There is one astounding moment of cinematic splendor that demands your attention. The lovers sit amidst a crowded symphony hall, awaiting a performance of selections from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. The conductor raises his baton, and with four jump cuts, we are rapidly drawn into the performance. But edit #5 whisks the audience to an intimate restaurant where the bandleader is kicking off a romantic violin rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Always.” The startling leap causes a brief displacement in your seat — reminiscent of Kubrick monkeying around with that bone and a spacecraft — and it’s one that’s sure to remind you what’s on screen is far tastier than a leftover hunk of stollen.
Matthew: Movie-wise, yeah, that switch to the restaurant band is wonderful. Christmas-wise, what demands your attention is the churchgoing. Soldier Harens gets roped into visiting a brothel on Christmas Eve, but when he shows himself a decent sort of chap, one of the girls asks if he’ll take her to Midnight Mass. It’s a full-on (and dragged-out) smells-and-bells routine, but set against all that solemn pomp is Durbin’s raw emotion; it isn’t long before she’s sobbing in her pew. “I didn’t cry for the reason you think,” she tells him later. “Those people were sharing something — feelings, praying together. I’ve been alone as long as I can remember.” She starts the film as an outcast, covered in shame. She ends — well, Christmas is for everyone, even whores doing penance for past sins.
Scott: What’s the quickest way to reduce an audience to tears? Kill a dog! Boys Town climaxed with nauseating child star Bobs Watson practically becoming a hood ornament. When it came time for a formulaic sequel, the screenwriters didn’t expect star players Spencer Tracy or Mickey Rooney to take a dive. The task fell to tail-wagging little Bohunk, who wound up taking one for the team, crushed to death under the wheels of a big rig. And were the Division of Family and Children’s Services at work in 1957, the release of Old Yeller would surely have found Walt Disney incarcerated for child endangerment.
Maybe it’s domesticated animal abuse in general that gets my goat. Take a pinking shears to an Achilles tendon on screen, and I’ll lead the cheers, but the second Holly boots poor-slob-without-a-name “Cat” from the cab at the end of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, my face grows cold and I start bawling. Having read “A Christmas Memory” —Truman Capote’s short, autobiographical reminiscence of Christmases spent with a charming, childlike cousin in rural Alabama — before seeing the movie, I was prepared. I hunkered down in my seat, fully dreading the moment poor old rat terrier Queenie would buy the farm and the waterworks in my tear ducts would spout.
A Christmas Memory, the Emmy Award–winning short film originally made for ABC, joined two other Capote tele-adaptations to form the theatrical release, Trilogy (1969). Capote wrote — and, in the case of A Christmas Memory, narrated — the screenplays, and Frank Perry (Diary of a Mad Housewife, Rancho Deluxe) directed. Donnie Melvin is the author’s young, on-screen counterpart Buddy, but whatever character insight there is to be found must surely be credited to the tender force of Capote’s voice-over.
Geraldine Page stars as cousin Sook, a mannered eccentric whose free-spirited Southern charm could, in less capable hands, just as easily have played like one of Auntie Mame’s poor relations. Watching Page’s face is like auditing a master class on pathos; one false gesture or forced twitch and she’d find herself slipping into a steaming vat of Fried Green Tomatoes. But instead of cloning Granny Clampett, Page mines Sook’s beauty, joy, strength, and laughter, managing to cram more emotions into a 30-minute tele-drama than you’re likely to find in a hundred features combined.
I wore the oxides off my old VHS copy, and every year I check Amazon in hopes of a spruced-up DVD for the holidays. You can check out Kensington Video’s VHS tape or, in a fit of sheer desperation, hunt down the black-and-white dupe floating around YouTube.
Matthew: Oh, my goodness. Speaking of traditions, I may have to sit the clan down for this one every Christmas Eve from here on out — even if we have to gather ’round the YouTube. Sook, as Capote notes, is something of a child herself. But instead of her oddity rendering her simple, it instead keeps her pure. And what is more, it makes her supremely protective of Buddy’s purity. Not in the moralistic sense — she’s not above giving him a taste of whiskey to celebrate — but in the sense of preserving his wonder, his joy, his sweet hope in the face of poverty’s ordinary sorrow. Wonder: the adventure of scavenging pecans and buying whiskey for the fruitcake from Ha-Ha, the delight she takes in his retellings of movie plots. Joy: the wild extravagance of buying a pound and a half of candied pineapple at 50 cents a pound, the clamor of banging the house awake on Christmas morning. Hope: the dream of a bicycle, the possibility of winning the coffee-naming contest. It’s pure enough to break your heart.
What makes Sook sad? To see Buddy growing up. Because she knows what new kinds of sorrow that will bring. She is on the right side of every line, protecting instead of smothering, indulging instead of spoiling, inspiring instead of pushing. She is the keeper of his childhood.
So much about Christmas really does make it a children’s holiday, starting with the birth of a Child that makes us children of God. Is it any wonder that so many of its traditions are aimed at children? (As opposed to, say, Thanksgiving, which celebrates by eating dinner.) And I think this very simple story gets at so much of what Christmas can give to a child. To childhood.
Scott: As a film for all seasons — one that features musical numbers celebrating everything from Christmas to the 4th of July — 1942’s Holiday Inn was the first (and finest) of three movies to include Bing Crosby chirping “White Christmas.” The star also groans Irving Berlin’s holiday anthem in Blue Skies (1946), and the biggest-selling music single of all time (100 million copies) earned title status for the 1954 remake, White Christmas.