Holiday High Five

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Before Kevin McCallister, Scott Calvin, and Buddy the Elf entertained us on big and small screens at this time of year, there were already some really great black and white Christmas movies.  I’ll tell you my top five in descending order, because I don’t care much for building up to Number 1 (It doesn’t follow the inverted pyramid).  Here they are, with notes on a few others:

  1. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
  2. A Christmas Carol (1938)
  3. Miracle on 34th Street (1938) 
  4. Holiday Inn (1942)
  5. The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

It’s the cast that makes It’s a Wonderful LIfe so wonderful.  And the simple story Frank Capra chose about appreciating life itself, which began as a greeting on a Christmas card.  But not much beats watching Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell and Beulah Bondi at home in the same small town.  There’s even a short performance from Sheldon Leonard, the television genius, as Nick the bartender.

You’d think we would have said good-bye to all of its adult actors by now, but there is one who is still living in the Midwest. The beautiful Virginia Patton, who played Harry Bailey’s new wife is at home in Michigan with her real-life husband, Cruze Moss.  The Mosses are retired Ann Arbor business owners and true-maize-and blue University of Michigan supporters. They still enjoy giving interviews.

John Wayne’s buddy Ward Bond played Burt the cop, just one of his supporting roles on the big screen. He was also in Gone With the Wind, the Wagon Train television series and many, many westerns.

Jimmy Hawkins was the youngest Bailey child (“Scuse me! Scuse me! I burped!”) He was a teen actor with Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap and also The Donna Reed Show in the 1960s.

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A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens probably has the most movie adaptations.  The one that stands out for me was made in 1938, starring Reginald Owen as Scrooge.  He was actually much younger than Scrooge would have been, and ended his career with Mary Poppins in 1964.  The Gene Lockhart family played the Bob Cratchit family, with another Gone With the Wind alum, Ann Rutherford,  as the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Who can forget little Natalie Wood’s performance in the original Miracle on 34th Street? The story that begins with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and ends with Santa Claus delivering her to a real home is on many lists of favorites. Edmund Gwynne and Maureen O’Hara were perfectly cast, with John Payne in the part he is most identified with.  It was a busy year for Gene Lockhart, who plays the judge in the trial courtroom.

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,Holiday Inn

Then there’s all the song and dance talent of Holiday Inn, featuring Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, and Marjorie Reynolds.  Why Ms. Reynolds was not a major star has certainly to do with studio politics, not her ability (She also played a belle in GWTW).  Irving Berlin classics, including Easter Parade and White Christmas light up the screen.  According to my aunt, the number Be Careful, It’s My Heart was supposed to be the big hit of the film.  As much as I love the later movie White Christmas with Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen, it heralded the beginning of Technicolor, and so is not in the b/w category. 

Lately Holiday Inn has been criticized for racial reasons, and rightly so.  Let’s remember that it was a different time, and not diminish the film’s good points.  Minstrel shows are part of our history.   I also think the black actors outshine their white counterparts in many scenes.  Little Daphne and Vanderbilt are adorable.

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Does anyone not love to watch ice skaters?  Cary Grant’s faux performance on the rink is noteworthy in The Bishop’s Wife.  As another angel sent to earth, he encourages Loretta Young in her unenviable position as the wife of David Niven, an ambitious man of the church.  Grant was a master of timing and facial expression.

Barbara Stanwyk, the iron woman of The Big Valley and other shows, plays quite different parts in two early movies, Remember the Night and Christmas in Connecticut.  I favor the former because I think the portrait of rural Indiana in the early 20th Century is right on.  Beulah Bondi appears again, as the mother of Fred MacMurray, who was quite different looking when he was young  (Don’t think of him only as he was in My Three Sons).  In the second movie, Ms. Stanwyk is a society columnist who gets caught in her fake story of ideal country living, and has to hire a husband to play it out.

Many black and white pictures have memorable Christmas scenes – including Little Women.  I like the one in which Jo March is played by June Allison.  Peter Lawford doesn’t hurt it any, either.

The current deluge of Hallmark movies is nice, with several that I enjoy watching more than once.  But best are the ones with interesting shadows, old actors, and timeless music.  To me, they are the real Christmas gems.




Wizard of Oz Glittering Ruby Red Slippers framed nursery playroom art sign Glinda the good witch

The childvoice behind the pink sheen and sparkle told Dorothy she could go home.  She looked and sounded like a fairy, so why wouldn’t anyone believe her?  We were relieved when Dorothy swirled back to Kansas; Glinda stayed in Oz, watching over the Land of the Quadlings.  Can it be almost eighty years since Billie Burke, then 54, played the part of the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz?  She was at the time an accomplished star of the stage and movie screen.

Mary William Ethelbert Appelton Burke was born August 7, 1885.  Her parents, a circus clown and his wife, traveled and then lived in London where Billie made her stage debut at 18.  When she was 22 she moved to the upcoming center for the theatre, New York City.

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In 1921 she married Florenz Ziegfeld, impresario of the Ziegfeld Follies.  The couple lived comfortably on the show and their stock market investments, but after the crash of 1929 Billie had to go back to work.  Her husband died soon after, never getting to hear her first spoken role in the movies.

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She had a steady career, making 25 films in the 1940s.  She’d been nominated for an Oscar for Merrily We Live in 1938.  Her last film was Sergeant Rutledge in 1960, and she passed away ten years later at the age of 85.

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But that voice.  That red hair (under the wig, too).  That sheer, flowy butterfly-trimmed dress that flounced about and the tall glass crown on her head as she introduced the Munchkins.  She disappeared in a bubble and made us feel that somehow we’d always be looked over by a fairy godmother.

“Come out, come out, wherever you are; and meet the young lady who fell from a star…”  How many can sing her part and that of the Lullaby League, the Lollipop Guild, and the rest of the little people who lived in that land?

It’s nearing Trick or Treat time.  When kids ring our doorbell this year, they’ll be handed goodies from the pink-gowned, wand-waving lady I’ve always loved.  But even wearing a mishmash of things from Goodwill, Amazon, and Michaels, I could never delight them the way Glinda, and Billie Burke, did all of us.

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Robert’s Rules

“Hi, I’m Robert Osborne.”  The silver-haired gentleman in jacket and tie stepped forward, introducing himself as he previewed another film.  He seemed like one of our parents’ friends from childhood we can’t remember not knowing.

His absence from the Turner Classic Movie channel will be difficult for many, as he passed away this month at 84.  An actor for a short time, he appeared in the pilot for the Beverly Hillbillies in the early 1960s.  While he worked for Desilu, Lucille Ball encouraged him to begin writing, and he authored many articles on the history of film including a classic book about the Academy Awards.

Always tasteful, always a class act, Robert was trusted equally by actors. coworkers and audiences.  In 1994 he joined TCM and quickly became its anchor, accumulating interviews of movie stars from the golden age of film.  He preserved for posterity Private Screening spots with Betty Hutton, Mickey Rooney, Robert Mitchum, Ann Miller and many more.

I remember one time, perhaps before Singing in the Rain was shown, he revealed he’d been on the set the last day Gene Kelley was in front of the camera.  It was for That’s Entertainment II, and the famous dancer wasn’t feeling well, but you wouldn’t know it because he carried on like he always had, with finesse.

Mr. Osborne had just as much finesse.  We identified with him and he with us.  He was interested in the viewers, as shown by his willingness to invite them to his program from time to time to help host their favorites.

He was the Dean of Movie Watchers; he was warm and gentle, and funny too.  A recent 20th anniversary special showcased outtakes that made me laugh out loud.  Apparently Olivia DeHaviland enjoyed his conversation, because they spoke on the phone every Sunday evening.

This is a history blog, but entertainment factors into history in a big way.  It is both cause and effect in our lives.  When Thomas Edison invented moving pictures, the new medium of expression transformed the way the world would be seen from that time on.

I am grateful that Robert Osborne decided to share his experiences with his wide audience.  His rules were simple, and he followed them well.  Rest in peace.

On March 18 and 19, Turner Classic Movies will air a special tribute to Mr. Osborne.


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Jean Arthur and Cary Cooper in The Plainsman, 1936.  They were also paired in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.

The other night I watched a classic black and white western, The Plainsman.  Gary Cooper played Wild Bill Hickok, a gunslinger I always get confused with Doc Holiday and Wyatt Earp.  I was prompted to cybersearch after the movie was over to check how facts played into it.

Facts?  Sources concur that reliable information about Hickok (1837-1876), whose real name was James, is sketchy.  He as well as Martha Cannary (Calamity Jane) seem to have spread rumors about themselves, which were perpetuated by Eastern publishing companies.

A few undisputed things about him —

  • Born in Illinois, he served as a guide and spy for the Union Army in the Civil War.
  • He knew George Armstrong Custer, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Calamity Jane.
  • He was elected an officer of the law by citizens in Kansas towns.
  • He was quick with two pearl-handled revolvers he carried backwards in his belt.
  • He died at a poker table with black aces and eights in his hand, in Deadwood, South Dakota.

The Cooper movie and subsequent others used these facts, but wove the plot in imaginative ways.

In 1942 Bruce Cabot played him in Wild Bill Hickock Rides.

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In 1995 Jeff Bridges brought raw realities to the role in Wild Bill.

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With a masterful blend of music, cast and cinematography, TNT’s 1999 fantasy Purgatory placed Hickok with Holiday, Jesse James and Billy the Kid.  Sam Shepard had the main part in his hand.

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The most recent version of Wild Bill is played by Jeff Fahey in Wild Bill Hickok: Swift Justice, released just this year.  Lee Majors narrates the story.

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In these movies we see a bits of truth squeaked out of lives of flamboyant lawmen: they did protect us regular folks and try to uphold justice.

However stretched, it is assuring to hear along with flying hooves from an old movie in a dark room on a Thursday night.

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James Butler Hickok.

Did You Catch the Score?

Ever since “Scarlett’s Theme” fancied across the sound waves to my ears in a re-release of Gone With the Wind (1939), I’ve loved movie soundtracks.  It happened in a matinee of our hometown theatre in the late 1950s.  I imagined myself in Civil War times, living with those people, walking through their houses and sharing their happiness and tragedies.  I guess that’s what we call history.

GWTW is not by any measure a documentary.  When Margaret Mitchell’s husband saw the number of casualties on the streets of Atlanta in the movie, he said, “If we had that many soldiers, we’d have won the war.”   But it did a lot for my desire to study the past, as it has for others.

Depicting an earlier era, Tom Hulce’s performance in Amadeus (1984) was paced by appropriate selections of Mozart’s music.  And even though Jane Austen wrote fiction, her atmospheres of genteel people in the early 1800s were true.   Sense and Sensibility (1995) and Emma (1996) have poignant original music along with arrangements of period songs.

The Last of the Mohicans (1992) and Lincoln (2012) still rivet me to the screen.  This could also have something to do with Daniel Day-Lewis in the middle of both.  And who can forget the haunting themes which helped us sympathize with Native Americans in Dances With Wolves (1990)?

Another Civil War era classic is Little Women, of which several versions have been produced.  The 1994 remake has the most beautiful music, I think.  It reminds me of the mood I was in when I first read Louisa Mae Alcott’s classic in the upper elementary grades.

Describing a war of the next century and the ghouls thereof, the soundtrack of Schindler’s List (1993) is unforgettable; more recently, music from The Book Thief (2013), also helped tell the story of Nazi occupation.

When it comes to postwar America, West Side Story (1960) shows the frustration of young immigrants in New York City.  A bonafide musical, it combines song and dance of the street with cultural music.  As for the 60s, who did soundalike golden oldies better than Tom Hanks and his crew in That Thing You Do (1996)?  Songwriting is on his long list of talents.

This is just a smattering from the talented artists who have composed and played the music behind the movies.  Some have been nominated for Academy Awards and some have won.  You probably have your favorites, too.  What grabbed you as you watched?

The stateliness of a plantation, the broadness of the Chattahoochee River, the strong strides of Rhett, the inconsequence of Ashley, the peace of Melanie, and the frivolity of Scarlett – all are heard measure by measure in Gone With the WindActing is made real through orchestrations, costumes, props, and sets.  History lives for us in the sum of them.

Max Steiner’s original score for Gone With the Wind.

Great PerFAUXmances

In an old movie I’m watching, the camera closes in over the back of a piano.  It shows the musician’s smiling face, but I know he’s not playing: his arm movements don’t quite match the notes on the keys.

You wouldn’t expect casting directors to always find actors who can play the instruments called for in scripts.  Occasionally, they do.  Hoagy Carmichael tickled the ivories for The Best Years of Our Lives.  Andy Griffith put his high school music teaching experience to use when he played folks songs on the guitar.  Lucille Ball gave an unforgettably honest rendition of Glow Worm on the saxophone on her show, as her husband overshadowed her on the bongo drums.

Vocals for musicals on the silver screen have been dubbed for a long time.  Marnie Nixon was actually singing for Audrey Hepburn, Natalie Wood, Deborah Kerr and others; but I was surprised recently to find out that even Christopher Plummer in The Sound of Music didn’t cut the mustard.  There have been some twists, like Jean Hagen voicing over Debbie Reynolds who was voicing over Jean Hagen’s character in Singing in the Rain.  Try to figure that one out.  And in West Side Story, it was Tucker Smith performing Russ Tamblyn’s solos for Officer Krupke.  Good thing it was recorded, because Tucker was also among the backup boys.  Mr. Tamblyn’s incredible gymnastic and dancing ability more than made up for the substitution.

Good dancing is pretty hard to fake.  Eleanor Powell, Bill Robinson, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were all the real deal – even James Cagney showed his stuff in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

In the sports arena, remember Cary Grant ice skating in The Bishop’s Wife, or Moira Kelly and D.B. Sweeney in The Cutting Edge?  Closeups were managed OK, but the routines belonged to professionals.  Robert Redford really did belt curve balls in The Natural (not quite as far as that clock, though), having played baseball in college; Esther Williams and Johnny Weissmuller were hired for their excellence in swimming as well as their good looks.  The cowboys in westerns had to be able to handle horses and many did their own stunts, according to reminiscences.

Baking cookies in a film is a little different.  There have been so many Christmas movies where the finished results are obviously the work of a propman or art director.  If the Food Network can find people who know how to bake, I think Hallmark could too.  It doesn’t take that long to learn!

Sally Field said that yes, that’s her really knitting in a scene in her newest movie.  She revealed that knitting has been her hobby for years, and that she coached the others to make their work look believable.

I suppose it’s picky to criticize people for pretending to do things in what is already a pretend medium.  And really, if I want to see something authentic, I can go to a musical on the regional stage or save up for a trip to Broadway.  The talent there belongs totally to the cast.