Monday, August 11, 2014

Christmas In Connecticut

Premiered August 11, 1945.

This out-of-season review is posted today because this movie was released on this date in 1945.

Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck) writes food and homemaking articles for Smart Housekeeping magazine. Her recipes are famous and her tales of her husband and child are read all over the country.

One of Lane's biggest fans is Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan), a war hero recovering at a veterans' hospital. Jones is a food connoisseur and he reads Elizabeth's articles to help pass the time in the hospital.

His nurse Mary Lee (Joyce Compton) writes a letter to Smart Housekeeping describing Jones's love of Elizabeth Lane's articles.  Upon reading the letter,  the magazine's publisher, Alexander Yardley (Sidney Greenstreet), gets an idea for a publicity stunt.

He invites Jones to spend Christmas at Elizabeth Lane's farm in Connecticut, where she will use her kitchen expertise to cook a Christmas dinner for the war hero.  Of course,  Yardley will join the festivities as well.   He wants to observe Elizabeth in the kitchen and sample the simple, country hospitality showcased in her articles.  (All this without bothering to ask if it suits Ms. Lane's holiday plans!)

Unfortunately for Elizabeth -- and unbeknownst to Yardley (a stickler for honesty in journalism)-- she is a fake!  She actually lives in a New York apartment, has no husband or child and cannot cook!   Conveniently, her friend John Sloan (Reginald Gardiner), an architect, owns a farm in rural Connecticut.  He has wanted to marry Elizabeth for a while, but she isn't attracted to him.

However, she decides that marrying Sloan would be preferable to being discovered as a fraud and agrees to his proposal.   They decide to marry on Christmas Eve and with the aid of a local judge called to the farm to act as officiant.

As for the cooking, Elizabeth enlists the aid of to her friend Felix (S.Z. Sakall), who is a chef and owns a restaurant.  (He's also the source of  the recipes Elizabeth uses in her articles.)  "Uncle" Felix, as he is known to Elizabeth, thinks the whole thing is a "catastroph" waiting to happen, but agrees to help.

The plan starts to go awry right off the bat.  As John and Elizabeth are preparing to wed, Jefferson Jones arrives early, preempting the ceremony.

"Quartermaster Jones reporting for duty!"
Naturally,  Jefferson and Elizabeth are immediately attracted to each other.  Elizabeth spends Christmas Eve trying to keep the lie going.

She makes excuses to avoid cooking. She bumbles through bathing a (borrowed) baby and escorting wayward cows back to the barn.    But will her fraud be discovered?   Will she successfully flip flapjack for an interested audience?   Will she marry Sloan or find love with Jefferson Jones?

Elizabeth learning how to "flip-flop the flop flips" as per Uncle Felix

J.A. Morris says:
Christmas In Connecticut is a fun movie.  It feels a lot like a sitcom episode, with characters running from room to room trying to keep a lie going.

Jefferson & Elizabeth take a sleigh ride on Christmas night.
It's not as strong as some of the other holiday films of the "classic" era of Hollywood, but it's always entertaining.  Barbara Stanwyck was one of the best and this is a great vehicle for her talents.  The cast includes a virtual Character Actors Hall Of Fame, featuring Sidney Greenstreet, S.Z. Sakall and Una O'Connor, they're all very funny here.

Greenstreet is well remembered for his roles in The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca.    

Yardley meets "Macushla" the cow.
Sakall also appeared in Casablanca.  He appeared with Stanwyck in Ball Of Fire and also appeared in another holiday film, In The Good Old Summertime.

Una O'Connor plays Sloan's housekeeper Norah.  She can be seen in another classic Christmas film, The Bells Of St. Mary's, but I first noticed O'Connor in the Universal horror movies Bride Of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man.

Norah & Felix have some disagreements in the kitchen.
Rounding out the cast is Reginald Gardiner who also appeared in another Christmas film, The Man Who Came To Dinner.

Smart Housekeeping editor Dudley Beecham (Robert Shayne) & John worry that Elizabeth's secret will be revealed.
It's a great cast, but the leading man, Dennis Morgan,  is the perhaps the weakest element.  While he's okay as Jefferson Jones, I've always felt that he pales in comparison to Stanwyck and the supporting actors.  But he doesn't ruin the picture either.  Morgan has a nice singing voice, performing "O Little Town Of Bethlehem" and the "love theme" of the movie, "The Wish That I Wish Tonight."

Christmas In Connecticut is available on dvd and airs every Christmas on TCM.  It's an enjoyable ride, especially recommended for fans of Stanwyck and the character actors.  And as a native of Connecticut, it's the only movie I can think of that has my home state's name in the title!

Yardley takes a tumble in the snow!

J.A. Morris' rating:

3 Candy Canes.

RigbyMel says:

Christmas In Conncecticut was my introduction to Barbara Stanwyck.   I first saw the film in college at the recommendation of a good friend who also happened to be a theater major.

It's a thoroughly entertaining little holiday romp.    The plot does not hold together quite as well as classic screwball comedies like Bringing Up Baby, but it chugs along nicely.    The actors are what make Christmas in Connecticut so fun to watch each year.   Stanwyck's expressions of horror at having to contend with bathing a baby or cow care are hilarious but you also root for her to get her man and keep her job.

One has to applaud the chutzpah of passing oneself off as a Martha Stewart-type housewife without possessing any skills -- Elizabeth Lane must be a cracking good writer in any event and Stanwyck makes her utterly believable.  I found myself wanting more for her than a destiny as a housewife, but considering this was made in the 1940s, Elizabeth is very independent and spunky.

There is great work by the other character actors involved as well.   S.Z. Sakall's  portrayal is an adorable standout in my estimation.  I especially like the way they play on the character's sometimes knowing  (and sometimes unconscious) use of the fact that English is not his first language.   (He gets away with saying "Nuts!" to the rather controlling and slimy John Sloan early in the movie.)  In some ways,  Felix is the emotional center of the film.  He knows that marrying Sloan to perpetuate a fraud is wrong but also doesn't want his friend to lose her station and/or be hurt.

Christmas In Connecticut is well worth a look if you're looking for some fun, light holiday fare.

RigbyMel's rating:

3 1/2 candy canes

Friday, July 25, 2014

Rudolph And Frosty's Christmas In July

Premiered June 30, 1979.

It's late June, but in the North Pole it's still chilly.  Rudolph is hanging out with his best friend Frosty and his snow family.  Santa shows up to tell us (the viewers) that the North Pole was not always such a nice place to live.

Years ago, an evil sorcerer named Winterbolt ruled the North.  Lady Boreal, Queen of the Northern Lights, ended his reign by using her power to put Winterbolt into a deep, but not permanent, sleep.

During Winterbolt's long nap, Santa and Mrs. Claus arrived in the North Pole and set up their toymaking workshop with the Kringle elves.

Winterbolt awakens and learns, from his Ice Genie, that Santa is the most beloved man on Earth due to his kindness to children at Christmas.  The sorcerer is jealous and creates a terrible blizzard to keep Santa grounded and force the cancellation of  Christmas.

At the same time, Lady Boreal's powers are dwindling.  She pays a visit to the baby Rudolph and tells him that she has empowered his red nose in order to help Santa.  However, if Rudolph ever uses his nose for evil, it will no longer shine.   We all know the story of how "the most famous reindeer of all" uses his nose to save Christmas, so Rudolph definitely has used his shiny nose for good purposes.

We cut to the "present day", where Rudolph receives a visit from his friend Milton, an ice cream man who sells his product from a hot air balloon.

Milton is sad because he is unable to marry Lanie Lorraine, a high wire performer in the circus.  They were set to marry when they had to cancel since the circus, owned by Lanie's mother, Lilly is near bankruptcy.

The circus will have to go on the road to make money, thus preventing Milton and Lanie from being together.  Meanwhile, a nasty businessman named Sam Spangles is maneuvering to acquire ownership of the circus for himself.

Winterbolt watches all of this in a crystal snowball and gets some evil ideas.  He manipulates Milton into asking Rudolph to perform at the circus on the 4th of July.

Frosty's kids, Millie and Chillie, are excited about the concept of a circus and beg to go see one. Their mother Crystal agrees that it would be a good experience, but Frosty reminds them they'll melt in the Summer sun.  Winterbolt conveniently materializes in front of them and gives the Frosty family medallions that will allow them to see the circus and the fireworks on Independence Day.

There's a catch though,  the medallions will stop working when the final firework of the 4th has been detonated.  Prompted by Winterbolt, Santa says he can whisk away the snow family near the end of fireworks.

Rudolph and Frosty's circus act is a rousing success.   Winterbolt still schemes to destroy Rudolph's power. He recruits a reindeer of dubious morals named Scratcher to get a job at the circus.

That way Scratcher can frame Rudolph for robbery.  Rudolph inadvertently  gives the circus' revenue to Sam Spangles, who impersonates a police officer.  This somehow violates Lady Boreal's rule and Rudolph's nose shines no more.  

Back in the North, Winterbolt causes a tornado to threaten Santa and Mrs. Claus, slowing down their arrival at the Circus By The Sea.   Excessive delay could lead to the melting of Frosty and his family.

Will Winterbolt succeed in his quest to take over the world, starting with the North Pole?  Can Lilly keep her circus?  Is this the end for Rudolph and Frosty?

J.A. Morris says:

According to its wiki, Rudolph And Frosty's Christmas In July received a theatrical release, but only overseas.  I recall first watching it on HBO in 1981.  I've long had mixed feelings about this movie.

I'll start with the positives:

It's great to see Frosty and family get the Animagic treatment.  It was also nice to see Rudolph and Frosty, Rankin-Bass' most popular characters, interact on screen.

The voice acting is excellent.  Billie Mae Richards and Jackie Vernon reprise their roles as Rudolph and Frosty, respectively.  Shelly Winters, Red Buttons, Don Messick and Paul Frees are also good as usual.

Lilly is voiced by the legendary Ethel Merman.  Any movie with Merman voicing a cowgirl can't be all bad, right?  And we get to hear Merman sing "Rudolph, The Red Nosed Reindeer", in her own inimitable style.

Mickey Rooney plays Santa Claus, who he voiced in Santa Claus Is Coming To Town and A Year Without A Santa Claus.  Rooney always made a great Santa.

The featured song "You Are Everything I've Ever Wanted" isn't the best song of the Rankin-Bass oeuvre, but it's sung well and contains some sweet sentiment.  The movie also includes a performance of "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree".  This song, was written by Johnny Marks, who also wrote "Rudolph, The Rednosed Reindeer."

There are also attempts to maintain some continuity between this and earlier Rankin-Bass specials.  Big Ben from Rudolph's Shiny New Year makes a cameo appearance.  Clarice, Rudolph's girlfriend from the first special, is seen in a flashback.  Jack Frost, previously featured in Frosty's Winter Wonderland and his own self-titled special, plays a small but important role.

There aren't many 4th of July specials, so it has that going for it as well.

The main problem is that the plot is very convoluted.  Winterbolt's plan is way more elaborate than it needs to be.

And there are loose ends at the end.  Scratcher plays an important role in framing Rudolph, but we never learn Scratcher's fate.  Did he get punished?  Was he reformed?  Is Scratcher evil or just misunderstood?

One other thing I need to mention.  Lilly's circus troupe contains three "Indians" who are ugly stereotypes. I'm sure the people behind the movie meant no harm, but they should have known better than to include this depiction of Native Americans by 1979.

Rudolph And Frosty's Christmas In July isn't bad, but it's not something I watch every year either.  Worth checking out at least once for the Animagic and the great voice-actors.

J.A. Morris' rating:

2 and a half candy canes.

Or should it be 2 and half Flags?


RigbyMel says:

I really wanted to like this movie better than I did.   It has Rudolph as well as Animagic Frosty and family.  It has attempts at tying various strains of Rankin-Bass continuity together.    It contains great voice work.  It has an evil antisanta-type wizard with a sled pulled by snakes.

Snake-y Sled!!
 And Ice Dragons too!  

Ice dragons! 
The summer/Christmas in July theme is an interesting idea, but the story is way too complicated to make it a classic.

Did we really need a retcon explaining what made Rudolph's nose shiny?  
What happens to the wrong side of the tracks reindeer Scratcher?  He just disappears.      
Why would Rudolph's innocent mistake in helping give the money to someone he thought was a policeman cause him to lose his powers?  Does Lady Boreal's spell not take intentions into account?  That seems a bit draconian.

If you grew up watching Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas In July,  it might bring back fond memories,  but I came away feeling a bit disappointed.    For me,  Rudolph and company are happier in a Christmas context.  This special strikes me as something of an interesting misfit.

RigbyMel's rating:

2 candy canes

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Greetings from Baltimore!

A couple weekends ago, I celebrated my birthday with a trip to Baltimore, MD, one of my favorite cities in the known universe!

I was accompanied by my co-blogger Rigbymel and several family members.  We saw an Orioles game at Camden Yards (they lost to the Yankees, but it was still a good time).  We also took a Water Taxi from the Inner Harbor to Fells Point, where we had some pizza at Baltimore's locally owned Brick Oven Pizza. We crammed in just about everything you can do in a single afternoon, and it was cooler than usual for the summer.  All in all, it was a great day.  But we had a "classic tv"-related added bonus.

The Fells Point Water Taxi stop just happens to be next to the old City Recreation Pier.  This famously served as the exterior of the police station on Homicide: Life On The Street, one of the best series of the 1990s and in my opinion, the best police procedural drama of all time.  We featured a review of Homicide's Christmas episode last December. 

Cast of Homicide poses on the steps of the Recreation Pier.
So we figured it would make for a good blog photo-op!

The Baltimore P.D. gets two new detectives!
Here's the same spot from the series' 1994 Christmas episode:

We were a bit taken aback by the current state of the building.  The Recreation Pier has fallen into disrepair in the 15 years since Homicide ended.  Note the peeling paint on the lampposts in the above photo.  But  we've since learned that the Pier will be repaired and converted into a hotel, more info about that project here.

That's all for now, check back soon for this blog's celebration of Christmas In July!