Christmas on Celluloid: “Donovan’s Reef”

Donovan's Reef 1963 posterI confess a fondness for Christmas movies that stray from the typical snow-covered farmhouses, nostalgic small-towns, holiday-decorated department stores, and parties overrun with good cheer. While non-traditional Christmas movies rarely achieve classic status, they are interesting for unusual or personal reasons.

I have always had an affection for Donovan’s Reef, partly because I watched it on Saturday Night at the Movies with my father when I was a little girl, and he enjoyed it so much. But, I was also taken with the film’s tropical setting, which made for an exotic backdrop for Christmas. I can’t help but wonder if my obsession with the romance of the tropics began with Donovan’s Reef.

Directed by John Ford in the twilight of his career, Donovan’s Reef takes place on the (fictional) Polynesian island of Haleakaloa, which was saved from the Japanese by three Navy buddies—Dr. William “Doc” Dedham, Michael Patrick “Guns” Donovan, and Thomas Aloysius “Boats” Gilhooley. Based on the names alone, it is easy to tell that this knockabout comedy is going to be all about the boys. Thinking Haleakaloa a paradise, the three sailors can’t get the island out of their minds after the war. Doc returns to found a hospital for the islanders, while Guns establishes a couple of businesses, including a saloon called Donovan’s Reef. Gilhooley jumps ship from time to time to swim ashore to Haleakaloa for the sole purpose of starting a fistfight with Guns on their mutual birthday—apparently something of a tradition. The actual narrative begins when Doc’s adult daughter, Amelia, arrives from Boston to find her long-lost father. Doc attempts to hide his island family from her, because he fears she would not accept that he had married a native woman and fathered three children. Guns steps up and pretends the half-breed children are his. In typical Ford fashion, Amelia and Guns are attracted to each other but can’t get along.

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Words for Wilder

Lemmon & Wilder
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Last night I was visiting the local Alamo Drafthouse and saw that they will be screening The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960). Featured cocktails include Between the Sheets (rum, cointreau, brandy, lemon) and The Maiden’s Prayer (gin, rum, cointreau, and of course, lemon, gotta have the lemon). TCM also screens The Apartment this Friday and it’s an apt choice for December given the pivotal scenes in the movie that hinge on the holidays. Wilder and his long-standing screenwriting partner I.A.L. Diamond won an Oscar for The Apartment, and casual conversation amidst my group touched on other favorites by the duo, such as the obvious choice, released the year before The Apartment, Some Like It Hot (1959), then jumping out a decade later to The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970).

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Christmas on Celluloid: “Susan Slept Here”

susanopenerLast week, I wrote about Christmas in Connecticut with its charming romance, role-reversal comedy, and Currier and Ives backdrop. The film is the very essence of a holiday classic for the whole family: It features warm sentiment, Christmas carols around a tree, and sleigh rides in the snow. This week, I couldn’t resist writing about Susan Slept Here, which is a Christmas comedy with a May-December romance set against the cynical backdrop of the Hollywood industry. Last year, I devoted a paragraph to Susan Slept Here in a list of unconventional Christmas movies, and I hesitated to write about it again. But, TCM is airing the film in the wee hours of December 11 so interested viewers will have an opportunity to catch it. Set those DVRs for 5:00am this Thursday, because this oddity may not be a Christmas classic, but it is the kind of movie that is a lot of fun for cinephiles.

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Christmas on Celluloid: ‘Christmas in Connecticut’

xmaspianoTo get into the Christmas spirit, I often binge view my favorite Christmas movies. If I am feeling more like Scrooge than Bob Cratchit, I will binge view anti-Christmas movies. Either way, movie-watching is an essential part of my holiday celebration. If you are the same, you won’t want to miss the double feature of holiday classics that will hit theaters next Sunday, December 7. Fathom Events, TCM, and Warner Bros. Home Entertainment have joined forces to present the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol and Christmas in Connecticut in a special one-day big-screen event. Check here for a list of participating theaters.

Releasing classic movies on the big screen as a special event is a recent development for Fathom, and if you want them to continue, consider attending this family-friendly double feature as a show of support. To celebrate the occasion, I thought I would offer a few thoughts and musings on Christmas in Connecticut—one of my favorite holiday movies. On Thursday, check out fellow Morlock Kimberly Lindbergs’s blog post, because she is following up with insights into A Christmas Carol.

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Not Your Typical Christmas Movies

christmasopenerI’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.

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Once Again, Remembering Vera-Ellen

vera three little words

Those of us who can’t resist a good MGM musical are no doubt now and again thinking about the great screen dancer Vera-Ellen, a sparkling screen presence in an number of films yet someone whose memory is overwhelmed by the passage of time and a peculiar lack of the proper respect paid to her accomplishments. On the occasion today of the 92nd anniversary of her birth on February 16, 1921, and although I wrote about her once already (way back in 2007, check out the post by clicking here), and though she’s been gone for over thirty years — she passed away from cancer on August 30, 1981 at only 60 years old – it’s a perfect time to remember again this most charming and talented actress.

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Lives of the Ain’ts: It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

wonderful6

It’s A Wonderful Life has screened so often it has become cultural wallpaper, the background noise to tree decorating and on-line discount shopping. When it shifted into the public domain in 1974, television channels could air it without paying fees, and it became program filler for twenty years before subsequent copyright battles (it is now owned by Viacom/Paramount). Familiarity can breed, if not contempt, then at least apathy, and It’s A Wonderful Life  is treated more like a nostalgia piece than a work of art. That was my ignorant attitude, at least, until I watched it again this past weekend, and for the first time fully appreciated its melancholic rendering of adulthood’s parade of dashed hopes and perpetually delayed dreams. It was Frank Capra’s  first narrative feature after four years of making propaganda films for the Army during WWII, and it feels like he imbued it with a life’s worth of disappointments, tagged with a vision of transcending these failures in an ending only Hollywood could provide.

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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. 

CHARLIE.BROWN_CHRISTMAS-7

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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Rare Exports

“I didn’t know you could mix Santa Claus and horror movies,” my son Max told me this morning (y’all met him last week when he guest blogged on my behalf). He was referring specifically to his and my current obsession, a movie that has been inaugurated as a holiday viewing tradition in our home: Jalmari Helander’s looney cult flick Rare Exports.

Never heard of it? Well — as Max said, it is a (mildly gory) horror movie about Santa Claus.

Scary Santa

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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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