Friday, December 29, 2017


The week before Christmas, wealthy businessman James Pidgeon finds out he is no longer wealthy; due in part to his family's spendthrift ways, he is headed toward bankruptcy though he has told no one yet. He is pinning his hopes on his rich dying uncle, but James' obnoxious son Reggie returns from the uncle's deathwatch with bad news: the uncle has died but left all his money (five million dollars) to a child actress named Florrie Watson whom he knew in his youth. The catch: no one knows where this woman is, or even if she's still alive. According to the will, if she is not found in "a reasonable time," the money will go to James. In exchange for a sizeable kickback, the attorney agrees to define "reasonable time" as one week. Meanwhile, at home, James' wife Clara has taken in a charity case for Christmas week in order to impress the visiting fiancĂ© of her daughter Therese. The man is Anthony Marchand, a once-famous actor fallen on hard times—he has a limp and a drinking problem. He has few possessions but clings to his actorly dignity, and soon he has ingratiated himself with the Pidgeon family. When he finds out about Florrie, he even agrees to lend a hand to James' plan: find Florrie, pose as long-lost relatives, and take her in for Christmas so she won’t be found during the week and the uncle's money will revert to James. Florrie, herself experiencing hard times, is found and is grateful for the family's attentions, but when a newspaper story breaks about the search, the family decamps to an old country house for the duration. Unfortunately, a pair of detectives is on their trail. Can a happy ending be in store for all three factions—Florrie, Marchand, and the family?

TCM showed this on Christmas Eve, too late for me to watch and write up on this blog by the 25th. This unsung Christmas movie from Republic Pictures, known mostly for westerns and action B-films, is unusual and worth seeing, even though it will never replace holiday favorites like It's a Wonderful Life or The Bishop's Wife. The main roles are well taken care of. Eugene Pallette and Billie Burke as the Pidgeons are fine, and Joseph Schildkruat (the villainous adulterer in THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER) is excellent as Marchand. Ona Munson (Belle Watling in GONE WITH THE WIND) is good as Florrie, as is Raymond Walburn as Willie, Burke's freeloading brother. But the younger people are a mixed bag. Ruth Terry is fine as Therese, but David Holt (Reggie) is uncharismatic, as is Ann Gillis as Angela, the snarky younger daughter. (Gillis later played Gary Lockwood’s mother in a brief scene in 2001.) Worst of all is Robert Livingston, a player in many Republic B-westerns, as Therese's soldier boyfriend—between his lazy acting and his underwritten character, he practically fades into oblivion before our eyes in every scene he's in.

One reason why this film has not remained a Christmas staple, even though the holiday remains front and center in the narrative, is that there is nothing magical about it—no angels, no ghosts, no Santa Clauses, no Scrooges. Marchand promises to be a mysterious character, but though he is slightly eccentric, he winds up being altogether earthbound and the focus slips away from him in the last half, though Schlidkraut (pictured above right) has a nice moment near the end when he lectures the family on their duty to Florrie by briefly enacting the story of Marley's ghost from A Christmas Carol. (There is also a lovely, snowy caroling sequence late in the film.) In fact, the movie feels more like a retread of a screwball comedy like MY MAN GODFREY—which featured Pallette in the patriarch role—than like a cozy holiday story. Though definitely not taken at a screwball pace, the movie remains light, and a couple of amusing lines stood out to me. Therese describes Marchand as wearing "poverty with all the charm of an Inverness cape." And Florrie, happy for a comfortable place to sleep, says "On a bed like that, not even a guilty conscience could keep me awake," to which Clara replies (in Billie Burke's tweeting voice), "What an amusing way of phrasing it!" The sets, of the family mansion and of the country house, add a lot of atmosphere. Memorable in a pleasant way; mostly recommended for those looking for something a little different for the holidays. (Pictured at left are Walburn, Burke, and Pallette.) [TCM]

Tuesday, December 26, 2017


Brass Bancroft of the Secret Service (Ronald Reagan) is sent on the trail of some "queer stuff": counterfeit American money coming over the border from Mexico, made with stolen engraving plates. Brass and his comic relief buddy Gabby (Eddie Foy Jr.) meet up with Crockett, another agent who fears he is being followed by the bad guys. To allay suspicions about Bancroft, he and Crockett stage a fistfight at the Silver Slipper, a saloon which is a front for the counterfeiters. Unfortunately during the fight, the lights go out and Crockett is shot to death. Bancroft, realizing he's a suspect, takes off on a train for Santa Margarita, but two members of the crime ring are also on the train and they tip off the cops about Bancroft's presence. He jumps off the train and is picked up on the road by a kindly mission priest—who is actually Parker, the head of the ring. Bancroft escapes again but is shot; the bad guys think he's dead, but the bullet hits his Spanish/English dictionary (!) and he just plays dead. Eventually Gabby shows up, and, in a move out of THE 39 STEPS, Brass forces Elaine, an innocent bystander, to help him wrap the case up. The second of four Bancroft B-movies that Reagan made (all released between March 1939 and June 1940), this has a bad reputation largely because Reagan himself is on record has calling it the worst film he made. But in my eyes, Warners' B-movie unit rarely made a truly bad film, and while this one may not rank with the very best, it's good enough not to be a waste of time. Like the first in the series, it's short and fast paced, like a serial with all the tedious stuff cut out. Also as in the first film, the romance element here is minimal—the heroine (Rosella Towne) doesn't even enter the picture until about 45 minutes into the 58 minute movie. Released as part of a Warner Archive DVD set of all four Brass Bancroft films, and well worth purchasing for B-movie fans. [DVD]

Saturday, December 23, 2017


Miss Jeffers, head of window dressing at McGuire's, a large Manhattan department store, is retiring, and the natty but tightly-wound Mr. Finch will choose between two employees to take over her position. One is Sloan Van Doren, a young ambitious woman seemingly from an upper-crust background who is dating a rich jerk; the other is Jake Dooley, a handsome, single, laid-back guy who seems to take nothing seriously. The two meet on occasion in the mornings when they both have friendly interactions with Mac, the lowly but upbeat window-washer. They also both chat regularly with Rita, the women's restroom attendant who treats both to them almost like her own children. As December begins, Finch pits the two against each other: each week until Christmas Eve, both will come up with holiday window displays, and whoever's work generates the most sales will get the job. For the first display, Sloan stays up all night creating an elaborate design, while Jake waits until morning and dashes an idea off on a napkin. To Sloan's dismay, Finch likes Jake's idea better, and the rivalry ramps up a bit. (And if you don’t want [SPOILERS], stop reading here and just know that, as in all Hallmark movies, love and Christmas conquer all.)

But soon we learn more about these two. Sloan actually comes from a working-class family (she made up her last name to sound tonier) and Rita the washroom lady is her mother—though Sloan has told no one, not even her boyfriend. Jake is temporarily homeless and sleeps in a bedroom display at McGuire's and only Mac knows. Of course, romantic sparks begin to fly between the two, tempered by the fact that they are both pursuing the same job. It's a Hallmark Christmas movie so we know they'll wind up together, and the job thing will work itself out. But this feels a little smarter than the average TV rom-com. The dialogue is a little sharper and snarkier than usual; my favorite line is Finch to Sloan: "Is there no end to your gratuitous pleasantries?" The characters are nicely developed; most of their secrets are revealed by the halfway point, but the reveals themselves are fun. In the opening shot, we see Jake enjoying a wake-up moment on what we assume is his midtown balcony, but we discover later that he was actually standing on a department store balcony near where he sleeps. We see Rita interact with Sloan a couple of times before we realize they are mother and daughter.

But what really sets this above the norm is the acting. Chyler Leigh (a regular on Supergirl) comes off as a little more vulnerable and sensitive than most Hallmark heroines—she's always likeable even when she's being snarky. Paul Campbell (from the Knight Rider reboot) is cute, and as whimsical as Hallmark heroes are allowed to get, lest they come off a little too fey. Naomi Judd is fine as Mama Rita, and Matty Finochio—whom I've never seen before—is particularly fun as the fussy, pompous Finch. There’s a running gag involving "terdunkin," or turkey deep fried in Dunkin' Donuts batter. I admit to a soft spot when it comes to movies set in department stores (the Marx Brothers' THE BIG STORE, the 80s Christmas movie EBBIE), and as a kid, I fantasized about being trapped in a department store overnight and having to sleep in one of the furniture display rooms, so the movie may have charmed me more than it will the average viewer, but it’s definitely worth a shot for Hallmark fans. (Pictured at top left are Campbell, Finochio and Leigh) [Hallmark]

Friday, December 22, 2017


Walter Brennan is the ailing patriarch of his family, essentially on his deathbed, and he has called home his four daughters for Christmas: sweet young college student Sally Field, promiscuous playgirl Jill Haworth, alcoholic mess Jessica Walter, and oldest sister (and seemingly the most together of the four) Eleanor Parker. None of the women have remained close to their father because they blame him for the suicide of their mother years ago. But now Brennan has remarried (to Julie Harris, whose first husband died under suspicious circumstances), and he tells his daughters that she's slowly poisoning him—he wants them to kill her before she succeeds. Even though there's a (young and handsome) local doctor (John Fink) in town that the sisters are friendly with, Brennan won't allow him in. The daughters aren't sure whether or not to believe Brennan, though Harris does come off as a bit aloof and perhaps sinister. However, she breaks her composure when Haworth openly accuses Harris offing her husband; her reply: "The next time I'm accused of murder, I won't be the one to wake up screaming!" Old family tensions add to the oppressive atmosphere: one sister attempts suicide, and another decides to leave during a storm. But before anyone can get away, a figure wearing a yellow rain slicker starts murdering people with a pitchfork.

This is a good example of a genre that doesn't really exist anymore: the network TV-horror movie. More to the point, it has morphed into the Lifetime "women’s thriller," which isn’t quite the same thing. This is not gory, nor is it particularly holiday-themed—there’s a Christmas tree in the house, and that’s about it; even the weather is rainy rather than snowy. But it is atmospheric, and the acting is excellent all around, even if the visual style tends toward the close-ups you find in soap operas. Harris is underused and Haworth is just OK, but Field, Parker and Walter go full-tilt, stopping just before they go over the top. This was one of Walter Brennan's last roles before his death two years later, and he's good—albeit in a relatively small role—playing against type (either a friendly grandpa or a hayseed Western sidekick). Sadly, this only seems to be available in a murky print on YouTube, but it’s still worth watching. Pictured from left: Field, Haworth, Parker, Walter. [YouTube]

Thursday, December 21, 2017


Janet Leigh is a secret comparison shopper for a department store. She's also a war widow and single mom who is dating Wendell Corey, a nice if unexciting lawyer who is angling to win Leigh as his wife. One day, as she's buying a toy train at a rival store—which she plans on returning the next day—the toy department clerk (Robert Mitchum) becomes suspicious but the two seem to have a spark and he sells it to her anyway. That night, Corey proposes to Leigh; she’s on the fence about him, but her son (Gordon Gebert) is against it. Leigh returns the train the next day, and when Mitchum gets fired for not acting on his instinct the day before, he joins her in her shopping. That night, he tracks her down at her apartment where Corey is present and the two men begin subtly jockeying for the affections of Leigh and her son. Corey is stable but boring; Mitchum is a drifting dreamer (he wants to be a boatbuilder) and a bit whimsical in a masculine way, but seems to bring a needed jolt to Leigh's staid life. Guess who ultimately wins her heart?

This feels like the template for some of today's Christmas TV-movies. It's a romantic comedy featuring a career woman (though not as high-powered as today's heroines) torn between two men—the holiday aspect is basically secondary here, as in some Hallmark films. One big difference: nowadays, the old boyfriend is usually a creep or an asshole, but here, Corey is just boring (like Bill Pullman was in Sleepless in Seattle). My personal reaction to Mitchum (pictured with Leigh) may have colored my reaction to the romantic triangle; Mitchum's gruff sexiness didn't overcome his somewhat unsavory aura, so I was basically rooting for Leigh to dump both men and hold out for a sexy but stable dreamer (like today's Hallmark heroes). There's a nice screwball feel to a sequence in which Mitchum winds up in police custody and Corey gets him out, but though light in tone throughout, the movie often looks drab and dark. Henry O'Neill and Harry Morgan have small roles. As a Christmas movie, this is a bit lacking in holiday magic; as a post-war romantic comedy, the personalities of Mitchum and Corey throw it off a bit, so enjoy it as a nice early showcase for Janet Leigh. [TCM]

Wednesday, December 20, 2017


Mitch (Robin Dunne) is a DJ at a college radio station in Harrison; Maggie (Brooke Nevin) is his assistant (or so it seems, since, like many plotpoints in this movie, their working relationship is never made clear). It's Christmas Eve and Maggie needs a ride home, so Mitch, who loves Christmas thanks to his Christmas-loving mom, offers to take her. When they wind up stuck on the highway, he takes a detour into a small town and promises to give her the best Christmas ever. They make a snowman and do snow angels and such, and he even manages to get her home in time for Christmas Eve festivities. They part a bit awkwardly, not quite acknowledging an attraction, and he heads home to Mom. But he never returns to school in January.

Flash forward ten years: Maggie is a reporter in Harrison and one day in December she flips on the radio and hears the new morning DJ, none other than Mitch. She runs into him at a coffee shop and discovers that he's become a Christmas Grinch, but she doesn't know why. To cheer him up, she starts sending him a homemade gift a day, each one reminiscent of something they did in the past, and signs them from "Your Secret Santa." Mitch is irritated by the gifts but his boss decides they'd make a great publicity gimmick and contacts the local paper. Guess who's assigned to write a series of human interest stories about Mitch and his Secret Santa? Maggie, of course, who can't turn the assignment down because her paper is about to be bought by a big syndicate, and she needs to prove her worth to keep her job. Slowly Mitch's cold-heartedness starts to melt, but when he finds out her secret, he thinks she's done it solely to get a story and that puts an end to their budding relationship and to Mitch's newly-kindled feelings for Christmas—or does it?

This Hallmark Christmas movie doesn't quite have all the Hallmark genre criteria of the big city holiday movie, but it's got its own conventions that you can tick off: romance between clean-cut, nice looking leads—but not distractingly beautiful or sexy; a small town location; jazzy covers of secular Christmas songs used in the background; snow; disrupted plans—sometimes due to the snow; a last-minute bump in the road to happiness; a happy ending. The writing is a little sloppy in terms of plot and character development. For example, Mitch can't figure out who is sending the gifts even though the only person he knows in town is Maggie—plotwise, this is probably to allow a rival for Mitch's affections (a publicity-hungry yoga instructor) to stake a claim, but it's still handled awkwardly. And how does it take the entire length of the movie for Maggie to figure out what made Mitch a Grinch? I figured it out (and you will too) about ten seconds after he makes his first anti-Christmas remarks on the radio. I was only rooting for the two to get together because the genre demands it—their relationship is never presented in a realistic or compelling fashion. Nevin and Dunne are adequate leads, though the supporting cast virtually disappears into the background except for Geri Hall as Mitch's manager who deserved a bigger role. Still, I can’t bring myself to say that I disliked this movie; how can you dislike a cute puppy because it's not playful enough? It’s still a cute puppy. [Hallmark]

Tuesday, December 19, 2017


Corrine is a musician who works in a musical instrument store; her boss Dave is an old friend of hers, and we catch on quickly that he's sweet on her but would never show it because she clearly has never seen him as boyfriend material. However, Christmas is coming up and she is fresh off a break-up with Tim, who keeps calling her hoping for a second chance. We also know a bit about Corrine's background: her grandfather Henry, overseas during WWII, sent her grandmother songs instead of traditional letters. The last one she got was on a Christmas Eve before he was reported killed, and when she died, she gave the song to Corrine as a keepsake, which she treasures. Her favorite tree ornament, also from her grandmother, is of a group of carolers, and one night, when a group of carolers comes to her door, she notices that the front-and-center singer, Harold, is wearing the same snowflake scarf that one of the ornament carolers is wearing. Wouldn't you know that, a couple days later, Harold winds up as a seasonal worker at the music store. This is when the movie takes a fantasy twist: Harold is actually an angel who has been assigned to get Corrine and Dave together. If he succeeds, he'll win his wings. We know there is some interesting backstory to Harold (we get some details when he converses with Jerry, an angel who has would up as a hot dog vendor on the streets of Manhattan), and you'll see the reveal near the end coming a mile away. At any rate, Harold has his hands full since Dave is a little gunshy because of his own failed romances, and just as it looks like Corrine is starting to see Dave in a romantic light, that rat bastard Tim comes back in the picture. Can Harold get everything set straight before midnight on Christmas Eve?

I give this Hallmark holiday movie a few extra points for its somewhat original plot. Yes, it's stolen from It's a Wonderful Life but it does have a couple of nice variations, and, in its plotpoint involving an old song written by a dead loved one, even borrows a bit from the climax of The Bishop's Wife. The mostly Canadian cast, none of whom I remember seeing before, is fine: Jessalyn Gilsig is a notch more believable and sincere than most Hallmark heroines; Graham Abbey grew on me as the blandly handsome nice guy with a hidden sensitive side—he loves literature and writes poetry (which becomes a plotpoint near the end); Sergio Di Zio (pictured at left, to the right of Abbey) is the angel; he gives what feels like a mildly eccentric performance in the beginning—he seems like a 1950s guy from Brooklyn who might be gay—but I got used to him fairly quickly. One weakness: it's set in New York City but it never feels real for a second, not even in the outdoor street scenes, shot in actual cold weather (actors' breaths can be seen), probably in Canada.

Now I need to discuss the SPOILER that you'll see way ahead of time: Harold the angel is actually Henry the grandfather, assigned to help the granddaughter he never knew. It's a cute twist, but one that has loopholes that are bothersome. One of the cosmic angelic rules, we hear from Jerry, is that Harold cannot tell Corrine who he really is, but he gives her an awful lot of clues, and of course she figures it out eventually. But far worse is this wrinkle which is never explained: Harold/Henry is a somewhat bitter angel who has never gotten over the loss of his own true love. But if Henry died in the 1940s and his wife died some years later (we don’t know when but it was when Corrine was a young girl), why weren't they reunited in the afterlife? Nothing is made of this until the final moments of the movie when, as Henry wins his wings, he also finally gets to see his wife, looking like she did as a young woman. So does God make you jump through some angelic hoops before he lets you see your loved ones in Heaven? That must be a theological tenet I've never heard of before. Still, this movie mostly worked—I even got a smidge teary at the end. And as Hallmark's Christmas movies have gotten more and more bland and predictable in the last couple of years, this stands out head and shoulders among the more recent films. [Hallmark]

Monday, December 18, 2017


Meg (Alicia Witt) is a writer and director of Christmas TV movies who is in the middle of a meltdown while filming a scene with Santa and some kids. Her assistant Penny and her handsome blond—but somewhat distant—boyfriend Eric try to placate her, but nothing helps. One of the elf extras (Christina Milian) starts chatting with her, but Meg has had it with Christmas. She picks up a snow globe, one with a perfect winter town scene in it, and tries to smash it on the floor. Instead, it bounces up and hits her in the head, knocking her out. When she wakes up, she is in that snow globe town, and she has a husband named Ted (Donald Faison), two kids, and a gorgeous home nestled at the edge of a beautiful forest. She remembers Ted as an old college boyfriend, but otherwise knows nothing about her life in this town. People from her previous life crop up—her secretary, her TV-movie Santa, and even Eric who is the mayor (married, with no interest in Meg). So does the elf, who seems to be the catalyst behind her surreal experience. Ted and the townsfolk think Meg has temporary amnesia and treat her with kid gloves for a while, but when she inadvertently gives the cold-hearted mayor an idea to develop the woodlands, leading to eviction notices for everyone on Christmas Eve, she seems to have used up any goodwill the townsfolk had for her. Can she save the town? And, more importantly, can she get her old life back—and does she even want to?

There’s not a lot of love for this movie out on the Internet, and while it certainly has its faults—the biggest ones being weak writing and big plot loopholes, problems endemic to the Christmas TV-movie—I found it to be rather refreshing. One reason is the twist to the "Wonderful Life" plotline; here, the protagonist is shown a different life course that, rather than being dark and depressing and making her want to go back to real life, is cozy and cheerful and eventually makes her long to stay in her dream world. This film originally aired on Lifetime, not Hallmark, and I think I know why: there are a lot of people of color in this movie, and the central romantic relationship is interracial. I'm not saying Hallmark is racist, but a hallmark, if you will, of their holiday films is the predictably vanilla cast, usually with one minority woman (African-American or Asian typically) playing the white heroine's best friend and/or assistant. So the very casting of Witt and Faison here is a point of interest. Those Internet critics don’t think Faison works up much heat with Witt, but again, this is an element of holiday TV-movies; usually, the main couple doesn't even get to kiss until the fade-out, let alone spend the night together. Here, in the snow globe world, Witt and Faison already have two kids. Their chemistry, as in most of these movies, is more a cozy, comfortable one rather than one full of exciting sparks, and the two actors are fine as two confused people, with Faison not knowing why his wife has changed so dramatically, and Witt not sure if Faison really is the one for her, with their relationship slowly growing over time. The conclusion, if far-fetched, is sweet and satisfying. Trevor Donovan, the blond boyfriend, made a strong impression in the TV series Sun Records playing country singer Eddy Arnold. The snow globe town setting is nicely detailed, though the whole thing felt more wintry than Christmassy. Despite its flaws, an enjoyable example of the genre that I would watch again. [Streaming]

Friday, December 15, 2017


In 1921, Daniel Forsythe comes out of the dark and snowy woods, heading for his family's mansion on Christmas Eve. He witnesses an altercation between and a man and woman on the front porch, and just as he prepares to get involved, he is hit over the head with a blunt object and dies, blood spattering the snow. In 2016, the mansion, which now operates as Hollygrove Inn, is being sold and Kate, an attorney on the verge of getting a promotion, is sent there to wrap up the loose ends. But we first meet her at dinner as Laird, her current boyfriend, breaks up with her. She's actually alright with that, but she's not happy to hear, again, that she can't seem to make room in her life for love. At Hollygrove, she's surprised to hear from the current manager, Mr. Murray, that the inn closes for two weeks in the middle of December. It turns out that everyone believes that Daniel's restless ghost haunts the house for the twelve days before Christmas. Against Murray's advice, Kate spends the night at the inn and, yes, meets the ghost. He's handsome but brusque, picking her up and tossing her out of the house the next morning, but soon she and Daniel and Mr. Murray form a loose alliance as Kate vows to help him figure out who killed him, perhaps bringing an end to his unrest. Of course, as will happen, the human and the ghost fall in love. Eventually, other spectral beings intrude, including the woman Daniel was in love with all those years ago. Can Kate solve the mystery before midnight on Christmas Eve? And can she figure out how to have a relationship with a ghost who is only present for twelve days a year?

For a while, this movie seemed to have the potential to be a little something different from the run-of-the-mill Christmas TV movie. It feels more like an indie film that a Lifetime TV-movie and winds up with a split personality, bouncing back and forth between the interesting Gothic-flavored ghost story/murder mystery and the fluffier Christmas romance story so familiar from cable. The mystery is resolved (as is the romance) but the tonal problems remain throughout; another problem are some unorthodox "rules" of the spirit world. Frankly, the Gothic side of the story is far more interesting, and though the potential for a Brigadoon-like relationship between Kate and Daniel is teased for a while, even that gets sacrificed for the demands of the romance movie genre. Thomas Beaudoin, though appealing, seems too modern for a 95-year-old ghost, and Jen Lilley is about average for a TV-movie lead. In small roles, I enjoyed Alexander Gauthier as Laird and Brett Leigh as Daniel’s cousin in the past. [Amazon streaming]

Thursday, December 14, 2017


As I seem to have mostly exhausted classic era holiday movies for review, I'm going to focus on some made-for-TV films this year, mostly from the Hallmark Channel which has become a Christmas movie machine, pumping out 20 new TV-movies this year alone, to add to their preexisting library of some 20 years worth of such films. In this one, Holly (Brooke D'Orsay) works in Chicago for the Radcliffe Center, finding and overseeing the decoration of a gigantic Christmas tree for the annual lighting of the Radcliffe Tree. (Radcliffe, we're told, was once a small community near Chicago, but the tree appears to be set up downtown on Lake Shore Drive. This is the kind of plot detail that Hallmark viewers learn not to notice.) She loves her job because she loves Christmas—and because the lighting ceremony is telecast nationally, and since she solicits suggestions for the next year's tree, she's somewhat famous as Miss Christmas. This year, just before the tree is due to be delivered, it's discovered that it's been irreparably damaged, so Holly has a week to find a new tree. As she desperately looks through viewer suggestions, she finds a letter and photo from a young boy who lives in Klaus, Wisconsin. The tree is huge and beautiful so Holly sets out to claim it. Most of the McNary family is willing to give the tree up, but Sam (Marc Blucas), a hunky, salt-of-the-earth single dad, is dead set against it—his mother died recently and the tree is full of family memories for him. Holly stays in town for a few days, hoping she can change his mind; he's willing to listen but he remains recalcitrant—even as the romantic sparks develop between the two.

This fits so straight-up snugly into the Hallmark Christmas mold, it could serve as the platonic template for the made-for-TV holiday romance: successful woman in the big-city business world, too busy for a relationship (or recovering from a break-up), meets a handsome down-to-earth guy who works with his hands (or has his own small business) and lives in, or has a connection to, a rural area or small town. They meet cute, and the closer they get to Christmas, the more the romantic interest builds. Then, just as one of them is about to give in to their wholesome attraction, an obstacle appears—an ex-partner, a cranky child, a misunderstood situation, or some act of God. But it all gets cleared up in the end, usually accompanied by lit-up Christmas decorations or gently falling snow. Hallmark doesn't let their filmmakers stray very far from these guidelines. The couple is always white and shiny—she's usually blond, he never is—and the businesswoman always has a friendly assistant, usually the only person of color in the film. The amount of humor varies, but rarely is it ever snarky or biting. I may sound critical, but I know that one of the chief pleasures of any genre (mystery, fantasy, heavy metal) is its predictability. Of course, another pleasure is seeing how far the work differs from the norm, and that's a pleasure that is rare with Hallmark movies.

The pleasure in this one is the performances. Brooke D'Orsay and Marc Blucas may never win Oscars or Emmys, but they can deliver the rote dialogue and the canned emotions with seeming sincerity. Blucas in particular is very good: Sam is unthreateningly masculine but almost always has a smile on (or playing about) his face, even when he's frustrated with Holly's love of all things Christmas. Blucas (Riley Finn on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, though I remember him in a small role in John Sayles' Sunshine State) is a real charmer who could become a Hallmark regular. It's a little strange to compliment this one on its Christmas atmosphere, since these ARE Christmas movies, but some of them use the holiday background as romance filler, not as an essential ingredient. This drips with Christmas atmosphere; the small town of Klaus is known as a Christmas tourist destination so every scene is packed with colored lights, trees, toys, and snow. One of the more enjoyable entries in the Christmas romance category. [Hallmark]

Friday, December 08, 2017


Beloved radio star Herb Fuller has just died in a car accident and Amalgamated Broadcasting System is planning a memorial broadcast. Joe Harris (Jose Ferrer), a drama critic for the network, is asked by Sid Moore, Fuller's former manager, to put together and host the tribute, implying that this might get the network to anoint Harris as their new star, though Carleton, the network boss, is making no promises. A theater that is about to be torn down is rented out for Fuller's memorial and Harris attends, tape recorder in hand, to get the varied reactions of mourners, from people who hung on his every broadcast word to people who barely knew who he was but knew he was a celebrity. But as Harris seeks out comments from people who actually knew him—including an ex-mistress, a press agent, and his first boss—he discovers that Fuller was not well liked. An even more disturbing story crops up when a drunken Moore reveals that Fuller faked some of his respected wartime broadcasts. Harris has to decide whether to present a whitewashed version of Fuller's life for the broadcast, or tell the unvarnished truth, a decision made more difficult when he discovers he's being used as a pawn in a power play between Moore and the network.

Many viewers notice this film's initial narrative and thematic resemblances to CITIZEN KANE (a posthumous investigation behind a great man to reveal a very flawed man) but this movie, though interesting, declines to use visual style in any compelling way and comes off more like a filmed TV play than a richly imagined movie. Ferrer, who also directed, remains a bland, mostly passive observer with little personality—though he does have a breakthrough moment at the end—but the main reason to watch this film is for a handful of non-showy but excellent performances. Julie London (pictured), as the former lover, a singer who was helped then thrown away by Fuller, is subtly heartbreaking; Ed Wynn, known best as a vaudeville comic—and known by me mostly as the floating Uncle Albert in MARY POPPINS—also has a surprisingly subtle turn as the small town radio station owner who was one of the first people that Fuller stepped on; Dean Jagger plays the network boss, whose motives in his game-playing are a bit murky—his scene near the end in which he explains the lay of the land to Ferrer is reminiscent of the darker speech that Ned Beatty gives to Peter Finch in NETWORK. Some critics also like Keenan Wynn (Ed's son) as Sid Moore, but I found him grating and obvious, especially as he is surrounded by quieter, more effective performers. An interesting movie than I wish was a little more powerful. [TCM]

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

WATUSI (1959)

H. Rider Haggard's character Allen Quatermain is an adventurer who appeared in several stories and novels beginning in the 1880s. He was surely an inspiration for Indiana Jones, and some may know him today as a character in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. But his most famous exploit was probably as a hunter of hidden African treasure in King Solomon's Mines which has been adapted to the screen a few times, most notably in 1950. The main character in this film is Harry, Quatermain's son (George Montgomery), who comes back to Africa in 1919 to find the fabled gems of King Solomon's mines. He seeks out his father's guide Rick (David Farrar) to help him. Rick has sunk into a life of lazy monotony but quickly regains the taste for adventure. When Rick cautions Harry about the dangers ahead, Harry shows him a medallion with a green gem that was given to his father by a Watusi chief which he assumes will ease his way across the land of the Watusis. Along the way, they rescue Erica (Tania Elg), the daughter of a missionary, from a native attack and she joins their trek, though when it comes out that she is German, Harry gives her the cold shoulder; he hates Germans because his wife and child were killed in a U-boat attack during the war. The group endures mosquitoes and an animal stampede, but it isn't until Harry gets deathly sick with fever and Erica nurses him back to health that the two become chummy, though by that time Rick has also fallen for Erica. Eventually they reach the site of the legendary treasure, a mountain with a series of caves filled with molten lava. Will they find the gems, and if so, will they survive the mountain and the romantic triangle?

I've not yet seen a version of King Solomon's Mines, but apparently this MGM B-film (more a sequel than a remake) makes extensive use of footage from their 1950 version, and it's fairly obvious; whenever lots of animals appear or when the film gets a little dingy and damaged, that means 1950 footage. At times it's well integrated but also sometimes jarring. Otherwise, this is largely a Tarzan movie without a Tarzan. George Montgomery (pictured) fulfills his B-movie action hero requirements fairly well: he's handsome, he's occasionally shirtless, he shoots at bad guys, leaps across fiery chasms, and (eventually) romances the woman. Farrar and Elg are fine, and it's fun to see Dan Seymour, Rick's doorman in CASABLANCA, in a small role. If you like the 50s Tarzan films, this is for you. [TCM]

Friday, December 01, 2017


In the Bavarian village of Abendorf, we see handsome schoolteacher Karl enjoying a vigorous climb in the mountains—represented by matte paintings, true, but still lovely to look at. Later in his classroom, Karl frees a chirping bird from a boy's desk and it flies to the window of music professor Walter who is inspired to write a melody based on the bird's singing; he then asks Karl—who is in love with Walter's daughter Sieglinde—to write lyrics, and when they perform the song at the local festival, it's a hit. The town council then gives Walter money to travel to Munich (along with Karl and Sieglinde) to try and sell his song to his old buddy Ernst who now runs a music publishing company. They are welcomed with open arms by Ernst who agrees to put the song into an operetta he's producing, but our small-town trio winds up smack in the middle of a tussle between Frieda, the prima donna starring in the show, and Bruno, the librettist. To make Bruno jealous, Frieda sets her cap for the innocent Karl, and then Bruno goes after Sieglinde. Things get so bad, the future of the show—and Walter's song—is in doubt. Can true love prevail AND the show go on?

This little-seen gem is great fun, as good as the more famous Ernst Lubitsch musicals of the era (ONE HOUR WITH YOU, THE SMILING LIEUTENANT). It was directed by German exile Joe May in a fizzy, stylish manner, though this would be his high point in America as he went on to do a string of unsuccessful B-films. The star is Gloria Swanson who has a field day as the prima donna; John Boles as her jealous lover isn't quite in Swanson's league, but he doesn't hurt the movie. The handsome Douglass Montgomery (pictured) and the lovely June Lang are just right as the young lovers, and there is strong support from Al Shean as the music professor, Reginald Owen as his old friend, and Joseph Cawthorn as his business associate. (Marjorie Main is in the cast list, but I didn't notice her.) The songs, by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein are pleasant, though none went on to become standards as far as I know. Best scene: Swanson and Boles energetically acting out the first part of the unfinished operetta for the producers. My favorite moment: Montgomery helps a secretary reach a high shelf by literally grabbing her ass and hoisting her; when Swanson walks past and sees this, she says, admiringly, "Probably raised on goat's milk." [TCM]