Monday, May 23, 2016

Alfred Hitchcock Presents Christmas (1955)



Last March, I shared about the 1960 Christmas episode of The Twilight Zone and it reminded me of the first season episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. 1955's "Santa Claus and the 10th Avenue Kid" is a classic Christmas TV episode that also starts off from a place of cynicism and bitterness. However, just like "Night of the Meek" this episode too ends on a hope-filled note in the full bloom of the holiday spirit. Are you familiar with this Christmas episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents?



The series' theme tune is unforgettable. It is from "Funeral March of a Marionette" by French composer Charles Gounod.


In "Santa Claus and the 10th Avenue Kid," viewers meet career criminal Stretch Sears after his release from prison as he visits his parole officer. His parole officer Mr. Chambers introduces him to an employment counselor Miss Webster who works in the office. She is an optimistic person who believes she can help rehabilitate Mr. Sears. Miss Webster has gotten him a job at a local department store to help him acquire skills to invest in his future. She reminds the aging Sears that he'll end up returning to prison (maybe for the rest of his life) if he doesn't try harder to take advantage of the opportunities they offer him. But in voice-over narration we hear Sears' dark and pessimistic attitude about his chances of going straight.


Sears and Miss Webster talk about his future.

When Sears reports for work at the department store, he sees that he's been assigned duty as the store Santa Claus. Not exactly the role he would have chosen for himself, Stretch decides to pursue the path of least resistance and goes along with it.


Once a thief, always a thief.


Sure enough, on his first day of work, Sears is caught stuffing silver serving trays under his Santa Claus suit. (The implication is that he was stealing store merchandise). Sears talks his way out of the awkward theft situation and begins visiting with the children in line to talk to Santa Claus.


Actor Barry Fitzgerald plays the world weary Stretch Sears. The Irish character actor was in quite a few notable films--but you may recognize him as the elderly Father Fitzgibbon in Going My Way with Bing Crosby.


The store has instructed him to push certain toys in inventory that they need to sell this holiday season. He's also supposed to take notes on what each child asks for--and help the parents with the list of what to buy. The already bitter Sears is disappointed in the role of the modern Santa Claus.

The 10th Avenue Kid meets Santa.

Most of the children are typical kids filled with the innocent excitement of the holiday. Several of them are a bit frightened of the scruffy Sears and his version of Santa Claus. However, one child stands out. He's a wise guy--already certain that Santa won't bring him what he wants for Christmas. Sears asks him what he'd like and he replies that he'd like the expensive toy jet plane hanging on display overhead. But the kid admits he doesn't believe in Santa Claus anyway. This little one has Sears' attention.


This young man who doesn't believe in Santa is played by child actor Bobby Clark. (He was also on the short-lived series Casey Jones with Alan Hale.)



Miss Webster is played by character actor Virginia Gregg. She was also one of Jack Webb's regular troupe members on Dragnet.

To help keep him from temptation, Miss Webster collects Sears' paycheck and deposits it straight into the bank for him. She also picks him up after work each day to drive him to the men's shelter. She reminds him how much she believes in him and hopes he enjoys his work. Sears bristles under the restraint and control. The cynical man knows all this manipulating won't keep him from doing what comes naturally to him.


Not all the children are convinced that this Santa is on the up and up!
This episode's tone is light with comedic moments throughout. There's a real juxtaposition between Sears' inner dialogue and the spirit of Christmas.

Sears' bitter worldview is confirmed by the store's efficient approach to using Santa to sell its toy inventory.

Sears continues his job as the department store Santa Claus. The children step up to sit on his lap, he writes down what each one wants, and he hands the note to their parents. What a racket!


Sears sees a bit of himself in this street tough.

Eventually the wise guy returns to the toy department and Sears exchanges a few more words with him. Sears recognizes what the kid is up to--and asks him to unload the pockets from his oversized coat. Sure enough, the kid was stealing toys. Sears hears himself warning the kid about the future with the same words Miss Webster used to describe his own limited future. Sears asks him why he doesn't believe in Santa Claus but the kid remarks that people in his neighborhood don't get gifts at Christmas. The boy admits he dreams of becoming a pilot when he grows up but this feels too far fetched to believe in. The kid tells Santa that if he's really Santa, he'll bring him the expensive jet plane toy and leave it under his Christmas tree at home--and gives him his address on 10th avenue.


How will the kid turn out if he never believes in Santa Claus?

On Christmas Eve, his last day at work, Sears continues to think about the kid. Recognizing that he was the same type of disappointed child when he was young, Sears considers what he could have achieved differently in his life if he had believed in Santa Claus at that age. Would he have grown up to become a career criminal? On his way out of work, Sears removes the jet plane toy from the store display and secrets it into a sack. Sears breaks into the apartment on 10th avenue and stashes the expensive toy inside. When he leaves the building, he sees his parole officer and the police are waiting to arrest him.


Miss Webster believes in Santa Claus! Or, at least this one.

At the police station, Miss Webster vouches for Sears. She explains to the police that she had confiscated his paychecks and surely he wants to pay for the "borrowed" toy. He'll also return the stolen Santa suit. Miss Webster convinces the police that this Santa is worth believing in. It's a happy ending for both Sears and the kid who come to believe in Santa Claus and find redemption. It's a potentially dark story that ends with hope and optimism. Very Christmas-y, indeed.


Hitch is hoping to keep Santa from entering his home this year!

Don't worry--this episode isn't too sugary sweet. Alfred Hitchcock's appearances in the episode's opening and closing are still pretty dark.  As he introduces the story, we see him bricking up the chimney. He explains he's also loosened the upper bricks to collapse if anyone tries to enter the chimney to come into his home. He's tired of Santa Claus tracking soot from the chimney into his home each year! In the closing, we see that the chimney bricks have indeed collapsed but Hitch says he's going to rescue him! It's a happy ending for everyone, I guess.


Disillusioned Santa Clauses pull on my heart strings--what about you? Art Carney as Santa in the 1960 episode of The Twilight Zone.


Do you see the similarities between this story and The Twilight Zone Christmas episode? Both feature world weary men that work as department store Santas. Both men find redemption in the spirit of the season. Both stories also acknowledge the reality that decades ago, stores often employed down-on-their-luck men to work as temporary help during holiday time as store Santas. (Remember the drunk Santa that Kris Kringle replaces at the start of Miracle on 34th Street? That's another example, as well.) In both The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes, these hardened scruffy men earn their second chances with hearts of gold. Can we expect nothing less than a happy ending?




Sunday, May 15, 2016

5 Movies on an Island List


To celebrate National Classic Movies Day, I'm joining with 30+ other bloggers to share our lists of 5 classic movies we'd like to take with us if we are ever stranded on an island. (We're all assuming we have electricity, a projector, a big screen, and popcorn!) Since I limit my focus to holiday entertainment, I'll only be taking Christmas and New Year's movies to my island with me. Because it's about classic movies, I've only selected titles released in the 1970s or earlier. Don't criticize me for not picking 1983's A Christmas Story--thems the rulez. Isn't this fun? Can you predict what I'll select?



#5: Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

If I'm stuck on a deserted island, I'm going to need to be cheered up. This delightful comedy will certainly do that. In this movie classic, Barbara Stanwyck plays Elizabeth Lane, a well-known writer who details the best advice on wifely activities including housekeeping, cooking, and raising children (think: a 1940s version of Martha Stewart). This Christmas, Lane is asked by her publisher to host a war hero for a traditional holiday dinner at her country home in Connecticut as a publicity stunt to promote her magazine. Just one catch: Lane is a professional writer who is actually a single woman who lives in New York City! In order to keep her job, she will have to pretend to be married, set herself up in a beautiful country home, convince someone to loan her a baby, find a chef to cook the holiday meal, and pull off the whole elaborate deception in front of her publisher! The best snag in her scheme is that the war hero is just the type of man she's looking to meet and sparks are flying between them. This classic Christmas comedy just keeps twisting and turning as the lies and her far-out explanations keep heaping up. It certainly stands up to repeated viewings--the perfect film to endure a lengthy stay on a deserted island.


#4: White Christmas (1954)

I anticipate having to perform quite a few mundane chores on this deserted island in order to survive. I'll probably have to gather palm fronds for a shelter, and fruits, nuts, and vegetables (I really don't see myself hunting and killing wild boar) in order to eat. I might even have to plant and harvest food to sustain a lengthy stay. UGH! These chores will go faster if I sing while I work--so I wanted to select a Christmas musical to sing along with.



The song "Snow" may help me chill out on those long, hot days stuck on a tropical island!


The lyrics to the title song "....I'm dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know..." will certainly fit the bill, living on a tropical island. The song "Sisters" always puts a smile on my face, and "Count Your Blessings" may help inspire me to feel grateful that I'm alive during my darkest moments alone on the island. You can't beat an Irving Berlin soundtrack set against island living!




#3: The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

I want to make sure I have a variety of genres to watch while I'm stuck in one place. I think the action-adventure film The Poseidon Adventure will hold my attention. Sometimes people forget that this disaster film takes place aboard a cruise ship over the New Year's holiday. Remember the scene after the boat flips upside down where some of the crew and passengers climb up the inverted Christmas tree to reach the upper decks of the ship? Yeah--the ship still had its Christmas tree decorated and standing in one of the grand halls during the holiday cruise. Maybe some of the harrowing attempts at survival will be inspirational on the island. If I ever get desperate enough to think I can rescue myself from the island by trying to swim out into the ocean, I think Shelley Winters' final scene may set me straight. Don't be a hero, Joanna.



#2: Mon Oncle Antoine (1971)

If I'm going to be on this island for awhile, I'll crave a bit of art and culture too. This award-winning, critically-praised masterpiece of Canadian filmmaking takes place over Christmas. Although the emotions in this story are heavy, perhaps even smothering--it is NOT a sugary treat--this film is a brilliant reminder of the subtlety of emotion and the complexity of human experiences. I anticipate needing some edification as well as something complex enough to stimulate and satisfy the intellectual side of my brain while on this island. This should do.



#1: The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

If you haven't already figured it out, I wouldn't really enjoy being stuck on a tropical island. The experience doesn't sound like paradise to me--it resembles torture.  So if I'm on a deserted island, my efforts will focus on trying to escape. Here's my best plan: request that the Star Wars Holiday Special be made available to me on my island. Since the 2 hour production no longer officially exists (George Lucas stopped acknowledging its existence decades ago), any search for an official print of the movie will alert certain people of importance. Disney purchased the Lucas catalog a few years back--so aggressive Disney lawyers will become involved. After they hunt down my location to deliver a cease & desist/restraint order, I'll have access to a lawyer's boat to escape my deserted island! My plan doesn't require me to actually watch the absolutely awful Star Wars Holiday Special--not again, please!--but merely to request a print for my island visit.

However, if somehow my brilliant plan doesn't work--and I do acquire a copy for The Star Wars Holiday Special for my deserted island experience, and anyone else ever washes ashore, then this movie will give us a laughable conversation piece for the rest of our long lives!





If you were to take five classic holiday movies with you to an island, which ones would you choose? Please feel free to check out the other lists of 5 Classic Movies on an Island at Classic Film & TV Café.




Monday, May 9, 2016

Gilmore Girls Christmas (2001)

I'm one of the thousands of fans who are not so patiently awaiting the release of the four new Gilmore Girls movies (later this year on Netflix). With my excitement barely in check, I thought I'd discuss the 2nd season Christmas episode entitled "The Bracebridge Dinner." If you're not already a fan of the series, I will warn you. The plot points and character struggles in this one episode may seem lackluster for a holiday story. But I'm certain that fans of the series fondly recall this particular episode and recognize that the conflicts that arise here are ones of significance to the rest of the series.

The series originally ran for seven seasons (2000-2007). But you knew that, right?

If you've never had a chance to check out Gilmore Girls, I encourage you to give it a try. Start at the beginning and give over to its charms. It's a one-of-a-kind TV series with fast-talking women (think: Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday), more pop culture references than you can shake a stick at, and a cast full of quirky yet adorable supporting characters (much like a live-action Springfield within The Simpsons). There is good reason why the Gilmore Girls has inspires so many devotees.


Yes, you read that right: a snow Björk.

At the 2001 episode's start, we see Lorelai and her teenage daughter Rory building a snowman in the center of Stars Hollow for a snowman contest. While they do their best with their limited experience, they are frustrated by an entry created by an experienced snow sculptor next to them. He has created a life-like Ebenezer Scrooge from snow. How can they compete with a simple snow Björk against this ringer? Much of the personality of this series is in the many details--like this Björk reference.


Sookie (played by Melissa McCarthy) is prepping the extra staff they've hired for the special event.

As the title references, Lorelai is also busy organizing an authentic Bracebridge Dinner for a private group at the inn she manages. Have you heard of a Bracebridge Dinner before? It's an elaborate 19th century meal based on one described by American author Washington Irving in a short story. (There is a prominent Bracebridge Dinner held each year in Yosemite Park too). The dinner involves the servers to wear Renaissance costumes and to speak period English. Lorelai hires madrigal singers and musicians too. Her chef Sookie is under a great deal of stress to put together the complicated seven course meal. The excitement for Christmas around the inn is intense.


Ahhh--Friday night dinners. They rarely go over well.

Before the elaborate event at the inn, at Friday night dinner, Lorelai and Rory find that Richard and Emily are not getting along. The stress from Richard's workplace is having a deleterious effect on their relationship. Lorelai may not get along with her parents very well but she doesn't like seeing them unhappy either.


Lorelai breaks the news to Sookie that no one is coming to their event! Sookie says she feels sad and mad--she's smad!

Shortly before they expect the guests to arrive, word comes in that the Trelling Paper Company who has paid for the Bracebridge Dinner has canceled. The entire private party is snowed in in Chicago and won't be able to make it. Lorelai is horrified--they hired extra staff and prepared such a lovely, extravagant event. Even if it's all paid for, it's a shame no one will get to enjoy all the effort.


Their party won't go to waste after all!

Over coffee at Luke's diner, the girls get an idea. What if they invite everyone in Stars Hollow to come and enjoy the pre-paid special event. It's a nice way to share the extravagant experience and get rid of the seven course meal at the same time. Since the staff and food are all paid for--and all the rooms in the inn have been reserved--why not treat the entire town? What a great idea, right?


Organizing an enjoyable event is all about the details.

On the night of the Bracebridge Dinner, the town residents begin arriving. We're reminded what an eclectic mix of personalities and oddballs live in this New England small town. Everyone is here--Babette and her husband Morey, Miss Patty, Lane and her religious mother Mrs. Kim, town selectman Taylor Doose, and Bootsy. Many of the other town regulars have been hired to work the event--including Jackson and Kirk. Even Luke is there--he brings his juvenile delinquent nephew Jess which upsets Rory's jealous boyfriend Dean.

What's a party without Babette and Morey?


Dean wishes to spend more time with Rory at the event but his little sister Clara is pestering him.

Lorelai invites her parents to the dinner to pamper them during their time of difficulty.

As the complicated party gets underway, various obstacles and problems begin popping up.  Rory's domineering classmate Paris shows up at the inn with paperwork she insists needs completed immediately (despite the holiday break). Jackson's creepy and unlikable cousin Rune has been hired as wait staff but his costume doesn't fit. Richard and Emily are unexpectedly getting along quite well!? And, everyone is nervous about Jess and Dean in the same room. What more can go wrong?


Rory's clever solution to distract Paris? Invite her to participate in the Bracebridge Dinner.

Lorelai surprises all the guests with horse-drawn sleigh rides before dinner. What could be more Christmasy? Most of the guests are enjoying the splendid party.


Luke shares his wisdom on "the secret of parenting." Lorelai laughs.


At the last minute, bad boy Jess jumps into Rory's sleigh and they talk. He admires her Björk snowman. Rory isn't resisting his attention as much as she used to. They're becoming better friends.

The dinner portion of the evening begins.

Jackson makes a good Squire of Bracebridge.

The Bracebridge Dinner seems to be going well and people are enjoying themselves. Maybe too much. The food and wine are plentiful. Jackson is playing the role of the Bracebridge Squire, the host of the Renaissance-style dinner. Mrs. Kim frets because no one else is saying grace before eating. Rory and Lorelai tease Kirk, who is working as a waiter. Lorelai attempts to get him to break character by insisting that the best I Love Lucy episodes were the ones filmed in Europe. Kirk can stand it no longer and asserts that everyone knows the best episodes were the ones with Ricky and Lucy in Hollywood--and he's broken character!


Inspired by the episode of I Love Lucy where Lucy tries to get the Buckingham Palace guard to break from character, Lorelai wants to break Kirk from his Renaissance character.

The revelers are enjoying the party--even Richard and Emily. That is, until Richard lets it slip that he's not feeling stressed from work anymore because he's quit his job. Shocked and devastated, Emily is hurt that her husband of many decades has kept her in the dark about his sudden "retirement" and change of life without talking to her about the decision. Later, Rory confronts her mother about over-reacting to plans she's made to spend some time with her father Christopher (and his new girlfriend Sherry) over holiday break. Making things worse, Emily insists on getting some space between herself and Richard by sleeping in Lorelai and Rory's room.


Richard shares a story about his travels to Prague and then reveals he's "retired."

If Emily's not happy, then no one is happy.

In the middle of the night, a sleepless Emily and Richard find each other and reconcile. The next morning, Lorelai hears the details of the party that continued after she went to bed. Under the influence of too much wine, Bootsy sang "Hotel California" and banged spoons on his head. Rumors spread that Jackson accompanied Bootsy's song by drumming on his belly. Paris has created a long list of period discrepancies from the evening's re-enactment. Exhausted, Lorelai is just glad that the party is over. Despite Lorelai's best intentions, the Bracebridge Dinner turned out much like an over-indulgent office Christmas party.


A sleigh ride through Stars Hollow? Yes, please!

Lorelai and Rory take the horse-drawn sleigh as transportation back home the morning after. Passing through Stars Hollow's town square, mother and daughter see that the ringer's Ebenezer Scrooge snow sculpture has been knocked down. Perhaps the snow Björk will win the contest after all? Who would commit such a brazen act of vandalism? Rory knows.


Rory is traumatized by ugly baby photos in Christmas cards.

Much of the pleasure in watching"The Bracebridge Dinner" episode--and every other episode in the series--is in the abundance of details. Small moments like Rory and Lorelai making fun of the ugly baby photos friends and family send in their Christmas cards, Lorelai mocking the DVD commentary on the release of Godfather 3 in which Coppola justifies casting his daughter Sofia, Paris insisting that cubed ice wasn't a Renaissance-era tradition, Rune in his underwear in the kitchen, Babette's sarcastic comments to Mrs. Kim, a snow Björk and the song "Human Behavior" playing under the closing scene, and more. Did I mention how saturated this series is with pop culture references? All these small moments, combined with rich, textured characters and heart-felt emotions create a TV series that has fans overjoyed to see more. I can't wait for the four new movies coming this Fall.

Are you a Gilmore Girls fan too?






Sunday, April 10, 2016

Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour Christmas (1969)



I recently wrote a review of the 1988 Christmas episode of The Wonder Years which includes a small clip from the 1969 Christmas episode of The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. That really put me in the mood to watch the 1969 episode again--and so I thought I'd share my thoughts. I'm a big fan of those old fashioned Christmas TV variety specials and maybe you are too!  You should get a big kick out of remembering this program. The '69 and '70 Christmas episodes from The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour were both released on DVD last year. Have you seen this one recently?


"Gentle On My Mind" was one of Campbell's first big hits as a solo performer and was used as his TV show's theme tune.

Taped in front of a live studio audience, Glen Campbell opens his TV variety series' first Christmas show singing his hit song “Gentle On My Mind.” After an introduction and announcement about his guests Andy Griffith, Cher, and Paul Lynde, Campbell sings “Gotta Travel On.”


Do you remember what an adding machine is?
 
Next, Andy Griffith and Glen Campbell perform a comedy sketch about calculating the costs of the gifts described in the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” As Griffith leads the singers through each chorus of the familiar song's lyrics, they estimate the lavish expense of buying a partridge, a pear tree, a pot for the tree, two turtle doves, a bird cage, three french hens, a coop, etc. It's heart-warming seeing Andy Griffith in this 1969 TV variety show. Remember the 1960 Christmas episode of The Andy Griffith Show?


Cher performs the song made popular by the late Otis Redding.

Cher takes the stage and sings a stripped down, simple version of “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” Together Campbell and Cher perform a soulful up-tempo version of “Jingle Bells.” This is followed by a comedy sketch with Andy Griffith and Paul Lynde. Griffith plays a bartender listening to Lynde as Santa Claus share his holiday woes.


Set design on these 60s TV variety shows was always impressive.


Easing his pain with shots of milk, Santa stresses about his job.

Next, Glen Campbell plays “Classical Gas” on the acoustic guitar. Visual interest is created behind him with dancers taking the stage as well. Campbell is on fire performing this popular but complex Mason Williams instrumental. If you only know Campbell as a chart topping vocalist, this performance will inform you that he started his career as a sessions guitar player--and was a prominent member of The Wrecking Crew. You've seen the 2008 documentary film on The Wrecking Crew, right? (Yes--he previously worked with Cher as a member of the Wrecking Crew).


Campbell's fingers are flying on "Classical Gas."
 
Another sketch follows--this one is a filmed short with stop motion animation about a heroic cowboy named Blaze Glory--a tribute to kiddie western serials. Blaze Glory defends a stagecoach from an outlaw named Black Bart. Does that name sound familiar? Black Bart was an actual nineteenth-century outlaw and his name has since become synonymous with villains in western tales. It was used as the bad guy's name in the 1983 movie A Christmas Story in the scene in which Ralphie fantasizes about using a Red Ryder gun to defend his family from robbers.


"Here Comes Santa Claus."
 
Glen Campbell sits with his band and performs the chart toppers “Witchita Lineman” and “Galveston.”  Both of those songs, written by Jimmy Webb, were gold-selling hits for Campbell the previous year. It's fantastic to hear Glen perform his biggest hits alongside Christmas favorites. Next, Campbell is joined by a member of his band playing a five string banjo for a bluegrass-inspired version of “Here Comes Santa Claus.” This is followed by another comedy sketch. Griffith, Lynde, and Campbell humorously attempt to assemble a child's toy manufactured in Japan.


A sketch that pokes fun at everyone's frustrations during Christmas having to assemble complex toys.

The live audience actually coos when the baby begins to drift off to sleep during Glen's song.
 
Campbell sings the gentle holiday song “Little Toy Trains” while holding his baby son Kane. Then, Campbell joins the guests, singers, and dancers on a Christmas-decorated, living room set to sing a medley of holiday favorites.


The living room set is festively decorated and everyone is wearing red and green during the medley sing along.
 
Accompanied by a toy piano, Griffith takes the lead in “Christmas Chopsticks (Twas the Night Before Christmas).” Campbell solos on “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and the whole group sings “Joy to the World.” Cher sings the lead during “Silent Night”--the song and video clip that is found in the 1988 episode of The Wonder Years. Everyone together sings “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and  “Deck the Halls.”





Next, Campbell is joined onstage by his wife Billie, daughter Kelli, and son Travis while he sings “There’s No Place Like Home.” When young Travis experiences a coughing fit, the show continues its live performance! I love Billie's 1960s hairstyle--singer Amy Winehouse would find inspiration in that same style some forty years later. Finally, Glen Campbell closes the show singing “Try a Little Kindness.”


Campbell features his family in the Christmas shows.

Have you seen the other Christmas TV variety shows I've written about on this website before? I wrote about 1967's Christmas with the King Family, the 1963 Christmas episode of the Judy Garland Show, the 1957 Christmas episode of the Frank Sinatra Show, an essay with highlights from several Andy Williams Christmas TV specials, and more. Of course, there is much more written in the encyclopedia Tis the Season TV about TV variety specials. Do you have a favorite Christmas TV variety special?


Campbell's "Try A Little Kindness" is a wonderful reminder during the holiday season.