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Sunday, December 21, 2008

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.

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