Christmas on Celluloid: ‘Christmas in Connecticut’

xmaspianoTo get into the Christmas spirit, I often binge view my favorite Christmas movies. If I am feeling more like Scrooge than Bob Cratchit, I will binge view anti-Christmas movies. Either way, movie-watching is an essential part of my holiday celebration. If you are the same, you won’t want to miss the double feature of holiday classics that will hit theaters next Sunday, December 7. Fathom Events, TCM, and Warner Bros. Home Entertainment have joined forces to present the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol and Christmas in Connecticut in a special one-day big-screen event. Check here for a list of participating theaters.

Releasing classic movies on the big screen as a special event is a recent development for Fathom, and if you want them to continue, consider attending this family-friendly double feature as a show of support. To celebrate the occasion, I thought I would offer a few thoughts and musings on Christmas in Connecticut—one of my favorite holiday movies. On Thursday, check out fellow Morlock Kimberly Lindbergs’s blog post, because she is following up with insights into A Christmas Carol.

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First Impressions and Classic Cinema

Today at TCM, Burt Lancaster gets his time in the spotlight with several Lancaster films airing throughout the day and night, including The Killers, From Here to Eternity and The Swimmer.   Lancaster is an actor I initially had a hard time warming to due to his rather stylized and grand way of delivering lines, as if every sentence were a speech or a lecture.    Over time, I came to really appreciate how far he was willing to go, how big he was willing to act, to get a performance just right.  By the time I saw Atlantic City years after seeing him for the first time, I felt like I was watching an old master create his greatest work.  And I still think that Atlantic City is his best performance but what held me back for years with Lancaster was the pigeonhole I’d placed him in after seeing him for the first time, which happened to be his Oscar winner performance in Elmer Gantry.  Sometimes, first impressions really can set up expectations that don’t always flesh out.

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To Wed or Not To Wed: Illicit (1931) and Ex-Lady (1933)

Illicit00006gene_raymond-bette_davis-ex_lady1Today’s Hollywood has a reputation for unoriginality, but the classical era was also rife with recycling. Before Robert Riskin became Frank Capra’s favorite screenwriter, he was a struggling playwright with co-writer Edith Fitzgerald. When their 1930 sex comedy Many a Slip became a modest hit and was adapted at Universal, Warner Brothers optioned one of their un-produced plays and cranked out two movie versions in three years. Illicit (1931) and Ex-Lady (1933), both available on DVD from the Warner Archive, reveal a studio in flux, scrambling to grab the audience’s waning attention during the Great Depression. Both cast energetic young ingenues in the role of a liberated woman who thinks marriage is a prison, but gets hitched anyway for the sake of the man she loves.   Illicit stars Barbara Stanwyck and opts for escapism, taking place among the leisure class of NYC, from Manhattan townhouse hangars to Long Island mega mansions. The story gets downsized in Ex-Lady, with Bette Davis given a middle-class  job as an illustrator for an ad agency. The shift is an early and unsuccessful attempt (Ex-Lady was a flop) at Warners’ downmarket move to court blue-collar dollars, which would pay dividends soon after with saucy Busby Berkeley backstage musicals and gritty James Cagney gangster flicks.

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Me vs. Capra

Last week I noted that The Hudsucker Proxy is based on Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe.  But I simply said that, flatly, and added no additional color commentary on that connection.  That was because my relationship to Capra in general, and Meet John Doe in particular, is thorny, and I didn’t want to weigh the rest of the post down with any of that.  But this week I want to vent some of those reactions, and prove to you that even though I often show up here to defend unloved movies, it isn’t the case that I indiscriminately love everything.  There are some movies I just can’t abide.  Meet John Doe is one of them.

So, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker, I don’t intend to say anything nice.  Wanna sit by me?

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Whips, Guns, and Horses: The Westerns of Barbara Stanwyck

From Baby Face to The Lady Eve to Double Indemnity, Barbara Stanwyck thrived during the 1930s and 1940s as the hardscrabble, working class dame who was accustomed to staying one step ahead of men. Her throaty voice and no-nonsense delivery suited her tough-talking screen persona. During the 1950s, Stanwyck appeared in a number of westerns that exploited the aggression and independence associated with her star image. The unofficial series included Cattle Queen of Montana, The Violent Men, The Maverick Queen, Trooper Hook, and Forty Guns. Oddly, this period in Stanwyck’s career is either brushed off as a time when the aging star was trying to re-establish her position in Hollywood, or simply presented as a decline in her career. After Forty Guns was released in 1957, she did not make another film until the colorfully flamboyant Walk on the Wild Side, released in 1962. Biographies then note the resurrection of her stardom on the small screen, first as the host of The Barbara Stanwyck Show, which won her an Emmy, and then in The Big Valley. Later, she costarred in the mini-series The Thorn Birds and lent her considerable star presence to Dynasty and its spinoff, The Colbys.

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Pleasures of the Pre-Code: Forbidden Hollywood Volumes 4 and 5

This astounding publicity shot of a screwfaced James Cagney reluctantly probing the shoulder of a coolly admiring Claire Dodd should sell anyone on the value of Hard To Handle (1933), or of the two new volumes of WB’s Forbidden Hollywood DVD series that is releasing it. The way Cagney separates his left ring and pinky fingers – as if he couldn’t bear to put the effort into using all five digits – exemplifies his casual mastery (even in PR shoots!) in fleshing out the con-artist cads he played throughout this period. And this is only one of the pleasures found within volumes 4 and 5 of the series, which includes a trio of treats from director William Dieterle, and snappy banter from the likes of Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell. The last edition appeared in 2009, containing a bevy of depression-scarred William Wellman films, but as DVD sales have continued to crater, so has the prominence of this series, with the new editions being released on WB’s movies-on-demand line, the Warner Archive.

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Look Homeward, Stanwyck: No Man Of Her Own (1950)

Onscreen, Barbara Stanwyck was rarely the nurturing type. She became an icon because of her persona of fearsome independence, her justifiably shameless arrogance next to godliness. So it’s jolting to investigate the byways of her career, in which she played off type, including her elegiac performance in Mitchell Leisen’s noir, No Man of Her Own (released on DVD today by Olive Films). Playing the vulnerable and doomed Helen Ferguson, Stanwyck exhibits a touching passivity in the face of a world continually conspiring against her.

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The Perfect Mix of Schmaltz, Schmerz and Schmutz

That was how Preston Sturges described his screenplay for REMEMBER THE NIGHT (1940), directed by Mitchell Leisen. Overlooked and underrated for years, this small scale but intimate romantic drama has become a new Yuletide favorite thanks to frequent airings on TCM and its availablity on DVD.        [...MORE]

“Somebody’s throat has to be cut.”

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I could never imagine actually being beaten up by Robert Ryan and yet I’ve always been a little afraid of him – and never more so than when he smiles.  [...MORE]

A Rap Sheet on Wendell Corey

Wendell Corey early in his Hollywood career

The acerbic American writer Paul Theroux once observed that “Fiction gives us a second chance that life denies us.” Maybe movies–that particularly compelling and seductive form of fiction–gives us that chance too, especially if we look at an actor’s many roles, rather than their best known portrayals. Some actors leave you cold, though once in a while you’re able to look at someone in a new way.

MorlockJeff‘s recent article on that ’50s movie fixture, George Nader, found here, made me question my attitudes toward certain actors. I thought that Nader was a negligible, pompadoured presence in laughable movies such as Carnival Story (1954), or the outrageously campy The Female Animal (1958). The best that I could say about the guy was that he looked good in navy blue in an unpretentious, if sometimes overly ponderous “victory at sea” story from Universal, called Away All Boats (1956), directed by Joseph Pevney. However, Jeff’s lively description of this upcoming noirish feature on TCM, Nowhere to Go (1958), with Nader acting opposite a very young, doe-like Maggie Smith, makes me want to see the movie. It also made me think about an actor whose work I’ve dismissed in the past, but have recently grown to see a bit differently. Maybe I threw Wendell Corey on my personal pile of rejects too soon.

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