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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Off the Beaten Yuletide Path, Part 2 (originally published 12/91)

Where were we? Programming a little living room film festival of Christmas movies, as I recall. Here’s the second half of my list.

“Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol” (1962). Wait, come back. I’m not kidding. You can’t do a Christmas film festival without including Scrooge but, if you recall, I began with the premise that I wanted to pick titles that were not the most obvious ones. If you’ve seen the Alastair Sim version of “A Christmas Carol” so often that you can anticipate every scowl, give old Magoo a try. The first-rate songs by Bob Merrill and Julie Styne would absolutely play on Broadway. The gags based on nearsightedness that formed the basis for the Mr. Magoo cartoon series are here put aside (apart from one or two sly references) and what we are given is an amusing and touching twist on the old Christmas chestnut. The order of the visits of the three spirits is inexplicably changed, but in most respects the original Dickens text is treated with appropriate deference. If you don’t know this version, give it a try. You won’t be mad at me.

“The Lion in Winter” (1968). This one is for those who like thorns in their mistletoe. If you get impatient with impossibly sweet Christmas stories featuring impossibly happy and well-adjusted families, try spending Christmas with one of history’s great dysfunctional families. Peter O’Toole is Henry II and Katharine Hepburn is Eleanor of Aquitaine. It’s Christmas, and King Henry has temporarily sprung Eleanor from captivity for the occasion. Her three sons, Richard, John, and Geoffrey, are also in attendance, each one keenly aware that Henry is pondering who his successor should be. When the sparks start to fly, stand back.

“Three Godfathers” (1948). What’s this? A John Ford Western? On a Christmas films list? You bet your boots, buckaroo. John Wayne, Pedro Armendariz, and Harry Carey, Jr. portray three outlaws who happen across an apparently abandoned covered wagon in the desert. Inside they find a pregnant woman in labor, her husband having perished in the desert while searching for water. Knowing that she too is dying, the mother asks the three men to care for her baby. Reading in the mother’s Bible about Joseph and Mary taking baby Jesus to Jerusalem, they decide to take their young charge to a town called New Jerusalem. As they progress on their journey, the three outlaws become, if not wise men, at least wiser than they were. Each in turn sacrifices himself for the child. It is a Christmas movie if ever there was one, and will leave you with that warm Christmas glow just as surely as any film that drips with sleigh bells and mistletoe.

“The Lemon Drop Kid” (1951). This Bob Hope classic is not primarily a Christmas movie, but is fun to watch at Christmas time because of one priceless sequence. In this adaptation of a Damon Runyan story, Hope is a racetrack tout who is into a gangster for a pile of money. Taking advantage of the season, he and his associates dress up as street corner Santas trying to collect the needed funds from holiday-spirited passersby.

“Twilight Zone: Night of the Meek” (1960). In this classic episode from the original “Twilight Zone” TV series, Art Carney plays a department store Santa who is fired on Christmas Eve for showing up for work drunk. While wandering the streets with his Santa suit still on, he happens upon a sack that does something wonderful. No matter what a person asks him for, Carney finds that he can reach into his magical sack and produce it.

And, although I’ve avoided discussing them here for fear of belaboring the obvious, don’t forget the old Christmas favorites like “Miracle on 34th Street” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” They didn’t get to be so familiar by accident. Happy viewing to all, and to all a good night.

Off the Beaten Yuletide Path, Part 1 (originally published 12/91)

There’s no better time than Christmas for raiding the corner video store to put together a living room film festival. We all have old favorites, of course, that we return to year after year. There’s nothing wrong with that, to be sure. Christmas is, after all, a time for tradition. Still, you may find yourself from time to time looking to broaden just a bit your Christmas movie palette.

Allow me, then, to suggest some Christmas titles that you may have forgotten about, or that you may never have thought of as Christmas films. That means that I will be deliberately ignoring some of the very best such movies on the grounds that they are too familiar. You certainly don’t need me to help you discover the wonderfulness of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” right? Okay then, you bring the eggnog, and I’ll bring these films.

“The Bishop’s Wife” (1947). Cary Grant stars as an angel sent in answer to the prayers of a bishop played by David Niven. Sounds a bit like that Frank Capra film we agreed not to mention, but this angel is no Clarence Oddbody. This angel is, well, Cary Grant. The plot thickens as the angel realizes that he is falling in love with the title character (Loretta Young). This charming film includes one of the most memorable performances of the great character actor James Gleason in the role of a cab driver.

“Beyond Tomorrow” (1940). Three well-to-do but lonely old gentlemen befriend a couple of poor but honest youngsters on Christmas. It ends up as a ghost story, but the heartwarming sort, not the scary sort. (In other words, think Dickens, not M.R. James.) If you don’t know the names C. Aubrey Smith, Harry Carey, and Charles Winninger, run, don’t walk, to the video store and meet them in this sweet little film. They were three of the finest old pros in the business.

“Holiday Inn” (1942). Bing Crosby opens an inn that caters specifically to holiday themes. The score is by Irving Berlin and features the premiere performance of “White Christmas.” Der Bingle made the most of having first crack at the song, putting his stamp on it so indelibly that he practically owned it from then on. The later Crosby film titled “White Christmas,” by the way, is a partial and very loose remake of this film. One word of caution: be prepared for some uncomfortable racial stereotyping in the “Abraham” number.

“Christmas in Connecticut” (1943). Barbara Stanwyck writes magazine articles about how to be the perfect homemaker; the Martha Stewart of her day. Her boss (Sydney Greenstreet) decides that she should play hostess to him and to a war hero (Dennis Morgan) in her perfect home over the holidays as a publicity gimmick. The problem? She only knows how to write about homemaking. In her own home she can’t boil water. Her attempts to carry off the charade make for a delicious screwball comedy.

“The Homecoming” (1971). This is not the Harold Pinter play, but rather the made-for-TV movie that inspired the “Waltons” TV series. It’s a Christmas Eve during the Great Depression and Pa Walton is supposed to come home from the job he was lucky enough to find many miles away from home. Spirits are high in anticipation of his return, but as it gets later and later worry sets in. A news bulletin on the radio tells of a bus wreck on snowy roads. Was it his? The main character is the family’s oldest son, who has to do a lot of growing up in a short time when he is charged with going out to search for his father. The cast is slightly, but significantly, different from that of the series. Radio comedian Edgar Bergen (Candice’s dad), in a rare dramatic role, plays the grandfather and Patricia Neal plays the mother. The series was fine, but this introduction of the family that couldn’t get through a holiday without a crisis is something extra special.

What’s that? You’re tired already? After a mere 8 hours and 34 minutes of film viewing? Okay then. Switch off the Christmas tree lights and get some rest. When you come back, I’ll have another batch of Christmas movies ready for you.