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!

Studio 57

TV classics: Studio 57

USA 1954-56, 4 seasons,  124 episodes, approximately 25 minutes each, DuMont (then syndication), black & white. Produced by: Revue Studios, Sponsored by: Heinz 57. Cast selection: Lex Barker, Jean Byron, Barbara Hale, William Hopper, Brian Keith, DeForest Kelley, Angela Lansbury, Peter Lawford, Peter Lorre, James Nolan, Hugh o’Brian, Aaron Spelling, Rod Taylor, Bill Williams, Natalie Wood and many others

Plot summary: An anthology TV series, Studio 57 featured different genres, plots, actors and storylines every week.

Review: It is hard to review and sum up a program as diverse as Studio 57. Not uncommon in the 1950s, Studio 57 was one of those anthology series that featured a different storyline and cast of actors every week. Although mostly introducing unfamiliar faces, the show also had its number of rising stars and well-known actors, including Angela Lansbury, Peter Lorre, Barbara Hale, Bill Williams or Brian Keith. With its diversity of genres, Studio 57 met the style of the many other anthology shows. Due its often marginally successful scripts and not always driving force talents and names, the show was rather short-lived.

One of the better known episodes is “Young Couples Only”, starring Barbara Hale, Bill Williams and Peter Lorre. With its science fiction plot, the episode is a good example for the often well cast shows but poor storytelling. Although not extremely suspenseful by today’s standards, the episode is great fun to watch for everyone who enjoys the marvelous talents of the lead actors. The script may not have given them a lot of material to work with, but they do the best with what they have. Peter Lorre is eerily spooky as the apartment building’s janitor, and Barbara Hale and Bill Williams do a beautiful-as-always job to stir up suspense, fear and suspicions with the little meaningful lines they got to convey the plot.

All in all, Studio 57 is a program for everyone who is interested in TV history, in anthology series and rarely shown material with a beloved or sometimes little known cast of actors. Selected episodes are available on DVD and very worth checking out if you want to get a more accentuated impression of the diversity of 1950s programs and a sense of the roots of contemporary TV.

Available online here.

General Electric Theater

TV classics: General Electric Theater aka G.E. True Theater

USA 1953-62, 10 seasons,  approximately 300 episodes, ca. 25 minutes each, CBS, black & white. Presented by: Ronald Reagan. Cast selection: Ann Baxter, Charles Bronson, Claudette Colbert, Joan Crawford, Tony Curtis, Bette Davis, Sammy Davis Jr., James Dean, Joan Fontaine, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Greer Garson, Barbara Hale, Kim Hunter, Michael Landon, Joi Lansing, Charles Laughton, Piper Laurie, Myrna Loy, Walter Matthau, Suzanne Pleshette, George Sanders, James Stewart, Dean Stockwell, Natalie Wood – and many others

Plot summary: Host Ronald Reagan presents an always prestigious cast of actors in an anthology of teleplays of multiple genres, including crime, drama and westerns.

Review: G.E. Theater was a television program that presented an adaptation of novels, short stories, plays, film or general fiction on each episode, featuring working actors as well as Hollywood starlets and stars in different roles every week. The program featured live as well as filmed segments before it turned into a fully filmed show in 1957. Presenter Ronald Reagan served as host with his already familiar Hollywood face to give the show a touch of continuity.

Each episode differed from another and it’s safe to say that for everybody who enjoys watching an ever changing cast of decent actors in a different set of roles, this program is a real gem, a fabulous opportunity to discover great talents like Bette Davis, James Stewart, Myrna Loy or my personal favorite Barbara Hale in individual episodes, often supported by a beautiful stage setting and quality.

In essence, G.E. Theater is a beautiful example of 1950s television and its connection with the golden Hollywood era of the days. It also shows a genre coming into its own, little by little, step by step, with its own aesthetics and perception of storytelling.

For those of you who are not familiar with teleplays and their magic, I’m asking you to give them a chance. I’m sure you will soon find it’s worth getting used to a different viewing pattern, a different understanding of having your imagination teased and tickled. I, for the most part, am a big fan of teleplays and recorded theater, and highly recommend some of these rare episodes that you will find scattered on the internet and on a couple of DVD collections. Go get them!

Sample episode with James Dean (1954)

Sample episode Judy Garland musical special (1956)

The Jackpot

Talkie of the Week: The Jackpot

USA 1950, 85 minutes, black & white, 20th Century Fox. Director: Walter Lang, Written by: Henry and Phoebe Ephron, Based on the article “The Jackpot” by John McNulty in The New Yorker about a real radio program jackpot winner in Rhode Island in 1948. Cast: James Stewart, Barbara Hale, James Gleason, Fred Clark, Alan Mawbray, Patricia Medina, Natalie Wood, Tommy Rettig, Robert Gist, Lyle Talbot

Plot summary: Bill and Amy Lawrence live their quiet little, Midwestern middle-class life in a nice suburban house with two kids. Then Bill wins the grand prize on a popular radio show and his entire life is turned upside down.

Review: The Jackpot is a comedy set and shot in 1950. Radio was THE big thing. Game shows, commercials, whodunits – everything later projected on TV, you name it, it all happened on radio before. That’s what the film so beautifully picks up on from a contemporary point of view. It adds a sense of nostalgia to it, a longing for those quality radio programs I also grew up with, the memory of campfire moments with the family following bewitching voices on the radio.

On a more general note, this film is about the promise of an exciting life that comes with a jackpot win. Only that this jackpot is not monetary but comes in material values: household equipment, a pony, jewelry, an interior decorator, food supplies and much much more. Some of it useful, most of it not so much. A middle-class consumer’s dream, delivered all at once to stir up a lot of trouble in Bill Lawrence’s life.

The problems Bill and his wife are facing after being lucky winners still work today, the initial but short-lived euphoria, the private turmoil and the sit-com elements. James Stewart was brilliantly cast as Bill Lawrence who may have been a little at odds with his all too normal life before, but who actually enjoys nothing more than his routine and his loving family. Barbara Hale was an equally genius casting addition. Her Amy Lawrence is a joy to watch: from the committed, effervescent housewife and mother to a jealous, unnerved wife who’s considering divorce. Lovely sidekicks are their children played by Natalie Wood and Tommy Rettig, and an overall believable cast.

The end is not all that surprising but adds to the charm of this entertaining and highly enjoyable film. It is a definite gem for everybody who enjoys James Stewart’s work and Barbara Hale’s talents. It is a worthwhile piece of hilarity for everybody who’s not familiar with their work but who needs a good laugh, some family entertainment and a dash of late 1940s / early 1950s style.

Tidbits and side notes: According to a Chicago Tribune article / interview with Barbara Hale, “The Faithful Secretary” from 1993, Barbara was pregnant with her second child, son William Katt, during the shooting of The Jackpot.

Screenwriters Phoebe and Henry Ephron were nominated for a WGA award for this film.

Available on VHS, likely to be released on DVD.