Ron’s expectations of a sports epic were soon quashed; Marty was more concerned with what goes on outside the ring than in. True to his text, Rick and I emerged, and as if summoned by the Pharisees, with eyes wide open. A call to Rick in search of further memories provided this warm and fuzzy chestnut: “It was the last time my brother and I ever smoked pot together.”
Another Norman Rockwell painting to add crackle to the Christmas pyre.
Matthew: Okay, you win on this one. All I got is the importance of tradition and ritual in life. Me, I like to start Christmas morning with homemade brioche. But to each his own. Raging Bull is a story of life gone sour, of gifts overlooked because of a cramped soul. Jake can’t see the good thing he has in his wife because he’s afraid she’s faithless — you know, like he was with his previous wife — and it poisons everything. It’s an attitude perhaps best summed up when [SPOILER] he smashes the championship belt in order to get at the jewels. His vision is so narrowed that he can’t see the precious thing in front of him. If anything, he’s the sort of character ripe for a Christmas redemption.
Scott: You want a character ripe for Christmas redemption? Try the Lemon Drop Kid, a desperate hustler who dreams up a scheme to open a home for old ladies and then dump ’em on the street come Christmas day. Best of all, he’s played by Bob “For Christmas” Hope. For decades, America’s most enduring comedian spent his holidays overseas selflessly entertaining our troops, only to bring filmed evidence of his munificence back to NBC where it could be spun into ratings gold. As a child, I ran from The Bob Hope Christmas Specials. Now I run to them. Hope is an acquired taste. For every legitimately funny comedy he turned out in his artistic glory days on the Paramount backlot, there are mile-high stacks of idiot cards, testimony to his indolent, post-’60s television work. They sit gathering dust in Old Ski Nose’s joke vault, with nary an intentionally funny barb scrawled across one of them.
Hope’s greatest contributions to movie comedy were hatched under Frank Tashlin’s watch. A former Looney Tunes animator and future guru to Jerry Lewis, Tashlin seldom seemed to discriminate between characters made of flesh and blood and those drawn of pen and ink. The Bob Hope vehicle The Lemon Drop Kid was the director’s first stab at a live-action “cinematoon.”
Twentieth Century Fox was not pleased with contract director Sidney Lanfield’s dailies, so they brought duffer Tash on board to bat cleanup. Lanfield received sole screen credit, but it was Tashlin who directed a good one-third of the film. The Lemon Drop Kid introduced Jay Livingston and Ray Evans’s holiday classic, “Silver Bells.” With all the subsequent versions Xeroxed for Hope’s numerous televised extravaganzas, none compare to this thriftless rendition.
Oddly enough, the film was not part of Paramount’s 1950 Christmas package. (It was released in March of 1951.) After Bing Crosby’s recording of “Silver Bells” set the charts on fire in December of 1950, Paramount reassembled the cast and crew to stage a more elaborate filming of the musical number.
Hope, in full Santa regalia, and alongside leading lady (and offscreen paramour) Marilyn Maxwell, stroll arm-in-arm crooning his signature Christmas tune, through art directors Hal Pereira and Franz Bachelin’s meticulous soundstage simulation of a bustling Manhattan snowscape. For its climax, a heavenly chorus kicks in, and the music rises to a crescendo as the crane elevates the camera within inches of piercing the studio roof. The farther back we get, the more muffled the city’s sounds become. Music and picture gently entwine as a dissolve reveals a miniature cityscape blanketed by white. When it comes to snow, Tashlin’s man-made dusting is the closest this lapsed-Midwesterner will ever get to feeling sentimental effusion.
Matthew: First, let me note a developing theme: the Chinese and Christmas. It bolsters my case: even back in 1950, when Chinese-Americans were more Other than they are today, Christmas was for everyone. Hope drives this home as he sings, now to a German Santa Claus, now to an Irish cop, and now to a couple of Chinese kids. The kids are grinning, just as delighted as anyone to be part of the throng hearing those silver bells signaling Christmastime in the city. And why? Because the song is about shopping, the great joyous orgy of stuff — “This is Santa’s big scene.”
But wait — those silver bells are not strung overhead. They’re “on every streetcorner” — being rung by Santas who are begging, not Santas who are doling out goodies. Hope himself is such a Santa, as are all of his downmarket pals. Almost as delightful as the song itself was the montage that preceded it — one Santa cheating in a dice game as he tries to raise funds, another crying, “Let’s put some dough in the kitty!” Christmas, for all its rampant consumerism, is at its very best when it works to bring good news to the poor and downtrodden. And best of all, it turns out that even Santa can use a little Christmas miracle. I won’t say more for fearing of spoiling things, but I will say that it is my absolute favorite use of the Shopping Days ’Til Christmas countdown. I cannot thank you enough for turning me on to this.
Scott: If ever there was a case to sue a movie studio for false advertising, it’s 1944’s Christmas Holiday. Cute and perky songstress Deanna Durbin stars opposite hoofer Gene Kelly’s Cheshire grin. But instead of a light, frothy studio musical, audiences were treated to a rare holiday noir. Dave Kehr referred to it as “a must for anyone who has suffered through (Durbin’s) One Hundred Men and a Girl.”
Directed by noir mainstay Robert Siodmak, Christmas Holiday is loosely based on a story by W. Somerset Maugham, retooled for the movies to include heaps of World War II propaganda by screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (who a few years earlier had a hand in Citizen Kane). Kelly plays a bow-tied psycho-killer whose prison break coincides with the holidays. Told in intricate flashback structure, the story relates how cabaret singer Durbin recruits the aid of a serviceman passing through New Orleans (Dean Harens, barely registering on screen) to help thwart her husband Kelly’s revenge-fueled break. Hardly the stuff mistletoe and holly is made of.