Follow me as I watch 50+ of the best (and worst) holiday films! I will blog mini-reviews as I go and then rank them when I’m done watching them all.
Meet Me in St. Louis
There are few things more in the spirit of the season than Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to her baby sister.
That being said, I found very little in this film that I could relate to. It isn’t that the movie is not entertaining. It is. But it acted as more of a curiosity to me than anything. I had a lot of trouble sympathizing with the characters or their trials.
“Meet Me in St. Louis” follows four beautiful sisters. There’s the boy crazy older pair (Judy Garland, “The Wizard of Oz,” “A Star is Born;” Lucille Bremer, “Ziegfeld Follies”) and younger tomboys (Joan Carroll, “The Bells of St Mary;” and Margaret O’Brien, “Little Women,” “Jane Eyre”). They look forward to the upcoming World’s Fair, seek out Victorian style engagements, and fret over leaving the family home for dad’s promotion.
It’s all really much ado about nothing. The writing is clever, but the plot is dull. And the characters spend most of their time crying over one tiny crisis or another.
Certainly, there is nostalgia for those childhood and teenage years, but the traditions that this film show are somewhat foreign to a modern audience. In fact, the Halloween scenes are almost completely unrecognizable. It’s more like a film about another country than one about the Gateway to the American West.
Certainly there are people to whom this film will speak to more than myself, and for those I can say just one thing. Have yourself a merry little Christmas.
Christmas in Connecticut
When this film was made, Barbara Stanwyck (“Double Indemnity,” “The Lady Eve”) was the most wealthy woman in America. She was talented, beautiful, and rich, and this film represents the pinnacle of her talents and career.
Dennis Morgan (“Kitty Foyle”) is a WWII soldier that was stranded on a raft. He spent that time dreaming of food. A nurse at his hospital and an enterprising newspaper man (Sydney Greenstreet, “Casablanca,” “The Maltese Falcon”) cook up a great plan for charity and publicity.
Barbara Stanwyck’s character is supposed to be a cross between Emily Post and Martha Stewart. Well, she’s supposed to be. That what she tells her readers. She lives on a farm, has a loving husband and an infant, and can whip up gourmet meals in the kitchen. The reality, however, is that she’s a single lady in the city that gets recipes from her favorite restaurateur (S.Z. Sakall, “Ball of Fire,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy”). When she is all but forced to host a Christmas party on her imaginary farm, she has to agree to marry a wealthy friend (Reginald Gardiner, “The Great Dictator,” “The Flying Deuces”) and create a series of elaborate lies.
The charade is the fun of this film. As the holiday lies spin more and more elaborate webs, Stanwyck gets entangled more and more. She’s also falling deeper in deeper in a kind of love those lies will only prevent.
What’s more festive than lying to those you care about?
When seeking out a fun and witty way to spend the holidays, perhaps you should consider spending Christmas in Connecticut.
When two strangers who were recently involved in horrible break-ups decide to trade spaces for Christmas, a Londoner finds herself in Beverly Hills and the Hollywood blond goes to a tiny, frozen cottage. A mere whim of heartbreak and the blowing Santa Annas promise to change both of their lives with holiday magic.
Cameron Diaz (“There’s Something About Mary,” “Shrek”) is the film industry’s hottest cutter of trailers, which is a fun device as she occasionally imagines her life in those terms. Kate Winslet (“Titanic,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) writes wedding announcements for the paper but suffers from unrequited love. When they swap lives for two weeks, they each find love in unexpected places. Cameron hooks a serial one-night-stander (Jude Law, “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Sherlock Holmes”). Kate flirts with a guy that scores movies (Jack Black, “School of Rock,” “Bernie”). The love stories follow the standard formula and are rather predictable, but both unwind their yarns with fun, well-acted scenes that effectively demonstrate the transcendent power of love.
Honestly, if this film simply told the pair of love stories, it would have been satisfactory, but there is another story line that demonstrates non-romantic love in a gentle and very entertaining way. Eli Wallach (“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” “The Magnificent Seven”) plays Cameron – err, Kate’s next door neighbor. He’s an aging man that can’t walk on his own power, and for that reason, he keeps blowing off the Writing Guild’s invitation to pay tribute to his work. Winslet and Black find the wily older man and his pals to be charming and decide to offer him a hand.
A lot has been made of “Love Actually,” but if you ask me, the superior romantic Christmas movie is “The Holiday.”
The Shop Around the Corner
Before the internet, before eHarmony.com and speed dating, the concept of anonymous courtship still existed. In Budapest, Hungary in 1940 when a person wanted to meet a potential mate, they could go to the dance halls or they could respond to personal ads in the newspaper for a pen pal.
That’s just what Alfred Kralik (James Stewart, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”) has done. The lead salesman at Matuschek and Company has found passion in the words of a stranger, and he has no idea that his anonymous amor is actually the new salesgirl, Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan, “The Mortal Storm,” “Three Comrads”). In their letters, they find love, but on the sales floor, they find nothing but disagreement and discord.
Director Ernst Lubitsch (“To Be or Not to Be,” “Ninotchka,” “Trouble in Paradise”) calls “The Little Shop Around the Corner” his greatest comedy, and it’s not simply because of the playful romance. This film will find a special place in the heart of anyone who has worked retail.
Matuschek and Company is a place that is both foreign and incredibly familiar. Who in sales hasn’t had someone ask a question like, “How much is that belt in the window, the one that says ‘2.95?'” No matter where you are in the world, this little store could be the shop around the corner. All the characters from the sensitive manager (Frank Morgan, “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Great Ziegfeld”) to the older and wiser salesman (Joseph Schildkraut, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “Orphans of the Storm”) to the style-obsessed upstart (Felix Bressart, “To Be or Not to Be,” “Ninotchka”) are remarkably like people that I’ve worked with. They’re realistic and endlessly entertaining. I particularly enjoyed the story of the errand boy, Pepi (William Tracy, “Angels with Dirty Faces,” “Mr. & Mrs. Smith”).
With all of your Christmas shopping this year, you really ought to see if there’s something you might like at “The Little Shop Around the Corner.”
Silent Night, Deadly Night
A boy is traumatized when his parents are murdered by a man dressed as Santa Claus. He is raised in an orphanage run by a nun that punishes naughty wards with brutality. As a man, he is given the job of being a toy store Santa, and the terrible flashbacks and an incident of witnessed workplace harassment makes him snap. This year, Santa is bringing more than lumps of coal to the bad little boys and girls.
Just like most horror flicks of the 1980’s, “Silent Night, Deadly Night” is a gimmicky romp. It follows all of the required rules. There’s a harbinger, a set of bare breasts about every twenty minutes, and a creatively dispatched body count that rises into the double digits. The writers could have used some clever puns, and the deaths aren’t particularly holiday themed. But if you need a Christmas horror movie, you’re choices are pretty much just limited to this one anyway.
Well, this and its four sequels.