We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate

This is a season of traditions: those comforting rituals that we reiterate on an annual basis because no matter how small some of them may be (like the making of home-baked ginger snaps), they have become imbued with powerful memories of home and loved ones, such that these little ceremonies carry a weight of meaning far in excess of their actual ability to signify.

There used to be a coterie of movies that belonged to these same holiday traditions—certain films like The Wizard of Oz or It’s a Wonderful Life that were consistently and regularly replayed on commercial television on certain holidays.  You could almost set your watch to them. 

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Since its original broadcast in 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas has been one of the most enduring and beloved holiday mainstays—and its history has a curious Mobius strip like effect.  When you watch A Charlie Brown Christmas this year—in whatever media you do (broadcast, on-demand, iTunes download, DVD, Blu-Ray, hallucinatory memory)—you are participating in a metatextual reconfiguration of its core themes!  Betcha didn’t even know that!

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Snapshots of the Fall: Part II

In my last post I provided a look behind the curtain for the first five weeks of film programming for my fall film calendar. This week we look at the remaining 24 titles that round out the schedule. It features everything from classics such as Vertigo to the state premiere of the latest uncompromising and visually arresting film by Bruno Dumont, Outside Satan (a scene of which is pictured above). [...MORE]

Films about Faith – a sequel

It’s been more than four and a half years since my first Morlocks blog on this topic, which is so long ago that Google no longer caches the page. While I’ve added a little bit to the original essay on my site (after watching Martin Luther (1953), A Man Called Peter (1955) – available via DIRECTV’s TCM on Demand this month, and One Man’s Way (1964) in fairly quick succession this fall), I haven’t written about the most deeply spiritual and openly Christian films I’ve seen, until now.

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Hallmark Original Movies

This week I’m asking my son Max to join me in talking about a peculiar genre of movies I was unfamiliar with until he became obsessed with them last year. I wanted him to have the chance to share his passion with you, to help you find the joy he finds in these movies–consider it a Christmas gift from him to you.

The genre? Why, Hallmark original holiday movies, that’s what!

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Muppet Love

I have something I need to say. It’s something I don’t say often enough, and for that I am sorry. You deserve to hear it. The words are few but powerful.

I love you. I love you, Muppet Movie.

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The Face of Fear — Don Knotts in “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken”

I really wanted to contribute something to this Halloween blogfest, so I offer a little nonsensical coda about a movie I’m sure a lot of us have seen many times and probably enjoy.  Funny + spooky has been a movie tradition forever, and nobody did it quite as well as the limber-limbed and rubber-faced actor/comedian Don Knotts in his 1966 feature film The Ghost and Mr. Chicken

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Life With Father (1947) – underappreciated

Life With Father (1947) is a delightful, charming, cleverly written and, apparently, underrated gem. In a year in which anti-Semitism was apparently the focal point in Hollywood or at least of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a film about the life of a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant family in 1883 New York City didn’t really get the recognition it deserved when they were handing out nominations, or Oscars. Even the National Film Registry, which has many times “corrected” such gross oversights by A.M.P.A.S., has neglected to add this Warner Bros. classic to the Library of Congress. Then again, the National Film Preservation Board has only added two of 1947’s features films to the L.O.C. – the Santa Claus yarn Miracle on 34th Street and the venerated film noir Out of the Past – which is the fewest number of movies listed for any year from 1924 (Safety Last is the only listing for 1923) through 1965, from which only The Pawnbroker and The Sound of Music have made the cut thus far.
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INDY CIRCUIT CONTENDERS

I’m in the process of assembling a spreadsheet of films that I’d like to bring to my fall calendar program. As an exhibitor, I wish I could give all (or, at least, most or many) of these films a home. But as the market place keeps shrinking the theatrical windows, and as V.O.D. becomes more rampant, the harsh reality is that a balance has to be struck between viable money-makers and smaller niche titles that are very interesting and compelling but lack high-profile visibility, this despite being top-shelf items. In the former category are titles such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In the latter category are movies like Marwencol or Bill Cunningham New York. I never need to see advance screeners for films in the former category as, for the most part, it’s pretty obvious what the big hitters are. In the latter category, however, it’s essential to watch the preview screeners sent to me by distributors because I really need to know if the material stands a chance of connecting with the audience in our area despite a low profile. Or, at very least, whether it resonates so strongly with me that I’m willing to champion it personally in the hopes that I might, despite long odds, find it an audience. Here’s what I’ve got queued up for the coming week. [...MORE]

Jackie Cooper (1922-2011)

Please Note: In Tribute to Jackie Cooper, on Friday, May 13th TCM will broadcast nine of the actor’s films, which are listed here.

Jackie Cooper, who was an Oscar nominee for Best Actor in a Leading Role when he was only nine,  died on May 3rd at the age of 88. His shy smile, seemingly artless candor, and innate ability to suggest an overwhelmed child’s desire to make everything all right in the world continues to make those who stumble on his films smile in recognition.

If your most vivid mental image of Jackie Cooper is still as one of the ragamuffins in Hal Roach’s The Little Rascals, or the boy pleading with The Champ (1931-King Vidor) to rise again, or the privileged child befriending a kid from Shantytown in his Oscar-nominated performance in Skippy (1931-Norman Taurog), that’s understandable. Despite the fact that his early performances are eight decades in the past, his wonderfully natural portrayal of boys on film are still painfully fresh and have an evergreen realism at their core. In the darkest years of the Great Depression audiences felt a connection to that innocent, lion-hearted kid on screen whose life wasn’t going any more smoothly than their own. I like Shirley Temple, Jane Withers, and Freddie Bartholomew very much. I’ve been astounded by Mickey Rooney’s seemingly boundless talent. Yet to me, Jackie Cooper was one of most natural child actors, even though he had a different, understandably complex perspective on his own work. “I wasn’t great,” he claimed. “The directors were great. I was just a kid who did what he was told. And what I wasn’t told to do was done for me.”

His son, Russell Cooper, commented that his father “was a fascinating guy who really did everything, from all different aspects of the business. You can’t really say that about many people.” Looking back at Cooper‘s long life, when he acted in over a hundred movies, plays and television shows, and directed and produced over 250 TV projects, it seems that he may have done everything but sweep up the stage–and, as an apparently down-to-earth person–he probably did that at least a few times.

Much of Cooper‘s acting has a similar, recognizable quality, as he personified a kind of ragged moxie laced with a guileless intensity. Even when the stories were schmaltzy, he was not. As he grew up, and seemed likely to succumb to the neglect and adulation that early fame often breeds, he eventually approached his later problems with a similar ingenuousness as he struggled to become an adult in real ways. As he later pointed out about his childhood career, “I was trained to be a professional, not to be a person.”

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Elizabeth Taylor in Velvet

“I want it all quickly ’cause I don’t want God to stop and think and wonder if I’m getting more than my share.” – Elizabeth Taylor as Velvet Brown in National Velvet (1944)

A blur of thousands of words and pictures began to tumble out of every medium as soon as news of Elizabeth Taylor’s death at age 79 was announced on March 23rd. I know that the most noteworthy features of this performer’s life are the many adult roles she played with skill (on screen and off), her remarkable beauty, durable, often deliciously excessive glamour, the ups and downs of her not-so-private life, and ultimately, her pioneering charity work to assist those with AIDS. People will naturally mention her two Oscars. One was awarded for her tart with a heart in the often ludicrously steamy Butterfield 8 (1960)–making up for the Academy’s neglect for her fine work in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)–and her well-deserved Best Actress Award for the harrowing and truthful characterization in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).

To me, however, Elizabeth Taylor is cherished in memory for her extraordinary work near the beginning of her career, when she gave herself completely and unselfconsciously to the role of Velvet Brown, a dreamer, whose love of horses seems to border on a pagan devotion deeper than civilized analysis can ever explain away. All of the entertaining blather surrounding this “last great star” falls away when watching National Velvet (1944), a beautifully crafted product of the studio era at its height. This role prompted the already accomplished rider (Elizabeth Taylor’s father had taught her to ride at the age of 4) to train rigorously each day and, with the guidance of her ambitious mother Sara, prompted the tiny girl to try to grow three inches to be an acceptable height for producer Pandro S. Berman (lifts in her shoes and some natural growth helped a bit).

Bewitched by the equestrian allure of the Bagnold story, Taylor plastered her room with horse-related images and paraphernalia. The slight girl also sustained a back injury during riding for this movie that would plague her for the rest of her life. Despite any of the background pressures, this film appears to be one of the last times that the then 12-year-old actress seemed so blissfully unaware of her own “rapturous beauty,” as critic James Agee acknowledged in his review of the film at the time of its first release. Perhaps the openness of Taylor‘s heartfelt performance in this movie was the result of careful tutoring or simply reflected her own well-documented love of animals, but I suspect that it may also have been because, as an outstanding part of a strong cast, she was treated for what she was rather than for how she looked, allowing her inner spirit to soar on screen. As an adult Taylor later tried to explain it, “National Velvet really was me.”

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