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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Family Pictures

Noel Coward pointed out a long time ago that it was “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is”. I think that most of us have felt the same bittersweet pull of moments in popular films as well, even if we think we know better or believe we might be too jaded or sophisticated to acknowledge their power. While reading the heartfelt blog posted here by High Hurdler, I was admiring his economy of emotion and touching description of the unexpected impact of the minor motion picture Michael (1996-Nora Ephron) on him some years ago. As I read that piece, a light came on in that ramshackle house called my memory once more. Transported back to other Decembers over 25 years ago, a door opened on experiences similar to the one explored by my fellow Morlock.

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Ghosts of Christmas Past

The nature of art is that it produces an emotional response, sometimes it’s loud and obvious but more often than not it’s muted and internalized.  If an art form resonates or touches us in a meaningful way, it’s likely to create a memory of the time when we first experienced it.  As such, we might associate a particular song or movie with a person we once knew – e.g. a popular tune or film from when we were dating a certain someone – such that hearing or seeing it again will provoke a nostalgic feeling of a time gone by, or of an acquaintance lost.  I’ve also found that many of the more powerful epic films that I’ve experienced can imprint themselves permanently into my consciousness.  Additionally, movies watched when I’ve been emotionally vulnerable have a stickiness factor within my heart and mind.
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The Straight Story on Richard Farnsworth

A holiday movie, like the raised expectations of the festive season, can be burdened with some pretty extravagant hopes. Like the day itself, we always seem to hope for a cinematic experience that might transcend the reality of an enjoyable if sometimes stressful day such as Thanksgiving. This year we got lucky. After rejecting family votes for some familiar films, including Avalon (1990-Barry Levinson), with its cri de coeur line, “you cut the too-key without me?!” spoken by with the now immortal Lou Jacobi; any hopes for those who wanted to see The Searchers (1956-John Ford) for the umpteenth time were also dashed; as was one l-tryptophan induced vote for Pulp Fiction (1994-Quentin Tarantino). We finally settled on a movie with little obvious connection to the holidays, The Straight Story (1999) on DVD.

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Tony Sarg: Floating Above Reality

If you are like millions of Americans, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade may be playing as video wallpaper in the background of tomorrow’s holiday hubbub in your household. In between stuffing that turkey and unsuccessfully averting your eyes from the crasser, materialistic moments of the television broadcast, it is still fun to catch sight of those unwieldy balloons straining while remaining afloat above the crowded street. Depending on luck, fashions in pop culture and our memories of balloons past (where is Underdog?) these gargantuan floating creatures seem as familiar as that stained recipe card you may be consulting. Yet, as the above image from a 1930s Macy’s Parade illustrates, they were not always quite as cuddly as they seem today. Just as these helium behemoths sometimes elude their handlers and occasionally deflate, the origin of these now familiar fixtures is not well known. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the originator of these unique inflated fantasies dipped a toe into the movie business just as it started to take off as an art form.

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A Rap Sheet on Wendell Corey

Wendell Corey early in his Hollywood career

The acerbic American writer Paul Theroux once observed that “Fiction gives us a second chance that life denies us.” Maybe movies–that particularly compelling and seductive form of fiction–gives us that chance too, especially if we look at an actor’s many roles, rather than their best known portrayals. Some actors leave you cold, though once in a while you’re able to look at someone in a new way.

MorlockJeff‘s recent article on that ’50s movie fixture, George Nader, found here, made me question my attitudes toward certain actors. I thought that Nader was a negligible, pompadoured presence in laughable movies such as Carnival Story (1954), or the outrageously campy The Female Animal (1958). The best that I could say about the guy was that he looked good in navy blue in an unpretentious, if sometimes overly ponderous “victory at sea” story from Universal, called Away All Boats (1956), directed by Joseph Pevney. However, Jeff’s lively description of this upcoming noirish feature on TCM, Nowhere to Go (1958), with Nader acting opposite a very young, doe-like Maggie Smith, makes me want to see the movie. It also made me think about an actor whose work I’ve dismissed in the past, but have recently grown to see a bit differently. Maybe I threw Wendell Corey on my personal pile of rejects too soon.

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Adventures of a Movie Tourist, Part II

xmas6I really do enjoy visiting the sites or locations where movies have been  shot, whether they are classic award-winning dramas or forgotten little b-movies. Apparently so do a lot of other people, because movie tourism accounts for the latest trend touted by the travel industry. [Okay, I confess, I actually co-wrote a book about movie tourism in Florida called FLORIDA ON FILM, published by the University of Florida Press in 2007, but even before that, I was drawn to visiting movie locations.] 

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