Thursday, December 22, 2011

Happy Holi-Gabs!

Werth: Ho! Ho! Ho! Wise!

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. 
In between phone calls from Winston Churchill, meetings with Chinese diplomats, receiving gifts of penguins sent by Admiral Byrd, and preparing for his live Christmas Eve Broadcast from the Stanley's living room, Sherry finds the time to disrupt his assistant's new corn-fed romance with handsome journalist Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis) and even to convince the Stanley's nearly adult children to fly the coop for better lives outside Mesalia, OH.

Wise: I'm exhausted just reading that.

Werth: That's part of the fun of this film. Something new is always popping up, and I haven't even gotten to Ann Sheridan and Jimmy Durante. The Man Who Came to Dinner is laugh-out-loud funny with Woolley's portrayal of the Alexander Woollcott-inspired Sherry stealing the show. 
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!

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