Merry Christmas!

As a holiday treat this year, I bring you a list of my favorite holiday films. So lean back and click the links to the trailers and teasers to get into a blithe mood for Christmas.

  • It’s a Wonderful Life: The older I get, the more I appreciate this film and the deeper I fall in love with it. James Stewart and Donna Reed are so powerful and touching in this film, for all of you who haven’t seen it yet, here’s a colorized version for you this season.
  • Miracle on 34th Street: Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn and a very young Natalie Wood – this 1947 original was remade for TV in 1955 and then again for theatrical release in 1994. Judge for yourselves which version you like best.
  • Barbara Stanwyck Christmas movies: Yes, she starred in two – in Remember the Night in 1940 and five years later in Christmas in Connecticut. Both films are not what you might expect of holiday entertainment and yet they capture the essence of the true meaning of Christmas.
  • A Charlie Brown Christmas: Yes, an animated classic from 1965. Charlie, Linus, Lucy, Snoopy – what’s not to love?! Never mind that Charlie Brown even manages to turn Christmas into a problem.
  • White Christmas: Yes, granted, the song was already a hit when the film was released in 1954, but the cast turned it into a smash of its own. Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen sang and danced to Irving Berlin’s beautiful music and thus conquered the hearts of a romantic audience.
  • The Bishop’s Wife: “Sigh, Cary Grant” as a friend of mine would put it. Yes, and David Niven and Loretta Young, too. Now if that’s not an incentive to watch this special film from 1947. It was remade as The Preacher’s Wife with Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington in 1996, but like so many remakes, at least for me, it doesn’t hold a candle to the charm of the original.

And last but not least, I recommend another Christmas favorite of mine, The Andrew Sisters Christmas album. Here’s a sample song from their joy-filled collection of songs -  exactly the kind of spirit I like on Christmas!

Season’s greetings to you all, wherever you are, and a wonderful start into a blessed new year 2013!

The Barbara Stanwyck Show

TV classics: The Barbara Stanwyck Show

USA 1960-61, 1 season,  36 episodes, approximately 30 minutes each, NBC, black & white. Presented by Barbara Stanwyck, Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Guest stars: Dana Andrews, Joseph Cotton, Peter Falk, Dennis Hopper, Julie London, Jack Nicholson, Lloyd Nolan, Marion Ross, Stephen Talbot  and many others

Plot summary: As a classic anthology series, The Barbara Stanwyck Show featured different genres and actors each week, often including the hostess herself.

Review: As one of Golden Hollywood’s female stars, Barbara Stanwyck followed a popular trend of starring in her own TV show when movie offers became scarce due to her advancing age in the early 1960s. A typical anthology series, The Barbara Stanwyck Show presented different genres each week with a new cast, including the popular actress herself. Usually wrapping the first act in sixty seconds, the storylines ranged from funny to dramatic, allowing Ms. Stanwyck to show variety and depth. Although rewarded with an Emmy for Outstanding Performance by a Lead Actress in a Series in 1961, the show, unfortunately, did not last longer than one season due to its moderate ratings. It wasn’t until The Big Valley four years later that led to a more lasting success for her on the small screen. With another Emmy win and two more nominations in the 60s, as well as her renewed success with The Torn Birds two decades later, Barbara Stanwyck remains one of Hollywood’s most successful stars whose work is now available on DVD.

Although only selected episodes have been released so far, The Barbara Stanwyck Show Volumes 1 and 2 are a worthy investment for anyone who appreciates the actress and her genuine style. Always classy, poised and beautiful, Ms. Stanwyck breathes life into a series that didn’t live enough to reach its full potential. It is the perfect treat for fans of classic Hollywood, no matter how how young or old, and a show you may find yourself coming back to over and over again.

The Barbara Stanwyck Show sample episode

Sorry, Wrong Number

Talkie of the Week: Sorry, Wrong Number

USA 1948, 89 minutes, black & white, Paramount Pictures. Director: Anatole Litvak, Written by Lucille Fletcher, Based on the radio play “Sorry, Wrong Number” by Lucille Fletcher, Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Burt Lancaster, Ann Richards, Wendell Corey, Harold Vermilyea, Ed Begley, Leif Erickson, William Conrad, John Bromfield, Jimmy Hunt, Dorothy Neumann, Paul Fierro

Plot summary: Leona Stevenson overhears two men plotting a murder of a woman who turns out to be herself.

Review: Today, the lovely Barbara Stanwyck would have celebrated her 105th birthday. In dear memory of an unforgettable leading lady, I have thus decided to present Sorry, Wrong Number, a film noir for which she received her fourth Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role in 1949.

Originally a radio play that featured Agnes Moorehead in a solo performance in 1943, Sorry, Wrong Number was turned into a screenplay by Lucille Fletcher, the playwright herself, and conquered the silver screen in the fall of 1948. Starring Barbara Stanwyck as invalid Leona Stevenson who overhears two men plotting a murder on the phone, the story is dark and suspenseful in writing, as well as in effect. Told in real time with the use of explanatory flashbacks, Leona’s desperate attempt to inform the authorities are as futile as her effort to reach her husband. The phone, as her only medium of communication with the outside world, turns into a beacon of hope and sorrow when she finally realizes
that the victim is going to be herself. Haunting in her desperation, Barbara Stanwyck’s performance is never quiet but rather striking in its fierceness and color. Supported by an excellent co-star, Burt Lancaster, as Henry Stevenson and an overall convincing cast, Ms. Stanwyck’s fear and constriction reaches an almost tangible level with every phone call she places, every secret she learns. Her face reflects the horrid situation she finds herself trapped in, the mere panic she begins to absorb. It is the music by Franz Waxman and the expert use of shadows and light which does the rest, affecting the audience with a story that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Reclaiming her role as Leona on CBS’ Lux Radio Theater in 1950, Barbara Stanwyck showed her full range of emotions in a part that was the last to get her the attention from the Motion Picture Academy until she finally received an Honorary Oscar in 1981. As one of her many films that left a mark until today, Sorry, Last Number is a classic that never gets old but has the potential to attract an entire new generation of fans. With its enthralling style and Ms. Stanwyck’s powerhouse performance, the film is perfect to bring sunshine to an autumn-like July and a beautiful way to honor her today.

Available on DVD, CD and as radio podcast.

Ford Television Theatre

TV classics: Ford Television Theatre

USA 1952-57, 5 seasons, 195 episodes, 30 minutes each, NBC and ABC. Sponsored by the Ford Motor Company. Cast examples: Gene Barry, Joan Bennett, Barbara Britton, Raymond Burr, Bette Davis, Richard Denning, Irene Dunne, Barbara Hale, Brian Keith, Angela Lansbury, Maureen O’Sullivan, Larry Parks, Ronald Reagan, Barbara Stanwyck et al.

Plot summary: Like many anthology series of the time, the Ford Television Theatre presented a new story with a new cast of actors in different genres each week.

Review: Like many of its sister anthology series, the Ford Television Theatre presented a new story with a new cast of actors in different genres each week. Originally a radio program, the show was first broadcast like on TV in 1948 and picked up for a full run of 195 half-hour episodes in 1952. The show got its name from its sponsor, the Ford Motor Company and was often introduced by a commercial that presented the latest Ford models. Ford Television Theatre managed to attract a great variety of movie and working actors, including Barbara Stanwyck, Irene Dunne or Claudette Colbert.

Unfortunately rather hard to come by these days, the episodes differed in quality and are definitely still a matter of preference and taste. Barbara Hale’s appearance on Behind the Mask, for instance, increased the resonance of the episode for me which offers a storyline about a medical impostor that’s too complex for the format. Man without Fear on the other hand made perfect use of its thirty minutes and lived of its concise story and brilliant cast including Raymond Burr as a haunted fugitive who confronts the man who got him into prison. The Ming Llama presented Angela Lansbury with her captivating talents but failed to live up to the story’s apparent inspirational source, The Maltese Falcon.

All in all, it’s safe to say that Ford Television Theatre offered a decent collection of episodes with a great mix of stories from all kinds of genres. Some were based on true stories, others were plain entertainment, ranging from suspenseful to corny. Footnote on a Doll with Bette Davis as Dolly Madison was one of the latter and due to Ms. Davis’ reliably gripping performance, it’s one of my favorites. Remember to Live is another episode I greatly enjoy, especially because it made use of Barbara Hale’s background as an artist. Fugitives with Raymond Burr in a small role completes my current list of favorites, surprising enough not for his convincing as always delivery but for the main plot he’s only a side note in.

But no matter if you share my preference in actors, their talents and style, Ford Television Theatre created entertainment for everyone. So if you get a chance, check out some episodes and see how they affect you. Favorite actors or not, I’m sure you’ll discover more than just a single gem.

Does class have a comeback?

I just stumbled upon an article about a comeback of classic hairdos: the Beehive, the Victory Roll, the Pin Curls, the Head Scarf look – and my immediate reaction was about time!

I mean, personally, I can do without the Beehive (and other exaggerated hairstyles from the 1960s for that matter), but generally spoken I couldn’t be happier. For me, there’s nothing better than those classy, curly dos – from the housewifely head scarf wrapped around a bobby pin covered head to the glamorous long curls of the 1940s.

Lasting well into the early 60s, curly hairstyles were supremely feminine. They embellished women’s faces of all ages, in all styles and at all lengths. Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe or Rosie the Riveter – all iconic names that trigger memories of a certain do and trend.

Here are a couple of my favorite dos from the 40s and 50s, modeled by Barbara Hale:

See how her Della Street curls even held up a book they were so swell?! Or how Jimmy Stewart couldn’t resist hugging his on-screen wife because the head scarf looks so darling?! Now don’t say these curls aren’t versatile.

Glamorous, cute or homey, it really doesn’t matter: with curls (or Victory Rolls), there’s a style for every occasion. And trust me, getting these looks is not as much work as you may think – at least not if you’re not a total stranger to hot curlers, curling irons or bobby pins. It may sound shallow, but people do appreciate the effort. All dolled up and pretty you advertise yourself differently, show a new sparkle. You may even end up feeling like your favorite star, in my case Ms. Hale, Myrna Loy, Barbara Stanwyck or Eve Arden.

So if you’re like me and are excited about the return of hairdo class, do embrace your inner silver screen goddess, homemaker sweetheart or Rosie the Riveter. There are lots of manuals out there, pictures and videos to help you get the look you adore the most. Years after pulling off long rich curls in high school (unknowingly resembling Barbara Hale’s in the fourth picture above) and then going for the exact opposite, I finally returned to my favorite style last year – shorter now but still elegantly fluffy. Della Street inspired one of my friends suggested – I really don’t know what gave her that idea, but I’m digging it.

Forty Guns

Talkie of the Week: Forty Guns

USA 1957, 77 minutes, black & white, 20th Century Fox. Director: Samuel Fuller, Written by Samuel Fuller. Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, Gene Barry, Dean Jagger, John Ericson, Robert Dix, Eve Brent

Plot summary: Jessica Drummond rules her ranch, her brother and her forty hired guns in Arizona, intimidating the townspeople of nearby Tombstone. When Marshall Griff Bonnell and his two younger brothers come to arrest one of her men, they set off an avalanche that claims casualties on both sides.

Review: Forty Guns is a Western shot in best cinemascope quality. Written and directed by Samuel Fuller, the film features a hardboiled Barbara Stanwyck whose matriarch character is much more than our first encounter with her may suggest. Dramatically introduced on horseback, Jessica Drummond is a myth who surrounds herself with forty men to run her ranch, her Forty Guns. The myth is supported in a song, High Ridin’ Woman, which adds to the vigor of Ms. Drummond, foreshadowing her destiny.

Barbara Stanwyck is supported by Barry Sullivan as Marshall Griff  Bonnell, a former gunslinger whose courage and genuine approach to arrest felons deeply impresses her. Together, they carry a plot that’s far from jolly and move along a story that’s gripping and violent at times. Neither Jessica Drummond, nor Griff Bonnell are easy characters to understand and like, but the writing and the excellent performances add to their rough charm.

They are surrounded by a convincing cast of supporting characters and actors, Gene Barry, Dean Jagger and Eve Brent to only name a few. The landscape and setting adds to the sparse beauty of the film, accompanied by a neat score and convincing special effects.

All in all, Forty Guns is a film for a Western audience who appreciates the talents of Barbara Stanwyck and a stylish way of presenting a classic tale. It is a film that’s poignant and entertaining, a decent western that may surprise you in the end.

Available on DVD.

The 80s

The 1980s

Looking back, the 80s seem to have been dominated by aerobics, a blindingly rich pink and shoulder pads. What the decade brought us was yuppies, legwarmers and a 1950s comeback. Blue jeans were stone washed, perforated and often tight, and career women wore sneakers on their way to work and then switched back into their heels before entering their business palaces. Bows were big on prom dresses and wedding gowns, men had mullet hair, women perms, and artificial fabrics and colors were the thing to wear. Madonna released her debut album in 1983, The Bangles were popular and so was REM. Lean cuisine entered the market and dieting was a public motto now along with a general fitness craze.

On TV, Murder, She Wrote with super sleuth Angela Lansbury as J.B. Fletcher was mighty popular, as well as Family Ties, The Cosby Show, Growing Pains, The Wonder Years and Who’s the Boss. Other famous shows were The Greatest American Hero, Remington Steele, Fall Guy or ALF. Like in the 70s, the list of household names is long and many of these shows are still well received on DVD or in re-runs today. Continuing a tradition that started back in the 1950s and 60s already, the 80s brought us a lot of shows with Hollywood legends, familiar faces and names. Falcon Crest, for example, featured Jane Wyman, Hotel first Bette Davis and then Ann Baxter and Barbara Stanwyck graced a season of Dynasty‘s spin-off The Colbys. In 1985, my favorite Perry Mason returned to TV after almost 20 years of absence and reunited Raymond Burr with Barbara Hale as Della Street for twenty-six star-studded TV movie episodes that lasted well into the early 90s. Women continued to redefine their image on stellar shows like Cagney & Lacey, The Golden Girls and Designing Women, standing their post-feminist ground as working mothers, single women and retirees.

At the movies, teen flicks like Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or The Breakfast Club turned into box office hits, as well as dance movies like Dirty Dancing, Fame or Footloose (which was just recently remade). All in all, 1980s cinema was dominated by comedies, action movies and romance, creating stars like Molly Ringwald, Michael J. Fox or Patrick Swayze. Some of my decade favorites are Out of Africa, The Big Chill, Beaches, Mask, Matewan, The Doctor or Steel Magnolias. As the last full decade that knew how to create old style Hollywood momentum, the 1980s brought on many more memorable TV shows and films with a lot of stars that are still around these days, Richard Gere, Neil Patrick Harris or Michelle Pfeiffer only to name a few. The 80s also rediscovered class – now guess who’s fond of that?!