Saturday, December 26, 2009

Humphrey Bogart's 110th Birthday

Yesterday was the 110th birthday of Humphrey Bogart. This was a man who was not handsome, at least not in a conventional sense. He was not tall either. He stood all of five foot 8 inches. He spoke with a slightly nasal voice. If there was anyone who seemed unlikely to become a movie star, it was Humphrey Bogart. And yet, during his lifetime he became one of the most respected stars of the era. Even after his untimely death in 1957, he has remained one of the most popular stars of all time. In fact, it is quite possible he is the most popular male actor of all time. In Empire magazine's list of the top 100 Movies Stars of All Time in 1997, he ranked #9. Entertainment Weekly went even further. They voted him the Greatest Movie Star of All Time. The American Film Institute also ranked him #1 in their list of 100 Greatest Screen Actors.

Humphrey Bogart was born on December 25, 1899 (some sources have claimed January 23, 1899, although December 25 seems to be the conventionally accepted date) in New York City. His father was a heart and lung surgeon. His mother was a commercial illustrator. Because of his mother's profession, Bogie's image was used in advertising when he was still a baby. She used his image in an ad campaign for Mellins Baby Food. Bogart grew up in the Upper West Side of New York City, and his family had a summer home in upstate New York on Canandaigua Lake. He attended private schools such as Delancy and Trinity, and the Phillips Academy. He attended Yale for a time, but was expelled for reasons that are unclear. In 1918 he enlisted in the United States Navy. Although he had apparently been a less than stellar student at Yale, Bogart was exemplary as a sailor. Once home Bogart joined the Naval Reserve. He also worked as a shipper and a bond salesman.

It was through his friendship with Bill Brady, Jr. that Humphrey Bogart first entered show business. Bill Brady Jr. got Bogey a job working in the office at William A. Brady Sr.'s new company World Films. While at World Films, Bogey got the chance to try screenwriting, direction, and production. He was even a stage manager on the play A Ruined Lady, starring Alice Brady (William A Brady's daughter). It was in another Alice Brady play that Bogie made his stage debut. He had a few lines in the play Drifting on Broadway in 1922. Bogie had a more substantial role in his next Broadway play Swiftly, also in 1922. Bogart appeared regularly on Broadway in the Twenties, in such plays as Meet the Wife, Hell's Bells, and Skyrocket.

It was in 1928 that Humphrey Bogart made his screen debut in the short The Dancing Town. In 1930 he appeared in a Vitaphone short with Joan Blondell. It was in 1930 that Bogie made his feature film debut, as paroled trustee Up the River. Bogart appeared in such films as Body and Soul, the 1932 version of Love Affair, and Three on a Match. He also continued to appear on Broadway, in plays such as It's a Wise Child, I Love You Wednesday, and Chrysalis. It was while he was appearing in the play Invitation to a Murder that producer Arthur Hopkins decided Bogie would be a good choice to play the escaped murderer in The Petriefied Forest.

Debuting in January 1935, The Petrified Forest proved to be a smash hit. It ran for 197 performances. And while Leslie Howard was the star of the play, it was Humphrey Bogart who received much of the attention. Warner Brothers bought the rights to play and released the movie adaptation in 1936. It was largely because of Leslie Howard that Bogie was able to reprise his role as Duke Mantee, the escaped murderer who terrorises a diner. The studio wanted the then better known Edward G. Robinson to play the role. Fortunately, Howard told Jack Warner in no uncertain terms that if there was no Humphrey Bogart, there would be no Leslie Howard. Warner was forced to cast Bogart in the role that had made him famous on Broadway.

Despite the success of The Petrified Forest and the good notices he received, Bogie found himself typecast in roles as gangsters, although he occasionally played district attorneys and police officers as well. He played a gangster in Kid Galahad, Dead End, Racket Busters, and King of the Underworld. Fortunately, by the late Thirties and very early Forties the sort of roles Humphrey Bogart played began to change. In They Drive By Night he played a wildcat trucker. The fact that he appeared in the Western Virginia City at all is perhaps a bit surprising. It would be the film High Sierra that would send Bogart's career in a completely different direction. While he played another criminal in the film, he got the opportunity to work with his friend John Huston, who co-wrote the screenplay. The two grew closer both personally and professionally. As a result, when George Raft turned down the chance to play Sam Spade in the 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon, it was Humphrey Bogart who got he part.

Sam Spade was the role Bogie was born to play. He was a private detective with his own code of honour, an idealist who realises all too well the world was not ideal. Humphrey Bogart's talent as an actor and skill with dialogue made him well suited to the swift words in John Huston's screenplay, adapted from Dashiell Hammett's novel. In the eyes of audiences Bogart was no longer a gangster, he was the tough guy with a heart of gold. From that point onwards, Humphrey Bogart generally played the hero. Indeed, it was not long before he played the romantic lead.

Casablanca was the first time Bogie played the romantic lead. Contrary to popular belief, Ronald Reagan was never considered for the role of Rick in the film, although George Raft greatly desired the part. It was producer Hal B. Wallis, then looking for another lead role for Bogart, who got him the part in the film. Casablanca would greatly change Bogart's career. He had been fourth place in the salary he made at Warner Brothers. After Casablanca he was in first place. He would soon be the highest paid actor in Hollywood. He was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role for the film.

Bogart appeared in such films as Sahara and To Have and To Have Not, on which he met the woman who was arguably his soul mate, Lauren Bacall. Bogart appeared in a number of classic films from that point until his death. Among these was as Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, a role similar in some respects to that of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. He appeared in such films as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo, Beat the Devil, The African Queen, Sabrina, and The African Queen. He played a variety of roles, from romantic leads (Sabrina), killers ((Dark Passage), private eyes (The Big Sleep), and martinets (The Caine Mutiny). Along the way he won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role in The African Queen and was nominated for the same award in The Caine Mutiny.

Sadly, Humphrey Bogart contracted oesophageal cancer in the mid-Fifties, a result of his lifetime of smoking. While his oesophagus, two lymph nodes, and a rib were removed on March, 1956, it was too late. The cancer had spread to such a point that chemotherapy would not even help. Humphrey Bogart died on January 14, 1957. His last appearance on screen was in the film The Harder They Fall.

Such was the impact of Humphrey Bogart that he would maintain a cult of admirers even fifty years after his death. Jean-Luc Goddard made À bout de souffle (Breathless) as a tribute to Bogart, and Woody Allen made Play It Again, Sam as a tribute to him as well. He was also the inspiration behind the movie The Man with Bogart's Face. Through modern technology, Humphrey Bogart actually starred in the 1995 episode of Tales From the Crypt entitled "You, Murderer (based on a story from Shock Suspenstories)." His co-stars were John Lithgow and Isabella Rosellini, the daughter or his co-star from Casablanca, Ingrid Bergman.

Beyond his enormous talent, it is difficult to say why Humphrey Bogart continues to be one of the most popular actors, perhaps the most popular actor, of all time. He certainly was not what one would expect of a leading actor. Bogie was not conventionally handsome. He was only of average height. He spoke with a nasal voice. Speaking for myself, I think much of it may have had to do with his choice of roles and how well he played those roles. Arguably, Humphrey Bogart's three most famous roles were Sam Spade (from The Maltese Falcon), Rick Blaine (from Casablanca), and Philip Marlowe (from The Big Sleep). While these characters are somewhat different men, they are all men of integrity. Sam Spade is an idealist with a desire to achieve justice, even when he knows the world is less than ideal. Rick Blaine is man who claims neutrality, but somehow always winds up on the side of the just, and a romantic who sacrifices his own happiness for the greater good. Philip Marlowe cracked wise, drank hard, and fought hard, yet he was at heart an intellectual with a desire to do what was right. All three men lived by their own codes of honour and all three men sought justice in an unjust world. All three of them were heroes.

That is perhaps the secret of Humphrey Bogart's appeal even today. Although a talented actor, he was average in appearance and not a particularly big man, yet he played men of honour and decency who triumphed in the end. Through his characters, Bogie proved that it is not the looks or size of the man that counts, but what is deep down inside. Is it any wonder that his films continue to be watched today? Particularly in today's world, we need men like Spade, Blaine, and Marlowe. And we need an actor like Bogie to play them.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas 2009

Today being Christmas Day, I thought I would leave you with a few holiday videos.

First up, the classic "Happy Christmas (War is Over)." This is actually my favourite Yuletide song

The song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" originated in the movie Meet in St. Louis, where it was sung by Judy Garland. This is the clip from the movie.

Another one of my favourites, "I Believe in Father Christmas" by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.

Last up, Kylie Minogue's performance of "Santa Baby" on Top of the Pops. I prefer the original version by Eartha Kitt and I am not a big fan of Kylie's songs. But I do like looking at her. :-)

Happy Yuletide and Merry Christmas everyone!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Pin-Ups

This being Christmas Eve, I prefer to celebrate the holiday to writing full post. Because of that, I thought tonight I would leave you with some holiday themed pin-up pictures. From the Thirties into the Sixties, it was not unusual come the holidays for Hollywood to release pin-up pictures of some of their starlets with Yuletide theme. Several famous actresses appeared in such pictures before they were famous, some even after they had attained some fame. Here are a few of my favourites.

Thirties starlet Grace Bradley trims a tree

Forties starlet Jane Greer composes her Christmas list

Cyd Charisse and a friend ready to rescue avalanche victims in the Alps

Mary Martin plays Santa's helper

Beverly Adams and a Reindeer

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

My Top 10 Favourite Holiday Movies

Tonight I find myself pressed for time, but I wanted to write another post. For that reason I decided upon something simple. This is my list of my top favourite holiday movies of all time.

1. It's a Wonderful Life

Okay, I know this is the popular choice. It is the movie that seems to top most polls on Americans' favourite Yuletide movies. The fact is that I honestly do love this film. Not only is it my favourite Yuletide movie, it is also my favourite Capra film and one of my top five favourite films of all time. In my humble opinion, It's a Wonderful Life was a starkly original film when it first came out. Insofar as I know, in no medium before then, let alone film, had the idea of showing a man what life would be without him ever been presented. What is more, in many respects It's a Wonderful Life is A Christmas Carol in reverse. In A Christmas Carol, cruel, miserly Scrooge is taught the Christmas spirit by ghosts who show him his past, his present, and his future. In It's a Wonderful Life, however, it is not a mean old miser, but a genuinely good man who has lost hope, who is taught the meaning not only of the holiday, but of life itself. These are only two of the levels upon which It's a Wonderful Life works, as it has many, many more. It is simultaneously a fantasy, a drama, a comedy, a romance. It is definitely Capra's most sophisticated film.

2. A Christmas Story

Most Christmas films at least try to be uplifting in some manner. This is not the case with A Christmas Story. Instead A Christmas Story presents us with a situation with which most Americans born in the early to mid-Twentieth century can identify.  At some point or another during our childhoods most of us had one thing that we really wanted for Christmas, which is precisely the situation Ralphie finds himself in. Not only does A Christmas Story presents us with a situation most of us have gone through, but it also hits every note when it comes to the holidays in the United States in the early to mid-Twentieth Century. It's all there. The downtown decked out in lights. The carols. The trip to get a Christmas tree. The Christmas parade.  The trip to the department store to see Santa. Christmas morning and the opening of gifts. It also gives a fine portrait of childhood in early to mid-Twentieth Century America. Hanging out with one's pals. Dealing with a bully. School. If A Christmas Story is now one of the most popular Christmas movies of all time, it may well be because it paints a fairly accurate portrait of the holiday in the United States in the early to mid-Twentieth Century.

3. Miracle on 34th Street

The commercialisation of the holidays is not a new thing, although some might think it is. In truth, the commercialisation of Christmas has been going on since at least the late 19th Century. By 1947, when Miracle on 34th Street was released, Christmas was already heavily commercialised. This is only one of the subjects tackled in what is one of the holiday films to rival It's a Wonderful Life in popularity. Miracle on 34th Street also tackles such weighty subjects as faith, the need for imagination, psychology, and even the nature of identity. It is for this reason that A Miracle on 34th Street continues to be regarded a classic and why the Nineties remake failed. It is a film that works on multiple levels and deals with several important subjects in an entertaining way.

4. A Christmas Carol (AKA Scrooge)

Dickens' A Christmas Carol has been filmed many times, but never with such flair and finesse. While the film does differ in some respects from Dicken's original novella, it is for the most part one of the most loyal adaptations. What is more, it features perhaps the most faithful recreations of Dickens' characters ever on screen. This is particularly true of Ebeneezer Scrooge, brought to life by the great Alastair Sim CBE. Generally known for his work in comedies, Sim plays Scrooge with such a panache that it is hard to even believe it is Sim merely playing a role! Mervyn Johns also gave the most convincing portrayal of Bob Cratchitt ever seen on screen. The cast is helped greatly by Brian Desmond Hunt's direction, who does a fantastic job of recreating Dickensian London. It is one film that will not disappoint Dickens fans.

5. The Man Who Came to Dinner

In 1939 the play The Man Who Came Dinner, by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart debuted. A huge success on Broadway, it was naturally adapted into a feature film released in 1942. The Man Who Came to Dinner is a comedy as they could only make in the Thirties and Forties. It begins with an unlikely situation--radio host Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley) finds himself stranded in the home of a middle class Ohio couple after he injures his hip on their icy walk. Afterwards Whiteside proceeds to turn their lives upside down. Situations spiral out of control. The lines come fast and furious. And as might be expected of Kaufman and Hart, references to pop culture appear with such frequency it is hard to keep track of them all (one of them may be the first feature film reference to Superman). The film benefits from a sterling cast, including Bette Davis, Ann Sheridan, Jimmy Durante, Billie Burke, and Mary Wickes (in her first screen appearance).

6. Christmas in Connecticut

Another comedy as they could only make them in the Thirties and Forties. Christmas in Connecticut would give Barbara Stanwyck one of her best roles, as Elizabeth Lane, a writer who writes articles about housekeeping and cooking, even though she does not know how to do either. Unfortunately for Elizabeth, she soon finds herself wrangled into cooking Christmas dinner for a war hero at the behest of her publisher (the great Sydney Greenstreet). As might be expected, the situation soon spirals out of control. Christmas in Connecticut is a smart comedy which makes the most of its situation. It also has some of the funniest lines of any film of its era (one of which I am surprised made it past the Breen Office).

7. Holiday Inn

Over the years there have been several holiday musicals, but none of them have ever topped this one. Indeed, it was Holiday Inn that introduced what would not only be the biggest selling Yuletide song of all time, but the biggest selling single of all time, "White Christmas." As Hollywood musicals go, Holiday Inn is nearly perfect. It features  the top crooner and top dancer of the time, Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, in their first film together. It also featured some of the best work of Irving Berlin, including a mixture of some of his old songs ("Easter Parade," "Lazy") and new songs ("White Christmas," "Be Careful It's My Heart"). Holiday Inn also features some of the best sequences ever seen in a musical, including Fred Astaire's "drunken dance (and, yes, he really was drunk)" and his "firecracker dance." It also works quite well as a comedy, with some truly funny lines and some truly funny situations. Holiday Inn is not only the greatest holiday musical of them all, but one of the greatest musicals as well.

8. Holiday Affair

Romance has played a role in most holiday classics, from It's a Wonderful Life to Christmas in Connecticut. In Holiday Affair, romance takes centre stage. Janet Leigh plays a young widow with a comfortable life and a none too exciting boyfriend (Wendell Corey) when she finds her world turned inside out by a starry eyed romantic, ne'er-do-well played by Robert Mitchum. Like The Man Who Came to Dinner and Christmas in Connecticut, Holiday Affair is a very smart comedy. Situations spiral swiftly out of control and there is a good deal of witty lines (the scene with Harry Morgan is priceless). It is also a very intelligent romantic comedy. While many modern romantic comedies offer up a paper tiger as a rival to the hero, Holiday Affair gives us Wendell Corey, a genuinely nice guy who is truly in love with Janet Leigh's character. Holiday Affair is a comedy which offers us some very funny, very far out situations while at the same time giving us a realistic romance.

9. The Bishop's Wife

It's a Wonderful Life is not the only Yuletide film to feature an angel. An angel, played by Cary Grant no less, takes centre stage in this classic fantasy. David Niven is a bishop so preoccupied with building a new cathedral that he ignores his wife (Loretta Young) and his friends (Monty Woolley). When he prays for guidance, his prayer is answered with a most singular angel in the form of Cary Grant. It is the cast which makes this film. Grant, Niven, and Young deliver some of the best performances of their career. The film also benefits from a sterling screenplay, which was spiced up by an uncredited Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. By the way, if the little girl playing Niven and Young's daughter seems familiar, there is good reason for that. She is Karolyn Grimes, who also played Zusu in It's a Wonderful Life. Bobby Anderson, who played young George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life, also makes a brief appearance in the film.

10. Meet John Doe

Meet John Doe was directed by Frank Capra, the same man who directed It's a Wonderful Life. Both films tend to be somewhat grim at times and both films climax at Christmas Eve. That having been said, in many respects Meet John Doe is a very different film from It's a Wonderful Life. In Meet John Doe Gary Cooper plays a vagrant chosen by a newspaper columnist played by Barbara Stanwyck to portray a non-existent, average, angry citizen called simply John Doe. Unfortunately, Stanwyck character's publicity stunt soon goes out of control. Meet John Doe was Frank Capra's attack on fascism and similar movements that demand conformity, public corruption, and the media. Perhaps as a result at times Capra is a bit heavy handed in Meet John Doe, and at times a bit overly sentimental, but over all Meet John Doe is an entertaining, well crafted film. Indeed, I think it holds up better than some of Capra's better known movies, such as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas and Classic Film

The Yuletide has many customs which people in the English speaking world observe. Some, such as the Yule log and decorating houses with greenery, may go back before Northern Europe was converted to Christianity. Other, such as eggnog and Christmas crackers, are of more recent vintage. Among the most recent customs associated with the Yuletide is the annual viewing of movies with holiday themes.

For many families the watching of Yuletide movies is as much a part of the holidays as trimming a Christmas tree or decking the house out in lights. Many of the movies which have become holiday favourites are of rather recent vintage, including A Christmas Story and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. Many more were made decades ago. Indeed, the holidays may be the only time that some people actually watch classic films.

I believe that there is a very good reason for this. While there has probably never been a time when Hollywood did not turn out at least one or two Christmas oriented movies a year, I believe that the Golden Age for Christmas movies started around 1941 and continued until around 1951. Indeed, it seems as if the number of movies considered essential viewing during the holidays were made during this period: Holiday Inn, It's a Wonderful Life, The Bishop's Wife, Miracle on 34th Street, and the Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol were all made during this period.

Strangely enough, this cycle towards holiday movies did not begin in November or December as one might have expected it to. If I were to pick an point where this cycle started, it would have been on May 3, 1941. It was on that date that the movie Meet John Doe was released. Fittingly, Meet John Doe was directed by Frank Capra, the man who would many years later be responsible for the most famous holiday movie of them all, It's a Wonderful Life.  Meet John Doe centred on a man in dire need of money (Gary Cooper) who agrees to impersonate an individual who was created by  a reporter (Barbara Stanwyck). Not surprisingly, Meet John Doe has a great deal in common with It's a Wonderful Life. While both films are ultimately uplifting, both films are also very dark and even pessimistic at times. Indeed, suicide attempts play a role in the plots of both movies. Both also have climaxes that take place on Christmas Eve. Sadly, while It's a Wonderful Life is rightfully famous, Meet John Doe is known only to film buffs.

Today the release date of Meet John Doe, May 3, 1941, might seem odd. After all, it would seem as if most movies which touch upon the holidays should be released in November or December, as most holiday movies are today. Here two things must be considered. First, many movies considered Yuletide films today were not initially intended as such. Meet John Doe is one example, its focus primarily being upon John Doe and the movement he inspired, not necessarily the holiday. Another example is Holiday Inn. The classic musical takes place in a space of a year, although it begins and ends at Christmastime. It should not seem so surprising, then, that it was released on August 4, 1942. The number of Fortiesfilms now associated with the holidays that were released at other times is surprising: Christmas Holiday (June 7, 1944), Christmas in Connecticut (August 11, 1945), Miracle on 34th Street (May 2, 1947), and The Lemon Drop Kid (March 1, 1950).

Meet John Doe would not create a rush towards Yuletide movies, although two of the best known Christmas movies would be released in 1942 (neither during the holidays). The Man Who Came to Dinner was released on January 1, 1942, which many even then would have considered the end of the Christmas season during which the movie takes place. The movie centred on irascible radio personality Sheridan Whiteside becoming stranded at an Ohio couple's house after he slips on their walk and injures his hip. Naturally, Whiteside proceeds to turn their lives upside down. The second holiday movie released that year was Holiday Inn. Although now associated with the Yuletide season, Holiday Inn was released in August. This makes more sense when one stops to think that the movie is actually set over the space of year, with sequences dedicated to almost every holiday on the American calendar.

Nineteen forty four would see the release of two more movies. One is the largely forgotten film noir Christmas Holiday, a bleak movie with Deanna Durbin in her first film. The other movie released that year was the classic musical Meet Me in St. Louis. Like Holiday Inn, Meet Me in St. Louis takes place over the course of a several months.Like Holiday Inn, its classic takes place at Christmas. Unlike Holiday Inn, Meet Me with St. Louis was released in time with the holidays, on November 28, 1944.  It introduced the holiday standard "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," performed by Judy Garland.

The cycle towards Christmas movies would kick into high gear in 1945, with three films released that year. Oddly enough, two of them were not released at Yuletide. The Cheaters was a sophisticated comedy released by Republic on July 15, 1945. It featured a couple plotting to steal an inheritance, only to have their plans hindered by a has been actor they take in as an act of Christmas charity. Christmas in Connecticut, regarded by many today as one of the essential Christmas classics, was released on August 11, 1945. The film centred on Forties version of Martha Stewart (played by Barbara Stanwyck), who actually doesn't know how to cook or do housework. Unfortunately, she finds herself in the position of having to cook for Christmas. The movie is easily one of the funniest Christmas films ever released, and Barbara Stanwyck gives her best performance. Strangely enough, the only "Christmas" film released at the Yuletide was the one which had the least to do with the holiday. The Bells of St. Mary's centred on a priest and a nun who try to save their school from being shut down. The only sequence in the film which actually touches on the holidays is the portrayal of a Christmas pageant. It was released on December 6, 1945.

While 1945 saw three different Yuletide movies released, 1946 only saw one significant holiday movie released. That having been said, that film is now considered by many to be the Yuletide movie. Contrary to popular belief, It's a Wonderful Life  was not a colossal flop on its first release; however, it was a major box office disappointment. It's a Wonderful Life cost $3.7 million to make, a high price tag for a movie at the time, particularly an independent. At the box office it ultimately earned only $3.3 million. The film did not even break even. Many today are a bit puzzled as to why what is now considered by many to be the greatest Yuletide movie of all time did not perform better at the box office. One reason that has been put forth by many is that It's a Wonderful Life  is in many ways a very dark, very bleak film. Indeed, it is George's thoughts of suicide that lead directly up to its climax. Following World War II audiences were generally in the mood for much lighter fare. It may well have been that It's a Wonderful Life was simply too dark and too grim for audiences at the time. Another reason that It's a Wonderful Life may have performed poorly at the box office is the timing of its release. While the movie premiered in New York City on December 20, it did not go into wide release until January 7, 1947. By this time most Americans probably were not in the mood for a Christmas movie. While it is only the film's climax that is set at the Yuletide, its climax occupies a good part of the film and tends to be its most memorable sequence. It's a Wonderful Life was then a Yuletide film released a few weeks too late for the holiday.

Of course, the theory that It's a Wonderful Life was simply released at the wrong time may hold no weight given when that other perennial Yuletide favourite was released. Miracle on 34th Street was released on May 2, 1947, about as far from the Christmas season as one could get. This was done at the insistence of Darryl F. Zanuck insisted that more people went to the cinema in the summer, so this would be the best time for the film to be released. 20th Century Fox then struck upon a novel promotional plan in which no reference was made to the fact that Miracle on 34th Street was a Yuletide movie was made or even details of the plot were revealed. Amazingly enough, the film became a hit. Not only did it do a brisk business in the summer of 1947, but it continued to do well right up into the holiday season. For quite some time it was probably the most popular Yuletide movie, until being overtaken by It's a Wonderful Life.

Nineteen forty seven would prove to be a good year for holiday movies. It was on October 31, 1947 that the now largely forgotten dramedy Christmas Eve was released. The film starred Ann Harding as a woman who must find her three, long lost adopted sons to save her fortune from a scheming nephew. It was on December 9 that The Bishop's Wife was released, a film which has become one of the most popular of Yuletide movies. The film was actually a result of the success of RKO's The Bells of St. Mary's. Because of that movie's success, Samuel Goldwyn decided that an inspirational film with a Christmas backdrop would be a sure fire hit. He then optioned the novel The Bishop's Wife by Robert Nathan (author of Portrait of Jennie). Given the failure of the similar fantasy It's a Wonderful Life, there were those who questioned Goldwyn's judgement, but  he moved forward regardless. Worse yet, The Bishop's Wife would prove to be a troubled production, with infighting between Cary Grant and Loretta Young and last minute rewrites. Surprisingly, The Bishop's Wife premiered December 9, 1947 to overall sterling reviews. What is more the film did very well at the box office.It would also pick up five Oscar nominations. It has remained aChristmas favourite ever since.

The cycle towards holiday films appears to have peaked from the period from 1945 to 1947. It was during this period that such classics as Christmas in Connecticut, It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and The Bishop's Wife all being released during this time. The cycle was hardly over, however, as it would last a few more years. Indeed, 1948 would produce one of the most interesting Yuletide films of all time, John Ford's 3 Godfathers.  The movie was based on Peter Kyne's novelette of the same title, and had already been filmed in 1916, 1929 (by Ford himself, under the title Marked Men), and 1936. Aruguably, Ford's 1948 version would be the quintessential version. Starring John Wayne, the film is essentially a retelling of the story of The Three Wise Men set in the Old West.

It would be 1949 that would see the release of one of the better remembered Yuletide films. Holiday Affair was a romantic comedy set during the holidays, released by RKO. The film featured a young Janet Leigh as a widower who finds herself torn between two men--reliable but somewhat dull Wendell Corey and starry eyed dreamer Robert Mitchum (in one of this few comedic roles). Not only is the film exceedingly funny (especially a scene with Harry Morgan in a an early film appearance), but it is one of the few romantic comedies in which both rivals for the ladies' hand are genuinely nice guys! Sadly, it bombed at the box office. Part of this may be due to the fact that it went into wide release on December 24, Christmas Eve, so that it could not take advantage of the whole holiday season. Until Holiday Affair, Robert Mitchum had primarily starred in gritty films noir, not exactly an actor who comes to mind as a romantic comedic lead (although he is great in thre role). Worse yet, it was only in 1948 that Mitchum was arrested for possession of marijuana, an absolutely scandalous charge at the time. Regardless, Holiday Affair has become something of a cult film through repeated showings on television.

Nineteen fifty saw the release of another unique holiday movie. The Great Rupert starred Jimmy Durante and Terry Moore It was produced by George Pal and centred around a dancing squirrel who helps two poor families .The stop motion animated squirrel was extremely realistic for the time, so much so that many asked Pal where he had gotten a trained squirrel! Of course, here it must be pointed out that George Pal was the man behind the stop motion Puppetoon shorts. Strangely enough, despite its holiday theme, The Great Rupert was released on March 1, 1950 (reportedly, it had been shot in 1948). The film is historic as George Pal's first feature film. Sadly, it has been largely forgotten today. Indeed, it was later released under the less imaginative title A Christmas Wish.

It would be in 1951 that another well known holiday film would be released in March. The Lemon Drop Kid, starring Bob Hope, was released on March 8, 1951. The film was based on the story by Damon Runyan, previously released in 1934. In the film Hope played The Lemon Drop Kid, a New York con man who must make $10,000 by Christmas Eve or face the wrath of gangster Moose Moran (Fred Clark). Although released in March, The Lemon Drop Kid is blatantly a holiday film. Not only is it set during the Yuletide, but it introduced the holiday standard "Silver Bells."

It was later in the year that a film that has come to be regarded as a Christmas classic was released. Titled Scrooge and released on October 31, 1951 in the United Kingdom, it was titled A Christmas Carol for United States audiences and released on November 28 of that year. It has become regarded as perhaps the best adaptation of Dickens' tale. Scrooge or A Christmas Carol received favourable reviews and did moderately well at the box office, but it would ultimately be repeated showings on television that would lead to it being regarded not only as a Yuletide classic, but the best version of A Christmas Carol ever filmed. Indeed, for many Alastair Sim is the man who best portrayed Ebeneezer Scrooge.

Arguably, the cycle towards Yuletide films ended in 1951. The studios did continue to churn out holiday movies (White Christmas was released in 1954, while We're No Angels was released in 1955); however, the fact remains that the studios did not produce holiday movies in the quantities they had in the post-war years, nor did they produce nearly as many classics. Indeed, it is notable that in many polls of favourite Christmas films, at least two and sometimes more movies date back to the period from 1942 to 1951. For example in a recent Marist poll, It's a Wonderful Life ranked #1 as American's favourite Yuletide film, while Miracle on 34th Street ranked #3. If the poll had been a top ten instead of a top five, even more films from the period may have ranked.

Of course, the question remains as to why the period from 1942 to 1951 produced so many Yuletide movies and so many of them classics. After all, at no point in its history has Hollywood probably gone without producing at least one Christmas themed movie a year. At the same time it seems curious that while many holiday films are forgotten in a few years (who remembers the 1985 film Santa Claus the Movie?), the period from 1942 to 1951 produced many films that are remembered to this day. The reason that so many Yuletide classics were produced during this period may quite simply be World War II. While the war was underway there can be no doubt that many sought comfort in the sort of Christmas they had before the war. It is for this reason that movies like Holiday Inn and Meet Me in St. Louis were probably produced. After the war, there can be little doubt that soldiers returning home wanted a return to normalcy, including the kind of Yuletide they remembered from their childhoods. It must be pointed out that the post war years not only saw a boom in Christmas movies, but in Christmas, period. Several classic Christmas songs were released during the era, including "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer," "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!," "Sleigh Ride," and many others. The sale of Christmas lights soared in sales. It is then little wonder that so many Christmas movies were released during this period.

Indeed, that World War II may have triggered the Christmas boom may be reflected in the fact that the war plays a role in the plots of some of the films.The war plays a role in the plots of Christmas in Connecticut, Christmas Eve, and It's a Wonderful Life. World War II is at least acknowledged in some of the other films. It is in times of trouble that people often turn to that which is familiar and comfortable for reassurance. Christmas could well be the holiday that is most familiar and most comfortable for many Americans.

The importance of the period from around 1941 to 1951 to film history and the history of Christmas as celebrated in the United States can be seen in two films released less than a year apart. References to It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street are prolific in Anglo-American pop culture, so much so that they can probably never be reliably counted. Both films have been remade and parodied a number of times. While other films from the cycle have not been referenced in pop culture nearly as many times, nor remade or parodied as many times, they too have had a significant impact on pop culture. Indeed, the best selling single of all time came from Holiday Inn.

Beyond their impact on pop culture, however, the holiday films from 1941 to 1951 could have another, greater impact. As I mentioned earlier, these Yuletide classics are among the only classic films many people watch on a regular basis. After all, every years these films fill television screens, shown on everything from local stations to cable stations to broadcast networks. For many people It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, or Holiday Inn may well be their first introduction to classic film. While many, perhaps most people, might not move onto other classic films, there are perhaps many who do. These Yuletide classics then serve as a means of creating more classic film buffs. While I cannot say that it was It's a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street that turned me into a classic film fan, they were among the earliest classic films I saw.

It would seem that the films from the cycle towards holiday movies in the Forties then serve more than one purpose. At their most basic level, they serve as a form of continuity from one Christmas to the next, a reminder of Yuletides past. In this way they bring together families and help encourage the spirit of the holiday. On another level they also serve to introduce people who might never have watched a classic film to do so. While many might not become classic film fans, there are perhaps many who do. Regardless, it would seem that no other period has ever produced as many classic Yuletide films as the years between 1941 and 1951.

Monday, December 21, 2009

White Christmas (the song, not the movie)

Even decades after its release, one song remains the best selling single of all time. It is not a song by Elvis Presley. It's not even a song by The Beatles. It is a song originally performed by Bing Crosby and written by Irving Berlin. Its title is "White Christmas."

It was in 1938 that Twentieth Century Fox produced Alexander's Ragtime Band, a musical which drew inspiration from three three different Irving Berlin songs. Paramount decided that it wanted to do a similar film. Fortunately for Paramount, Irving Berlin had an idea that had been floating around his head since he had written "Easter Parade" for his 1933 production As Thousands Cheer. Quite simply, Berlin wanted to write a play about American holidays. The play never came to be, even after Berlin and playwright Moss Hart made plans for just such a show to be titled Stars on My Shoulder. Berlin later mentioned the idea to director Mark Sandrich. The result was the movie Holiday Inn, the movie which would introduce "White Christmas" to the world.

Precisely when "White Christmas" was written has been a matter of question. Generally, it has been assumed that the song was written specifically for the movie Holiday Inn. This is a very reasonable assumption. The sheet music for "White Christmas" bears a copyright date of 1942. It would also seem unusual for Irving Berlin to have sat on a song for some time before introducing it to the public, particularly a song which would become the biggest hit of his career. That having been said, it was in 1960 news report that Irving Berlin stated the song had been written in 1938. This resulted in some controversy, as it would have then been ineligible for the Oscar it won for Best Music, Original Song (to qualify, a song must be an original composition written for a specific film). This seems unlikely, as all other information (including the copyright date) points to the song having been written for Holiday Inn. It seems quite possible that Berlin may have confused the release dates of Alexander's Ragtime Band (released in 1938) and Holiday Inn (released in 1942).

While there has been a little question over when the song was written, there is not really any question over the  circumstances in which it was written. Irving Berlin, Belarussian who grew up in New York, found himself longing for he snowy Christmases of his youth. He then wrote a song in which an individual in Beverly Hills finds himself yearning for the cold and snow of his childhood, a white Christmas. Indeed. the opening verse of the song began make reference to the shining sun and green grass of Beverly Hills. This opening verse would be cut from the song as performed in Holiday Inn and in Bing Crosby's original recording of the song. For that reason it is still rarely heard today.

Irving Berlin had no doubt that "White Christmas" would be a hit. In fact, the story goes that when he dictated the song to his secretary, he told her, "Grab your pen and take down this song. I just wrote the best song I've ever written — heck, I just wrote the best song that anybody's ever written!" Strangely enough, only one other person at the time had any faith in the song besides Berlin--Bing Crosby. He told Berlin, "You don't have to worry about this one, Irving." Strangely enough, the original script to Holiday Inn called for "White Christmas" to be performed only once, and then by Marjorie Reynolds (actually dubbed by Martha Mears). In the original script, Reynolds would be in California, longing for the winter in Connecticut, and would sing the song. It was perhaps because of Berlin's faith in the song that "White Christmas" is performed much earlier in the song, by Bing Crosby, as his character is about to open Holiday Inn. As to Bing Crosby, his faith in the song is best demonstrated by the fact that he performed it on the radio show Kraft Music Hall, on December 25, 1941, a full eight months before Holiday Inn was released.

"White Christmas" was originally recorded at Decca on May 29, 1941. Bing Crosby's usual music conductor John Scott Trotter, who worked on that session, recalled, there was a bit of controversy at the session. Irving Berlin wanted to include the first verse, the one about Beverly Hills, in the commercial recording of the song. Decca founder and head Jack Kapp disagreed with Berlin. Berlin thought the first verse was very poetic and moving. Kapp maintained that it had nothing to do with the song as performed in the movie. As history shows, Kapp won out in the end. As a result, even to this day, the first verse of the song is rarely performed.

Despite its status as a holiday favourite, Holiday Inn premiered on August 4, 1942 in New York City. The consensus had long been that "Be Careful, It's My Heart," performed in the movie's Valentine's Day sequence, would be the big hit of the movie. And for a time it was. As the year moved closer to December, however, "White Christmas" began to pick up steam. In 1942 the song would spend eleven weeks at the top of the Billboard charts. It would also give Bing Crosby his first hit on Billboard's Harlem Hit Parade, where it stayed for three weeks. Bing Crosby's version of the song would hit the Billboard charts twenty different times before Billboard created a separate holiday chart. In fact, by 1947 the song's original master had become so damaged by repeated pressings, that on March 18, 1947, Crosby had to re-record the song. Every effort was made to duplicate the original recording, although there are subtle differences.

"White Christmas" not only became the biggest hit of Bing Crosby's career, but the biggest selling single of all time. According to most sources, it has sold in excess of 50 million copies. According to Guiness World Records when all versions of the song are counted, it has sold over 100 million copies. As might be expected, "White Christmas" became one of Crosby's singature tunes. He performed it again in the 1946 movie Blue Skies. It would later provide the basis for the 1954 movie White Christmas. The movie had been planned to reunite the leads of Holiday Inn, Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, but Astaire turned the project down. Ultimately, Danny Kaye would be Crosby's co-star on the movie.

Over the years "White Christmas" has been covered many, many times. Among the most famous is a version released by The Drifters in 1954. It peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and returned to the chart two more times. It was The Drifters' first hit on the Hot 100 chart, the first of 33 more. It has also been covered by Darlene Love, Otis Redding, Nat King Cole, and even such artists as The Flaming Lips and Twisted Sister.

"White Christmas" remains the best selling song of all time. The reason for such success is simple. The song is a mixture of melancholy and nostalgia, a longing for one's home and the way things once were. It is a sentiment with which many around the world can identify. Indeed, much of the reason for its initial success may have been due to its release during World War II. In the holiday season of 1942, the Armed Forces Network found itself deluged with requests for the song from those serving overseas in the military. Whether it is the greatest holiday song of all time might be debatable, but it is arguably the most successful one of all time.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

"Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)"

Note:  For those of you who are wondering, I am aware that actress Brittany Murphy has passed away. It is also the Yuletide, however, and I would like to do some holiday oriented post. I will then eulogise Miss Murphy after December 25.

As anyone who has read this blog regularly in the past already knows, my favourite Yuletide song is "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)," originally performed by Darlene Love.  The song was written by Phil Spector, Jeff Barry, and Ellie Greenwich, and was the only original on the classic 1963 album A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector (the other songs being covers of old holiday standards). The song was originally meant for Ronnie Spector, but it seems that she could not project the amount of emotion the song needed. It was then Darlene Love who sang the song on the album, it has since become her signature song.

With the exception of 2007 (during the writers' strike), Darlene Love has performed the song every year from 1997 to 2008 on Late Night with David Letterman and later The Late Show with David Letterman.  It has since been covered by such diverse artists as U2, Death Cab for Cutie, and Dion. It was also used in the opening credits of  the movie Gremlins.

This is a clip from Darlene Love's 2005 performance on The Late Show with David Letterman.

And here is a clip of U2 performing their version.