White Christmas

There’s something about old musicals that’s so uplifting. I’ve seen White Christmas a few times, the best viewing was on Saturday at Chicago’s Music Box Theater with all the surrounding fanfare: Santa, jingle bells, carolers and organist.

The film probably wouldn’t be made today. The script would be rejected. It’s not a dark or edgy film. There’s no desperation. No here characters are perfect, but they all have spunk and hope, which is why by the end of the film, I left the theater filled with cheer.

It’s the story of two nightclub singers played by Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. They served in WWII together when Kaye saved Crosby’s life. Thus no matter how annoying, Crosby can’t shake the whimsical Kaye, who’s forever getting sensible him into complicated situations.

The pair meet a pair of sisters, played by Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen who’re trying to scale the ladder into showbiz. They’re talented, but are just starting out. The younger sister schemes to get the famous Wallace and Davis (Crosby and Kaye’s characters). Both Crosby and Kaye are enamored with a sister, but you know romance will not be easy.

The crux of the story revolves around the plight of Wallace and Davis’ old general, who owns a failing Vermont Inn. The general feels like a failure and misses his army camaraderie and success. No one’s coming to the inn because there’s no snow for skiing. Soon Wallace and Davis get the sisters to help them change the general’s fate.

The characters all had a lot of elegance and style. The costumes were bright and well tailored. They spoke with rhythm and intelligence. There’s no offensive language or swearing. I think all of these things contribute to how good the film makes people feel.

The film has great music and dancing. The jokes, often corny, made me laugh.

Try to find time for White Christmas this holiday. Introduce a younger relative to this cheerful film. Pray Hollywood finds a way to make more films like White Christmas. Not all films need to be cheery, but how about a few new ones that are?

New Year’s Resolutions

Last year I resolved to watch one old movie a week and I defined “old” as made before 1960. I had no idea how many great films I would discover through this resolution. I discovered lots of great movies from America, Japan, England, Italy and France. I saw great films I knew I should see, but never made time for. I did allow myself 4 weeks “off” but I think I saw at least 49 old films. Chaplin, Lloyd, Sacha Guitry, Mizuguchi, were just some of the directors whose work I saw for the first time.

So I’m going to continue this resolution with a couple tweaks. There were plenty of good films in the 60s and 70s so in 2015, I will watch movies made prior to 1980 and I’ll watch at least 2 a month.

Part of the reason for the decrease is that I plan to return to watching Lynda.com videos to upgrade my photography, software and other professional skills. I think I can manage watching three short videos a week for that goal.

I made my movie resolution because my Act One friend, Janet doesn’t believe in health related resolutions because you should eat well and exercise anyway and the January resolutions tend not to work so at some point you just postpone action till the next year. (Janet resolves to make time for lunch with a friend once a week so she doesn’t lose touch with people. I do believe fun, but easily postponed resolutions actually work.) In spite of Janet’s wise belief, I hope to regularly lift weights to tone my arms. So I’ll do that a minimum of three times a week.

I might start a Facebook page for anyone interested in the “Old Movie” Challenge.

What do you plan to change for 2015?

The 39 Steps

39 steps

This week’s old movie was Hitchcock’s 39 Steps (1935), which reminded me a lot of Ministry of Fear and North by Northwest, another Hitchcock film. Still 39 Steps is compelling and moves quickly as it shows a man who mistakenly gets caught up in spy intrigue and is innocent of a murder for which the police suspect him. I’d never seen the leading man, Robert Donat, but liked him in the role of Mr. Hanney. Dona’s charming and attractive, but not an Adonis so he can come off as an everyman.

After a strange, beautiful woman asks to go back with him to his apartment. Once inside she hides in the shadows, fearful of being seen. Men are following her. She claims to be a spy who must protect military secrets. She’s a mercenary and her tale is hard to believe. Hanney really doesn’t put much faith into her story, but he doesn’t kick her out either. When she comes to him in the middle of the night with a map and a knife stuck in her back, Hanney’s convinced. Knowing he’ll be suspected of murder he flees all the while having to elude the men who killed the beautiful spy.

Like many Hitchcock films it’s the tale of an innocent man, wrongly accused. Roger Ebert told a film class I took with him that as a boy, Hitchcock’s father wrongly suspected the young genius of some childish misdemeanor and punished him by sending him to the local police where an officer locked him up saying, “This is what we do with naughty boys.” Hitchcock believed he was 4 or 5 at the time.

The 39 Steps moves briskly in part to keep the audience from pondering unexplained questions like how did the killers get into Hanney’s apartment so quietly and why didn’t they do something to Hanney since they saw the pair enter the building.  The film delights with wit and light comedy sprinkled in with the suspense and danger.

As usual, the Criterion Collection offers a trenchant essay on the film. Well worth reading.

City Lights

city lights

I’d never watched Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, or perhaps any Chaplin film, before. I remember being shown some silent film as a child in some group setting and being bored to tears. That feeling ran deep, though the specifics – who was in the film, or what it was about faded fast. Since I’m half way through my year of watching one “old” i.e. pre 1960 movie a week, I thought it’s high time to watch Chaplin.

After seeing and loving Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last released by the Criterion Collection with the enriching commentary, I thought I could like City Lights. I was right. What a delightful, charming, poignant film! Chaplin plays his signature Tramp, who I think everyone in the West with a pulse has seen in some form. As the film opens some long winded politician is bloviating at a ceremony to unveil a statue about progress and prosperity. When the drape is removed, we see the Tramp asleep in one of the figure’s laps. He scrambles to get out of the way, always desiring not to bother anyone, but in so doing gets more entangled and almost loses his pants. It’s high comedy, but still works. What’s more Chaplin is definitely satirizing the politicians and society that honors these values while blind to those left behind or harmed by “progress” and whom “prosperity” has overlooked.

Soon the Tramp meets and falls in love with a girl who’s blind, who sells flowers on the street. She mistakes him for a millionaire and this is the main plot. After impressing the flower girl, the Tramp runs into a crazy, distraught millionaire whose life he saves. The friendship between the eccentric millionaire and the Tramp is mercurial. When the millionaire’s drunk, all’s well. When he sobers up, he rejects the Tramp, time and again.

The Tramp and the Millionaire

The Tramp and the Millionaire

The film’s commentary helped me note a lot in the film that I would have overlooked. The political themes, the cast, and the history (how on average Chaplin did 38 takes for every scene in what he himself dubbed a “neurotic” quest for perfection).

The film came out in 1931 when sound had been around for awhile. Chaplin, the commentator states, didn’t think sound really added much to films and that it took away some of film’s subtleties. While there’s plenty of slapstick, I can see Chaplin’s point. By having to rely on pantomime, the actors have to do more with a look or action. Also, Chaplin’s films did well all over the world. He felt that if the audience heard his accent some wouldn’t like his work as much. It’s a valid point as when I watched, I projected an American accent on to the characters.

The film is delightful and succeeds in providing humor and pathos often right on top of each other.