Christmas in Connecticut

Appearing on TCM Sunday, 12.9.18 at 8:15am, Saturday, 12.22.18 at 10pm and Monday, 12.24.18 at 4pm EST. Check local listings to confirm times.

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I’d like to recommend my all-time-favorite holiday classic film. One that you can watch over and over while you’re sipping egg nog, wrapping presents or addressing those Christmas cards old-school style.

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It’s the delightful Christmas in Connecticut (1945) which stars Barbara Stanwyck as Elizabeth Lane. Elizabeth writes the most successful homemaking column in America. Only problem is she has no home and she can’t cook! Unaware of this, her publisher, Alexander Yardley (Sidney Greenstreet) forces her to host himself and a war hero, Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) for Christmas. Cue the zaniness as love prevails among the farm animals and rural folk of Connecticut who provide the additional home front flavor to this WWII era Christmas film. Is it all too unbelievable? Well, once you see Dennis Morgan in uniform {swoon}, you’ll understand why what happens, happens.

To  add to your viewing enjoyment, here’s a little cultural context for 7 of the words and/or phrases used in the film:

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1. “Give her the old magoo.” What the heck does that mean? This is the advice that Jones’ shipmate, Sinkewicz (Frank Jenks) gives him in the beginning of the film. The two are convalescing in a Naval Hospital following 18 days on a lifeboat after their ship was torpedoed. The ‘magoo’ is how ‘Sinky’ got the nurse to give him steak dinners, whereas Jones is only getting milk. The old ‘magoo’ means turning on the charm to get what you want.

2. Felix is horrified when he see ‘Liska’ in a mink coat. Why? For a single woman in the 1940s to have an expensive mink coat, when she herself didn’t come from a wealthy family, often meant that she had a sugar daddy. That’s why Elizabeth immediately says, “Don’t worry, I’m paying for it myself.”

3. Why is Felix talking points when going over his recipes? In America during WWII certain food items were rationed. There was a point system in place that allowed only so much meat or sugar, for example, per family.

4. “Every time I’d open my mouth he talked. I felt like Charlie McCarthy.” Who? Charlie McCarthy was the dummy-half of a hugely popular ventriloquist act. The human-half was Edgar Bergen, Candace’s dad. Edgar & Charlie had their own successful radio program from 1937 to 1956. Think about that. A ventriloquist act… On the radio.

5. “Fat Man.” When Felix (S.Z Sakall) says this under his breath to Mr. Yardley (Sidney Greenstreet) it’s an inside joke with the audience. ‘The Fat Man’ was how Greenstreet’s character, Kasper Gutman, was referred to in the hugely popular film The Maltese Falcon (1941).

6. “Everything is hunky-dunky.” The saying of the day was ‘hunky dory.’ It meant everything is going great. But Felix, the true cook of the story, is a Hungarian immigrant, and though he says it with great relish, he says it wrong.

7. Macushlah. What kind of a name is that? It’s Elizabeth’s cow’s name, ‘Macushlah’ – which is a lot of fun to say! – and is actually an Irish Gaelic term of endearment. The correct spelling is “mo chuisle,” and literally means my pulse. It’s from a longer  phrase: a chuisle mo chroi: Pulse of my heart.  As in the cow is “mo chuisle.” It gives new meaning to the film’s line, “Moonlight, snow and a cow.”

And a little video clip that highlights one of my favorite characters, the housekeeper, Norah. No one can put Mr. Yardley in his place like she can!  –Wait. She is talking about flapjacks, right? Merry Christmas everyone! 

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Remember the Night begets The Lady Eve

 

Whereby the experiences on set or in watching someone else’s film, begets another…

Remember the Night (1940) follows Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) a shoplifter sentenced to spend Christmas in jail over the court’s holiday recess. But in a twist of fate, the very D.A. prosecuting her, John Sargent (Fred MacMurray), decides to take her home with him to spend Christmas with his family back in Indiana. It’s by turns a social drama, a family saga, and a romance. Though it’s rarely referred to as a Christmas film. Why? Well, let’s just say that the titled ‘night to remember’ is not referring to Christmas Eve.

But how did a shoplifting ‘peacherino’ transform into the minx that drops the original Eve’s fruit-of-choice upon some rich mug’s noggin?

In 1940 Barbara Stanwyck was the Queen of Drama but never did she act like a drama queen. As a result, many directors, castmates and crew members simply adored her. While filming Remember the Night the screenwriter, soon to screenwriter/director, Preston Sturges, became the latest card-carrying member of the “I Love Stany Club.’ Stanwyck mentioned to Sturges how everyone thought of her only for melodramas but she knew she could be funny, too. She then asked her newest admirer to write her a comedy someday. The gentleman obliged – in spades – writing the screwball comedy classic The Lady Eve (1941) just for her. In it Stanwyck plays Jean Harrington one of a trio of card sharks targeting ‘a mug,’ Charles ‘Hopsy’ Pike (Henry Fonda), a naive, bookish heir to a brewery fortune. But, when Jean and Hopsy unexpectantly fall in love all bets are off for a conventional happy ending.

If Remember The Night is the unsung Christmas film think of The Lady Eve as the unsung Thanksgiving one. Any film that has Stanwyck, whose ‘mug’ has done her wrong, deliciously dish the line: ‘I need him like the axe needs the turkey’ is something we can all be thankful for! 

“It’s pronounced ‘Ses-ill'” aka Jean’s revenge.

Learn more about the wit & genius of Preston Sturges here.

Night Nurse begets A Star Is Born

  

Whereby the experiences on set or in watching someone else’s film, begets another…

“This is Mrs. Norman Maine.”

Move over Babs and Lady Gaga. That’s the line-immortal that launched 3 remakes since the original A Star Is Born premiered in 1937. It was first uttered by Janet Gaynor, the original ‘star,’ and then delivered with great pathos by Judy Garland in its first remake in 1954. Show biz is a tough profession, Hollywood a tough town, and marriage, the toughest gig of all. Whether it’s acting for the cameras, or singing for the crowds, it’s hard for love to survive when one spouse’s star is rising and the other’s flaming out. In 1937 Bill Wellman deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Story for A Star Is Born, a film he also directed.

But, how did a 72 minute film called Night Nurse (1931), made six years earlier, lead to a story that’s as true and relatable today as it was back in 1937?

Night Nurse, a pre-code, crime drama starring Barbara Stanwyck and directed by Bill Wellman, was the first time the two worked together. They became fast friends. And, though Stanwyck never spoke of it, Wellman became aware, as soon the public would, too, of Stanwyck’s difficult marriage to a difficult man, Frank Fay. Fay had been a Broadway sensation. Stanwyck, his lesser-known and devoted young wife, was only in Hollywood because Warner Brothers had offered him a contract. It was Fay who insisted Stanwyck make a screen test, who then insisted Frank Capra watch it, essentially launching Stanwyck’s film career. It was Fay who had a drinking problem, which only got worse as Stanwyck became a star and he, a has been. Wellman used those elements, lifted right out of the Fay-Stanwyck marriage, for the poignant story of Norman Maine (Fredric March) and Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor). It’s what gave A Star Is Born its ring of truth.

And when reporters hounded ‘Miss Stanwyck’ for a comment on her husband’s bad behavior, what was her response?

 “I’m Mrs. Frank Fay.”

Prisoner of Love

RENDEZVOUS-ICON

Sneak away and enjoy two perfectly paired films, mood food and a classic attitude that’ll carry you through ’til the next rendezvous…

Roman Holiday blog 2  Trumbos out blog 2

THE FILMS: Roman Holiday (1953) starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn; Directed by WilliamWyler; Story by Dalton Trumbo (prior to 1993 credited to Ian McClellan Hunter) written by Dalton Trumbo (prior to 2011 uncredited), Ian McLellan Hunter and John Dighton; and Trumbo (2007) documentary, some of the actors featured: Paul Giamatti, Josh Lucas, Nathan Lane; Directed by Peter Askin; Written by Christopher Trumbo.

THE CONNECTION: One is a black-and-white, classic romantic comedy, set in post war Italy; the other a documentary about the black-listed Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, yet both, surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, tell the tale of true love, secrets, and sacrifice.

Roman Holiday vespaRoman Holiday stars Gregory Peck and, in her first American film, Audrey Hepburn, who plays Princess Anne. Uncomfortable in her official role and chafing against its demands, the young Princess runs away and meets Joe Bradley (Peck), a journalist. But he doesn’t tell her his real job; and she doesn’t tell him her real name. Though Joe quickly figures it out, he maintains the deception as the Princess experiences life as a commoner. Joe’s in pursuit of an exclusive scoop as he records her shopping, sightseeing, and dancing. She even gets her hair cut! But beneath the secrets and the lies, in the 24 hours spent together, Princess Anne and Joe fall in love.

In Trumbo, various actors and actresses read Dalton Trumbo’s letters written over the decades to family, friends and enemies, alike. The letters reveal a man of absolute convictions that you can either love him or hate him for. But, that he was a witty, self-aware, dedicated family man, is undeniable. A big secret gets revealed in this documentary: Dalton Trumbo was a hopeless romantic, completely and utterly devoted to his wife, Cleo.

Trumbos at hearing blog 1Trumbo was convicted in 1947 for Contempt of Congress, following his appearance before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC). While his case was going through the appeals process, Trumbo wrote Roman Holiday. Think about that. With a potential jail sentence looming, friends and writing assignments disappearing quicker than the spines of the Hollywood moguls, his name decried in newspapers, Dalton Trumbo sat down and wrote a romantic comedy for the ages!

The inspiration for Roman Holiday started with the headlines of the day, right next to the ones denouncing him, about the young Princess Elizabeth (the pre-coronation future Queen of England). She was in Malta to be near her husband, Prince Philip. Away from the pressures of the royal court, the Princess happily immersed herself in the life of a commoner: shopping, sightseeing, and dancing. The papers reported she even enjoyed the novelty of visiting a local hairdressing salon!

But, as will happen with writers, something from deep within their hearts always seems to subconsciously end up on the page. And For Trumbo, what ended up on the page was a cinematic love letter to his wife that we all fell in love with.

Joe Bradley is a writer; Trumbo is a writer; Joe is keeping his identity a secret so he can do his job; Trumbo was keeping his identity a secret so that he could do his.  In speaking, ostensibly about his small apartment, Joe/Trumbo says: “Well, life isn’t aways what one likes, is it?” Princess Anne/Cleo, replies: “No, it isn’t.” Princess Anne and Joe fall in love within 24 hours. Trumbo proposed to Cleo the moment he saw her.Cleo Trumbo blog

Roman Holiday blog 1Proof that kismet exists, the same words can be used to describe both Audrey Hepburn and Cleo Trumbo: ‘petite,’ ‘dark-haired,’ ‘fine boned,’ ‘graceful’ and ‘natural beauty.’ Let it be said, however, that Trumbo bore absolutely no physical resemblance to the tall, dark and handsome Gregory Peck.

From one of his letters written to Cleo from prison, he reminded her of the night she needed a ride and called upon him. Recognizing it as a turning point in the story of his life, he reminiscences about that night when a “… weary, frightened, teary-eyed girl who got into my car was the luckiest night of my life.”

A teary-eyed Princess Anne and Joe have a turning point in their story played out in a car, also. Though for them it’s not the beginning of their time together; but the end. Trumbo rewrote his past to reflect his ominous present. He was acknowledging that there were forces in his own life, as in his characters,’ that were beyond his control and would have to be answered to. For Trumbo, that meant serving 11 months in a federal penitentiary in Ashland, Kentucky, becoming prisoner #7551.

But, remember the conclusion of his cinematic love letter? It’s a declaration of Trumbo’s absolute devotion to Cleo. He and Cleo had kept many secrets together; they had remained together in adversity and Trumbo,  hopeless romantic that he was, believed they would remain together even when apart. And, he was right! Their marriage remained intact throughout his incarceration and Dalton and Cleo Trumbo remained happily married until the ultimate separation came knocking at his door in 1976.

MOOD FOOD: What food? These are worlds of cigarettes and champagne. Smoking is strongly discouraged, so skip the cigarettes–unless they’re candy cigarettes (and yes, they still do make those). But, like the dialogue itself, floating on champagne is highly recommended. And gelato. By all means gelato.

CLASSIC ATTITUDE: Have convictions. Honor your convictions. Wrap them in a loving embrace and hold onto your convictions, no matter what.

Learn more about legendary actor & HUAC victim John Garfield here.

 

Carriers of Precious Knowledge

I agree with Martin Scorsese in this essay he wrote for TCM. He calls all classic film fans, such as myself, to action! And as a Classic Film Columnist, I’m totally committed. How about you?

It’s interesting to consider the many different kinds of changes that have happened in cinema across the last few decades. Some took place suddenly and others took years or decades to occur. It seems to me that the world of movie appreciation, the shared understanding of movie history and its place in our lives, has been changing slowly but steadily. If you were to stop a stranger on the street 30 years ago and ask them who caroleHumphrey Bogart or the Marx Brothers or Carole Lombard were, they probably would have known because they were common reference points. Now, with the possible exception of Bogart, that seems unlikely. Things change. Several generations of stars and styles of acting have come and gone. Home video followed by digital restoration techniques followed by TCM and other classic film channels followed by DVDs, BluRays and streaming have made much of film history instantly accessible. But instant accessibility also makes it easier to take film history for granted. And as this was happening, many moviegoers (or watchers) have grown used to episodic television and superhero stories and their particular kinds of visual storytelling. I think its come to the point where much of the cinema’s past feels as distant as the Italian Renaissance. Those of us who know and love cinema are now carriers of precious knowledge. We have to hand it down and transmit it to future generations, like the book people at the end of Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451.

Devoted TCM fans know a lot about every one of the actors and actresses highlighted in this year’s edition of Summer Under the Stars, but at this point in time we have to start telling the stories of what these artists meant to younger people, not just why they mattered but how. For instance, how did an actor like Dana Andrews affect audiences? Who was he in relation to the other actors of his era – Frank Sinatra, for instance, who came to movies at roughly the same time, or an older actor who started in the early talkie era like Clark Gable? How did movie acting change during the span from Miriam Hopkins in The Stranger’s Return to Carroll Baker in Baby Doll to Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s pictures? What about an actor like Gary Cooper? If you glimpse a moment or two from Mr. Deeds Goes to Town or The Fountainhead on YouTube, you might not know what to make of him, but if you study his acting closely you can see that he was a real artist with an extremely sharp sense of the way he looked, moved and sounded on screen. If you pay close attention to Joan Crawford in Frank Borzage’s Mannequin, you can see a side of her that’s quite different from the standard image we get from clip reels. We watch these pictures with younger people who want to know and learn, and we pass down our knowledge as if it were a treasure. And, in the bargain, we get to see the films through new eyes.

by Martin Scorsese

Popcorn Sermons #4: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

“Popcorn Sermons” explores the religious symbolism in non-religious films. This month at the Museum of Russian Icons I presented the last film of my series, Frank Capra’s MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON. I’m happy to report the room was packed and all enjoyed this cinematic ode to our better angels! Thanks to everyone who came out and enjoyed the films and the perspective.

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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) Directed by Frank Capra. Jefferson Smith, U.S. Senator (James Stewart) looks heavenward for the strength to continue his fight against the graft and corruption in the Senate by filibustering.

“You all think I’m licked. Well, I’m not licked. . . somebody will listen to me.”

Who else could utter those words but the incredibly idealistic and patriotic Junior Senator, Jefferson Smith, taking on political corruption by filibuster in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).

For Capra, democracy and the teachings of Christianity were one and the same. In his autobiography, “Frank Capra: The Name Above The Title,” he recalls that while scouting locations for this film in D.C. he was overcome: “The Capital, the Supreme Court, the White House. Our Trinity of Liberty. Three in one and one in three.”

J. Stewart & J. ArthurWith that in mind, let’s introduce the main characters: Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), the Christ figure. Jefferson means the son of the divinely peaceful one; Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) as Mary Magdalene. Clarissa means brilliant. Saunders is smart, but also, in the beginning, quite cynical. It’s her proximity to Jefferson that effects her. He renews within her a brilliant light, a faith in the goodness of humanity. And then it is she who consoles him when it all gets to be too much for him. She personifies a spiritual light, that leads Jeff out of his darkest hour; Senator Paine (Claude Rains) as Judas. The aptly named Senator’s nickname, “The Silver Knight,” foreshadowing the night Judas betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver; and Abraham Lincoln (the statue at the Lincoln Memorial) as Abraham. Yes, here Lincoln represents the original Abraham, called our Father in Faith by Christian Churches. Capra presents The Lincoln Memorial as an American cathedral; light dramatically shinning in, men removing their hats, the Gettysburg Address recited as prayer. It’s a place of divine inspiration for Jefferson Smith.

Mr. Smith 2There’s a parallel in Christ’s journey and in Jeff’s. In presenting his bill for a National
Boys Camp, Jeff experiences a large, public outburst of support, (Palm Sunday). Those behind Senator Paine, and the graft within his bill surrounding the same piece of property, now deem Jeff a dangerous man. They (Priests & Scribes) plot against him. He’s accused of doing wrong and summoned before a committee. And like Christ, Jeff realizes that the truth before them is useless (“It’s you who say I am.”). He visits his “church” and cries in its shadows, a moment of weakness and doubt (Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane).

Even the dialogue evokes the presence of God. Clarissa encourages Jeff, who feels a fool, to stay and fight the corruption he sees, saying: “All the good that ever came into this world came from fools with faith.” Senator Paine tries to back out of the plot against Jeff with these words: “I don’t want any part in crucifying this boy.” And listen to JEfferson Smith, U. S. Senator, during his filibuster: “…abidth faith, hope, charity. Of these three, the greatest of these is charity.” He continues dramatically: “…lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for …because of just one, plain, simple rule: Love thy neighbor.”

Within this film boys are held up as the best hope for our future. Jeff works for the welfare of boys. He’s called a boy in a man’s world. It’s meant to be an insult, but is it? “Amen, I say to you whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.” (Mark 10:15)

In the end, Jeff collapses. Paine’s guilt (like that of Judas) drives him to attempt suicide and hysterically confess. Realizing Jeff is okay, and as he’s carried out like Christ being taken off the cross, the crowd erupts into celebration. “Make a joyful noise to God; shout in triumph…” (Pslams 81:2)

The Senate President gives up trying to call for order and reveals that he too is just a boy in a man’s world. He pops a wad of gum into his mouth, leans back and takes in “the joyful noise” going on all around him.

Enjoy this moment of pure idealism brought to you by MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON:

Popcorn Sermons #3: FORCE OF EVIL

“Popcorn Sermons” explores the religious symbolism in non-religious films. Last month I presented the classic film noir FORCE OF EVIL at the beautiful Museum of Russian Icons. On August 19th I’ll be presenting Frank Capra’s MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON. I invite all to come and enjoy this cinematic ode to our better angels and to participate, if you so choose to, in the discussion that follows.

Force Of Evil MRI 2018

Force of Evil (1948) written and directed by Abraham Polonsky. Young Doris Lowry (Beatrice Pearson) and brash Attorney Joe Morse (John Garfield) are stricken by the sight of his brother’s body, a victim of the force of evil.

“A man could spend the rest of his life trying to remember what he shouldn’t have said.”

Brash, young Attorney Joe Morse (John Garfield) is about to make his “first million dollars.” He’s helping gangster Ben Tucker go legit by first consolidating all the little number racket operators (banks) into one big powerful operation–his. But, Joe’s ailing, older brother, Leo (Thomas Gomez), a little ‘bank,’ wants no part of either Joe or Tucker. Sadly, the Force of Evil (1948) is too much for one, small-time, operator with a weak heart.

abraham-polonsky-george-barnes-john-garfield-force-of-evilForce of Evil has all the clichés of a great film noir: black & white photography, rapid fire dialogue, shadowy cityscapes, dames in black, mugs with guns. Yet, something about it moved the Library of Congress in 1994 to select it for preservation in its National Film Archive. Could it have been  because its inspiration is the story of Cain and Abel recast as brothers Joe and Leo Morse?

In the bible, Cain, the eldest, consumed with greed and envy, kills his younger brother Able. The roles here are reversed. Cain is Joe, the younger brother. The name Cain has various interpretations: son of perdition (damnation); father of secret societies (e.g. organized crime); and the inspiration for the title of this film, the power (or force) of evil. Abel, a shepherd, is Leo, the older brother. Leo is the good shepherd towards all who work for him, like young, innocent Doris and hapless Freddie Bauer.

To force Leo in, Joe has his ‘bank’ raided. Leo says to Joe as he gets out on bail: “All that Cain did to Abel was murder him.” Leo relents though, and joins Tucker’s gang. Later, Freddie panics, tips the police, and Leo’s ‘bank’ is raided a second time! Leo yells at him: “You want to get yourself killed?…I’ll kill you with my own hands rather than let you put the mark of Cain on my brother.”

forceevil4bigJoe, meanwhile, has turned his corrupting influence towards Doris (her name means beauty; both inside and out). He flirts and mocks her ethics. She tells him: “You’re a strange man, Mr. Morse, and a very evil one…It’s not wicked to give and want nothing back.” His response: “It’s perversion.”

The language of good and evil is punctuated throughout this film with shots of Trinity Church set against the skyscrapers of Wall Street, silently asking Joe (and us), “Who will you serve, God or mammon?” The answer is easy for Joe, until he discovers his phone is tapped. Realizing he’ll be investigated and disbarred, he confesses to Doris: “I didn’t have enough strength to resist corruption; but I was strong enough to fight for a piece of it.”

Abel is considered the first martyr to Christ. In one of the most stark cinematic translations of the betrayal of Jesus, Freddie (Judas) lures Leo (Christ) into a rival gangster’s trap set in a restaurant, late at night (Last Supper). There, Leo confides to Freddie his sensations of pain: “Y’know, sometimes you feel as though you’re dying here (rubs the palm of one hand) and here (touching the other hand) and here (rubbing his left side). You’re dying while your breathing.” It’s the stigmata! Gangsters (Roman soldiers) rush in and, like Christ, Leo is dragged away. Though not by his own hand, Freddie, vulnerable and scared among those who have only used him, is brutally killed.

When God asked Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” he answered defensively, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” But Joe is no unrepentant Cain. When he learns Leo’s been kidnapped, he runs to Tucker, desperate to know: “Where’s my brother?”

Joe’s epiphany is hard won. He had morally descended. Now, watch the clip below, as he does so literally, symbolically, to find Leo’s dead body thrown against the rocks by the river.  Gone is Joe’s former bravado as he narrates: “…And I felt I had killed him. I turned back to give myself up…because if a man’s life can be lived for so long and come out this way…then something was horrible and had to be ended…And I decided to help.”

When Joe turns he sees Doris, and behind her, a lighthouse; both stand as beacons of light, forces of good, for him to now follow:

 

“Popcorn Sermons” Coming Attraction: MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON. Both director Frank Capra, and Junior Senator Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) looked heavenward for inspiration in this 1939 classic that I’ll be showing August 19, at 1:30pm at the Museum of Russian Icons.