Sunday, December 24, 2017

With a Nod to TCM, a Glance at 6 Favorite Holiday Classics

In my pre-TCM life, before 2005, I ritually watched a small handful of classics during the holiday season every year, films like A Christmas Carol (1951), The Bishop's Wife (1947), Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and Scrooge (1970) that had been airing on network TV and local channels for years. Then I discovered Turner Classic Movies and the titles on my list of annual favorites multiplied.  These are some of the holiday must-sees I watch in December as the 25th draws near, each of them introduced to me on TCM.

1. Holiday Inn (1945) has just about everything going for it: Bing Crosby singing and Fred Astaire dancing in a Mark Sandrich musical featuring songs by Irving Berlin, including his "White Christmas" (introduced by Crosby in this film), along with "Happy Holiday" and other original tunes. Though a mischievous plot about a pair of competitive song-and-dance men wends its way through the seasons, Holiday Inn begins and ends at Christmastime. Click here for a link to my blog post on Holiday Inn.

2. Christmas in Connecticut (1945) stars Barbara Stanwyck who works her onscreen magic as a women's magazine columnist with a closely held professional secret. She's accompanied by the likes of S.Z. Sakall, Sydney Greenstreet, Reginald Gardiner and Joyce Compton in supporting roles and co-star Dennis Morgan as a returning war hero. Set as World War II came to a close, the film reflects the special significance of home and Christmas at the end of a hard-won war. Click here for a link to my blog post on Christmas in Connecticut.

3. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) is a year-round gem for, like Holiday Inn, it makes its way through all four seasons and comes to a climax at Christmas. Director Vincente Minnelli has a long list of classics to his name (Father of the Bride, An American in Paris, The Bad and the Beautiful, The Band Wagon, Gigi, Some Came Running) as does the film's show-stopping star, Judy Garland, but neither made a better film than this gorgeous musical ode to family life in America at the beginning of the 20th century. Click here for my blog post on Meet Me in St. Louis.

4. The Shop Around the Corner (1940). Like Vincente Minnelli, director Ernst Lubitsch possesses a formidable filmography: Trouble in Paradise, Easy Living, The Merry Widow, Ninotchka, To Be or Not to Be. Set in a snowy Old World Budapest, this romantic comedy has lost not the slightest fizz of its effervescence in the nearly 80 years since its release. James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as a pair of gift shop sales clerks whose ships nearly pass in the night were never better cast or in better form. Frank Morgan as the gift shop owner and Felix Bressart and Joseph Schildkraut as two sales clerks stand out in an impeccably cast ensemble. The Shop Around the Corner is simply flawless, Ernst Lubitsch's masterpiece. It comes as no surprise that his protege Billy Wilder had a sign over his desk that read, "What would Lubitsch have done?" Click here for my blog post on The Shop Around the Corner.

5. Remember the Night (1940) features the last screenplay Preston Sturges wrote before he began to direct as well as write. Of the film, under Mitchell Leisen's direction, Sturges wrote, "...the picture had quite a lot of schmaltz, a good dose of schmerz and just enough schmutz to make it box office." It's not a Sturges screwball, but it is an offbeat romance about an ambitious assistant DA (Fred MacMurray) who ends up taking a soon-to-be-convicted shoplifter (Barbara Stanwyck) to his family home for Christmas. The film boasts well-balanced elements of drama and comedy and delivers an affecting meditation on the quirks of love. As Sturges put it, "love reformed her and corrupted him." Enduring performances by Stanwyck, MacMurray and Beulah Bondi are highlights, with nice turns, too, from Sterling Holloway and "Bossy" the cow.
6. Bell, Book and Candle (1958) isn't your typical Christmas tale, though, like Holiday Inn and Meet Me in St. Louis, it travels through the seasons and returns to Christmastime. Set in New York during its late '50s heyday, the film's depiction of that city at that time is worth the price of admission alone. But there's more. Lots more: clever/wacky glimpses into the world of publishing, the beatnik scene and the occult underground. Scurrying everywhere are myriad oddballs portrayed by talents like Jack Lemmon, Ernie Kovacs, Hermione Gingold, Elsa Lanchester...and Pyewacket, a Siamese cat. James Stewart is a book publisher, Kim Novak is the sorceress who, in a fit of vengeance, bewitches him. Bell, Book and Candle isn't, technically, a Christmas movie, but it does spice up and light up the holidays.

Judy's legendary rendering of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)