Dec 21, 2009

The Forties Goldmine of Christmas Movies: Part II

For part two, I wanted to give a little extra attention to a handful of forties holiday movies that have captured my affection in recent years:

Remember the Night (1940)
It’s a shame this romance gets draggy in spots, because in its best moments, this is the perfect holiday movie. Barbara Stanwyck is a shoplifter on trial who is sprung from jail for the holidays by a sympathetic assistant D.A. (Fred MacMurray). They end up traveling together to his country home, where they fall in love over the course of a cozy holiday with his family. All the best elements of a dream holiday are here: down home cooking, family sing-a-longs, loving relatives and joyful present exchanges. It sounds a bit corny on paper, but it is heartbreaking when you see the longing in Stanwyck’s eyes, and realize how badly she wants this kind of a life.

I’ll Be Seeing You (1944)
This is a darker holiday tale of a couple that overcomes unusual obstacles to find love, but it is equally moving. Ginger Rogers is a convict who is on furlough from prison so that she can spend the holidays with her aunt and uncle. On the train, she meets an emotionally-disturbed sergeant (Joseph Cotten) who is also on leave, but from a mental hospital. Over the course of their holiday, they struggle to bond while still hiding their dark secrets from each other. Cotten and Rogers poignantly communicate their frustrations, disappointments and fears as they struggle to reveal themselves to each other completely. The plot may sound depressing, but you really root for these sympathetic characters.

Beyond Tomorrow (1940)
A trio of lonely business associates who share a mansion in New York play a game on Christmas Eve to see if they can find some last minute dinner guests. Their ploy works, and the lonely man and woman who join them end up falling in love themselves. The new couple continues to enjoy spending time with their benefactors, until tragedy strikes, and the men are killed in a plane crash. The ghosts of the men continue to walk the earth, and it is a good thing, because the happy couple they left is struggling and needs their intervention. Though Jean Parker and Richard Carlson are sweet as the young couple, this movie belongs to the character actors: Harry Carey, C. Aubrey Smith and Charles Winninger as the wealthy benefactors and Marie Ouspenskaya as their loyal maid.

It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947)
Victor Moore is Aloysius T. McKeever (that name must have been hijacked from the files of W.C. Fields), a homeless man who takes up residence in a New York mansion each Christmas while the owners are on holiday. This year, he picks up a few more houseguests--including the family—who all unexpectedly turn up and end up playing along with their thoroughly in the wrong, but also quite reasonable squatter. Plotwise, there’s nothing novel about the events that follow. Yes, the family bonds anew, yes Aloysius teaches some important lessons, and of course there is a blossoming love affair. It is the characters’ tender, quirky interactions that make this movie special. The cast, including Gale Storm, Charles Ruggles, Ann Harding and Don DeFore, all communicate the pain of loneliness and the joy of making a human connection with touching vulnerability and good cheer.

Holiday Affair (1949)
This is a great movie for anyone who shrinks from holiday-themed schmaltz. Though this story of a war widow who meets a helpful stranger has the requisite happy, romantic ending, Robert Mitchum, Janet Leigh and even Gorden Gerbert as her precocious son are all so darned laidback. Which is not to say this group is too cool; there is great warmth and good humor in this story of a war widow comparison shopper who tangles with, and then falls for a department store clerk. Though the interactions between Mitchum, Gerbert and Leigh are great fun, this is at heart the story of a grieving wife who must overcome her reluctance to deal with the loss of her beloved husband. Leigh’s struggle to move on both places the story firmly in the post-war era and helps it to transcend time.

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