Try to find the black and white version if you can. The later colorization is blech!
This is an updated version of last year's post simply because these are the quirky films I never get tired of watching at this time of year and of course if I didn't do it every year it wouldn't be a tradition.
1) MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS (1934)is watched religiously by me every year either at Thanksgiving or Christmas. It is ritual. I know the songs by heart and can often be heard tunelessly humming along with the music and if I'm really in the mood, I'll sing the words too. When it comes to this movie I am incorrigible. Laurel and Hardy, Santa Claus, Little Bo-Peep and Boogeymen - what more could you want?
Okay, you talked me into it. Here's my thought: If you don't like this movie then, I mean, we simply cannot be friends. Well, at any rate, not really, really good friends. Ha!
Check out fellow movie maven, Caftan Woman's take on this very same film - what a coincidence!
2) THE THIN MAN (1934) Obviously '34 was a good year for Christmas movies. The very suave and sophisticated Nick and Nora Charles solve a murder or two, drink endless martinis, kibbitz in local Manhattan eateries and dives, and celebrate Christmas with a hotel room full of wise-cracking NY riff-raff. Again I ask, what more could you want? And when was the last time you saw a movie featuring someone named Minna Gombell? I ask you.
I know I asked this rhetorical question last year, but I think it's worth asking again. Poor hapless Minna looks perpetually shell-shocked in this one. I think it's the eye-makeup. Elizabeth Arden it ain't.
3) AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS (1951) If you can find this early black and white television version, then this is the one to watch. A short opera written for television by Gian Carlo Menotti (who was one of the directors), it remains fixed in my mind and heart as sheer Christmas perfection. The Three Wise Men, following their star, must stop and rest for the night and choose the very humble abode of a desperately poor widow and her young, mischievous, handicapped son who hops about on a crutch and can't help getting into trouble. He's very inquisitive, you see.
There's no cuteness though, it's all just glorious singing to unexpectedly glorious music as well as some dancing villagers and, near the end, a miracle. If you've never seen this, you're in for a wonderful treat. This unique production is one of the reasons I am a life-long opera fan.
4) LADY ON A TRAIN (1945) starring Deanna Durbin as a ditzy society babe, out from under the watchful eye of her indulgent dad, just in from the coast to spend Christmas in NY with her aunt. But as the train pulls into Grand Central the deb spots a murder from the window of her compartment and the hunt is on for a killer. (What else is a nice young lady to do in NYC on Christmas eve?) There is a cast full of character stalwarts from the forties, including Edward Everett Horton, David Bruce, Ralph Bellamy (at his ultra creepy best), Dan Duryea (equally creepy, he just can't help himself), Elizabeth Patterson, Allen Jenkins and George Coulouris, there to prop up Miss Durbin who does a creditable job playing the ditz who drives everyone crazy. I watched this again the other night and enjoyed it even more than the first two or three times. I'll bet you will too.
5) THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER (1942) starring Bette Davis, Monty Woolly and Ann Sheridan in a loony-toony tale of a famous New York radio personality/curmudgeon who is forced by circumstance - a slip and fall incident - to spend the holidays in the home of a 'normal-seeming' small town midwestern family (with money) whose lives he upsets in a hilarious variety of ways. This is SO much fun and as the quips and insults fly by quickly - you gotta' pay attention. Bette Davis plays quietly sweet (if gently acerbic) very well as the curmudgeon's secretary and general factotum.
Some of the more entertaining aspects of this very funny movie: penguins, an octopus, a batty aunt, a hotsy-totsy movie queen, an Egyptian sarcophagus and an adorably engaging impersonation of Noel Coward by Reginald Gardiner. (His short scene almost steals the movie away from the ferocious Monty Woolley whom I adore.)
Three Christmas cartoons (I've tried to find the ones with the best resolution) from the past when cartoons were really cartoons, drawn by hand and photographed cell by cell and all had a certain jaunty 'je ne sais quois'andone very sweet stop action animated television delight from those days once upon a time when we used to sit eagerly around the set and watch the yearly Christmas 'Specials'.
This is my entry in Tuesday's Overlooked (or Forgotten) Movies, the weekly meme hosted by Todd Mason at his blog, Sweet Freedom. So don't forget to check in and catch up on what other overlooked or forgotten films (or other A/V) other bloggers are talking about today.
I'm not sure about the actual publishing date of this very entertaining book by James Conroy because the copyright page is a bit convoluted - the wording isn't what I'm used to. Plus Knox Publishing seems to be a British publishing concern. I only stumbled over LITERALLY DEAD this year and had gotten the impression that is was a relatively new book. But it might be a re-issue. The inside page says that Conroy 'asserted' his rights in 1988, so - who knows?
At any rate, this was a happy surprise for me since I'd never heard of the author or the book prior to this year. (I read it about a month ago.) The main thing I loved about LITERALLY DEAD is how adroitly the author spins a tale of an evil empire (in this case a viscerally corrupt Chicago) coming down full force on an innocent guy who is only attempting to get along, do his job, write a book and stop thinking about the death of his dad at the hands of union goons (or maybe Communist thugs) a few years before. I know very little about Chicago history, especially during this era and the subject matter (fear and unrest among workers, the lure of the Communists, police corruption and brutality), but had no trouble following the author's lead.
Some familiar names will pop up in the story, since it appears that Chicago was not only teeming with crooked cops and politicos, but also with literary greats whom Amos Jansen (our hero) is fortunate enough to be able to turn to for help.
Amos is a would-be writer, but his day job is as a clerk at a Chicago literary society. His mentor is the society's wise and kindly vice-chairman who is about to be murdered. (He has been collecting evidence in writing of some very nasty doings by the city's cops and mucky-mucks.) It is 1935 and Amos is happy enough to actually have a job. He has a wife whom he adores (she has a minor job with the city) and his best friend is writer and general screw-up Nelson Algren. That Amos is about to be embroiled in murder and chicanery he has no clue.
Ernest Hemingway and I met in the spring of 1935. "April is the cruelest month," a fellow expatriate of his wrote. Hemingway's train from New York was three hours late. Chill rain was falling in Chicago on its arrival. America was in its sixth year of Depression. All that and, to be blunt, the man considered by many as the greatest living prose stylist was just plain pissed about everything. I recognized him immediately. Broad, large head, bushy mustache, high forehead, and immense eyes were right off the dust jackets of his books. But his mouth was different. I had seen it photographed clenched as he typed. Crinkled with private irony in pictures from the Twenties. Even smiling over a kudu carcass he'd bagged on safari. On the platform of Union Station that mouth was curled in the most malevolent sneer I ever encountered. "Welcome to Chicago, Mister Hemingway," I greeted him. "I'm from Chicago, you little scat. Take this," he barked thrusting his valise at me.
Hemingway is in the windy city to give a lecture which has been arranged by the society Amos works for. The surly writer wants also to make sure he gets paid, sooner rather than later, so he can be on his way back to Florida (where, on a fishing expedition he has apparently shot himself in the leg). He takes a liking to Amos and so begins a friendship that, as defined by the author, appears largely plausible. It is through Hemingway that Amos will meet other literary greats and even more importantly, one Chicago legal super-great: Clarence Darrow.
Synopsis from the back cover:
In the midst of the Great Depression, one man must do battle against corruption with nothing but his wits and a host of great literary figures... Amos Jansen is merely a clerk. He is not a crime fighter, the next great writer, or a man of privilege. He is the humble employee of a Chicago literary society. That is, until he is arrested for murder. The scapegoat of a perfidious lieutenant, Jansen stands wrongly accused while his idols rally around him. Literary personalities the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Carl Sandburg, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Nelson Algren, and H.L. Mencken, as well as civil liberties war-horse Clarence Darrow, join Amos in his search for the real murderer of both the society's vice-chairman and his own father. Will the pen prove mightier than the pistol?...
Yeah, I was hooked.
And continue to be surprised that I'd never heard of this. Though there are a few clunky 'first book' bits here and there, it's mostly a terrific story told with humor and style and not requiring much suspension of disbelief. You say to yourself, yeah, it could have happened. Besides, Amos is a nice, unassuming, likable chap - the sort of nebishy hero I like - a hapless sort who comes through when the chips are down. I also liked Nelson Algren as his scruffy pal, a guy who can't seem to stay out of trouble (he had spent time in jail) but did go on (in reality) to have a long-lived writing career (among his books: THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM).
LITERALLY DEAD is a book I'm happy to recommend - one of the nicer reading surprises of 2013.
Since it's Friday, don't forget to check in at Patti Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.
DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY is a 1934 film directed by Mitchell Leisen and starring Frederic March and Evelyn Venable. The film's quality is not topnotch but it is watchable - I saw it on youtube, so really, one shouldn't quibble.
From the opening credits, we're suddenly in the midst of some happy-go-lucky aristocrats - Duke Lambert (Sir Guy Standing) and his Duchess and various other members of his entourage - friends, family, that sort of thing. All sophisticated good-natured folk who seem to be on holiday. The locale? I don't know, maybe an Italy that never was - certainly it's the kind of place where an operetta is sure to break out at any moment.
The streets are full of dancing peasants and smiling flower sellers and the aristos don't seem to be resented in the slightest not even when one of their cars destroys a smiling peasant's cart and sends him flying through the air. (A quick few bucks takes care of any bad after effects.)
The gregarious group had split up into two cars and were racing across a perilous twisty-turny mountain road on their way to the Duke's villa. Along the way, an inky shadow appeared to be following them. After the peasant cart contretemps, everyone notes that they should, indeed, be dead. How lucky can anyone get?
Though most of the revelers are middle-aged, there are, in fact, two young things who are meant for each other. Kent Taylor (who is, surprisingly, quite good) plays Corrado, the young swain and a very lovely Evelyn Venable plays Grazia, the young woman who keeps stalling. Corrado tells her that his father will buy them a villa on a hill top just as soon as they are married. She says, 'That's nice.' But she is obviously not the sort for whom a villa means much after all she is the daughter of a Princess. Moreover, she is a moody sort who appears out of sync with her happy family and friends. This is someone who knows what's expected of her, but for some reason can't enthuse over the details. She looks at Corrado almost indulgently, as if he were a younger brother - while he has no clue what could be wrong with his intended. He senses something isn't quite right, but damn if he can figure it out.
Grazia sinks deeper and deeper into a melancholy which, seen with modern eyes, appears to be some sort of deep inexplicable depression. She's the yearning type and since these are the sorts of people who have everything they could possibly want, they're incapable of knowing what on earth this girl is yearning for. That it might be something unhealthy does cross her mother's mind, but really, what can anyone do?
"There's something out there that I must find first. Something that I must understand." Grazia tells Corrado while in the background one of the guests is playing a moody piano sonata. 'I'd rather be alone." So out she goes into the garden and is almost immediately heard screaming in fright.
Grazia, discovered in a faint, is carried back inside and when she comes to, she is badly frightened. "Something touched me. Something cold."
'Too much moonlight,' says the Baron, an older bon vivant. You see, Grazia is delicate - the sort to faint from too much moonlight. Back then, this sort of thing was a possibility, I suppose.
That night after everyone but the Duke has gone to bed and the lights in the villa are dimmed, His Grace has a spooky encounter with a dark, shadowy being - a very affecting scene well done.
The shadow introduces himself: "I am not of your world. I am a vagabond of space. I am a point of contact between eternity and time."Or words to that effect.
Long story short: The spectre explains that he is death come among them out of curiosity. He wants to discover why men fear him as they do. Death is weary of being misunderstood."I am about to take a holiday. I will take three days. After that I must go back."
Shortly he will take corporeal form and as a certain Prince Sirki, will stay at the villa as the Duke's guest. No one must know his true identity or bad things will happen. The Duke can hardly refuse.
Laughing giddily, the shadow makes his departure into the night. "I, Death, do hereby take on the world, the flesh and the devil!"
Later he returns as Prince Sirki complete with a cosmopolitan accent, a monocle and a dazzling white princely uniform garnished with gold and medals. The guests awaken and at the urging of the frightened Duke, welcome this dazzling stranger into their midst.
The next morning, Grazia and the Prince share a meaningful handshake, but she and her mother must leave since they're expected at home.
Death is surprised that the flower (placed in his lapel by Grazia) doesn't die when he touches it.
The Prince, wishing to spend the time he's appropriated, doing 'human things' spends the next couple of days going about, sailing and gambling at the casino - the usual. Things which apparently bore him to tears. The Baron tells him that there are only three important things in life: Love, Money and War and the most important is Love.
There follows a series of disaster newspaper headlines (ships sinking, orphanages burning to the ground, combat on a battlefield) in which deaths should have occurred but, well, the guy's on holiday, you know.
When the Prince tries to make a real connection with one of the Duke's guests, an American woman who is fascinated by him, she runs screaming from what she sees in his eyes. Obviously not the girl for him.
On his last day among the humans, with only a couple of hours left, the Prince rails at his host - he will be forced to return to his lonely eternity without ever having known love or understanding.
Back on the scene comes the melancholy Grazia, lovely and so other-wordly in an ethereal gown. Uh-oh.
But by this point her friends and family realize (or at least, suspect) who Prince Sirki really is. But Grazia is happy to waltz with the Prince and thanks him for being kind and/or gracious to her. He says he thinks he's being neither. Hmmm.....
When Corrado (the worried boyfriend) asks Grazia if he can stay by her side all evening - he senses danger - she says she's not afraid - it's not danger, but happiness, she senses. This is where the story gets even more bizarre and in not so charming a way because really, what this foolish young woman is dangling with is death as a happy outcome.
Death tells her: "Our two worlds holdus apart." Really, that's quite the tack to take with a foolish girl who thinks she's not quite here and not quite there. This Prince Sirki is a cunning fellow."I am a great power and I am humbled before you."
However, at the last moment, he does try to do the right thing. He listens to the pleas of her family and friends and tries to send Grazia back to their loving arms. He denies her, claims it was all just a jest. But she sees through his pretense - she is determined to go with him at the stroke of midnight when he must return to his haunts.
Well, it turns out that Grazia knew all along who the Prince was - once he changes back into the darkly draped spirit whom all men fear, she claims to have seen him this way all along. So what's a spectre to do?
The Baron earlier told the ensemble that he'd chatted with the Prince who'd said:"Has it ever occurred to you that death may be simpler than life and infinitely more kind?" That's really the best line in the movie, I think.
So despite the protestations of family and friends, the happy couple go off into the night, with Death exulting: "Love is greater than illusion and as strong as death."
This theme has been done to death (sorry, couldn't help myself) many times in other films and even, I believe, a Broadway production - a 2011 musical treatment no less. Actually, I think an operetta would make more sense.
MEET JOE BLACK (1998) was another recent attempt - it starred Brad Pitt as Death but with a slightly different ending. It didn't work very well. To my eyes, the whole thing needs the arcane trappings of the original era and setting to make it palatable. It's an oddity of a movie, but maybe worth a look. Frederic March is intriguing in a difficult and rather ungainly part.
You can currently watch DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY at this link on youtube.
Don't forget, since it's Tuesday, to check in on Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom and see what other films and/or audio/visuals other bloggers are talking about today.
The much nicer Swedish movie poster with artwork by Moje Aslund.
As the title to this post would suggest, I'm currently re-reading a few of my early copies of Aaron Elkins' Gideon Oliver books and my memory being what it is, it's almost like reading them again for the first time. You know how that goes. At any rate, if you're not familiar with the Oliver books, I'm here to recommend them all over again because it seems to me I've probably recommended them before and far as I'm concerned, you can't recommend good books enough.
Gideon Oliver is a forensic anthropologist - nicknamed 'The Skeleton Detective' by an over-reaching reporter - who seems always to be on call when bones turn up that need explanation. Since most of these bones herald a heretofore unbeknownst crime scene, we know immediately we're in for another terrific anthropological mystery in just about any corner of the world - Gideon Oliver travels a lot. Usually by his side is his wife Julie, a Washington State park ranger whom he met in THE DARK PLACE, published in 1983 and is currently being re-read by yours truly.
I've just finished MURDER IN THE QUEEN'S ARMES which takes place during Gideon and Julie's honeymoon trip to England and is one of the best books in this long-running series of excellent mysteries featuring exotic (well, exotic to me, anyway) locales, intriguing crime scenes, interesting characters (who knew that skulduggery ran rampant among the the anthropological elite?), not to mention bits and pieces of skeleton minutiae which I find fascinating.
There's always a whodunit aspect to the stories which make them a unique combo of mystery and thriller with enough cozy aspects to round off the edges, though plenty of action takes place center stage. In MURDER IN THE QUEEN'S ARMES, there is a harrowing (and I mean harrowing) altercation with a 'hound of the Baskervilles' type dog from hell (improbably named 'Bowser') who has been loosed upon the honeymoon couple in the dark of night.
I'm not reading the books in any sort of order, just picking through the shelves and seeing what calls out to me. There's one that takes place in Mont St. Michel, France which I'm currently looking for - I think I have the hard cover. That's probably next up.
Author Aaron Elkins infuses his main characters with just the right touch of humor and enough believable traits so that opening the pages of a Gideon Oliver book is like heading off on an exciting adventure with a friend who is not only intelligent and happens to have a most interesting profession, but is very good company as well.
There are 17 books in the Oliver series and I've read most of them at least once. What have I re-read so far?
EYES IN THE NIGHT (1942) is a film directed by Fred Zinnemann, screenplay by Guy Trosper and Howard Emmett Rogers based on a book by Baynard Kendrick, starring Edward Arnold and an interesting cast of the soon-to-be-slightly famous. Among them: Donna Reed, Stephen McNally, Rosemary DeCamp and Barry Nelson. Mantan Moreland too shows up too, rolling his eyes, in a couple of scenes.
This is a mighty nifty crime thriller featuring something you don't see every day: a blind detective. A burly Edward Arnold stars as Duncan 'Mac' Maclain who, in the first few seconds of the film, is shown tossing a sparring partner around on a mat while a couple of guys marvel at his manly dexterity. You see, since Mac is blind, he must make up for this deficit in other ways if he is to be viable at his chosen profession.
To that end, he is aided and abetted by his guiding dog Friday, a German Shepherd with uncanny skills and by the wonderful Allen Jenkins as Marty, a sort-of henchman - though Jenkins doesn't have much to do really since he spends most of the movie tied up by the bad guys.
Admittedly, Edward Arnold (whom I adore) can be a bit of a ham-bone, but Duncan Maclain fits him to a T - it's almost as if the part had been created for him.
According to movie maven Mike Doran there was a second film in 1945, featuring Maclain, THE HIDDEN EYE. But that's as far as the 'series' went.
Besides being fit as a fiddle and ready to take on all comers, Duncan Maclain is a pretty remarkable guy. Well, he'd have to be - wouldn't he? He's an ex-cop who refuses to indulge in self-pity and makes few allowances for his blindness, in fact he delights in fazing people who are startled to find a blind man in their midst. There is an odd sort of charm to his robust self-sufficiency.
Norma Lawry (Ann Harding), an old friend of Mac's arrives on his doorstep to seek his help. Her 17 year old step-daughter Barbara (Donna Reed) is on the verge of falling into the clutches of Paul Gerente (John Emery), an unscrupulous gigolo and vile villain (an actor, no less) who is much too old (he's 50 if he's a day) for young Norma (aren't there laws against this kind of thing?) and what's more, he used to be step-mama Norma's main squeeze once upon a long time ago. An ugly scene all around.
That Paul Gerente is played by the ever-sneering, ever-smirking John Emery tells you right away that the character is up to no good and you begin to wonder almost immediately if little Barbara might have a screw loose. Ah, but it turns out there is method to her madness.
You might wonder, of course, what Mac's part is in all this - it hardly sounds like a case for a detective. Mac wonders too. But Norma is, I'm afraid, the sort of hapless, helpless, dither-headed woman for whom men were invented. She is befuddled by a spoiled brat of a step-daughter whom she has allowed to get the upper hand, primarily because she doesn't want to worry her husband Stephen (Reginald Denny) who is in the middle of inventing some sort of gizmo for the government's use in the war effort. (It's 1942 - don't forget.)
Well, truth be told, little Barbara knows that Paul and her step-mom were once an item AND that her dear dad doesn't know anything about it (this is what comes of keeping secrets). Hence: blackmail. She loves taunting Norma and calling her 'Darling' as if she were an equal. She believes step-mama still has the hots for Paul. The kid's 17 for goodness' sake! She is so odious it's a wonder that Norma can keep from knocking her down and stomping on her. Okay, okay, maybethat's a bit much, but honestly...
At any rate, Norma's reason for calling on Mac is really for moral support and a shoulder to lean on. His advice: face up to Paul Gerente and tell him where to go. It's up to her to take care of her step-daughter, it's what hubby expects. (Hey, those were the times.)
So Norma goes to see the loathsome Paul and they have a confrontation in which Norma tries to appeal to the man's better nature - wrong way to go - the man has no better nature. He oozes slime.
When she confronts little Barbara at home, the step-daughter laughs in her face and right in front of her shocked step-mama, makes an assignation with Paul (on the phone). They're going to have an intime supper for two at his apartment.
So right away you're thinking that maybe this movie is going to be a family problem-daughter run amok type thing and there won't be much for Maclain to do but hang around the edges and wait for the inevitable crime passionel. But turns out, you'd be wrong.
In the meantime, Stephen Lawry (Reginald Denny) is due to go away someplace to test the new gizmo and 'would Norma go with him?'. At first she agrees and then demurs. That night she's decided to go to the gigolo's apartment and stop little Barbara from - I don't know - throwing her life away? Yeah, that'll work. Lady, that NEVER works!!
Later when Barbara arrives at the gigolo's darkened apartment (the door conveniently left unlocked), there he is, lying on the floor, dead as a door nail and who should step out of the shadows from another room but step-mama Norma looking guilty as hell. Big surprise: step-daughter doesn't believe Norma's avowals of innocence. Long story short, they spit at each other (not literally) but don't call the cops.
When Mac shows up at the gigolo's apartment (with Friday the dog and Marty the henchman) to check things out - after Norma has turned to him for help yet again - the dead body has disappeared.
Stephen McNally, Allen Jenkins and Edward Arnold
Through a series of twists and turns, Mac discovers that lo and behold, the murder has some unexpected connection with Norma Lawry's household. Now the fun really begins.
Turns out that the Lawry homestead has been infiltrated by a nest of Nazi spies who are after - you guessed it - the plans for the gizmo which Stephen Lawry has invented and which he is currently out testing. So the house is empty except for Norma and the spies masquerading as servants. The poor woman of course, hasn't a clue.
In the meantime, Barbara is down at the little theater (she's a fledgling actress) rehearsing and acting surprised that their leading man (Paul Gerente, the dead gigolo) hasn't shown up yet. This is a very cold blooded little lady.
Mac arrives at the Lawry house with Friday in tow, pretending to be Norma's uncle. He takes her aside and whispers that something is amiss and they must pretend everything is fine until he can figure out what's what. Trust no one. The butler is suspicious especially when Mac begins making a pest of himself and later pretends to be drunk.
Back at the theater, rehearsal is over and Barbara heads home but not before we learn that behind the scenes, the theater director, Katherine Emery, is the real brains behind the Nazi scheme. I mean, who knew? Poor little Barbara hasn't a clue.
Okay, so we now have two clueless females, a blind man and a dog in house full of Nazi sympathizers. I mean, what more could you ask for?
Oh, and the equally clueless hubby returns in the middle of the night having successfully tried out his gizmo, eager to share the news and steps right smack dab into the middle of a hornet's nest.
You know, I'm mad about Reginald Denny - he simply can do no wrong. But next time he really should use a more reliable agency when employing servants.
There are some very smart touches in this film, for instance the way that Mac asks that lights be turned off when someone leaves the room - he doesn't need lights. To watch him moving around in the dark where he feels completely at home, gives us a glimpse of what it's like for him. I love that when he is herded downstairs to the basement and left alone for a few moments, he figures out that the overhead light is on and then very adroitly shatters the bulb so that when the bad guy comes down to finish him off - they're both on equal ground. Stuff like that. Very nicely done.
I also love the part Friday plays - very heroic and not at all THAT unbelievable. German Shepherds are pretty smart dogs.
Friday the wonder dog getting snarly. And who could blame him?
Fortunately, this terrific film is available for free viewing on youtube even as we speak. Hooray! And don't forget to check in over at Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom, to see what other forgotten (or overlooked) films other mavens are talking about today.