December 8, 2011 § 1 Comment
The Man Who Came to Dinner is, hands down, my favorite Christmas movie. In it, radio personality Sheridan Whiteside is invited to dine at the house of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley of Mesalia, Ohio, just before Christmastime. On his way up their icy front steps, he slips and falls, breaking his hip. Confined to their house for the entire holiday season, he entertains himself by making himself at home: receiving dinner guests of his own, terrorizing his nurse and monopolizing the domestics, meddling in the family’s affairs . . . and don’t forget receiving elaborate Christmas presents, like the crate of penguins from Antarctic explorer Admiral Byrd, which he allows free reign of the Stanleys’ library.
Monty Woolley is hilarious as unwanted house guest Sheridan Whiteside, and Bette Davis is just Bette Davis enough to play off his barbs in her role as his assistant. With the two of them spending the entire movie sparring and scheming, the entire film has enough bite to cut through the usual holiday comedy treacle. I prefer my holiday films with a little bit of acid mixed in with the sugar–of which The Man Who Came to Dinner doesn’t neglect, with a love-at-first-sight affair between Bette Davis and the local newspaperman.
Not everybody prefers that acidity, though. Popular opinion on this film is highly divided between those who find Whiteside’s reign of terror hilarious and those who find it sadistic and uncomfortable to watch. And while I usually fall into the latter camp while watching movies and TV–I get mad at Leslie on Parks & Rec when she’s mean to Jerry!–Sheridan Whiteside is so over the top, so downright absurd, that I can’t help laughing. And it definitely helps if you’re able to get the jokes. The first time I saw this, my freshman year of college, I found it amusing, but there were so many then-current pop culture references that I didn’t understand, so a lot of the film flew over my head. Now, with three solid years of classic movie-watching (and a little history-reading) under my belt, I actually know who Deanna Durbin and ZaSu Pitts are, who the characters of Beverly Carlton and Banjo are supposed to reference. That makes the whole thing a hell of a lot funnier. While Bette Davis gets much more praise for her dramatic acting than for her skills in comedy, I genuinely do enjoy her funnier films. Her intelligence has a way of elevating any film she’s in, regardless of the script, and I always appreciate her comedic turns just as much as I do the dramatic ones. And when she’s blessed with a clever script like this one . . .
As a final bonus, there’s Monty Woolley’s amazing mustache. I mean . . . come on.
December 26, 2010 § Leave a comment
In honor of the holiday season winding up, here’s a run-down of a few of my favorite Christmas films. While I’ve spent most of the past few weeks hiding out from winter storms in my cozy little house catching up on Lost and drinking wine leftover from the holiday party my boyfriend and I hosted, I did manage to snatch a few minutes to re-watch a few of my holiday favorites. Be forewarned: Christmas dramas don’t do it for me, and I’m a little iffy on all variations of Ebenezer Scrooge, Charlie Brown, and anything involving children convincing jaded adults of the possibility of holiday miracles. On the other hand, I do love . . .
. . . 1960s stop-motion and Burl Ives singing about holly, jolly Christmases, but even more than that, I love How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Why? Max. That dog alone can carry the whole movie–and as a bonus, you get Thurl Ravenscroft’s delightfully nasty “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” Grinch is my favorite type of Christmas movie, the one that has you rooting for the villain both before and after his miraculous metamorphosis into a beacon of holiday cheer. I love my holiday films with a little bit of black humor to balance out their light.
. . . which is also why I love The Man Who Came to Dinner so very much. Monty Woolley is just hilarious as unwanted house guest Sheridan Whiteside, Bette Davis is just Bette Davis enough to play off his barbs in her role as his assistant, and the entire film has enough bite to cut through the usual holiday comedy treacle.
Still, I’m not totally averse to holiday treacle, which becomes obvious when you realize that the holiday musical is my favorite holiday sub-genre of all. My favorite Christmas scene in a musical is Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in Meet Me in St. Louis (also my favorite Christmas song), but if I have to pick a full-length movie musical dedicated to the glories of roasting chestnuts and sleigh rides, et cetera, et cetera, then I haltingly opt for White Christmas. Sure, it’s conventional, and all right, In the Good Old Summertime has Judy Garland plus that charming Edwardian setting that I love, but . . . White Christmas has Vera-Ellen’s light-as-a-cloud dancing, cute sisterly chemistry with Rosemary Clooney, and army buddies! What’s not to love?
Merry Christmas to all!
August 29, 2010 § Leave a comment
The Letter begins with a literal bang–or rather, six of them. The opening shot, panning over the dreamy, moonlit grounds of a Malayan rubber plantation, is interrupted by Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) emptying a revolver into Geoffrey Hammond. The plantation workers rush over. Someone runs off to find Davis’s husband and the police. Once they arrive, she reluctantly recounts the whole sordid story for them: Hammond attempted to rape her; she shot only in self-defense. Though her account is pitch-perfect, punctuated by the appropriate stagy sobs and adoring glances at her husband, we know right off the bat that something’s just a little bit . . . off. Her lawyer, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) isn’t fully convinced, either. When the officer notes that the corpse was “just riddled with bullets,” you can see the gears beginning to shift in Joyce’s brain. All of this occurs in the film’s first fifteen minutes–and then we’re off and running alongside Joyce as he starts to unravel the web Leslie weaves.
The British colonies, be they Asian, American or African, are some of my favorite film settings. Any story with a colonial setting will work, but especially the Brits–I love the palpable danger you sense as they pull this paper-thin veneer of white linen and garden parties across a culture that’s about to bubble over with heat and oppression. Even the otherwise most run-of-the-mill pictures, the ones that were ignored when they were released, offer plenty for the modern viewer to dissect if they’re placed within a colonial frame. The racial tension and stereotyping of “the natives” are a given. But with a richly drawn movie like The Letter, the white characters give us plenty to analyze, too. Far from home, they’re allowed to act in ways that would never have been allowed in the panopticon of British society. This is especially true for the ladies, any one of whom may be the only white woman for miles, surrounded by plenty of intelligent, ambitious white men making their fortunes on the plantations . . .
And so it plays out in The Letter. Interestingly enough, the two characters who hold the most power are the women: Leslie Crosbie, and Mr. Hammond’s Anglo-Asian widow (played by the very white Gale Sondergaard, naturally). The movie’s men are all pawns, go-betweens, and dupes. The only time men hold even a parody of power is when the all-male jury is allowed to vote on Leslie’s innocence or guilt–but even then, it’s she who manipulated their decision. Not only are women the ones with the power, but in a further twist, it’s Mrs. Hammond–the “Eurasian,” the outsider, the supposed inferior–who holds the upper hand over Leslie. Throughout the movie, all the things that Leslie wants belong to her, and both of them know it. But the audience doesn’t . . . until Leslie goes to see her in the Chinese section of Singapore to acquire the titular letter. The camera lingers on the “exotic” decor, emphasizing that we’ve passed beyond the borders of Leslie’s territory. It’s Mrs. Hammond and her associates who give the orders here–and in a scene that provides both Joyce and the audience with a visceral aha! moment, Mrs. Hammond drops the letter to the floor and forces Leslie to kneel before her in order to pick it up. Leslie slowly stoops to retrieve it, without comment. Now we see–like the women–who’s been pulling the strings all along.
Of course, none of this is real power: the white men still run the companies, the police headquarters, the law offices. But for a movie that’s so blatantly racist on the surface–Gale Sondergaard in yellowface, Wily Oriental and Dragon Lady stereotypes galore–it’s a fascinating turn.