Christmas on Film: Christmas Eve (1947)

CHRISTMAS EVE (1947) is an often forgotten film. But it holds one distinction: it was the first writing job of screenwriter, director Robert Altman.

The film is about elderly Matilda Reid, played by Ann Harding. Matilda is extremely wealthy and eccentric. She invites birds inside her home to be fed and runs a train set at the dinner table, which delivers items like cream and sugar.

Matilda’s nephew, Phillip Hastings, played by Reginald Denny, is trying to prove that his aunt is mentally unfit and tries to become the executor of her estate. Matilda would prefer for her three adopted sons to manage her estate, but the trouble is that she hasn’t seen them in many years. She asks for lawyers to wait until Christmas Eve for her sons to return home to her and hires a private detective to help locate them.
As we meet each son, they have their own vignette to tell their story:
• Michael, played by George Brent, is a playboy; spending more money than he has. Michael tries to marry a wealthy woman to help pay off his debt of $70,000 in bad checks. Ann Nelson, played by Joan Blondell, is in love with Michael and tries to stop the wedding.
• Mario, played by George Raft, is in South America, where he runs a nightclub and is avoiding American police. He was involved in a crime in New Orleans and fled the country. Mario is dating Claire, played by Virginia Field, who he realizes is involved with Nazi war criminals, who he tangles with.
• Jonathan, played by Randolph Scott, is a broken down cowboy who drinks too much. Upon arriving in New York City on his way to see Matilda, he is sidetracked by a pretty girl, Jean, played by Dolores Moran. Jean is trying to expose an illegal adoption ring and wants Jonathan to pose as her husband to get a baby.

Aunt Matilda’s train set up at the table

The three find their way back to Matilda, all pretending that their lives are perfect, but Aunt Matilda sees through each of them.

Though titled CHRISTMAS EVE, the film isn’t solely a Christmas movie. With each story, it’s part comedy, film noir and adventure. Sometimes in each vignette, particularly George Raft’s area, you almost forget about the Matilda storyline. But the story ties together at the end, and we learn that cousin Phillip is responsible for the hardships of some of the boys. It’s also clear that Matilda won’t be alone anymore, as three baby girls make their way to her.

George Raft in “Christmas Eve”

The storyline in CHRISTMAS EVE is a bit unpredictable and catches you by surprise the first time you see it. You don’t go into this film expecting to see Nazi war criminals and a baby smuggling ring. But I still enjoy it.

What’s most notable about this film is Robert Altman’s uncredited work on the screenplay.

Today, most people know Robert Altman for his work in the 1970s; directing great films like M.A.S.H. (1970), THE LONG GOODBYE (1973) and NASHVILLE (1975) or writing the screenplay for McCABE and MRS. MILLER (1971).

But in his early days of Hollywood after serving in World War II, Altman worked as a writer in Hollywood. His first two films were CHRISTMAS EVE, for which he wasn’t credited, and the film noir BODYGUARD (1948), for which he received his first credit.

Altman’s father lived in Malibu, and below his apartment lived George W. George, the son of cartoonist and inventor, Rube Goldberg.

“George had an uncle who was a director. George was going to be a director, too, and I was going to be a writer, so we started working together. We wrote treatments and sold two of them, one to RKO The Bodyguard, with Lawrence Tierney, and Christmas Eve, with George Brent and Randolph Scott,” Altman said in an interview published in the book “Altman on Altman.”

The film was also known under the title SINNER’S HOLIDAY. Altman heard that producer Benedict Bogeaus was looking for a holiday tie in for the story, and made his way into the producer’s office to pitch an idea, according to Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff by Patrick McGilligan.

While CHRISTMAS EVE was the starting point of Altman’s career, I feel like it was the downswing for most of its stars or their careers were beginning to change.

The leads of Ann Harding, George Brent, George Raft, Joan Blondell and Reginald Denny all found their greatest success in the 1930s, particularly during the Pre-Code era. While they were all still active in films, they weren’t of the same caliber. Here are some of the shifts in careers:
• At 45 and around the same age as her male co-stars, Harding plays a woman of 70 convincingly. This same year, she was in another holiday film, IT HAPPENED ON 5TH AVENUE. Now, she was playing mothers, while in the 1930s, she played women of questionable morals, like in DOUBLE HARNESS.
• This was Randolph Scott’s last non-western film, though he still plays a cowboy. Scott performed strictly in westerns until his last film in 1962.
• George Brent was also moving into parental roles, with his next film as Jane Powell’s father in LUXURY LINER.
• After Christmas Eve, Joan Blondell wouldn’t appear in another film until 1950.
• Actress Dolores Moran was the newest to Hollywood of the group, starting in films in 1940 with her first credited role as grownup Deidre in OLD AQUINTANCE (1943). Extremely beautiful, Moran was a popular pin-up of World War II, and her popularity seemed to diminish after the war. Moran was married to the film’s producer Benedict Bogeaus, and she also didn’t make another film until 1950.

CHRISTMAS EVE was later remade for television in 1986 with Loretta Young as the elderly woman. In the next adaptation, she is looking for her grandchildren, and it’s her son who is trying to say she is senile. Bringing everyone back together could also be compared to the television movie, THE GATHERING.

While CHRISTMAS EVE (1947) may not be a memorable Christmas favorite, I still find it enjoyable. It has something for everyone: drama, comedy, film noir and the holidays. It’s a bit of a wild ride, but a fun one.

Jackie Cooper’s Halloween Party

While I am no expert chef, fabulous cook or food blogger, I enjoy finding recipes supposedly connected to classic film stars. I love magazines articles and ads touting Richard Dix’s favorite chili recipe or Cary Grant’s oyster stew. I even collect compilation books or pamphlets featuring top stars and their recipes.

Even the child stars were getting in the act with culinary activities.

In the October 1931 issue of Photoplay, 9-year-old Jackie Cooper shares his favorite recipes that he will be preparing for an upcoming Halloween party.

“There is going to be a Halloween party at Jackie Cooper’s house. There will probably be lots of stunts – weird, flapping ghosts and strange creepy noises everywhere, but when everyone is hungry, there will be plenty of goodies close by. That rascal Jackie will have more than a hand in the pranks played on his guests, but not many of them will guess that he had a hand in the cooking too!”

With the holiday tie in, I decided to try these recipes for the Halloween season.

The article shares recipes that Jackie jotted down for us readers. I gave them a try, and while I’m no expert baker, I think they all turned out fairly well. That said – I wasn’t familiar with some of the older cooking terms that differ from our contemporary stoves, ovens and cooking methods. For example, I had to research the temperature of a hot oven or moderate oven. Here are the outcomes of Jackie’s pumpkin pie, chocolate caramels and peanut cookies:

Pumpkin Pie:

Unfortunately the scanned article does cut off the right side – this wasn’t a scan error.

The outcome of the pie.

My review:
The end product of this pumpkin pie was really delicious, but the good outcome was a surprise. Everything was mixing fairly well, though getting a bit soupy. The last step of the recipe is to mix in melted butter. Since my butter was still warm, it reacted poorly when hitting the other, cooler ingredients. Instead of mixing smoothly, the butter congealed. When poured in the pie shell, the butter rose to the top. Because of the soupy nature of the mixture, the pie ended up baking for 2 hours.

If I made this again, I would mix the melted butter in earlier with the dry ingredients. The mixture also made more than the deep dish pie shell would hold, so I would also consider using mini pie tarts in order to use the whole mixture.

Otherwise, this pumpkin pie was one of the best I have eaten. I really liked the cinnamon that was included.

Substitutes: I used canned pumpkin and a frozen Pillsbury pie shell.

Chocolate Caramels:

My review: While none of the recipes were particularly difficult to make, the caramels may have been the easiest. Making this is similar to fudge – it is all on the stove, like any other candy making. Though I would describe the finished product more like hard candy (or Werther’s Originals) than caramel. Once the candy cooled and hardened, it was VERY hard.

I had to chisel these with a knife and a baking hammer to cut them into small squares. And boy were they hard to eat! Be careful if you have any fillings! However, after a day or two, they softened to a flakey consistency and melted in your mouth! I actually think this candy tasted better a day or two after making it.

In making these, the only difficulty was determining if the baking chocolate I bought was correct and enough. The packaging of Baker’s chocolate changed, making it a little confusing. Also, I chopped the chocolate with a knife, rather than grating.

Peanut Cookies

My review: I’m not a huge fan of nuts (pecans, almonds, etc) in my desserts, but these peanut cookies are very tasty! They were also the easiest to make. I wasn’t sure if the peanut-to-dough ratio was going to work out, but it mixed perfectly. These were tasty! Of course, if you have any tree nut allergies, do not attempt to make or eat these.

You can find the full recipe as it was printed in Photoplay here. I absolutely believe that Jackie Cooper made these, don’t you? Just kidding – but whether he did or not, it was a fun way to spend a weekend.

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Christmas review: The Gathering (1977)

The holidays are usually thought to be about family. But what if some families no longer get along.

The made-for-TV special “The Gathering,” which aired on Dec. 4, 1977, on ABC, takes a look at a man who wants to spend the holiday with his family, fully knowing they may not want to see him.

Ed Asner plays Adam Thornton, a man successful at business but not successful in his personal life. He and his wife are separated, and he hasn’t seen most of his children in several years — and they don’t want to see him either.

He also just found out that he’s dying and running out of time.

Maureen Stapleton plays Kate, his estranged wife, who sets aside her hurt feelings to arrange a homecoming so Adam can have one last Christmas with his family.

Since their parents separated, many of the children don’t want anything to do with their stalwart, business-focused father. They all live across the country and haven’t seen Adam in some time:

  • Tom (Lawrence Pressman) and his wife (Veronica Hamel) live a lavish metropolitan life in New York. Tom, who is hardheaded like his father, tries to be the opposite of him. For example, he insists on a white Christmas tree, because Adam always insisted on green.
  • Peggy (Gail Strickland) is a successful reporter in Washington, DC, whose work drives her life.
  • Julie (Rebecca Balding) is married to George (Bruce Davison), who has been unemployed for several months. Julie loves her parents, but George is bitter towards Adam. He feels that Adam will mock him for his failures and chide him for not joining the family business. Julie has the only two grandchildren, Tiffany and Joey (Maureen and Ronald Readinger).
  • Bud (Gregory Harrison) and Adam had a fight years ago, because Bud disapproved of the Vietnam War. Since then, Bud lives in Canada under various assumed names while he dodges the draft.

Many of the children aren’t interested in coming home for the holidays but also hope that their parents have reconciled. They change their plans and head to the Thornton family home to support their mother.

Maureen Stapleton and Ed Asner in “The Gathering”

Before renting “The Gathering” from DVD Netflix, I heard my parents talk about the film. They recalled watching it on TV when they were first married, and it was a Christmas tradition to watch it for the first few years of their marriage. Once they had children, they drifted away from the film, so it was special to get to watch this film with them. It was the first time either of my parents had revisited the movie in nearly 40 years.

I wasn’t sure what to expect of “The Gathering.” Since I knew the premise was about a dying man wanting to spend one last Christmas with his family, I was worried it would be overly maudlin, or feature lots of shouting and fights (like “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” or “All in the Family.”)

However,  was pleasantly surprised. The movie is certainly sad, but also rather heartwarming.

There are a few shouting matches, but nothing is overly dramatic. The story focuses more on realizing what’s important. Ed Asner’s character realizes he was a foolish stubborn bull. All of his children, who had also been so bitter and angry about their family for so many years, remembered how much they enjoy being together.

While you know Adam’s time is brief, you also know that everyone found piece and comfort. Only one child understands that he is losing a father, and it’s never spoken to the family.

Thankfully, the end of the story isn’t this abrupt, pie-in-the-sky ending. The cracks in the relationships are still there, but the holiday brought everyone closer and helped them relive old times. It shows that the holidays can be hard, but there is a way to make peace and enjoy your time together, especially when time is running out.

While the film has a somber tone, it also feels cozy and homey. As Adam and Kate set aside their differences and prepare the home for a holiday reunion, it reminded me of Christmases gone-by —maybe had by myself as a child or what my parents experienced growing up.

Adam rewires the electricity of an old dollhouse for a grandchild and repaints an old toy train. He hammers together a Christmas tree stand and puzzles over tree lights that won’t work. Kate goes through old ornaments, and the separated couple decorates the evergreen tree together.

Their cheerful and nostalgic Christmas preparation scenes also serve as a stark contrast to how their children live now. The scenes almost serve as a “now vs. then” way of storytelling: Adam and Kate preparing to relive their homespun holidays of the past, and their four children muddling through their chaotic and complicated adult lives.

To add to the homey setting, “The Gathering” was filmed in Chagrin Falls and Hudson, Ohio in February 1977. The film opens showing the town decorated for the holidays with colored lights, bright store windows and the streets and houses coated with snow.

Composer John Barry, known for his James Bond themes, scored “The Gathering” with both a lilting but somber sound. The score is filled with harpsicords, flutes, strings and piano.

Randal Kleiser, who also directed the made-for-TV film “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble” (1976) and “Grease” (1978), directed the film. “The Gathering” was also one of the few live-action films produced by Hanna-Barbera Productions, known for their cartoons like “Yogi Bear.”

Where some made-for-TV shows and films of this era sometimes try to sucker punch you with hard emotion, “The Gathering” is subtle. This is probably largely due to Asner and Stapleton in the lead roles, who are fantastic actors and make the setting and relationships feel believable.

Disclaimer: I subscribe to DVD Netflix and earn rewards from DVD Nation.

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Franksgiving: A tale of two Thanksgivings

The year 1939 is filled with notable dates in history.

World War II was declared in Europe on Sept. 3, 1939. Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians recorded “Auld Lang Syne” for the first time on March 7, 1939. Lou Gehrig retired from the Yankees on June 21, 1939. Considered Hollywood’s greatest year, films like “Gone with the Wind” and “Wizard of Oz” were released.

And there were two Thanksgivings that November.

On Aug. 15, 1939, newspapers announced that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was going to move Thanksgiving up a week to the third week of November, rather than the fourth. In 1939, that made Thanksgiving Day Nov. 23 rather than Nov. 30.

The move was to help boost holiday sales after the president received complaints that the last Thursday in November was too late for Thanksgiving. The date was too close to Christmas and cut down on Christmas shopping, according to an Aug. 15, 1939, Associated Press (AP) article, “Thanksgiving Moved Up A Week.”

President Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt at Thanksgiving dinner in 1939 in Warm Springs, GA.

The change met some praise but mostly criticism.

Not only did the change affect when families gathered for a large meal, it also threw a wrench into calendars like academic schedules and the football industry.

“The precedent-shattering change … promised to upset the nation’s multi-million dollar Turkey day football industry,” according to the AP article. “Some of the season’s biggest and oldest grid games are scheduled for Nov. 30, which the schedule makers thought would be Thanksgiving Day. Moving the games back to Dec. 2 or up to Nov. 23 will be impossible in some cases.”

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The Christmas Tree (1969)

I’m on a constant quest for new-to-me Christmas movies. I search for them like I have a job in it with benefits.

And that’s how I found Terence Young’s “A Christmas Tree” (1969), also titled “L’arbre de Noël” and “When Wolves Cry.”

Starring William Holden, Virna Lisi, Bourvil and Brook Fuller, Laurent (Holen) is a widower who goes on summer vacation with his son Pascal (Fuller). Pascal wants to do something new and go camping on a remote island in Corsica.

While camping and swimming, Laurent and Pascal witness a plane carrying crash into the ocean and explode, and Laurent learns that the plane was carrying a nuclear device.

Pascal starts to have strange symptoms, like blue spots appearing and disappearing on his skin. He’s diagnosed as having an incurable disease due to nuclear exposure and is only giving a few months to live.

Not telling his son his diagnosis, Laurent pulls Pascal out of school, and they leave Paris and head to a chateau in the countryside of France. Laurent and the groundskeeper Verdun (Bourvil) let Pascal have whatever he wants — including a tractor to ride around the property and stealing wolves from the zoo.

The wolves are vicious creatures, but Pascal tames them with his gentle nature.

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Musical Monday: Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 500. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962)– Musical #597

Studio:
NBC

Director:
Abe Levitow

Starring:
Jim Backus, Morey Amsterdam, Jack Cassidy, Royal Dano, Paul Frees, Joan Gardner, Les Tremayne, John Hart, Jane Kean, Marie Matthews, Laura Olsher

Plot:
Mr. Magoo (Backus) is on Broadway playing Ebenezer Scrooge in a stage version of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Scrooge is visited three ghosts and take him on a journey of self-exploration of his past, present and future.

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Watching 1939: Miracle on Main Street (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film:  Miracle on Main Street (1939)

Release date:  Dec. 19, 1939

Cast:  Margo, Walter Abel, Jane Darwell, Lyle Talbot, William Collier Sr., Veda Ann Borg, Wynne Gibson, Jean Brooks (billed as Jeanne Kelly), Pat Flaherty, George Humbert

Studio:  Columbia Pictures Corporation

Director:  Steve Sekely

Plot:
On Christmas Eve in the Spanish quarter of Los Angeles, Maria (Margo) is performing as a hoochie coochie in her husband Dick’s (Talbot) show. When one of the attendees is a police officer, the couple run from the police, but Dick says they should separate so they aren’t caught. Maria hides in a church where she finds an abandoned baby. While her husband remains absent for a year, Maria’s life is changed for the better by the baby and a new man she meets, Jim (Abel).

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Musical Monday: Shirley Temple’s Storybook “Babes in Toyland” (1960)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 500. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
Shirley Temple’s Storybook” presents “Babes in Toyland” (1960) – Musical No. 596

Shirley Temple Black introducing the Dec. 25, 1960 episode of “Shirley Temple’s Storybook” with her children Charles Jr, Lori and Linda Susan
(Screen Cap by Jessica P.)

Studio:
NBC Studios

Director:
Bob Henry

Starring:
Shirley Temple, Jonathan Winters, Angela Cartwright, Jerry Colonna, Carl Ballantine, Joe Besser, Charles Black Jr., Lori Black, Bob Jellison, Ray Kellogg, Michel Petit, Hanley Stafford

Plot:
Alan (Petit) and Jane (Cartwright) live with their cantankerous and stingy Barnaby (Winters). The children’s parents left them a great deal of money for when they grow up, so Barnaby hires three cutthroats (Colonna, Ballantine, Besser) to kill the children so he can get all the money. The children escape being drowned and journey through a gypsy camp, Spider Forest, Meantown and finally to Toyland.

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“Holiday Affair” (1949) and interview with Gordon Gebert

After Robert Mitchum was released from jail for marijuana possession, his studio was looking to clean up his image. The answer was a romantic holiday comedy, “Holiday Affair” (1949).

“At this time Robert Mitchum was operating under the cloud. The head of the studio was eager to clean up his image with this film,” said former child actor Gordon Gebert at a recent screening of the film in Yadkinville, NC.

The film “Holiday Affair” (1949) revolves around war widow Connie, played by Janet Leigh, who lives with her son Timmy, played by Gebert. Connie has dated her boyfriend Carl, played by Wendell Corey, for two years. Carl is secure, reliable and has a steady job, but while Connie likes him, she ducks the discussion of marriage.

Then Connie meets a stranger, Steve, played by Robert Mitchum, who is a store clerk she gets fired. While they never plan on it, the two continuously run into each other, making it hard to forget the other.

Outside of the romantic triangle, the film also focuses on what post-war widows most likely faced: How do you move on from your husband who was killed in war?

Connie hasn’t and tries to honor her husband’s memory every day. She lives a quiet life with her son who she calls the man of the house. Connie tells him frequently that he looks like his father and tries to part his hair in the same way that her husband wore his. She hasn’t allowed herself to fall in love again, because she doesn’t want to be unfaithful to the memory of her first marriage.

Robert Mitchum’s character forces Janet Leigh to face a truth she has been hiding from. Leigh’s character is flustered both by her feelings and by the harsh reality quoted to her by Mitchum.

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Review: Horror stars keep us in “Suspense”

Complete with creepy organ music straight from a radio serial, “Suspense” was a live television program that aired from 1949 to 1954. The show followed a radio program of the same name, which is obvious from the narration and music.

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