Tuesday, November 26, 2013

It's a Wonderful Life (1947)

It's A Wonderful Life is a wonderful movie.

Reel Popcorn Junkie has reviewed several Christmas films in recent weeks. This is the best of the bunch.

It's hard not to cry watching Frank Capra's 1947 film. Fellas, that's OK.

There's tears of empathy for George Bailey (James Stewart), the dreamer from a small town who wants to see the world and be associated with big projects like building bridges and erecting skyscrapers. He dreams of "shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet."

But life keeps George from ever leaving his hometown. Emergencies at home, at work and in the world economy all force him to keep staying put while his family and friends move on to new adventures. They find success in the workplace and their investments, rubbing shoulders with dignitaries and enjoying life's luxuries.

George ends up heading Bailey Building and Loan, a business that helps the town's residents get decent housing. But it's a far than lucrative line of work for its overseers. The enterprise is the only business in Bedford Falls that operates outside the clutches of cold-hearted businessman Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore). There's little money for George to make and he has to work hard to keep Potter's paws off the enterprise.

It's a Wonderful Life has many wonderful scenes. One has Potter trying to woo Bailey to come work for him. There's a promise of a huge pay increase and business trips to large cities. It's like Satan trying to woo Christ in the desert. Bailey tries to get comfortable in a seat that's too small for him as he considers this amazing offer.

Bailey considers killing himself when his forgetful Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) loses a hefty bank deposit on Christmas Eve. Bank examiners are in town and those missing dollars mean scandal, and likely jail, for George.

Heaven sends Bailey's guardian angel, Clarence (Henry Travers), to stop Bailey from taking his own life. His attempts to reason with George go nowhere, until he suggests he wishes he'd never been born. Clarence makes George's wish a reality. He has never existed.

Here's where more tears come easily. Clarence finally gets a chance to show George how his absence affects Bedford Falls. Timely interactions with others through his life have never happened. That impacts others outside Bedford Falls that George never knew existed. No George means the lives of many, many others have been impacted - for the worse.

Appreciating life. Appreciating what you have. Understanding how someone can make a big difference even in a small town. It's these themes that make It's A Wonderful Life a Christmas classic.

Plus, there's a great romance between George and Mary Hatch (Donna Reed), the girl who has loved him since she was a youngster. There's laughs with George and Mary dancing the Charleston at a high school graduation bash and George's pondering what to do when Mary ends up with no clothes and hides in a bush.

George Bailey offers James Stewart one of the finest roles in his career. There's flashes of anger and despair as his character deals with what life has handed him. Lionel Barrymore is fantastic as one of Hollywood's great villains. This man has no soul. "I am an old man and most people hate me, but I don't like them either so that makes it all even," he tells George at one point. That's a wonderful life?

See this film, again and again, and appreciate all of your life's gifts.

Merry Christmas.

RATING: 10/10

FUN FACTS: Why didn't this happen to Titanic? It's A Wonderful Life was nominated for five Oscars, including best movie, actor and director, but didn't win a single Academy Award.

It's A Wonderful Life was James Stewart's first film after serving in the Second World War.

Ward Bond is in the supporting cast as Bert, a police officer. He was Major Seth Adams in television's Wagon Train.

Gloria Grahame is Violet Bick, the other woman who's interested in George Bailey. She won a best supporting Oscar for her work in The Bad and the Beautiful .

Look closely. That's Carl 'Alfalfa' Switzer from The Little Rascals who tries to get Mary Ward on the dance floor during the graduation scene.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Holiday (1938)

Great cast. Fine romance. Good laughs.

This is a Holiday worth taking.

Johnny Case (Cary Grant) is convinced he's finally in love. His romance with Julia Seaton (Doris Nolan) is definitely a whirlwhind. The happy couple has just met and is already planning to walk down the aisle - pronto. "It's love fellas," Case tells friends Nick and Susan Porter (Edward Everett Horton, Jean Dixon). "I met the girl."

Case is a little surprised when he visits his future better half's home for the first time. The address she told him to attend is a huge home. Case figures Julia is employed at the property. Nope. It's her family's home. They're rich. Very, very rich. Father Edward Seton (Henry Kolker) is quite serious about the business of making money. Nothing else seems to matter much.

Case has his share of business savvy too, but he also wants to step away from the rat race, at least for a short while, and just enjoy life. Such a carefree approach to the bottom-line doesn't impress Seton and Julia appears to have her concerns too. She's confident Johnny has the talent to earn millions of his own. Her siblings aren't quite in love with the almighty dollar.

Brother Ned (Lew Ayres) has the talent to be a professional musician, but a career in the arts is something Edward doesn't want for his son, So, Ned drinks. A lot. "It's my protection against your tiresome friends," he suggests of alcohol's allure.

Sister Linda Seaton (Katharine Hepburn) is a free spirit just like Hepburn. She's happy her sibling has found love, but can't deny there's something about Johnny that she finds attractive too. "You haven't been bitten by the reverence for riches," Linda tells Johnny in one of the best lines from director George Cukor's 1938 romance. "Money is our god here."

Pops and Julia put the screws to Johnny - work for the family firm for a while before taking his much hoped for break. Linda urges him to stand firm to his dream. Johnny, distressed by how cash is putting a strain on his romance with Julia, finds himself drawn to Linda.

Here's a love story with some real chemistry between the leads. Love sure looks better than money here, which may have thrown audiences as the Great Depression was ending. The Seatons have the cash. Johnny has the life. Holiday is a fine film.

RATING: 9/10

FUN FACTS: Holiday is a rare chance to see Doris Nolan and Jean Dixon. Their film and television credits are limited - 25 and 16 respectively. Holiday is Dixon's last big screen appearance before some roles on television.

Hurray for Binne Barnes and her wonderful snooty work as the Seaton cousin Laura.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Thanks, Santa, for this wonderful Christmas treat.

Reel Popcorn Junkie has endured some less-than-stellar Christmas films in recent weeks. But Miracle on 34th Street is a pleasant cinematic present for viewers. Here's a movie that definitely deserves a viewing during the Christmas holidays.

Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) lashes out at a Santa who's had too much to drink before the start of Macy's annual Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City. "You're a disgrace," he admonishes the higher-than-a-kite Claus. Event organizer Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hara) recruits Kringle to fill in for his drunken predecessor. Hey, this guy looks like Santa Claus without the accessories. He's portly and sports a fine, long grey beard. Kringle's personality is warm and jovial. Talk about a people person.

Kringle is a hit with the kids along the parade route. The department store hires him to chat one-on-one with youngsters to learn their hopes for Christmas.

Kringle turns a few heads in management when he starts recommending competing merchants who have better products mothers and fathers should buy.

Macy's brass turns this into a marketing opportunity with vows to send shoppers to other retailers if they have the better buy. The plan is to develop a warm rapport with customers and make even more money because they'll be impressed with how they're treated.

Kringle doesn't find many doubters among his young fans at Macy's. But Walker's daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood), isn't a believer. Mom has taught her daughter not to believe in fantasy figures like Santa. Poor Susan has to even be coaxed by Kringle into imagining she's a monkey. She demands a gift far bigger, and difficult to obtain, than all others to see if Kringle is the real deal.

If that's not challenge enough, Macy's shrink Granville Sawyer (Peter Hall) suggests Kringle is prone to violent outbursts. This snowballs into Kringle being considered mentally unwell and committed to an institution. Yikes. It's up to Walker's neighbour, lawyer Fred Gailey (John Payne) to prove conclusively that Kris Kringle is Santa Claus.

Some of the film's best fun comes from the politics associated with Kringle's appearance. Judge Henry Harper (Gene Lockhart) is warned by his rainmaker Charlie Halloran (William Frawley), that he'll lose votes come re-election if he rules Kringle is not Santa Claus. It's not often trade unions and Santa get mentioned in the same breath, but Frowley does it here with great effect. Merchants trying to market their businesses based on Kringle's generous attitude is also a hoot - especially when two retail titans bicker over buying an X-ray machine for a doctor Kringle knows.

Younger viewers will cheer on Kringle as he tries to clear his name. Adults can enjoy the behind-the-scenes scheming Kringle's presence helps create.

Finally, a Christmas film worth putting under the tree.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Edmund Gwenn (The Trouble with Harry , Foreign Correspondent ) won an Oscar for best supporting actor for his work in Miracle on 34th Street.

William Frawley was Fred Mertz in I Love Lucy.

Alvin Greenman appears as Macy's custodian in Miracle on 34th Street. He's the only actor from the first film version to return, as a doorman, in the 1994 remake, IMDB reports.

Director George Seaton won Oscars for his screenplays for Miracle on 34th Street and The Country Girl. He was also a contributing writer to The Wizard of Oz.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

James Stewart a retail worker in Budapest?

Co-workers with European accents alongside staff seemingly plucked from the streets of Anywhere, USA?

Prepare to accept these strange situations in Shop Around the Corner and settle down with another fine romantic comedy from director Ernst Lubitsch (Trouble in Paradise and Heaven Can Wait are also reviewed on this site).

Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) is the longest-serving employee at Matuschek and Company, a gift shop. He's the only employee in the small store who'll speak candidly to the boss, Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan). Pirovitch (Felix Bressart) avoids any type of confrontation with his boss. With a wife and two children at home, he wants to keep collecting his paycheque. Florenz Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut) is an annoying kisser of posterior who's always keeping his ears tuned to any signs of dissent from the employee ranks.

Klara Novak (Margaret Sullivan) wants work, but Kralik acts as gatekeeper and tells her no jobs are to be had. She steps up and makes a pitch to a customer for a product Kralik doesn't want stocked. She's on the payroll.

Kralik and Novak continually clash. That's a little odd considering they're enthusiastically exchanging letters anonymously. Kralik saw her classified ad in the newspaper. It was posted by a "modern woman." Each confides with co-workers of the wonderful person they've found via the post and their anticipation to finally meet.

It's Pirovitch who helps Kralik learn the identity of his dear pen pal. But he opts not to reveal his identity to his co-worker. There's another rendezvous planned for Christmas Eve.

Shop offers more laughs from the clashes between Kralik and Novak than sparks created from their relationship. Novak delivers an especially punishing blow when she chides him for being "an insignificant little clerk." That verbal volley rocks Kralik. The expression on Stewart's face when he hears those words is powerful.

What message do we take from this 1940 MGM film? You never know where you'll find love? We hurt the people we love ("You're cold and snippy like and old maid," Kralik tells Novak)? Suspicion or lack of knowledge about others caries a heavy price? Matuschek sacks Kralik when he thinks his longest-serving employee is fooling around with his wife. "She just didn't want to grow old with me," the boss tells a detective (Charles Halton).

The Shop Around the Corner offers several different takes on love - love gone sour, contented family bliss and the search for love. Check it out.

RATING: 7.5/10

FUN FACTS: Frank Morgan look familiar? He's the title character in The Wizard of Oz.

Joseph Schidkraut was Otto Frank in The Diary of Anne Frank.

William Tracy appeared in Angels with Dirty Faces . His debut was in The Phantom of the Opera.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Easter Parade (1948)

Easter Parade doesn't lay an egg, but it's not all it's cracked up to be either.

My beef with this 1948 effort from director Charles Walters (High Society, Please Don't Eat the Daisies)?

True romance is hard to find.

Dancer Don Hewes (Fred Astaire) loves his partner Nadine Hall (Ann Miller). But she wants to go solo. End of relationship.

Hewes decides he'll transform chorus girl Hannah Brown (Judy Garland) into his new partner. She falls for him, but why? Hewes makes all the decisions for their act. Her input is nil. His focus is work, work, work. Hey, the guy can dance, but he's not the type to cuddle up on a couch after a show. Hannah's right when she tells him, "You're nothing but a pair of dancing shoes."

Hewes' buddy, Jonathan Harrow (Peter Lawford), is smitten with Brown, but he also has an interest in Nadine. Why? Brown isn't interested in the one guy who's showing her some affection. What's up with these people?

Dance numbers that truly impress are limited. Astaire's Drum Crazy dazzles in the film's early going. Miller is very fine with her solo, Shakin' the Blues Away.

Some of this film's best moments come from its supporting players. Kudos to Clinton Sundberg as Mike the Bartender, a barkeep who has heard plenty about relationships gone wrong. "This place is like a clinic," he tells Hewes about his workplace. That scene also gives Astaire his best line in the film. Reeling after getting the heave-ho from Miller's Nadine, he asks Mike, "Can you drown a brunette in this (drink)?"

Richard Beavers sounds great with one of Easter Parade's last numbers, The Girl on the Magazine Cover. He only made six films between 1946 and 1954. What happened there?

Finally, Jules Munshin has some fun as Headwaiter Francois, the swanky restaurant worker who keeps seating Hewes, Brown and company, but they never stick around long enough to eat. His description of his salad is a treat.

Easter Parade looks great. It's filmed in Technicolor. But where's the warmth? Not here I'm afraid.

RATING: 6/10

FUN FACTS: Easter Parade won an Oscar for best score. Thank you for the songs, Irving Berlin.

I keep finding actors who appeared in Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood. Add Ann Miller to the list. Her last credit was Mulholland Drive in 2001.

Jimmy Bates is the young lad who doesn't want to give up a stuffed rabbit to Fred Astaire in a toy shop. He also appeared in Singin' In the Rain.