View from the Cheap Seats

My Favorite Non-Christmas Christmas Films

December 24, 2013 - 10:00 am   |   By 

Most film columnists start writing their Christmas pieces around August, churning out their memories of It’s a Wonderful Life (which is a story in itself – this generation has no idea that the film was considered an oddity and a flop until Jimmy Stewart mentioned it on The Tonight Show and, as it was in the public domain and available for cheap airings, it has since been considered a “classic”) and other routine movies that just happen to tell a Christmas like story.  Movies like Miracle on 34th Street and Christmas in Connecticut still hold up and there are others I’m sure that do as well, but few movies that are singularly about Christmas float my boat.  I’ve seen them a million times and most are creaky.  Here are my favorite Christmas movies, a list my successful and thoughtful brother calls Christmas Movies for People Who Aren’t Enamored with Christmas Movies[Read on here…]

My favorite Christmas movie is Pocketful of Miracles, from MGM in 1961.  I’m surprised that even my film-knowledgeable friends aren’t familiar with this one.  It has run on TCM and it’s a treasure.

Pocketful of Miracles, like The Man Who Knew Too Much, was a late career remake, by the original director, of a 1930s hit.  The Man Who Knew Too Much was Hitchcock’s 1956 remake of his same titled 1943 English film.  Pocketful of Miracles was a remake of 1933’s Lady for a Day and both films were directed by, yes, Frank Capra.  The It’s a Wonderful Life Frank Capra.

Pocketful of MiraclesBased on a story from writer Damon Runyon (Guys and Dolls and many other films were based on his work) Pocketful of Miracles is the story of Apple Annie, a denizen of “Runyonland” who modestly sells apples on the street, while, in the meantime, spending all her hard earned funds to keep her beautiful daughter living in luxury.  When the daughter announces her engagement to a gentleman of society and that she’s bringing her new in-laws to visit Annie’s wonderful home, the con is on with Dave the Dude, who is a gambler and regular customer of Annie’s (her apples bring him luck) spearheading Apple Annie’s transformation into a society matron.  What happens next gives anyone who believes in miracles, or, yes, the power of movies, goose bumps.

While the plot of the picture is seamless, most of the charm of Pocketful for Miracles comes from its cast, a rare mix, at the time, of classic film character actors and some serious new faces who would become stars for the rest of their careers.

Glenn Ford both produced and starred in the film as Dave the Dude.  Actually Capra wanted either Sinatra or Dean Martin for the role and, of course, Sinatra had a huge hit with the song from the film, however, Ford’s production company helped fund the picture so he got the part.  Bette Davis played Apple Annie only after, why I don’t know, Shirley Booth and Helen Hayes turned it down. 

Pocketful Full of Miracles was the first film for Ann-Margaret and the last film for veteran Academy Award winning actor Thomas Mitchell.  In between there was Arthur O’ Connell, Edward Everett Horton, Mickey Shaughnessy, Sheldon Leonard, Barton MacLane, Jerome Cowan, Frank Ferguson, Ellen Corby, Jack Elam, Benny Rubin, Mike Mazurki, Hayden Rorke, Doodles Weaver (of Spike Jones fame!) and George E. Stone.

Peter Falk was the only actor in the cast to get nominated and, looking back, he should have won.  It was one of the two nominations he received, the other for Murder Inc.

If you haven’t experienced this fabulous picture, stop reading my crap and get it before, during and after the holidays.

Some of my other non-Christmas Christmas films include:

3 Godfathers – the John Ford/John Wayne version from 1948.  Is this a lost film?  Does TCM air?  Know it is on DVD.

Comfort and Joy – a delightful comedy from underemployed screenwriter/director Bill Forsythe that entails an ice cream war in Scotland.

The Thin Man – Enough said.

The Apartment – Ditto.

The Shop Around the Corner – In my mind the REAL Jimmy Stewart Christmas movie

and…

Gremlins – Does the next generation know this subversive hoot?

Here’s another point upon which I wish to touch.  What are your favorite movies that, while not necessarily reflecting the holiday, you first saw on Christmas day?

For us, there’s no question.  On Christmas Day of 1973, our parents drove us 45 minutes to Oklahoma City and the grand, newly refurbished Plaza Theater.  The first preview was for a movie we knew they’d never in a billion years let us see (remember when parents did that?) called Magnum Force and I can still remember being knocked out by the car crashing into to that extended log from the back of a truck, implying decapitation to the bad guy. 

Then we heard, for the first time in our lives, Scott Joplin.

I don’t think, to this day, I have ever enjoyed a movie more than The Sting.  Is it forgotten today?  Does it hold up? 

Here are some tidbits about The Sting.  Redford (who features prominently in the next View from the Cheap Seats) got the script first and turned it down.  Then both Nicholson and Beatty were courted before Redford took it back.  Newman was cast after director George Roy Hill decided to direct, thus re-teaming the magic of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  Henry Bumstead, the greatest decorator of all time and a man I got to know well (and who will be the subject of another column) did all the set work on the lot at Universal.  The late great Richard Boone was the first choice for Lonnegan, the part that eventually went to Robert Shaw.  And how about this – the “wife” in the picture that Kid Twist puts on his desk, was none other than classic character actress Kathleen Freeman, who I had the privilege of meeting when she enjoyed her comeback in Broadway’s The Full Monty.

Probably the most anticipated film of my life was Paramount and Disney production of Popeye, and my crew, which included my brother, my dearest friend, the late, Allen Saied and his sister, my precious Sharon Saied Razook and Tony Burkhead sailed in to the Apollo Twin theater in Midwest City, Oklahoma Christmas Day.  I made them get there an hour early.

Robert Altman's Popeye

Popeye has always been my cartoon character.  He is all over my house.  At that time (and, of course, now), Robert Altman was everyone’s favorite filmmaker.  We had just experienced A Wedding and A Perfect Couple, both hoots, when Popeye was filming.  And after hearing rumors of Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin or Gilda Radner, Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall seemed perfect.

And then it opened.  I have never wanted to like a movie more and, to be honest, I could have been nothing but disappointed.  Then I saw it again, and again, and again.  Popeye is probably the movie I have seen the most times in a theater.  Then I got the VHS, then I got the DVD.  Except for a weak, “we’re out of budget” ending, Popeye is a gem for the ages – the perfect combination of the cartoon’s legacy and Altman’s genius.  Leonard Maltin gives it a “BOMB” rating.  I don’t.  It’s in my top ten of all time.

Our family, and I think the studios, tried to recapture the spirit of The Sting during the Christmas season of 1975 with a totally forgotten movie called The Black Bird, a comedy spoof/sequel of The Maltese Falcon.  But it was a dud, starring George Segal as Sam Spade Jr. and even Lee Patrick and Elisha Cook reprising their Maltese Falcon roles.

 

NEW ON DISC

Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (DVD)Shout! Factory has given us the gift of all gifts with the release of the entire Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman TV series.  Get this – there are all 325 episodes on 38 DVDs and there is not an episode without a gut busting laugh.  There has been nothing like this show before or since.  It was a syndicated, daily soap opera spoof that spawned the careers of Louise Lasser (in fairness she was Woody Allen’s ex wife), Mary Kay Place, Dabney Coleman and, perhaps most of all, the comic genius Martin Mull.  The show was produced by Norman Lear, he of All in the Family.  The box set is full of treasures, including ten episodes of Mary Hartman’s spin off show Fernwood 2 Nite, which was the first time we heard of this comedy team – Martin Mull and Fred Willard.  Just the fact that Shout! Factory has made this happen is enough, but what about a complete series of Fernwood 2 Nite and its follow up series America 2 NiteGo to shoutfactory.com and get this ordered now.

Twilight Time is back at it, producing Blu-rays so quickly that my column can’t keep up.  From late November, we have restorations of The Way We Were, Jayne Eyre and Oliver! (see Bill’s review here), which is, I think, my favorite movie musical.  This month we have an incredibly rare gem called Royal Flash directed by Richard Lester, starring Malcolm McDowell and adapted from the work of George MacDonald Fraser, who wrote 12 novels featuring the swashbuckling character and two Ray Harryhausen Sinbad films Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.  I talked recently to co-founder Nick Redman for a future column on Sam Peckinpah and heard about some of their upcoming releases.  Like Twilight Time on Facebook or go to screenarchives.com.

Warner Archive keeps bringing the classics each week.  The last batch included the two Jack Benny films that the comedian joked about the rest of his life – George Washington Slept Here and The Horn Blows at Midnight.  Both are terrific.

Olive Films just knocks me out.  They find orphaned films and meticulously release them on Blu-ray.  Twilight’s Last Gleaming is one of the most secretly controversial films of all time – to be honest, have you seen it?  Directed by the late great Robert Aldrich, the picture stars a terrific Burt Lancaster as a disgruntled military man who takes over a nuclear launch site.  What happens throughout is the reason so few recognize this film as a classic.  There’s also A New Leaf which is supposed to be a shadow of what the audiences of 1971 were supposed to have seen, offers Walter Matthau and Elaine May in two classic comedic performances.  Also from Olive is 1945’s The Bells of St. Mary’s a sequel to Going My Way with, of course, Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman; Riot a wonderful 1969 prison picture directed by Buzz Kulik with Jim Brown and Gene Hackman; and Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, which, along with White Heat showcases Cagney at his craziest.

One more mention.  A dear friend of mine, here in Oklahoma City, has overcome impossible odds to create and produce an uplifting, wonderful Christmas special.  Darla Z’s Christmas ‘Round the World has, or will, enjoy over 100 airings on public television stations throughout the country.  Darla called on Bob Rozario, a famous Las Vegas musician, to create arrangements and co write, along with Darla, some timeless new Christmas music.  Now available on DVD, this special is an outstanding, extravagant holiday masterpiece!  I know Darla well, and it is an honor to share the success of this Oklahoma treasure with all my readers here on The Digital BitsGo to darlaz.com.

Darla Z's Christmas 'Round the World

Happy Holidays from the Elders and… ok, I can say this once… Go Sooners in the Sugar Bowl!

- Bud Elder

 

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Adam Jahnke

A Columbo/Rockford Files crossover episode would have been the greatest event in television history.

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