Sunday, December 23, 2007

Classic movies at Christmas-time


During the Holidays, we see some of the same classic black-and-white films every year, often on TCM (Turner Classic Movies). Some of them we do take for granted. For example, there is “Miracle on 34th Street” (the street that houses the Empire State Building and is close to Penn Station), first made in 1947 by 20th Century Fox with George Seaton directing, and Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle / Santa Claus, and John Payne as Fred Gailey who makes the case that he is the “real” Santa Claus. Natalie Wood, as a child, played Susan. The 1994 remake (also Fox, this time in garish Deluxe color) is directed by Less Mayfield and has Richard Attenborough as Kris and emphasizes the point of view of the child Susan Walker (Mara Wilson). Now I learned that the fables were, in a “real world” sense, untrue from my parents one at a time, first Santa Claus, and then the Easter Bunny. The filming of the earlier version on location, including Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, was novel for its time. The earlier version is available on DVD in both BW and colorized versions; I have never been a fan of colorizing black and white, as many films communicate more through the abstraction of BW.

A more compelling film from its moral point of view is “It’s a Wonderful Life,” from RKO Radio, 1946, directed by Frank Capra. Here George Bailey is the Everyman (I mention the 15th Century morality play that they made us read in senior English: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/everyman.html ) and he wants to end it all after getting accused of embezzlement (it’s a bit complicated). An angel Clarence (Henry Travers) shows him how barren the lives of his family members and townspeople would be or would have been without him.

The idea that one should take account of the end-result impact of his or her life on others (or of what his life would cause if he succeeded at everything) has gained moral importance, and fits into the concept of karma.

But the best of these may be I Remember Mama (1948, RKO Radio, directed by George Stevens), based on the novel by Kathryn Forbes, as a woman recalls her life as a girl in a large family in turn-of-the-century San Francisco, and traces her life in parallel phases: accepting the common sacrifices of family responsibility, something that earlier generations could not question, and her development as a storyteller and writer. A critical point in the film is whether it is all right to write about other family members. It isn’t in the beginning (according to the girl’s teacher) but during the course of the film it becomes so.

Don't forget the first VistaVision ("Motion Picture High Fidelity") film from Paramount, "White Christmas" in 1954 (directed Michael Curtz) with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, as a vaudeville team tries to save a Vermont inn owned by a former commanding general. I miss VistaVision (remember how it looked in "Vertigo" (1958)), and the depth and clarity that it achieved (compare to Todd AO). NBC Today this morning gave 1941 as the date for the film; imdb gives only 1954.

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