Friday, December 21, 2007

Have Yourself a Black-and-White Christmas

With the Cranky Reviewer™ being on a semi-permanent hiatus, I decided to go ahead and make my own recommendations this year for some holiday-specific films that have become part of my own holiday tradition. Also, this is a chance for Woundup readers to realize that I don't always use this platform to grouse and complain. It only seems that way.

We have a box. It's about two-thirds the size of a document archive box. It holds our holiday collection of videos and DVDs that we watch every year, and we continually add to it. Eventually I hope to either copy our video cassettes to DVD or replace them with DVD copies, but that may take time. Anyway, I want to focus on some of my favorites today, and they all have one thing in common: they were all shot in black-and-white.

I'm not a fan of colorization. I think it's okay to want to see one once in a while just to remind ourselves that life before the 50's did have color. My mother seems to remember living life in color, so I guess that's historically accurate. But I enjoy black-and-white films precisely because they lend themselves to a historical view of the world. As an amateur historian of sorts, I appreciate that quality. The stories around which these films were built are of the variety that transcend the medium and allow the viewer to escape into a world of our choosing. So, having introduced the topic thus, let me regale you with

Uncle Woody's Black-and-White Holiday Picks

The Bells of St. Mary's (1945)
This is actually a sequel to "Going My Way," the film in which Bing Crosby created the role of Father Timothy O'Malley, and for which he won his Best Actor Oscar. I haven't actually seen "Going My Way," but I can now since it appears on a double-header DVD with "Holiday Inn" (which see below). "St. Mary's" pits the good Father against Sister Benedict, who runs the church's parish school. Sister Benedict is played brilliantly by Ingrid Bergman, and Crosby is his affable best as Father O'Malley.

Plot-wise the film is completely predictable, but of the feel-good variety that I always appreciate. O'Malley and Benedict clash over the fate of the school. O'Malley has been asked to make a recommendation as to whether to close the school, while Sister Benedict fiercely defends the school at the same time she dreams of moving into a nice, modern building being constructed next door.

This isn't really a Christmas movie, per se, but Christmas factors heavily in the story. The kicker here is a wonderful — schmaltzy, even — version of the Nativity staged by the school's kindergartners and first-graders, with humorous results.

Holiday Inn (1942)
Here's one I've only just seen for the first time ever this year. It's a typical story of entertainers behind the scenes and stars Crosby with Fred Astaire. They compete for the art and for the girl. As with "St. Mary's," it's not truly a Christmas film. "Holiday Inn" derives its name from the idea that the inn is only open on holidays throughout the year, including Lincoln's and Washington's birthdays (back when they were celebrated separately), Valentine's Day, and July 4th. Irving Berlin provides his usual snappy numbers for each holiday, and provides plenty of fodder for Bing and Fred to ply their trade.

One note: stories about entertainers always crack me up when it comes to their relationships with the opposite sex. Astaire's character in particular falls "in love" with whichever girl makes the best dance partner, even if it's at the expense of Crosby's love life. This is typical Hollywood faire for the period, and makes for some entertaining moments.

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
Arguably the king of holiday movies. I say arguably, because I believe Mrs. Woody would indeed argue the point with me. Her all-time fave is "Miracle on 34th Street" (coming up next!), and I certainly respect her opinion on that. For me, however, the combination of Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, and Frank Capra is nearly unbeatable. This story has been told so many times in so many ways over the ensuing years. None of them, however, really holds a flame next to Capra's masterpiece. Stewart is simply perfect as the small-town do-gooder George Bailey who finds himself trapped in a provincial existence. At his moment of greatest crisis his guardian angel intervenes with spectacular result.

This movie never, and I mean never fails to choke me up in the end. I've seen this I don't know how many times over the years, and I can honestly say I have nearly memorized every line of dialogue in the film. Yet every year we reach the part where George's brother says, "To my big brother George, the richest man in town!" and I find myself holding back the tears. And I never cry. Well, rarely, anyway.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
I should make Mrs. Woody write this review, really. This is the movie that begins our holiday season every year. We watch this movie on Thanksgiving evening, so it ties in not only with Christmas, but with the Macy's Holiday Parade which we watch in the morning. Given that this is Mrs. Woody's personal favorite, I also enjoy it, and certainly don't mind recommending it. The overarching plot revolves around one man's claim to being the real Santa Clause, and being subjected to a hearing that could result in his being committed to a mental institution. Underneath it all is a story of unconditional love and the true spirit of Christmas. It also features a very precocious Natalie Wood years before she became a stunning bombshell of an actress.

Taken altogether, "Miracle" is another one of those films that can catch me off-guard and find me holding back a tear or two.

The Bishop's Wife (1947)
Cary Grant, David Niven, and Loretta Young. Not to mention several cameos by some of the best character actors in the business, including Elsa Lanchester, James Gleason, and Monty Woolley. This film has also been remade a number of times, most notably by Whitney Houston several years ago, but again the original is the gold-medal standard. I enjoy this film for three reasons. Grant (another angel character) is at the top of his game in this film. His chemistry with the innocent and unsuspecting Young as the wife of an Episcopalian Bishop is marvellous, but his more adversarial relationship with Niven's Bishop character is even better. The results are often funny, frequently poignant, and altogether wonderful. The second thing I enjoy about this film is the underlying current of faith and hope. Man finds himself feeling short-changed in life, until faith creeps in and reminds him that life can be wonderful and fulfilling if only we let it. Finally, the Christmas sermon that Grant writes on behalf of his harried Bishop is terrific. It's a gentle reminder that the best gift of Christmas has always been and will always be the Babe of Bethlehem.

So that's it. These are the films that I watch around this time of year, for what it's worth. There are others that I have yet to watch, like "Christmas in Connecticut," for example. Or "A Christmas Wish" which stars both Jimmy Durante and a squirrel. So next year's list may have to be modified. You may also notice that I don't list any of the "A Christmas Carol" versions in black-and-white. I think we only have one home-taped version (the 1938 version, if memory serves). However, Patrick Stewart's interpretation of the classic is by far my favorite. Stewart put together a strong ensemble for his televised version in 1997, and I watch it every year. We first heard about his annual readings of the Dickens story and found a CD audio version that we listened to on a trip several years ago. When his televised version came out we watched it and fell in love with it. Hence I have no black-and-white "Carols" on my list.

Feel free to tell me what your personal Christmas favorites are, whether color or black-and-white. I don't dare go into my entire list; there isn't enough room without your having to scroll down for all eternity. Whatever you do, take the time to enjoy some good entertainment this holiday season. Attend a concert. Go to Midnight Mass, if that's your tradition. Tomorrow night Mrs. Woody and I take the Woodyettes to see a live version of "The Nutcracker."

Merry Christmas!

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