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Christmas Crackers, Hollywood-style

Strangely for something with as much sentimental potential as Christmas, there is only a handful of really classic Christmas movies. Yet, every year, this buff draws up a list of Christmas movies to watch in the run-up to the big day – and every year she fails miserably to get through them all.

The viewing itinerary usually kicks off with a little-known 1945 comedy called The Cheaters, which is getting a rare screening on Channel 4 this weekend. With a screwball cast that includes the elephantine Eugene Pallette and the twittery Billie Burke (best remembered as Glinda from The Wizard of Oz), it’s about a family of hard-up socialites who – in order to impress their daughter’s rich suitor – take in the down-and-out Joseph Schildkraut over Christmas, and learn a thing or two about dignity from him.

The Cheaters makes a nice double bill with Christmas in Connecticut (pictured), another rarely shown 1945 comedy, this time about a sophisticated magazine columnist (Barbara Stanwyck) forced to live up to her phoney reputation as a Nigella-style domestic goddess when her editor decides to spend the holidays at her country cottage.

Continuing the unwelcome guest theme, The Man Who Came to Dinner (1941) is one I always manage to squeeze in to the viewing schedule. A gloriously funny comedy, it stars Monty Woolley as the obnoxious “idol of the airwaves” Sheridan Whiteside (a character based on the humorist Alexander Woollcott) who, during a lecture tour, breaks his leg and has to spend his recovery – and Christmas – at the home of the unlucky mid-west family outside whose house he slipped.

“Christmas may be postponed this year,” says one gossip column reporting the accident which has left the Stanley family confined to the upstairs quarters of their own home. The snazzy script, packed with one-liners, is a joy and the performances – by Billie Burke (again), Bette Davis, chic glamourpuss Ann Sheridan (my Christmas style icon), the wonderful character actress Mary Wickes and Jimmy Durante (playing a character based on Harpo Marx) – are as sparkling as a glass of Christmas bubbly.

Versions – live and animated – of A Christmas Carol abound, but the most atmospheric and haunting of all is the 1951 British classic, Scrooge, with the peerless Scots actor Alastair Sim gloriously dour as the miser who claims that “Christmas is a humbug” until he is visited by three spirits on Christmas Eve and realises that friendship and love are worth more than money.

Wash that one down with the gentler The Bishop’s Wife (1947), a grown-up romantic fantasy in which Cary Grant stars as a particularly debonair and charming angel named Dudley, who answers the prayers of a stressed-out clergyman (David Niven)and his neglected wife (Loretta Young) at Christmas-time, and leaves a trail of swooning ladies in his wake.

Or settle down with family favourite Miracle on 34th Street (1947 – a vintage year for Christmas movies) in which department store Santa Edmund Gwenn has to prove that he’s the real McCoy to a non-believing seven-year-old (Natalie Wood).

Heartwarming Christmas scenes feature in plenty of movies, but the ones worth digging out in the run-up to midnight are Little Women (any of the three versions will do, as long as you have your hankies handy) and Meet Me In St Louis (1944).

Although it covers a whole year in the lives of the characters it depicts, Meet Me In St Louis easily qualifies as a festive film: not only does it embody all the sentiments of the season, but it also features Judy Garland introducing the beautiful song Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas which is guaranteed to jerk a few buckets’ worth of tears.

The hours spanning Christmas Eve and Christmas morning should be spent in the company of Clarence the Angel, Zuzu, George, Uncle Billy and everyone else in Frank Capra’s evergreen It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – the definitive Christmas movie.

And, if by December 27, I feel that I’ve overdosed on the old Christmas spirit, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960) will provide just the right amount of cynicism to prepare me for the horrors of Hogmanay…

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Hallowe’en Movies

It may not have inspired nearly as many movies as those cheerier, more wholesome, festivities that take place in December, but Hallowe’en rears its ugly, pumpkin, head in a rich mix of classic films – from family fantasies, such as ET, to such serious dramas as Kramer Vs Kramer.

It pops up in musicals, romantic comedies, thrillers and chillers. Just as there are certain movies which are perfect for getting us into a Christmassy mood, so there is a less well-documented collection of films which are ideal for conjuring up the spirit of Hallowe’en. Here’s my guide to essential Hallowe’en viewing.

HALLOWE’EN MUST-SEES
1. Arsenic and Old Lace (1941)
“Insanity runs in my family,” says Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) in this madcap black comedy. “In fact, it practically gallops.” And it’s all unleashed on one wild Hallowe’en night when he discovers a body stashed in the window seat of the quaint Brooklyn home shared by his beloved spinster aunts. Turns out they have a penchant for bumping off lonely old gentlemen. It’s not just Aunt Martha and Aunt Abi who are nuts; Mortimer’s brother Teddy thinks he’s Theodore Roosevelt, and his other sibling, Jonathan, is a maniac who flies into a murderous rage when anyone comments on his obvious resemblance to Boris Karloff…
This timeless classic blends high octane comedy – Cary Grant was never as hysterical as when he was playing the increasingly hysterical Mortimer – with black humour and the genuine chills provided by torture-loving Jonathan Brewster and his slimy, plastic surgeon, sidekick Dr Einstein (the ever-creepy Peter Lorre). It’s a great one to watch in the dark in the middle of the night .. Director Frank Capra followed this Hallowe’en-themed film with the greatest Christmas movie of them all – It’s a Wonderful Life.
2. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Two festive seasons for the price of one in this cult animation from the eccentric mind of Tim Burton, a magician of the macabre whose every film hints of Hallowe’en-style horrors. This musical, which was clearly inspired by Burton’s heroes, the illustrators Charles Addams and Edward Gorey, tells the story of Pumpkin Jack, the main man in Hallowe’en Town, and what happens when he tires of the Hallowe’en routine and tries his hand at being Santa instead..
TRICKS AND TREATS
3. Meet Me in St Louis (1944)
Is there anyone who has seen this heart-warming Judy Garland musical and doesn’t remember the traumatic trick-or-treating scene in which little Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) rises to the terrible challenge of approaching the front door of the scariest man in the street – and throwing flour in his face. Director Vincente Minnelli brilliantly captures the menacing mood as Tootie tentatively knocks on the door… and her jubilation as she realises that she is “the bravest of them all and the most horrible” after she has completed the task that none of the other kids would take on..
4. Everyone Says I Love You (1996)
Woody Allen’s joyful musical – in which stars ranging from Drew Barrymore to Alan Alda bravely sang old standards (regardless of how well – or not, in the case of Julia Roberts – they could sing) – follows a year in the life of a wacky Park Avenue family. One of the highlights is the Hallowe’en sequence when the children from the building come to the door to trick or treat. This being the wealthiest part of New York, you don’t just get a kid in a supermarket outfit singing a pop song; you get full, MGM-style, production numbers. And the one that the family falls for is a girl dressed as a banana, singing Carmen Miranda’s Chiquita Banana song, accompanied by two maracas-shaking boys in Mexican costume.
OF MICE AND BOGEY MEN
5. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
It’s not a horror movie, but this peerless film of Harper Lee’s wonderful book has an unforgettable scene, set at Hallowe’en, which is utterly terrifying. Our young heroine, Scout, through whose eyes the story is told, is set upon by an assailant in the dark as she and her brother Jem are returning home from a Hallowe’en pageant at their school. Scout is still in her ham costume and is knocked to the ground as the attacker lays into Jem. Her unwieldy, solid costume prevents her from seeing what’s happening and who her attacker is and stops her from being able to get to her feet. All of which adds to the suspense, which is brilliantly heightened by Elmer Bernstein’s magnificent music. The scene is not only extremely scary but also a pivotal point in the plot – as it leads to our first glimpse of the mysterious Boo Radley..
6. Hallowe’en (1978)
The low-budget chiller that spawned several sequels and a series of spoofs (the Scary Movies etc), this creepy horror flick takes place on October 31 when a psychotic killer, who has been mistakenly released from an institution, returns to his family home to pick up where he left off 15 years earlier. Jamie Lee Curtis followed in her mother Janet “Psycho” Leigh’s filmic footsteps by being something of a magnet for the murderer..
SAUCY SORCERESSES
7. I Married a Witch (1942)
Veronica Lake – she of the peekaboo fringe, petite figure and impish face – was brilliantly cast as Jennifer, the mischievous minx of a witch, who, having been burned at the stake in the 17th century, plots revenge on the modern-day ancestor of the puritan responsible for her fate. She seduces him, wrecks his marriage plans and his political campaign and, of course, ends up falling in love with him in this downright magic romantic comedy which undoubtedly inspired the hit 1960s TV show, Bewitched, but is ten times funnier..
8. Bell, Book and Candle (1958)
As sexy sorceresses go, they don’t come more sultry and spellbinding (or chic) than the beatnik witch Gillian Holroyd in this stylish romantic fantasy/comedy which reunited Vertigo stars Kim Novak and James Stewart. Gillian takes a fancy to her new neighbour and uses her magic powers to make him fall in love with her and out of love with the bully who made her life hell at school. Needless to say that she doesn’t expect to fall hook, line and sinker herself …
This dreamy, Manhattan-set romance also stars Elsa “The Bride of Frankenstein” Lanchester as Gillian’s mad old aunt Queenie, while Jack Lemmon is great fun as Gillian’s brother, a wizard with a regular gig playing the bongos at the local witches’ hangout, the Zodiac Club, in Greenwich Village.
9. The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
Three witches for the price of one in this fantastical comedy: Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer discover they have magic powers when a devilish stranger (Jack Nicholson) blows into town in answer to their prayers. He wreaks so much havoc that they ultimately have to draw on their powers to get rid of him too…
WICKED WITCHES
10. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Why The Wizard of Oz has become a staple of the Christmas TV schedule beats me: it should surely be reserved for Hallowe’en viewing. After all, you don’t get very many witches who are uglier than the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) with her hatchet features, snotter-coloured complexion, scrawny frame and stripy stockings. And that voice that saws right through one’s head as it cackles “Surrender Dorothy!”. Her entourage of flying monkeys in military costume aside, the Wicked Witch is a creature of convention with all the accessories that are considered de rigueur for a witch at Hallowe’en: broomstick, cauldron, pointy black hat….
11. The Witches (1990)
Considerably more evil than the Wicked Witch of the West – just watch how she gleefully pushes a baby in its pram down the steep slope to a cliff edge – is the Grand High Witch, played by Anjelica Huston in Nicolas Roeg’s movie of Roald Dahl’s book The Witches. With her Hitler-like oratory and her desire to wipe out a section of the population (ie: children), the Grand High Witch is one of the scariest sorceresses ever portrayed on film. And far too terrifying for young audiences.
On a lighter note, she is also one of the most striking-looking of all movie witches: you’ve got to admit that, in her slinky black satin, purple trimmed, dress, her long black gloves, Cleopatra-style hair and blood-red lips, she cuts quite a dash. At least, that is, until she peels off her human skin to reveal her real, hideous, witch face.
12. Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the most magnificent villain of them all? Not the Queen from Snow White, though she is a contender, but the elegant, beautiful and utterly evil Maleficent, the bad witch from Disney’s wonderful interpretation of Sleeping Beauty. Left off the guest list for the christening of Princess Aurora, this horned witch casts a terrifying spell on the infant: that when she turns 18, she will prick her finger on a spindle and die…
Like Anjelica Huston’s Grand High Witch, Maleficent is a vision in swathes of black and purple (clearly the only colours for any self-respecting sorceress to sport), and a supermodel of the supernatural world (by way of total contrast with her arch enemies – the three dumpy, frumpy good fairies). And forget your black cats and brooms; Maleficent has a crow as her assistant and can transform herself into whatever she likes – most memorably, a monstrous, fire-breathing dragon.

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1939 – The Best Vintage for Movies?

The Glasgow Film Theatre celebrates its 35th anniversary this year, along with the 70th anniversary of the  picture house that its building originally housed – the Cosmo. To mark the two birthdays, the GFT is devoting Sunday, May 10 to special celebratory events, including the screening of two films voted for by the public – one from 1939 and one from 1974.

Now, much as I love 1970s cinema, I can’t get excited about the choice of films for 1974. Okay, Woody Allen hadn’t yet settled into his film-a-year routine, so that partly explains the absence of a comedy… But then this was the year of Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein – and it would have been a popular choice. It was also the year of  the about-to-be-remade Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, the brilliantly suspenseful thriller about the hijacking of a New York subway train, and The Godfather. So clearly 1974 was, as Frank Sinatra would have said, ” a very good year”.

The films in the running for Glasgow’s viewing public to see on May 10 are, I think, a bit of a mixed bag, though, with one title streets ahead of all the others. They are: Lenny, Chinatown (in a superior class all of its own), Celine and Julie Go Boating, The Man With the Golden Gun and A Woman Under the Influence.

Much more appealing (to me anyway) are the 1939 nominations. Mind you, 1939 is regarded by many as the greatest year in Hollywood history. It seems as if every second film was a future classic during that 12-month period – after all, this was the year of The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind.

Great movies emerged from every genre. Westerns-wise, there was John Ford’s lyrical Stagecoach (with John Wayne), arguably the first classic western; in the comedy category there were such gems as George Cukor’s witty, all-star (and all-female) bitch fest The Women, the western spoof Destry Rides Again (with James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich) and the sparkling Ernst Lubitsch screwball comedy Ninotchka (which had cool beauty Greta Garbo not only laughing but also sending up her own frosty image). Bette Davis triggered more than a few tears that year with two particularly classy melodramas – The Old Maid and Dark Victory. And Jimmy Stewart and director Frank Capra caused hearts to be uplifted with their first collaboration, the idealistic and often very funny political drama Mr Smith Goes to Washington.

Since several of these titles feature on the 1939 list of films to vote for, I’m in a bit of a quandary. Although I suspect it will be The Wizard of Oz that wins the popular vote, and justly so, it would be wonderful to have the chance to see the other films on the big screen. It’s not as if any of them are shown anything like as often as Oz on TV. Ninotchka isn’t even available on Region 2 DVD – unless you fork out £50 for a Garbo box set!

So, the 1939 list of choices is: Stagecoach, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, The Wizard of Oz and Jean Renoir’s masterly (and eerily premonitary) La Regle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game).

Votes must be cast by 4pm, Friday May 1st – visit http://tinyurl.com/gftbirthday to have your say….

UPDATE – WEDNESDAY, MAY 6th

Well, no surprises: The Wizard of Oz did indeed win the public’s vote for 1939 while Chinatown was the choice for 1974. Here’s how the voting went:

1939
The Wizard of Oz – 34%
Mr Smith Goes to Washington – 27%
La Regle du Jeu – 21%
Ninotchka – 11%
Stagecoach – 8%

1974

Chinatown – 48%
A Woman Under the Influence – 16%
The Man with the Golden Gun – 14%
Celine and Julie go Boating – 12%
Lenny – 10%

Watch out for the Sunday Herald’s spread on the GFT’s twin birthday celebrations, including the case for 1939 as Hollywood’s best-ever year (by me), and Herald group arts editor Alan Morrison’s views on why 1974 was a bumper one for cinema.

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