Tuesday, April 27, 2021

227: "Mary's Christmas"

Premiered December 14, 1985.

"This is gonna be the best pageant ever, the first Christmas at the new site!"
-Brenda Jenkins

This edition of "Oscar Takes A Holiday" focuses on actor/director Regina King, who played Brenda Jenkins on 227.  In 2019, King won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for If Beale Street Could Talk.  

It’s Christmas time in Washington, D.C.  Mary Jenkins (Marla Gibbs), and her neighbors in 227 Lexington Place Rose (Alaina Reed-Hall) and Pearl (Helen Martin) have a meeting with their minister Rev. Davis (Ron Richardson). 

He informs them that the corporation that owns the land where the church sits will not renew their lease.  On a more positive note, that same corporation has given the church a new lot that overlooks the Potomac River.  City Hall has given Rev. Davis permission to move the entire church building to the new location. 

Sandra Clark (Jackée Harry), the building’s resident busybody and troublemaker, has “volunteered” Mary’s husband Lester (Hal Williams) to supervise the moving of the church, since Lester owns a construction company.  Other companies would be unable to move the church before Christmas. 

Lester is reluctant to take on such a responsibility, but is pressured to move the church when Rev. Davis and the others literally pray for Lester to move the church!

Lester believes his crew can get the church moved in time for the congregation to perform their annual Nativity pageant.  Mary and Lester's daughter Brenda (Regina King), who is playing a shepherd in the pageant, believes it will be "the best pageant ever."  

Sandra is cast somewhat against type as an angel.

The pageant will be narrated by Santa Claus, played by Lester.  

However, disaster strikes when the church suddenly disappears!  Rev. Davis tells Lester that the church has been stolen!  

Will the church turn up in one piece?  Will the pageant be cancelled?  Will Christmas be ruined?  

J.A. Morris says:

227 was a fun sitcom that I haven't seen in a while and "Mary's Christmas" was a nice way to get reacquainted with the show and its characters.  It's a touching story about a neighborhood congregation working together to create a Christmas miracle.  That's consistent with 227 as a whole, since lots of episodes revolve around friends like Mary, Rose and Pearl helping each other.

Lester would have been well within his rights to walk away from moving the church, since he was forced into it by Sandra, yet he agrees to do so anyway.  The pageant rehearsal scenes are also enjoyable.  I played a shepherd in a Christmas play when I was 12, so "Mary's Christmas" brought back a lot of memories.  

Pearl's grandson Calvin (Curtis Baldwin) plays a "wise" man.

I found it particularly interesting that Santa, played by Lester, narrates the Nativity pageant, which was a nice touch.  This is not something I've seen happen in real life, since secular and religious Christmas traditions are usually kept separate.  

Jackée Harry, as Sandra, gets the bulk of the funny moments in "Mary's Christmas."  Sandra is the cause of consternation in this episode, but Harry was so great in the role (which won her an Emmy) that I never felt too angry at Sandra.  

Some notes about the cast:

Alaina Reed-Hall played Mary's best friend Rose on 227.  Children of the 1970s and 80s will remember Reed from her 12-year run on Sesame Street as Gordon's sister Olivia.  During that time, Reed appeared in the classic special Christmas Eve On Sesame Street.  

Rev. Davis is portrayed by Ron Richardson, who played the minister in two other episodes.  Richardson was primarily a stage actor vocalist and he won a Tony award for his role as Jim in the Broadway musical Big River: The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn.

"Mary's Christmas" is a great Christmas episode that features a solid ensemble cast and a story that will likely remind viewers of Christmas pageants they've been part of, it gets my highest recommendation.  

J.A. Morris' rating:

4 candy canes!

RigbyMel says: 
I remember watching and enjoying 227 when it first aired in the mid-to-late 1980s, but have no memory of this particular holiday episode.    It was nice to rediscover this series that I hadn't thought about much in twenty-some-odd years in researching for this blog post.   It's also enjoyable to revisit old sitcoms and see early work by actors like Regina King who have become better known as their careers progressed -  King's work as Brenda on the series is adorable.  

Regina King (l), with Curtis Baldwin, and Kia Goodwin (who plays Rose's daughter Tiffany in the series)
"Mary's Christmas" is a sweet episode from the show's first season. 

Although the "missing building" situation presented in this particular episode is perhaps not the most realistic, the interactions between the cast members conveys the inherent emotion of the scenario well .   Many of us can relate to families/communities coming together to solve problems -- particularly during the holiday season.   Many of us have also had the experience of being "volun-TOLD" to do something for a community group the way Lester is in this episode.  

J.A. Morris mentions Lester's turn as Santa/pageant narrator above, and although it might be a little unusual, I really like the way Santa ties the secular and religious holiday traditions together here.    

Resident troublemaker Sandra's against-type casting as the pageant's angel is funny and also kind of touching.   She gets quite upset when Mary threatens to snatch her wings.   

Rose and Pearl searching for "room at the inn"

Community Christmas pageants are a staple of holiday programming from A Charlie Brown Christmas onward and this episode of 227's  pageant presentation makes me think of my hometown's long running outdoor Christmas pageant which also features lovingly made sets and costumes and (often) sweet/amusing moments where things don't quite go according to plan. It also sometimes runs into complications with being outside (cold, weather, COIVD (most recently) and even issues having to do with building construction or repair.

I also appreciate that it appears that a real church choir called "The Visionaries" from Heavenly Vision Baptist Church helped to provide music and extra verisimilitude for our fictional sitcom pageant.  

"Mary's Christmas" is ultimately an episode about community and the holiday setting helps to bring everyone together to create the open air event.    It is likely that we will revisit this charming holiday story during future holiday seasons. 

RigbyMel's rating: 

4 candy canes!

Thursday, April 22, 2021

We're No Angels

Premiered July 7, 1955.

Joseph:As soon as it gets dark, we'll help ourselves.  
Albert:The old man might object.
Joseph:If he gets in our way, it'll be just too bad for him.  We'll climb down off his roof and cut his throat for a Christmas present.
Albert:That's the kind of thing that could make you stop believing in Santa Claus.

This year's series of "Oscar Takes A Holiday" reviews begins with We're No Angels, which features multiple Academy Award winners.

Film legend Humphrey Bogart won Best Actor for playing Charlie Allnut in The African Queen

Humphrey Bogart, accompanied by his wife Lauren Bacall, celebrates his Oscar win.

It was directed by Michael Curtiz, who won a Best Director Oscar for Casablanca, which of course also featured Bogart.

Michael Curtiz poses with the Oscar he won for directing Casablanca.

Peter Ustinov won two Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor, the first for Spartacus and another for Topkapi.

Peter Ustinov celebrates his Spartacus Oscar with fellow-winner Shirley Jones at the 1961 ceremony.

On to today's review:

On Christmas Eve, 1895, a trio of convicts named Joseph (Humphrey Bogart)...

 Albert (Peter Ustinov)...

and Jules (Aldo Ray), escape from Devil's Island prison.  

They're accompanied by Jules' pet viper snake Adolphe, who spends most of his time in a carry-case. It's easy for them to hide in plain sight on the island, since lots of convicts are out working on parole.

They visit a store owned by Felix Ducotel (Leo G. Carroll) and offer to repair his damaged roof.  They're true intent is to kill Felix, his wife Amelie (Joan Bennett) and their daughter Isabelle (Gloria Talbott) and rob them, then flee Devil's Island on the next boat out.

Felix and his store have been going through a rough patch.  The store has been losing money and Felix is dreading a Christmas visit from Andre Tochard (Basil Rathbone), his cousin and financial benefactor.  Andre knows about Felix's problems and plans to remove Felix from the business.

Isabelle is excited about Andre's visit because he's bringing along his son and sole heir Paul (John Baer).  She's in love with Paul but doesn't know if the feeling is mutual.

As part of their "murder plot," the convicts decide to help Felix.  Joseph, whose criminal specialty was falsifying documents, offers to "adjust" the financial records and save the Ducotel's family business.  Joseph also impresses the Ducotels with his "business acumen" when he manages to sell a hairbrush and comb set to a bald man!

In exchange for their help, Amelie invites the convicts to Christmas Eve dinner.  Albert, Jules and Joseph decorate the house... 

...and prepare a turkey for Christmas dinner. 

The trio even serenades the Ducotels with a Christmas song.  The family invites them to spend the night, not knowing that the convicts have planned to kill them and take their money.

The holiday celebrations are interrupted when Felix's cousin Andre arrives and immediately throws his weight around and belittles everyone in the house.  Andre demands to see the financial records before Joseph has a chance to "fix" them.  

The convicts also learn that Paul is not in love with Isabelle and he plans to tell her so. 

The scenario gets even more complicated when Adolphe the snake goes missing!  

Will Joseph, Jules and Albert go through with their plans to rob and murder the Ducotels?  Can they prevent Andre from learning the financial conditions of Felix's store?  What will happen between Paul and Isabelle? 

J.A. Morris says:

When I was a kid, I was a huge fan of Humphrey Bogart and made every effort to watch every one of his films.  However, We're No Angels was not a movie that was readily available on TV or home video.  That's changed in the last decade and this movie is now part of TCM's annual Christmas programming.  

And that's a good thing, because We're No Angels is lots of fun!  Bogart, Peter Ustinov and Aldo Ray make a great trio and Basil Rathbone is delightfully sleazy as Andre.  Jules' pet snake Adolphe also plays an important role in the film, but to say more about Adolphe would spoil jokes and plot points. 

Bogart didn't appear in many comedies, and he shows off some nice, subtle comic timing here.  It's a shame he didn't squeeze in a few more humorous roles during his career.  Leo G. Carroll, Joan Bennett and Gloria Talbott provide solid support as the Ducotels.   

Some viewers may have a problem with some of the darker jokes.  The "angels" don't express much sympathy for a guard they "tried to kill" during their escape from Devil's Island.  Albert makes multiple jokes about killing his wife (which is one reason he's in prison), not something you usually hear in Christmas movies!  However, 30 minutes into the movie, it's obvious that (SPOILER ALERT), this is a trio of "whimsical" criminals who will commit no violent crimes during the film's running time.  

We're No Angels is based on a stage play called My Three Angels, which was adapted from French play titled La Cuisine Des Anges by Albert Husson.  

We're No Angels has a great ensemble cast and is filled with funny moments and is recommended to all fans of holiday films, especially film fans who enjoy a side of dark humor with their eggnog.  It's a nice excuse to spend time watching "Bogie" every December.  

J.A. Morris's rating: 

4 candy canes!

RigbyMel says:

We're No Angels was unknown to me until a couple of years ago, when we watched it on TCM, which is a shame because it is a delight.   This comedy features excellent performances by Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov and Aldo Ray as criminals who turn out to have hearts of gold.    

The holiday setting helps to keep the viewer off balance initially.  Then Christmas works its transformative power on our criminals who have a change of heart thanks to the warmth and kindness of their erstwhile victims, the Ducotel family.   

From thence, our non-angelic trio tries to fix the Ducotel's financial and familial difficulties...by any means necessary.   We even get an unexpectedly heroic turn from Adolphe the Viper! 

I really love the dry wit of the dialogue throughout this script, as well as Basil Rathbone's obvious enjoyment at playing cousin Andre, the REAL villain of the piece. 

Another unexpected treat in this film is that the audience gets to hear Bogart, Ustinov, and Ray SING during the family Christmas party scene.   The words concerning angels were written for the movie, but the tune is an old hymn tune called "St. Athanasius" which has had many different lyrics set to it over time.    The singing is far from gorgeous, but is utterly appropriate for the characters and charming in that appropriateness.  

Moreover, I agree with J.A. Morris that it would have been nice to see Bogie in other comedic roles since he handles this one so well. 

Interestingly, Joan Bennett who plays Amelie Ducotel had been caught up in a tabloid scandal a few years prior to this movie -- her husband shot her manager!  Although it was not her fault,  she was tainted by association and was not getting much work.   Humphrey Bogart actually went to bat for her to be cast in this movie as he thought she was treated unfairly -- an example of real-life kindness underpinning a holiday film -- and Bennett's performance is lovely.  

If dry and dark wit is not your thing, We're No Angels is probably not going to resonate with you, but for those that appreciate the humor, this is a non-treacly holiday film that is well worth adding to your seasonal rotation! 

RigbyMel's' rating: 

4 candy canes!