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)

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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. 

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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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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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Department Store Movies: A $ign of Our Times

Whether in the news, online, or around the water cooler, more attention was paid to Black Friday than to Thanksgiving this year. What used to be an unacknowledged tradition for mainstream America—women shopping the day after Thanksgiving while men watched football—has now become a barometer of the American economy. Retailers and their corporate masters outdid themselves in the sheer volume of advertising for Black Friday in the hopes of whipping up the masses into a shopping frenzy. Early bird sales turned into midnight sales, and shoppers revealed the ugly side to this new “holiday” in the stampedes, fights, and pepper-spray incidents that marked Black Friday 2011.

I remember when shopping in the big department stores was festive and fun. Each year, I was able to tap into the Christmas Spirit in the big department stores, which were always decked out in colorful holiday decorations, as I took my time pondering over my gift purchases. Undoubtedly, I was seeing the experience through the haze of memories of Hollywood movies, which have mythologized the department store as an important American social institution. Somewhere along the way, holiday shopping ceased to be festive and fun, but I continue to expect that my shopping experiences will be like those in Miracle on 34th Street or A Christmas Story. The ugly stories of Black Friday mayhem and madness inspired me to poke around the history of department stores and their depiction in the movies, not only in Christmas films but in all genres.

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Happy Valentine’s Day to the Lost, Lonely, and Wicked

Today is Valentine’s Day, and I feel compelled to offer something related to the holiday, like so many other bloggers and sites are doing. However, instead of gearing my article toward couples by listing the best classic screwball comedies, contemporary romantic comedies, or other genres that exploit romance, relationships, and love, I turned to the other end of the romantic spectrum. My article is dedicated to singles, the recently divorced, and the unlucky in love, who will appreciate this list of favorite movies about failed relationships, heartbreak, and heartache.

My list includes movies in which the boy and the girl do not end up in “the clinch,” that slang word used by industry personnel during the Golden Age to refer to the last shot of a film in which the heroic protagonist and leading lady embrace, kiss, hug, or look longingly into each other’s eyes. The clinch signifies a happy ending, suggesting that order had been restored and society and its institutions are intact. Because viewers are accustomed to seeing the clinch, particularly in classic films, those movies that do not conclude this way are all the more tragic, memorable, or meaningful.

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A Memorable Woman’s Face (1941)

“The director who, hands down, helped me the most was George Cukor. He didn’t just help me do better in the films he directed me in, but he helped me be me. His words stayed with me always, so he was actually directing me later when I did films with lesser directors, and everyone was a lesser director compared to Mr. Cukor. I heard his words in my head, even words he never said, but which I thought he would have said…He had a profound effect on me.  If I could have selected a man to be my father, he would have been George Cukor.” ~ Joan Crawford

On Saturday, April 24th at 3:30 PM at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, the audience at the TCM Classic Film Festival will have an opportunity to see director George Cukor’s effect on Joan Crawford when A Woman’s Face (1941) is introduced by Illeana Douglas, the granddaughter of Melvyn Douglas, and Casey LaLonde, the grandson of Joan Crawford. For those of us who won’t be able to make it that day, this movie may still be worth exploring on DVD and whenever it appears on the TCM schedule.

Seeing A Woman’s Face (1941) for the first time a few years ago made me realize all over again why Joan Crawford was–like her or not–more than a movie star: She could act. The actress cited this film as one of the performances that ultimately helped her to earn an Oscar as Best Actress later in this decade for Mildred Pierce (1945). A Woman’s Face may be her among her best films. It deserves a bigger audience.

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Goodbye to All That

Imagine yourself hopscotching through time in Hollywood at the holiday season in the 1930s and 1940s. Chances are, if you are a just a visitor, a civilian with little interest in show biz, or even one of the hoi polloi, eking out a pretty fair living as one of the worker bees in the film industry, often working six days a week, if you are lucky, and trying to make your pay packet last from week to week, you might be feeling a bit exhausted by New Year’s Eve.

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