Classics From Criterion: THE BROWNING VERSION (1951)

One of the things I enjoy the most about the Criterion Collection is discovering hidden gems within the collection.  There are always the splashier, more famous titles that we all know and love for good reason.  But every once in a while I pick up a movie that I have heard little to nothing about, one I have never seen before and find interesting and give it a go only to find that it is an amazing film that deserves to be talked about more.  THE BROWNING VERSION is one such film.

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Andrew Crocker-Harris (Michael Redgrave) is a master of classics at an English public school.  Getting on in years, he has been forced to leave his position due to poor health.  At the suggestion of his doctor, Crocker-Harris is taking a lesser position at a smaller school and leaving his classics behind.  His current class is less than dismayed at this turn of events.  “The Crock”, as the boys call him, is not well liked either by his students or his peers.  He is pedantic, reserved to the point of being stuffy, and generally unable to endear himself to his fellow man.

Someone who does not suffer from this problem is Crocker-Harris’ wife, Millie (Jean Kent).  In fact she has made many friends, including the science master Frank Hunter (Nigel Patrick) with whom she has been carrying on an affair.  She despises her husband, seeing him as weak, ineffectual, and totally absorbed in his work.  Clearly she had different ideas as to what her husband would be doing with his life and career when they got married.  She has given up on any hope of happiness with her husband, and her husband has given up any hope of happiness in his life at all.

Crocker-Harris is aware that he is disliked, aware that his students not only dislike him but loathe him as well.  He also knows that his colleagues have no regard for him and that his career is not what he wanted to make of it.  He knows that his wife dislikes him and that any semblance of a happy marriage has disappeared long ago.  He feels himself a failure, not only as a teacher but as a man, and he has resigned himself to being a failure for the rest of his days.  When he meets his successor and hears that fellow staffers refer to him as “The Himmler of fifth level”, he is hurt but accepts that this is only proper and just considering what his life is.  It isn’t until one of his students, a lad named Taplow, brings him a good-bye present that things begin to change for Crocker-Harris.

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THE BROWNING VERSION is based on a one act play written by Terence Rattigan, and was adapted for the screen by the same.  While the play ends when Crocker-Harris receives his gift from Taplow, the film continues on and gives a much more complete and emotionally satisfying ending.  The fact that Rattigan himself wrote this new ending is perhaps more reassuring that this was the ending that he always meant to infer with his play.

If you are hoping to find something similar to GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS then I am afraid you will be extremely disappointed.  THE BROWNING VERSION is an examination not only of a man’s life and his family, but also of failures of all kinds.  The failure of unfulfilled dreams, of incompatible love turned into mutual destruction, of disconnection, and resignation to ones lot in life.  It also asks the question, when is it too late to change or is it ever too late?

I have heard this film described as a man looking back on his life and realizing that he has been a failure in his job and his marriage.  But I think that that is a very simplistic view.  I think that Crocker-Harris was aware that he had failed in many aspects of his life but it wasn’t until he was presented with the end of his current position and with a possibility of some kindness and consideration that he must confront this failure and decide what is to be done.  Tallow’s gift echoes pieces of Crocker-Harris’ past, pieces that he had given up and that those around him have forgotten.  For a moment when he receives this gift her can see a possibility of happiness once again if only he could figure out how to get it.

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Mrs. Crocker-Harris could easily been seen as a purely nasty person but I think that she has been disappointed just as her husband has, but her disappointment comes from the man she married and his inability to be the person she wants him to be.  When she realizes she can’t inspire or affect him to become that person, she decides to destroy him instead so that she can at least have some satisfaction from watching him to respond to something of her making.  While many of the people in THE BROWNING VERSION are mean, I would not say any of them are bad.  Rather they are all unhappy and dissatisfied in their own ways, and they each respond to this dissatisfaction differently.

This film also presents a fairly unflattering portrait of public education staff life.  Teachers are shown to be petty, rude, and gossipy.  Another teacher is leaving along with Crocker-Harris but he is leaving to play cricket and the difference between the two farewells is obvious and hurtful.  When the head master asks Crocker-Harris to allow the younger master to give his farewell speech second, a slight to the more senior master, because the expected response and applause will be far greater than the one for Crocker-Harris, we can feel the harshness of the comment because it is something that still happens today.  Popular sports outweighing academia once again.

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Finally, Michael Redgrave is phenomenal.  He carries this film utterly and he manages to portray Crocker-Harris not only as a unpleasant person but also as one that we can sympathize with.  We can dismiss him as simply a man who has failed at life but if we take the time to really listen to the words being said and really see the nuances in Redgrave’s performance we will see that here is a man who once had hope and promise, and through a series of decisions has lost that.  There is tragedy here and it is a tragedy that we can all relate to as who among us hasn’t had a moment where we wondered, “What if?”

 

Spending Time With Turner Classic Movies: A CAROL FOR ANOTHER CHRISTMAS (1964)

Hard to believe that there are only eight days until Christmas.  This year has been much more hectic than last year, when I was able to watch several Christmas themed movies by this point, what with the holiday hosting/planning, gift buying and wrapping, Santa picture taking, decorating, etc.  That being said, I still am intending on watching at least a few more Christmas movies if I can manage it.  But here at last is my first Christmas film of the season and it really struck me.

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Daniel Grudge (Sterling Hayden) is spending his Christmas Eve as he always does, alone and in the dark.  He is interrupted by the arrival of his nephew, Fred (Ben Gazzara), who is angry at his uncle for stopping an international exchange of professors from the United States and Poland.  Grudge tells Fred to stop being such a bleeding-heart and begins to extoll the virtues of isolation and neutrality.  Grudge not only wants to stay out of all conflicts and keep on his own “side of the fence”, but he also wants to build up armor, defenses, and bombs in order to make sure that the rest of the world knows that the United States can not only destroy them but they can do it faster and better than anyone else.  Fred is horrified at this speech and calls Grudge on what he believes is the true reason for his uncle’s bitterness.  It was on this very night in 1944 that Grudge’s son Marley was killed in action overseas.

Grudge freely admits that he is still angry over the loss of his son and wonders why Fred would still want to be involved with other people and other countries after seeing what that involvement got Marley.  Fred just shakes his head and takes his leave.  With his nephew gone, Grudge begins to see flashes of his dead son and hear music playing in his long empty room.  When he opens the door to investigate, he finds himself on the deck of a transport ship.  A soldier approaches him and introduces himself as The Ghost of Christmas Past (Steve Lawrence).  The vessel is a World War I troopship returning with the bodies of the many dead, not all from the United States but all sons of mothers and fathers.  The Ghost of Christmas Past will share with Grudge the need for international powers to “keep talking” because “when the talking stops the fighting starts”.  Grudge remains unconvinced until the Ghost of Christmas Past takes him back to the day where he visited a makeshift hospital in Japan, after the bomb fell.

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Moving on, Grudge is confronted by The Ghost of Christmas Present (Pat Hingle) and a table covered in food.  The Ghost beckons him over and offers him some of the bounty, before flicking a switch and illuminating a barbed wire fence nearby.  On the other side of the fence are numerous “displaced people”, each homeless and hungry, huddling together for warmth.  Grudge is sickened by this and demands to know how the Ghost can eat with all these hungry people nearby.  In response the Ghost asks Grudge how HE can eat, as there are always hungry and homeless people in the world needing help even if you can’t see them.  He begins to give Grudge statistics and numbers of just how many people in the world are homeless, sick, and needy.  Before too long, Grudge can take no more and rushes away.

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He comes into a ruined town square, surrounded by rubble and destruction.  It is here that he finds the Ghost of Christmas Future.  The Ghost tells Grudge that he is in his own hometown at some date in the future.  Some time before nations stopped talking to each other and others began dropping out of the United Nations.  Before too long information became clouded and suspicions rose, leading to the dropping of several nuclear bombs.  What remains now are the few members of humanity who survived.  While Grudge and the Ghost watch these people gather into the center of the rubble and celebrate the entrance of their leader, the Imperial Me (Peter Sellers).  These people value selfishness and isolation, and the Imperial Me has come forth to declare war on the other surviving members of humanity “over yonder and across the river” who want to band together against their common problems.  Grudge is already highly disturbed by what he sees until a man comes forward he recognizes.  This is Grudge’s butler Charles (Percy Rodrigues) and he has decided to speak to try and convince the mob to have dignity, decency, and respect once again.

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A CAROL FOR ANOTHER CHRISTMAS was written by Rod Serling at a time when the world seemed to be at its worst.  The threat of nuclear destruction felt ever present and the recent assassination of President John F. Kennedy hung over the nation.  Shot at the Michael Myerberg Studios in New York City, A CAROL FOR ANOTHER CHRISTMAS was to air as part of a series supporting the United Nations.  Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, this special aired on December 28, 1964 and not again for forty-eight years when TCM showed it in 2012.

Many people have said that while A CAROL FOR ANOTHER CHRISTMAS is a must-see film, it is too much a product of its time and must be viewed in that historical context.  I could not disagree more.  A CAROL FOR ANOTHER CHRISTMAS is just as important and relevant to the state of the world today as it was in 1964.  We still live in an age where nuclear war is a real and terrible possibility.  We still live in a world where we are confronted by the senseless deaths of sons and daughters in fights that we don’t always agree with.  We still live in a world where people want to close out those who don’t match up with their own sensibilities.  Especially in light of recent events in Syria, in Paris, in California, in the race for the Presidential Nomination, this television special from 1964 is not only important but it is needed.  Watching it in 2015 I could not help but feel that these important issues being raised in 1964 were still in dire need of being talked about.

A CAROL FOR ANOTHER CHRISTMAS should be a part of everyone’s holiday viewing no matter where you live, no matter what part of the world you are in, no matter what religion you practice.  While it is based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, it is not just a Christmas story…it is a call for peace and goodwill for all men.  We still live in a world where we need to encourage ourselves, our neighbors, and our leaders to “keep talking”.  I am so grateful that TCM pulled this film from obscurity an brought it back into the public eye.  But since there are many people in the world who do not get TCM and because there is no DVD copy available, though I sincerely hope that someone will put one out soon (hint hint TCM), here is a copy that I found on YouTube.  Please take some time out this holiday and watch it.  I think that you will find it just as startling and relevant as I did.

Watching With Warner: CRACK-UP (1946)

What if I told you that I just watched a film noir that turned into a murder mystery?  What if I told you that said noir starred Pat O’Brien, Claire Trevor, and Herbert Marshall?  And what if I told you that this noir/murder mystery centered around the world of art and art forgery?  Impossible, you say!  But no!  It is true!  It can all be seen in CRACK-UP from 1946.

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The Manhattan Museum has been closed up for the night and a policeman is going his rounds when he is confronted by a strange sight.  A man, clearly delirious, has smashed a window and is now attempting to destroy a statue.  The policeman confronts and struggles with the man before subduing him.  Initially believing the man to be drunk the police and the museum board, led by one Dr. Lowell (Ray Collins), bring the man back to Dr. Lowell’s house to recuperate.  The man is George Steele (Pat O’Brien), art expert and lecturer at the museum who has just been released from military service.  Dr. Lowell deduces that George is not drunk but ill, and George furthers this idea by insisting to the police lieutenant that he has just been in a train accident.  Police Lieutenant Cochrane informs George that there have been no train accidents reported and that his mother was never taken to the hospital.  Dr. Lowell believes that George’s experiences in the military might be affecting his memory and so asks him to relate everything that he can remember leading up to that night in the museum.  George begins his tale…

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After giving a rather inflammatory lecture to a group of art lovers in the museum, George is receiving a dressing down by museum director Barton. The director feels that George’s lectures are far too explosive and is also annoyed by George’s promise to use an X-Ray machine to show his lecture goers how art forgeries are detected by using the recently exhibited Dürer’s Adoration of the Kings as an example.  Irritated by his boss’ closed minded behavior George runs into his girlfriend Terry Cordell (Claire Trevor) and her new friend Traybin (Herbert Marshall).  George and Terry head out for a date and drink and just as George begins to relax and enjoy himself, he receives an urgent phone call telling him that he mother has taken ill and has been taken to the hospital.  George hurries off to the train station, promising to call Terry in the morning.  Once there he gets his ticket and rushes to catch the train, almost running into a man half carrying another seemingly very drunk man.  Onboard George settles in and stares out the window.  To his horror he sees a train coming towards them, almost as if by design, and then colliding.

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Back in the present day George concludes his story by saying that after the train crash he suddenly found himself back at the museum.  Traybin, who has accompanied Terry to Dr. Lowell’s, excuses himself and asks Cochrane to follow him into the hall.  Once there Traybin, who is an English art expert, requests that Cochrane lets George go but have him tailed.  Cochrane agrees and George is released, but not before being fired by Barton.  Upon returning to his apartment, George, Terry, and Traybin find that it has been ransacked.  George confides to Terry that he worries that he is suffering from post-traumatic stress and she urges him to forget the events of that night.  But George can’t do that and he resolves to piece together just what happened to him.

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The next evening he boards the commuter train and finds that no one on board remembers seeing him.  Discouraged, he gets off at a station and asks the clerk there if he saw anything strange.  The clerk recalls seeing three men, two men helping one man who appeared to be very drunk, and George realizes that the third man must have been him.  He hurries back to the museum to inform his friend, and museum employee, Stevenson.  Stevenson has even more news as he has heard that Barton just got word that a Thomas Gainsborough recently lost at sea was in fact a fake.  George realizes that there must be another forgery currently in the museum and gets Stevenson to agree to help him get into the museum vaults later that night.  But when George returns to the museum to meet Stevenson he finds his friend dead and himself the prime suspect.

I bought CRACK-UP during the Black Friday sale at Warner Archive sole due to the cast and the fact that the plot started off with, “I’ve been in a train crash!” “There was no train crash!”.  Very THE LADY VANISHES.  I found that this was a really fun and intriguing mystery, a wholly unique take on the film noir.  As I said, there were moments that reminded me of THE LADY VANISHES and other elements of Hitchcock which gave the story an interesting and imaginative flair.  The story begins with George trying to figure out what happened on the train but quickly evolves into a murder mystery and caper movie.  This is not to say that it disregards its noir roots, on the contrary.  George is not only the everyman fighting against corruption but CRACK-UP addresses upfront the affects that post-traumatic stress had on the minds of the men suffering from it.

Pat O’Brien is quite good in this.  He is usually a loud tough guy but here he is much quieter and reserved, giving hints at the wounded and injured man below.  He even speaks in a softer register making George someone that you have to pay attention to.  This was a completely different role than what I was used to seeing him in and I have to say that he did a really great job.  He is well supported by Claire Trevor, who portrays Terry as a woman who loves her man and will do whatever he needs in order to help him.  And Herbert Marshall…well, he just needs to show up doesn’t he?

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CRACK-UP is a noir that is different and one that takes creative chances in its attempt to tell a story.  It is not quite like any other noir I have seen but it is definitely one that I will watch again, and one that deserves more recognition and appreciation!

Cinema from Kino: THE PENALTY (1920)

Lon Chaney, you guys.  Lon.  Chaney.  I mean…I just…WOW.  THE PENALTY from Kino Lorber is my first experience with The Man of a Thousand Faces and I am ready for my fan girl kit.

Spoiler Warning Ahoy!  In order to have a discussion about this film I will be talking about some major plot points but not the ending.  It goes without saying, spoilers ahead!

A young and relatively inexperienced new surgeon by the name of Dr. Ferris (Charles Clary), has just completed his first big operation.  Unfortunately, he has not done as well as he would have liked.  His patient, a young boy who had been run over, was suffering from badly injured legs and a contusion to the back of his head. Ferris has hastily amputated both of his legs.  When his more seasoned colleague arrives, Ferris learns that he has made a terrible mistake and never should have cut off the boy’s legs.  The two doctors are discussing what they should do when the boy’s parents come in.  They rush to comfort their son while the doctors inform them that the boy’s legs had to go in order to save his life.  At this moment their patient speaks up, unbeknownst to the doctors he was awake and overheard their entire conversation.  He knows perfectly well that he did not need to lose his legs.  The doctors tell the parents that the child is hallucinating because of the ether and prepare to move on with their lives.

Twenty-seven years later and the boy has grown into a man, a terrible man driven by anger and a thirst for revenge.  Blizzard (Lon Chaney) is the kingpin of the underworld and he rules with an iron fist.  He has sent out one of his junkie underlings to a dance hall where a prostitute is stealing a drunken man’s wallet.  When she rounds the corner the junkie grabs her, a brief look of terror and recognition crosses her face before the knife pierces her side.  She falls, hanging limply from the balcony as the patrons below scream in horror before taking off after the assailant.  The junkie manages to elude his captors and finds his way back to Blizzard where he receives drugs in payment for his services.

The Secret Service is concerned with Blizzard and his criminal operations, but they are even more concerned lately as all Blizzard’s dancing girls have been recalled and are hard at work day and night making straw hats.  The only girls who escape the work room are the ones who are used as Blizzard’s mistresses and pedal pushers.  Blizzard is a man of contrasts and has a passion for the piano.  He plays the keys while the women work the pedals for as long as they please him with both their pedal work and other things.  The head of the Secret Service, Lichtenstein (Milton Ross), has decided to send an agent into Blizzard’s workshop to discover the truth of what he is planning.  His most daring agent is Rose (Ethel Grey Terry) and she has agreed to undertake this dangerous mission.  When warned that this job will be the most dangerous one yet, one that might actually lead to her death, Rose replies that it is just another day in the office.

Meanwhile, Dr. Ferris is still practicing medicine.  He now has a younger colleague named Dr. Wilmot Allen and a daughter named Barbara (Claire Adams).  Wilmot is in love with Barbara but frustrated because she has decided to pursue her career as an artist rather than settle down immediately and marry him.  When he comes to visit her at her studio one day, he starts the conversation that they must have three times a week.  Barbara doesn’t want to marry him until she feels that she has finally done something worthwhile and valuable.  In fact her latest sculpture is going to be entitled “Satan After The Fall” and she hopes it will be a great success, just as soon as she finds models who look like the devil.  She places an advertisement in the paper that literally says “If you look like the devil come to this address”.

Blizzard sees that his chance to take revenge has finally arrived and he presents himself to Barbara.  Barbara, though initially shocked at Blizzard’s appearance, welcomes him into her studio.  Her boy assistant, named Bubbles, warns her that the man sitting before her is one of the most dangerous people in the city.  She dismisses his concerns and begins sculpting.

While Blizzard is away the mice will play.  Rose has become quite a fixture in Blizzard’s factory.  She not only works with the girls but Blizzard has taken her on as his newest mistress as her musical experience makes her a pedal pusher extraordinaire.  When Blizzard is off modeling for Barbara, Rose takes to exploring Blizzard’s private rooms in the hopes of discovering what he is planning.  One day she finds a secret passage in the fireplace and climbing down discovers an armory with guns and straw hats at the ready, and a fully functional operating room.

Blizzard returns from his latest modeling session and finds a hairpin in his office.  Blizzard is no fool and knows that someone has been snooping, and the only woman with access to these rooms is…  “Rose?  Can you come in here?”  Rose enters with trepidation and Blizzard commands her to come and pedal for him while he plays “a death song”.  As the music builds he tells her that they are playing a song to murder by but then the music takes him and when the song is over, Rose is still alive and Blizzard’s anger is spent.  He could never have played that way without her help.  He lets her live and return to work but now with a watchful eye ever on her.  Rose’s cover is blown and all her messages back to the home office are being intercepted.  But something has changed and Rose is having thoughts she never had before.

One evening Blizzard decides to let his second in command in on his master plan.  He intends to take over the city with straw hatted anarchists.  On a chosen date and time an explosion will rock the area and act as the signal for the chaos to begin.  While his men murder and pillage, Blizzard will be taking his personal revenge.

THE PENALTY took me completely by surprise.  I started watching with no idea what to expect and found myself sucked in and loving every dark, twisted moment.  This is due mostly to the magnetic performance of Lon Chaney.  I had heard that Lon Chaney was a master of makeup, seeming to disappear inside the various characters he portrayed.  There was a joke that went around during his career.  “Don’t step on that cockroach!”, people would say, “It might be Lon Chaney!”  Well, I believe it.  Let’s just take a moment and recognize that the man portrays a double amputee.  This is before the time of green screen and CGI, mind you.  As I watched the first scene I figured that Lon Chaney, who was standing facing the camera, was wearing the braces up to his knees but had his legs sticking out behind him but hidden from the camera.  Then he turned around.  WHERE WERE HIS LEGS?!  Chaney famously wore the leg braces by putting his knees into the bottom cups and then tying his legs up behind him.  It was so painful that he could only tolerate it for ten minutes at a time and even suffered permanent muscle damage as a result.  Chaney then bulked up his frame to hide the extra bulge (which you cannot see at all) of his legs and when he was done the illusion was so convincing that the original film was released with a clip showing Lon Chaney walking on his own two legs.  This clip has since been lost.

Not only is Chaney stunning in his use of makeup and effects, he is stunning in his acting.  All the makeup in the world wouldn’t matter if the actor couldn’t use it to affect the audience and Chaney more than delivers.  Blizzard is utterly terrifying and twisted, we feel the danger and unpredictability radiating off of him.  But Chaney manages to keep it just short of cartoonish, allowing there to be an emotional core to Blizzard’s evil.  There is a method to his madness and while we recoil from Blizzard and his evil deeds, we are still drawn to him.  In the scene when Blizzard makes Rose play “a song to murder by” we see the entire range of emotions played out in Chaney’s features.  At the beginning we know, with complete certainty, that Rose is dead and that Blizzard is going to kill her with his own hands.  As the song progresses Blizzard relaxes and we can see the music taking over and soothing his anger.  In the end, Blizzard has lost his angry passion and we see what is left.  Hurt, exhaustion, and resignation.  Chaney does all of this with his face and all in the span of a few minutes.  The final few scenes also offer Chaney a chance to dazzle.  There is a moment where something happens to Blizzard that alters him completely and Chaney’s entire face changes.  He still looks like Blizzard but somehow he doesn’t.  He has changed without changing at all.

THE PENALTY  released by Kino Lorber comes with the options of two different scores if you buy the Blu-Ray.  The DVD, which is the copy that I own, only offers one and it is not the sort of score you are used to.  A modern scoring complete with synthesizers, techno beats, and some orchestration, this musical accompaniment for THE PENALTY is quite controversial.  Many people dislike it.  I liked it, I liked it a lot.  At first I had to get used to it, having gone in expecting the usual piano and violin music, but as the movie progressed I felt that the score was perfectly suited to the story that was being told.

To me the purpose of musical accompaniment for silent films is to enhance the story.  The music helps to give the audience more emotional reference for the images that they are seeing on the screen.  Like a soundtrack for a talkie, the scoring of a silent film helps to enrich the story being portrayed.  THE PENALTY is a dark, twisted, and weird movie.  It needs a dark, twisted, and weird score.  The usual piano and violin music would add a sense of melodrama to the proceedings.  It would diminish the sense of menace and unease, causing Blizzard to be considered more of an over the top villain that audiences might be tempted to laugh at rather than fear.

A great musical score creates a mood and helps audiences become more affected by a film then they might otherwise be.  This scoring of  THE PENALTY does just that.  Don’t get me wrong.  I still like a good, traditional silent film accompaniment when the story suits it.  But there are times when a modern musical accompaniment can be just as good, if not better.  When these films were being made there were no computers to create different effects, sounds, and scores.  There was only a woman or a man at a piano, sometimes a violin and a few more instruments.  Today there are more options and no reason why we shouldn’t take advantage of all the tools accessible to us in order to create a score that enhances the final product in a way that was not possible a hundred years ago.  Traditional scoring is important and should be preserved, but modern scoring is just as valid and should not be discounted simply because it is new.  Besides who’s to say that if the film makers of the silent films had modern tools at their disposal, they wouldn’t have used them?

THE PENALTY is a film that gets under your skin.  Days go by and I am still thinking about it, hearing the score in my head.  I am now a devoted Lon Chaney fan and cannot wait to see more of his work.  I think Fritzi of Movies Silently said it best.  When it comes to Chaney’s films, “you watch them and love them and feel a little sick about it”.

It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas: I’ll BE SEEING YOU (1944)

Here we are three days before Christmas and I have one more movie for the holiday season.  It seems to be almost poetic that we end with this film because it has something in common with my other favorite under appreciated Christmas movie, REMEMBER THE NIGHT (which was the movie that started us off for holiday movies).  I’LL BE SEEING YOU is not a movie that I had heard of before but I recently came across this post by SisterCelluloid.  She described this movie so beautifully that I had to set my DVR and watch it for myself.  And thank goodness (and SisterCelluloid) I did!

In a train station at Christmas time men and women bustle to and fro, soldiers and sailors on leave chat, buy souvenirs, and rush to catch their trains.  Amidst all this chaos two people drift, just slightly out of sync with the rest of the people around them.  Mary Marshall (Ginger Rogers) and Sgt. Zachary Morgan (Joseph Cotten) are each passengers on the train to Pine Hill, on board which they meet.  Each carries with them a secret, one that makes them social outcasts.  Zachary suffers from shell shock and has been living at the military hospital.  The doctors there have granted him a Christmas vacation away from the hospital to prove to him that he is getting well and will eventually be able to return to the real world.  Mary is an inmate at the Women’s Prison and is on furlough for Christmas, traveling to visit with her relatives.  Of course neither one shares their secret with the other.  Mary pretends that she is a traveling sales girl and Zachary claims he is going to see his sister.  As the train pulls into the station the two disembark together.  Mary climbs into her cab and Zachary asks her name and the address where she will be staying.  He tells her he plans to call her, which Mary happily agrees to and the two part company.  Zachary goes to the local YMCA and Mary arrives at the house of her Aunt Sarah (Spring Byington), Uncle Henry (Tom Tully), and cousin Barbara (Shirley Temple).

Mary finds herself welcomed with open arms, at least by Aunt Sarah and Uncle Henry.  Barbara, with whom she is sharing a room, is friendly but there are not so subtle slights such as separate soaps for each of them and towels marked by names.  Mary notes these slights but makes no mention of them, feeling that it is almost her due because of her situation.  She feels out-of-place in the world having lost three years inside the prison.  She laments to Aunt Sarah her loss of youthful dreams such as having a husband and a child, a home of her own.  She feels that she is out of sync with the rest of the people around her, and she regrets not having something purposeful or meaningful in her life because of her prison sentence.  With three years left to serve it doesn’t seem to Mary that these are things that will change any time soon.  And then the telephone rings.  It is Zachary and he is calling to speak with Mary.  He asks her to come out with him as he has found that his sister is not in town, so he will be all alone.  Mary counters and invites him to dinner, much to Barbara’s delight.

Dinnertime arrives and so does Zachary, and he is instantly made to feel at home.  Barbara is terribly excited to have a soldier over for dinner and it is all Aunt Sarah can do to get her back into the kitchen to help.  Zachary privately confides to Mary that he doesn’t really have a sister in town, he simply got off the train to keep seeing Mary.  Before Mary can respond to this news dinner is served, and conversation turns to Zachary and his many medals.  Barbara notes that he has been awarded the Purple Heart and wonders how he was wounded.  In order to change the subject Aunt Sarah asks Zachary about his sister but just as he is about to tell the truth about his pretend sister, Mary steps in and backs up his story.  All forgiven, Mary and Zachary leave to attend a war movie.  During the film Zachary can barely look at the screen and after he is evasive when answering Mary’s questions about his time in the war.  But, he happily notes, Mary is the first person that he feels comfortable enough with to talk about his experiences.  He is feeling so good that he suggests that they go and get a drink at a local soda fountain.  While there they are served by a soda jerk who was a soldier in the First World War.  He relates to them the story of his own experience with shell shock that has left him with a facial tic.  Zachary becomes more and more uncomfortable during his story, until he finally rushes from the booth and out into the night air.  Mary follows and Zachary apologizes for his behavior but he is unable to tell her the truth behind his emotional reaction.

Back home Mary finds Barbara still awake, writing letters to serve as morale boosters to her list of soldiers.  As Mary goes to put her coat in the closet she finds that Barbara has divided the closet, keeping her belongings separate from Mary’s.  Sensing Barbara’s distrust, Mary relates to her the real story of why she was sent to prison. For those who haven’t seen this movie, I”m not going to spoil this part here.  It is a big reveal and pretty shocking, deserving of the surprise the filmmakers intended.  I think that those who have seen this movie would agree with me.  After learning the truth, Barbara begs Mary for forgiveness and the two cousins make a fresh start.

The next day Zachary calls on Mary and invites her out to the lake.  He wants to explain his behavior from the night before and reveals his condition to her.  He is most afraid of ending up like the soda jerk and becomes frustrated because he knows himself better than the doctors do.  They tell him that he is doing just fine, but he knows his timing and his rhythms and something is still off.  He asks Mary to help him believe in himself just as she believes in herself.  Mary agrees but is distracted because while they have been walking they have gotten closer and closer to the state line.  She encourages Zachary to have faith while subtly steering him away from the border.  Once home she confides in her Aunt Sarah, wondering if she shouldn’t just tell Zachary the truth about her situation.  She feels that Zachary is beginning to care for her, and she obviously cares for him (even if she denies it) so that it might be for the best to be honest.  However, Aunt Sarah advises against it wondering what good would it do as Mary is only on furlough for a few more days and after all “it isn’t as if they were getting married”.  Mary sadly agrees but things take a turn when Zachary invites the entire family to the YMCA for a New Year’s dance.

This is such a wonderful movie, I really hope it becomes more well-known.  Ginger Rogers is terrific and shows every reason why she is an Oscar award-winning actress.  Too often I think Ginger Rogers gets pushed aside and categorized simply as a dancer or Fred Astaire’s partner, but she was an extremely talented actress.  I liked her in KITTY FOYLE, for which she won said Oscar, but I LOVED her in this.  Mary is guarded, sad, grateful, loving, and fragile.  The emotions she shows feel honest and real, and it never feels like acting.  Joseph Cotten is wonderful, really showing a different side of himself.  I’m used to seeing him in roles such as GASLIGHT or THE STRANGER, roles where he is completely self-possessed and confident.  But as Zachary Morgan, he shows such a vulnerability and brokenness that he seems to be a different man altogether.  Together, he and Ginger are just magic.  It’s more than just chemistry, it’s believability.  You honestly feel that these are two real people and you are simply watching their lives unfold.  I loved this movie and I hope to find a copy for my own collection soon, which is a bit difficult as it is out of print.  Hopefully it gains a larger audience, especially now that TCM has added it to the rotation.  This might be a Christmas movie, but it is a film that is beautiful, poignant, and touching any time of year.

It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas: HOLIDAY AFFAIR (1949)

Well, here it is only eight days until Christmas and we have what may very well be my last Christmas themed post of the season.  I have one or two more that I would like to be able to watch and blog about before the big day, but that will be contingent on whether or not the presents get wrapped, the house gets cleaned, and the car gets packed for our road trip next week.  So, if I can post another Christmas movie I will but if I can’t we are ending with one that I really enjoy!  I stumbled across this movie a few years ago, initially attracted because Robert Mitchum was in a Christmas movie!  From 1949 and directed by Don Hartman, it’s HOLIDAY AFFAIR!

Steve Mason (Robert Mitchum) is working at his job in the Crowley Department Store toy department, entertaining young children with the latest model train under the disapproving watch of the floor walkers.  He is approached by Connie Ennis (Janet Leigh), who asks to purchase said train without asking any questions.  Steve is slightly suspicious and he has good reason to be.  Connie takes her newly purchased train and along with her other bundles, hurries off to the nearest phone booth.  Connie works as a comparison shopper for one of Crowley’s competitors and she has bought the train as part of her assignment.  After giving her report over the phone, Connie heads back home where she is greeted by her six-year-old son Timmy (Gordon Gebert) aka Mr. Ennis.  Timmy is the man of the house, a role he had to take on after his father was killed during World War II.  He and Connie live alone in a small apartment, calling each other “Mr. Ennis” and “Mrs. Ennis”.  Connie unloads her packages and sends Timmy off to wash up while she gets dinner ready.  Timmy can’t contain himself and sneaks a peek, and finding the train set assumes it is for him.  He is so excited for his Christmas present, until Connie (who doesn’t know that he has looked) tells him that there will be no train set under the tree this year.

That night Timmy and Connie are joined by Carl Davis (Wendell Corey), a lawyer and a suitor of Connie’s.  While Timmy gets ready for bed, Connie and Carl wash the dishes.  It is over the dirty dishes and bubbles that Carl proposes to Connie.  She doesn’t give him an immediate answer and Carl leaves asking her to think it over.  Connie tells Timmy that Carl has proposed and, not surprisingly, Timmy is less than thrilled about the entire situation.  As she is leaving his room, Timmy tells Connie that if she marries Carl “she won’t be Mrs. Ennis anymore”.  The next day Connie goes back to Crowley’s to return the train set and who should appear to wait on her but Steve.  He lets Connie know that he is aware of who she really is and who she is working for.  He is supposed to call the store detective and report her but, after hearing Connie’s story and learning that she is the only income for her small family, decides against it and lets Connie go with a warning not to return to Crowley’s and a full refund.  This does not go unnoticed by the floor walkers and Steve loses his job.  Connie feels terrible for causing Steve to become unemployed so close to Christmas and Steve asks her to join him for lunch as a way to make it up to him.

Steve takes Connie to eat in Central Park, keeping company with the seals, and the two share stories of their lives.  Connie is impressed with Steve’s plans to design sailboats with a friend in California and Steve is eager to hear about Timmy and Connie’s life.  The two have a very pleasant time talking and lose track of time, causing Connie to be late going back to work doing more comparison shopping.  Steve offers to help her make her deadline and the two head off together.  A few hours later, now loaded down with packages, they rush to catch the bus but are separated in the holiday crowd.  Connie returns to her apartment with only half of her purchases to find Carl and Timmy trimming the Christmas tree together.  Connie begins to tell them about her day when there is a knock at the door.  It’s Steve!  He managed to track her down through various tactics and is now here to return her packages.  Carl is suspicious of Steve, but he remains polite.  Timmy is thrilled by Steve and takes an immediate liking to him.  But Timmy is still upset about the loss of the train and it causes him to fight with Carl, in front of Connie and Steve.  Connie begins to send Timmy to his room but when Carl picks up the angry little boy, Connie yells at him to take his hands off her son.  Frustrated and hurt Carl leaves the apartment and Connie sends Timmy to bed with no supper.  She apologizes to Steve for the scene he just witnessed.  Steve surprises her by suggesting that Connie is partly to blame because she is constantly trying to turn Timmy into a miniature version of her late husband.  Connie angrily asks Steve to show himself out and goes off to wash the dishes.  Steve stops by to say good-bye to Timmy, who then tells him all about the train.  Steve encourages Timmy to always aim higher than his dreams and, perhaps taking his own advice, passionately kisses Connie before leaving the apartment.  Carl returns and Connie, prompted by Steve’s kiss, decides to accept his proposal.

Christmas morning dawns and Timmy leaps into bed to cover his mother with kisses.  He keeps thanking her over and over again, saying that she has giving him the best Christmas present and she really had him fooled.  Confused, Connie goes out into the living room and finds Timmy playing with the electric train that she had returned the day before.  The package was sitting in the hall outside their apartment, with a card on it to Timmy from Santa.  She can’t think where it came from until Timmy reveals that he told Steve about his wish for a train for Christmas.  Realizing that Steve has given her son the train, Connie decides to go and confront Steve.  She finds him in Central Park, almost completely broke.  Steve refuses her offer of money, saying that he wants Timmy to have the train so that he will believe in the possibility of dreams coming true.  Connie asks what he will do now and Steve reveals that he is going to travel to California to design boats, once he has money for a ticket that is.  Connie presents Steve with a loud necktie as a Christmas present (something Timmy encouraged her to do) which he is thrilled by.  Taking off his old tie, Steve offers it to a passing bum who accepts it gleefully.  A few moments later a little girl on roller skates (because she didn’t get ice skates for Christmas) with a balloon on her hat approaches Steve and presents him with a salt and pepper shaker, a present from the man he gave a necktie too.  Connie reveals to Steve that she and Carl are going to be married, prompting Steve to talk again about Connie’s need to let go of the past and embrace the future.  Annoyed by Steve’s lecture, Connie leaves the park and returns to her home where Timmy and her in-laws are waiting.

Connie’s in-laws have heard from Timmy that his mother is to be married, and they assume it must be to this Mr. Steve Mason they have heard so much about from Timmy.  Connie denies this, and tells them that she is to be married to Carl which doesn’t thrill them nearly as much.  Speaking of Carl, he soon joins the Christmas party and is greeted by everyone, including Timmy who has apologized for his bad behavior the other night.  Another unexpected guest soon comes to the door, but it is not anyone they could have expected.  This is a city detective looking for the Connie Ennis who just met with Steve Mason in Central Park.  It seems that morning a man was mugged in Central Park, robbed of money and a set of silver salt and pepper shakers, and tied up with a necktie.  Not only was Steve found with the salt and pepper shaker on his person, but it was his necktie that was used to tie the poor man up!  Connie, Carl, and Timmy head down to the police station to alibi Steve.  Connie backs up Steve’s story, little girl with roller skates and a balloon on her head and all, and the police release him.  Timmy asks Connie if they can invite Steve back to their home for Christmas dinner.  Though resistant at first, Connie finally relents and so it is that they all gather around to share a Christmas feast.  After dinner is finished, Connie’s father-in-law starts the speeches by thanking his wife for their many wonderful years together.  Carl then gets up to thank them all for welcoming him into their family and he hopes that next year he will finally be able to have the wife and son he has longed for.  After some prodding, Steve stands up to give his Christmas speech.  He says what he was always going to say, thank you and goodbye, but he adds something else.  He is in love with Connie and when a man is in love with a woman he should say something.  And he doesn’t think that Connie should marry Carl, rather he thinks she should marry him.

I really do love Robert Mitchum.  I have always had a soft spot for him, which I think started with HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON.  He is a “bad boy” but not in the conventional sense.  By that I mean, he definitely has a devil-may-care attitude but it doesn’t come with a lack of respect or concern.  He is so completely sure of himself that he doesn’t care about what other people think simply because he knows who he is and what he wants and he doesn’t need validation from anyone.  Robert Mitchum so rarely got roles in anything like a romantic comedy, let alone a holiday movie, so I can only imagine that he jumped at the chance to play a different character.  From what I have read it seems that Don Hartman, the director, really encouraged ad-libbing and freedom in the actors during this film.  In fact per Gordon Gebert, one of the main scenes between Timmy and Steve was almost completely ad-libbed.  I think that is part of what makes this film so enjoyable.  You really see Mitchum having fun in his role, and it seems like there is a lot of Robert Mitchum in Steve Mason.

Janet Leigh is lovely in one of her first major roles and Gordon Gebert is adorable as her son.  Wendell Corey is great as Carl, and this is one of the first times that while you are rooting for Steve (Robert Mitchum, I mean COME ON!) there is still something redeeming in Carl.  Honestly, you know that he is truly a good person and really cares for Connie.  But again, Robert Mitchum…nothing else needs to be said.  I am so glad that this movie has become more well-known over the last few years, thanks in part to an increase in airings on TCM.  It is definitely one that should be seen and enjoyed during the holiday season.  Because…Robert Mitchum at Christmas.  Does it get better than that?

It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas: IT HAPPENED ON FIFTH AVENUE (1947)

Recently I came across a list of lesser known holiday movies.  Among the entries was a movie that I had seen bits and pieces of over the years, but one that I had never sat down to watch in its entirety.  I didn’t even know the name of this film until I sat down to watch it for this blog post.  IT HAPPENED ON FIFTH AVENUE is a film from 1947, directed by Roy Del Ruth and starring Don DeFore, Ann Harding, Charles Ruggles, Victor Moore, and Gale Storm.

Walking down Fifth Avenue in New York City is one, Charles T. McKeever (Victor Moore) and his dog Sam.  As he walks, tour buses drive by showing passengers onboard the mansions of the great and powerful families of the city.  One house in particular is of interest, that of Michael J. O’Connor (the second richest man in the world).  The boarded up mansion sits on the corner of Fifth Avenue and it is to this house that Mr. McKeever is going.  He and Sam head along the back wall of the garden and find their way inside through a loose board.  Once inside the great house, Mr. McKeever sets about setting up shop.  He winds a few clocks, takes a bath, gets some new clothes, and rigs up a system whereby whenever the front door is opened all the lights in the house go out.  His preparations complete, Mr. McKeever (now dressed in Michael O’Connor’s Sunday best) sets out for a walk with Sam.

Meanwhile, across town a landlord is attempting to evict his last tenant.  The apartment building has been scheduled for demolition to make way for more O’Connor construction and all the tenants have left, all but one.  Jim Bullock (Don DeFore), an out of work veteran, is making a stand for his rights and his apartment.  Unfortunately for Jim, his stand involves handcuffing himself to his bed which is then promptly picked up and carried out by the movers.  And so it is that Jim is living on a bench in the park when Mr. McKeever and Sam come walking by.  After hearing how Jim has lost his home and now has no place to live, Mr. McKeever invites Jim to come live with him.  The two return to the O’Connor home and Jim is in awe, believing Mr. McKeever to be Micheal O’Connor.  Mr. McKeever admits that he is not the owner of the house, merely a “visitor”.  Michael O’Connor is spending the winter in Virginia as he does every year and will not return until spring.  The two men have free reign over the great house for the whole season!

Michael O’Connor (Charles Ruggles) is indeed in Virginia where he is currently trying to buy Camp Kilson, a deserted army camp, in an effort to create a huge air cargo network.  Word reaches him that his daughter Trudy (Gale Storm) has run away from her finishing school and she is now nowhere to be found.  Worried, O’Connor hurries back to New York to look for her.  Trudy has made her way back to the family home on Fifth Avenue, and is going through the clothes in her room when she is discovered by Jim and Mr. McKeever.   Jim believes that Trudy is a thief and wants to call the police, which Trudy is only to happy to let him do.  But Mr. McKeever stops him, and takes Jim outside to explain the situation to him.  He wasn’t completely honest with Jim, he isn’t so much a visiting friend of Mr. O’Connor as he is a drifter who has settled into an abandoned home.  Jim, who is no great fan of Michael O’Connor, thinks that this is all very amusing.  Neither man sees Trudy listening in to their conversation, and she decides to play along with the idea that she is a thief and not reveal her true identity.  Jim and Mr. McKeever return and Trudy pleads with them to not call the police or kick her out.  She is homeless and hungry, she claims, and she was only trying to get some nice clothes for a job interview that she has the next day.  The two men agree to let her stay, but just then all the lights go out.  The night watchmen are coming through for their nightly check of the house.  The three guests hurry off to the icebox to hide, with Jim lending Trudy his bathroom and his arms to help keep her warm.  Trudy is already starting to fall for Jim, and resolves to maintain her fake identity in order to prevent Jim from falling in love with her just for her money.

The next day Trudy gets a job at a local music shop, playing the piano and singing for the customers.  On her way home she runs into Jim and the two walk back together.  Along the way Jim runs into the wives and children of Hank and Whitey, two of his old army buddies.  Hank (Edward Ryan) and Whitey (Alan Hale Jr.) are trying to find an apartment to live in but are having troubles in the post war housing crisis.  The current landlord they are trying to get an apartment from refuses to allow children in the building and it seems that the two men and their families will be stuck living in their cars.  Jim invites them back to the house to live with him, Trudy, and Mr. McKeever.  Speaking of Mr. McKeever, he is not at all pleased with the sudden increase in population in the house.  He doesn’t think that they can support so many people and still keep their stay a secret.  But once he sees how cute the babies are, and they really are quite cute, Mr. McKeever welcomes them all with open arms.  The group settles in to a contented routine, and Jim and Trudy set about falling in love.

One morning as Trudy leaves the house for work, a man calls to her from a nearby car.  It is her father, who has come back to New York looking for her.  He tries to convince her to return to school but Trudy won’t hear of it.  She is happy now and in love with Jim, after having spent her whole life feeling lonely she finally feels content.  O’Connor wants to meet the man who his daughter speaks so highly of, and reluctantly agrees to pose as another drifter.  Trudy and her father act out a meeting in the park and Trudy invites Mike the tramp to come home with them.  Once there, O’Connor is shocked to see the state of his home and just how many people are living there.  He is also less than pleased by Mr. McKeever wearing his clothes and smoking his cigars.  Mike is put to work washing the dishes and doing other chores about the house which annoys him to no end.  At the same time he must still maintain his business ventures, including the purchase of the army camp.  Little does O’Connor realize that Jim and his friends are also interested in buying the property.  Jim wants to use the army barracks as model homes for the displaced and homeless families of other veterans so he, Hank, and Whitey decide to bid on the property as well.

It doesn’t take long before O’Connor is fed up with the abundance of guests in his home and with having to pretend to be a tramp.  He threatens to call the police, but Trudy calls her mother instead.  Mr. and Mrs. O’Connor divorced several years prior, when it became clear to Mrs. O’Connor that her husbands first priority was his money.  Upon hearing her daughter’s distress, Mrs. O’Connor offers to come to the house as yet another vagrant.  And so the house gains Mary as a cook, much to Mike’s distress.  Mike only becomes more upset as the price for the army camp keeps increasing thanks to a bidding war which has broken out.  He also is frustrated because of Trudy and Jim.  His attempt to woo Jim away with a well-paying job to Bolivia failed, and now it seems more likely than ever that Trudy and Jim will marry.  Then one evening, as the group gathers to decorate the Christmas tree, Mike discovers that the group he has been bidding against is not a huge corporation but the three men who now sit around him making popcorn garlands.  And how will he be able to explain to Trudy and to Mary, that his company has finally outbid them and Jim will now be unable to complete his plans for the barracks?

IT HAPPENED ON FIFTH AVENUE is a Christmas movie that really should be better known than it is.  Charles Ruggles is fantastic in every scene he is in, really giving Michael O’Connor depth as well as humor and wit.  His frustration at the complete chaos his house and life have become is really well done, and a character that could have easily been one-dimensional is much for fleshed out and sympathetic.  Ann Harding is terrific as his ex-wife, showing the frustration of a woman who still loves the man that she left.  Don DeFore and Gale Storm are charming as the young couple in love, as are all the supporting characters.  Victor Moore is Mr. McKeever, there is no question of that.  He so wholeheartedly inhabits the character that you no longer see an actor playing a part, you simply see Mr. McKeever complete and in the flesh.

This movie is really a joy to watch!  Yes, there are a few moments of clunkier dialogue but they go by quickly and don’t distract from the overall quality of the story.  It is the story that makes this movie so unique.  This is just a genuinely nice movie, with a good-hearted intention and message.  It might sound strange to say it, but this is a sweet story and a truly kind movie.  And what better qualities could you have for the holiday season?

It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas: CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT (1945)

This past weekend some very lucky people attended TCM’s screening of CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT and A CHRISTMAS CAROLE in select theaters.  Unfortunately, I was not able to attend due to a previous engagement with a young man…i.e. my infant son’s nap time.  Luckily, I happen to own a copy of CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT and so I was able to plan my own private screening!  This 1945 film was directed by Peter Godfrey and stars Dennis Morgan, Sydney Greenstreet(!!), and the fabulous Barbara Stanwyck.

Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) is an injured war hero, shot down by the Germans and left adrift in a raft for eighteen days with only his friend Sinkewicz for company.  Now recovering at an army hospital, he finds that the food being served is not living up to his raft bound hallucinations.  In order to pass the time, his nurse reads to him from a popular magazine column called DIARY OF A HOUSEWIFE.  The articles describe a bucolic lifestyle and mouthwatering meals, all written by Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck), a wife and mother living in the domestic bliss of Connecticut.  To Jeff, these stories are welcome breaks in his day and the recipes described therein definitely pique his interest and his appetite.  But there is still the best issue of the disappointing meals.   He notices that Sinkewicz is getting all sorts of delicious foods, but why?  Simple!  It’s the Magoo.  Basically, according to Sinkewicz, the nurses are more than happy to do all sorts of favors for men who are in love with them and if Jeff wants that juicy steak for dinner he better start laying it on thick.  At first Jones objects but his stomach is stronger than his principles and soon he is wooing his nurse, a young Miss Mary Lee (Joyce Compton).  The plan works a little too well.  Jeff is getting the best food the hospital can provide, but now Mary wants to get married!  In an effort to dissuade her, Jeff tells Mary that he has never had a home and that he doesn’t ever think of himself as getting married as a result.  That gives Mary the idea that if she could send Jeff to a real home to spend his Christmas in, why then he would have to agree to get married!  How could any man live in domestic bliss and STILL not want to get married?

Mary sets about writing to the publisher of the magazine she has been reading to Jeff, a Mr. Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet).  It seems that Mr. Yardley owes Mary a bit of a favor as Mary was the one to nurse his daughter back to health during a bout of the measles.  Mr. Yardley is preparing to spend Christmas alone, his daughter unable to leave her war work, and without any good food (due to diet restrictions from his doctor).  Thankfully, his plans for solitude and turnip whip are cut short by the arrival of Mary’s letter.  In it she asks if there is any way that Mr. Yardley could help Jeff spend Christmas with Elizabeth Lane, at her farm in Connecticut.  Mr. Yardley is only too happy to oblige and immediately calls Elizabeth’s editor to arrange things.  But Elizabeth’s editor is not as thrilled by this idea and attempts to change Mr. Yardley’s mind.  Mr. Yardley will hear no objections, saying that the two things most important to him in his staff are to always tell the truth, and obey all his commands.  So naturally, Elizabeth’s editor agrees but he has good reason to be hesitant.  It seems that Elizabeth Lane does not live on a farm in Connecticut but in an apartment in the city.  And she does not cook delicious meals, her Uncle Felix (S.Z. Sakall) does.  The real Elizabeth can’t cook, can’t farm, and isn’t domestic in the least!  She isn’t even married, though architect John Sloan (Reginald Gardiner) is constantly proposing to her.

Elizabeth and her editor decide that the best plan of action is to have her go and speak to Mr. Yardley, and explain to him that there is no way that this can happen because her pretend baby has pretend whooping cough.  Or maybe scarlet fever?  Unfortunately, Mr. Yardley isn’t very good at listening and Elizabeth isn’t very good at making him.  By the end of the conversation not only is Elizabeth still hosting Jeff at her farm, but now Mr. Yardley is going to be joining them!  Elizabeth and her editor are resigned to defeat, and Elizabeth even agrees to marry John since she has nothing else to fall back on.  John is thrilled and begins planning their wedding trip to his farm in…Connecticut.

The big day dawns, and Elizabeth and John arrive at his farm.  The plan is that they will be married in the morning and play host/hostess extraordinaire to Mr. Yardley and Jeff in the afternoon. Uncle Felix has also come to stay during the holiday and will be providing the food for the coming charade. The farm is perfect and John has thought of everything, including a baby provided by a neighbor who needs a babysitter during the day.  He has also provided a judge in the living room to perform the wedding ceremony.  Everything seems to be in order and Elizabeth prepares to become Mrs. Sloan.  But the nuptials are interrupted by the arrival of Jeff.  He is terribly excited to meet Elizabeth and see her in her daily routine, one which he has read so much about (and knows better than she does).  So while he and Elizabeth go off to bathe the baby, who may or may not be a boy named Robert, John sets about entertaining the newly arrived Mr. Yardley.  That night, while John and Mr. Yardley chat, Elizabeth trims the Christmas tree accompanied by Jeff’s piano playing.  She finds herself attracted to this attractive young man, and he seems taken with her as well.  But he can’t do a thing as she is a married woman, or at least she will be once John can get the judge to finish the ceremony.

As the days go by, and Christmas draws closer, Elizabeth and Jeff grow closer and closer.  It also becomes harder and harder to keep up the ruse, and Elizabeth begins to wonder if things wouldn’t be better if she just came clean to Jeff and Mr. Yardley. But John reminds her that if the truth is revealed both she and her editor would surely lose their jobs, so Elizabeth resigns herself to continuing on.  One morning a neighbor woman comes to drop off her baby for the day.  She will be late in returning to collect the child as this is her overtime day.  John tries again to sneak in a wedding ceremony but to no avail.  Uncle Felix, never a big fan of John and sensing the attraction between Elizabeth and Jeff, is running interference even going so far as to pretend that the baby has swallowed his watch.  Later that night everyone, except Uncle Felix, goes to a holiday/war bond drive dance in town.  Elizabeth and Jeff dance together, their mutual attraction becoming more and more obvious even to the point where Mr. Yardley is becoming concerned.  The two slip off to talk and eventually find themselves in a horse drawn sleigh.  While they sit there talking the horse gets it into his head to go for a walk and does just that, taking Elizabeth and Jeff with him. Rather than being alarmed by this situation the two are quite happy to continue sitting there and talk, that is until the police pull them over and arrest them for theft.  Despite their attempts at explaining things Jeff and Elizabeth are taken off to jail.  Meanwhile, back at the farm, Uncle Felix is watching the baby while waiting for his mother to come and collect him.  Soon Uncle Felix is snoring in front of the fire, and so he doesn’t see when the neighbor woman returns from work and goes upstairs to retrieve her son.  The only person who does see is Mr. Yardley, who has just returned from the dance and believes that this woman is in fact kidnapping Elizabeth’s child!  The next morning when Elizabeth and Jeff return from their night in jail, they find the house filled with strange men.  It seems that Mr. Yardley has not only called the police to report a kidnapping, but he has notified the newspapers too!  And just when it seems that things can’t get any more complicated, the neighbor woman shows up again with HER baby.

CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT is definitely a lighter movie for the holidays.  I would say it is a sillier Barbara Stanwyck than we often get to see but she does a great job as usual.  Barbara Stanwyck is not only fantastic at drama, but she also has real comedic talents.  Some of her facial expressions and gestures in this movie are just hysterical, and she gets a good chunk of the laughs.  I love Sydney Greenstreet and it is fun to see him in a role that is more or less the “straight man” to everyone else.  S.Z. Sakall definitely steals the scene a few times and Reginald Gardiner is so funny as the long suffering suitor.  The funniest parts are when he keeps trying to marry Elizabeth and everyone, including Elizabeth, are coming up with reasons to postpone it.  This is also a lesser known holiday movie, though perhaps not quite as unknown as REMEMBER THE NIGHT, but definitely one that should be in your classic film rotation during the holidays.  An easy and enjoyable movie, perfect for the Christmas season. Hopefully, there will be another chance to catch this in theaters some time and I will be able to take advantage of it!  Until then, I will just watch my DVD copy and wait for TCM to air it on December 21st at 2PM and again on December 24th at 10PM.

It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas: REMEMBER THE NIGHT (1940)

About halfway through watching REMEMBER THE NIGHT on TCM I had a momentary pause.  “How?” I wondered, “How have I never seen a movie THIS good?”  Now that Thanksgiving is past I am finally allowing myself to start watching Christmas movies and thankfully, TCM is there with a great one!  My first movie of the holiday season is a fantastic film written by Preston Sturges and directed by Mitchell Leisen, REMEMBER THE NIGHT from 1940.

Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) is a girl with a penchant for taking things that she can’t afford.  One day in New York City, Lee walks off with an expensive bracelet.  The theft is immediately noticed and when Lee goes to a local pawn shop, she is trapped inside by the owner who has heard about the bracelet going missing and recognizes it immediately.  This isn’t Lee’s first run in with the law, in fact it is her third offense.  That means possible jail time and what with it being almost Christmas, the more offenses mean the more likely a conviction.  At least that is what the District Attorney (Paul Guilfoyle) is betting on.  He calls up prosecutor John Sargent (Fred MacMurray), who happens to be getting read to travel back home to Indiana for Christmas.  John, much to his dismay, is assigned the case and heads off to court to bring the state’s case against Lee.  He isn’t too thrilled, because not only is his trip being delayed but juries are notoriously lax at Christmastime.  It won’t be so easy for him to get a conviction.

In the courtroom Lee’s attorney is putting on a Broadway show, explaining to the entranced jury that Lee was not responsible for her actions.  Why the poor girl was hypnotized into an acute state of schizophrenia by the beauty of the jewels on her wrist!  Rather than objecting to this dog and pony show, John sits quietly biding his time.  When the defense rests John steps forward and requests that he be granted a continuance, as his only expert witness who could address the defense’s claims of psychiatric disorder is out of town until after Christmas.  As the defense has rested and the prosecution can’t offer a case without their expert, the judge has not alternative but to adjourn the case until January.  Lee is less than thrilled with the continuance, as she will now be remanded to the jail until her court date unless she can post $5000 bail.  On her way out she throws a sarcastic “I hope YOU have a ‘Merry Christmas'” to John, who asks his clerk to get Fat Mike the bondsman.  Fat Mike appears and John asks him to get him a $5000 bond for “a friend”.  Fat Mike is all wink wink, nudge nudge, no charge, and “she’s out”.

John returns to his apartment and continues packing for his trip home.  Soon there is a knock on the door, and Fat Mike drops off an indignant Lee.  After a bit of confusion, it is finally cleared up that John is just as surprised as Lee and that he did NOT ask Fat Mike to bring her up to his apartment at all, and she is welcome to leave any time she likes.  So naturally, Lee says that she will stay.  When John tells her that he is getting ready to leave for a trip home and actually could she please go, Lee wonders where John intends for her to go?  John offers to square her bill at the hotel she was staying at, but the price is a bit too steep for him.  As their discussion isn’t getting them anywhere, John offers to take Lee to a dinner club to get something to eat.

Over drinks and dinner, Lee and John discuss life and life philosophies.  It seems that Lee has been taking things for as long as she can remember.  She tells John that everyone believes in right and wrong, but right and wrong mean different things to different people.  For example, if John was broke and starving to death he would steal a loaf of bread to eat.  But if Lee was broke and starving to death, she would get a six course dinner in the restaurant across the street and then say she lost her purse.  While they sit together talking, who should stop to talk with John but the very judge who is presiding over Lee’s trial!  Shocked by John’s dinner companion, he hurries away with his wife.  As the meal draws to a close and the two prepare to part ways until the trial reconvenes, Lee asks John for one more dance.  They move across the dance floor to the tune of “My Indiana Home”, and discover that they are both Hoosiers from towns just fifty miles apart.  John offers to take Lee home for Christmas, asking how long it has been since she was home.  Lee, it turns out, has never been back ever since she ran away.  She has only heard from her mother once, a letter she received telling her that her father had died.  She isn’t even sure if her mother is still alive, though she hopes so.

The two set off on their Christmas road trip and soon hit a speed bump, literally.  Part of the road is under construction and they have to take a detour down a country road.  Completely turned around and lost, the two weary travelers decide it best to sleep in the car overnight and start again in the morning.  They are awakened by the sounds of cows mooing, and not that far off.  In fact, the cars are all around them and even in the car with them!  John offers to milk the cows for their breakfast, but is interrupted by a rifle in his face.  The landowner has discovered them, and mistaken them for trespassers.  Placing them under citizen’s arrest, the man leads Lee and John to the local courthouse to stand trial.  John tries to use his skills as a lawyer to explain the situation, but the judge is unwilling to listen and be pushed around by New Yorkers!  Lee, sensing that this is getting them nowhere, creates a distraction by setting fire to a wastebasket.  While the judge and the landowner race about put out said fire, Lee and John hurry off to their car to make a quick escape.

John and Lee finally arrive at Lee’s mother’s farm.  Nervous, Lee asks John to go with her to the door which he agrees to readily.  Lee knocks on the door and is greeted by a man, who turns out to be her mother’s new husband.  He calls to his wife to come to the door and now it is Lee’s mother (Georgia Caine) who appears.  But if John was expecting to see a warm mother-daughter reunion, he is to be disappointed.  Lee’s mother is a cold and disapproving woman, who instead of welcoming home her lost daughter, berates her and extolls all her shortcomings and faults.  She tells Lee to leave, that no one wants her here and that she has always been a disappointment to her family.  Outside, Lee breaks down and begs John not to leave her here with these people.  John agrees and offers to take her home with him, to spend Christmas with his family.

Finally, they arrive at John’s home and are greeted by his mother (Beluah Bondi), his Aunt Emma (Elizabeth Patterson), and their simple minded field hand, Willie (Sterling Holloway).  Lee is surprised to find that she is welcomed with open hearts and arms, and treated like one of the family.  She even gets presents from the family for Christmas!  John, fearing that his mother might get the wrong idea about why he brought Lee with him, tells her all about Lee’s troubled past and her current prosecution.  While things are platonic between John and Lee, his mother has no concerns and even comes to care for Lee as a daughter.  But during the New Year’s dance, things between the two become more romantic and John’s mother begins to worry.  On the night before they are to leave she comes to Lee’s room.  John loves Lee, this is clear to her, but as fond as she has become of Lee she is afraid that entering into a relationship with her will damage John’s career and reputation.  John has worked so hard to get where he is today, and she doesn’t’ want anything to ruin that.  Lee agrees to stop things from going any further with John, even though she loves him deeply.  It is because of her love, and his mother’s plea, that Lee insists on returning to New York to stand trial even as John offers to leave her in Canada instead.

Back in the courtroom the judge is convinced, having seen the two of them together at dinner, that John will try to throw they case in favor of Lee.  But as they start, John seems to be going at Lee harder than ever.  He is hounding her on the witness stand, challenging her testimony, and demanding answers like a man on a mission.  But his mission is not to convict Lee, but to garner sympathy for her from the jury.  If he appears too hard on her the jury will surely vote in her favor, if only out of compassion.   But Lee senses what he is doing, and fearing for his career and reputation, begs the judge to accept her plea of guilty!

This is such an underrated and under appreciated film.  I am so glad that I got a chance to see it on TCM, not just by myself but along with the members of #TCMParty on Twitter.  If you aren’t familiar, #TCMParty is basically a viewing party via Twitter so that classic film fans can all watch the same film and tweet about it.  Many of us were seeing REMEMBER THE NIGHT for the first time that night, and we were all stunned at how good this film is.  The Preston Sturges script is so witty and smart, so funny and so touching.  This was the last film that Sturges made as strictly a screenwriter.  Tired of watching directors change his scripts during filming, including this one, Sturges made the move to writer/director/producer and thank God he did.  But the story of REMEMBER THE NIGHT is so good, so well though out, and so well written it makes the movie truly special.  I don’t think anyone could write a story like Preston Sturges.  This film goes from comedy, to pathos, to drama, to romance, and back again.  And it does it in a way that makes perfect sense to the story and to the characters.  The acting is top notch too.  This is the first of what would be four collaborations between Stanwyck and MacMurray, and even this early on in the partnership you can really see the chemistry.  You believe they are in love and not movie love but real, honest, make you popovers in the morning love.  Also, can we just take a moment here to talk about how fantastic Barbara Stanwyck is?  There is a scene in which Lee has just been left in her new room by Aunt Sara, after receiving a nightgown to sleep in.  Barbara Stanwyck has no lines, but just does everything on her face and in her eyes.  In that moment you know exactly what Lee is thinking and feeling, and without one word ever being said.  All in all, I really loved this movie.  So much so, I ordered it from TCM after the viewing because I wanted to add it to my collection to watch during Christmas time for years to come.  If you get the chance to see this movie, do it!  It is a fantastic movie any time of the year, but I am so glad that it was my first Christmas movie of the season!