It's that time of year again - the third annual Movietone News Christmas Movie post, and this time I thought that, rather than highlight just one or a few titles, I'd give my complete rundown of my favourite Christmas classics.
Gathered below are the essential ingredients for a magical cinematic Christmas. I would suggest that first you stop off for a glass of something warming at Harmonie House, before making your way through the snow to Robby's, where the finest seasonal fare is available all year round, and then settle down by a roaring fire to join me in any of the following.
I should stop here and point out that, for me, the season of goodwill is synonymous first and foremost with the Marx Brothers and Hammer Horror films, purely because of the joyous accident of my first encountering both at Christmastime. So if like me you are fortunate enough that your first glimpse of Santa instantly gets you thinking about Monkey Business or The Curse of Frankenstein, then do please join me here with the Brothers and here with Chris and Peter.
Now, in previous years I've chosen my favourite movie versions of Dickens's Christmas Carol: let me again draw your attention to R.W. Paul's version - a thing of true primitive beauty... (see here), and highlighted a true masterpiece of sleazy British horror tat (here).
Looking back over past posts, however, I find that I've never written anything about It's a Wonderful Life. Not that there's much left to be said, even so: everyone knows it, everyone knows what's great about it, everyone knows the story of how if was little-favoured at first but became cherished on tv because it fell into public domain.
All I can add is that it's worth noting just how much of it takes place before Clarence turns up: like all Capra films it is structured in his patented unequal-thirds: first long and lazy, second snappy and magnificent, third unduly hurried. That it is his style seems inarguable - it transcends mere screenwriting credit. Not sure if it's a good thing or not: sometimes it works very well, sometimes - Mr Smith for instance - I really do find myself feeling a little short-changed by the haste with which it pays off our initial investment and says goodnight. Nonetheless, Wonderful Life is an interesting watch indeed if you imagine you have no idea of just what kind of a turn it's going to take at the halfway mark. Are we genuinely engrossed in Bailey's story, or are we just looking for the things Clarence will exploit when he finally shows? My own feeling is that the first half does contain some truly beautiful moments: the dance floor opening into a swimming pool, the scenes by the old house, in particular. It is precisely because we do feel we are watching a perfectly charming and satisfying film in its own right in this section that the finale plays as magnificently as it does. Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!
No room for Wilder's cynicism here, not even Capra's hesitant social realism - but it's no great loss with this cast and these songs, such painterly Technicolor and Mary Wickes hanging about on the margins.
And then there's Portrait of Jennie. It's the essence of Hollywood at its most perfect: its every asset and its every excess; the most dazzling, absurd, delirious, intense and beautiful product ever of its golden age, when transcendence was achieved so simply they took it for cheap sentiment. None of this makes sense, and all of it distills emotion with the knowing mass-appeal of a Hallmark card. But was there ever a film more haunting, beautiful to look at, and moving, despite your every fibre screaming that it is sheer manipulative gibberish...?