I am a fan of old movies. I like all movies but I loooove old movies. If given a choice between Judd Apatow or Billy Wilder, I go with Wilder every time. I didn’t go to film school. I’m not a cinephile, or God forbid, a cineaste. I’m a fan. Movies make me happy. I enjoy watching them. I enjoy reading about them. I enjoy writing about them and once or twice, I enjoyed writing my own.
Whenever I share my fangirl status with someone new, I often get a ‘me, too!’ response. But on further questioning, they are revealed to be mere dabblers, counting once annual viewings of It’s A Wonderful Life and Wizard of Oz as fan status. Sometimes, I can bring them along, take them deeper and wider into the film world I love so much, suggesting bits and pieces here and there to pull them in. Other times, they are immune to the charms of James Cagney crime thriller.
Every Christmas, every film and television writer trots out the same tired feature on Christmas films. Everyone exclaims over the timelessness of A Miracle On 34th Street and The Peanut’s Christmas Special. The Grinch makes his appearance and that is that. Everybody pats themselves on the back for being old school and then we prepare to do Black Friday battle.
We are nostalgic, left wanting, and we don’t even know what for. We can’t remember a time when we weren’t cynical and knowing and far too hip for anything as silly as sentimentality. And it shows in the films that are made. The only kind of Christmas film given wide release is the PG-13 comedy with lots of broad, over the top humor and family drama that is what passes for pathos. We have gotten too smart for our own good and no adult would sit through anything with a holiday setting that wasn’t nudge-nudge wink-wink.
It saddens me. Sentimentality is a humanizing force. It keeps us in touch with our inner-five year old, the person we were before life became all responsibility and stillborn dreams. We need that, more now than ever. And it opens our eyes to that same force in others. We need to keep alive that child who was delighted by a string of sparkly lights and tinsel.
Back in the day, the holidays were worked in and around any number of themes and in every genre of film. They were Christmas musicals, dramas, comedies – even westerns and film noir. And it worked. They were good films, not just good Christmas films but honest to goodness quality pieces of film making.
Since I can’t buy anyone gifts this year, I’m going to do the only other thing I can think of and share something of myself and bring you my own list of Christmas movie favorites.
My Gift To You:
3 Godfathers (1948), directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne; none of that is a typo; Ford and Wayne made several spectacular films together and this is one of them; don’t be ashamed if you shed a few tears, everyone does
The War Movie
Since You Went Away (1944), directed by John Cromwell and starring Claudette Colbert, Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple, in one of her few successful adult roles; explores the toll war takes on those left behind; won Oscars in several artistic and technical categories
I’ll Be Seeing You (1944), directed by William Diertele and starring Joseph Cotten and Ginger Rogers and, also, Shirley Temple; two broken people trying to put themselves back together; the song of the same title, sung by Bing Crosby, became a huge hit that year while the film did not; give it a try, the performances are surprisingly constrained for the time and the emotion is real
The Thin Man (1934), directed by W.S. Van Dyke and starring William Power and Myrna Loy; it is the film that defined a genre, the slapstick crime thriller; it had many imitators but no one came close to the original; spawned an entire series of Thin Man movies
The Romantic Comedy
Christmas In Connecticut (1945), directed by Peter Godfrey and starring Barbara Stanwyck; if you only know Stanwyck from television, do yourself a favor and watch this film; Stanwyck plays the Ur-Martha Stewart; Stanwyck’s mouth writes a series of checks that her hind end can not cash and hilarity ensues
If you see no other film, see this one:
Meet Me In St. Louis (1944), directed by Vincente Minelli and starring Judy Garland and a lot of other people who do fine but it is Judy’s movie; this performance cemented Judy as a serious contender in the world of grown-up movie-making; if the camera seems to love every frame Judy is in, it is because it does, Vincente and Judy fell in love during filming and were married soon after; Judy debuts two standards, The Trolley Song and Have Yourself A Merry Christmas; the film consistently makes my list of best films ever made; it is an easy contender for best American musical
There you have it, my gift to you, some tears, some laughs, a lot of good songs and hefty performances. Hopefully, you’ll be able to make some of these films a part of your holiday tradition and you and yours will get as much enjoyment from them as me and mine have.