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



itch (Photo credit: brontosaurus)

One of my favorite writers, Connie Willis, in her funny and insightful “Bellwether“, coined the term ‘itch’, as in “I feel itch.”  And it means just how it sounds:  when something is coming, when something is going, when something is changing, but you’re not quite sure what it is or what to do about it.  Kind of like being “restless as a willow in a windstorm”, which is from some song or other.  (And no, I’m not going to look it up.)

Bellwether (novel)

Bellwether (novel) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That’s where I am these days.

There’s an aspect to itch that might be called boredom.  There’s an aspect, for me, that is particularly Estes Park.  This time of year (winter, that is) is very hard to cope with up here (gee, like it’s easy in Minnesota).  We used to call it ‘cabin fever’, which is a lot like ‘itch’, except that cabin fever can result in some pretty spectacular responses.  Just like the Santa Anas in Southern California.  There’s a quote in Raymond Chandler: “There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. . . . Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.”  Here in Colorado we call such winds ‘Chinooks’ and they’re a proximate cause of cabin fever.  You feel like if you’re cooped up with whomever or whatever for ONE MORE MINUTE, something really awful is going to happen.  And you can’t get out.  Not until spring.  What with cable and Internet and DVDs and better cars, we don’t see so much cabin fever these days, but itch?  Oh my yes.  I think you’d call it situational itch.  You’re going nuts within your own four walls and you want to be anywhere else.  Anywhere.  Else.  Even Arizona.

But there are other aspects to situational itch, too.  Some of it, I suppose, is the new year.  January was so promising, wasn’t it?  After all that holiday excess and celebration, we were all going to lose that weight, get in shape, de-clutter our houses.  And, of course, figure out what our lives are supposed to be about and go out and DO things.  And here it is February already, and how many of those wonderful promises have we kept?  One-twelfth of our chance to become The Best Person We Can Be is gone for another year.

Everybody goes through these times and, yes, they’re good for you if not very much fun.  It isn’t that your life has turned upside down because you won the lottery or lost your best friend.  It’s just that something within you needs to change.  You feel kind of stale.  You know that anything you think of to do–isn’t it time you folded the laundry?–is displacement activity, yet you can’t just turn into a mushroom growing out of your most comfortable chair.  Even retail therapy doesn’t work because you’ve tried to ‘fix’ whatever is going on by buying something, and it turns out when you analyze it that what you were trying to do was to fix your life.  And now you have to let the well refill before you can buy something else to distract you from itch.  And by ‘you’, of course, I mean ‘me’.

When it gets down to it, itch is about something deeper.  It is about finding your purpose in life, your reason for being.  It’s about engagement, not distraction.  This is existential itch.  Whether purpose is something we create for ourselves or comes from Somewhere Else, our deepest minds and hearts always search for it.  If you’re fresh out of purpose, that’s your itch.

Have you ever listened to a lecturer who is in love with his subject?  I remember one in particular, who taught the history of Ancient Egypt.  This man is absolutely in love with ancient Egypt.  For him, this is not a job, or even a life’s work, it’s fun, it’s a lot more fun than working.  Find something you like that much and you’ll never work another day in your life (that is, if you can figure out how to get paid for it).  So that’s one way to deal with existential itch.  Find that something.  Whew, that was easy.

Except, of course, it’s not.  Because if you’ve figured out, hooray and hallelujah, that what you want is a glorious job or a glorious partner or a world cruise, that’s wonderful, I’m happy for you, but there’s one little hiccup.  You still feel itch.  If you know what you want, then itch comes from not knowing how to get from here to there.    I guess we could call that procedural itch.

Procedural itch lets you know that your tactics and strategy are off, not your target.  Let’s say you want to star on Broadway and you’re doing everything you should be except you’re doing it in Michigan.  You may have to face up to several years of waiting tables in Brooklyn.  Or maybe you want something internal like wisdom.  Then your strategy must be more indirect.  You need to treat an abstract inner itch as if you were trying to catch a butterfly.  Crush it in your hands and it is gone, all its luster lost.  But if you hold your hand out, open, perhaps it will land, so lightly that unless you look carefully you can’t even be sure it has touched down.

Butterflies seduction.

Butterflies seduction. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And then there’s a simple fact.  Itch keeps on itching when we think we know what we want because we often fool ourselves about what we need.  Aesop was a wise old Greek when even Greece was young.  He told the story of the fox who wanted the grapes growing at the top of the arbor.  But no matter how the fox leaped and snapped and tried to climb, the grapes stayed out of his reach.  Finally, disgusted, the fox said that the grapes were undoubtedly sour and he didn’t want them anyway.  We all have a tendency to give up, to say the grapes are sour, not worth having.  And that’s probably not what the itch was trying to tell us.  You see, sometimes the grapes that are out of our reach aren’t sour, particularly, it’s just that if we reach them, actually get them, we find out in the process that what we really wanted was an orange, not grapes at all.

English: My own Work کار شخصی

Itch can be about holding on, even to a fixation that all around believe to be foolish or even crazy (we look at Steve Jobs‘ success, and we don’t remember how long everybody called him that crazy geek with the weird ideas), and yet itch can be about letting go of the grapes we didn’t want after all, and finding the orange we did.  But what itch is never about is giving up.  The real world may slap you down, may force you to face that this one particular thing, a starring role in a particular play on Broadway, a best-selling novel, the one person whom you just know would fulfill all your deepest needs (which doesn’t happen, no one person can do that and it is unfair to ask it), a teaching job at a university, is not going to happen.  Just not.  What do you do then?

That’s where itch is your friend, your subconscious working to bring you home and give you what you really want, way down deep, which is what you really need.  Itch will keep you discontented until you find your own distinctive path, and itch will push you, pull you, down that path.

If you are fixated on the one person you can’t have, then itch will let you know what you can do about it–if anything.  Victor Hugo once said, “Loving another person is to touch the face of God.”  Sometimes that has to be enough.  Eventually you may realize that your love embodies what you need in a partner, and by accepting your love of the unattainable (the grapes) you may open yourself to the attainable love that is waiting out there for you (your orange).

Sicilian oranges

Sicilian oranges (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And itch will keep on itching until you find your life’s work, or until it finds you.  Then your job is to notice that your itch has gone away and you are content.  Or something odd that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with what you think you want will happen and only by looking back will you realize that your itch helped you find what you’re really supposed to do and now you’re doing it.  Blessings.  And a tiny bit of advice.  Even as much as love, you need work to do, your real life’s work, so don’t ever give up on finding it, no matter how far away it may seem.

Or you may just have to get used to itch.  I am coming to the disconcerting conclusion that while discontent is uncomfortable, it is a much more normal state of mind for me than content.  I keep looking for a life that will make me content and since I have some (small) financial resources and good friends and a few smarts, I have been able to create that life time and again, and each and every time I do, I become discontented by that life or I screw it up.  Recognizing that I am basically discontented and that I need to be so was a big revelation to me. A good deal has happened in my soul this past year, and I feel that I have woken up in several ways.  Portions of my life that I thought I had successfully and rightly shut down are awake and itching again. But I hold onto the hope that this time I’ll find the wisdom not to engage in displacement, or distraction, or excessive retail therapy.  (Let’s be realistic here, after all.)  This time, I hope I won’t exclude the oranges in a fruitless (pun intended) quest for grapes.

There’s a tarot card called The Moon and it’s a tough card to get in a reading, because it usually means inner work, a pathway to understanding that is going to be a hard climb.  I’m on that pathway, itching all the way.  And nothing I can do will get me off that pathway until I reach the top and find what it means for me.  If itch is filling your thoughts and feelings, my only suggestion is that while doing laundry is a good thing in itself, if you’re folding the clothes only so you won’t think about what is bothering you, maybe you should stop and sit down and really ponder your itch.  See if it will let you know what it is and what it wants for you, and let it give you what you need.  And may you find your orange.

Tarot card from the Rider-Waite tarot deck, al...

Tarot card from the Rider-Waite tarot deck, also known as the Rider-Waite-Smith deck. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)