I am old, overweight, gray-to-white, and wear a beard. Traditionally this means that any time after Halloween (and getting earlier every year!), I’m liable to have an assortment of sticky handed pretenders-to-having-been-good-all-year accosting me with wish lists that unroll like rolls of toilet tissue. I mention this to you as both a reason and a plea. The “plea” is for mercy for our publisher who – since he’s young, not fat, not gray-to-white, and not bearded – was blissfully unaware of my plight when he asked me to compile a list of favorite Christmas movies, TV shows, radio programs, and books. (I drew the line at my favorite wrapping paper…that is for my personal friends only.) The “reason” is in the hopes that you’ll be understanding if my lists are slightly more off-center than the Norm… whomever he is. I do hope that these suggestions will add to your enjoyment of the Christmas Season. While you peruse them, I’ll go prepare some reindeer steaks for the carolers. (Note to self: be sure to wear sunglasses while doing this…that red light is blinding)
Classic Christmas Films
The Bishop’s Wife
A fantasy which at times borders on the romantic and at others upon the dark and sobering and which still manages to impart the best of all Christmas messages and the impossible belief that if we need him the angel, Dudley, will be there for US, too. As wonderful as Cary Grant as Dudley and Loretta Young as the title character are, my accolades go to David Niven as the Bishop. He is the most multidimensional character in the film, troubled, dedicated, likable and – after Dudley’s arrival – harried and made fun of. This was Niven’s first film after the tragic death of his first wife, Primmy, and I’m tempted to attribute some of his eloquent pathos to that, but he was also a fine actor and he and his costars play well together. The supporting cast includes the marvelous Monty Woolly as the old professor and another veteran scene stealer James Gleason as the cab driver Sylvester and some glorious singing by the Mitchell Boys Choir..
The Three Godfathers
A John Wayne / John Ford film…and yes it is in essence a Christmas film… one of honor, sacrifice, and of redemption. This was at least the 3rd time that this story had been told on screen. A previous version starred early screen star Harry Carey, Sr. (You might remember him in later life as President of the Senate in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). He was a mentor to John Ford and is credited with interesting him in venturing into directing westerns. Imagine where American Cinema would be without John Ford westerns! Upon the Carey’s death, Ford decided to re-film The Three Godfathers as a tribute. The film even begins with a dedication imposed on the screen under Carey’s stunt double astride the actor’s favorite mount. The movie starred John Wayne, Mexican film star Pedro Armendirez, Jr., and “introduced” Harry Carey, Jr….even though by this time he had already made a few pictures. The supporting cast which includes Ward Bond, Guy Kibbee, and Academy Award winner Jane Darwell are all first rate, but the three lead actors and John Ford’s inspired cinematography are what drive the story. Supposedly, one of John Ford’s goals when making westerns was to emulate the works of Frederic Remington. In The Three Godfathers, light and shadow, framing, imagery all tell a story as eloquently as the script itself. You’ll be thirsty when this movie ends, but that’s a small price to play for enjoying this classic.
The Thin Man
Not a Christmas film, but it takes place at Christmas and there are some great Christmas scenes including then one on Christmas morning when Nick and Nora are enjoying their gifts. For those not familiar with The Thin Man it is a film made from a book which was written by Dashiell Hammett – the man who also brought us The Maltese Falcon among other noir detective stories. The characters of Nick and Nora are supposed to be based upon the relationship that Hammett had with playwright Lillian Hellman (The Little Foxes). The premise is that Nick used to be a detective and married the wealthy Nora. He now looks after her money and they both drink large amounts of just about anything and enjoy life and each other along with their dog Asta. (Asta was so popular that he inspired a run on the wire-haired terrier breed). The supporting cast appears as many did at that time…histrionic, mugging, shamefully overacting. Two notables though: you might recognize either the voice of the mouse in Disney’s Dumbo or an amazingly young Caesar Romero. The plot is interesting, but what really makes this film is the chemistry and witty dialogue between William Powell as Nick and Myrna Loy as Nora. This movie begat five sequels, a radio program, a TV show, and left its legacy on just about any male-female duo detective team since them. And if you’d like to ring in the New Year with some sparkly inebriated elegance After the Thin Man takes place on New Year’s Eve.
A Christmas Carol
has been made and remade in just about every form except shadow silhouettes, but, in my opinion, the Reginald Owen, Gene Lockhart version is the most enjoyable. Unfortunately it doesn’t follow the book as closely as I’d like, but Owen as Ebenezer Scrooge offers a tour de force performance from miser to repentant man and Lockhart is the embodiment of the ultimate poor, but happy family man, Bob Cratchet… and his wife and his daughter June (from Lassie and Lost in Space fame) are members of his onscreen family here. A radio tradition for years was the annual rendition of A Christmas Carol as performed by Lionel Barrymore. (The one season that he was unable to do the part his brother John Barrymore took the role for him – talk about an “understudy”!) Lionel Barrymore was supposed to have been Scrooge in this film, but conflicts prevented him. It was Barrymore himself who suggested Owen for the part – a fine and weighty recommendation. Owen is also said to be the “model” for the appearance of Carl Bark’s Uncle Scrooge McDuck. There are shortcomings with some casting and with some omissions and deviations from the book, but if, when Scrooge discovers that it is Christmas morning and that he is in his own bed, you don’t soon wear a large grin you might as well just shout “Bah Humbug” and go out and kick an elf.
The Shop Around the Corner’s
strong cast is headed by Jimmy Stewart, Margaret Sullivan, Frank Morgan (The Wizard of Oz). Despite the various story lines in this film, it is aptly titled…the shop is indeed the main character…the action and interaction somehow always returns to the shop. I can, but don’t want to, tell you more about this wonderful movie…let it unfold for you and enjoy all of the nuances of the excellent script and the talented cast You’ve Got Mail is the modern remake and, as good as Tom Hanks is, The Shop Around the Corner is the version for me.
March of the Wooden Soldiers
(sometimes called Babes in Toyland) stars Stan Laurel as Stannie Dee and Oliver Hardy as Ollie Dum and is a treat for any fans of Babes in Toyland. Some of the songs, but not much of the plot from Herbert’s stage version here, but a lot of fun. Stan and Ollie live in Toyland, which is inhabited by Mother Goose and other well known fairy tale characters. Silas Barnaby holds the mortgage on Old Mother Hubbard’s Shoe which is where they live. Meanwhile Barnaby has designs upon the lovely Bo Peep who in turn loves and is loved by Tom Tom the Piper’s Son (Is this Toyland or Peyton Place). Laurel and Hardy are at their bumbling, likeable best. Enjoy! But watch out for the bogeymen!
The Lemon Drop Kid
is perfect for those of you wanting a Guys and Dolls kind of Christmas. Bob Hope, Marilyn Maxwell, Jane Darwell, William Frawley and just about every actor who ever played a hood or thug in Hollywood bring this Runyan tale to life. Hope’s character gets into trouble with some gangsters who would like to give him cement overshoes for Christmas and he devises a plan to pay them back. Along the way come love, redemption, and a classic Christmas song: Silver Bells. Parts of this remind me of Apple Annie…without the apple…and with not much Annie.
All of these films are available on DVD or VHS at last look…a couple of the B & W ones have been colorized which actually enhances March of the Wooden Soldiers. The other B & W films work best uncolorized.
Article: Gilbert B. Elwyn