Monday, December 22, 2014

"A Christmas Carol" with Alistair Sims (1951)

As we ramp our way up towards Christmas, I always take the time to pause and really enjoy this old film. I have reviewed it here before, so any other words would be superfluous on my part. Here is my review from the last few years;

This is the cream of the Christmas movie crop. The one I look forward to every year. The 1951 British version of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" will stand the test of time as the penultimate version of this tale. With flawless direction by Brian Desmond Hurst, this well-known story of a miserly Counting House owner; and the effects his mean spirit have on all those around him; come alive with the incredible acting of Alistair Sim. No one comes close to portraying the mean spirited Mr. Scrooge, as well as his unbounded joy upon his redemption, as well as Mr. Sim.

Noel Langley did a wonderful job of turning one of the very best Christmas books into a faithful adaptation for the screen. The 1935 British version, as well as the later American version, both lacked that indefinable something which makes any artistic endeavor worth the effort in the first place. And the movie has been done several times since, but this is the version I would choose over any other.

Britain, at the time this movie was filmed, was still in the throes of the aftermath of the Second World War. They were still using ration books for food and sweets, as well as gasoline. Remember, the British took a hell of a hit before we joined the war in December of 1941. I mention this only as a possible explanation for the remaking of this film in the first place.

When I watch this film I tend to think of the Three Spirits as being allegories for what Britain had been before the war; what she endured during that war; and her hopes for a better future. Is that simplistic? Maybe.

I also watch this film with a copy of the book by my side. It's so loyal to the original prose, that there are whole pages where you can read along with the movie. It's then that you see, and feel, the brilliance of Mr. Sim's remarkable performance. To have the ability to act out the words, just as the author intended, is a joy to watch. I have to wonder what Charles Dickens would have thought of Mr. Sim's giddy version of Scrooge on Christmas morning. I suspect that he would deem it perfect.

Of course, no version of "A Christmas Carol" would be complete without a good Jacob Marley, and to that end this film gives us Michael Hordern as Scrooge's deceased partner. And he does a credible job as the Ghost of Marley. This scene used to scare the hell out of me when I was a kid. Now, I am more focused on what he is saying, "Mankind WAS our business!", as he shakes the shackles that bind him. Here is that scene, courtesy of good ol' You Tube;


If I had only one holiday movie to choose from, this would be it. The lessons penned by Dickens so many years ago, still resonate today, when the world is still full of Ignorance and Want, mankind’s two worst enemies. I didn't say it - Dickens did. I just happen to agree.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

"Christmas Eve" with Joan Blondell and George Raft (1947)

This is one of the all-time greatest of Christmas movies, and also one of the most overlooked. It involves a wealthy widow who lives in Manhattan during the late 1940's, which is when the film was made. Aunt Matilda Reid's nephew is seeking to have her judged incompetent in order to become the sole trustee of her wealth. 

Her three wayward adopted sons have been gone for years, with not a word from any of them. One is a bankrupt playboy (George Brent), the other a rodeo rider (Randolph Scott), and the third son (George Raft), is a very mysterious man involved with hunting Nazi war criminals in South America.

Aunt Matilda has drawn just one concession from the lawyers and judge who are administering her case; if her sons show up before midnight on Christmas Eve, she wins. If not, she becomes the ward of her greedy nephew.

The film received tepid reviews in 1947 when it was released in late October. It was eventually re-released as "Sinner's Holiday", in an effort to attract a wider audience. I first ran across this gem in 1961, or so, while watching WOR-TV, Channel 9, in New York City. All the good old movies were on that channel.

As a matter of fact, "It's A Wonderful Life", with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, got its second life from that station. That film was originally released in 1942, at a time when we were not winning the war. The film flopped. And then, around 1960, WOR-TV was looking for something to throw on the air Christmas Eve that wouldn't cost them anything. 

So they turned to "It's A Wonderful Life", a film whose copyright had just run out, enabling them to air the film for nothing. The switchboards lit up and another classic Christmas film was "discovered."

Saturday, December 20, 2014

"Peace on Earth" - An MGM / Hugh Harman Cartoon (1939)


If you only watch one cartoon on this site I hope it is this one. From the opening scene of a snow colored village this 8 minute cartoon will have an affect upon you that will last days; maybe even longer. From the moment this cartoon begins until the last, you will find yourself in an alternate world, where war is but a memory.

The houses in this world are old war helmets, and everything else that was once a tool of war has been changed into something useful. Inside one of the helmet homes we find a grandfather chipmunk sitting by the fire. The air is filled with the sounds of Christmas carolers singing “Peace on Earth, Good will towards men.” The children are singing along when one of them asks the grandfather, “What are men?”

This one question is all the opening that Grandpa needs to recount the story of “men” and why “they ain’t no more men!” This is one of the most imaginative and insightful cartoons ever produced. If you have never seen it watch it with someone you love; preferably a kid. Neither of you will ever forget it.

Friday, December 19, 2014

"The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry

O. Henry, along with the likes of Mark Twain, marked a new type of journalist; ones who became serious writers; a tradition which has continued to the present day. With such luminaries from Mark Twain on through to Jimmy Breslin and Norman Mailer, journalists have become, increasingly, some of the leading writers of their times. O.Henry was no exception. With his incredible feel for irony, and knowledge of human behavior, he wrote of the daily struggles which faced the generation of his time. Jim and Della are emblematic of that struggle, and the love for one another which enabled them to make it through the rough times. The irony in the story is apparent, as well as their love for one another. The illustration I have posted here is the "Adoration of the Magi" by the Italian Artist, Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510). This is a perfect Christmas story, which I have enjoyed for many years, thanks once again, to a grammar school teacher who really had a heart, and made a difference. Mrs. Denslow, this one's for you.

One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one's cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty- seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.

There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.

While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home. A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the lookout for the mendicancy squad.

In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name "Mr. James Dillingham Young."

The "Dillingham" had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, though, they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called "Jim" and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.

Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a week doesn't go far. Expenses had been greater than she had calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling--something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim.

There was a pier-glass between the windows of the room. Perhaps you have seen a pier-glass in an $8 flat. A very thin and very agile person may, by observing his reflection in a rapid sequence of longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly accurate conception of his looks. Della, being slender, had mastered the art.

Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before the glass. her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face had lost its color within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length.

Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim's gold watch that had been his father's and his grandfather's. The other was Della's hair. Had the queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty's jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.

So now Della's beautiful hair fell about her rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her. And then she did it up again nervously and quickly. Once she faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet.

On went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown hat. With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door and down the stairs to the street.

Where she stopped the sign read: "Mne. Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds." One flight up Della ran, and collected herself, panting. Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly looked the "Sofronie."

"Will you buy my hair?" asked Della.

"I buy hair," said Madame. "Take yer hat off and let's have a sight at the looks of it."

Down rippled the brown cascade.

"Twenty dollars," said Madame, lifting the mass with a practised hand.

"Give it to me quick," said Della.

Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the stores for Jim's present.

She found it at last. It surely had been made for Jim and no one else. There was no other like it in any of the stores, and she had turned all of them inside out. It was a platinum fob chain simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious ornamentation--as all good things should do. It was even worthy of The Watch. As soon as she saw it she knew that it must be Jim's. It was like him. Quietness and value--the description applied to both. Twenty-one dollars they took from her for it, and she hurried home with the 87 cents. With that chain on his watch Jim might be properly anxious about the time in any company. Grand as the watch was, he sometimes looked at it on the sly on account of the old leather strap that he used in place of a chain.

When Della reached home her intoxication gave way a little to prudence and reason. She got out her curling irons and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love. Which is always a tremendous task, dear friends--a mammoth task.

Within forty minutes her head was covered with tiny, close-lying curls that made her look wonderfully like a truant schoolboy. She looked at her reflection in the mirror long, carefully, and critically.

"If Jim doesn't kill me," she said to herself, "before he takes a second look at me, he'll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl. But what could I do--oh! what could I do with a dollar and eighty- seven cents?"

At 7 o'clock the coffee was made and the frying-pan was on the back of the stove hot and ready to cook the chops.

Jim was never late. Della doubled the fob chain in her hand and sat on the corner of the table near the door that he always entered. Then she heard his step on the stair away down on the first flight, and she turned white for just a moment. She had a habit for saying little silent prayer about the simplest everyday things, and now she whispered: "Please God, make him think I am still pretty."

The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two--and to be burdened with a family! He needed a new overcoat and he was without gloves.

Jim stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail. His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for. He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face.

Della wriggled off the table and went for him.

"Jim, darling," she cried, "don't look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold because I couldn't have lived through Christmas without giving you a present. It'll grow out again--you won't mind, will you? I just had to do it. My hair grows awfully fast. Say `Merry Christmas!' Jim, and let's be happy. You don't know what a nice-- what a beautiful, nice gift I've got for you."

"You've cut off your hair?" asked Jim, laboriously, as if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet even after the hardest mental labor.

"Cut it off and sold it," said Della. "Don't you like me just as well, anyhow? I'm me without my hair, ain't I?"

Jim looked about the room curiously.

"You say your hair is gone?" he said, with an air almost of idiocy.

"You needn't look for it," said Della. "It's sold, I tell you--sold and gone, too. It's Christmas Eve, boy. Be good to me, for it went for you. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered," she went on with sudden serious sweetness, "but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put the chops on, Jim?"

Out of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He enfolded his Della. For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction. Eight dollars a week or a million a year--what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer. The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated later on.

Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table.

"Don't make any mistake, Dell," he said, "about me. I don't think there's anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less. But if you'll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going a while at first."

White fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper. And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! a quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat.

For there lay The Combs--the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled rims--just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.

But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: "My hair grows so fast, Jim!"

And them Della leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, "Oh, oh!"

Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it out to him eagerly upon her open palm. The dull precious metal seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and ardent spirit.

"Isn't it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it. You'll have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it."

Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.

"Dell," said he, "let's put our Christmas presents away and keep 'em a while. They're too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs. And now suppose you put the chops on."

The magi, as you know, were wise men--wonderfully wise men--who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Uncle "I" and the Christmas Tree (1953)

This is one of those stories which I manage to work in every Christmas season. It speaks of tolerance and the only person I have ever known who loved me without condition. This day also has special significance, as it was always December 15th when we put up the Christmas tree each year. There was never any variation to this rule. The tree arrived on the 15th and was down before New Year’s.

I have always had a Christmas tree. My parents were a "mixed" marriage- my Dad was Irish Catholic and my Mom was Russian Jewish. I was raised in a home that had both a Christmas tree and Chanukah candles. Each year we would light the candles and place our spare change in a dish before it. On the eighth day we would count it up and write a check to the WOR Children’s Christmas Fund. This didn't seem strange to us- money from a Jewish holiday going to the Christmas Fund. Actually it made a lot of sense. It exemplified what the season is all about.

We also exchanged gifts on Christmas Day. And in our house there was no bigger fan of Christmas than my Uncle Irving.

Each year he took my brother and I to Radio City Music Hall to see the Christmas Show. If you have never seen it you have been cheated. It is completely religious in its scope with the Three Wise Men crossing the stage following a star to Bethlehem, including real Camels and Donkeys on the stage! And the Manger- bathed in blue light-was always sure to make my Uncle cry. It was that beautiful. But it wasn't always like that with him.

My parents were married in 1950. They lived with my Grandma Marcus and her brother Irving, my Uncle I, in an apartment on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn until 1952. That’s when they got their first apartment together. It was in the same building on the 4th floor.

My Dad had always had a Christmas tree except for the last 2 years while living with my Mom and Grandma. This was going to be my Mom's first Christmas tree. Naturally, she was very excited and went downstairs to Apartment 3-B to invite Grandma, Uncle Irving and their maid, Mary, up to apartment 4-A to see it.

Irving wouldn’t go. He wouldn’t even budge. One flight up was one too many for him to stand before that “symbol of goyim idolatry.”

The following year saw the birth of my brother Mark. This was going to be his first Christmas and the excitement my parents felt was enormous. And; it turns out contagious.

As Christmas Eve approached Uncle Irving had still not come up to see the tree. That night Grandma and Mary went up to my parents to exchange gifts. Uncle Irving went reluctantly and at the insistence of my Grandmother.

The door opened and there stood the tree. There it was- the “goyim symbol” in all of its splendor. With big outdoor lights and a star at the top, dripping with tinsel and beckoning with its beauty, it mesmerized him. He drew near and felt the warmth and love of my parents coming from that tree. He saw the joy on my brother’s infant face. He turned away and walked out!

An hour or so later he came back, arms laden with toys for my brother and gifts for everyone. After that year- and for every year after until the end of his life- he was the first to ask, “When are we putting up the tree?”

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

"Christmas Comes But Once a Year" - Max Fleischer (1936)


This is one of those old cartoons that you watch as a kid and never forget. When the children at the orphanage wake up on Christmas morning they are thrilled with the store bought gifts which await them. But that joy gives way to disappointment as the toys break one by one. As a result they are inconsolable.

As their wailing reaches epic proportions Professor Grampy happens to be passing by on his self-propelled sled; he is an inventor. When he ascertains the cause of the children’s trouble he takes only a few seconds to come up with a solution. He’ll build newer and better toys, using the wreckage of the toys they have and some assorted things from around the house.

The Christmas miracle he performs isn’t so much about the material things in life as it is about what we do to help one another in our times of need. Well, that sounds nice. But in reality; at least in the case of this cartoon; it really was all about the toys!

Beautifully animated with all the fluidity you expect from these classic Fleischer cartoons, this is a Christmas classic that will always stand the test of time.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Happy Chanukah!

Happy Chanukah! Tonight is the first of eight nights of celebration commemorating the Miracle of the Lights. Literally, Chanukah means a re-dedication. This always takes place on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev. The story behind the holiday is, of course, like Christmas, biblical in its origins. The actual events took place over 2,000 years ago in Judea amongst the Hebrew people of the time.(The photo above is from last year.)

The Jews were the first mono-theists, that is, they were the first to believe in one God. To honor him they built a temple on Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem. Inside were the scrolls of the Torah, which were housed in an Ark. That Ark stood on an Altar which also held a lamp of oil burning in God's honor. This was a symbol of the special relationship the Jews felt with their Creator.

At the same time as the Hebrew people were worshiping their God, Alexander the Great was busy conquering the entire Persian Empire, an area that includes present day Iran, Iraq and the surrounding states. Wherever Alexander the Great went he erected huge statues of the Greek idols. He also placed statues of himself in every important place to show that these countries were under his rule.

At first Alexander allowed the Jews to worship their God with little interference, but that soon came to an end. When the Jews were ordered to place a statue of Alexander the Great on Mt. Moriah, they were horrified! Alexander understood this and allowed the Jews an exemption to this rule, and grateful Jews everywhere named their first born sons Alexander in his honor.

When Alexander died, Antiochus came into power. He was an unforgiving and determined man, hell bent on putting the Jews in their place. He forbid the Jews to worship in their own way and outlawed the Sabbath. Things might have gone on in this way for a while longer had Antiochus not made one crucial mistake.

On the 25th of Kislev, he ordered his troops to bring a statue of Zeus to Mt. Moriah for placement inside of the temple. And then he did the unthinkable - he slaughtered a pig on the Altar, spraying the Torah with the blood of the animal as he did. He then set out in the countryside, erecting more statues and demanding that the people worship them. This was not to be.

A local villager named Mattathias, knocked the statues down and formed his 5 sons into a band of rebels he named the "Maccabees", which means hammer in Hebrew. Soon, more Jews joined Mattathias and his sons, attacking the soldiers and destroying the idols. Antiochus was in a full blown rage at this affront to his supremacy and gathered his army outside of Jerusalem, intent on destroying the Jews once and for all.

At dawn his troops attacked, and were ambushed by the waiting "Maccabees." The people took refuge in the Temple atop Mt. Moriah and repaired all the damage that Antiochus had done to the Altar. Three years later, on the same date, the 25th of Kislev, the Temple was re-dedicated to God. The only problem was, of course, a shortage of oil for the lamp. With a prayer, the Holy Priest poured one days oil into the lamp, and then prayed for the light to last until new oil could be obtained.

That one day's worth of oil burned for 8 days, sustaining the faith of a battered people. And that is why we commemorate this event every 25th of Kislev. There is miracle in light, as well as light in every miracle. Happy Chanukah to all!