Mockingbird TCM Picks, December 2021 (Part Two)

Christmas movies, love stories, film noir, and more, for these cold winter days and nights.

Paul Zahl / 12.15.21

Rounding out the last third of December are wonderful Christmas movies, movie plots which have the Christmas season as background to their stories, or wonderful movies for “Mockingbirders” who want to snuggle around the fire during these winter days.

December 19, 1:00 pm,  King of Kings (1961)

People sometimes diss this movie because of the very young Jeffrey Hunter’s performance as Jesus.  But all in all, it is an excellent film.  The “mise-en-scene” by director Nicholas Ray feels insightful and original, especially during the Sermon on the Mount and at the Last Supper.  The point-of-view of the Centurion, which the movie generally adopts, is an excellent one for both the believer who is watching and the sceptic who is watching.  And the conclusion, on the beach at the Sea of Galilee, is memorable and fitting.  The only really weak element, for my money, is Robert Ryan’s casting as John the Baptist.  (See what you think.)  But as a whole, I love this movie and hope you do, too.

December 19, 10:15 pm,  The Holly and the Ivy (1952)

A superb Christmas movie in every way.  Ralph Richardson is outstanding as the widowed vicar/father, with the three adult children all excellently played by familiar British character actors.  The situation, of family scars and tears (pro. “tares”)  coming up at Christmas, is familiar, and also true.  And the religious, i.e., explicitly Christian, element, is beautifully and naturally integrated.  The Holly and the Ivy is Four Stars, at least.  Make every effort to see it if you can.

December 21, 12:00 am,  Lady in the Lake (1947)

This is the famous “noir” in which the main character detective Philip Marlowe acts as the camera throughout the film.  It might not have worked twice, but it worked once — right here.  Late in the intrigue of the plot, there are some dazzling reflections concerning original sin within people.  Plus, Jayne Meadows, who played ‘Trixie’ in the comedy series one grew up with in the late 1950s entitled The Honeymooners, makes a vital appearance in the plot.  (She was really pretty and I was not expecting that.)  Again, strongly recommended.  Starring in and Directed by Robert Montgomery.

December 21, 6:00 am and 7:30 am,  Hell’s Heroes (1930) and Three Godfathers (1936)

These two excellent Westerns go together because TCM is showing them back to back.  And each one tells the same story.

The first, Hell’s Heroes, is distinguished chiefly, in my opinion, by the unusually philosophical and intellectual character of an outlaw played by Charles Bickford.  The second, Three Godfathers, has an outstanding, propulsive performance by Chester Morris as the outlaw leader.  The scene in the church, at the end of this second Three Godfathers (as opposed to John Ford’s third and later version, which was shown earlier this month), is moving, appropriate and… pure (sort of) Christmas.

P.S. PZ grew up with Chester Morris and his family living around the corner in Manhattan.  My sister and I played most afternoons with Kenton Morris, Chester’s son.  Kenton was very cool — to this six-year-old — and I looked up to him.

December 22, 8:00 am,  Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945)

Our Vines Have Tender Grapes is a stirring Christmas movie.  It concerns Scandinavian immigrants in the Middle West, of whom the pater familias is played by Edward G. Robinson.  The famous scene in church, in which the child prodigy actress Margaret O’Brien recounts the Christmas Story in her own unique style of childhood mysticism, is justly remembered.  This movie takes a little time, in 2021, for its virtues to roll out, but then… “It Happens” (The Supremes, 1966).  Stick with it.

December 22, 11:45 pm.  Desk Set (1957)

The main conceit or “gag” of this movie has to do with a team of working women who answer informational questions over the phone for the residents of New York City.  Don’t ask me why, but it somehow works — and is often laugh-out-loud funny.  I’ve asked myself, what is so funny about Desk Set?  I think the answer is its co-star, Katherine Hepburn, who plays the boss of the informational girls.  She is entirely and knowingly dead-pan when she answers the telephone.  You’ll see.  Maybe a half hour of watching will do it for you.  There is also a nice love story involving… guess who?

December 23, 1:45 am,  The Apartment (1960)

My particular problem with this excellent movie is that I also love the Burt Bacharach/Hal David musical that was made from it in 1968.  Don’t know which I like better.  (Probably the Bacharach/David musical, which was entitled Promises, Promises.)

The premise of the story is “male chauvinist”; but at the same time, the villain of the piece, who is an actual double-dealing manipulator, gets his!  And the sweet and tender hero, played by Jack Lemmon, wins the girl.

After you see it — which you probably have done at some point over the years — go and listen to Promises, Promises.

Listen especially to the incomparable Christmas party-number entitled “(It’s) Turkey, Lurkey Time,”  as well as the rather wrenching, (almost) climactic number entitled “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.”  Think Dionne Warwick when you do.

Also, listen to the plaintive song performed by the villain, and you know what will probably come into your head?  I’ll tell you: David Zahl’s book Seculosity.  The manipulating boss-figure is the exemplary case of someone who practices a religion of seculosity only to have it fail in the end, and on every level.  There is a lot to The Apartment/Promises, Promises.

December 23, 12:00 pm,  Carol for Another Christmas (1964)

A mon avis this is one of the best entries for the entire month on TCM. It was originally a made-for-television movie written by Rod Serling and directed by the great Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who is buried, by the way, in the cemetery of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Bedford, N.Y.

The idea was to do a contemporary ‘Ebenezer Scrooge’ story with both a social conscience and a global feel, while not losing contact with the original source from Charles Dickens.  With one exception, Carol for Another Christmas  succeeds beautifully.

It subsumes the war dead of 1917, the victims of Hiroshima, the fate of dissidents behind the Iron Curtain, the life of African-American “help” in the U.S. of A., and the hardened conscience of a bitter and disillusioned man of affairs, played by Sterling Hayden.  The one element that doesn’t work is the “Christmas Future” episode, starring Peter Sellers, the surrealist absurdity of which feels unnatural and contrived.

See it all through to the end, though, and especially the scene in which Ben Gazzara, playing ‘Scrooge’s nephew,’ invites his uncle to church; and the scene in which the ‘Scrooge’ character reconciles, religiously and Christianly, with his two servants.  I think that 1964’s Carol for Another Christmas is one of the best and most moving ‘Holiday’ productions ever. Also starring Eve Marie Saint and Robert Shaw.

December 24, 3:45 am,  Auntie Mame (1958)

This is a terrific movie, if not a perfect one.  Seeing it when I was a little boy reminded me of my mother, who was “on stage” much of the time.  Plus, the little boy in the movie was growing up in somewhat parallel circumstances to mine. Later, the musical Mame captured the feel of the film in music.  Auntie Mame is moderately well recommended. Starring Rosalind Russell in the titular role.

December 24, 9:45 am, Pocketful of Miracles (1961)

This is Frank Capra’s re-make of his 1933 movie Lady for a Day.  Both are based on an in-fact-rather-moving story by Damon Runyan. Lady for a Day is better — mainly because it is “tighter” and shorter.  But Pocketful of Miracles is still good.  Consider it an exercise in practical imputation, which it most definitely is! Starring Glen Ford and Betty Davis.

December 25, 6:00 am,  Beyond Tomorrow (1940)

I absolutely love this movie, which is pure Christmas but then rockets right through the roof, into literal purgatory, first, and then heaven.  The last segment especially, in which a fight to the finish develops over the soul of a seduced and bedazzled, extremely ill young man, is memorable… and affecting.

December 25, 1:30 pm,  O. Henry’s Full House (1952)

Herein are touching and also ironic parables by the famous American short story writer. They are all good, tho’ “The Gift of the Magi” is probably the best, and certainly the most Christmas-y.  John Steinbeck narrates. The great Henry Koster directed one of the segments, and I think you will like them all.

My editor for this Mockingbird column, John Glover, wanted to make sure we didn’t skip O. Henry’s Full House.  So we didn’t! (And I agree with John.)

December 26, 8:00 am,  Dean Martin: King of Cool (2021)

I haven’t seen this documentary yet, personally; but my best spy, who lives across the Hudson, has, and she says it is a must!  The subject has many layers to it — to him! — and some of them are delightful and compelling.  So, yes, see Dean Martin: King of Cool on TCM.

December 27: 2:30 am,  Children of Paradise (1945)

This one is in the “Great Classics” Department, and is worthy of the phrase.  Four men with very different intentions court a sideshow performer, in 19th century Paris. It is a long and epic, complicated and twisty-turny love story, as well as a serious and sincere commentary on the nature of art, and in particular, the theater.  The long, backward crane shot at the end of the movie is justly celebrated.  When PZ was 13, he saw Children of Paradise for the first time, and what he remembers from then was one short scene with the actress Arletty.  It’s possible you may not notice the scene on first viewing, but it was sufficient to make a 13-year-old want to see it again.

December 27, 6:00 am, Winter Light (1962)

Winter Light is a thoroughly depressing movie; and if you are in the ordained ministry, as I am, the first scene, of a Swedish Lutheran Communion service, is enough to make you say, “Stop!”  It gets considerably worse from there.

People who want to say that Ingmar Bergman was friendly to Christianity are mistaken.  He was interested in it, but in total reaction to it.  At the very end of his life, the death of the wife he truly loved made him open to it again.  But not until then.

(And whatever you do, by the way, avoid at all costs the big color movie Bergman made during late mid-career, which concerns just about the worst Protestant bishop in the history of the world.)

December 27, 4:00 pm,  Winter Meeting (1948)

Now HERE is a gem!  Winter Meeting concerns a 40-ish wealthy spinster author in NYC (played by Bette Davis) who falls in love with a war hero, a bona fide war hero.  And he likes her, too.  But something comes between them, something both decisive and beautiful.

Today if Winter Meeting were being made, the plot would resolve itself in a Richard-Chamberlain/”The Runner Stumbles” direction.  But not in 1948.  There, the resolution is redemptive (for all parties), transforming, forgiving, and uplifting.  Winter Meeting is a perfect movie for Mockingbirders!  Oh, and hey, you don’t have to stay up late to see it.  They’re showing it at 4 in the afternoon.

December 28, 5:30 am,  The Group (1966)

The book, by Mary McCarthy, was excellent, tho’ her coverage of Protestant Episcopalians was not always accurate.  (M’bird’s favorite Manhattan Episcopal parish gets several mentions, by the way; oh, and a few shots in the movie, as well.)

The movie is good, too.  The Group is an epic concerning the lives of seven or so ‘Seven Sisters’ college graduates, and especially their sex lives as young women.  The acting is good in every case, and the pathos, real.  Remember: even close friends usually “fall out” at some point, whether we like to think it or not.  The Group chronicles this.

December 29, 6:00 pm, The Philadelphia Story (1940)

This is one of the best movies ever made.  Katherine Hepburn is pure magic, and Cary Grant is not far behind.  And don’t forget Jimmy Stewart.  The ending is perfection, and every character finds their place in it.  If you’ve never seen The Philadelphia Story, now is the time.

The Episcopal minister at the end, by the way, is attired perfectly.  These classic Hollywood movies almost always got Protestant Episcopalianism.  I don’t quite know why, but they just did. One theory is that the writers and directors were often Jewish and therefore weren’t invested (at all) in churchmanship issues.  In other words, they just filmed the church scenes in these movies as they really were, i.e., the vast majority of Episcopalians and Episcopal clergy were low-church at the time, and in fact until l979.  In any case, classic Hollywood movies such as The Philadelphia Story almost always get rectors and their public profile right!

December 30, 2:15 am,  From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1973)

This movie is a total gem.  It is from an outstanding children’s classic and concerns two children who run away from home and end up spending the night/s in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.  They end up going to visit a wealthy suburban matron /philanthropist, and they not only find what they are looking for but they give the title character, played most congenially by Ingrid Bergman, a new lease on life.  This movie is close to our hearts, Mary and mine, because parts of our own courtship took place in the Manhattan of the early 1970s that is so accurately observed in the film.  Four stars, this relatively “small” but superb movie!

December 30, 3:15 pm,  West Side Story (1961)

I don’t quite know why Steven Spielberg has recently re-made West Side Story — tho’ the trailer I saw looked good.  The 1961 version is basically perfect, and certainly the songs are.  The ending, in its difference from the source, Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” has been talked about for years, and people have many opinions about it.  Wonder if you think it works — or doesn’t.  Tell me ‘Tonight,’ especially if you ‘Feel Pretty (and Witty and Gay).’

December 31, 7:30 am: Annie Get Your Gun (1950)

Although the first half of Annie Get Your Gun comes across, at least to me, as a little hysterical, a little A.D.D., the over-all effect of the music is celebratory and memorable.  Watch for Howard Keel singing “My Defenses Are Down,” as he kind of ambles between the railroad cars in motion.  It is a made-in-heaven movie moment.  There’s a lot more, too.  Give this a little time and I think you will be glad you did. Also stars Betty Hutton as Annie Oakley.

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