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.

Musical Monday: High, Wide and Handsome (1937)

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 600. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
High, Wide and Handsome (1937) – Musical #631

Studio:
Paramount Pictures

Director:
Rouben Mamoulian

Starring:
Irene Dunne, Randolph Scott, Dorothy Lamour, William Frawley, Raymond Walburn, Elizabeth Patterson, Charles Bickford, Akim Tamiroff, Ben Blue, Irving Pichel, Stanley Andrews, James Burke, Roger Imhof, Lucien Littlefield, Rolfe Sedan (uncredited), Helen Lowell (uncredited), Raymond Brown (uncredited)

Plot:
Set in the 1850s, Sally (Dunne) travels in a medicine show with her father Doc Watterson (Walburn) and his partner Mac (Frawley). When their wagon catches on fire and burns down in a small Pennsylvania town, they stay with Peter Cortlandt (Scott) and his grandma (Patterson). Sally and Peter fall in love, and on their wedding day, Peter strikes oil. As Peter works to grow his oil business, Sally is frequently left alone.

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Musical Monday: Belle of the Yukon (1944)

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:
Belle of the Yukon” (1944)– Musical #471

critique-belle-of-the-yukon-seiter

Studio:
RKO Pictures

Director:
William A. Seiter

Starring:
Randolph Scott, Gypsy Rose Lee, Dinah Shore, Charles Winneger, William Marshall, Bob Burns, Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams, Florence Bates

Plot:
Set during the Canadian Gold Rush, John Calhoun (Scott) is a saloon owner but has a past as a con artist. His old girlfriend Belle De Valle (Lee) comes into town to perform at his saloon and hopes that Calhoun plans to stay honest. The saloon manager Pop Candless (Winneger) has a pretty daughter, Lettie (Shore), who is in love with piano player Steve Attenbury (Marshall). But Pop is concerned about Steve’s past.

Trivia:
-Gypsy Rose Lee was pregnant during the filming of this movie with Otto Preminger’s child, Erik Lee Preminger (Kirkland–who she was going through a divorce with at the time), according to Stripping Gypsy: The Life of Gypsy Rose Lee By Noralee Frankel. Erik said in the book that Lee had an affair with Preminger for the sole purpose of conceiving a child (him). When she was three months pregnant, she made excuses why she couldn’t take publicity stills and kept her pregnancy quiet so she wouldn’t have bad publicity that would ruin her film career, according to Frankel’s book.
-Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song for “Sleigh Ride in July” by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke.
-Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture by Arthur Lange.

Dinah Shore in "Belle of the Yukon"

Dinah Shore in “Belle of the Yukon”

Highlights:
-Gypsy Rose Lee in the film.

Notable Songs:
-“Like Someone in Love” performed by Dinah Shore
-“Sleigh Ride in July” performed by Dinah Shore

My review:
This movie is plain nonsense but a ton of fun.
What’s most appealing to me about “Belle of the Yukon” (1944) is the cast. Have you ever found a more random but delightful group of actors thrown together? Dinah Shore, Gypsy Rose Lee and Randolph Scott couldn’t be more different but they make it work. And you even get to watch the three in Technicolor.
Scott is comfortable in the film, because by this time, he was primarily in westerns. Dinah Shore sings a few ballads and looks cute in the period gowns and her long wig.
But obviously the real sensation is seeing the famed burlesque queen on screen, Gypsy Rose Lee. This is one of 13 film credits she made between 1937 and 1969.
And then there is Charles Winninger, who you never can go wrong with as the bumbling but sweet father.
The plot is goofy, the songs are just okay but you must catch “Belle of the Yukon” for a slice of simple, happy entertainment.

Gypsy Rose Lee and Randolph Scott in "Belle of the Yukon"

Gypsy Rose Lee and Randolph Scott in “Belle of the Yukon”

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Classics in the Carolinas: Randolph Scott

Comet Over Hollywood is doing a mini-series of “Classics in the Carolinas.” I’ll be spotlighting classic movie related topics in South Carolina (my home state) and North Carolina (where I currently live and work).

Handsome Randolph Scott

From playing a Confederate soldier alongside Errol Flynn in “Virginia City” (1940) to Shirley Temple’s kindly neighbor in “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farms” (1938), Randolph Scott acted with the top actors in Hollywood.

But before he romanced Irene Dunne in “Roberta” or was roommates with Cary Grant in their “Bachelor Hall,” Scott grew up in the south.

Though born in Orange County, V.A., in 1898, Scott lived most of his life in Charlotte, N.C. where his father, George Scott, worked as a public accountant and owned the firm Scott, Charnley and Co. The Scott family was prestigious prior to Randolph’s Hollywood fame. His father, a graduate of Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., was the Chairman of the Finance Committee in Charlotte and oversaw the city’s first published financial statement in the early 1900s.

George Scott also helped modernize Charlotte’s accounting systems for the city’s administration and water department. He also was recognized by the state for the drafting of North Carolina’s first certified public accountant law, and he was appointed by the governor to the state board of accountancy.

Randolph Scott left Charlotte in 1917 when he went to fight in World War I. After returning home, he went to Georgia Tech, with dreams of being an All-American football player until he suffered from a back injury. He then became a Tar Heel when he transferred to the University of North Carolina (UNC) and studied textile engineering and manufacturing.

Scott stayed for two semesters at UNC before returning home to Charlotte where he worked as an accountant for his father’s firm and was a charter member of the Charlotte Civitan Club.

Scott’s grave in Charlotte, N.C. His wife Patricia is buried here with him.

It was in 1927 that Scott left his home of Charlotte, N.C. and traveled to Hollywood with a letter of introduction from his father to Howard Hughes. He was able to meet Hughes and score a screen test with Cecil B. DeMille.

Randolph Scott acted in musicals with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and starred in comedies, but he found his niche in westerns.

“They have been the mainstay of the industry ever since its beginning. And they have been good to me. Westerns are a type of picture which everybody can see and enjoy,” Scott said. “Westerns always make money. And they always increase a star’s fan following.”

Though he acted with the top Hollywood stars of the 1930s and 1940s, he is underrated and not as well known today as his best friends Fred Astaire and Cary Grant.

His last role was an aging gunslinger in Sam Peckinpah’s “Ride the High Country” (1962), after which he didn’t return to films, living the remainder of his life in Beverly Hills.

“All the old movies are turning up on television, and frankly, making pictures doesn’t interest me too much anymore,” he said in 1962.

Scott passed away in 1987 and was buried in his childhood home of Charlotte, N.C. His grave is four blocks from his childhood home.

Since I live close to Charlotte, I visited his grave on Sept. 1, 2012, in Elmwood Cemetery. His wife Patricia of 44 years was buried with him.

Paying my respects to Mr. Scott and his wife.

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