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 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.

It’s a Wonderful Life

Talkie of the Week: It’s a Wonderful Life

USA 1946, 130 minutes, black & white, RKO Radio Pictures. Director: Frank Capra, Written by: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Jo Swerling and Frank Capra, Based on “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern. Cast: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers

Plot summary: After never getting out of his hometown to lead the life he intended, George Bailey is facing a personal crisis on Christmas Eve which makes him realize how wonderful his life actually is.

Review: It’s a Wonderful Life is a Christmas classic, gladly revisited by families every year. Originally released on December 20th, 1946, the film is still as popular today as it was then, sixty-five years ago. George Bailey’s journey is still every bit as gripping, Jimmy Stewart’s portrayal still touching and Bedford Falls still as charming as it used to be when the film was well received by its audience and the industry.

It’s a Wonderful Life is the tale of a man who had great aspirations in life, who wanted to explore the world and dreamed of adventures and an education. A man who stayed behind when his father died to save the family business and name, who sent his brother to college instead of himself. A man who never wanted to marry until he met a girl he fell in love with, a girl who did not tie him down but helped him create a new dream of having a home and a family. That man is George Bailey, respected and loved by his family and friends. A man who has made a difference in so many people’s lives although he never seems to realize just how important his good deeds have been to his community.

It may sound depressing to hear that George Bailey is trying to take his life. It may sound cheesy to know that an angel was sent to help him out. But the film is none of that: neither dismal nor corny. It’s a Wonderful Life is a beautiful film about the joys of a simple life, of solidarity and love. It is a film about the meaning of Christmas, family and giving back. It is a film for the entire family, grownups and small ones. It is a film from a decade when movies still knew to uplift their audience although they had a touch of melancholy and morale.

James Stewart was the perfect choice for breathing life into a troubled George Bailey. His all-American, boyish charm adds the right amount of nostalgia and courage to a fantastic script. Donna Reed was an equally superb casting decision. Her mix of earthiness and grace complement Jimmy Stewart’s style in the best of ways, and although her part is a small one, her Mary Bailey makes quite an impression on screen. They are supported by a stellar cast of supporting actors, none of them outshining the other but creating an atmosphere of unity instead.

To sum it up, It’s a Wonderful Life is a true holiday gem. Although a variety of colorized versions have been released on VHS and DVD over the years, I personally prefer the original material in black and white which, like so often, only adds to the quality of the film. Online I found the color version and thus added it here for y’all to enjoy. For those of you who are still unfamiliar with this film, I really hope it will warm your hearts as much as it always warms mine. Merry Christmas!

Available on DVD. It’s a Wonderful Life feature film (colorized version)