A Christmas thought

Whoever wrote “You’d better not shout, you’d better not cry” never did any shopping the week before Christmas.

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Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” – A holiday experience

 

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Most Judy Garland fans know at least one song in her catalog that will reduce them to a blubbering mess. For me, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is not a Christmas song, it’s a Christmas experience, and my holiday season does not officially begin until I’ve cried over it at least once.

The song was written by Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin for Garland’s 1944 M-G-M musical Meet Me in St. Louis, and it’s probably the song version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in terms of the number of times and ways it’s been re-done. If you’re familiar with the tune, you’ll know that there are two versions of it. The more optimistic version has the lines “From now on, our troubles will be out of sight” and “Through the years, we all will be together.”

But for me, the only version that counts — and even that one doesn’t count unless it’s sung by Garland — goes, “Next year, all our troubles will be out of sight” and “Some day soon, we all will be together.” Why does this version count?

The song’s premise, for one. In the movie, Esther (Garland) is singing the song to comfort her little sister Tootie (Margaret O’Brien), who is upset that their family will soon be uprooting to New York. Listening to Garland sing the song, you quickly realize that (a) Esther is singing the song to uplift herself as much as her sister, and (b) she doesn’t believe a single word of it.

Even the song’s orchestration is bittersweet. The first four bars have typical twinkling imagery in the background, but the song’s string section subtly leads us, one step after the other, into a bitter descent that paves the way for Garland’s tearful voice.

And this is as it should be. People often pooh-pooh the holiday naysayers and want to remember only the happy times and joyous reunions, and there’s certainly a place for that.

But for me, the song evokes all those Christmases before I was lucky enough to have a wife and family of my own — those times when I looked at happy couples and twinkling lights and wondered why I felt so alone. It’s a hell from which I’m selfishly happy to have escaped, knowing that the same scene still plays out annually for others.

By all means, don’t deny yourself the joy that the holiday season brings. But when all the Christmas chores are done, sit down, look at the starry sky, and listen to Judy Garland sing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” with everything that’s in her.

And remember that the greatest Being who ever walked on this earth, whose birth we are celebrating, was born in a stable, surrounded by cattle. And if you pray, preface the greeting “God, our Heavenly Father,” with “There, but for the grace of…”

 

 

THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK (1944) – Preston Sturges’ Christmas gift to the world

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Small-town girl Trudy Kockenlocker (reflect on that name for a moment) is torn. Trudy (Betty Hutton) wants to give a good time to the soldiers who are having a farewell party before leaving to fight in the war. But the small-town part of her regrets once again turning down a date with well-meaning 4-F-er Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), who has longed for Trudy ever since they were kids.

(And Trudy’s brusque father, Constable Edmund Kockenlocker [William Demarest], would prefer to see Trudy and her younger sibling Emmy [Diana Lynn] locked up in chastity belts until their honeymoons.)

Trudy takes the worldly way out and wishes the soldiers well all night long. This results in a bump on the head, a quickie marriage to some soldier whose name she can’t quite place (“Ratzkywatzky? I know there’s a ‘Z’ in it somewhere”), and yet another bump — the kind that’s the outcome of a marriage you can’t quite remember. All of this quite rattles the good citizens of Morgan’s Creek — particularly Norval, who usually has a bad case of the nerves on his good days.

All of this results in risque, just-this-side-of-bad-taste comedy that left many contemporary censors, critics, and moviegoers in (often delightful) shock (it’s stated that the movie often played to SRO houses in its day) and still leaves you wide-eyed and laughing with its refreshing frankness. This movie looks as though it was filmed for about 50 cents, and it really doesn’t matter — because, as with the best movie comedies, all you really want is a camera to follow the characters around and watch as they get deeper and deeper into their mess. And that’s pretty much what writer-director Preston Sturges does; you can almost see him behind the camera, licking his chops as his actors make the most out of every situation and pratfall.

As for those actors, what’s not to like? Hutton and Lynn are thoroughly winning as they hatch their schemes under the lurking eye of their assertive father. Bracken takes a character who’s potentially grating and gives him an undercurrent of naive charm. Demarest is superbly blustery (and who knew he could take such falls over and over?). There’s always one scene in each of Sturges’ movies that ensures it for posterity. I couldn’t resist embedding this movie’s highlight/scene below. It’s the one where the constable/father gives a very threatening speech to his potential son-in-law, who is already near hysterics from all of the movie’s goings-on.

Sturges brings the story to a head right on Christmas Eve. That’s enough for me to qualify it as my favorite Christmas movie ever. It’s a miracle, all right — a miracle of comedy.

SCHOOL DAZE (1988) – Don’t like Spike Lee? Go on and swear, see if I care

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Spike Lee’s amazing School Daze has the liberating feeling of something loose and cool breaking through on the screen. As critic Roger Ebert noted in his review of the movie, Lee makes no apologies about showing no white people in the movie — and more power to him. Lee’s loosely plotted depiction of life at an all-black college is refreshing in its — if you will — “segregation.” A viewer can perfectly well see that Lee wants to show a black milieu, free of the condescending whites of many lesser movies.

The majority of the story involves the college’s fraternity and sorority. Half-Pint (Spike Lee) is quite happy to sacrifice his individuality if it’ll get him into Gamma Phi Gamma, despite the best efforts of his cousin Dap (Laurence Fishburne, billed here as “Larry”) to radicalize his sibling. And sorority leader Jane (Tisha Campbell, who later had to suffer as Martin Lawrence’s wife in the sitcom “Martin”) has an intense relationship with lead Gamma man Julian (Giancarlo Esposito of “Breaking Bad”), which eventually has some beyond-unfortunate consequences for Jane.

The movie goes all over the place, but if it’s a mess, it’s an invigorating one. It goes from Half-Pint’s frat hi-jinks, to Dap’s getting humbled (somewhat) by a local man (Samuel L. Jackson!) who couldn’t care less about getting radicalized, to Julian’s unbelievably callous kiss-off to Jane. In between, there’s a great speech by Ossie Davis, as a coach who psychs up the college football team as though he’s giving a Sunday sermon, and an appropriately named dance number, “Da Butt” — placed in the film because Lee wanted to see what it was like to start a national trend.

And about a half-hour into the movie is what I consider its greatest moment (embedded below): An all-out musical number (written by Lee’s father Bill) called “Straight and Nappy,” in which the “wannabe” sorority girls, with their contact lenses and fancy hair, duke it out with the “jigaboos,” who let their hair go natural as a matter of pride. The number goes far beyond its reason for existence and just turns into a marvel to watch. You can just about touch the joy in the performances of the women, who seem to marvel at the chance to show their stuff. (Look at those happy faces at number’s end.) For me, it was 1988’s best movie scene, and it made me wish the entire movie had been a full-fledged musical (though it squeezes in a couple of other numbers, one by Stevie Wonder).

I met Spike Lee at a book signing shortly after this movie came out. At that point, I was so thrilled with his movies and to see him in the flesh, I burst out at him, “I hope the studios let you make movies forever!” Lee looked up at me wordlessly, and you could see his thoughts in his eyes: Who is this crazy white man? Well, what I am is a movie enthusiast who loves great movies that have an individual point of view, rather than looking like they were steered by committee. And how many committees would approve a musical number called “Straight and Nappy”?

School Daze is one of Spike Lee’s loosest movies, and still one of his best.

ANNOUNCEMENT: The Third Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon–Celebrating 100 Years Of Buster!

Reposted from the blog Silent-ology:

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My friends, I’m thrilled to announce:

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I’m thrilled not just because this is a fantastic annual event celebrating one of the finest, most beloved comedians who ever walked this earth, but because 2017 marks 100 years since Buster first entered the movies on that fateful day in NYC back in 1917. That makes this blogathon an extra special one, and frankly, I’ve been waiting for it for years.

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PEANUTS and Peppermint Patty

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I think I was a fan of the comic strip Peanuts almost from the time I learned to read. When I was seven years old, for Christmas my grandmother bought me Peanuts Treasury, one of the many compilations of years’ worth of daily Peanuts strips. In my seven-year-old hands, that book was so huge, I felt as though I had all the treasures of Sunday-morning funnies in my fingertips.

I’m not as obsessive about the strip as when I was a kid (sorry, I haven’t seen The Peanuts Movie). But the other day, I came across this interesting article devoted to “Peppermint” Patty, the tomboy of the strip, whose somewhat romantic interest in Charlie Brown is completely lost on him.

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The article made a point of how the strip’s author, Charles M. Schulz, used Patty as a vehicle for some rather vulnerable storylines. I must say, Patty has not been one of my favorite Peanuts characters, as she’s often a bit pushy and overbearing without realizing it. (In one storyline, she and Charlie Brown have to work together on a classroom project, and her endless chit-chat drives Charlie Brown to scream out in frustration, landing them both in the principal’s office.)

But the article used one of the strip’s other storylines to make its point about Patty, and it was a story arc that I’d either never seen or had forgotten about. Patty attends a girls’ camp over the summer and happens to come across “The Little Red-Haired Girl” — Charlie Brown’s much-discussed but never-seen, unrequited love. This leads to some self-examination that Patty (and perhaps the casual Peanuts reader) wasn’t ready for.

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Not only was this a touching storyline, but it also made me realize that, for many years, I had adopted Charlie Brown’s mentality about girls: Always yearn for the beautiful but unattainable goddess, while someone who is more down-to-earth and loving might be close at hand.

In my bachelor days, I used to moan and groan about the injustice of dating, wherein countless single women complained about never finding a decent guy yet would never give me a chance. Yet when it came to meeting women, I was just as persnickety in my own way. (When I met the woman who eventually married me, it took several months of both subtle and head-pounding hinting on her part before I realized she might be interested in me.)

It makes me wonder how Schulz inadvertently perpetuated the idea — and he was certainly not alone in doing this in our society — of “beauty or bust,” that we must either have some beauty-contest winner as our Significant Other or settle for far less (or for nothing at all). For as much enjoyment as Charlie Brown has brought me over the years, I’m glad that I’ve long since evolved from his self-defeating mindset.

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The 2nd Annual #PayClassicsForward

For the second year in a row, my blogging “neighbor” Aurora at Once Upon a Screen is doing her #PayClassicsForward challenge. Taking her cue from “The 12 Days of Christmas,” she is asking other bloggers to make movie lists in quantities of 1, 2, 3, and so on up to 12, to promote movies that you like and/or that are sometimes overlooked by moviegoers.

I did this myself last year and had a great time with it, so I am doing it again, and I encourage you to do so as well. If you’re looking for ideas, click here to read Aurora’s list for this year, or click here to read my list from last year. And of course, my list for this year follows.

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One life-affirming documentary:

Les Blank’s Gap Toothed Women (1987)

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Two creative uses of bananas:

Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here (1943)

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Woody Allen’s Bananas (1971)

 

Three performances by “God”:

Graham Chapman (voice only) in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

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George Burns in Oh, God! (1977)

Morgan Freeman in Bruce Almighty (2003)

 

Four creative posthumous uses of actors:

Use of the director’s wife’s chiropractor as a stand-in for Bela Lugosi in Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)

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John Lennon’s narration in John Lennon: Imagine (1988)

Laurence Olivier in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)

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Graham Chapman’s narration in A Liar’s Autobiography (2012)

 

Five actresses in movies whose sole justification is to show off women’s bods (not that I’m complaining):

Jane Russell in The French Line (1955)

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Jayne Mansfield in Promises, Promises! (1963)

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Adrienne Barbeau in Swamp Thing (1981)

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Sybil Danning in They’re Playing with Fire (1984)

Blanchard Ryan in Open Water (2004)

 

Six movies where one word says it all:

“Rosebud.” Citizen Kane (1941)

“Stella!” A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

“Mother!” Psycho (1960)

“Plastics.” The Graduate (1967)

“Khan!” Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

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“Eve!” Wall-E (2008)

 

Seven memorable nights:

It Happened One Night (1934)

A Night at the Opera (1935)

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The Night of the Hunter (1955)

A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

Night Shift (1982)

Midnight Run (1988)

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The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

 

Eight smart movies about smart kids:

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

The Black Stallion (1979)

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Little Man Tate (1991)

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My Life as a Dog (1987)

James and the Giant Peach (1996)

Ponette (1997)

The Iron Giant (1999)

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Nine couples you don’t want to have over for dinner:

Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson (Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck) in Double Indemnity (1944)

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Frank Chambers and Cora Smith (John Garfield and Lana Turner) in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

Joe Gillis and Norma Desmond (William Holden and Gloria Swanson) in Sunset Boulevard (1950)

George and Martha (Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor) in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

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Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow (Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Charley Partanna and Irene Walker (Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner) in Prizzi’s Honor (1985)

Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen (Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb) in Sid and Nancy (1987)

Oliver and Barbara Rose (Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner) in The War of the Roses (1989)

Sam Rothstein and Ginger McKenna (Robert DeNiro and Sharon Stone) in Casino (1995)

 

Ten movies that make your job look not so bad:

Modern Times (1936)

On the Waterfront (1954)

Nine to Five (1980)

Trading Places (1983)

Broadcast News (1987)

Wall Street (1988)

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

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Hoffa (1992)

Clerks (1994)

American Beauty (1999)

 

Eleven memorable movie mothers (for better or worse):

The Wicked Stepmother (voiced by Eleanor Audley) in Cinderella (1950)

Mrs. Iselin (Angela Lansbury) in The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

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Rebecca Morgan (Cicely Tyson) in Sounder (1972)

Babs Johnson (Divine) in Pink Flamingos (1972)t

Beth Jarrett (Mary Tyler Moore) in Ordinary People (1980)

Joan Crawford (Faye Dunaway) in Mommie Dearest (1981)

Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Aliens (1986)

Momma Lift (Anne Ramsey) in Throw Momma from the Train (1987)

Mother (Mae Questel) of Sheldon Mills (Woody Allen) in the “Oedipus Wrecks” segment of New York Stories (1989)

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Beatrice Henderson (Debbie Reynolds) in Mother (1996)

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Tess Coleman (Jamie Lee Curtis) in Freaky Friday (2003)

 

Twelve movies by the numbers:

Million Dollar Legs (1932)

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Stalag 17 (1953)

The Seven Year Itch (1955)

12 Angry Men (1957)

The 400 Blows (1959)

101 Dalmatians (1961)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

“10” (1979)

48 HRS. (1982)

4 Little Girls (1997)

Apollo 13 (1995)

The Sixth Sense (1999)