Film Gems, Part Trois: Some Choice Holiday Movies and TV Shows


Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, now that Thanksgiving is over, I am turning my flittering attention to Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, and the celebration of the New Year. Of course, I have much to do: presents to buy, create, wrap and ship, house to decorate, parties to go to (maybe, if I’m invited), family and friends to enjoy, newsletter to write and send, along with last year’s which never got sent, addresses to update, cards to buy and write in and send, catalogs to recycle (I’m still wondering how I got on the mailing list for “All Things Golf” — I don’t golf and I know only one person who does and he’s already got golf clubs — really not in your demographic, guys), and gluten-filled baked goods to sigh over and not eat.  So what I’m doing this last Saturday in November is writing a blog about holiday movies.  If nothing else, I’m good at misdirection — I’ll sneak up on the other holiday doings somehow and somewhen.

Christmas in Connecticut

Christmas in Connecticut (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s start with a long-time favorite:  “Christmas in Connecticut.” Barbara Stanwyck portrays a columnist in a women’s magazine who pretends to be a happy housewife and cook when in reality if it weren’t for S. A. (“Cuddles”) Sakal (who owns and is chef in the Hungarian restaurant downstairs from her New York studio apartment), she wouldn’t have a thing to write about.  Meanwhile, a sailor rescued from a raft in the Atlantic (all this takes place during WWII), played by Dennis Morgan, sits in a VA hospital and dreams about food, reading the column and drooling because he’s been starving for so long they won’t let him eat what he wants to eat.  (Well, and it’s hospital food, anyway.)  All of this comes back to bite Barbara, who ends up having to pretend in real life at her stick of a fiance’s weekend house in Connecticut that she really is the happy housewife, mother, and superb cook.  It’s funny, charming, shows off  Warner Bros. deep field of character actors at their best, and it gets very very complicated with rocking chairs, horse-drawn carriages, a preacher who has to be smuggled in and out of the house, and two babies instead of just one before the girl gets the guy right at Christmas. If you haven’t seen this one, just skip right by “It’s a Wonderful Life” and try “Christmas in Connecticut”. You’ll be glad you did.

Another oldie but very goodie: “The Apartment.” This one is all the way Billy Wilder, so it’s sharp, cynical, sad-edged, funny and ultimately very positive.  The film stars Jack Lemmon as the mid-level accounting nobody who is working on getting ahead at work by passing around the key to his apartment to his co-workers who want a private place for some private canoodling, Shirley Maclaine as his crush, who herself hopelessly loves Fred MacMurray (who was always at his best cast against type as a selfish, even evil manipulator), and a cast office workers who still resonate today as being way too realistic.  The apartment itself is practically a character in the movie, beautifully realized as a Victorian parlor in a brownstone on West 65th in NYC that has come on slightly seedier times.  Lemmon discovers that Maclaine has tried to kill herself in, duh, his apartment, and the complications that ensue result in a black eye, a fractured compact, a raise and promotion, and a resignation that’s just in time for the happy ending.  And it has Billy Wilder’s second-best last line ever (the first is from “Some Like It Hot”, but that’s not a holiday movie, unless you count the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre): “Shut up and deal.”

English: Screenshot of Jack Lemmon and Shirley...

Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine,The Apartment (1960) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This one, too, is a lovely old film that manages to be cynical about Christmas and yet the holiday spirit finds the way in spite of everybody involved: “Miracle on 34th Street.” (The 34th Street windows of Macy’s in New York still always have decorations about this movie in them, no matter what the other decorations may be.)  Is the gentleman known as Kris Kringle really Santa Claus? Or is he not and he’s actually scamming the populace? In the end, the courts and the United States Post Office state that he is indeed Santa Claus, and who are we to quibble? Especially with Natalie Wood (in one of her first roles while she was still a little girl) getting what she never thought she would, a new daddy and a house, and everybody else in spite of themselves getting what they really need and sometimes actually want.  You’ll like it, I promise.

Miracle on 34th Street

Miracle on 34th Street (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A movie more recently made is “White Christmas”, a star-studded, music-filled, all dancing and singing spectacular from the 1950’s, and one I have to watch each year at least once.  The stars are Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen (was anybody’s waist ever actually that small?), and Danny Kaye, the music is by Irving Berlin, mostly, and the songs and dancing are terrific.  It’s about a two guys who met in WWII and who are now the toasts of Broadway, with one of them (Danny) trying to get Bing married off so that he can have some time off, a sister act in Florida who have to get out of town the quiet way since their landlord wants to sue them for something or other, who cares, since the way they get out of town requires the guys to cross-dress, a train trip to Vermont where there’s no snow, and the classic “we’ve got a barn, let’s put on a show” finale.  The romantic complications between Bing and Rosemary have to do with trust and angles and using other people, but it all comes out right in the end as a holiday movie simply must.

Cropped screenshot of Bing Crosby and Danny Ka...

Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, White Christmas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Also during this time period they shot a film called “My Three Angels”, which stars Walter Slazek.  The film shows three convicts who are repairing a roof on a shop and overhear the shopkeeper and their family trying to find their way out of major difficulties.  The three fix the problems and Christmas happens right on schedule.  I can find very little about this 1959 small gem, and I hope they put it on DVD so I can watch it again.

Then, there’s “While You Were Sleeping.” One of Sandra Bullock’s more charming comedies, which is saying something, it’s about a woman who is alone at Christmas and longs to be part of a family.  While she thinks she’s falling in love with the guy she saves from being run over by a train (and who ends up in a coma for most of the film), she’s really falling in love with his quirky family and, more important than that, his slightly disillusioned brother.  Wonderful supporting performances, many funny lines, and Sandra simply watching as a happy family shares Christmas fill this film with joy and longing.  The theme song is now used for a computer dating service, so every time the commercial comes on, I think of this film, which is not a bad thing.

While You Were Sleeping

While You Were Sleeping (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Love, Actually” is truly one of my favorite films, one I watch when I’m feeling there’s no love in the world.  As Hugh Grant says right at the very beginning, however, there’s lots of love, and some of it is sad, some of it is funny, and a lot of it is hopeful.  Great performances by British actors it’s impossible not to enjoy (and some terrific Americans too), really nifty songs (including “All I Want for Christmas Is You” sung by a truly talented teenager and “The Trouble With Love” by Kelly Clarkson), and Bill Nighy portraying as only he can a has-been rock star trying for a comeback which somehow seems to involve getting naked on TV.  It’s beautifully shot, too, making modern-day London as much of a holiday destination as it would have been for me in Victorian times.  And Colin Firth.  Ahem.  A movie with Colin Firth in it? I’m so there.

Love Actually

Love Actually (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And, by the way, while the primary plot of the movie has to do with the other end of the story, the very beginning of “Ben-Hur” has a gloriously shot nativity pageant at its very beginning with some of the loveliest music ever.  Well, the whole movie is the best of the huge spectaculars and in many ways, one of the most moving.  They’re planning a remake, but I just can’t see how they can improve on the classic.

I finally saw “A Christmas Story” a couple of years ago.  So I now know why there is such a thing as a table lamp made to look like a high-heeled female leg in the world and why you will never get a BB Gun for Christmas (because you’ll put your eye out).  The truly terrifying scene with Santa became an instant favorite and the excruciating (because I did it once when I was a very gullible small child) moment of sticking a wet tongue on a frozen flagpole are all now part of my holiday vocabulary.  This film not only shows us the importance of Christmas to a small child, it fills Christmas with hysterical laughter and still a sense of the wonder of it all.

Two Red Ryder BB Guns in box. These are a rela...

Two Red Ryder BB Guns in box. These are a relatively recent reissue. The boxes promote the gun as being “just like the one your Dad had!” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve talked about how much I love “The Lion in Winter” in another blog about Film Gems, but yet another reason to watch it is its deliciously cynical (realistic?) portrayal of family Christmas:  “Well, now, what shall we hang, the holly or each other?”  So that’s another one for the list. And one I remember enjoying, too: “The Santa Clause”, with Tim Allen, who portrays an unhappily separated father who discovers he’s actually been tapped to be the next Santa Claus and there’s nothing he can do about it, although he tries.  He finally embraces his fate and  takes over in the (ahem) “nick” of  time. Yet another pair of films that occur to me are not specifically about the holidays, but are rather set during them: The first two “Die Hard” films starring Bruce Willis. (Oddly enough, the primary crossover talent in this area is Alan Rickman, who appears in “Love, Actually” and in the first “Die Hard.”)

All of the above have to do with Christmas, I’ve been noticing, and many of them seem to be about love among the commercialism, cynicism and annoyances of the Christmas holidays in modern times.  And you will notice I’ve not mentioned “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I don’t happen to like this film much and the plot holes in it, well, Santa could easily drive his sleigh through them without touching the sides.  I also haven’t mentioned, except in “Ben-Hur”, that Christmas is a Christian holiday, about the birth of Jesus Christ.  There aren’t all that many films, however, based on the Winter Solstice (which is the holiday most people celebrated in deepest winter and which Christianity co-opted), or on Kwanzaa, or for that matter (and this surprises me) Hanukkah.  I would be very interested to hear from my reader about such films.  I’m sure they exist.

There are also many television films, specials and cartoons about the holidays, most of which have a Christmas theme, but are based on Santa, Frosty, and other non-religious Christmas icons.  An exception is “Amahl and the Night Visitors”, which is still occasionally shown on network television and which I can recommend for its lovely music and its theme of the people — that is, all of us unknown and sometimes unhappy and distressed folk — that Christmas is supposed to be about.  And don’t forget “A Christmas Carol.” For me, this is a read-aloud yearly treat, but it has been produced as a film or TV special many times and they’re all fun to watch.  Maybe the best is the one with the Muppets.

The best of the Christmas TV specials for me are “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and, of course, the original cartoon TV version of “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.” So enjoy the holidays, whatever you celebrate, and if you’re so inclined, have some fun watching a few of these classics.  Maybe, like the Grinch, our hearts are sometimes “two sizes too small”, but these films and TV shows just might help us expand our hearts to the size they should be during this season and all year through.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

How the Grinch Stole Christmas


Thoughts Upon a Solstice, Redux

Henge_1

Henge_1 (Photo credit: tracko_aus)

I published this blog originally for Winter Solstice (northern hemisphere version) in 2012, republished it last year, and think it may be worth another look from any or all of you who follow my blog this year too.  So I’m republishing it again . . . .

In any event, I wish anybody reading this (well, in reality I wish this for people who don’t read or follow my blog too) a truly happy holiday season and the best of new years.  And, remember, if you live in the southern hemisphere, just put this aside for six months and read it in June.  Be well.

Today is the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere on our planet.  Among many things, today neo-Druids celebrate the returning of the sun at henges throughout the British Isles, but most particularly at Stonehenge; while others who may have listened too much to strange folk misinterpreting the Mayan long-count calendar are in their various ways and for their various reasons relieved or disappointed that the world still seems to be somehow wobbling along.  Perhaps some of them, neo-Druidic or neo-Mayan or whatnot, arose from frantic prayer this morning with the feeling that they saved the world from oblivion.  [Remember, I wrote this last year when some folk were convinced that the Mayan long-count calendar was coming to an end.  It wasn’t.  It didn’t.]

12-12-12 * Calendario Circular

12-12-12 * Calendario Circular (Photo credit: jacilluch)

Which is what the Winter Solstice has always been about.  When we were first getting started as a species, perhaps it didn’t matter.  Perhaps the immediate, the now, of life was all that could matter.  Can we run down that gazelle?  Are these roots edible, not poisonous, let alone palatable?  Is that fruit ripe yet and have the birds and the chimpanzees left us enough?  Is that highly smelly (and they are) lion we know is napping on the other side of the hillside going to wake up hungry or can we stay here for another sleep?   But after many thousands of years, we began to grow things on our own instead of merely finding them.  We began to raise the sweeter-natured (and dumber) babies of various kinds of useful animals to have a portable pantry instead of always having to go out and find something to eat.  And we began to notice that during the autumn of the year, the sun spent less time every day shining down on us.  More, the farther north we wandered, the shorter the day, the longer the night during the fall.  (Not to ignore the Southern Hemisphere–anyone reading this in Australia just would change the time of year by about six months and the direction from north to south to be in the same situation.  I am, unfortunately having never visited Australia or, for that matter, anywhere below the Equator, a bit Northern Hemisphere-centric.)

And, worst of all, at some time during a period of time that came to be known as a month (meaning then and now the circuit of the moon around the earth), the name of which month came to be known as December (much, much, much, much later), the sun seemed as if it was going to disappear completely, that it was going to keep on spending less time above the horizon and more below until it never came back.  Never. Came. Back.  Imagine that, if you can or will.  The people (not the Celts or the Druids by the way) who raised the henges, the priests whose job it was to bless crops and domestic animals, the populations wandering ever northward as the ice sheets receded, were pretty good jack-leg, practical astronomers, but they had no way of knowing that the sun appeared and disappeared simply because the earth rotated on an axis and revolved around that sun.  The didn’t know that the sun wasn’t doing the dancing, the disappearing and reappearing act, their own solid earth was.  In growing panic, they would watch the sun shine less and less each day.  All the Gods help us, it might at some point, perhaps because of the sinfulness of human beings (that has never changed), not come back at all.  And they were definitely smart enough to realize that without the sun nothing on earth could survive.

We mustn’t think that because the sun always came back no matter what that these tribes of human beings were silly or stupid.  After all, in this 21st century there were quite a few people who believed the world would come to an end when the particular long-count calendar the so-called experts were interpreting ended (ah, that would be this morning about 4:00 a.m.) [again, I wrote this last year] and we’re, after all, 21st century humans living in a highly technological civilization.  And we must remember, too, that life was usually short and a generation was considered (and still is for that matter) to be about 25 years.  Even with bards and priests and all those trained to remember the history of the tribe and the knowledge that had been gleaned over many generations, the memory faded of the days when there were no priests praying throughout the longest night so the sun would peep over the horizon again.  The priests had always prayed, always danced, always sung, begging the sun to come back, and it would always be necessary.  (This was a fairly handy situation for the priests, in my cynical (realistic?) eyes, since it certainly meant for job security.)

Sunrise between the stones at Stonehenge on th...

Sunrise between the stones at Stonehenge on the Winter Solstice in the mid 1980s. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We don’t actually know what the huge stone circles were for.  The tribes who made them are long gone and their function and structure changed over time as new tribes came in and took them over.  But there are many human-made monuments, monoliths, and cut-outs in certain hills (called, I think, granges in Celtic Ireland) all over the world (except in many cases, for reasons that shall be left as an exercise for the class, immediately around the equator where the monuments seem to our eyes to be designed more for the measuring of star movement) whose function makes no sense to us until we watch the moment of sunrise on the day after the Solstice and see a beam of light hitting one particular spot in the monument.  The moment the sun comes back.  The moment of relief, of success, of validation of nights of prayer, of dance, of songs of praise.  It is really a several-day vigil, for the Solstice itself is the longest night and shortest day.  And the monuments are, if not designed so, definitely able to show the incremental increase in daylight after the Solstice each day.  After perhaps a week, the priests would be able to announce, in perfect truth, that the sun was coming back and that in a few cycles of the moon it would be time to plant once more.  They would also, of course, announce that their prayers and the sacrifices of the tribe were the reason for this bounty.  The great god behind the sun was pleased.

Newgrange

Newgrange (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of these days, one of these millenia, we hope many millenia from now, the sun may change from a beneficent god who makes life possible on our whirling ball of water and earth into something different.  It may explode.  It may become red and colder, making the earth unfit for habitation unless (and this too is possible) we have changed to fit the new circumstances (we have done so before).  It may wink out one day.  Stars do that, and our sun is merely a star among the billions of stars in our galaxy, amidst the billions of galaxies in our universe.  But until that day, the Winter Solstice will happen in the Northern Hemisphere every year, just as it does six months later in the Southern Hemisphere every year, and the sun will come back to make spring possible, to make food possible, to make life possible.  And the winter will be gone, one more time.

So this day is a marker of hope, still and forever while we live only here on this planet and are as we are, utterly dependent on the sun for everything.  Everything.  And we should, I think, even in our sophistication, give a prayer of thanks that this be so.  Religions throughout the history of the world have done so.  Almost all of them have called the celebration of the Winter Solstice a feast of light in one way or the other.  In Jewish tradition, there is Hanukkah, a celebration of a time when the perpetual lamp in the Inner Temple could have gone out but did not because of a miracle.  In Christianity, there are many references to light and the returning of light.  The Christmas tree began as a way of celebrating Christ’s eternal power and meaning.  The evergreen does not lose its leaves in the winter and the lights we put on it symbolize “the light of the world.” Christ, who was born, or so say the priests, on a day less than a week after the Solstice when it could be and was proved that the sun was coming back for another year has always been associated with light.  (That Jesus was probably born in the spring because the shepherds were out with their flocks, thus, at lambing time, is merely a more likely supposition and has very little to do with the symbolism of the timing of his birth.  Many religious scholars and historians say that the Christian Church moved the feast of Christ’s birth to Solstice in order to pre-empt the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, which was yet another religious feast day celebrating the Solstice.)  Other religions have similar feasts.  And our old friend the Mayan long-count calendar begins and ends on the Winter Solstice.

candlelit Christmas tree

candlelit Christmas tree (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(Just to be clear, the Mayans, who were apparently brilliant astronomers, had many calendars that counted different cycles, some as short as a few months, some as long as millions of years.  The long-count calendar that got some people in such an uproar  measured a kind of medium-long cycle.  Some of these different measurings of time began and ended on the Winter Solstice.  I don’t know if all do, and at least one source I’ve read said the ending of each calendar was for symmetry’s sake and the beginning of each calendar’s measuring period would be a Solstice primarily for convenience because this is a date easy to pin down. I know very little about the reasons for these differently-counted calendars of theirs, and anthropologists, while learning more all the time, are still more or less at the beginning of figuring this out.  I recommend anyone interested to click on the link “Mayan long-count calendar” in this essay for more information.)

For the time being (and I recommend without stint W.H. Auden’s long poem “For the Time Being” about what happens to each of us during and because of Christmas, which is my own tradition of celebrating the return of light to the world), the Solstice is happening once more.  The sun will come back after this shortest night of the year.  The world will rumble on and most of us will try to make the best of it and some of us, sadly, will still try to make the worst of it.   In honor of the Solstice, in honor of all the people throughout the history of our species who have prayed and danced and sung the sun back above the horizon, this year I will try to see past the Christmas tree and the presents and the special foods and the candles and twinkly sparkly lights all over the place to a calmer center point where the grand dance of our home bringing back the sun to warm us and nurture us continues.  And I will give praise and thanks.

The Sun at Solstice

The Sun at Solstice (Photo credit: D.H. Parks)