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!

Harvey

Talkie of the Week: Harvey

USA 1950, 104 minutes, black & white, Universal International Pictures. Director: Henry Koster, Written by Mary Chase and Oscar Brodney, Based on the play “Harvey” by Mary Chase. Cast: James Stewart, Josephine Hull, Peggy Dow, Charles Drake, Cecil Kellaway, Victoria Horne, Jesse White, William H. Lynn, Wallace Ford, Nana Bryant, Grace Mills, Clem Bevans.

Plot summary: Elwood P. Dowd is a likable, regular fella with a unique, mythical friend who never leaves his side no matter how weird others think he is.

Review: Elwood P. Dowd is quite a character. He’s pleasant, sweet and quirky – the kind of relative children would love but adults are frequently embarrassed by. Elwood lives with his sister Veta and niece Myrtle Mae both of whom love him dearly but also want to get rid of him. They do not know how to handle his peculiarities, particularly his friendship to Harvey, a 6’3.5” tall rabbit. Visible only to Elwood, Harvey is a Celtic myth, a so-called pooka, as real or unreal as you imagine him to be.

James Stewart played Elwood Dowd, a simple fellow whose devotion to his unseen companion makes him genuinely smart. At first glance, he may be flirting with addiction and mental illness, his heart, however, is in the right place and his statements are everything but random. Always a natural at playing humble personalities with a touch of greatness, James Stewart was rewarded with his fourth Academy Award nomination in 1951. He was supported by a powerful Josephine Hull whose Veta Louise Simmons was lusciously torn between loving her brother and losing her own mind. She was rightly recognized by the Academy as Best Supporting Actress and, like Stewart, created a unique character you cannot help but like.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Mary Chase, Harvey is still every bit as remarkable and entertaining as it was upon release. Unwilling to give easy answers but offering bittersweet questions instead, the film is funny, sad but also uplifting – a rare mix in movies today and thus a real treat for anyone who enjoys the quality and depth of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

The film is available on DVD and VHS. You can get a glimpse at the trailer here.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Talkie of the Week: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

USA 1962, 123 minutes, black & white, Paramount Pictures. Director: John Ford, Written by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck, Based on the short story by Dorothy M. Johnson. Cast: James Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin, Edmond O’Brien, Woody Strode, Andy Devine, John Carradine, Lee Van Cleef.

Plot summary: Rance Stoddard and his wife return to their roots to bury a friend and tell the real story behind a legend that started his political career out West.

Review: John Ford. James Stewart. John Wayne. Three legends of their own merit. Three men whose names stand for quality in entertainment. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, they worked together for the first time and created a masterpiece that is every bit as gripping now as it was fifty years ago when the film was released by Paramount Pictures. Build up like a mystery within a character-driven plot, the film focuses on the lives of Ransom Stoddard (Stewart), Hallie (Vera Miles) and Tom Doniphon (Wayne) in a small town called Shinbone. Starting with the arrival of an elderly Senator Stoddard and his wife who return to town to bury their friend, the story soon sheds light on the past to begin where it ultimately ends – with the truth behind Stoddard’s political success and the question who actually shot Liberty Valance. Filmed in black and white, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance benefits from an atmosphere that is unbearable at times; dark and depressing, the lack of color adds to a reality of hopelessness and violence, a situation only Stoddard seems to wish to change. New in the West and with a law degree in his hands, he is eager to make a difference in a place he has chosen to be his home, a place he wants to improve through justice and education. Confronted with arbitrary laws and fear, Rance soon has to learn that it takes resilience, allies and courage to reduce his ideas to practice, and that outlaws only understand the argument of a gun.

Available on DVD. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance trailer

A Radio Treat

Two days ago, I listened to a radio broadcast from 1950, a live recording from March 23 to be exact, the day of the 22nd Academy Awards. Presented by Paul Douglas at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood with radio comments by Ken Carpenter, Eve Arden and Ronald Reagan, the show was a good two hours in length and filled with lots of joyful moments.

The show – although already exciting for any classic movie buff without great names such as James Cagney, Jane Wyman, Jimmy Stewart, Dick Powell and June Allyson, Anne Baxter and John Hodiac, Cole Porter, Ruth Roman and Barbara Hale – was entertaining from the start and blessed with a beautiful score presented by Gene Autry, Dean Martin and other wonderful performers. Despite the many differences in presentation compared to the lengthy ceremony I’ve long stopped watching each year, it amused me to find one announcement already existed back in 1950: the request for the winners to cut their thank you’s short. And trust me, the few people who said more than a heartfelt thank you, didn’t take center stage to present a short story about their lives. How refreshing to hear there once was a way to go about this differently, when recipients were in tears about their accomplishment without dwelling on it. How surprising to hear a young boy thank his parents and God – at least by today’s standards.

I know not everyone will share my sentiment, but I loved the mix of glamor and simplicity, such a charming combination. Stars and winners aside, the radio hosts also won my heart for their lively presentation and supportive attitude. Without making a fuss, they added to the style of a show that still showed signs of gratefulness and modesty towards their peers and audience. A different world, Hollywood in 1950, both good and bad, and so much fun revisiting with your eyes closed.

Rear Window

Talkie of the Week: Rear Window

USA 1954, 112 minutes, color, Paramount Pictures. Director: Alfred Hitchcock, Written by John Michael Hayes, Based on Cornell Woolrich’s short story “It Had to Be Murder”. Cast: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter, Wendell Corey and Raymond Burr.

Plot summary: Stuck in his apartment in a wheel chair, photographer L.B. Jeffries enjoys sitting by his his rear window to entertain himself with the everyday lives of his neighbors until he starts suspecting one of them of murder.

Review: New York, 1954. Photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) is trapped at home, tied to a wheel chair and deprived of his usual excitation. An independent spirit whose professional life is filled with danger and adventure, he is bored out of his wits sitting in his tiny apartment with a broken leg. Secluded from the outside world apart from his daily visitors Lisa (Grace Kelly) and nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), he has found solace in the repetitive lives of his colorful neighbors. Nicknaming them according to their behavior, Jeff comments on the patterns he has made out in five weeks of impudently observing them. Although chided by his visitors at first for peeking into the private affairs of complete strangers, his guilty pleasure soon becomes an addiction for him as much as to his acquaintances, leading to revelations about well-kept secrets and a possible murder.

Detached in the beginning and cynical, Jimmy Stewart’s performance is reliable as always, his character strangely intangible despite his rough, likable charm. By his side, Grace Kelly shines in her lovely dresses, her beauty set up to stun rather than her performance. Thelma Ritter delivers her lines with a genuine twinkle in her eye, bringing a lightness to an atmosphere of restraint and suspense while Wendell Corey adds to a feeling of increasing trepidation. Blessed with a stellar cast of supporting actors who work together like a beautiful composition of New York neighbors, it is Raymond Burr who stands out with his performance as murder suspect Lars Thorwald. From the distance, he seems unspectacular and vulnerable, a character broken by life. When we finally see his face and hear him speak, it is his voice that is the biggest surprise – for a moment, he leaves us wondering about the person behind a man we suspect of having committed a cruel crime. He sounds helpless somehow and weak, his questions coming across like a plea before his calm turns into violence and he becomes intimidating again to say the least.

Using the suspense and excitement of voyeurism, Rear Window was further refined by a memorable set and popular music, guaranteeing the film a place in the National Film Registry in 1997. Shot in color and based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich from 1942, the film is still on the must-see list of any film buff who enjoys Hollywood’s Golden Age and has the potential to make a frequent guest appearance in your home. As one of Hitchcock’s most celebrated masterpieces, Rear Window was gripping upon release and remains suspenseful today, on DVD, in reruns or on Blu-ray.

Rear Window re-release trailer

The Jack Benny Program

TV classics: The Jack Benny Program

USA 1950-65, 15 seasons,  343 episodes, approximately 30 minutes each, CBS & NBC, black & white. Sponsors: Lucky Strike, Lux, Lipton Tea, Jell-O and others, Cast: Jack Benny, Eddie Anderson, Don Wilson, Dennis Day, Mary Livingstone, Mel Blanc, Frank Nelson and various recurring guest stars

Plot summary: As one of America’s most beloved comedians, Jack Benny entertained his audience on radio before he found fame in fifteen consecutive TV seasons on CBS and NBC.

Review: Like many of his contemporaries, Jack Benny originally started out on radio before he took television by storm with a show based on his continued radio success. Reliable as a source of hilarity and entertainment, the comedian created one of those early hit shows the majority of America refrained from missing back in the days. Welcoming many stars of his time, including Humphrey Bogart, Raymond Burr, Bing Crosby, Walt Disney, Irene Dunne, Bob Hope, Jane Mansfield, Groucho Marx, Marilyn Monroe, James and Gloria Stewart or Danny Thomas, the show guaranteed diversion and relaxation and succeeded for remarkable fifteen consecutive seasons.

With some episodes now in public domain and the rest eagerly awaited by Jack Benny fans to be released on DVD, today, the comedian is still regarded as one of America’s greatest performers and one of Hollywood’s generous stars. His show, though not easy to categorize, offered previously recorded, as well as live broadcasts and aimed at entertaining the audience often on his own behalf. Judged as easy formula entertainment by some, The Jack Benny Program did a wonderful job diverting an entire generation and their children from their daily hardships in a time that was less cushioned than many people imagine today. Never dwelling on cynicism, Jack Benny offered a good half hour of gags and laughs, while always trying to deliver the best material for the audience to enjoy. Supported by a decent cast and beloved recurring characters, the comedian managed to leave a mark on his audience despite his irregular television appearances in the early 50s. After ending his radio commitment, The Jack Benny Program was broadcast more frequently until his farewell, at the height of his popularity, in 1965 on NBC.

For old fans and new ones alike, selected episodes are available on DVD. Selected radio episodes are available on the Internet Archive.

The Jack Benny Program sample episode with guest star Bob Hope

The Art of Film-Making

I just recently had a conversation with my aunt who reminded me, once again, how little people know about the art of film-making. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s nothing essential, but for an industry that lives on creating images and myths, I find it interesting how inadequate a picture it draws of its most crucial bees in the hive. We all know that actors are important, that they put a face to a story and fill it with life, but who would they play without a script, who would they be without a director who guides them through it?

I know, during awards season, certain names are mentioned from time to time – directors more often than producers, editors or cinematographers. Thing is, it’s a process to create a film and takes a village to carry it from that first sparkle of an idea to an actual theater near you. It often takes years to raise the necessary money and many films are never made for many different reasons – from the studio system until today, some things never change.

Generally speaking however, film-making is hard work and requires skill, sweat and imagination. You need enthusiasm, a thick skin and dedication, no matter what position you are working in. From the set runner to assistants or the wardrobe department, if you don’t love your job, it will affect the production. And while that may be true for any job, be sure to know that film people rarely work on a regular schedule and are constantly looking for a new project to sink their teeth into. So if you don’t love what you do, why bother? Why put up with the hassle of possibly never seeing your project come to life?

If you’re working in the creative industry, failure, disappointments and frustration are as common as the flu. If you can’t deal with it, it’ll eat you up. So no matter how, if you want to write, compose or act, direct, produce or design, find your coping mechanism, because success is not easy to come by. Surround yourself with supporters, not with people who like to bathe in the possibility of meeting celebrities. Casting shows and gossip paper articles about actors and their supposed fairytale lives have shaped many people’s perception of an industry that has always relied on reinventing their own achievements and popular faces. Don’t buy into what they tell you and learn by doing what it means to make a film. And if you can spare a minute, sit down and imagine how different your favorite movie would’ve looked like with a different cast, score or coloring – it may give you a perspective of all the jobs that were pivotal to make it. Just look at Perry Mason, at Warren William’s portrayal in the 30s compared to Raymond Burr’s two decades later. The same character performed in such a different style and manner. Both perfectly cast if you ask me, but still so unalike in their delivery.

And while I’m at it, I’ve always thought that Barbara Hale would’ve been a beautiful Mary in It’s a Wonderful Life and I’m convinced that Raymond Burr would’ve tackled Stanley Kowalski in a hauntingly impressive way. Daydreaming aside, I also appreciate the wonderful casting we’ve seen in both projects and give kudos to the casting directors who managed to merge talent with chemistry. The Donna Reed Show is another example of a job well done and so is I Love Lucy, Perry Mason, and Our Miss Brooks. For my dream project, I always cast Bill Williams for the lead in The Adventures of Tintin, a film I would have loved to make had I been alive back in the 40s – a film that was released as an animated feature last year and is a great example for the art of film-making.