Friday, December 24, 2010

A Holly Gabby Christmas!

Werth: Merry Christmas, Wise!

Wise: Merry Christmas, Werth!

Werth: I just love Christmas Eve. Curling up with some white chocolate pretzels and a mug of hot chocolate and vodka in front of a sparkling Christmas tree and a roaring fire waiting for Santa to come down the chimney.

Wise: You still believe in Santa?

Werth: Ssh! Children may be reading this. And nothing makes the wait for that jolly old elf more enjoyable than—

Wise: More vodka.  

Werth: Than watching a classic Christmas movie.

Wise: There are so many to choose from—Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story.

Werth: Nope. Those flicks are holiday amateur hour. When I want to watch a movie about the true spirit of Christmas, I watch The Lion in Winter.

Wise: This I gotta hear.  

Werth: It’s 1183 A.D. and King Henry II of England and bits of France is hosting Christmas at his castle in Chinon. He gathers together his three power-hungry sons; his wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine whom he keeps locked up in a castle; his doe-eyed mistress; and the young French king for some good old-fashioned holiday family dysfunction!

Wise: They don’t sing carols or have snowball fights?

Werth: To quote Good King Hank, “What shall we hang? The holly or each other?” Before the un-silent night is through, everyone’s stabbed someone in the back to get a piece of Henry’s kingdom.  Eleanor tells Henry she screwed his dad, and King Phillip lets it slip that he and Prince Richard have been doing more than hunting wild boar together.

Wise: Oh, I’ve used the old boar hunting excuse myself.

Werth: It’s historic melodrama at its Grinchiest. James Goldman’s dialogue crackles more than a yule log with the verbal barbs flying very faithfully to the 1966 play on which the film is based. Although they did cut Prince Richard’s insult about his dufus brother’s birth. “No, it’s the midwives’ fault. They threw the baby out and kept the afterbirth.”

Wise: What happened to, “Children may be reading this?”

Werth: But the best thing about this film is the acting performances. Peter O’Toole is  grumpily regal as King Henry; young Anthony Hopkins plays an early version of his infamous, icy, detached madman; and a very young Timothy Dalton is yummy as the scheming King Phillip. But it is Kate Hepburn who gives what I think is the best performance of her career. Her Eleanor of Aquitaine is a fully-imagined force of nature. 

She enacts a monologue in front of a mirror defiantly recalling the queenly legend she used to be as her haggard face looks back at her. Her fierceness, her vulnerability and her uniqueness shine in this role as a woman who is older, but no less impressive than she was that day long ago when she captured the heart of a king. It’s a role Hepburn could relate to as an aging queen of Hollywood who, despite the fact she was 61, was bound and determined not to go quietly into the Hollywood antique closet.

Wise: She won the Oscar® that year, right?

Werth: She actually shared the Oscar® that year with Barbra Streisand for Funny Girl . It was the second and last time a tie has occurred for the coveted kudo.

Wise: Who deserved it more?

Werth: I actually think Funny Girl is Streisand's best film performance, so I say neither of them should have to give back their statuette.

Wise: No one should have to give back an Oscar® on Christmas.

Werth: Except Halle Berry. What Christmas movie lights up your tree, Wise? 

Wise: Well, it combines three of my favorite things: elaborate musical numbers, heart-tugging sentiment, and puppets.  

Werth: Is it Team America: World Police

Wise: Actually, it’s The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus based on the book by L. Frank Baum. It’s one of the last Animagic Christmas specials made by Rankin-Bass, producers of some of the greatest holiday entertainments, like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman.

Werth: So, it’s not a movie? 

Wise: It’s a TV movie. 

Werth: It’s a holiday special and therefore not a movie.  

Wise: Need I remind you of your post about the Judy Garland television show last week?

Werth: You need not. Continue.

Wise: Life & Adventures tells the story of an abandoned infant adopted by the wood nymph Necile who has always longed to know more about the world outside the boundaries of the enchanted Forest of Burzee.  She names the baby Claus and raises him in perfect happiness among the other immortals.  When Claus comes of age, he is taken by The Master Woodsman to see the human world where he witnesses sorrow and suffering for the first time.   
The journey has a profound effect upon him and he decides to leave the fairy world and dedicate himself to making children happy.  After a lifetime of spreading joy, Claus approaches death, but the council of Immortals makes Claus one of them so that he will live forever to bring toys to the children of the world.  

Werth: Um.... what?  

Wise: I’m not normally a fan of stories that exploit a familiar character’s backstory, but I find Baum’s departure from the standard version of Santa Claus intriguing because he transforms the commercialism holiday gift-giving into a profound act of good.  Baum was interested in Theosophy which was a 19th Century spiritual movement and its influence gave depth to his literary world, connecting his fairy tales to larger themes.  

Werth: I’m not sure if I can handle being taught spiritual lessons by stop-motion animated puppets. 

Wise: Actually, I think it’s some of the most subtle film making ever produced by Rankin Bass.  The puppets express complex emotions and the writing addresses Baum’s most compelling ideas.  The lovely and fantastical design is clearly influenced by Alphonse Mucha, and there are plenty of funny elves and catchy tunes that stick in your head long after the hour is over.  Plus, the Master Woodsman is voiced by long-time Broadway star Alfred Drake who played opposite Katherine Hepburn in Much Ado About Nothing.  

Werth: Was that your attempt to connect Adventures to a movie?

Wise: Yup. 

Werth: Nicely done.  

Wise: Thank you. And to our readers, Merry Christmas to all—and to all a good gab!

No comments: