Wise: And a very Merry Christmas to you too, Werth. Are you getting your usual Holiday buzz on?
Werth: I sure am! Especially since it's time for our annual Film Gab Holiday Movie Spectacular!
Wise: Nothing makes the holidays sweeter than a good Christmas flick.
Werth: This year, my cinematic Christmas treat is sweet and tart. Based on the successful Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman Broadway play, The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942) is a raucous, witty Christmas stocking full of laughs. Famed radio personality, critic, and bon vivant Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley) is forced to make a press stop at the Mesalia, Ohio home of "Midwestern barbarians" Mr. & Mrs. Stanley (Grant Mitchell and Billie Burke). "Sherry's" well-bred annoyance turns to horror as he slips on their icy doorstep and is forced to convalesce in their home for a whole month.
Wise: It could be fun depending on how good the food is.
Werth: Sherry turns the whole house upside-down making it the central office of his massive media empire driving the Stanleys, his long-suffering assistant Maggie (Bette Davis), and his oft-abused nurse Miss Preen (Mary Wickes) to mental breakdowns.
Wise: I'm exhausted just reading that.
Honed by performing the role on Broadway, Woolley makes Sherry's acid tongue and literate insults charmingly endearing—all the while rattling off a veritable encyclopedia of 1940's pop culture references. The supporting cast is magnificent with Billie Burke fluttering, Sheridan slinking, and Davis smoking through a holiday film that looked like oodles of fun to make—almost as much fun as it is to watch.
Wise: Also packed with a full roster of stars and character actors, Love Actually (2003), is actually a compilation of ten different love stories woven together to highlight how they intersect, how they diverge, and how romance and ordinary life can make such a potent combination, especially during the countdown to Christmas. While it certainly wasn't the first film to cobble together a multiplicity of plots, it does seem to have brought the idea to the romantic comedy genre, producing such star-studded holiday trifles as New Year's Eve (2011) and Valentine's Day (2010).
Werth: I don't know if we should thank or slap Love Actually for that...
Wise: I'd agree that the descendants of the film have tended toward treacle, but Love Actually itself is a more nourishing bit of cinema with real complications and real sorrows that only leaven the stories that end up happily.
Werth: Because not all of them do?
Wise: There's a great, sad storyline between Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman playing a stolid married couple whose relationship is suddenly upended when she discovers that he's having an affair with a shopgirl.
Werth: It sounds like The Women (1939). Does the shopgirl look like Joan Crawford?
Wise: No, she doesn't, but it's not the only story that was probably cribbed from another source because these multi-thread films rely on viewer expectations: offering familiar film tropes and either subverting or succumbing to them. Hugh Grant plays a lonely Prime Minister, but he's really a prince searching for Cinderella; Andrew Lincoln has a beautiful moment expressing his unrequited love to Keira Knightly; and Liam Neeson's cinematic stepson Sam (Thomas Sangster) gets to indulge in the biggest movie cliché of them all: a declaration of love and a final kiss at the airport.
Cramming all this into a single movie could have been a disaster, but veteran British writer/director Richard Curtis keeps the action moving, refusing to get bogged down in either sadness or joy. And the final film—full of bittersweet moments and intense pleasures—feels a bit like the holidays themselves: happy, bewildering, a little sad, but always full of life.
Werth: I don't know about you, Wise, but I'm so full of holiday movie cheer that I may bust open like a Christmas pinata.
Wise: As long as there is candy inside. Happy Holidays to all our Film Gab Readers!