Wednesday, December 16, 2015

An Invitation to Classic Movie Christmas Parties

Christmastime is here. A time of get-togethers and good cheer, at your home, your neighbour's and with some old friends on the screen. Today I want to share some of my favourite Christmas parties from movies and television. 


Dashiell Hammett's dark and comic murder mystery was beautifully realized on screen in this adaption by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett directed by W.S. Van Dyke. William Powell and Myrna Loy are perfectly cast as Nick and Nora Charles. Nick, a former private eye now looks after his heiress wife's fortune. Nora is intrigued by her husband's past and is thrilled at the idea of helping to solve a real live murder! Their New York hotel suite is the site of a raucous Christmas Eve party. The revolving door of guests includes pug fighters, ex-cons, doxies, and dopes.

Nora:  "Oh, Nicky, I love you because you know such lovely people."


Betty Smith's enormously successful novel about the struggling Nolan family at the beginning of the 20th century was the first directorial credit for Elia Kazan. The film focuses on the first portion of the novel and stars special Oscar winner Peggy Ann Garner as Francie. Francie is a bright and imaginative girl trapped by circumstances, and longing for the freedom that comes from education.

Francie adores her father, a singing waiter with big dreams and a big heart. Francie has to learn to understand and accept her mother who bears the practical burdens of keeping the family together. The last Christmas Eve spent as a family includes a quiet, companionable party at home with thoughtful and practical gifts from the maternal side of the family.

Francie and her brother Neely's (Ted Donaldson) only hope of getting a Christmas tree to decorate is to hold on to one of the leftover trees tossed by the seller at the close of business. Their triumph in catching and keeping the tree brings joy and excitement to their family and the entire apartment house.    


Akira Kurosawa's film tells the story of an artist (Toshiro Mifune) who brings a libel suit against a magazine for publishing a false story about an alleged relationship with a famous singer (Shirley Yamaguchi). The idealistic artist hires as a lawyer, a rather shady character (Takashi Shimura). The lawyer's faults are easy for all to see, but his loving wife and devoted daughter who suffers from tuberculosis touch our artist's heart and he sacrifices his own interests to help the little family.

The artist and the singer combine forces to give the ill Masako a simple, but charming Christmas party with decorations, music, and food. The celebration is overwhelming in its sincerity and highlighted by a lovely rendition of Silent Night.

Later that night client and lawyer retire to the dubious charms of a tavern known as The Red Cat where the festivities end with drunken and remorseful patrons raising their voices in an off-key, dirge-like version of Auld Lange Syne.


John Ford's film is based on Bringing Up the Brass, the autobiography of West Point athletics instructor Martin Maher, an Irish immigrant played by Tyrone Power. Maureen O'Hara co-stars as his wife, Mary. It is an episodic film with healthy doses of humour leavening the reverence, along with the stroll through historic names and events.

The Christmas party scene is short and sweet in its manly sentiment. It is Marty's first Christmas after the death of his wife and the house is quiet and lonely. The stillness is interrupted by a few of the cadets bringing all their youthful energy, a tree, some punch, some song and good fellowship in a show of genuine affection. Actions speak louder than words.

DESK SET (1957)

Katharine Hepburn runs the research department of a TV network. Spencer Tracy is the consultant hired to computerize many of the network operations, including research. Things may be changing, but the office Christmas party must go on and this is the best movie office Christmas party ever! A piano escapes a rehearsal hall, making the rounds of the offices. Lowly delivery boys get dream tips. Secretaries and researchers alike get to relax and enjoy a bit of spiked punch. Conga lines snake the hallways. Gifts are exchanged. We laugh, sing and get to watch Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy fall in love.

Richard Sumner to Bunny Watson:  "I'll bet you write beautiful letters."


Here's a classic TV Christmas party from the 17th season of Gunsmoke. Jeanette Nolan guest stars as the skinflint manager of an orphanage. Jack Elam is the handyman who helps the kids in her charge (Patti Cohoon, Jodie Foster, Erin Moran, Josh Albee, Brian Morrison, Willie Aames, Todd Lookinland) run away in search of Christmas that is sorely lacking in the sterile facility.

Riding the rails, the ragtag group makes it to Dodge City where the whole town takes them under their wing. Eventually, it is discovered that the headmistress isn't hard-hearted or the most fearsome "outlady" in the west (Festus is often given to hyperbole), but does the best she can with the little money given for the orphanage. Forgiveness is the order of the day and the Longbranch becomes the site of a children's Christmas party. Why, Miss Kitty even gives Matt a kiss on the cheek.

Kitty:  "Merry Christmas, Cowboy."
Matt:  "Merry Christmas, Kitty."

Thursday, December 10, 2015


Frank Sinatra
(1915 - 1998)

The Sinatra Centennial Blogathon runs December 10 - 13 and is co-hosted by The Vintage Cameo and Movie Classics.  Our thanks to Emily and Judy for this opportunity to celebrate Frank Sinatra.  Day #1 entries HERE.  Day #2 is HERE.  Day #3 is HERE.  Day #4 is HERE.

Frank Sinatra is one of the most successful of the popular singers who turned to acting, proving the depth of his talent.  Previously at this corner of the blogosphere we looked at Bing Crosby's enviable record of introducing 14 film songs that were nominated for the Oscar, including 4 winners, and Doris Day's 6 nominations and 2 wins for songs she introduced.  Frank's film career spans the 1940s to the 1980s and the variety of musicals, comedies and dramas of quality is impressive.  Frank introduced 8 songs into the Oscar nomination roll, with 3 standards in the win column.

Click on the song title links for YouTube performances where available.

Frank made his feature film debut as part of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in 1941s Las Vegas Nights.  Funnily enough, the movie features an Oscar nominated song, Dolores by Frank Loesser and Louis Alter sung by Bert Wheeler of Wheeler and Woolsey fame.  Frank appeared singing the Dorsey recording hit I'll Never Smile Again by Canadian Ruth Lowe.  The Oscar of the season went to Kern and Hammerstein's The Last Time I Saw Paris featured in Lady Be Good.

1943s Higher and Higher was adapted from a 1940 Broadway show with music by Jimmy McHugh and Harold Adamson.  RKO purchased the rights for the film to showcase Frank Sinatra and  one of the new songs composed for the film, I Couldn't Sleep a Wink Last Night, was nominated for the Oscar.  The Oscar winner that year was Swinging on a Star from Going My Way.  Among the 12 nominees are The Trolley Song from Meet Me in St. Louis and Long Ago and Far Away from Cover Girl.

MGMs splashy big budget musical of 1945, Anchors Aweigh won George Stoll the Oscar for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture.  The film was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Leading Actor for Gene Kelly, Best Color Cinematography and a Best Song nomination for Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn's ballad I Fall in Love Too Easily.  The song was introduced by Frank as the shy sailor Clarence who pines for Kathryn Grayson while Pamela Britton patiently waits on the sidelines.  The Academy awarded Rodgers and Hammerstein's It Might as Well Be Spring from State Fair.  Other nominees include Accentuate the Positive from Here Come the WAVES, I'll Buy that Dream from Sing Your Way Home and Victor Young's theme to Love Letters.

In 1954 an uncredited Frank Sinatra sang the title track to Three Coins in the Fountain which won the Best Song Oscar for Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn.  The other nominees were Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep from White Christmas, the theme to The High and the Mighty, Hold My Hand from Susan Slept Here and (my personal choice), Arlen and Gershwin's The Man That Got Away from A Star is Born.  As Judy, who pointed out this early omission on my part noted, surely Sinatra's performance helped sell the number.

The remaining 5 songs on Frank's Oscar list are all composed by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn.  Van Heusen, in particular, was a close friend of Frank's and his swinging lifestyle was an inspiration to the crooner.  Van Heusen was nominated for 12 Oscars.  Johnny Burke was the lyricist on 3 nominations including one win and Van Heusen and Cahn had 3 wins from 9 nominations.  First up -

The theme to the 1955 comedy The Tender Trap was nominated for Best Song losing to Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster's timeless theme to Love is a Many-Splendored Thing.  Among the nominees we find Johnny Mercer's Something's Gotta Give from Daddy Long Legs and Unchained Melody, Alex North and Hy Zaret's theme to the prison picture Unchained.

We have ourselves a winner!  The biopic of entertainer Joe E. Lewis is directed by Charles Vidor who had such success with Ruth Etting's story in Love Me or Leave Me.  The winning song, All the Way was not only perfect for the character, but perfect for Frank and became one of his famous signature tunes.  Also nominated that season were the themes from An Affair to Remember, April Love, Tammy and Wild is the Wind.

1958s Some Came Running, based on James Jones novel and directed by Vincente Minnelli, garnered 3 acting nominations for Shirley MacLaine, Martha Hyer and Arthur Kennedy, Walter Plunkett's costumes and the Van Heusen and Cahn theme song, To Love and Be Loved.  The winner for the year was Gigi from the Lerner and Loewe musical.

The 1959 Frank Capra picture A Hole in the Head grows on you with its quirky charm.  In the eyes of his brother played by Edward G. Robinson, Frank's character is a wastrel not doing right by his motherless son played by Eddie Hodges.  The conflict gives rise to many trials and a great musical moment with our second winner.  The imagery in High Hopes makes it popular with children and the positive message a timeless favourite.  The line-up of nominees included themes for The Best of Everything, The Five Pennies, The Hanging Tree and Strange Are the Ways of Love from The Young Land.

Fun? Wow!  Robin and the 7 Hoods spoofs old-time gangster flicks with scene stealing turns from Peter Falk and Bing Crosby.  Van Heusen and Cahn give Frank another one of his signature tunes and Frank's last musical trip to the Oscars.  My Kind of Town competed with the team's own title theme to Where Love Has Gone, Mancini's Dear Heart, DeVol's Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte and they all bowed to the Sherman Brothers winner, Chim Chim Cheree from Mary Poppins.

Frank Sinatra won the Oscar's Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1971, the Best Supporting Acting trophy for From Here to Eternity in 1954 and was nominated in the Best Leading Role category for 1955s The Man with the Golden Arm.  In 1945 Frank was the featured lead and shared in an Honorary Award with Mervyn LeRoy, Frank Ross, Albert Matz, Earl Robinson and Lewis Allen for the short The House I Live In

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The "Try It, You'll Like It!" blogathon: 12 Angry Men (1957)

This post is part of the "Try It, You'll Like It!" Blogathon, hosted by Sister Celluloid and Movies Silently, where we write about "gateway films" that might bring non-classic-film lovers into the fold! For all entries, click here!

Some of the inflexible reasons given for avoiding classic films: "I don't watch old movies." "I don't watch black and white movies." "I don't like the way they acted back then." "Movies keep getting better, so why should I watch something from when they weren't as good as they are now?" All that's needed to break that logjam is one distinguished and impressive piece of cinema. All that's needed is 12 Angry Men.

Securing an audience's attention starts with the word, and Reginald Rose strung together some great words for his Emmy winning teleplay for Studio One, Twelve Angry Men in 1954. The following year he adapted the script for the stage. The theatrical play has enjoyed many professional and amateur tours and revivals, including a multi-Tony nominated 2005 Broadway production. In 1957 Rose and star Henry Fonda co-produced the 12 Angry Men feature film version for United Artists.

Former actor and live television director veteran Sidney Lumet (Fail-Safe, Network, The Verdict) made his impressive feature debut with this project, collaborating with the great cinematographer Boris Kaufman (L'Atalante, On the Waterfront, The Pawnbroker). The visionary artists created a universe inside of a single room. The black and white cinematography gives an almost documentary-like feel to the proceedings; a sense of the immediacy of a newspaper. The view of the sparse set, at first a wide empty room that slowly fills to overcrowding humanity pulls the viewer into the atmosphere. The variety of shot angles and actor placement, combined with the judicious decisions of when or when not to use close-ups guides us subtly through the developments of plot and character.

Over the course of a wet, humid afternoon in New York City, jurors debate evidence given in a first-degree murder trial. By rote, the judge charges the twelve strangers with the fearsome task. After weeks of testimony, a preliminary vote shows that eleven jurors are convinced of a guilty verdict. Juror #8, however, votes "not guilty" feeling that with the life of the young defendant at stake, some discussion is merited. Oh so reluctantly, the discussion that ensues reveals much about the trial and much more about the jurors.

Ed Begley, George Voskovec, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden
Robert Webber, Joseph Sweeney, Henry Fonda, Martin Balsam, Edward Binns, John Fiedler

Such words and such art behind direction deserve a fine ensemble of actors to bring it to life. The cast of 12 Angry Men was in the enviable position of weeks of rehearsal before shooting so that these professionals could create and truly know their characters. The last of the ensemble to pass away, Juror #5, Jack Klugman, spoke of the pride they all took in this project. Such pride of craftsmanship shows in the film.

Juror #1:  Martin Balsam, high school football coach
The foreman is a reasonable man striving to do his duty and keep order.

Juror #2:  John Fiedler
He is not the sort to stand out in a crowd and is easily dismissed by others.

Juror #3:  Lee J. Cobb, owns a messenger service
A man filled with inner rage.

Juror #4:  E.G. Marshall, stockbroker
Prides himself on his clear thinking.

Juror #5:  Jack Klugman
A man from a disadvantaged background who feels the outsider.

Juror #6:  Edward Binns, labourer
An unimaginative working man with a big heart.

Juror #7:  Jack Warden, salesman
The guy that does not want to be here.

Juror #8:  Henry Fonda, architect
Courageous and compassionate observer.

Juror #9:  Joseph Sweeney, senior citizen
In his case wisdom has come with age.

Juror #10:  Ed Begley
Prejudice blinds his thoughts.

Juror #11:  George Voskovec, watchmaker
The European immigrant has a balanced view of the proceedings.

Juror #12:  Robert Webber, advertising man
Bright young executive is all surface.

E.G. Marshall, Henry Fonda, John Fiedler (seated)
Lee J. Cobb, Edward Binns

Juror #8 begins and ends the discussion with the point that he doesn't know if the defendant is guilty or innocent, but given the case, as presented, there is room for reasonable doubt. As they deconstruct the prosecutor's case and the defense's lackluster performance, one by one, other jurors come to sense that reasonable doubt. Still others, for reasons that eventually become more clear and more personal, stubbornly cling to their original vote. Hearts and mind are laid uncomfortably bare as these strangers clash and bond.

12 Angry Men is a compelling and timeless drama. Perhaps the timelessness of the film will be the most surprising and welcome aspect to the non-classic film fan. It may well be a shock for them to discover that although technology, fashion and certain mores have changed, people haven't really changed. The same principles, fears and behaviors influence our personalities and our interactions. The powerful and memorable 12 Angry Men will have the non-classic film fan wondering what other films from bygone eras will speak to them.


Terence Towles Canote at A Shroud of Thoughts is hosting The 8th Annual Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon . The popular blogathon is runn...