Saturday, December 20, 2014

My Picks on TCM for the Day Before Christmas & Christmas Eve

If you are like most classic film fans, then you will want to spend much of the day before Christmas and Christmas Eve watching classic movies. Of course, the problem is that there are only so many hours a day and very few of us can afford to spend a whole day watching movies. To make thing easier for you, then, I decided to share my recommendations of the films to watch that are airing on Turner Classic Movies on 24 December 2014. Set your DVRs!

The Great Rupert (1950) at 9:30 AM EST/8:30 PMCST: The Great Rupert is an odd little film and one that has been largely forgotten at that. The film centres around the Rupert of the title, a performing squirrel. The Great Rupert benefits from fine performances from Jimmy Durante, Terry Moore, and Tom Drake, as well as the incredible stop motion animation of George Pal. Reportedly, the stop motion animation was so convincing upon the film's release that many people thought Rupert was a real squirrel! While the film is certainly a bit goofy, it is also a whole lot of fun.

It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947) at 12:15 PM EST/11:15 AM CST:  This is one of my favourite holiday films of all time. It Happened On 5th Avenue centres on a hobo, Aloyisius T. McKeever (played by Victor Moore), who  has a unique way of surviving winter. He simply moves into the vacated mansion of the 2nd richest man in the world, Michael J. O'Connor (played by Charles Ruggles), and leaves shortly before Mr. O'Connor returns in the spring. Needless to say, Mr. McKeever's usual winter stay at Mr. O'Connor's mansion is soon complicated inthe course of this film. While It Happened on 5th Avenue takes a while to get started, once it gets going the laughs are nearly non-stop. It benefits both from a good script, as well as an excellent cast that not only includes Messrs. Moore and Ruggles, but also Don DeFore, Gale Storm, and a young Alan Hale Jr.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940) at 4:00 PM EST/3:00 PM CST:  I really don't have much to say about this film, with which I assume most classic film buffs are familiar. It is one of the best known Yuletide films of all time, and with good reason. It is one of Ernst Lubitsch's very best films, with an excellent script by Samson Raphaelson and an uncredited Ben Hecht. The film also benefits from fine performances from Jimmy Stewart and Frank Morgan.

The Man Who Came to Dinner (1941) at 8:00 PM EST/7:00 PM CST: Like The Shop Around the Corner, The Man Who Came to Dinner is one of the best known holiday films of all time. This is for good reason. Based on Moss Hart and George Kaufman's play of the same name and with a script by Julius and Philip Epstein, it is one of the funniest movies ever made. While Bette Davis received top billing, it is Monty Woolley who is the true star of the film, playing curmudgeonly radio celebrity Sheridan Whiteside. The rest of the cast shines as well, including Miss Davis, Richard Travis, Ann Sheridan, Billie Burke, and Mary Wickes as the poor nurse charged with caring for Mr. Whiteside.

Christmas in Connecticut (1945) at 10:00 EST/9:00 CST: Christmas in Connecticut is my second favourite Yuletide movie of all time after The Apartment (1960). I think it is one of the most underrated comedies of all time, complete with Maltese Falcon references and one line that I am surprised made it past the MPAA Production Code Administration. It also features Barbara Stanwyck at her absolute sexiest. I don't think she has ever been more desirable in any other film, not even The Lady Eve (1941) or Ball of Fire (1941). Christmas in Connecticut has one of the best casts of any Yuletide film as well, including Dennis Morgan, Sydney Greenstreet, S.Z. Sakall, and Una O'Connor. If you can only watch one holiday film this year and you don't have access to The Apartment, then this is the one to watch!

Merry Christmas, Glad Yule, and Happy Viewing, everyone!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Our Drunken Elf

What may be our favourite Yuletide decoration is an stuffed elf we call the "Drunken Elf". When we first bought him I commented that with that smile on his face he looked drunk. We then got him a little bottle to place with him so it looked like he had been on a bender. He has been a part of our Yuletide celebrations for years now. Of course, he has switched brands over the years. For a few years he had a Crown Royal bottle. After that he switched to Smirnoff Vodka. The past few years he had had a Jim Beam bottle.

In fact, we have had him so long that we are not sure when or where we bought him. I am pretty sure it was in the late Nineties or early Naughts. I am also certain we had to buy him at either Dollar General or WalMart. He was manufactured by Sterling Inc., a company based in Kansas City, Missouri that makes artificial Christmas trees and other Christmas decorations. I'm not sure that they still make elves like him. It would be a shame if they did not, as he is so much cuter and so much more fun than that creepy Elf on the Shelf. Anyhow, I hope that the Drunken Elf continues to be a part of our family Yuletides for many years to come.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Christmas Cards

The first Christmas card
One of the traditions most associated with Christmas in the 20th and 21st Centuries is the sending of Christmas cards. The tradition is so much a part of the holidays that it seems as if it had to firmly entrenched for centuries. In truth, as far as Yuletide traditions go, Christmas cards are a relatively recent development, only going back a little over 160 years.

What is more, the giving of greeting cards at other holidays pre-dates Christmas cards by centuries. It was as early as 1400 that New Years greeting cards were being made from woodcuts in Germany. It was also in the 15th Century that lovers began exchanging Valentine cards (or more simply, "Valentines"). The oldest known Valentine was written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans and sent to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London after he was captured at the Battle of Agincourt. By the late 18th Century printers in Great Britain had already started producing the first commercial Valentines.

It would not be until 1843 that the first commercially produced Christmas card would be introduced. It was on 1 May 1843 Sir Heny Cole commissioned that first Christmas card. It was artist John Callcott Horsley who provided its illustrations. Seen today that first card might not seem very Christmasy. It simply showed an extended family raising their glass in a toast. Apparently the subject matter proved a bit controversial given it involved drinking. The card was sold for 1 shilling each, which would have been a bit pricey in the mid-19th Century. About 1000 copies of that first Christmas card were sold. Regardless, the idea of Christmas cards would soon catch on.

As to what made that first Christmas card possible, it was a number of factors. Advances in printing had reduced the price to print not only books and newspapers, but items such as cards as well. The introduction of the Uniform Penny Post across the United Kingdom in 1840 also made it much cheaper to post letters and cards. These two factors, as well as yet others, not only made that first commercially produced Christmas card possible, but pretty much all commercially produced greeting cards to follow.

It was 1873 that the printing firm of Prang and Mayer began printing Christmas cards in the United Kingdom. Prang and Mayer introduced the Christmas card the following year, 1874, to the United States. While Christmas cards had existed in the United States since the 1840's, they tended to be rather pricey. It was Prang and Mather that first produced them so that they were affordable for most Americans.

Vintage 1950's Hallmark card
Regardless, greeting cards would prove as popular in the United States as they had the United Kingdom. Quite naturally, new firms were founded to cater to the demand for greeting cards. American Greetings was founded in 1906 in Brooklyn, Ohio by Polish immigrant  Jacob Sapirstein. The giant of the greeting card industry, Hallmark Cards, was founded in 1910 in Kansas City by Joyce Hall. Hallmark Cards would also make another contribution to the holiday beyond their Christmas cards. In 1917 Joyce Hall and his brother Rollie invented modern day wrapping paper.

The subject matter of Christmas cards has changed over the years. The early British cards of the Victorian Era eschewed religious scenes (such as the Nativity or the Three Magi) or wintry scenes in favour of such things as animals, children, flowers, and fairies. As Christmas cards evolved religious themes such as the Nativity started appearing. It was late in the 19th Century that wintry scenes, such as snowy landscapes, finally became popular. Father Christmas in the United Kingdom and Santa Claus in the United States became increasingly popular as the years went by.

While the tradition of sending Christmas cards is a relatively recent addition to the holiday, it is one that has become firmly a part of it. While the various styles and even subject matter of cards have changed over the years, at no point has sending Christmas cards gone out of fashion. Even today, in the age of the World Wide Web and mobile phones, the Christmas card remains popular.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

My Five Least Favourite Christmas Songs

Most holiday songs that are played frequently each year tend to be good. After all, it takes more than references to Christmas, Santa Claus, and snow to make a song listenable. It's with good reason that songs like "White Christmas", "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", and "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" are considered classics. Unfortunately, not every Yuletide song played during the holidays can be "White Christmas. There are many that, despite their frequent airplay, some people just cannot stand. These are the top five Yuletide songs that will have me switching the channel or at least turning down the volume on my TV or radio every single time.

1. "Last Christmas" by Wham: I have never been a fan of Wham or George Michael. To me their songs are the musical equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard. Taking that into account, I think even for a Wham song, "Last Christmas" is horribly bad. It's not the subject matter that makes me dislike the song. There are plenty of Christmas songs about people jilted by their lovers that I love (among them "Merry Christmas Will Do" by Material Issue). The problem for me with "Last Christmas" is twofold. First, to me the lyrics are just poorly written. The last line in the chorus just grates on my ears. Second, the music isn't very good either. In fact, it is so dreary that it would have a soporific effect on me if I wasn't so busy cringing so much at the lyrics. How this song has been covered so many times (most recently by Ariana Grande) and gets so much airplay I will never know. I will say this, at least the cover versions aren't quite as bad.

2. "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" by Elmo 'n' Patsy: Unlike many people I actually like Yuletide novelty songs. I love "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" by The Chipmunks and "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" by Gayla Peevey. That having been said, I have hated "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" from the very beginning. Elmo's vocals are annoying. The music is annoying. The lyrics are even annoying  Worse yet, as novelty songs go, it isn't even funny. What good is a novelty song that isn't funny. Sadly, this is one of the most played songs around this time of year.

3. "Do They Know It's Christmas" by Band Aid: I hate putting this song on the list, as it was recorded with good intentions and the proceeds for the song went to a good cause. If I'm being honest, however, I have to say I cannot stand the song. "Do They Know It's Christmas" simply grates on my ears. Beyond the fact that I don't like the sound of the song, I have to point out that in some respects the lyrics to "Do They Know It's Christmas" are offensive. It treats Africa as if it was one vast wasteland and treats the continent as if it was one country, ignoring both the diverse terrain and the diverse cultures there. Even the title and chorus of the song, "Do They Know It's Christmas" is potentially offensive. A good portion of Africa's population is Christian, so they naturally know when Christmas is, even when it might not be a happy one for some of them. What is more, in some faiths in Africa (such as Coptic Christians), Christmas is celebrated not on 25 December, but 7 January. The song was recently remade by a new lineup of singers called "Band Aid 30" to help fight Ebola in parts of Africa. Unfortunately, its lyrics are no less offensive and patronising.

4. "The Holiday Season" by Andy Williams: I love Andy Williams. He is one of my favourite singers of all time. In fact, if I was going to make a list of my all time favourite crooners, he would probably make the top ten. Unfortunately, on his otherwise excellent album The Andy Williams Christmas Album there is possibly the worst song he ever recorded, "The Holiday Season". Oh, the music to "The Holiday Season" is listenable enough, but the lyrics are absolutely atrocious. There's the reference to Santa Claus, "He'll be coming down the chimney, down". Why repeat the word "down"? And then there are the nonsense lyrics that have nothing to do with the holiday, "With the whoop-de-do and hickory dock". The song even makes a grave error with regards to a holiday tradition in its lyrics, "And don't forget to hang up your sock." One does not hang up socks at the Yuletide; one hangs up stockings! The song was written by Kay Thompson, who is most famous for the "Eloise" books. Fortunately, she was a much better author than a songwriter!

5. "All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth"  by Spike Jones & His City Slickers: Perhaps I should not be a Grammar Nazi and point out that it should be "All I Want for Christmas Are My Two Front Teeth", especially as the grammatical error is the least thing that annoys me about this song. Quite simply, the song is very repetitive. The words "two front teeth" are repeated about twelve times or more throughout the song. Worse yet, even when it is sung by an adult (as Spike Jones's original version was--George Rock handled the lead vocal), it is sung in an annoying, high pitched, childlike voice. The effect can be even worse when sung by an actual child. Even as a child, when my tastes had not quite developed to the point that they are now, I hated this song. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Late Great Norman Bridwell, Creator of Clifford the Big Red Dog

Norman Bridwell, the writer and cartoonist best known for creating Clifford the Big Red Dog, died 12 December 2014 at the age of 86.

Norman Bridwell was born on 15 February 1928 in Kokomo, Indiana. After graduating Kokomo High School in 1945 he attended the  John Herron School of Art in Indianapolis and Cooper Union in New York City.  He struggled for years as a commercial artist before his first "Clifford the Big Red Dog" book, Clifford the Big Red Dog, was published in 1963. His second book, Zany Zoo, was published that same year. Clifford proved to be extremely popular, so it was followed by Clifford Gets a Job in 1965 as well as by Clifford's Halloween and Clifford Takes a Trip in 1966. In the end there would be over 150 titles with 120 million copies sold worldwide. Two more "Clifford the Big Red Dog" books, Clifford Goes to Kindergarten and Clifford Celebrates Hanukkah, are due to be published next year.

With his success,  Clifford would also eventually venture into other media. In 1988 there began a series of direct to video releases entitled Clifford's Fun with... From 2000 to 2003 Scholastic Studios produced the animated series Clifford the Big Red Dog for PBS. John Ritter provided the voice of Clifford. John Ritter also provided the voice of Clifford in Clifford's Really Big Movie (2004).  Both were followed by the animated series Clifford's Puppy Days. In 1990 a giant balloon of Clifford the Big Red Dog made its debut in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Norman Bridwell also wrote other books besides the "Clifford Big Red Dog" books. The Witch Next Door, about a kindly witch, was published in 1965 and was followed by such books as The Witch's Vacation and Witch's Catalog. Norman Bridwell also wrote a number of books centred around humorous monsters, including How to Care for Your Monster, Monster Holidays, and Monster Jokes and Riddles. He also wrote a number of other children's books, including Bird in the Hat, Kangaroo Stew, A Tiny Family, and many others.

Norman Bridwell was one of the most influential children's authors of the 20th Century. As with many popular authors it is often hard to determine precisely why he was so successful. I think much of it may have been because in nearly all of his books, from the "Clifford the Big Red Dog" books to the "Witch" books to the "Monster" books, there was an underlying message that it was all right to be different. Clifford the Big Red Dog is unlike any dog in the world and yet Emily Elizabeth loves him all the same. For children who might feel like outsiders the message that being different is not only acceptable, but admirable is an important one.

Beyond the message in Norman Bridwell's books that being different is all right, there is also an underlying message that it is important to try to be good, even when things might be going awry. In the "Clifford the Big Red Dog" books Clifford always tries to be good, even as his huge size sometimes creates problems. Even as Clifford makes mistakes, Emily Elizabeth still loves him all the same. And in the end Clifford always finds a way to make things right. This is another important message for children, that one should always try to be good and it is all right to make mistakes. There can be no doubt that many children identified with Clifford more than they did Emily Elizabeth.

Norman Bridwell's "Clifford the Big Red Dog" books would become among the most successful in the history of children's books. They certainly struck a chord with younger Baby Boomers and older Gen Xers, who have passed their love of the books onto their children. While Norman Bridwell may no longer be in this world, there can be no doubt that Clifford the Big Red Dog will be with us for a long time to come.

Monday, December 15, 2014

P. L. Travers Syndrome: When Authors Hate the Films Based on Their Works

There can be little doubt that the adaptation of a work of fiction to film can be a trying time for an author. After all, regardless of what it says in the short story, novella, or novel, for years later many people will base their images of the characters and places upon the way they look in the film. In the novel Gone with the Wind author Margaret Mitchell states that "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful..," but in the film the character is played by the undeniably beautiful Vivien Leigh. Ever since the movie Gone with the Wind came out, then, even many people who have read the book picture Scarlett O'Hara as the drop dead gorgeous Vivien Leigh and not Margaret Mitchell's charming, but ultimately plain Jane. Sometimes film adaptations of works of fiction will even change the plot substantially. Using Gone with the Wind once more as an example, there are entire subplots and characters in the novel that are omitted from the film.

Fortunately most authors realise that cinema and literature are two different media and will readily accept that any films based on their works may be different from what they have written, for better or worse. That having been said, there are those authors who will always resent it when a film adaptation strays from their particular vision, even when the resulting film is lauded by critics, loved by audiences, and eventually considered a classic.  In many instances such authors may even regret that their books were adapted as movies at all.

Perhaps the most famous example of such an author was P. L. Travers, author of the "Mary Poppins" books. For around twenty years Walt Disney sought to get the film rights to the first book, Mary Poppins, only to find his offers rejected by Mrs. Travers who firmly opposed the idea. By 1959, however, the royalties to the various "Mary Poppins" books had begun to decline and P. L. Travers found she could really use the money from selling the film rights to the first book. Ultimately a deal was struck between Walt Disney and P. L. Travers that, among other things, would give her a $100,000 advance and  5% of the producer's gross. As part of the agreement P.L. Travers would be retained as a consultant on the film.

Unfortunately for P. L. Travers, being a consultant would not give her much control over the film based on her creation. Mrs. Travers was not happy that the harsher aspects of Mary Poppins's personality were softened. She did not particularly care for the fact that the movie was going to be a musical. Most of all, P.L. Travers wanted absolutely no animation in the movie. It should then come as no surprise that P.L. Travers thoroughly disliked Disney's film adaptation of Mary Poppins. She actually left the Los Angeles premiere of the film in tears. What is more, she refused to let Walt Disney adapt any of the other "Mary Poppins" books. When approached about adapting Mary Poppins as a stage musical in the Nineties (it wouldn't make it to the stage until 2004), she agreed only so long as no one who had worked on Disney's film adaptation was involved in the project. Despite the fact that the film version of Mary Poppins was well received upon its initial release and regarded as a classic in later years, P. L. Travers still disliked the film for having departed from her particular vision for Mary Poppins.

While P.L. Travers's experience with the adaptation of Mary Poppins may be one of the most famous (if not the most famous) instances of an author disliking the film adaptation of her work, it was by no means an isolated case. Before P.L. Travers, Willa Cather had seen one of her books adapted into a film that she did not like.Willa Cather's 1923 novel A Lost Lady was adapted as a silent film in 1925. Miss Cather apparently had no objection to this adaptation of her novel. That having been said, the 1934 sound version would be an entirely different matter. While Barbara Stanwyck earned very good notices for her performance in the film, over all the critics' reception for A Lost Lady was lacklustre. As to Willa Cather, she disliked the film so much that she never again let one of her novels be adapted as a movie. Adaptations of O Pioneers!, My Antonia, and various other works would have to wait until after Miss Cather's death in 1947.

Of course, perhaps no author is perhaps as notorious about hating films based on his works than comic book writer Alan Moore. Not only has Mr. Moore been highly critical of movies based upon his works, but he even had his name removed from adaptations of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen , V for Vendetta, and Watchmen. In the case of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen it is perhaps understandable why Mr. Moore would want his name removed; the film seriously departed from his work and was largely panned by critics. It is less understandable why he wanted his name removed from V for Vendetta (2006), a film which was mostly faithful to the graphic novel (although with some major changes) and received mostly positive reviews, and Watchmen (2009), a film which was largely faithful to the graphic novel and received mixed reviews. Curiously, while he disavowed the film, Alan Moore's name remains on the credits of the adaptation of From Hell (2001).  Of course, here it must be pointed out that as a comic book writer most of Alan Moore's works are owned by others (for instance, Watchmen is owned by DC Comics).

The fact is that there are many other instances of authors who have hated film adaptations of their work than P.L. Travers, Willa Cather, and Alan Moore. In fact,  the phenomenon of authors disliking film adaptations of their work is so common that it can perhaps be given a name. As P.L. Travers's dislike of Disney's adaptation of her work numbers among the most famous examples, I think it could perhaps be called "P.L. Travers Syndrome". 

While many people might think authors are being overly persnickety when they dislike and even disavow film adaptations of their work (many fans have said as much of Alan Moore), I can understand where such authors are coming from. While I have never published any fiction, I have written it as a hobby and I have considered how I would want my characters and stories treated on screen. If I did publish one of my works of fiction and it was being adapted to a film, I must confess I would not only want final approval on the casting and screenplay of the film, but even the music that would played in it. I would want actors who actually looked and sounded like my characters, and not simply big names to bring in money at the box office. My reason for feeling this way is that, like most writers, I have a vision for my work. And like most writers, I want any adaptations to other media to conform largely to that vision.

The fact is that writing can be very personal, and I think this is even more the case when it comes to writing fiction. One's characters feel very much like one's children, as does the milieu in which they exist, for that matter. When filmmakers make changes to the characters or plot in an adaptation, then, it must often seem to a writer like an attack on his or her "children". Of course, there is no doubt concern on the part of writers as well that people might think the film reflects the short story, novella, or book upon which it was based. If the writer does not consider a film adaptation of his or her work to be faithful, or if he or she thinks the film adaptation is of low quality, then quite naturally he or she will quite naturally dislike the movie.

Of course, an author's dislike of a film is probably going to be greater if it departs very substantially from his or her original work. This is why P.L. Travers disliked Disney's adaptation of Mary Poppins so much. Anyone who has read the books knows that the movie departs a great deal from them. While the movie was critically acclaimed and is now considered a classic, it is then understandable why P.L. Travers detested it so. Quite simply, Disney took her characters and the milieu she created and turned it into something almost entirely different. Given Mrs. Travers's personality and her attachment to her work, it would have been surprising if she had reacted any other way.

While I must confess to being sympathetic to writers with regards to those times when they are disappointed with film adaptations of their works, I must also admit that I have some sympathy for the filmmakers as well. Writers may have a particular vision for their work, but then readers have their own vision as well.  An example of this is how I as a reader differ from Ian Fleming as an author on the casting of James Bond. Ian Fleming wanted David Niven to play James Bond. I have to confess that even if I had never seen a James Bond movie or recognised any of the actors who have played him over the years, I have never pictured David Niven as 007 when reading the books! Anyhow, my point is that while authors might have a particular vision of a short story, novella, or novel, a filmmaker might have an entirely different vision of the same work, and they may have no problem changing it for that reason. This is perhaps a good thing, as we would not have Disney's Mary Poppins otherwise. As much as I love P.L. Travers's work, I would hate to think of a world where the 1964 film version of Mary Poppins did not exist. Indeed, it was one of my favourite movies of all time.

Ultimately, short of giving an author total control over a film adaptation of his or her work (and perhaps even not then), I don't think there is any "cure" for P.L. Travers Syndrome. Indeed, for many writers even minor changes to their work might elicit a reaction to a film adaptation that is less than kind. And in the end I am not sure that a cure for P.L. Travers Syndrome is necessarily desirable. After all, it serves as a warning to filmmakers that they are ultimately working with something created by someone else and they should treat it with the utmost care. It seems possible that if it was not for P.L. Travers Syndrome, filmmakers might take even more liberties when adapting works of literature, as hard as that might be to imagine.