Ahhh, Christmas the time of goodwill, cheer, and pumpkin spice…yeah right. If you want to be cheery its best to stay home with a good movie and here are a few suggestions so pour yourself a tall glass of eggnog or for me, Rompope and hopefully these suggestions will give you some ideas. I didn’t include MERRY CHRISTMAS CHARLIE BROWN or any of the Rankin and Bass TV classics like RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER mainly because it’s just a given that everybody loves these and in the case of the Rankin and Bass shows they deserve their own article. So in no particular order here are some suggestions for your holiday viewing.
MOROZKO Jack Frost (1965) NR RUSSIA
Director Aleksandr Rou
writers Nikolai Erdman, Mikhail Volpin
When I was a kid every Thanksgiving local television would play this crazy movie called JACK FROST and every year I’d sit glued to the TV and watch the film with total fascination, and sometimes terror. In later years they replaced the showings with 24-hour TWILIGHT ZONE Marathons and it became just another childhood memory that I would tell people about, often with an incredulous look from the person I would be speaking with. In the early oughts, I discovered it was a Russian picture called MOROZKO and it was available on DVD! Needless to say, I immediately snatched it up.
MOROZKO is based on Russian fairy tales and folklore that were collected by ethnographer Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev, who is widely considered to be the Russian counterpart to The Brothers Grimm. Some of these stories, such as the story of King Frost, found their way into Andrew Lang’s Colored Fairy Books, specifically The Yellow Fairy Book.
The story is a hodgepodge of fairy tale tropes. Porcelain skinned Nanstenka (ballet artist, Natalya Sedykh) is continually harassed by her ugly stepsisters and banished into the woods to die, by her cruel stepmother. As this goes on, the strong, handsome but vain Ivan (Alexander Leopolovich Khvylya) is walking through the woods having left home to go on his journey when he meets a tree gnome that’s dressed up like a mushroom. The Gnome tells him that if he can catch him he’ll give him a bow and arrow. After a quick game of hiding and seek Ivan catches him and the Gnome gives him his prize, but Ivan refuses to thank him and replies “Those who now run the risk of losing there head. The bear will bow before you but not Ivan.” he continues off and he meets Nanstenka. The two are smitten with each other and Ivan asks if he could marry her but she refuses because he’s a braggart. When he tries to impress her by shooting a bear Nanstenka puts a barrel over his head and The Gnome reappears and turns him into a bear. Ashamed of his new bear head he storms off into the woods. The Gnome says that if he does something nice he’ll zap him back to his old self. This sets up the story and for the rest of the film, we see Ivan and Nanstenka’s trials and tribulations until they live happily ever after.
MOROZKO was produced by Gorky Film Studios which has a history going back to 1915 as one of the first Russian film studios and producing the first Russian sci-fi films AELITA: QUEEN OF MARS. Over the years, and revolutions, it changed hands finally becoming Gorky Film Studios which specializes in children’s films. What is so striking about the film is in the cinematic magic that it creates, director Aleksander Rou creates such a wonderful visual style using practical effects and many silent era trickeries. My favorite part in the film is when Ivan encounters the witch Baba Yaga, whose house sits on chicken legs and her evil trees that protect her (could Sid & Marty Kroft have seen this film before creating H.R. PUFFNSTUFF?) The inside of her home looks like it could be right out of Mario Bava’s BLACK SABBATH, with its blue lighting with red accents. It’s after these moments when the title character, Morozko or Father Frost ( top-billed Aleksander Khuylya) appears with his magical scepter that turns all who touch it into ice.
MOROZKO was released in the US in September of 1966 by Joseph E Levine’s Embassy Pictures, and judging by the one-sheet, probably as a kiddie matinee feature. The picture had a resurgence of sorts on the most irritating show MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3OOO and was released on one of their many DVDs it’s also readily available on YouTube.
THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS (2017) PG (Ireland/Canada)
Director: Bharat Nalluri
Writer: Susan Coyne based on the book by Les Standiford
Starring: Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer and Jonathon Price
In last years THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS, director Bharat Nalluri and writer Susan Coyne (based on Les Standiford’s book of the same name) posit what may have transpired during the creation of Charles Dickens’ Yuletide classic A Christmas Carol and in doing so created, for me anyway, another holiday classic.
DOWNTON ABBY’S Dan Stevens stars as the titular author Charles Dickens who, with a house mortgage, five children, with one on the way from wife Kate (PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES’ Morfydd Clark) and his spend-thrift father John (Jonathon Pryce BRAZIL, SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES), is in dire need of money and quick, as his last three books have been complete and total failures. His good friend John Forster (Justin Edwards, PADDINGTON) who also acts as kind of a manager for Dickens is able to procure an advance on a new book for him but the first chapter must be handed in by the first of the year. Unfortunately, he has no idea what to write about. After another meeting, he pitches an idea about a Christmas Ghost story “Why Christmas, does anybody really celebrate it anymore? I don’t see any market value in it.” is their reply in a fit of frustration he hands them back the advance and decides to self-publish it himself in time for Christmas which is only six weeks away.
The film has a lot of fun with where Dickens gets his inspirations from and each time he creates a character they come to life to interact with him or taunt him, as is often the case with good old Ebeneezer Scrooge, wonderfully played by the great Christopher Plummer. It is not just outside observations that inspire him, however, but also painfully bottled up memories that have haunted him throughout his life that manifests in the characters he creates which has always made A Christmas Carol more than just a Victorian-era ghost story. “A nothing, a nobody, a debtors son. Who could ever care for you? Certainly not your father, he abandoned you.” is what Scrooge tells him after he has Dickens has been neglecting his family by being too wrapped up in his book and stressing on bills
Director Bharat Nulluri, who has mostly worked in British television, keeps the action moving along so that it’s never dull nor stuffy. The production design is great, the film was shot on the set built for the show PENNY DREADFUL, so the London here is dark and grungy. The standout performance may be from Justin Edwards who brings a lot of warmth and humor to the film.
A CHRISTMAS TALE Racconto di Natale (2008) NR France
Director: Arnaud Desplechin
Writer: Arnaud Desplechin
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Jean-Paul Roussillon, Mathieu Amalric
In 2008’s A CHRISTMAS TALE director Arnoud Desplechin takes the uniquely American Home for the holidays genre and gives it a run for its money and transcends that genre.
Junon Vuillard (Catherine Deneuve) and her husband Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) had two
children the eldest child, Joesph, died as a child from cancer, they then had two more but the weight of his death has always lingered. Years later Junon discovers that she too has a rare form of cancer, and blood a transfusion may cure her but she’s willing to let fate decide and that’s good for us because who wants to sit through some dreary Lifetime melodrama
The members of the Vuillard family all go back home for the Christmas holiday. As with most families the Vuillard family has a lot of issues and eccentricities amongst the group; daughter Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), a successful play-write whose is perpetually sad and angry and has refused to speak or see her insolent and alcoholic brother Henri (Mathieu Amalric) who she once had to bail out financially; kindhearted Ivan (Melvin Poupaud) and his wife, Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni) and their two young children; artist cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto) finally Henri’s new girlfriend. Differences aside they all join together under one roof. On the surface, this might seem like the workings of a dull melodramatic TV movie
At two and half hours the picture is never boring as Desplechin pulls out a lot of tricks from his hat to tell his story, from shadow puppets to clever editing, split screen, breaking the third wall, and film homages, the most obvious one is the art gallery scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s VERTIGO, and he weaves a thread of magic realism into his tapestry of characters, but none of these things ever pulled me out of the picture or seemed pretentious, but rather it just seemed like Desplechin was having lots and lots of fun telling us his story and I had lots of fun viewing it.
New Years Cheers
The next two pictures are ones I like to watch on New Year’s Eve with a few drinks and leftover tamales and pie. I’d much rather stay home on that night with just close family and friends. Both these films are very similar in style and even humor and both have a similar theme, rags over riches.
MY MAN GODFREY (1935) NR USA
Director: Gregory La Cava
Writer: Morrie Ryskind, Eric Hatch
Starring: William Powell Carole Lombard, Gail Patrick, and Eugene Pallette
Gregory La Cava’s MY MAN GODFREY is one of the greatest screwball comedies of the thirties, where he uses the usually dapper William Powell to speak for all the “forgotten” men and women of the depression era thirties. Forgotten man Godfrey (William Powell) finds himself as an item in a rich person scavenger hunt. When socialite Cornelia Bulluck (Gail Patrick) finds him living in a dump on Manhattan, Godfrey angrily rebuffs her request to be her ‘forgotten man’ prize and pushes her aside but when her goodhearted but dingy sister Irene (Carole Lombard) spots him he becomes interested in their game and decides to tag along. When Irene wins the scavenger hunt Godfrey uses his moment to tear into the upper crust elites saying “I was Curious to see how a bunch of empty-headed nitwits conducted themselves.” Irene feeling bad asks him what he wants, “A job.” So she offers him a job as their new butler, a ripe setting for plenty of laughs and social commentary.
Godfrey becomes the butler for a family of weirdos and in turn, for their generosity, he shows them a thing or two about humility.
TRADING PLACES (1983) R USA
Director: John Landis
Writer: Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod
Starring: Dan Ackroyd, Eddie Murphy, Jamie Lee Curtis, Denholm Elliott Ralph Bellamy, and Don Ameche
In the 1947 Three Stooges short HALF-WITS HOLIDAY two old scholarly types argue over whether environment or heredity is responsible for civilized behavior and they decide to test out their theories with a bet, the bet being that can they can take a man from the lowest strata of life and make him a gentleman and before you can say nyuk, nyuk, nyuk in walk three bumbling plumbers Moe, Larry, and Curly. Director John Landis and his writers Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingod take that premise and make it into one outrageously hysterical film about race, class, culture, and greed.
Brothers Mortimer and Randolph Duke, owners of the commodities brokerage Duke & Duke, argue about what creates someone like their firm’s manager, Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Ackroyd), Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) suggests that it’s the environment, his brother Mortimer (Don Ameche), however, suggests otherwise “Hogwash! Breeding, Mortimer, just like in racehorses. It’s in the blooood.” when Winthrop bumps into street hustler Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) he immediately accuses him of stealing his briefcase and has him arrested. Randolph suggests to his brother “That man is a product of a poor environment. Given the right surroundings and encouragement I bet that man could run our company as well as your young Winthorpe.” and Duke and Duke decide to wager a bet, but unfortunately the other half of the bet is to see that if Winthorpe was ruined if he’ll resort to crime “like a fish to water”
The Dukes use their hired goon, Clarence Beeks (Paul Gleason) to plant drugs on Winthorpe ruining his reputation with his friends, colleges and fiance and in turn bail Billy Ray out of jail setting him up with Winthorpes home, valet Colman (Denholm Elliott) and job. In a very funny and actually educational scene they describe how the commodities market works, explaining to Billy Ray about
frozen juice, gold and pork bellies which can produce bacon “Like what you might find in a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich.” and that their customers bet on whether the price will go up or down, “Sounds like you guys are a couple o’ bookies.” Billy Ray catches on to the job quickly, and successfully manages the firm and even netting the Dukes a profit, Winthorpe, however, is now broke, destitute, and living with a prostitute, Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis). When a drunken Winthorpe crashes the Christmas party of his previous employers, dressed as Santa and tries to plant drugs in Billy Ray’s office Randolph Duke knows he has won the bet. Now with the bet over, the Dukes must get rid of Billy Ray, but not before they get their hands on the stock report from Beeks, as they plan on cornering the frozen orange juice market but Billy Ray, Winthorpe, Ophelia and Coleman join forces to stop them.
TRADING PLACES is a great piece of cinema and perhaps John Landis’ greatest achievement, and that’s a bold statement considering his other films up to that point. There’s no doubt the film knows its roots from Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, to the use of Mozart’s The Marriage Of Figaro in the opening scenes, the films of Preston Sturgess, Frank Capra, MY MAN GODFREY and the aforementioned Three Stooges short HALF-WITS HOLIDAY (this, by the way, was the last Curly short as he suffered a stroke on set and is absent in the final act.) the themes of race, culture and class are all woven together quite brilliantly and the fact that it takes place over the holiday without any preaching or grandstanding is what makes the film so funny and thought-provoking and makes this film a holiday classic.
Yule Tide Chills
Before Christmas festivities were connected to the birth of Christ, it was part of the winter solstice celebrations called Yule, where people believed that the dead would rise and haunt the living it would be dark longer, and that is where the tradition of ghost stories began. Though nothing can replace sitting around a warm fireplace drinking Irish coffee and telling Yuletide ghost stories, filmmakers over the years have tried, and sometimes successful; here are a couple that are worth watching.
BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) R Canada
Director: Bob Clark
Writer: Roy Moore
Starring: Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, and John Saxon
Director Bob Clark’s BLACK CHRISTMAS may not be the first film to pre-date the late 70’s-80s slasher boom, 1974 also saw Tobe Hooper’s THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and three years earlier Mario Bava’s BAY OF BLOOD, one could also say Hitchcock’s PSYCHO as well, but it definitely laid the foundation for Messrs Meyers, Vorhees, and Kruger to stalk their victims, but despite having most, if not all, of its suspense sequences becoming cliched, it still is one helluva a nail-biter!
The film, based on that infamous urban legend about a babysitter and a prank phone caller, is about a group of sorority sisters who are being continually harassed by a perverted prank caller. The ever angelic Olivia Hussy (Mary in JESUS OF NAZARETH) stars as Jess one of the handful of sorority sisters that are staying put during the holiday. Jess has recently discovered that she’s pregnant and wants an abortion, needless to say, this doesn’t go over very well with her pianist boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea), whose neurosis grows more and more psychotic as the picture plays out. The prank calls are very creepy and unnerving, to say the least, and director Bob Clark wisely has the intoxicated Barb (scene-stealer Margot Kidder) make light of the situation. When fellow sister Clair (Lynne Griffin goes missing who do you call? The ever-reliable John Saxon, that’s who. Saxon has the phone tapped so that they can trace the call and find out who the killer really is.
Director Bob Clark, I feel, is so often overlooked as a horror filmmaker despite having started out in the genre. He made several out and out horror classics including the metaphorical DEATHDREAM, the zombie picture CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS, the Sherlock Holmes meets Jack The Ripper film MURDER BY DECREE which I’m sure had an influence on comic book writer Alan Moore’s FROM HELL, but mainstream audiences probably know him best for his comedies PORKYS I & II and his other Christmas classic A CHRISTMAS STORY. In BLACK CHRISTMAS he goes from humor to scares quite well and some of the death scenes are frightening and well edited in particular the Oh Come All Ye Faithful scene. He leaves the film with an ambiguous ending that inspired John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN.
The acting is al excellent with the lovely Argentinian/British actress Olivia Hussey a few years after starring in Franco Zeffirelli’s ROMEO & JULIET as Juliet and a few years before playing the Virgin Mary in Zeffirelli’s brilliant JESUS OF NAZARETH, Hussey really carries the film and you’re with her all the way. John Saxon is again excellent in the…uh…John Saxon role, the good, calm cop Lt. Ken Fuller. Gilda Radner was originally supposed to play one of the sorority sisters but had to drop out for another gig, SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, and was replaced by Andrea Martin who would later be on SCTV!
Christmas Evil (1980) R USA
Director: Lewis Jackson
Writer: Lewis Jackson
Starring: Brandon Maggart, Jeffery DeMunn, Dianne Hull
You remember the song “I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus. Underneath the mistletoe last night.” In Lewis Jackson’s cult classic CHRISTMAS EVIL little Henry Stadling sees Santa Claus doing a lot more than just kissing mommy and after witnessing this he runs up the stairs, breaks a snow globe and slices his hand with the glass and you guessed it he grows up to be a deranged middle-aged man, all be it with a Santa fixation, who, on one Christmas Eve goes on a bloody killing spree.
CHRISTMAS EVIL unlike it’s contemporary 80’s slasher flicks, is told more or less through the eyes of Henry Stadling (Brandon Maggart), kind of like William Lustig’s MANIAC, though nowhere near as violent. Little Henry has now grown up and has just been promoted to the main office at a toy manufacturing plant. His home is filled with Christmas memorabilia and he listens to vintage Christmas records. When he isn’t prancing about in his apartment in his Santa jammies he’s spying on children with his binoculars to find out just who’s been naughty or nice and records their activities in his big Santa logs, little Moss Garcia has been bad as he’s been looking at Penthouse Magazine. In a funny bit Henry is walking to work and asks the children what they want for Christmas, little Moss replies “A year subscription to Penthouse!” that moment would’ve felt right at home in a John Waters picture, he’s actually a big fan of the film. While at a Christmas party Henry discovers that some corporate goon wants the employees to donate money to him so that he can donate toys to the children of the local state mental hospital, his new co-worker likes this idea but Henry thinks its wrong. On Christmas Eve Henry now completely unhinged puts on a Santa suit and hops into his sled, a white van with a sled painted on the side, and delivers the toys to the children at the hospital to cheers of the Drs and nurses giving them a jolly “ho, ho, ho Merry Christmas!” he then goes to the church where his greedy co-worker is and shoves a sword from a tin soldier into his eyeball and clobbers a couple of others with an ax! After which he gives more than black coal to the adults that haven’t been such good little boys and girls.
This film has its tongue firmly planted in its cheek, but director Lewis Jackson also creates some tension and surprises, like when Santa shoves the toy soldiers sword in the guys eye or when a kids dad pulls out a switchblade and him and Santa fight knocking the knife to the ground and the little girl picking up the knife and handing it Santa! The film does have some touching moments as well. Henry, now in total psycho mode, gets hassled by some partygoers and they drag him in to their festivities and at first they are mocking him but then he straightens up and bellows out a Santa laugh and becomes the life of the party joyously dancing and laughing, then before he leaves they bring out the children and he addresses them by saying ” …now I want you to remember to stay good boys & girls. Respect your mothers & fathers and do what they tell you. Obey your teachers and learn a whole lot. Now, if you do this, I’ll make sure you get good presents from me every year, but if you’re bad boys & girls, your name goes in the ‘Bad Boys & Girls’ book, and I’ll bring you something horrible.” in the end the townsfolks chase him out like Frankenstein’s monster with torches and all and he jumps into his sled, van, and drives off the road and into the night sky.
Gremlins (1984) PG USA
Director: Joe Dante
Writer: Christopher Columbus
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Starring: Hoyt Axton, Zach Galligan, Pheobe Cates, Dick Miller
Director Joe Dante’s LOONEY TOONS’ Tasmanian Devils meet Frank Capra’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is still high on my list of great Christmas films and great 80’s cinema. When father Hoyt Axton gives an exotic, cute little creature to his son as a Christmas present it comes with three rules never let it see a bright light, never let it get wet and never, ever feed it after midnight. As you know all three of the rules get broken and all heck breaks loose.
Gremlins is a whole lot of fun, with great effects by Chris Wales, Jerry Goldsmiths fun score. Some found the film too violent, I never felt that way, and it along with INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, was used to pressure the studios to create the still pointless PG13 rating.
TIM BURTON’S A NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993) USA
Director: Henry Selick
Writer: Tim Burton, Michael McDowell, Caroline Thomson
Starring: Danny Elfman, Chris Sarandon, Catherine o’ Hara, William Hickey, Glenn Shadix
1993’s A NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS was a very personal film for its creator, Tim Burton. After having not only directed but produced BATMAN RETURNS, ensuring he’d have complete freedom, he found himself depressed as it was a huge film but it didn’t make the numbers BATMAN did and the studio heads felt the reason was that it was too dark. So he thought he’d through himself into making a film out of a story he wrote while at Disney, when you make something on company property it’s theirs, so he checked to see if Disney still had it and lo and behold they still had it filed away, it took some finagling, as Burton got his start at Disney Animation and was considered a traitor for going around the corner to Warner Bros, but he got the rights and made the picture.
When you read his story about how he felt about BATMAN RETURNS one cannot help but think of the song Poor Jack
But I never intended all this madness, never
And nobody really understood, how could they?
That all I ever wanted was to bring them something great
Why does nothing ever turn out as it should?
There is no doubt that Burton’s melancholy mood and his simple joy at producing this now animated classic permeates every frame of the picture. It wasn’t a huge hit when it came out but over the years people have now excepted Burton’s so-called dark vision. I first saw it in its original release with my then girlfriend’s four-year-old niece, her parents were worried she’d be scared. Nope not in the least, besides she preferred uncle Phil’s rubber monsters I’d giver her over her Barbi’s anyway. I think adults and especially children respond to this film well since Jack Skellington is very childlike, as he wants to please everybody and make people happy, it’s just that Christmas is supposed to be cinnamon and cheer and not ghoulies and ghosties. What’s not to like about this masterpiece of the imagination; from its incredible production design to the catchy and sometimes morbid songs. It’s always on my blue ray playing Halloween thru Christmas.
Old-Time Christmas Classics
Believe it or not, but I had never seen these two pictures until researching this article. I no doubt have heard of them and put them on the list for viewing and I can see why they’re considered holiday classics.
CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT (1945) NR USA
Director: Peter Godfrey
Writer: Lionel Houser, Adele Comandini
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Sydney Greenstreet, Dennis Morgan, and S.Z. Sakall
Remember the show THREE’S COMPANY, Well CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT predates it by about thirty years. I’m not saying its a bad thing, despite every episode being exactly the same (like any Ramones song) it’s pretty good.
Sailor Jeffery Jones (Dennis Morgan) is lost at sea after his ship sinks at the end of the war. He’s rescued and nursed back to health. While in the hospital he enjoys reading cooking articles in a magazine by a writer named Elizabeth Lane who writes about her beautiful country home in Connecticut and her bouncing baby and charming husband while writing about food recipes, think Martha Stewart. Meanwhile, her publisher Alexander Yeardley (Sydney Greenstreet CASABLANCA) decides to have a homecoming for the war hero Jones, who had been writing letters about how much he loved the stories and wants to have him at Elizabeth’s country home. There’s just one hitch, the Martha Stewartish Elizabeth Lane is just made up, the real Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck) is really just a New York socialite but a fantastic writer, there is no country home, baby, or husband, hell she can’t even cook, after all she has her own personal chef Felix (scene-stealer S.Z. Sakall) for that matter, its all been a rouse that her publisher doesn’t even know about, now she’s gotta figure out how she’s going to fix this mess she’s in, where’s Larry Dallas when you need him?
Architect John Sloan (Reginald Gardiner) who’s always had the hots for Elizabeth says he’ll marry her, after all, he has a country home in, that’s right, Connecticut! Now Elizabeth just needs to find a baby and perhaps she can pull it off without losing her job. Once at Connecticut she meets Jones and is instantly smitten and wackiness ensues. Like THREE’S COMPANY, Elizabeth runs from room to room trying to keep up the charade while her cook Felix makes the diner and she avoids her wedding as she falls for Jeffery.
Overall I liked the film and laughed out loud several times. Director Peter Godfrey creates the chaotic tension very well and has his actors deliver their lines in rapid-fire much like a Howard Hawks picture. This direction style isn’t too surprising as Godfrey was a dialog director for RKO and Columbia where he also directed the first of the Warren Williams Lone Wolf pictures THE LONE WOLF SPY HUNT. Though there really isn’t much Christmas subtext or themes, its just an often funny screwball comedy, and I’ll more than likely watch this next year and maybe again this year.
THE BISHOPS WIFE (1947) USA
Director: Henry Koster
Writer: Robert E. Sherwood and Leonardo Bercovici
Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Starring: Cary Grant, Loretta Young, David Niven
Watching Henry Koster’s THE BISHOPS WIFE is for most people a holiday tradition. I liked the film very much but it just didn’t have the whimsical panache that, say, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE does, though it did make me want to pour my self a tall glass of Rompope like any good holiday film does.
Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) is in a bind, he needs to raise 4 million dollars to build a new cathedral and hopes to have wealthy widower Mrs. Hamilton (Gladys Cooper) foot the bill, but she insists that her husbands memory be on display, she wants the stained glass window of Saint George fighting the dragon to resemble her late husband. This project has kept him from spending time with those that mean the most to him, namely his beautiful but frustrated wife Julia (Loretta Young) and his cute little daughter Debby (Karolyn Grimes) in his office he prays to God to give him guidance and an angel appears in the form of the suave Cary Grant who goes by the angelic name of Dudley. He tells the Bishop that he’s there to lend him a helping hand and does so and in turn unintentionally sweeping the ladies off their feet.
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The Bishop, seeing his wife’s loneliness, tries to make up for his neglect and sets up a date with her, which he, of course, has to cancel and Dudley feeling bad for her takes her out instead. The two spend more and more time together while the Bishop grows jealous and Dudley starts falling in love with Julia. But Dudley is no devil and his interventions end up bringing everyone together as he moves off to another part of the universe.
The film was produced by Samuel Goldwyn who was hoping to cash in on the success of his previous years Oscar-winning hit BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES. That picture stared Dana Andrews and Theresa Wright and they were supposed to be in this with David Niven as the Angel Dudley but Wright got pregnant and Dana Andrews was signed to RKO. Cary Grant signed on but insisted he be Dudley and the script was tinkered with more and the director replaced with Koster. The film is touching and heartfelt, like when Dudley and Julia run into her friend, Professor Wutheridge, (Monty Wooley) in what is perhaps the best performance in the picture as a kindly but at times curmudgeon who doesn’t believe in Christmas but still decorates a tree for his home and likes his yuletide cheer. His big wish is to finish a book on the Romans that he has been struggling with for years, he also is really the only one that suspects there’s more to Dudley than a charming guy. Despite being shot by legendary cinematographer Gregg Toland (CITIZEN KANE) the cinematography here is very utilitarian, it just gets the job done, there is a beautiful shot of the town at the beginning that you’ll be hard pressed to tell that its a model, the moving cars are the giveaway.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) USA
Director: Frank Capra
Writer: Francis Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra, and Jo Swirling
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reid, Lionel Barrymore, Henry Travers
When Philip Van Doren Stern couldn’t find a publisher for his 4000 words short story THE GREATEST GIFT he had them printed on Christmas cards and sent out to family and friends. One of these cards got into the hands of RKO studio chief Charles Koerner and he immediately bought the rights for ten grand for the story about man named George Pratt, who standing on a bridge contemplating suicide on Christmas Eve is visited by a mysterious man, who hands him a bag and telling him to pretend to be a delivery man and go visit the people he loves. George sees a life without him and learns that he had the greatest gift of all…life. Many screenwriters attempted to bring the script to life but to no avail, despite having Cary Grant interested in staring, the script remained in flux at the studio.
Colonel Frank Capra returning to Hollywood after his service in WWII, found not only Hollywood had changed but him as well, stating “(I wanted to make) a film to tell the weary, the dishearted, and the disillusioned; the wino, the junkie, and the prostitute; those behind walls and Iron Curtains that no man is a failure!” Capra felt that Hollywood reverted back to the “committee-system”; so Colonel William Wyler, Colonel George Stevens, and Colonel Samuel Briskin formed the indie studio Liberty Film with offices on the RKO lot and it was here that his old friend and studio head Charles Koerner handed him THE GREATEST GIFT. After reading the short he bought it from RKO for the ten grand they had purchased it saying that “It was the story I’ve been looking for my whole life.”
Capra got B-29 pilot, Colonel James Stewart on board, Lionel Barrymore, Donna Reed and finally Gloria Graham and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE would be Liberty Films first picture and quite possibly Frank Capra’s crowning achievement, being nominated for five Academy Awards, though it didn’t do too well financially and Liberty Films made one more picture STATE OF THE UNION before going belly-up and acquired by Paramount for 3 million and five year contracts for Capra, Stevens, and Wyler. These five-year contracts got us film fans A PLACE IN THE SUN, SHANE, ROMAN HOLIDAY, THE DESPERATE HOURS and several others. Frank Capra’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is now considered one of the greatest films ever made ranking number 20 on AFI Top American Films List and is a perennial holiday classic.
The Name Above The Title: An Autobiography by Frank Capra
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