Must-see Christmas Movies

There are so many Christmas movies out there that people settle on the ones that happen to be shown on television, not realizing that there are so many gems out there to enjoy.

‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is well-known to people thanks to many showings on television. The two and a half hour story ends at Christmastime which made it into a most beloved film of realizing one’s blessings. You may be interested to know that it was due to an unrenewed copyright that the film became available for multiple television showings and that it did not enjoy such a rabid following when it was released in January of 1947.

Thomas Mitchell, Carol Combs, Donna Reed, James Stewart and Karolyn Grimes celebrate

The favorite in my house is A Christmas Carol. As you know there are many, many versions of this beloved tale and I’ll briefly touch on ones I watch each year. A Christmas Carol, 1984, with George C. Scott as Scrooge, is probably the best Scrooge in existence in my opinion. This was originally a television special but is available on DVD. One can imagine Scott in 21st century clothes working in a modern office ridiculing a member of his staff for complaining about the cold and admonishing him to wear a sweater for God’s sake.

This story has a focus on Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, and the Christmas party he has invited his uncle too but was rebuffed. The scene gives us a beautiful view of a Christmas shared by the British before America adopted its custom of festivity.

Scott’s performance as the stubborn Scrooge outshines all others with his absolute terror at his own gravesite and the terrible eternal damnation he faces if he does not change his ways. His turnaround in thinking of things to provide the Cratchit family warms the heart and allows the viewer to apply Scrooge’s thinking to their own situation.

The next best Christmas Carol is ‘Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol’ (1962) ostensibly because of the music provided by a Broadway composer Jule Styne and lyricist Bob Merrill. Some of the most beautiful melodies emanate from this animated and colorful story. More than a cartoon, Mr. Magoo, the near-sighted character of the 1960’s who blunders his way through life, is a fantastic Scrooge as he greedily counts his gold coins in the office while his clerk Bob Cratchit can barely complete his ciphers due to the cold stiffening his fingers.

The best line in this production is when Magoo’s Scrooge gazes at his door-knocker, which seems to take on Jacob Marley’s visage, and says ‘Could I need spectacles?’ Indeed.

This production is readily available on DVD.

The next two movies are comparable in scope of character and production: 1951’s A Christmas Carol with British actor Alastair Sim as Scrooge. A nasty one he is too, with an ugly visage which turns positively cherubic after his transformation.

1935’s A Christmas Carol starring Reginald Owen is equally powerful as the story transports the greedy Scrooge to realizing the error of his ways and the wonderful world open to him if he would only open his heart.

Both of these movies are shown on television but are also available on DVD.

Reginald Owen as Scrooge and Terry Kilburn as Tiny Tim

There are other movies that celebrate Christmas than A Christmas Carol, of course and some of these might strike you as strange choices. The first movie I pick is Stalag 17, a World War II movie about a German prisoner of war camp of American airmen, starring William Holden, Don Taylor, Peter Graves and Otto Preminger. It takes place the weeks before and after Christmas.

As the movie opens, two prisoners are planning their escape from the harsh conditions of the prison camp, but on the night of the escape, the sound of machine guns drowns the remaining prisoners’ hopes for liberty.

William Holden’s character, Sergeant J. J. Sefton, is one holdout from supporting the prisoners’ escape plans saying that the German security and guards are too smart to allow an escape. Immediately he is suspected of tipping off those same guards in order to obtain good food and other privileges.

Animal (Robert Strauss), Sefton (William Holden) and Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck)

Comic relief is provided by two prisoners named Animal and Shapiro, whose antics include painting a stripe down the prison road in order to enter the compound where Russian women prisoners are taking showers.

Otto Preminger plays the German commandant, whose demeanor is that of a sly fox seeking to make friends of the men, while crushing their dreams if any rebellion is detected.

A movie worth seeing, as William Holden won his only Oscar for his performance.

Another surprise movie is Trading Places, with Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd playing men on opposite sides of the social scale forced to “trade places” on a bet from Aykroyd’s snooty employers, played magnificently by Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy.

Dan Aykroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis, Eddie Murphy and Denholm Elliott

It is Christmas time, and the story includes an elaborate holiday party where Aykroyd dresses in a Santa disguise trying to get back at Murphy. Hilarity ensues as the two young men join forces with Jamie Lee Curtis and Denholm Elliott and take revenge on the employers during a New Year’s Eve train ride full of holiday revelers, including Jim Belushi and Al Franken.

If you have favorite Christmas movies that have changed your life I’d love to hear from you.

Father Goose – A Dedication


Today I’m dedicating Father Goose to my parents, Louise and Gino Valenti of Bethesda, MD. They were big fans of Father Goose, especially the comedic talents of Cary Grant. I was eight when they took me to see this movie; that’s when I, too, fell in love with Cary Grant.

My mom especially loved the way he played against type as Walter Eckland. Gone were the usual tuxedo, military uniform or Savile Row suit. Instead, he drinks whiskey like a fish; he’s scruffy, unshaven and totally irresponsible.  

As for my father and me, we just loved the repartee between Walter, and the other characters, thanks to the tight script by Peter Stone. Then there was my dad’s embarrassment when trying to explain to an eight-year-old why Walter quit teaching Leslie Caron how to fish.

Of course, I’d seen Cary Grant in other movies on TV, and I always thought he was just as good-looking as my dad. They had the same hairline, and both were funny and handsome – both loved to play with their tomboy daughter.

Although my dad is gone now, I’d like to think that he and Cary Grant are somewhere swapping stories and discussing classic movies. My mom has Alzheimer’s disease, still laughs when I quote the best line in the movie,  “Goody Two-shoes and the Filthy Beast!”

Trust me.

Thanks, Mom and Dad, for loving this movie!

How To Have a Successful Classic Movie Festival



Our one-day Classic Film festival has ended and three of us enjoyed five movies in less than 12 hours!

It was TCM Backlot that inspired me to entertain with a classic movie festival, and I thank them with all of my heart.

You need to know that just above my friends here on the couch hangs a gift from TCM Backlot – a print of the old MGM studios with the TCM logo. Here it is:

It was a mini vacation for all of us movie lovers and I recommend it wholeheartedly.  All my films were either purchased at the TCM Shop or recorded from a TCM showing.

Our first film was All About Eve, a curiously relevant story of a young actress’s drive to succeed and replace her idol on the stage and screen. Eve (Anne Baxter), becomes the antagonist in her climb to stardom, taking advantage of the generosity of her supposed idol, stage actress Margo Channing, played by a marvelous Bette Davis.

Eve hides her ambition behind a sweet smile and deferential manner, while ingratiating herself with the people close to Margo, including her husband, played by Bette Davis’s real life husband, Gary Merrill.

While all this is going on, it’s Margo Channing’s skeptical dresser, played by the fantastic Thelma Ritter, who takes our role as the audience, watching what’s going on with jaundiced eyes and states outright that no one could be as sweet and innocent as Eve portends.

Two thirds of the movie later, as the realization of Eve’s manipulations dawns on the players, we see that they are already caught in the web of Eve’s cunning and that their lives and relationships are at a standstill.

The denouement comes at the finale, as Eve discovers that she has made a pact with the devil, one Addison DeWitt, a theatre critic played by the cunning George Sanders, who has done his homework and uncovered the truth about the real Eve.

Justice never felt so good.

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Next up was The Lodger, a silent 1927 film, one of the first directed by Alfred Hitchcock and filmed in Hitch’s England, well before he came to America. Since we’ve seen or heard about Hitch’s more famous movies as his career advanced, you can see the talents of this storytelling genius emerging in this film.

The thick fog of London’s nights becomes one of the characters as the suspense builds, and we strain to figure out who was murdering blond women on the lonely streets. Neon signs blink on and off like silent screams and we’re made to wait as the scene slowly unfolds, introducing a very secretive man seeking a room in a boarding house, the lodger.

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After The Lodger and getting our racing heartrates back to normal, I introduced my friends to one of Barbara Stanwyck’s early films, Ball of Fire (1941), where she plays a New York showgirl full of piss and vinegar and brimming with sex appeal.

Ms. Stanwyck, who was a petite woman just over 5 feet tall, nevertheless casts a giant shadow across the astonished faces of 7 secluded and proper professors residing in a large New York townhouse. She asks if she could stay there on the pretense of hiding from an abusive boyfriend. Actually, she’s hiding from the district attorney who’s investigating said boyfriend (Dana Andrews).

Ms. Stanwyck’s character, appropriately named Sugarpuss O’Shea for her nightclub act, is like a naughty Snow White to 7 clueless dwarves – these elderly professors dedicated to creating a new encyclopedia.

One of the professors, played by Gary Cooper, is a grammarian researching American slang expressions. His exposure to Sugarpuss opens a treasure trove of slang that nearly overwhelms him. We laughed ourselves silly as a surprised Cooper learns what yum yum kisses are and his fellow “dwarves” learn the conga dance.

This screwball comedy features a healthy supporting cast of S.Z. Sagall, Oscar Homolka, Henry Travers, Richard Haydn, Dana Andrews and Dan Duryea.

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It was time to shift gears once again, as we settled in for the beautiful and perfect Laura from 1944, with Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb and Vincent Price, directed by Otto Preminger. We are told in the opening scene that Laura was murdered in cold blood in her apartment.

Dana Andrews plays Detective Mark McPherson, and spends a lot of hours in Laura’s apartment, trying to understand Laura, her associates, and her playboy fiancé (Vincent Price). He’s mesmerized by the full length painting of Laura over the fireplace and even has dreams about her.

Throughout the film the very recognizable “Laura theme” undulates and seems to tease McPherson into thinking Laura still lives. She’s beautiful and as pure a soul as Clifton Webb, a newspaper columnist,  describes her in his narration of the story.

The tight script reveals the traits and flaws of each character as we try and determine who might have murdered Laura. There was plenty of motivation for some of them. The ending does not disappoint.

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Next up was The More The Merrier from 1941 starring Jean Arthur, Charles Coburn and Joel McCrea.

A delightful screwball comedy set in Washington, D.C. (my hometown) during World War II, the film could have been set during any turbulent time in any place where there was lack of housing. My mother relayed to me how the severe housing shortage in the nation’s capital was due to the military buildup of the war, bringing thousands of military and government personnel to the city. Mom had reached working age and was eager to join the ranks of the “government girls,” herself and work in support of the war effort within the burgeoning bureaucracy.

The film is the story of one of these government girls, Connie Milligan, exquisitely brought to life by Jean Arthur, who advertised a room for rent in her apartment. Naturally she expected applications from newly arrived women looking for a place to live, but when an amiable and harmless Mr. Dingle, (Charles Coburn) shows up in his rumpled suit and quiet manner, she relents.

But when Connie presents Mr. Dingle (Coburn) with a minute-to-minute schedule for sharing the morning chores as well as the kitchen and bathroom, that’s when things get crazy. The two of them briskly wend their way through the routine, passing each other between the kitchen, the morning stoop for the paper, and the shower. Soon Mr. Dingle gets locked out of the apartment while retrieving the newspaper, and ends up losing his trousers in the confusion.

But that isn’t all, that same day  another man approaches the apartment and Mr. Dingle rents half of his half of the apartment to this stranger, a virile Joel McCrea.  But Mr. Dingle doesn’t tell Connie of McCrea’s existence nor does he tell McCrea about Connie. The madcap happenings of the frantic morning routine, misunderstandings between fiancés, coworkers, and the three roommates started giggles that couldn’t be stopped.

And that wrapped up our mini classic movie festival with fantastic films, delectable food, and the comforts of home!

If you have ideas from your own movie festival — suggestions of films, food and other comforts, please share them in the comments!



My First TCM Classic Movie Weekend!

It’s finally here… an event I’ve wanted to host for the longest time – A Classic Movie weekend with my friends!

We have popcorn, veggies, crudites, drinks – pillows, blankets, all ready to go! We’ll be watching films from noon Saturday to 3pm Sunday! That’s a lot of movies and fun!

I’m hosting this is because so many of my friends, who love movies, haven’t seen many classic movies that started it all. True artists began creating magnificent scenes that bring tears, laughter and fear to their audiences.  They’ll be seeing some of the silent dramas and comedies, film noir, (of course, Eddie Mueller!), screwball comedies, and many movies that added phrases to our lexicon – “I vant to be alone…”

I can honestly say that TCM Classic Movies introduced me to the movies we’ll be viewing this weekend: Metropolis, The Lodger, Gilda, Grand Hotel, Scarlet Street, Ball of Fire, All About Eve, Notorious, The General, Rain.

We have enough food to last us 48 hours without leaving the house, and of course plenty of adult beverages!

As Ben Mankiewicz likes to say, classic movies were a unique way to bring stories to audiences, real characters to figure out what makes them tick, and ways to tell those stories without the crutch of blowing up buildings and car chases taking up half the movie!

Stay tuned for more updates!