Tuesday, January 18, 2022

THE UNHOLY FOUR (1954)

Philip Vickers, whom everyone calls Vic, walks into his big country home where his wife is throwing a party. He causes quite a sensation because he's been missing, presumed dead, for four years. He'd been with three business partners (Bill, Job and Harry) on a fishing trip in Portugal when he apparently slipped over the side of the boat and was never seen again. He remembers a voice threatening him, a blow to the head from behind, then blackness, then amnesia. His memory back, his return indeed proves a disruption to the friends and to his wife Angie, who appears to have taken Harry as a lover; in fact, she faints when she sees Vic. As Vic hopes his memory will clear even more so he can identify his would-be killer, Harry is found dead, and Vic thinks his wife did it to get him out of the way, and even wonders if she was involved with the initial attack on him. Meanwhile, we discover that Joan, Angie's secretary who lives in the house, resents Vic because her father killed himself years ago after some financial problems which were laid at Vic's feet. Vic sends Joan away to isolate himself with Angie in an attempt to reestablish their relationship. When a company accountant named Sessions is found dead, pressure increases on the police to straighten out the tangled motives and secrets of Vic and Angie and friends.

Frankly, my attention wandered a bit during the running time of this sluggish melodrama so I may have a few of the details off. I blame lackluster direction; the script is promising and most of the acting is adequate, with William Sylvester (Dr. Floyd in 2001) as Vic and Alvys Maben as Joan especially good. Unfortunately, Paulette Goddard, in one of her last screen roles, is atrocious as Angie. Her first few scenes are fine (she pulls off her faint convincingly) but after that, she's all downhill, with her big eyes and her squeaky little-girl voice that does not fit the character. Though I was interested enough to care about Vic's fate, most of the other characters didn't engage me, and by the time the solution was presented, I didn't care. I liked seeing this other side of William Sylvester (pictured at right); we wonder for a while how far he might go in seeking revenge, and though this isn't really a film noir, his character would have made a good noir lead. Based on a crime novel by actor George Sanders (actually ghostwritten by sci-fi author Leigh Brackett who went on to contribute to the script for The Empire Strikes Back). The YouTube print I saw is in the wrong aspect ratio--it looks like a more or less full screen movie that got stretched to widescreen. Also released as The Stranger Came Home. [YouTube]

Friday, January 14, 2022

THE COUNT OF THE OLD TOWN (1935)

In the Old Town section of Stockholm, the person everyone calls the Count is a cheerful older man whose sole support is as a newspaper delivery man. Business is good lately because of the headline-making actions of a daring diamond thief. The Count and his buddy Gurken (named for the pickle) mostly saunter about town trying to get a few drinks, which is difficult to do as the country has begun rationing alcohol to cut down on alcoholism. We meet other denizens of the Old Town including the chief policeman, Goransson, who is generally disliked and referred to as "the Lord," a blind man named Karlsson who helps a widow write a personals ad for the "joint happiness' section of the paper, and Berglund, a slick suitor to the widow. When a stranger named Ake arrives in town and takes a room at the local hotel, some suspect he may be the thief, especially when he seems anxious to avoid the police. But the Count comes to like him because he lets the Count use his liquor ration card. The hotel keeper's wholesome young maid Elsa has a meet-cute moment with Ake and they begin a flirtation. Still, we wonder what he’s up to with his comings and goings. And why does the blind man leave a light on in his apartment at night? This cute character-driven comedy occasionally spins its wheels a bit but is overall a pleasant viewing experience. The conflicts here never get too serious and the mystery of who might be the jewel thief does become fairly engrossing. This is the movie that introduced Ingrid Bergman to the silver screen, in the role of Elsa; she is fine in the role but she hasn't quite yet come into her own. One problem might be Edvin Adolphson (pictured with Bergman at left) who plays Ake in a rather gruff and uninvolving way (he also directed the film), so their chemistry never really sets off sparks. Waldemar Dalquist is fun as the Count as is Sigurd Wallen as his buddy who has a distinctive chuckle. Its Swedish title is Munkbrogreven, and it crops up sometimes as The Count of the Old Monk’s Bridge. This doesn't seem to have gotten any kind of major theatrical release in the United States in its day. [TCM]

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

UNDER MILK WOOD (1972)

This is an adaptation of a "play for voices" by Dylan Thomas, originally produced on radio. Two men, identified in the play as First Voice and Second Voice, narrate the occurrences over one day's time in the Welsh village of Llareggub. There is not a traditional plot, just windows into the lives of the villagers, some happy, some sad, though none tragic. Here, Richard Burton (pictured) does the bulk of reading as First Voice (or First Man as the movie credits him) as he and an older companion (Ryan Davies as Second Man) wander through town, mostly unseen by others (except for their rather odd threesome with a woman in a barn, apparently not part of the original play), reading the lovely poetic descriptions of Thomas' play as we see vignettes involving the townsfolk. Myfanwy (Glynis Johns) and Mog (Victor Spinetti) are merchants who send each other love letters but only see each other in their dreams. Mr. Pugh is a henpecked husband who waits on his wife hand and foot, but every day dreams of putting poison in her tea (thriller movie music plays during his dreams). Lord Cut-Glass lives in a small house filled with clocks all set to different times. The bartender is madly in love with a young woman named Gossamer, but never tells her, though when he's pumping the beer taps he imagines himself having sex with her. Mr. Owen spends most evenings getting dead drunk at the pub, and sometimes knocks his wife around a bit, but she always forgives him, and the two seem like the happiest couple in town. The mailman steams open everyone's letters and tells them exactly what's in each message (and the townsfolk don't seem to care). The town prostitute keeps having babies and complains that nothing seems to grow in her garden by the shore except laundry. A twice-widowed woman is visited by the ghosts of her dead husbands whom she orders around as if they were still alive. And the old blind sailor Capt. Tom Cat (Peter O'Toole), who knows what's going on in town despite his blindness, dreams of his late lover, the buxom Rosie (Elizabeth Taylor).

This film is often criticized for being too pedestrian, for lazily showing us the images and actions that Thomas's poetry presents in words. It's true that the procession of images becomes predictable, and the characters remain mostly one-dimensional, more symbols than people, especially a minister who preaches to no one out on the steps of his church. But between Burton's fine handling of the poetic narration and the sometimes amusing, sometimes touching situations depicted, this eventually had me fairly engrossed, though I can't say I ever cared about any of the townspeople. The star billing of Taylor is a tease; she's on screen for maybe four minutes. O'Toole is a bit of a ham in his old man make-up and blind eye contact lenses. But honestly, with the exception of Burton, this is not a showcase for acting as much as direction and cinematography, and on those levels, it's fairly interesting throughout, though certainly not for all tastes. The beginning and end seem to hint that the villagers might be selkies, mythological creatures who can transform from seal to human, but nothing is done with that. However, for a kick, try spelling the town's name backwards. [YouTube; this print was stuttery and a bit murky]

Thursday, January 06, 2022

THEY ALL COME OUT (1939)

Calm down, this is not a 30s movie about gay liberation; the "all" in the title refers to prisoners. The assumption given at the beginning of the movie by the real-life director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons is that all prisoners eventually come out and rejoin the world. This film follows the story of two of those prisoners. Joe (Tom Neal, pictured), a down-on-his-luck guy having a hard time finding a job, eats a meal at a diner and then says he can't pay for it. Just as the owner is set to call the sheriff, Kitty (Rita Johnson) pays for it, then offers him a job as a getaway driver for a crook named Reno and his small gang. They pull off a big bank vault robbery, and Reno and Joe hide the money until the heat is off. Unfortunately, they get involved in a shoot-out at an auto court. When Kitty is wounded, Joe stays behind to take care of her and they're both arrested. Reno and the others also wind up behind bars. We are then made privy to the discussions of prison officials. Kitty is sent to a women's prison, and because Joe is new to the life of crime, he is sent to a men's reformatory to keep him from being influenced by other hardened criminals. Both get early releases, with Kitty getting a job at a beauty salon and Joe being trained as a welder. Groper, one of the gang members, is diagnosed as paranoid and gets medical treatment. Bugs is tempted to go straight by the possibility of reclaiming his role as husband and father. But Reno has none of it and gets involved in a prison breakout attempt. Winding up at Alcatraz, he hears that Joe has gotten paroled and has gotten a job, and he sends Vonnie, a former cellmate, off to check up on Joe and make sure he doesn't give up the hidden money, and to try and tempt him back into a life of crime. Can Joe and Kitty beat the odds and stay in the straight life?

This B-movie started life as a documentary about the prison system, hence the opening segment as two federal officials discuss the positive aspects of prison. A handful of shots were taken in actual federal prisons. It winds up being largely a propaganda movie about the wisdom of prison officials, which detracts a bit from the character study of Kitty and Joe, who, thanks to the acting of Johnson and Neal, are interesting, and it's a big disappointing that their stories don't get fleshed out a bit more, instead getting squeezed to make room for the other gang members. Reno (Bernard Nedell) is strictly a clichéd and uninteresting thug; Edward Gargan is OK as the frustrated family man, and John Gallaudet has some good moments as the screwy Groper. Overall, this movie is best treated as a novelty, as an early model perhaps for a docudrama, and it's short enough that it doesn’t wear out its welcome. [TCM]

Monday, January 03, 2022

THE WOMAN IN WHITE (1948)

Walking through a gloomy woods at night on the way to Limmeridge House where he is to be the drawing instructor for the young and wealthy Laura Fairlie, handsome Walter Hartwright runs across a pale woman dressed all in white, looking a bit like an apparition. She is flesh and blood, and also shy and skittish, and claims to be running from folks out to get her. When a carriage stops on the road and the driver asks if Walter has seen a woman in the woods who has escaped from an asylum, he says no. What he doesn't see is a large, threatening looking man sitting in the carriage. When the carriage leaves, the woman has gone as well. At the house, Walter meets Marian, friend and companion to Laura; Laura's uncle Frederick who is almost as nervous and impaired as Poe's Roderick Usher; and Count Fosco, the large man from the carriage who is alternately jolly and sinister. When Walter eventually meets Laura, he is shocked that she is a dead ringer for the mysterious woman in white. There are a number of plotlines that get spun out from here: Fosco has talked Fredrick into arranging a marriage for Laura to Sir Percival Glyde; Walter hits it off well with Marian, but then also strikes romantic sparks with Laura. We discover that Fosco and Glyde have plotted Laura's wedding so they can get their hands on the money she will soon come into, but their plans seem to hinge on the woman in white staying out the picture. Walter and Marian, sensing that things aren't right, try to stop the marriage, but aren't successful, and Walter and Marian both leave the house while Laura goes on a long honeymoon. Months later, Marian returns to find Laura changed (for one thing, gasp, she's taken up smoking!). As their devious plotting threatens to fall apart, Fosco and Glyde may have to resort to murder.

This is based on a famous gothic mystery novel by Wilkie Collins. It's been at least 30 years since I read it, but this seems to be fairly faithful to the book, as much as a 110 minute movie can be to a 500 page novel. There are some complications involving who's related to whom that get a bit tricky--I'm still not sure if Marian is related to Laura or not. But if you keep your attention on Fosco, you won't stray far. The acting all around is quite good. Sydney Greenstreet (billed third but really the star of the show) makes a wonderfully malevolent Fosco, truly a villain you love to hate. He goes through all his mannerisms here--the wicked chuckle, the intense stare, the brisk stride--but we'd be disappointed if he didn't. A very young Eleanor Parker (this was her 18th movie in five years) is lovely as Laura, though the character's effectiveness is limited by her role being a bit underwritten. First billed, and almost more important to the plot than Laura, is Alexis Smith as Marian and she's excellent. Some critics find Gig Young miscast as the romantic hero Walter, but to my eyes, he's fine. He disappears from the middle third of the movie and is missed. John Emery is nicely slimy as Glyde and John Abbott is convincingly neurasthenic as Fredrick. Agnes Moorehead drops in late in the film (as the plotting kicks into overdrive) for an important role as Fosco's wife. The sets evoke a Gothic atmosphere without going overboard. The book's famous spooky opening scene of Walter meeting the title character isn't done justice by the movie, but otherwise, it's an enjoyable watch. Pictured are Greenstreet and Smith. [TCM]

Friday, December 31, 2021

FITZWILLY (1967)

Or, what exactly is a Christmas movie?

I'm sure I've mentioned in the past my obsessive concern with what makes something a Christmas movie. Years ago, I read an article that said it wasn't enough for a movie to be primarily set at Christmas; it should also have some element of magic. Think of movies like Miracle on 34th Street, It's a Wonderful Life, or any version of A Christmas Carol. I like this criterion, though it’s not a foolproof test; A Christmas Story, The Holly and the Ivy, and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation and its ilk (stories of suburban holiday antics) may not have any magic or fantasy, but they are laser-focused on Christmas. For some viewers, any movie which features a Christmas scene or setting is a Christmas movie (see Die Hard fans); for me, defining a Christmas movie is like defining pornography: I know when we see it. When I wrote my review of BEYOND TOMORROW, I realized that there are, more or less, two kinds of Christmas movies: those that are clearly striving for Christmas movie status, and those that have that status thrust upon them. This, like BEYOND, has become a Christmas movie by default for two reasons: the climax takes place in Gimbels department store on Christmas Eve, and the film is currently in the Turner Classic Movies library so they show it every December as a holiday classic. However, there really is little else about this that deserves the Christmas movie label.

Fitzwilly (Dick Van Dyke) is butler and head of household to the rich, elderly and philanthropic Victoria Woodworth (Edith Evans), but as we discover, she is no longer rich. Fitzwilly and his staff have been acting as Robin Hood and his merry men, engaging in theft and con games in order to support Woodworth in her charitable ways. Their well-intentioned larceny goes off smoothly until Victoria hires Juliet (Barbara Feldon) as a secretary to help her with a dictionary of misspelled words that she hopes to get published. After a prickly initial encounter, Juliet and Fitzwilly slowly warm up to each other. Juliet, without realizing it, begins throwing monkey wrenches into the plans for the staff's criminal behavior. When she discovers what they've been doing, Fitzwilly agrees to stop, but he has to pull one last big heist: steal all the cash in Gimbels department store at 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Parts of this are fun, but overall it should be fizzier and looser than it is. One problem is Van Dyke; much as I love him on TV, he just doesn't have what it takes to come alive on the big screen (Bye Bye Birdie excepted). He feels pent up, like he wants to let loose with some slapstick but can't. He has more chemistry with the staff (including John McGiver, Noam Pitlik and a young Sam Waterston) than he does with Feldon, who herself comes off as absolutely charming. I'm not sure why Feldon didn’t have a bigger movie career–maybe because it seemed like she was always playing variations on her Agent 99 character on the 60s TV comedy Get Smart. The big Gimbels climax is lots of fun, but getting there is sometimes a bit trying. As for whether or not it's a Christmas movie, I don't think so, but I guess that really depends on the viewer. [TCM]

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

CHRISTMAS SHORT TAKES 2

HOMETOWN CHRISTMAS (2019)
The week before Christmas, Noelle (Beverley Mitchell) moves from Chicago back to her small hometown in Louisiana to work at a medical clinic with her widowed father Pete. She is happy to be back with her brother Will (and his fiancée Jen) and pleased to meet up with old friends, but less happy to run into her high school boyfriend Nick (Stephen Colletti, pictured); they broke up ten years ago when he went off to a career in professional baseball and old wounds still fester. Before she starts working in the new year, she decides to restage the beloved nativity that her late mother used to hold every Christmas. Noelle slowly warms to Nick's presence, especially when she finds out that Nick's baseball career is on hold until he recovers from a serious shoulder injury and he's donating his time to running an after-school baseball camp for some adorable children. Just as it seems like Noelle and Nick are getting back in their old groove, she finds out that he plans on leaving town and going back to his career as soon as he's recovered, despite the fact that the local high school has offered him a coaching job. This Lifetime Christmas romance is pretty much par for the course: attractive leads, moderately interesting side characters, and lots and lots of Christmas visuals, despite being set in Louisiana which doesn't get much snow. Mitchell and Colletti have good chemistry, but so do Erin Cahill (Jen) and Donny Boaz (Will), so it's a little disappointing that their story is handled rather sloppily. Somewhat surprisingly, the plot conflicts never get too melodramatic. The word "pleasant" describes it well, and if you're looking for something edgier or more dramatic, look elsewhere. 3 Christmas trees out of 5 [Lifetime]

CHRISTMAS CRUSH (2019)
Addie and her best friend Drea work at a high-powered party-planning company. They have one week to plan a holiday party for a demanding client, the Donner Legacy Foundation--the one thing that works in this movie is the running gag of people calling it "the Donner party." Addie has been nursing a crush on Sam, the guy in the next apartment. We see her literally run into him in the hallway, and though he seems approachable, Addie gets tongue tied in his presence. Her chummy neighbor Mrs. Motley notices Addie's predicament and gets Addie to wish on a falling star, telling her all Christmas wishes come true. Addie wishes that her neighbor would fall in love with her. But she's not quite precise enough with the wish. The next day, just as Addie is starting to make some headway with Sam, she discovers that a high school friend, Pete, has moved in across the hall from her, and Pete is the one who falls head over heels in love with her. He's a sweet-natured goof but he proves to be an obsessed nuisance, messing up a date with Sam and even threatening the smoothness of her party-planning activities. Drea and Mrs. Motley try to help her, but she's convinced that only another Christmas wish can right this wrong. I appreciate the attempt at an element of magic here (the falling star wish), but that’s about all I appreciate. Cindy Sampson is fine as Addie, though her performance is part of the problem with the story--she seems way too well-adjusted not to be able to fix this problem in a hurry: tell off Pete without mincing words and be honest with Sam about her feelings. Of course, then the movie would be about 45 minutes long. Robin Dunne (Sam), normally a charming Christmas movie lead, comes off as drab and unappealing, In a different Christmas romance, Sam would be the loser boyfriend. Chris Violette (Pete) has the quirky frat boy thing down, but his performance is pretty one-note, again due as much to the writing (and direction) as to his acting. 2 Christmas trees out of 5. [Ion TV]

GINGERBREAD MIRACLE (2021)
Maya grew up in a small town in Colorado, had a high-school crush on Alex, and, unable to tell him about her feelings, wrote him a long letter, stuck it in his jacket pocket, and then left for a lengthy European vacation. He doesn't respond so when she gets back, in order to make him jealous, she exaggerates a relationship she had with a French boy. The stunt doesn't work and the two go off to separate colleges, both becoming lawyers. Now, some ten years later, Maya has gotten burned out on the fast pace of a big law firm and is in her hometown living with her parents and freelancing via Zoom. Meanwhile, Alex, with a law firm in New York City, is home for the holidays (and also working remotely) to be with Luis, the uncle who raised him, as he goes through the process of selling his Mexican bakery. Alex is a bit miffed when he finds out that Luis has hired Maya to help him with the sale, but that's because Alex is always insanely busy in New York. Of course, she warms up to him and he to her, but their unresolved past still stands between them (it turns out the letter she left in the jacket got lost for a while, but he did eventually read it). There’s a legend that the gingerbread cookies Luis bakes can cause wishes to come true--that could happen here, if these two mixed-up kids ever discover what it is they really wish for. This Hallmark Christmas movie hits all the usual beats at the usual times, including the complicating factor in the romance at the 90-minute mark and the long-delayed kiss in the fadeout (and, as in the above movie, a magical power of a wish). What puts it a slight notch above the norm is the main setting, the Mexican bakery, and the legit Latino actors--Jon Ecker as Alex and Jorge Montesi as Luis. Honestly, those two have as good if not better chemistry as nephew and uncle than Ecker and Merritt Patterson (Maya) have as romantic leads. Ecker is kinda smolderingly handsome but also a little too broody throughout. Patterson is fine as are Patch May as Jacques, the French baker who wants to buy Luis's bakery (and maybe play kissy-face with Maya), and Preston Vanderslice as a subplot boyfriend of a subplot character. Likeable and harmless. 4 Christmas trees out of 5. [Hallmark]

Monday, December 27, 2021

CHRISTMAS SHORT TAKES 1

THE CHRISTMAS EDITION (2020)
Carly Hughes is a newspaper journalist jonesing for a promotion to head of the newsroom, but when a digital media conglomerate (represented by the brittle Marie Osmond) buys the paper with plans for it to go online only, Hughes decides to leave her job and take on the responsibility of getting a small town Alaska paper back on its feet after its owner passed away and his son (Rob Mayes, pictured at right), who works as a glassblower, has been unable to stop it from turning into a once-a-month shadow of its former self. She turns it into a town sensation by focusing on Christmas doings and local businesses, and she becomes a beloved local figure. Having struck some sparks with Mayes, Hughes plans to stick with the job and the challenges of post-Christmas existence, but when Osmond gets wind of the paper's success, she heads up to Alaska with an offer to buy the paper–and make it online only. She also offers Hughes her newsroom job at her old paper. Will Mayes sell? Will Hughes leave? Will Osmond, who seems to have had lots of face work, be able to express any emotion beyond dismissive haughtiness? My mini-crush on Mayes, good at playing unpolished average guys, kept me watching this painfully predictable movie. Mayes and Hughes are both fine, though their chemistry is lacking–a scene at an observatory, which should be the romantic highpoint, fizzles. Osmond seems uncomfortable, though she loosens up a bit near the end. 3 Christmas trees out of 5. [Lifetime/Amazon Prime]

SENSE, SENSIBILITY & SNOWMEN (2019)
Erin Krakow and Kimberly Sustad are sisters (the Dashwoods, as in Jane Austen's novel from which this takes its inspiration) who run a Chicago party-planning business. There is tension between the two: Sustad, the more serious sister, thinks that Krakow isn’t carrying her weight. Luke Macfarlane is the new head of a toy company built by his father, but Dad is unwilling to fade into retirement and still bosses Macfarlane around. When Krakow meets Macfarlane, they don’t hit it off, but they agree to work together when he hires her to throw a big toy company holiday party. She sees this as her chance to impress her sister with her skills, and he sees this as a chance to show dad that he can stand alone. Meanwhile, Sustad hits it off with Jason McKinnon, Macfarlane's cousin. In the end, the party goes off perfectly, Dad decides his son is OK on his own, and the couples couple up. Fairly bland overall. Krakow has a nice loosey-goosey approach to her role, unlike the predictable approaches of most Hallmark leads, but I sort of wished that Sustad, the more interesting actor, had Krakow's role. Macfarlane is handsome but seems to be (almost literally) gritting his teeth to get through the role–to be fair, his character is supposed to be uptight so maybe this was an acting choice but I found it distracting. The supporting cast is practically invisible and not given much to do. 2 Christmas trees out of 5. [Hallmark]

CHRISTMAS INHERITANCE (2017)
Eliza Taylor is about to inherit her father's business but she has a reputation in the tabloids as the "playgirl heiress" so her dad wants her to prove her mettle by carrying out the relatively simple task of heading to the small New England town of Snow Falls a few days before Christmas to deliver some letters to her dad's former business partner Zeke. But as in a fairytale, there are requirements: she can't take her credit cards, she can only have $100 in cash, she has to go by bus, and she can’t tell anyone who she is. Her high-powered fiancé is not happy as he wants her on his arm at a big Christmas Eve party, but she assures him she'll be back in plenty of time. In town, she meets the handsome Jake Lacy (pictured at left), taxi driver and manager of the inn she is booked into for the night. Of course, there is friction between them at first, but as she sees what an all-around nice guy he is, and he sees a more humble side of her, they soften toward each other. Will Eliza fulfill her duty? Will she and Jake be more than friends? This one has a few strikes against it. The delivery of the Christmas letters is a strange plot device that is never fully explored. The fiancé is no more than the usual stock bad-guy boyfriend with zero personality. Snowstorms (with barely a covering of snow on the streets) and spotty cell phone reception play roles in the intrigue. Andie McDowell is a local who becomes a friend and confidante to Eliza, but she remains just a convenient plot device. The saving grace here is the chemistry of the lead actors. Australian actor Eliza Taylor does a nice job as Ellen--her playgirl behavior is absolutely vanilla--and Jake Lacy (the rich and hateful husband in HBO's The White Lotus) is frat-boy handsome and generally charming. The plot's one interesting quirk is his negative reaction to hearing "Silent Night" because a former girlfriend broke up with him years ago with that song playing in the background. Overall, pleasant but a bit lame. 2.5 Christmas trees out of 5. [Netflix]

Saturday, December 25, 2021

BEYOND TOMORROW (1940)

As the song "Silver Bells" says (and a brief opening montage makes clear) it's Christmastime in the city and three wealthy older men, partners in an engineering firm who live together in a big house, are waiting for their invited guests for Christmas Eve dinner. The household consists of Harry Carey (cantankerous and cynical), C. Aubrey Smith (pleasant but still haunted by the death of his young son in the war) and Charles Winninger (always jolly and optimistic), and their maid (Maria Ouspenskaya), a former Russian countess. When their guests have to cancel, they become gloomy until Winninger suggests a way to share their dinner: they each toss a wallet with $10 and a business card out on the sidewalk and wait to see if any honest people turn up to return the money. Despite Carey's insistence that no one will show up, two people do: Richard Carlson, a Texas rodeo rider stranded in New York City and Jean Parker, a young woman who works as a children's health clinic. They all hit off that evening and soon the three men are spending time socializing with Carlson and Parker, as the two become romantically involved. Sadly, a plane crash takes the lives of the three older men who, in their will, leave the house and some money to Carlson. When Carlson is interviewed on the radio, he gets a shot at singing on the air and becomes a success, but his relationship with Parker is strained when radio star Helen Vinson puts the moves on him. However, the three dead men return to earth as ghosts (only Ouspenskaya can sense their presence) and take it upon themselves to try and bring Carlson and Parker back together before they get called back to the hereafter.

The first half-hour or so of this movie is set on Christmas Eve and has a strong holiday atmosphere, but by the time the fantasy element sets in, Christmas has been long forgotten. But television's appetite for movies that can be run every year, and even better, movies which have fallen into the public domain and can be run free of charge, has turned this into a minor Christmas "classic." (A colorized version has been released under the title Beyond Christmas.) The prints I have seen of this are dark and murky, and give it a film noir look. It's got a B-movie feel to it that is accentuated by the split in the acting. Winninger, Smith and Ouspenskaya are very good; Carlson are Vinson are OK; Carey and Parker are a little weak. The ghost "rules" are not well explained. The three seem to have been sent back to Earth in a kind of purgatory state, perhaps specifically to help Carlson and Parker, though that is never made plain. They are called back to the afterworld one by one: Carey by thunder and lightning, perhaps being sent to Hell; Smith by his dead soldier son; Winninger chooses to stay to finish up his matchmaking, though he is told by a booming supernatural voice that if he stays, he will "linger in the shadows of earth for all time." Despite this, Winninger and Carey are reunited and taken to Heaven in the end. A better screenplay would have helped. This is interesting and watchable, but whether it deserves the label "classic," I'm not sure. Pictured: Winninger, Smith and Carey as ghosts with Ouspenskaya in the middle. [DVD]

Thursday, December 23, 2021

A DICKENS OF A HOLIDAY! (2021)

The small town of Dickens, Ohio is about to stage their 100th anniversary production of A Christmas Carol, but the older actor who usually plays Scrooge has a problem with vocal nodules and can't speak for an entire month. Brooke D'Orsay, who is directing the show, is encouraged by the mayor to contact Hollywood actor Kristoffer Polaha, the star of an action movie franchise; his catchphrase is "Do the right thing–or it's the last thing you'll do!" Polaha grew up in Dickens, still has a brother there from whom he is estranged, and more importantly, he and D'Orsay had a brief attachment in high school. Desperate to get hired for a serious dramatic role (in a movie based on his late mother's favorite book), Polaha turns her down, but when he discovers that he's not up for the role, he decides to head to Dickens and take the role of Scrooge. While he's at it, he manages to patch things up with his brother, become a doting uncle to his young nephew (who's playing Tiny Tim in the play), and get close to D'Orsay. Suddenly a complication rears its ugly head: he might be up for the film role after all, but he has to attend a Christmas Eve party at the director's house back in Hollywood and will have to skip out on the show. In addition to jeopardizing the play, and his relationship with D'Orsay, will this also jeopardize Polaha's personal growth? 

This one is a delight, due largely to the performance of the charming Polaha. There's a fun scene in the beginning showing Polaha filming an action scene against a green screen that portends more unpredictable fun scenes. Unfortunately, this is not to be–except for Polaha's entrance in the small town theater as he booms out "Bah, humbug!," there are few other deviations from the Hallmark norm. Still, the lightness of touch that Polaha has and the committed performance of D'Orsay combine to set this at the top of the recent Hallmark film stack. The problematic relationship with the brother (Chad Willett) is fleshed out just enough to make us care about its outcome. Nerdy-cute Nathan Lynn is good as Polaha's personal assistant who genuinely wants good things for his boss, and their relationship is also delved into a bit. It's fun to see Polaha overact in his first rehearsal scenes, and fun to see D'Orsay try to steer him in a different direction. This is one of the few Hallmark films I would feel comfortable recommending to friends who aren't Hallmark fans. [Hallmark]