Christmas in Celluloid (A Short List)

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Red Ryder BB-guns and green roast beast.  As the yuletide season approaches, so too does a smorgasbord of holiday-related entertainment.  In my last post I got into trouble with a few family members.  So, this is sort of my olive branch (or mistletoe twig).  These are films and animated specials that have stood the test of time and appeal to both juveniles and adults.  If you see them on TV, check ’em out!  And if I’ve omitted your favorite, please let me know!

Here they are, oldest to newest:

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

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Frank Capra directed this uplifting (literally) fable starring Jimmy Stewart.  It concerns how a man’s seemingly insignificant acts of kindness can have an enormous effect on people and events around him.  Lots of subplots and spot-on acting, and the ending is one of the most heartwarming in cinema history.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

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I’ve never seen this movie beginning to end, but it must be good because the original 1947 version has been remade numerous times.  An unassuming Santa Claus at Macy’s claims he’s the real Kris Kringle, and his sanity is called into question.  Edmund Gwenn, as Kringle, won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.  Also stars Maureen O’Hara and a precocious child actress named Natalie Wood.

White Christmas (1954)

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With Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, and Rosemary Clooney, and featuring the timeless songs of Irving Berlin, this has both great storyline and music.  The highlights are the gold-plated vocal cords of Crosby and Clooney.  I’m not big on musicals, but this has to be one of the best.  To be shared with loved ones and a tray full of hot toddies (or hot chocolate) while wearing red and green turtlenecks before a crackling fire.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

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This is a stop-motion animated movie, narrated by Burl Ives, and it’s the longest-running Christmas TV special in history.  Why is it so popular?  My guess is the sly adult humor and offbeat characters: a nerdy elf who wants to be a dentist, a rambunctious prospector named Yukon Cornelius, and a cross-eyed Abominable Snow Monster who has his teeth extracted by the elf.   If this were made a few years later, I’d suspect the creator of experimenting with more than just animation.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

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Linus’s speech “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown,” alone on stage, in hushed silence, is the centerpiece.  But my favorite scene is when Schroeder starts jamming and turns the Christmas play into a dance party, much to Charlie’s dismay.  Creator Charles M. Schulz was equal parts animator and sociologist.  His genius, and pianist Vince Guaraldi‘s cool jazz score, makes “A Charlie Brown Christmas” the gold standard among animated Christmas specials.  My personal favorite.

Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)

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Dr. Seuss as narrated by Boris Karloff.  What a brilliant teaming!  Karloff, for those who don’t know, was the original movie “Frankenstein” monster and made many subsequent horror films.  His lilting and slightly ominous delivery make him perfect to narrate this tale about a sinister green creature who lives on a mountaintop and plots to ruin Christmas for the townsfolk below.  This animated special came on the heels of the Peanuts and Rudolph specials and caps an amazing three-year run for network television at Christmastime.

A Christmas Story (1983)

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This comedy is shown as a marathon every holiday.  We’ve all had that experience of yearning for that one special toy.  Here we have a man’s reminiscence of his boyhood in a small Indiana town and his obsession with getting a BB-gun for Christmas.  It has a ton of old-fashioned charm, and some folks consider it the greatest thing since spiced egg nog.  I haven’t joined the cult yet (the narration gets to me after a while).  But it has more holiday ambience than any other movie of the last 30 years, ages like a fine wine, and appeals to kids ages 9 to 90.

A Christmas Carol (aka Scrooge) (various years)

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Charles Dickens’s miserly Scrooge is so compelling he’s become part of the vernacular, and it’s hard to imagine him and “Bah humbug!” not existing until the mid-19th century.  There are several fantastic filmed versions starring, variously, Reginald Owen, Alistair Sim, Albert Finney, and George C. Scott.  Also a modern translation with Bill Murray that got mixed reviews, and a well-regarded cartoon movie starring Mr. Magoo, among many others.

I’ll let Tiny Tim have the last words: “God bless us everyone!!”

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The Girl With the Novocaine Lip

When I was a kid in the ‘60s there was a science-fiction horror show called THE OUTER LIMITS (Stephen King has since called it “the best show of its kind ever on TV”).  One of the episodes was entitled “The Guests.”  It was about a drifter who stumbles into an old Victorian house where the residents never grow old.  If they try to leave, they age rapidly and turn to dust.  One of the “guests” is a Norma Desmond-like silent film actress who pathetically clings to the idea she’s still a star.  In one particular scene, she slithers over to the drifter, gives him a peck on the lips, and says, “I had to do that.  It was my madcap heart.”  There’s a slight pause.  Then, “’My Madcap Heart’ was the name of my first bad picture.  Did you think I was sincere?”  At that moment I became smitten with Gloria Grahame.

Going back a few more years, to the late ‘40s and ‘50s: a style of film emerged in Hollywood that is today called “film noir” (“noir” being French for “dark”).  These films were much more downbeat and cynical than the buoyant adventures, musicals, and romances that proliferated until the end of WW2.  They were B&W crime pictures that usually featured a hard-boiled detective and a tough, sassy “dame.”  The cameras made heavy use of shadows, cigarette smoke, rain-soaked city streets, and train yards.  Most film noirs were low-budget ‘B’ movies featuring actors generally unrecognized today except by hardcore film buffs.  A few ‘A’ movies included DOUBLE INDEMNITY (Barbara Stanwyck), THE BIG SLEEP (Bogart and Bacall), and TOUCH OF EVIL (Orson Welles).  If you’ve ever seen Leslie Nielsen in the hilarious NAKED GUN series, well, film noir is what those comedies are spoofing.

Mention the name Gloria Grahame to any male film noir buff and he’ll hyperventilate and gush “Ahhh yes…the girl with the novocaine lip!”  Grahame is today considered one of the queens of film noir.  She only made about eight noirs, but they are some of the best and most beloved of the genre.  Grahame was somewhat ahead of her time.  Her looks and acting had a sleaziness closer to today’s femme fatales.  There was always a hint of the forbidden about her.  I’ll put it bluntly: she oozed sex.

She also made a number of movies outside of film noir.  Her most visible roles were as town flirt Violet Bick in the Christmas classic IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE starring Jimmy Stewart; and as plucky Ado Annie Carnes in the film version of OKLAHOMA!  The last-named was made in 1955 and is responsible for driving Grahame’s movie career to a halt.  Not so much because she was tone deaf, couldn’t sing, and was miscast in a family musical, but because her truculent behavior (she crushed the cowboy hat of a co-star) pissed off everyone on the set.  The word went out that Grahame was “difficult,” and producers and directors stayed away.

But there were a couple other reasons her career dried up.  One was her boisterous private life.  She had four stormy marriages and divorces.  She is also rumored to have slept with her 14-year-old stepson (they later married and had two kids – after he turned 21!).  She also had a series of surgeries on her mouth and chin to make herself look sexier – long before plastic surgery became fashionable.  During one operation in Germany, the doctor accidentally severed a nerve, rendering her upper lip immobile and earning her the sobriquet that titles this essay.  Needless to say, Hollywood distanced itself even further from her.

In the ‘60s and early ‘70s Grahame popped up occasionally on popular television shows – like THE OUTER LIMITS – usually portraying a washed-up actress or conniving stepmother.  She had some cameo film roles in the ‘70s, as well as leading roles in drive-in exploitation trash with titles like MAMA’S DIRTY GIRLS and MANSION OF THE DOOMED.  She also did a lot of stage work (her first love).  Grahame died in 1981 from complications due to breast cancer.

November 28 (tomorrow) is her birthday, and Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is honoring her by showing a bunch of her movies.  So those of you unfamiliar with Gloria Grahame, and who can access TCM, can see why longitudes is making such a fuss.  If you can only see a few movies, on TCM or elsewhere, I recommend CROSSFIRE (Robert Mitchum), IN A LONELY PLACE (Humphrey Bogart), and THE BIG HEAT (Glenn Ford and Lee Marvin).  All three are not only excellent examples of film noir, but my girlfriend Gloria is at her absolute best.  I’ll allow you to feast your eyes for a while.  Just don’t get too close.