identify with the protagonist, one of the satisfying ingredients of movie viewing. This makes Lady in the Lake more interesting to talk about than to watch. Interestingly, the film’s Christmastime setting is left out of most of these discussions. The opening credits actually look like a series of Christmas cards, while a chorus harmonizes carols in the background. It is not what viewers might expect from a film noir, until the credits end with a gunshot. The juxtaposition of holiday festivities and decorations with a noir story about lying, cheating, and murder creates a cynical tone that matches Marlowe’s sarcasm.
PERIOD OF ADJUSTMENT. Jim Hutton and Jane Fonda star as newlyweds George and Isabel Haverstick, who begin their honeymoon already disillusioned. On Christmas Eve, they pass through Tennessee to visit Ralph, an old army buddy of George’s. Tony Franciosa costars as Ralph, who has advanced his career by marrying the boss’s less-than-beautiful daughter, played by Lois Nettleton. In the passing years, Ralph has actually fallen for his wife, but her insecurities make it difficult for her to accept this, or him. Each couple observes the problems of the other, learning something about themselves in the process. There is nothing like relationship problems to undercut the holiday spirit, which Tennessee Williams conveyed so well in his original play on which the film is based. Even though Period of Adjustment is a comedy with some genuinely touching moments, those receiving engagement rings for Christmas might want to skip this one.
YOUNG AT HEART. Sunny Doris Day falls for misanthrope Frank Sinatra in this musical remake of Four Daughters. Day passes over handsome, charming Gig Young to marry the cynical musician, though their life together turns out to be a constant financial struggle. At Christmastime, Frank feels guilty for taking his wife away from her idyllic small-town family, and he decides to do her a favor by killing himself. Of course, he fails, and then comes to understand that Day really loves him. I like Young at Heart, which features my favorite Sinatra saloon song, “One for the Road,” but the suicide-at-Christmas climax has always seemed unusually dark to me.
MR. SOFT TOUCH. Oddly enough, crime and Christmas work well together, whether the holiday is used ironically as in Lady in the Lake or as an inspiration for redemption as in Mr. Soft Touch. Glenn Ford stars as wayward Joe Miracle (“miracles” at Christmas, get it?), who hides out from the Mob in a settlement house at Christmastime. The home is run by a pretty, young social worker played by Evelyn Keyes, who sets him on the right path.
I’LL BE SEEING YOU. Second chances is the theme of this touching wartime melodrama starring Ginger Rogers and Joseph Cotten. Rogers plays a woman on holiday furlough from prison, and Cotten costars as a shell-shocked soldier on medical leave. She is visiting her kindly aunt and uncle for the holidays, while he hopes to readjust to everyday life by living away from the hospital for a few days. Produced in 1944, the film reflects the attitudes, issues, and struggles of life on the home front during WWII. From little details such as teenager Shirley Temple’s letter-writing campaign to boost the morale of servicemen to the issue of psychological trauma suffered by those in combat, I’ll Be Seeing You is a snapshot of wartime America. Modern-day audiences may be oblivious to the scenes of family dinners, baking, cleaning, and evening strolls through small-town neighborhoods, but these images would resonate deeply with wartime audiences hungry for normalcy. Even the shot of the uncle working a jigsaw puzzle is more than it seems, especially when Cotten picks up a piece that has fallen on the floor. It makes a nice metaphor for the characters–and for anyone–who had to pick up the pieces because of the war. Simultaneously melancholy and heartwarming, I’ll Be Seeing You airs on TCM on Christmas Eve at 11:45pm.
SINCE YOU WENT AWAY. Shirley Temple and Joseph Cotton also costarred in this high-profile wartime melodrama about a mother and two daughters who struggle with the absence of the family patriarch. Claudette Colbert stars as Anne Hilton and Temple and Jennifer Jones play her two daughters. At almost three hours, this David O. Selznick extravaganza is long, even though it spans only one year of the war, 1943. During that time, the impact of the war on those at home is made clear via financial difficulties, shortages, and the deaths of loved ones. The film concludes with a Christmas sequence in which the family is prepared to make the best of the season. If the Christmas scenes in this well-crafted melodrama don’t touch your heart, then you have moved past the Grinch stage and are too far gone to save. The scenes of romance, tragedy, and drama are enhanced by the beautiful black and white cinematography of Lee Garmes, Stanley Cortez, George Barnes, and Robert Bruce.
NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. Crime and Christmas may go hand in hand, but serial killers and Christmas seem a bit of a stretch. Nonetheless, this movie-lovers’ favorite starring Robert Mitchum concludes with a Christmas scene in Depression-era West Virginia. After “good” in the form of matriarchal Lillian Gish triumphs over “evil” in the guise of devilish Mitchum, she tells the Christmas story to the pack of homeless children she has taken in because they have nowhere else to go. It’s an extensive sequence, especially considering the villain is long gone, that restores normalcy by evoking the innocence and endurance of children.
SUSAN SLEPT HERE. This talky romantic comedy, which would never get made in today’s Hollywood given contemporary sensibilities, is my favorite on this list. Dick Powell stars as Mark Christopher, a middle-aged Oscar-winning screenwriter who is about to join his glamorous date for a Christmas Eve party in Hollywood. His plans are disrupted when two police acquaintances drop off a 17-year-old juvenile delinquent named Susan, played by ultra-spunky Debbie Reynolds. Apparently, Powell once mentioned that he would like to interview a delinquent for research for a potential script, and the cops take him at his word. Moreover, Susan would have to stay in jail over Christmas if she did not spend the night in Powell’s apartment. The unlikely premise provides the set-up for an equally unlikely romance between Mark and Susan. On Christmas Day, Mark marries Susan to prevent her from going to a juvenile home until she turns 18. The marriage isn’t consummated and Mark immediately relocates to his country cabin to finish his script. Susan finds herself in love, but Mark fights his attraction to a teenage girl. Dick Powell is one of my favorite actors, and I would have no trouble marrying him at any age, but Susan Slept Here offers additional fun besides Powell”s way with a wisecrack. A surreal dream sequence features a bizarre musical number in which Powell dances, costar Anne Francis is dressed as a spider, and Reynolds swings in a cage. My favorite part of the film is the Hollywood insider’s view provided by director Frank Tashlin and scriptwriters Steve Fisher and Alex Gottlieb: I am sure the May-December premise is Tashlin’s wink-wink at the improbability of typical Hollywood romances. Finally, it is the only movie I have ever seen that is narrated by an Academy Award, which sets up the film in the beginning, offers a snarky comment on two, and then has the final word. Susan Slept Here airs Tuesday morning at 7:30am.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all of you.
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