Mockingbird TCM Picks, December 2021 (Part One)

The best A Christmas Carol version, Ingrid Bergman classics, and Roberto Rossellini galore.

Paul Zahl / 11.29.21

December is always a good Mockingbird month on Turner Classic Movies. They try to put in most of the Hollywood Christmas classics, which, it turns out, are almost all good. They also don’t stint on classic horror and fantasy, let alone the occasional unique item. (You’ll see!) And this December they are giving us classic Rossellini, which is a pure treat.

Here is part one of our Christmas list for Mockingbirder’s everywhere! John Glover and I hope you like it.

December 1st, 1:45 pm, Shall We Dance (1937)

This is in the top three of the immortal dance classics — scored by George and Ira Gershwin and performed by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The songs, such as “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” and “They All Laughed,” are completely stirring and inspired; and in retrospect (i.e., after you’ve seen the movie and are going on with your life) touching and true. Shall We Dance is a romantic masterpiece.

December 3rd, 12:30 pm, Madam Satan (1930)

 This unusual “spectacular,” involving awesome, complex dance routines in a kind of floating zeppelin over Manhattan, is by Cecil DeMille. It is actually a vindication of marital love in the face of a delightful (as it turns out) and absurd temptation. Highly recommended.

December 4th, 12:00 pm, A Night at the Movies: Merry Christmas (2011)

A panoramic survey of Hollywood Christmas classics. Some of them you will probably never have heard of. Almost every entry is touching and beautiful, plus the commentary, which includes a pal of mine (Joe Dante), is sympathetic and not cynical. Many of the movies surveyed convey a sense of wonder to the viewer that will never date.

December 5th, 4:00 pm, Bell, Book and Candle (1958)

For what it’s worth, I grew up in the New York City depicted lovingly, lyrically, and accurately in this movie. The wonderful (and spiritual) John Van Druten wrote the script and the movie is a mix of supernatural and true-love elements that (in my opinion) works beautifully. (Though one could perhaps do without the Ernie Kovacs digression.) I also think that Jack Lemmon and Hermione Gingold kind of steal the movie. You’ll enjoy their scenes. Also stars James Stewart and Kim Novak.

December 5th, 6:00 pm, The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

Here is a Christmas classic, starring David Niven (as the bishop), Loretta Young (as the bishop’s sife) and Cary Grant (as an angel on a mission). The movie is somewhat static in feel, though the wonderful Henry Koster directed it. The Bishops Wife tells the tale of an institutional churchman’s humbling, one effect of which is a touching and heartfelt sermon preached by the bishop at the end of the movie on Christmas Eve. (Note that the bishop is a Low Churchman, which you can tell by the Protestant robes he wears in the pulpit of his cathedral.) I am a great fan of Robert Nathan, who wrote the novel on which this movie is based. Nathan’s novel is more detached than the film, and perhaps a little cynical concerning the long-term spiritual prospects of the bishop. But, hey, when it comes to most bishops, I’ve come to feel about the same way Nathan did. Wish I didn’t.

December 7th, 5:30 pm, They Were Expendable (1945)

This is one of the great war movies. John Ford directed it in the aftermath of the events accurately described from the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. Heroism, true and real heroism, is here embodied in every frame. Look for the almost unbearably moving “dinner date” with John Wayne and Donna Reed. And that last shot, on the beach. Mary and I have some personal connections with the family and heritage of the author of the original book — or rather, the commander of the heroes himself. But more on that another time.

December 9th, 1:15 am, Stromboli (1950)

Today is Roberto Rossellini Day on TCM, which is a “white pebble day” (Catullus) for all of us. Please don’t miss a single frame of what they are showing in succession early this morning.

It all starts with Stromboli, which concerns a WW2 refugee, played by Ingrid Bergman, who marries an Italian private soldier in order to be released from a “missing persons” internment camp. It is a terrible mistake for her. I won’t say more except to note that the ending of Stromboli is one of the most touchingly religious denouements in all of cinema. And I even think Rossellini and his small camera crew kind of improvised it.

December 9th, 3:15 am, Europe ’51 (1952)

Another explicitly, brilliantly, shatteringly religious (i.e., Christian) movie, in which the heroine, again played by Ingrid Bergman, is demolished by an accidental death in the family and the complete collapse of her mental stability. The closing “farewell” sequence of Europe ’51 is pure Gospel. It is optimistic, actually.

December 9th, 5:15 am, Journey to Italy (1954)

This is maybe the best of the Rossellini’s from this fruitful period. Journey to Italy depicts a married couple who have both basically fallen out of love with one another, and are trapped in a “vacation” of mutual disillusionment. Things go from bad to worse, by way of … Pompeii. Then the miracle takes place — a bona fide Paula White miracle. See this movie at all costs.

December 9th, 6:45 am, Fear (1954)

Fear is the last in the series of European movies directed by Roberto Rossellini in which Ingrid Bergman was the star. It is a somewhat “smaller” movie than the three which preceded it, but it still packs a wallop at the end. Bergman plays the wife of a prominent scientist who is blackmailed after her extramarital affair is discovered. Watch for the scene when Ingrid Bergman is alone on the phone. Personally, I would watch Fear any time. Oh, and note the strong German connection. It works.

December 11th, 12 pm, A Christmas Carol (1938)

This version is the one that many regard as second best in comparison with the later (i.e., 1951) Alastair Sim version. Personally, I prefer this one, which stars Reginald Owen as Scrooge. Why? Because the explicitly Christian element in the story is underlined in 1938, especially through one extremely stirring scene that takes place in church. There is an ebullience and total joy to that scene which “ups the ante” on this particular Christmas Carol. This year, try the Reginald Owen.

December 11th, 1:30 pm, Star in the Night (1945)

Star in the Night is a touching, short film, almost a “short subject,” which was directed by Don Siegel — who later became famous for science fiction and film noir. Star in the Night is usually shown very late on Christmas Eve. This year, however, TCM is featuring it during the day, and I warmly recommend it. It is a Christmas parable from “Way Out West,” as you will see,  and speaks benignly to some present-day American concerns. I find Star in the Night to be quite moving; and beautifully, simply done.

December 11th, 2:00 pm, 3 Godfathers (1949)

Despite the at-times cringeworthy sentimentality of the script — this movie is the third version of a once-famous short novel of the Frontier West — John Ford’s 3 Godfathers is one of the best Christmas movies you will ever see. From a Gospel point of view, it is perfect. And when Jane Darwell and the ladies of the town serenade the oddly triumphant John Wayne character with “Bringing in the Sheaves,” it’s hard for me not to think you’ll cry. Every Christmas Eve since 1979, when I first saw this movie after wrapping, with Mary, our children’s presents under the tree in New York, I have tried to see it. It is an odd little movie which has “the whole world in its hands.”

December 16th, 12:00 am, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958)

This is a big Hollywood production which portrays an English missionary in China, played by Ingrid Bergman. Usually such people are regarded in the movies as either hypocrites or fools. But not ‘Gladys Aylward,’ the hero of Inn of the Sixth Happiness. Here she is presented as completely courageous, utterly persistent in her mission that seeks the welfare of the threatened children in her care, and also both patient and resourceful. Everything about this movie is sympathetic to explicit Christian altruism and purpose.

December 16th, 6:15 pm, The Frozen Dead (1967)

John Glover and I have to keep it real! And we’d be neglecting our responsibility if we left The Frozen Dead out of our Mockingbird Christmas list. To be serious for a sec, The Frozen Dead is not high art. In fact, it’s pretty lame. But the title and also the poster and lobby-card art that accompanied its release are priceless. I feel sure you have already guessed that The Frozen Dead concerns SS men in suspended animation who are being kept alive by a fanatical Nazi scientist. And hey, there is one good scene — well, sort of good — in the mad lab.

See this movie. (Whut?) Stars Dana Andrews as the diabolical scientist, playing extremely against type!

December 18th, 6:00 am, The Mortal Storm (1940)

Now this film, also about Nazis, is a masterpiece. A love story and also a contemporary description, in superb popular art, of Nazism as it really was at the time in Germany, The Mortal Storm is a movie you have got to see. It is as heartfelt, powerful, and moving — tragic — as any film from that era. And P.S.: watch the scene in the university classroom when what we know as Critical Race Theory makes a direct entrance. Stars James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan.

December 18th, 12:00 pm, Meet John Doe (1941)

December 18th is a red-letter day on TCM for Mockingbirders. Meet John Doe, starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, is a Christian Christmas parable of superb emotional power. It begins, and develops, in its own way. But give it time. Here is Frank Capra at his best, and the ending of Meet John Doe will never date.

December 18th, 2:15 pm, Susan Slept Here (1954)

I recently recorded a podcast for Mockingbird that referenced this wonderful movie, and used as the cast’s introductory music the Oscar-nominated song for Susan Slept Here entitled “Hold My Hand.” Everything about Susan Slept Here, which was directed by the incomparable Frank Tashlin and stars Dick Powell and Debbie Reynolds, is fun and pretty and quirky and finally touching. It weaves its own spell and I couldn’t recommend it more highly. It is also a Christmas movie!

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