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Double Feature: Christmas with Barbara Stanwyck

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Barbara Stanwyck

Barbara Stanwyck shows up as one of the most represented actresses in my film collection, according to my badly out-of-date Take11 account.  You can’t watch American films from the thirties, forties, and fifties without running into her several times.  She also had a large presence on television later in her career, so it’s always fun to show people from the baby-boomer generation some of her racy pre-code work, like Baby Face.

With her career first established in the pre-sex-symbol era, Stanwyck possessed both great looks and great skill as an actress.  I’ve never felt that still photos captured her essence very well, as she is so much more appealing in motion on film.  Perhaps because of her husky voice, she portrayed earthy, worldly, and empowered women.  She never won an Oscar, despite four nominations.

I’m not a big fan of Christmas movies because, often written for the widest audience, Christmas movies too often set the quality bar too low.  Neither am I a fan of stories that inelegantly hammer away at one’s sentimentality to evoke an emotional reaction.  Worst of all, I don’t like that they are the only type of movies that are seasonal.  For example, it would be strange to watch A Christmas Story in July (A Christmas Tale less so).

To their credit, time is a bit kinder to the Christmas film.  For many people It’s a Wonderful Life is the oldest film they’ve ever sat through and enjoyed.  Nonetheless, many Christmas films from the studio era are slipping into obscurity.  That’s why I’ve chosen the first film for our double feature, 1940’s Remember the Night.

“In the presence of beautiful things, did you ever the sudden irresistible urge to take things in your hands and hurry away with them?”  — John Sargent, as played by Fred MacMurray

I hadn’t seen Remember the Night until it was shown on TCM last year.  It’s an unlikely premise, in which Fred MacMurray’s prosecutor, John Sargent, experiences a bit of guilt about putting Stanwyck’s petty criminal, Lee Leander, into jail.  Sargeant covers Leander’s bail, but she is accientally delivered to his custody.  This results in a tense and comedic back and forth about what he expects from her while he tries to make it clear he wants nothing from her.  Things progress and before long Sargent decides to take Leander home with him to Indiana for the holidays.  Not surprisingly, they develop feelings for one another and things get complicated.

It’s quite hard to pin a single genre on this film.  While there is a romance story at the heart, we’re shuffled through courtrooms grand and small, hear earnest conversations about the morality of theft, listen to a few songs at a New York night club and at the farm, and laugh at screwball gags.  The tone is quite uneven, as if this movie were a synthesis of a gritty crime film and romantic comedy.

Being a Christmas film doesn’t mean the story has to be about perfect people in perfect situations.  With surprising skill, the film continually explores the power of empathy and redemption.  We see Stanwyck’s Leander be torn between the reality of her situation and the possibilities of normalcy that MacMurray’s life and family presents.  MacMurray’s portrayal of Sargent never makes the mistake of being judgmental regarding Leander’s choices in life.

You likely won’t find Remember the Night at your local video store.  At this time it’s only sold through the Turner Classic Movies website.  Order early to get it before the season’s up.  It’s also airing on TCM 11:00 central time on Christmas Eve.  Stay up for it while you’re playing Santa.

While Stanwyck plays an unabashed criminal in the first of our double feature films, he get to see her versatility playing a lifestyle maven on the verge of being revealed as a fraud in Christmas in Connecticut.

I show you how to flip-flop the flop-flips. — Felix Bassenak, as played by S.Z. Sakall

Featuring a classic comedic setup, Christmas in Connecticut plays as by-the-book romantic comedy.  Elizabeth Lane, portrayed by Barbara Stanwyck, is a newspaper lifestyle writer not unlike a certain modern-day Connecticut crafting celebrity.  After a slow setup of Dennis Morgan’s war-hero story, we’re shown the gimmick:  Lane is actually making it all up, being an urbanite lacking any homemaking skills.  The rest of the action in the film is motivated by Lane and her compatriots’ machinations to avoid discovery by her editor.  Add in a faked marriage, borrowed babies, and a complicating love interest, and you have everything in place for an entertaining romp.

Christmas in Connecticut would be quite forgettable without the work of two solid supporting actors:  S. Z. Sakall as one of Lane’s co-conspirators and Sydney Greenstreet as Lane’s blowhard editor.  Hungarian-born Sakall bubbles through the film getting most of the big gag-lines while Greenstreet necessarily overpowers every scene with his presence.  The worst blank-spot in the film is Dennis Morgan, who has to play it strait as Lane’s love-interest.

Perhaps the slightly darker theme of Remember the Night limits the audience a bit, but I feel there’s more Christmas spirit in it than the later Christmas in Connecituct.  While a more straight-forward comedy, Christmas is focused on deception and motivated by people getting what they want–Lane wants to keep her job and get involved with Jones, Yardley wants to advance his interest in the newspaper, and Sloan wants to get an architecture column in the newspaper.  The big deception in Night exists to preserve Leander’s dignity, not to further other goals. Machinations and misunderstandings provide the forward momentum in Christmas, while the development of characters advanced the story in Night.

Perhaps America needed something light and distracting in 1945, when Christmas in Connecticut was released.  A more studied historian than myself could make quite a bit of grist out of the comparison between the start and end of World War II represented by these films.  Fortunately for us, you don’t have to be a scholar to enjoy the similarities and differences between these two quality films.

Other Recommendations

Two big connections come from Remember the Night.  First is the key film noir film that also pairs Stanwyck and MacMurray, Double Indemnity.  The second comes from Preston Sturges, who wrote Remember the Night, and found good use for Stanwyck in the superb film, The Lady Eve.

Curious about Fred MacMurray’s film career?  Check out Borderline, which I recommended in the last double feature.  For the uninitiated, MacMurray is revalatory in his role as a philandering corporate man in The Apartment.

Christmas in Connecticut has many qualities common to earlier screwball comedies, among them the exemplar Bringing Up Baby.  Note that the country house for these two films is the same set.

I’d love to know if S. Z. Sakall ever got better screen time than in Christmas in Connecticut, but you can see him doing great character work in a number of key films including Casablanca, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and My Dream is Yours.

If you’re lucky enough to get the TCM 4-title DVD that includes Christmas in Connecticut, make time to watch The Shop Around the Corner, directed by the master director, Ernst Lubitsch.  You might know this film for the dreadful remake You’ve Got Mail.

Extra Credit Question

What type of animal makes an appearance in both films?

Written by Bill

December 6, 2010 at 8:49 pm

Posted in Movies

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Double Feature: John Wayne vs. John Wayne

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There should be a word that describes how hard it is to appreciate movie that you didn’t get to view in its original context.  Born in the 1970’s I didn’t get to grow up guffawing at Bob Hope films or be intrigued by the explosion of European cinema in the 1960s.  I can’t even really recall the transition to the summer blockbuster machine brought forth by Jaws and Star Wars.  Often, if you’re like me, you end up with a second-hand knowledge about movies that feels like experience but isn’t really.  How many people of my age have sat through all of supposedly great movies like Gone With the Wind or Citizen Kane, or have they only seen a few clips and been told how great they are.

This poses one of the difficulties for a person working backwards through cinema, as I discovered five years ago working at the media counter at Indiana University.  I served up most of the films being shown in film studies courses, so I knew what professors through was important.  On the other hand, I couldn’t tell you why it was important.  The loss of context for cinema is what makes people avoid “old” movies.  It’s a shame, since there are plenty of old movies on DVD or Blu-ray that are amazingly entertaining, if not better than the run-of-the-mill cineplex fodder you could be wasting your money on.

Double feature is a series on Digital Monkey Shines where I’ll try to tackle the “where do I start?” and “why is it important?” questions about classic movies.  I’ll attempt to put two films together that share a theme, style, time, or a creative space.  These pairings should help us establish some context and, perhaps, put ourselves into the shoes of the original movie viewer who first saw these films when they were released.  Where possible, I’ll add in some extra recommended viewing.

So let’s get it started.  John Wayne and John Ford–you’re being called to the Double Feature.

John Wayne belongs to another generation–twice removed, if you’re my age.  Ask yourself what a John Wayne film should be.  Sure, they were westerns.  More specifically, they were modernist adventure romances filmed in technicolor in Monument Valley.  You knew who the good guys were (white) and who the bad guys were (often Indians).  The question of whether the violence was right was already sorted out.

If we had to pick a great example of the standard western made by John Wayne and John Ford, then the first film in this double feature, 1939’s Stagecoach, is the obvious choice.  In Stagecoach, we’re treated to seeing the start of something large, and we’re lucky enough to see it working well at the beginning.  It was the first collaboration of the two Johns.  Wayne wasn’t even well-enough known to get top billing, which went to Claire Trevor.  All that’s missing is the Technicolor.   The film collected a decent number of Academy Award nominations, winning a pair in minor categories.

Stagecoach still has value as escapist entertainment.  In many ways, it’s the western too unapologetic to be made today.  It deals with the simple story of the passengers of a stagecoach trying to travel through lands where Geronimo is raiding.  Seeing Wayne looking hale and fresh unlike the more grizzled appearance he adopted later in his career, you can almost imagine wondering where this actor best known at the time for B westerns had been.  It’s also surprising as an ensemble film, not dominated by Wayne’s heroics but built around a solid cast of actors.

For my purposes, Stagecoach is part of the double feature to inform us before viewing of the second film of the double feature, 1956’s The Searchers.

After nearly two decades of collaborations with Wayne most of which were of Westerns, it’s nice to think that John Ford realized that the Hollywood Western lacked introspection.  As with many of the native American genres of film, it had a structure that one didn’t mess with without having a good reason.

The Searchers may look superficially like a western, but there is much more going on beneath the surface, in which the titular searchers look for the girl stolen by a band of marauding Indians.  At the center of the story is John Wayne’s masterfully portrayed Ethan Edwards, uncle to the lost girl and a one-time confederate army member who may not have exactly have laid down his arms after the surrender of the south.  Through tense exchanges with Jeffrey Hunter’s character, Marty, and early situations, we learn how racist Ethan Edwards is.  As the search continues and a traditional rescue becomes inconceivable, one begins to wonder what Edwards’ motivations are.  Years later, the search ends, and it’s amazing that you don’t know what to expect, as it seems equally likely that he will kill his besmirched niece, or take her home to live the rest of her life in normalcy.

Of the double feature films, I watched The Searchers first, and I had trouble spotting the important issues of character.  It wasn’t until I’d tried earlier John Wayne and John Ford films that I realized how they were expanding and re-evaluating earlier works in The Searchers.  The Searchers hints at a  post-modern view of America’s expansion west, finding time to show the cruelty showed the Native Americans and the dark hearts of people put into a position to take advantage of them.  In questioning the moral imperative of the modernist westerns, like Stagecoach, the Johns breathed life into a movement defines a new sub-genre of western (see other recommendations below).

Stagecoach is available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection, although the out-of-print keep-case DVD is perfectly fine viewing.  The Searchers is best watched on a very reasonably-priced Blu-ray, thanks to the wonderful presentation of Technicolor’s deep saturation.

Other recommendations

Even though I find it very uneven, Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks), is a nice late-career Wayne western that is really about being under siege.  Just be prepared to put up with Ricky Nelson’s general lack of talent and Wayne’s almost phoned-in performance.  Dean Martin almost offsets Nelson and Walter Brennan’s out-sized clowning keep things working.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is Ford and Wayne collaboration more in line with Stagecoach in terms of its outlook, and was also filmed in Monument Valley.

The Anti- or Postmodernist-Western may have hit a high point with Clint Eastwood’s deconstruction of Western genre mythology in Unforgiven.  Arthur Penn, coming to mind as he recently passed away, used the Western to address America’s role in Vietnam in Little Big Man.

For an off-kilter recommendation for Claire Trevor, I like to point out 1950’s Borderline, a crime comedy co-starring Fred MacMurray and available cheaply from Alpha video.  The print could be better, but it’s a nice entertainment.

Written by Bill

October 12, 2010 at 3:47 am